Our conduct of the Second World War was not determined entirely by the desire to spare our soldiers’ lives. Had that been our main concern, we could have refused to invade Continental Europe at all, and spared our men such slaughters as happened at Anzio and Normandy — leaving the conquest of Hitler to Stalin’s advancing armies. Our leaders knew that a Communist-occupied Western Europe was not in America’s interest, and so were willing to spend the lives of hundreds of thousands of men to avoid it. Restricting our use of massive urban bombing in the war would also have cost soldiers’ lives. Our statesmen could have decided that such a grim sacrifice was worthwhile, to avoid the degrading moral effects of fighting ruthlessly against civilian populations.
Broadcasting our willingness to obliterate enemy civilians in the course of self-defense would become an ugly necessity during the Cold War. But its legacy continued well beyond the removal of the Soviet Union and China as likely adversaries. A lack of vision and commitment to reforming our nuclear strategy and achieving real disarmament has left us with something little better than the status quo of 1988. We and Russia still target each other’s cities with massive nuclear weapons to this day. We are still playing Russian roulette.
In the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001, editors at National Review Online famously mused about whether we ought to “nuke Mecca.” Conservative journalists would not, we think, have quipped back and forth about whether to “level every building, gas all the schoolchildren, and incinerate all the old people and women” of Mecca. If it took the deployment of U.S. Marines to do over the course of weeks what the SS did to the Warsaw Ghetto, it’s unlikely that mainstream writers would joke about whether to order it. Those who did would likely find themselves unemployable pariahs.
But the quick, decisive nature of a nuclear attack—it’s like putting an entire city inside a microwave—helps us ignore the blood-soaked realities. We can skip over the details of the slaughter, which we neatly hide in two bumper-sticker syllables: “Nuke ‘em!”
Jason Jonesis a producer in Hollywood. His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at www.iamwholelife.com.
John Zmirakis the author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall. This column is adapted from Jones’s and Zmirak’s upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century(Crossroad, 2014).