The command to retaliate must dehumanise civilians

COMMENT: The return of good weather shouldn’t bring dread

Have your say

The first duty of a new Prime Minister is to write The Letter of Last Resort.

This letter is given to the captain of our nuclear submarine, who will only open it should the PM and his deputies die in a nuclear attack.

The letter is a voice from beyond the grave, instructing whether or not to fire nuclear missiles in retaliation and is a matter for each PM’s personal conscience.

The press seldom scrutinise new PM’s about the command they have given because more immediate issues dominate in the wake of an election.

This month, however, Dr Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP, described the idea of writing such a letter ‘obscene’ and called for an end to the process.

Naval Commodore Tim Hare attributes our avoidance of world war for 68 years to the nuclear deterrent, a system which ensures our enemies are so terrified that they daren’t provoke us.

He stressed that no PM would be convincing in peace negotiations if they knew they had already turned the other cheek. Writing a death warrant for millions of people, effectively, is the only way to ensure their survival.

Ethics academics disagree, arguing that if the letter serves the peaceful function of deterrence, the second it is opened this function will have failed (a nuclear attack will have happened) and a command to retaliate reverts back to being nothing more than murderous revenge.

Whatever your beliefs about the capacity of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) to avert war, Lucas raises an interesting point.

She believes a system that obliges leaders to commission such carnage so early on, grooms them for nationalistic warmongering.

Signing off Armageddon before your first bowl of Downing Street cornflakes may make later decisions to bomb Afghan villages seem like small fry. Initiation rites in gangs are used to similar effect.

I am proud of our armed forces and do not take the view that war can always be avoided. But a command to retaliate cannot be written without dehumanising the millions of civilians affected. We cannot accuse our leaders of being out of touch if this is the first task we oblige them to perform.