The Utility of Nuclear Weapons

Today is the 100th anniversary of Robert A. Heinlein’s birth. Heinlein inspired a generation of rocket engineers and space enthusiasts, wrote classics of science fiction, and advocated arms research as part of strong resistance to Communism.

Dwayne Day marked the day with an essay published at The Space Review (via Instapundit). He quotes liberally from a memo that Heinlein wrote for his colleagues when he retired from the Naval Air Experimental Station in 1945.

Heinlein was prescient about a lot of things; in a way he was right about the atom bomb, but not in the way he meant. His error helps explain the core argument from Gen. Rupert Smith’s The Utility of Force, which I reviewed yesterday.

Here is Heinlein to his fellow aeronautical engineers:

Why we are out of business

The atomic bomb is so overwhelmingly different from every previous weapon of war as to change the whole approach. I could expand that indefinitely but I am at loss for words—either a man sees it almost at once or he will never see it. But I will offer meager illustrations:

No more surface warships.
No more infantry.
No more reciprocating engines in military aircraft.
No more tanks.
Every type of craft or weapon abolished or changed beyond recognition because of the incredible changes in logistics and tactics.
Possibility of wars which last fifteen minutes instead of years.
No more aircraft carriers –and all which that implies.

The atom bomb did end war as we knew it, but Heinlein was flat wrong about “no more infantry” and “wars which last 15 minutes.” That is because he envisioned using nuclear weapons in the context of interstate industrial war, where victory is achieved by destroying the enemy’s means of resistance, and thereby its will. In industrial war, states harness every resource and fight to unconditional surrender.

We now fight what Gen. Smith calls “war amongst the people,” in which the strategic objective is the enemy’s will, and military victories have significance only to that extent. In this kind of war, infantry, tanks, and aircraft carriers can have great utility; nuclear weapons have little to none. Heinlein’s predictions were wrong because he did not foresee the importance of war amongst the people.

T.R. Fehrenbach knew this, and wrote in his aptly-titled 1962 classic This Kind of War:

…the advent of the Atomic Age, with its capability of fantastic destruction, taught the Americans that their traditional attitudes toward war – to regard war as an unholy thing, but once involved, however reluctantly, to strike those who unleashed it with holy wrath – must be altered. In the Korean War, Americans adopted a course not new to the world, but new to them. They accepted limitations on warfare, and accepted controlled violence as a means to an end. (p. 8 )

In July, 1950, one news commentator rather plaintively remarked that warfare had not changed so much, after all. For some reason, ground troops still seemed to be necessary, in spite of the atom bomb. And oddly and unfortunately, to this gentleman, man still seemed to be an important ingredient in battle. Troops were getting killed, in pain and fury and dust and filth. What had happened to the widely heralded pushbutton warfare where skilled, immaculate technicians who had never suffered the misery and ignominy of basic training blew each other to kingdom come like gentlemen? …

[P]ushbutton warfare meant Armageddon, and Armageddon, hopefully, will never be an end of national policy.

Americans in 1950 rediscovered something that since Hiroshima they had forgotten: you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life – but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud. (pp. 289-290)

Mr. Fehrenbach’s theme was the tragedy engendered by America’s careless neglect of the investment, training, and political thought required for limited war. We still have not absorbed the lesson, to our sorrow.

RELATED on Zeal and Activity: The Utility of Force

(P.S.: This post is not meant to imply that we should not celebrate Heinlein’s work, or that Mr. Day was wrong about Heinlein’s predictions, or that I am not a Heinlein fan. I am.)

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