And that's why we haven't banned them. Instead, we are willing to say that we would use nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances or circumstances that are extremely remote. But if, for example, you state that we should never again use nuclear weapons "under any circumstances," you can hear the lawyers sucking in air through their teeth. Even the International Court of Justice, in its 1996 advisory opinion on the legality of the use of nuclear weapons, punted, noting that while the use of nuclear weapons was generally illegal, there might be exceptions.
If we really believe that nuclear deterrence cannot go on forever, that relying on nuclear weapons for our security is at some level ultimately unsustainable, the place to start is by observing that nuclear weapons belong in the same category as chemical weapons. I suspect that our reluctance to do so explains in large part why nuclear weapons are still with us, nearly 70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
There is now a growing interest among some observers to start building the consensus against the use of nuclear weapons. The Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative -- a group of 12 countries including Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates -- is pressing the United States and other nuclear-weapons states to face up to the human cost of a nuclear war. In March, Norway hosted a conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. The United States and the other nuclear-weapons states skipped it. (Maybe Oslo's famous $20 beers were too rich for TDY. Norway totally should have held it in a casino. What? Too soon?)
The conference was, I am told, a smashing success. (Mexico will host a follow-on conference next February in Nayarit.) Afterward, 80 countries, including some important U.S. allies, sponsored a statement on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. More than 80 countries! It's harder than it should be, getting 80 countries to say that using a nuclear weapon would be unwelcome from a humanitarian standpoint. The trouble was this line: "It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances." It's a reasonable sentiment, not so far off from Reagan's common-sense observation that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
But that phrase -- "any circumstances." That phrase caused a lot of heartburn, especially among Japanese lawyers who worried that the language might be inconsistent with U.S. nuclear policy and, therefore, U.S. security guarantees to Japan. Japan was not one of the 80 signatories. The Japanese public, on the other hand, is well aware of the human toll at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They don't seem to have a lot of time for the hypothetical concerns of lawyers. They know that nuclear bombs are a bad thing for the people getting bombed and don't mind saying so. Under political pressure, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has now decided to sign the statement. Abe has also invited world leaders to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to "to witness first-hand the impact that could be inflicted by the use of such weapons."
I visited Hiroshima this summer as part of a group convened by the prefectural government. It was a very moving experience, particularly the museum. The hardest part, for me, were the children's school uniforms, with the dark numbers burned out. For a colleague of mine, it was the child's tricycle, its surface bubbled from the intense heat. These objects matter. It's hard for a person to contemplate the enormity of the loss all at once. It's only when you confront a singular instance of tragedy -- the story of the child who wore the uniform or rode the tricycle -- and start to multiply that suffering by a few, then by a score, and then by the thousands, it's only then you start to have trouble breathing. Well, that's how I experienced it, at any rate. It is easy for us to talk about deterrence in a cold, analytical manner that obscures the horror of what it would mean to make good on a threat to use a nuclear weapon. A visit to Hiroshima makes that ugly reality a little harder to push aside.