Reinventing Civil Defence

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by Alex Wellerstein

The Rethinking Civil Defense project that I am doing with my Stevens colleagues Kristyn Karl and Julie Pullen has two main goals. One is to think very soberly about what Civil Defense programs — that is, programs that engage the lay public in education or training about mitigating the direct consequences of a nuclear detonation, as opposed to programs that only target emergency management personnel — should look like in the 21st century. One very basic question to ask, for example, is whether these kinds of programs would be worth the cost at all, and, if so, whether they should be coordinated by governments or other entities. What kinds of communication strategies would they use? What kinds of training? These kinds of questions.

The other goal is to use Civil Defense as a motivating idea for thinking about nuclear salience in general. Nuclear salience is what we are calling the lived experience of nuclear weapons — it is a deep awareness of nuclear detonations as being one of the threats that exist in the world today, in the same way that people who commute by car know that car accidents are something that truly exists in their world, or, say, that flu season is a real thing. The goal here is to get beyond mere “education” (with its didactic and lecturing implications) regarding the raising of nuclear “awareness,” which have been common goals in the post-Cold War to little obvious effect. Our salience-based approach is looking at the Cold War example of Civil Defense as a model; “Duck and Cover” was to nuclear weapons what school drills today are to earthquakes, tornados, and “active shooters.” So in this sense, Civil Defense might be a point of inspiration for broader thinking about cultural risk, as opposed to specific programs of operation.

As for whether I think this makes nuclear war more thinkable — I don’t think there’s much evidence of that actually being a real sentiment. An honest Civil Defense program, one which emphasizes that one is only mitigating the consequences, not preventing them, in many ways emphasizes that nuclear war is not something you would want to experience. And I would posit that the present alternative — a public that does not feel that nuclear risks are “real,” and does not appreciate their magnitude or chances realistically — is much more likely to lead people to find nuclear war “thinkable.”

What I find most worrying about our present time is the apparent decrease in the salience and power of the “nuclear taboo” in the United States. The American public seems more willing than it ever has since the end of the Cold War to consider using nuclear weapons to achieve its policy aims; read Scott Sagan and Benjamin Valentino’s recent paper on this point. The current US President seems to have no self-control, no sense of personal (much less national) consequences, and no sense of the dangers of war or even nuclear war. It is easy to imagine scenarios in which he might be convinced that a nuclear weapon might be a palatable option to use, and there are essentially no legal checks (and very few possible practical checks) on his ability to order such an attack.

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