A question about nuclear deterrence - what is the difference in these two scenarios?

Because it is apparently once again the 1980’s I’ve been reading a little about nuclear deterrence.

If a military officer received a phone call from higher up the chain of command stating that the enemy had just massacred or was about to massacre 1000 civilians of the officers nation but they had managed to round up 1000 innocent men, women, and children of the enemy nation, so gather a few soldiers and go out and shoot the lot of them I would like to assume that would be refused as an illegal order. But if the same soldier, well Airman or Airwoman, got a message to launch and vapourise an enemy city with a nuclear warhead they probably wouldn’t hesitate.

What’s the difference?

I’m aware of the difference between countervalue and counterforce targetting but as a lot of the latter targets are near to or inside cities it has basically the same result.

Thanks in advance!

I think you need to clarify the hypothetical. Are we talking about Nation A massacring 1,000 civilians of Nation B (presumably the old fashioned way with rifles, tanks, etc.), and then Nation B’s officers being ordered to respond with a nuke? In this scenario I think the officers of Nation B should refuse the order to launch, and the difference is obvious.

On the other hand, if we’re talking about Nation A nuking a city in Nation B, and the leader of Nation B ordering a retaliatory strike on Nation A, that’s the classical scenario for MAD. The only scenario where things might play out differently is if it was known with certainty that the nuke that was already used is the only one that Nation A had.

The difference is two-fold.

  1. massacring civilians alone can never have a legitimate military purpose. This is why we make a distinction between intended damage and collateral damage, and why deliberately using “human shields” is considered a war crime. But a target the size of a city will almost always contain at least some military target, even if it’s just a transportation hub.

  2. A random massacre of 1,000 civilians alone isn’t a potentially nation-ending or civilization-ending attack. Committing one war crime does not justify committing another.

Right. That’s why I was asking the OP to clarify. I think they meant to ask, why is it different when one nation commits a civilian massacre in response to their own civilian massacre, vs. retaliation by nuke in response to a nuke. But it wasn’t clear (at least to me).

As to why they’re different, it’s because nukes are so powerful that there isn’t a viable conventional response, even in a scenario of something like North Korea vs. the West. Not responding is the same as saying “you can kill us all and we won’t do anything about it.”

Sorry, I thought I had quoted the OP there! Posting too early in the morning!

How many Japanese, German, American, British and Commonwealth pilots and aircrews refused their orders to conduct area bombing of cities with high explosives and incendiaries on the grounds that they were illegal orders?

That’s Tokyo, not Nagasaki or Hiroshima.

Sorry, I was very tired when I wrote that. I meant that MAD is basically ‘if you massacre us we’ll massacre you’ but how is it different if the means used are conventional rather than nuclear. So the hypothetical was an officer is asked to kill 1000 random civilians of the other nation by conventional means because the enemy has or is about to kill 1000 random civilians of their own nation again by conventional means.

We’d rightly look askance at the second scenario but not the first.

Also I really can’t get the hang of this quote system so I’m not sure how to respond to the other replies but thank you, I have read them!

The difference is that nukes are so powerful that they leave no other option for response other than to retaliate with nukes. The idea is that neither side will start anything because they know they would also lose. If one side gave an indication that they wouldn’t retaliate in response to being nuked, that would only encourage the other side to reach for the red button.

The only other outcomes are to become the victim of genocide by nuclear weapon or unconditional surrender and hope for the best, as happened to Japan at the end of WW2. They just happened to get lucky in that the US preferred to rebuild them in the mold of of other western nations rather than colonize them.

The actual status of aerial warfare directed against cities is kinda iffy under the current laws of war. But ever since aerial bombardment warfare was invented a hundred-plus years ago, the sheer utility of it has prevented it’s being treated as simply slaughtering individually defenseless civilians, despite the fact that’s very often exactly what it has been.

Nukes as such don’t really add to that awkward reality. They just turn the volume up from 9 to 11.

What has happened since roughly the mid-1800s is the recognition that warfare is essentially an industrial activity. It’s not just some guys fighting each other out in some meadow somewhere with whatever sticks & stones they could find lying around. The fighting force depends critically on a large logistics and supply tail that reaches well back into the civilian economy.

Once full-bore inter-country warfare is recognized as a battle of two economies powering two organized militaries then attacking the enemy economy is just as valid as attacking the same enemy’s rear echelon purely military targets. Which in turn is just as valid as attacking their frontline units actively engaged in attacking your own frontline units. The only difference between these 3 echelons of targets is how quickly the effect of damage is felt at the battle front.

Once the enemy economy is a valid target that means every railroad line, every canal, every airport, every factory, and every worker is a legitimate military target. As is the rest of the civilian economy that in turn supports those workers and builds those facilities.

As well, in the more democratic countries popular opinion is part and parcel of that government’s war execution. If by enough violence the enemy can “convince” your populace that your cause is not worth the punishment you’re receiving, you’ll demand your government seek peace at whatever price. So attacking the populace of democracies can be a valid war-winning strategy.

Meanwhile, in less democratic countries the leadership’s fear of popular uprisings is never far from their mind, and while their military is fully engaged elsewhere is exactly the time the government has the weakest coercive power at home. If by enough violence the enemy can “convince” your populace that your totalitarian leadership is leading you to pointless suffering solely for the leader’s ego so now’s a great time to decapitate your leadership & seek peace, you may well do that. So attacking the populace of non-democracies can be a valid war-winning strategy too.

Looking to the OP’s rephrase here:

In one sense, you’re right: MAD is just counter-reprisal turned up to eleventy.

The real difference is MAD amounts to “We’re not just killing some hostages; we’re absolutely positively killing your government and your economy in detail, along with a bunch (read “millions”) of hostages.” The first part of that is what makes it “legal”. Enough.

A launch order would not be explaining any motives. The order to execute would read: Launch missile ABX with the following coordinates: 55°45′6″N 37°37′4″E The soldier concerned would check the validity of the order, not the philosophical reasoning behind it. That way lies madness. Or a satire worthy of Monthy Python.

Therein lies the conundrum of so called tactical nukes.

Reality is that Russia’s weaponizing winter with attacks on the energy grid is likely to kill nearly 150,000 civilians as part of their terror campaign.

A tactical nuke would kill a small fraction of that, but the prospect of it evokes more horror than the power grid attacks do.

The lines are blurry and arbitrary.

I think that’s the strongest answer. A soldier on the ground has such sufficient (though imperfect) visibility into conditions on the ground that they can judge what’s not a lawful course of action. And they must make those choices, because conditions are constantly in flux.

Contrast this with a missile commander… I’d imagine that they’re all briefed on lawful rules of engagement, what constitutes a lawful order, and what are the lawful authorities, and this information doesn’t really change. They have no visibility into conditions on the ground, so there’s no opportunity to judge what’s lawful. The decisions are mostly pre-made for them; all they really have to do is authenticate the order.

Now, if you were asking why it’s lawful to kill a thousand civilians with a bomb instead of machine-gun fire, then the answer is quite obviously “well bombs are big and it’s hard to hit a factory without killing a ton of civilians.” Morally it leaves a lot to be desired, but we’ve decided it passes legal muster.

If I understand the framing of your question correctly, fundamentally you are asking why the threat or action of deliberate targeting non-combatants using conventional means of warfare is illegal, and the threat or use of nuclear weapons (which will almost inevitably kill many non-combatants) is not. The simple answer to that is that the former are defined as war crimes under USMC and various international agreements, while there are no specific laws or decrees governing the use of nuclear weapons in warfare beyond individual treaties intended to limit proliferation or deployment of specific classes of weapon. I suppose if you were to concoct a legal theory to legitimize the use of nuclear weapons it would be that it is a proportionate response that is not specifically directed at civilian populations but of course the doctrine of “total war” abrogates that premise, and any large scale nuclear exchange is almost by definition a “total war” attack designed to destroy infrastructure, manufacturing, transportation, and the human resources used to staff and maintain them.

From a moral (instead of legal) standpoint, there really is no distinction between nuclear warfare and killing a group of individual hostages. Nuclear weapons are not really legitimate or useful weapons of war, even so-called ‘tactical’ weapons, because they are so disproportionate to any conventional response that they virtually guarantee escalation, and that is what is seen in nearly every wargaming scenario between nuclear-armed powers with vast arsenals.

There is a common misperception that Assured Destruction (the “Mad” part was added by critics led by Herman Kahn to make a satirical title or it) is a theory of strategic response. In reality, it is strictly a deterrence theory intended to prevent an opponent from even considering launching a nuclear attack because no matter how large their arsenal or how surreptitious they attempt the attack, the consequences to the attacking party will still be catastrophic in ending the ability of that nation to govern or even exist. This gives the absurd situation where multiple powers are spending a substantial portion of their defense budget (and in the case of the former Soviet Union, a large chunk of their gross domestic product) to build, maintain, and improve an ostensibly offensive capability that they never intend to use. And yet, this has been the scenario we live under for more than six decades with no indication that this will change in the foreseeable future.


Thanks for the comprehensive reply, very interesting!

Yes that’s a good point, but its also an example of the removal of warfare from direct human experience. If you asked the same soldier to personally shoot a thousand enemy civilians in the head, or even press a button that they knew was remotely wired to a bomb in a busy shopping centre they wouldn’t do it, unless they were a sociopath. But they will execute an order with much greater devastation, I suspect its the sheer magnitude of destruction that ironically makes it easier to carry out because its so difficult to imagine.

Yes that’s basically it, on reading my own question and clarification I still wasn’t at all clear. Thank you for the reply, and everyone else!

…and this multi-quote system is so confusing…

It’s not a question of legal or illegal, it’s a question of whether or not the person whose hand is on the red button is willing to end their own life, and human civilization as we know it, in the retaliatory strikes. This explains it better than I could. It’s a terrifying way of doing things if you really start to think about it, but the alternative** is extremely unlikely.

**. The alternative is that all the other sides collapse on their own, leaving the last side with nukes the freedom to safely get rid of theirs. In practice this would mean the governments of Russia, China, North Korea, and likely Iran, all falling and being replaced by liberal democracies. It would also mean a non-nuclear resolution in the conflict between India and Pakistan. Needless to say the combination of those scenarios are so unlikely as to not even be worth considering.

They will though, and they don’t have to be sociopaths to do it. Every bombardier who pressed the bomb release button over a city during WWII was potentially doing exactly that, with the support of the pilot, co-pilot, navigator and the rest of the aircrew in his individual plane, and if we’re going further back in the chain with the support of the ground crews who fueled, armed and maintained the plane. Going even further back, the civilians who produced the aircraft and the bombs, and going even further back, the rail crew and truck drivers delivering the goods needed in their manufacture, the farmers who grew the food to feed the workers who made the planes and the bombs and the trucks and the trains, etc., etc. That’s the essence of total war theory and why all of them are ‘legitimate’ targets under total war theory.

Regarding personally shooting a civilians in the head, that is exactly what was done during the holocaust. They often were, as the title of famous book by Christopher Browning says, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland:

The convoy of battalion trucks moved out of Bilgoraj in the
dark, heading eastward on a jarring washboard gravel road. The
pace was slow, and it took an hour and a half to two hours to
arrive at the destination-the village of Jozefow-a mere thirty
kilometers away. Just as the sky was beginning to lighten, the
convoy halted outside Jozefow. It was a typical Polish village of
modest white houses with thatched straw roofs. Among its
inhabitants were 1,800 Jews.
The village was totally quiet. The men of Reserve Police
Battalion 101 climbed down from their trucks and assembled in
a half-circle around their commander, Major Wilhelm Trapp, a
fifty-three-year-old career policeman affectionately known by his
men as “Papa Trapp.” The time had come for Trapp to address
the men and inform them of the assignment the battalion had
Pale and nervous, with choking voice and tears in his eyes,
Trapp visibly fought to control himself as he spoke. The battalion,
he said plaintively, had to perform a frightfully unpleasant task.
This assignment was not to his liking, indeed it was highly
regrettable, but the orders came from the highest authorities. If
it would make their task any easier, the men should remember
that in Germany the bombs were falling on women and children.
He then turned to the matter at hand. The Jews had instigated
the American boycott that had damaged Germany, one policeman
remembered Trapp saying. There were Jews in the
village of Jozefow who were involved with the partisans, he
explained according to two others. The battalion had now been
ordered to round up these Jews. The male Jews of working age
were to be separated and taken to a work camp. The remaining
Jews-the women, children, and elderly-were to be shot on
the spot by the battalion. Having explained what awaited his
men, Trapp then made an extraordinary offer: if any of the older
men among them did not feel up to the task that lay before him,
he could step out.

None of them stepped out.

For our OP @Celtic_Kitsune:

Here’s a thread from 2010 that touches on some of the moral dimensions you’re apparently interested in.

Here’s another thread from 2011 you might enjoy reading. It’s about a lot more than just what the first post talks about. Note that 2011 was about 5 years before Trump burst on the political scene.

Lastly, here’s something from 2017, so in the middle of the rather unusual Trump presidency.

As an overall comment …
Since you’re fairly new here I’ll also point out that as a general community custom we generally avoid continuing a long-dormant thread. Many of those posters are no longer available. Better to continue the conversation here with cites to there or begin a whole new thread of your own with cites to whatever other thread(s) or posts you feel are appropriate to set the stage.

But it’s not without precedence. The idea of “Fleet in being”:

is predicated on a similar idea. An offensive force so dangerous that the enemy is forced to adapt their actions just on the basis of its existence, even if it never leaves the harbor. Nuclear weapons just take this to the logical (?) extreme.

Although it’s relevant to note that even the sort of person who would join the SS experienced a lot of mental problems as the result of personally shooting a lot of people. That was one of the reasons they developed things like gas vans, and later gas chambers.

A New Mass Murder Method

The mass shootings were resource-intensive, requiring many shooters and escort guards as well as guns, ammunition, and transport. Concerns about the inefficiency of the shootings and their psychological impact on the shooters led to the development of special vans outfitted with engines that pumped carbon monoxide into sealed passenger compartments. Jews were packed into the compartments, then driven to a mass grave, asphyxiating during the journey.

After a time, Himmler found that the killing methods used by the Einsatzgruppen were inefficient: they were costly, demoralising for the troops, and sometimes did not kill the victims quickly enough.[115] Many of the troops found the massacres to be difficult if not impossible to perform. Some of the perpetrators suffered physical and mental health problems, and many turned to drink.

Indeed, but it’s important to note that Reserve Police Battalion 101 was part of the Order Police and consisted of regular policemen who were consolidated from all of the various local and municipal police and other emergency service organizations (fire brigades and such) and reorganized into a single organization - the Order Police - by the Nazis in 1936 and placed under the administrative command of the SS and Himmler. While they were thus technically part of the SS, they were for the most part middle aged men who hadn’t joined the SS; the civilian institution they had been a part of was absorbed to be a part of the SS.

Being a part of the Order Police was also a way to avoid being drafted into the army in a manner sort of analogous to joining the National Guard to avoid the draft. These weren’t hardened members of the SS who had signed up for the SS and all that it stood for; they were for the most part policemen who found themselves administratively a part of the SS under Himmler’s orders when the Nazis consolidated all police functions under their direct control. A decent chunk of the Einsatzgruppen’s small number of personal that were responsible for the mass murder by shooting of around 2 million persons on the Eastern Front weren’t volunteers for the Einsatzgruppen but were transferred in from the Order Police. Again from Ordinary Men, this being the first paragraph of Chapter 3, bolding mine:

Final Solution-the Nazi mass murder of European Jewry –
occurred not in Poland but in Russia in the summer and fall of
1941. In preparation for the invasion of Russia and the “war of
destruction” Hitler intended to wage there, four special mobile
units of the SS known as Einsatzgruppen were formed and
trained in the late spring of 1941. The core of these units came
from Heydrich’s Security Police (Gestapo and Kripo) as well as
his intelligence apparatus (Security Service, or SD). They were
supplemented by small units of Waffen-SS (the military branch
of Himmler’s SS). In addition, however, the three companies of
Order Police Battalion 9 were distributed to three of the four
Einsatzgruppen. Order Police members thus constituted about

500 of the total of 3,000 men assigned to the four Einsatzgruppen.