SECURITY WITHOUR NUCLEAR DETERRENCE and POLARIS: THE HISTORY OF THE UK’s SUBMARINE FORCE

Reviewed by: Jeremy Stocker

SECURITY WITHOUR NUCLEAR DETERRENCE
by Commander Robert Green
(Spokesman – £14.99)
ISBN 9780 8512 4872 1

and

POLARIS:
THE HISTORY OF THE UK’s SUBMARINE FORCE
by Keith Hall
(The History Press – £14.99)
ISBN 9780 7524 5177 0)

It seems odd to be reviewing not just one but two very personal books about nuclear weapons. It’s normally a very impersonal topic, notwithstanding the strongly held opinions it can generate. But these two works, from very different perspectives, are indeed personal, one condemnatory the other something of a eulogy.
Robert Green is a long-retired Buccaneer and Sea King observer and, in retirement, an active anti-nuclear campaigner. The author’s animus towards all things nuclear comes across very strongly and he acknowledges the career and personal origins for his deep commitment to nuclear weapons abolition. As an anti-nuclear retired officer Green is by no means alone, Field Marshal Lord Carver and General Sir Hugh Beach having been prominent opponents of Britain’s nuclear weapons programmes.
As an exposition of the anti-nuclear case this is one of the better I’ve read and our former Editor Jeremy Blackham seems to agree, as he wrote the Foreword – which in my view is much the best part of the book, taking pains to acknowledge the book’s worth without endorsing its conclusions. Green is good on the opportunity costs to Britain’s wider defence capabilities of maintaining a nuclear deterrent and correctly identifies some of the inherent strains and contradictions of nuclear-based deterrence, seeking a clarity and certainty that are just not obtainable. Whether you agree with him or not (I don’t) some of Green’s arguments are challenging and warrant our engagement.
Elsewhere he descends into little more than a rant, something all too frequently the case with anti-nuclear polemics. He claims Margaret Thatcher was “addicted to all things nuclear”, whatever that means, and speaks of ‘discredited’ NATO policies as if that judgement was a given. Whether nuclear deterrence has actually kept the peace lies in the realm of counter-factual speculation, but what we do know is that it hasn’t failed to do so. Green also gives undue weight to the imagined influence of his fellow anti-nuclear campaigners and virtue-signalling but essentially meaningless votes in the UN General Assembly.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that Green never really gets to grip with the central question posed by the book’s title – just how do you provide security in a world in which nuclear weapons exist and are likely to go on existing, and in which the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons is now with us for the rest of human existence. This is a missed opportunity, for there is a perfectly sound case to be made for Britain, as do most of our allies, relying on the American nuclear umbrella and concentrating on more ‘useable’ military capabilities. But Green’s visceral opposition to American weapons as well as British means he can’t advance this argument. He is a lot more understanding of Russian and Chinese nuclear policies which are, apparently, the Americans’ fault. This moral relativism is all the more disappointing given the author’s strong moral stance.
Keith Hall’s book is very different and not just because he is a supporter of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. He also has an RN background having been a health physics specialist at Faslane before becoming a submarine historian. I would describe this as ‘popular’ history, and that’s not necessarily meant pejoratively. It is aimed, I presume, at both the interested layman and at the thousands of individuals who played a role, at sea and ashore, in running the Polaris force. Hall deals competently with the origins of the ‘British Bomb’ though his coverage is a little unbalanced. For example, he provides more discussion of the Blue Streak missile than the entire history of the V-force. He also darts around rather a lot. On page 41 he mentions the fall of the Berlin Wall. Two pages later he’s dealing with 1939 Anglo-American relations. The book could have done with a good editor to impose some discipline.
On Polaris itself Hall speaks from first-hand knowledge as well as extensive research in the archives. Much of the story he tells is familiar but some asides and anecdotes can surprise and this is a history of the people as much as it the submarines or the missiles. It is a shame that there are no references or even an index, as some of Hall’s statements probably shouldn’t be taken at face value.
There are plenty of illustrations, but many of them are of poor quality and look like they’ve been lifted from a line book or the author’s own photo album. I think many people who worked in and around the Polaris submarines will enjoy the mix of historical and policy background with personal anecdotes and reminiscences. As a tribute this book works well, but for an authoritative and objective history of the Polaris force one would need to look elsewhere.