As I was completing my column for...

As I was completing my column for today's newspaper--a review of several new titles about the President's so-called Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)--a letter arrived from the publisher of Keith B. Payne's Strategic Defense: "Star Wars" in Perspective (Hamilton Press, 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, Md. 20706: $9.95). One of the book's numerous charts, provided by the Department of Defense, contained a simple but serious flaw that seemed to depict a ballistic missile flying through the core of the Earth. Hamilton Press thoughtfully provided a correct illustration on a self-adhesive label--an elegant sort of errata. But the incident is a provocative commentary on SDI itself. An innocent error is understandable and entirely forgivable in a book, but--as we learned from the fate of the space shuttle Challenger--the consequences of an error in the complex technology of space operations can be catastrophic.

The error must have stung Payne, whose book is a layman's guide to ballistic missile defense technologies, and a carefully argued brief for further SDI research. Payne rejects the current theory and practice of nuclear deterrence, which he characterizes as a system based wholly on "mutual vulnerability," and he finds SDI--with its promise, however dubious, of preserving the civilian population--infinitely more compelling.

Indeed, he insists that SDI is nothing less than a moral responsibility: "Given the responsibility of government to protect its citizens as best it can and the clear infeasibility of other suggested solutions to the nuclear problem--disarmament and the creation of a new international order--SDI research is a moral imperative."

The rhetoric is even more heated in Dr. Robert M. Bowman's anti-SDI manifesto, Star Wars: Defense or Death Star (Institute for Space and Security Studies: $10.95), which also explains how ballistic missile defense technology is supposed to work--but goes on to demonstrate why it probably won't.

"Proponents of space weapons are now presenting them as the only alternative to an eternal continuation of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD)," writes Bowman, a disaffected former Air Force research scientist.

"Their Maginot Line in the sky cannot provide Mutual Assured Survival. . . . Their Death Star alternative would replace tenuous stability with a violent instability; replace uneasiness with panic; replace distrust with downright fear; replace competition with confrontation; replace an uncertain future with an almost certain and disastrous one."

On one fundamental point, however, Payne and Bowman are in perfect agreement: "We must," Bowman writes of the Star Wars propagandists, "take seriously their point that some alternative must be found."

Significantly, the most compelling discussion of the alternative to MAD and Star Wars comes not from a nuclear strategist or a weapons scientist, but rather a philosopher. The Logic of Deterrence by Anthony Kenny (University of Chicago: $6.95; also available in hardcover, $20) explores the fundamental ethical underpinnings of our existing nuclear strategy, and suggests that cautious unilateral efforts toward disarmament by the West may be the only practical approach to eliminating our reliance on MAD. Kenny is no pacifist ("The defense of the United States or of the countries of Western Europe against an attack designed to end their independence and to subject them to communist rule would indeed, I believe, provide a just cause of war"), but he urges moral courage in the search for alternatives to MAD. Or, if we cannot summon up the requisite courage, he suggests that prudence may suffice.

"Pascal maintained that we ought to believe in God because the penalties for not believing in him if he existed amounted to infinite loss, while the penalty for believing in him if he did not exist was merely a degree of modest but unnecessary self-discipline," Kenny writes in "The Logic of Deterrence."

"The Pascalian philosophy is appropriate wherever the evils in the worst-case outcome are incommensurable in scale, and the havoc of the aftermath of nuclear war is indeed an evil disproportionate to any political goal to be achieved by the possession of the deterrent."

Perhaps the best single introduction to the strategies and technologies that have come to be called SDI or "Star Wars" comes from the U.S. government's Office of Technology Assessment. Despite its arguably suspect origins in the federal bureaucracy, Strategic Defenses (Princeton University: $12.50) turns out to be a thorough, evenhanded and plain-spoken treatment of the workings (and the prospects) of ballistic missile defense.

In its new trade edition, "Strategic Defenses" consists of two separate studies--one focuses on ballistic missile defense technologies, and the other treats anti-satellite weapons and arms control. For any serious student of SDI, whether one is predisposed for or against "Star Wars," "Strategic Defenses" will make the rest of the literature vastly more accessible and meaningful.

But even these government studies suggest that SDI will be effective only if the Soviet Union agrees to a mutual reliance on defensive rather than offensive capabilities. Absent such a consensus among the superpowers, SDI may be futile: "Assured survival of the U.S. population," the collective authors conclude, "appears impossible to achieve if the Soviets are determined to deny it to us."

Titles reviewed in Paperback Originals have been published in paperback only or in simultaneous paperback and hardcover editions.

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