The Doomsday Machine: The Madness of America’s Nuclear Weapons

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W.J. Astore

I just finished Daniel Ellsberg’s new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.  Talk about hair-raising!  Ellsberg, of course, is famous for leaking the Pentagon papers, which helped to end the Vietnam war and the presidency of Richard Nixon as well.  But before Ellsberg worked as a senior adviser on the Vietnam war, he helped to formulate U.S. nuclear policy in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  His book is a shattering portrayal of the genocidal nature of U.S. nuclear planning during the Cold War — and that threat of worldwide genocide (or omnicide, a word Ellsberg uses to describe the death of nearly everything from a nuclear exchange that would generate disastrous cooling due to nuclear winter) persists to this day.

Rather than writing a traditional book review, I want to list some memorable facts and lessons I took from the book, lessons that should lead us to question the very sanity of America’s leaders.  To wit:

  1. U.S. nuclear war plans circa 1960 envisioned a simultaneous attack on the USSR and China that would generate 600 million deaths after six months.  As Ellsberg notes, that is 100 Holocausts.  This plan was to be used even if China hadn’t directly attacked the U.S., i.e. the USSR and China were lumped together as communist bad guys who had to be eliminated together in a general nuclear war.  Only one U.S. general present at the briefing objected to this idea: David M. Shoup, a Marine general and Medal of Honor winner, who also later objected to the Vietnam War.
  2. The U.S. military consistently overestimated the Soviet nuclear threat, envisioning missile and bomber gaps that didn’t exist.  In the nuclear arms race, the U.S. was often racing itself in the fielding of more and more nuclear weapons.
  3. General Curtis LeMay, the famous commander of Strategic Air Command (SAC) and later AF Chief of Staff, said that once war started, politicians like the president had no role to play in decision-making.
  4. When the atomic bomb was first tested in 1945, there were fears among the scientists involved that the atmosphere could be ignited, ending all life on earth.  The chance was considered remote (perhaps 3 in a million), so the scientists pressed ahead.
  5. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 came much closer to nuclear war than most people recognize.  Soviet submarines in the area, attacked by mock U.S. depth charges, were prepared to launch nuclear torpedoes against U.S. ships.  Fidel Castro’s air defenses were also preparing to shoot down American planes, which may have ended in U.S. air attacks and an invasion in which Soviet troops on Cuba may have used nuclear weapons to defend themselves.
  6. The U.S. military was (and probably still is) extremely reluctant to reveal nuclear secrets to senior American civilian leaders, including even the President himself.  Ellsberg, possessing the highest security clearances and acting with presidential authority, had to pry answers from military officers who refused to provide detailed and complete information.
  7. The U.S. has always refused, and continues to refuse, to pledge to a “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons.
  8. The U.S. remains the only country to have used nuclear weapons (Hiroshima and Nagasaki).  Yet, as Ellsberg notes, the U.S. uses nuclear weapons all the time — by threatening their use, as President Eisenhower did during the Korean War, as President Nixon did during the Vietnam War, and as President Trump is doing today, promising “fire and fury” against North Korea.  The U.S. uses nuclear weapons like a loaded gun — holding it to an enemy’s head and threatening to pull the trigger, Ellsberg notes.  In short, there’s nothing exceptional about Trump and his nuclear threats.  All U.S. presidents have refused to take nuclear attacks “off the table” of options for U.S. action.
  9. Interservice rivalry has always been a driver of U.S. nuclear force structure and strategy.  The Navy (with its nuclear submarine programs, Polaris followed by Trident) and especially the Air Force (with its ICBMs and bombers) jealously guard their nuclear forces and the prestige/power/budgetary authority they convey.
  10. President Eisenhower’s emphasis on massive retaliation (as represented by SAC and its war plan, the SIOP) was a way for him to limit the power of the military-industrial complex (MIC).  But once Ike was gone, so too was the idea of using the nuclear deterrent as a way of restricting U.S. expenditures on conventional weaponry and U.S. adventurism in foreign wars, e.g. Vietnam.  (It should be said that Ike’s exercise at limiting the MIC in America held the world as a nuclear hostage.)
  11. Ellsberg shows convincingly that control over U.S. nuclear weapons was decentralized and delegated to much lower levels than most Americans know.  It’s not the case that only the president can launch a nuclear war.  Especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ellsberg shows how it was possible that field-grade officers (majors and colonels) could have made decisions in the heat of battle to release nuclear weapons without direct orders from the president.
  12. Most Americans, Ellsberg notes, still don’t understand the huge quantitative and qualitative differences between atomic bombs and hydrogen (thermonuclear) weapons.  Hydrogen bombs are measured in megatons in equivalent TNT yield; atomic bombs are in kilotons.  In short, hydrogen bombs are a thousand times more destructive than atomic ones.  And this is just their explosive yield.  Radioactive fallout and massive fires are even bigger threats to life on earth.
  13. Most Americans still don’t understand that even a smallish nuclear exchange involving a few dozen hydrogen bombs could very well lead to nuclear winter and the deaths of billions of people on the earth (due to the widespread death of crops and resulting famine and disease).
  14. Despite the genocidal threat of nuclear weapons, the U.S. is persisting in plans to modernize its arsenal over the next 30 years at a cost of $1 trillion.

Ellsberg sees this all as a form of collective madness, and it’s hard to disagree.  He quotes Nietzsche to the effect that madness in individuals is rare, but that it’s common among bureaucracies and nations.  The tremendous overkill inherent to U.S. nuclear weapons — its threat of worldwide destruction — is truly a form of madness.  For how do you protect a nation or uphold its ideals by launching a nuclear war that would kill nearly everyone on earth?  How does that make any sense?  How is that not mad?

Ellsberg ends his “confessions” with many sane proposals for downsizing nuclear arsenals across the world.  But is anyone in power listening?  Certainly not U.S. presidents like Trump or Obama, who both signed on to that trillion dollar modernization program for U.S. nuclear weapons.

Ellsberg shows us there have been many chair-bound paper-pushers in the U.S. government who’ve drawn up plans to murder hundreds of millions of people — to unleash doomsday — all in the name of protecting America.  He also shows how close they’ve come to doing just that, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but during other crises as well.

Nuclear brinksmanship, threats of nuclear war, and similar uses of nuclear weapons to intimidate hold the potential for catastrophe.  Miscalculations, mishaps, mistakes, are more than possible in an atmosphere of mistrust, when words and actions can be misinterpreted.

Ellsberg’s recommendations for changes point the way to a better world, a world where the threat of nuclear doomsday could be much reduced, perhaps eliminated completely.  The question remains: Is anyone in power listening?

Nine Rows of Ribbons!

General Robert Neller, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, is in the news since he told Marines to get ready for a big fight.  This doesn’t really alarm me.  A military exists to be ready to fight, and the Marines place a premium on combat readiness.  No — what bothers me is the nine rows of ribbons General Neller is sporting on his uniform.

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He may need a bigger chest for all those ribbons

And compared to the other services (Army, Navy, and Air Force), the Marines are usually the most reluctant to hand out ribbons freely.

I wrote about this back in 2007: why medals and metrics in the U.S. military mislead. A big offender back then was General David Petraeus, whose uniform was festooned with ribbons and badges of all kinds, most of them of the “been there” rather than “done that” variety.

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Petraeus: 10 rows of ribbons, plus a bonus row

When I was an LT in the Air Force, circa 1987, I took part in a random survey in which I was asked, “What one change would you make to military practices,” or some such question. My answer was to get rid of all the “everyman” ribbons, the meaningless awards and medals that made a sergeant’s or captain’s uniform in 1987 look like that of General George Patton’s in 1945.

You can see how much my recommendation made a great impact on today’s military!

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How did General Marshall win World War II with so few ribbons?

Seriously, though, our military is suffering from rampant grade inflation. We are giving ourselves far too many trophies. When even the Marines fall prey to ribbon and medal proliferation, it’s not a good sign for future combat effectiveness.

Military uniforms should not look like overdecorated Christmas trees.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone!

Mike Pence’s Visit to Afghanistan

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VP Pence, in his military flight jacket, posing for selfies with the troops

W.J. Astore

Vice President Mike Pence made a surprise visit to Bagram air base in Afghanistan, reassuring the assembled troops that they are winning the war there, despite evidence to the contrary.  For the occasion he donned a spiffy-looking leather military flight jacket, customized for him, as have other presidents and VPs going back at least as far as Ronald Reagan.

I’ve written about this before, this adoption of military clothing by civilian commanders.  It’s an insidious blurring of the lines between the civilian chain of command — and the crucial idea of civilian control of the military — and the military chain.  You don’t see generals and admirals on active duty showing up to testify before Congress in civilian coat and tie: they wear their uniforms because that’s who they are–commissioned military officers.  Similarly, our civilian leaders, whether Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama or Donald Trump, should wear their “uniform,” typically civilian coat and tie, for that is who they are.  They should never wear military flight jackets and similar items, no matter how “cool” or “supportive” they think they look.  It sends the wrong sartorial and political signals.

I just can’t imagine Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was of course a five-star general before he became president, wearing military jackets and hats while he was president.  Ike knew better.  He was the civilian commander in chief, thus he dressed like it.  Same with George C. Marshall.  He wasn’t parading around in military jackets when he was Secretary of State in the aftermath of World War II.

Hitting another common theme, Pence was at pains to praise the troops as heroes, noting that “You are the best of us.”  Why this need for endless flattery of the troops?  Recall that President Obama praised the U.S. military as the finest fighting force in history.  Satirically, you might call it the 4F military: the finest fighting force since forever.

America’s civilian leaders need to put aside hyperbolic praise and wannabe military uniform items.  There’s a far better way of complimenting our troops while leading America.  That better way?  Ending America’s wars and bringing the troops home.

Selling Drones, Exporting War

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Exporting Drones: What could go wrong?

W.J. Astore

The business of America is weapons sales.  That much is true when you consider the following snippet today from FP: Foreign Policy:

Drone sales. The United States is looking to make changes to a major international arms control treaty that would open the door for wider exports of military drones, Defense News reports. The proposed change to the Missile Technology Control Regime would make it easier for nations to sell drones.

Proliferation of drones: What could go wrong?

America is the world’s leader in drone technology, and the companies that have developed them see even bigger profits on the horizon if they can sell them to America’s allies around the globe.  The nature of drones is that they make killing easier — usually bloodless — for those countries that possess the technology.  They promise results, but the American use of drones in places like Iraq and Afghanistan has not led to any resolution of those conflicts.  Only the body count has increased.

As I wrote in 2012:

famous utterance attributed to General Robert E. Lee during the U.S. Civil War is, “It is well that war is so terrible – lest we should grow too fond of it.” His words capture the idea that war is an elemental thing – and also a seductive one. Much like a storm-tossed ocean, war is relentless, implacable, and unsparing. It is chaotic, arbitrary, and deadly. It is not to be bargained with; only to be endured.

Given its ferocity, its rapacity, the enormity of its waste and devastation, war is best to be avoided, especially since war itself has its appeals, especially since war itself can be intoxicating, as the quotation from Lee suggests, and as the title of Anthony Loyd’s fine book on the war in Bosnia, My War Gone By, I Miss It So (1999), indicates.

What happens when we decouple war’s terrible nature from its intoxicating force? What happens when one side can kill with impunity in complete safety? Lee’s words suggest that a nation that decouples war from its terrors will likely grow too fond of it. The temptation to use deadly force will no longer be restrained by knowledge of the horrors unleashed by the same.

Such thoughts darken the reality of America’s growing fondness for drone warfare. Our land-based drone pilots patrol the skies of foreign lands like Afghanistan in complete safety. They unleash appropriately named Hellfire missiles to smite our enemies. The pilots see a video feed of the carnage they inflict; the American people see and experience nothing. In rare cases when ordinary Americans see drone footage on television, what they witness is something akin to a “Call of Duty” video game combined with a snuff film. War porn, if you will.

Many Americans seem happy that we can smite foreign “militants” at no risk to ourselves. They trust that our military (and the CIA) rarely misidentifies a terrorist, and that “collateral damage,” that mind-numbing euphemism that obscures the reality of innocent men, women, and children obliterated by missiles, is the regrettable price of keeping America safe.

But the reality is that sloppy intelligence and the fog and friction of war combine to make seemingly antiseptic drone warfare much like all other forms of war: bloody, wasteful, and terrible. Terrible, that is, for those on the receiving end of American firepower. Not terrible for us.

There is a real danger that today’s drone warfare has become the equivalent to the Dark Side of the Force as described by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back: a quicker, easier, more seductive form of terror. It is indeed seductive to deploy the technological equivalent of Darth Vader’s throat-constricting powers at a safe distance. We may even applaud ourselves for our prowess while doing so. We tell ourselves that we are killing only the bad people, and that the few innocents caught in the crosshairs constitute an accidental but nonetheless unavoidable price of keeping America safe.

In light of America’s growing affection for drone warfare combined with a disassociation from its terrible results, I submit to you a modified version of General Lee’s sentiment:

It is not well that war grows less terrible for us – for we are growing much too fond of it.

The Biggest National Security Threats

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Trump, surrounded by the military, vows to give it more (and more!) money

W.J. Astore

Today at 2PM, the Trump administration releases its National Security Strategy.  It’s already making news because Trump is dropping climate change (added by the Obama administration) as a threat.  Instead, Trump is placing new emphasis on economic competitiveness and border security (“Build the wall!”), which are two corporate-friendly policies (read: boondoggles).

I’d like to cite two threats that Trump won’t mention in his national security strategy.  These two threats are perhaps the biggest ones America faces, and they are related.  The first is threat inflation, and the second is the U.S. military itself, as in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s military-industrial-Congressional complex.

Threat inflation is a huge problem in America.  The threat of terrorism is vastly inflated, as is the threat from North Korea.  If we wanted to focus on what threatens Americans, we’d be redoubling efforts to help those with opioid addictions even as we work to cut deaths by guns and in road accidents.  Roughly 120,000 Americans are dying each year from opioid overdoses, road accidents, and shootings.  How many are dying from terrorism or from attacks by North Korea?

North Korea is a weak regional power led by an immature dictator who is desperate to keep his grip on power.  Kim Jong-un knows that any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea would end in his death and the annihilation of his country.  He also knows that nuclear weapons serve as a deterrent and a symbol of prestige domestically and internationally.  Does he need to be deterred?  Yes.  Should Americans cower in fear?  Of course not.

Cyberwar is certainly a threat–just look at Russian meddling in our last presidential election.  China and Russia are nuclear powers and rivals that bear close watching, but they are not enemies.  Indeed, since the end of the Cold War the United States hasn’t faced serious peer enemies.  We should have been cashing in our “peace dividends” for the last 25 years.  Why haven’t we?

Enter the military-industrial-Congressional complex.  Ike warned us about it in 1961.  He warned about its misplaced power, its persistence, and its anti-democratic nature.  Ike, a retired five-star general who led the allied armies on the Western Front in World War II against the Nazis, knew of what he spoke.  He knew the Complex exaggerated threats, such as missile or bomber “gaps” (which didn’t exist) vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.  Ike knew the military, its corporate feeders and enablers, and Congress always wanted one thing: more.  He did his best to control the military, but once he left office, it was the Complex that took control, leading America into a disastrous war in Vietnam, the first of many “wars of choice” that ended in American defeats, but which proved highly profitable to the Complex itself.

Those endless wars that feed the Complex persist today.  Elements of the U.S. military are deployed to 149 countries and 800 foreign bases at a budgetary cost of $700 billion (that’s just for the “defense” budget).  Spending so much money on the military represents a tremendous opportunity cost–for that money, Americans could have free health care and college tuition, but who wants good health and a sound education, right?

Ike recognized the opportunity cost of “defense” spending in 1953 in this famous speech:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

What Ike said.  The point is not that Ike was a perfect man (look at the Iran coup, also in 1953), but he sure as hell was a sound and at times a penetrating thinker, a mature man who knew the awful burdens of war.

And now we have Trump, the opposite of Ike, an unsound and shallow thinker, an immature man who knows nothing of the awfulness of war.  Add Trump himself–his immaturity, his bellicosity, his ignorance, and his denial of reality–as a threat to our national security.

So, a quick summary of three big threats that won’t make Trump’s “strategy” today:

  1. Threat inflation: terrorism, North Korea, Iran, etc.
  2. The Complex itself and its profligate, prodigal, and anti-democratic nature.
  3. Trump.

And add back one more: climate change/global warming.  Because flooding, fires, droughts, famines, etc., exacerbated by global warming, are already creating security challenges, which will only grow worse over the next half-century.  Denying that reality, or calling it “fake news,” won’t change Mother Nature; she has her own implacable ways,

The USA Is Number One — In Weapons Sales

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Arms Sales and Profits: Up, Up, and Away!

W.J. Astore

Once again, the USA leads the world in weapons sales, notes SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.  The 100 biggest arms producers accounted for $375 billion in weapons sales in 2016, with US firms having by far the largest share at $217 billion.  That’s right: the US accounts for roughly 58% of the global arms trade. We’re #1!  We’re #1!

Not only do we arm our friends but our foes as well, notes FP: Foreign Policy, which has the following SitRep (situation report) for today:

U.S. weapons used by ISIS. A new report from Conflict Armament Research, a U.K.-based weapons tracking group, outlines in fascinating detail the industrial-scale weapons manufacturing capabilities the Islamic State boasted of in its prime… But what might be most notable are the American-supplied weapons found amid the ruins — the aftermath of secretive American efforts to provide small rebel groups with anti-tank rockets and other guided munitions. The transfer of the rockets, purchased from European countries, violated end-user agreements signed by the United States pledging not to transfer the weapons to third parties. In some cases, it took only a few weeks for the weapons to end up in the hands of Islamic State fighters after being delivered to allegedly friendly forces.  

Let’s face it: $217 billion is an enormous amount of money, and the weapons trade is enormously profitable to the US.  America’s wars are not coming to an end anytime soon: there’s simply too much money being made on manufacturing and selling war.

This puts me to mind of observations made by Father Daniel Berrigan, who served prison time for protesting the Vietnam War.  Berrigan wrote with eloquence against war, and his words from a half-century ago are as timely today as they were during the Vietnam protests:

“we are powerless to inquire why it is easier to continue to slaughter than to stop it, why the historical cult of violence has become the mainstay of policy–both foreign and domestic, or why our economy so requires warmaking that perpetual war has united with expanding profits as the chief national purpose.”

And that was when the US still had a manufacturing base for consumer goods that hadn’t withered from “free” trade deals like NAFTA and other globalization efforts.  The global market the US dominates today is not for consumer goods but for wares of destruction.

When you sow the winds of weaponry and war, and profit mightily from it, do you not eventually have to reap the whirlwind of destruction?

Trump, His Generals, and the Road to Authoritarianism

W.J. Astore

An article yesterday at NBC focusing on Trump and “his” generals got me to thinking on this subject again.  Its author, Suzanne Garment, suggests that Trump likes generals as obedient alpha males.  They lend him credibility without directly threatening his delicate ego.  And there’s truth in this.

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Trump and his generals.  Mattis and Kelly flanking Trump.  From the NBC article.

But I want to focus on other reasons for Trump’s preference for generals in high positions.  A year ago, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com on “All the President’s Generals.”  That article focused mainly on the potential impact of these generals on America’s foreign policy and domestic culture.  As I wrote last December:

Collectively, the team of Mattis, Flynn, and Kelly could not be more symbolic of the ongoing process of subversion of civilian control of the military.  With Trump holding their reins, these self-styled warriors will soon take charge of the highest civilian positions overseeing the military of the world’s sole superpower.  Don’t think of this, however, as a “Seven Days in May” scenario in which a hard-headed general mounts a coup against an allegedly soft-hearted president.  It’s far worse.  Who needs a coup when generals are essentially to be given free rein by a president-elect who fancies himself a military expert because, as a teenager, he spent a few years at a military-themed boarding school?

In all of this, Trump represents just the next (giant) step in an ongoing process.  His warrior-steeds, his “dream team” of generals, highlight America’s striking twenty-first-century embrace of militarism.

I continue to think this is true.  Trump is empowering further military adventurism, even as he reinforces military-style solutions to problems.  But there are other reasons for Trump’s tight and eager embrace of the military.

Basically, by embracing the military and elevating it (while feeding it lots of money), Trump has neutralized it as a rival to his power.  Indeed, he is borrowing from the military’s authority and standing within our culture to bolster his own.

Recall how Candidate Trump was often quite critical of the U.S. military.  He knew more than the generals, he said.  Their wars he often called wasteful follies.  He was going to win (or end) these wars, he claimed, and hinted that quite a few “loser” generals might be on the receiving end of his infamous “You’re fired” line.

You hear none of this today. Trump is at pains to praise the military and his generals. He says they’re on a winning path, even in Afghanistan (because of Trump’s decisions, naturally).  He rewards them with record budgets and unalloyed praise.

And it’s working.  The military (and the larger national security state) is content with Trump.  He’s letting them have their way, which is another way of saying Trump is having his way.

In American society today, there aren’t too many power centers that truly can challenge Trump.  The media he’s diminished with all his attacks (“Fake news!”).  A Republican Congress remains quietly subservient.  Trump is stacking the judiciary with conservative judges to his liking.  The Democratic Party remains feckless and divided.  Bankers and corporations?  Trump has hired the former and given a huge gift to the latter in the latest Republican tax cut for the richest.

When you think about it, the one power center that could challenge Trump is the military-industrial complex: America’s fourth branch of government.  Yet by hiring so many of its generals and by praising it while passing loads of moola its way, Trump has co-opted its authority and power, attaching it to himself in his role as commander-in-chief.

Trump’s last hurdle may be the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian meddling and possible complicity or obstruction by Trump.  If Trump gets past this (perhaps even by firing Mueller), is there anyone left with the balls, the sand, the spine, the guts, the moxie (choose your favorite measure of fortitude) and the authority to stop his ambition and designs as an authoritarian leader?