Did you know the U.S. is developing a new land-based ICBM? That’s intercontinental ballistic missile, and back in the 1980s we pretty much considered them obsolete in the Air Force. That’s because they’re the least survivable “leg” of the nuclear triad, which consists of ICBMs, nuclear bombers like the B-2 stealth, and submarines like the current Ohio-class ones armed with Trident missiles.
But never mind all that. When I visited Los Alamos National Laboratory (home of the Manhattan Project) as an Air Force captain in the spring of 1992, the mood there was glum. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Los Alamos was facing major cuts in funding, since back then we naively believed there was going to be a “peace dividend” and the U.S. would return to being a normal country in normal times. We wouldn’t have to “invest,” as our military likes to say, in more nukes. We had plenty already; indeed, more than enough to end life on earth.
But that was then and this is now and the Biden administration, joining the previous Trump and Obama administrations, is “investing” up to $1.7 trillion over the next thirty years in more nuclear weapons to destroy the earth. It’s a job-creator, don’t you know. And rural areas with nuclear missile bases, like Wyoming and North Dakota, don’t want to lose jobs or the billions in federal dollars that flow to their states in the stated cause of nuclear deterrence. Deterring who or what is uncertain.
Americans love things that blow up while lighting up the sky and causing the heavens to glow. We witness it every year at this time. Let’s just hope the nuclear firecrackers stay stashed away. Some firecrackers are too dangerous to contemplate.
I remember back in 1992 walking around the desert at Alamogordo, New Mexico, site of the first atomic blast that preceded Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There’s not much left of the tower where the bomb sat: just the concrete base and some twisted metal. Walking around the area, you can still find sand that’s been fused into glass by the heat of the atomic blast. I didn’t take any home with me as it’s still radioactive. People were walking around with masks before masks became a thing with Covid. It was an eerie experience.
We don’t spend much time, if any, on July 4th thinking about all our weapons that are designed with great care and ingenuity to blow up and kill, whether it’s one person or millions (or perhaps even the planet itself). But I urge you to set aside a few minutes to read Tom Engelhardt’s latest article at TomDispatch.com. He writes about his own eerie and disturbing experience visiting Japan and Hiroshima and thinking about the unthinkable.
Coming of age in the 1970s, I had a real fear of nuclear Armageddon. Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, guaranteed both the USA and USSR would be destroyed in the case of a “general” nuclear war (as opposed to a “limited” one). When Ronald Reagan was elected and started denouncing the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” while stationing Pershing II and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles in Europe in the early 1980s, a powerful movement calling for a “nuclear freeze” (no new nuclear weapons) helped to provide a measure of sanity. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, it seemed the world had stepped back from the brink of nuclear annihilation. Indeed, Barack Obama campaigned on eliminating nuclear weapons, supported by conservative voices like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz.
But you can’t keep a bad bomb down, apparently. Amazingly, nuclear weapons are back and in a big way. So-called nuclear modernization of America’s strategic triad may cost as much as $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years, notes Andrew Bacevich in his latest article for TomDispatch.com. Here’s an excerpt:
President Biden has left essentially untouched the core assumptions that justify the vast (and vastly well funded) national security apparatus created in the wake of World War II. Central to those assumptions is the conviction that global power projection, rather than national defense per se, defines the U.S. military establishment’s core mission. Washington’s insistence on asserting global primacy (typically expressed using euphemisms like “global leadership”) finds concrete expression in a determination to remain militarily dominant everywhere.
So far at least, Biden shows no inclination to renounce, or even reassess, the practices that have evolved to pursue such global military dominion. These include Pentagon expenditures easily exceeding those of any adversary or even plausible combination of adversaries; an arms industry that corrupts American politics and openly subverts democracy; a massive, essentially unusable nuclear strike force presently undergoing a comprehensive $1.7 trillion “modernization”; a network of hundreds of bases hosting U.S. troop contingents in dozens of countries around the world; and, of course, an inclination to use force unmatched by any nation with the possible exception of Israel.
Of course, “global military dominion” makes little sense if the world is a burnt out radioactive husk after a general nuclear strike. So why is America’s military pursuing a new generation of land-based ICBMs, new nuclear stealth bombers, and submarines (the most secure and survivable “leg” of the triad)? Money and jobs, I suppose, are always key factors. But there’s something deeper at work here, a sort of bizarre religion in which America’s death-dealers actually worship the bomb, as in the movie “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” Here’s a relevant scene from that movie:
Worshiping at the altar of global destruction is about as black of a mass as I can imagine. The only course of action that makes any sense for the future of humanity is a nuclear freeze (no new nuclear weapons, warheads, and delivery systems) followed by reductions and culminating in elimination.
Meanwhile, let’s assume we save $1.7 trillion by not “modernizing” the triad. How about investing that money in America’s crumbling infrastructure? Why not build bridges and roads and high-speed rail and dams instead of planning on blowing them up and all of humanity with them?
I came across this quotation yesterday: “I am worried about the state of the readiness of the nuclear triad,” Deputy SecDef nominee Kath Hicks tells the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, “and, if confirmed, that is an area I would want to get my team in place and start to look at right away.”
The U.S. military plans to spend well over a trillion dollars over the next thirty years to “modernize” the nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, nuclear-capable bombers, and sub-launched ballistic missiles. Long ago, I remember reading (from December 1982) that Charles Bennet, a Democratic Congressman, had said “The triad is not the Trinity.” But the Pentagon treats it as if it is a (un)Holy Trinity, shoveling money to build even more nuclear weapons to devastate and destroy humanity. I don’t use the concept of evil lightly, but I can’t think of policies much more evil than developing yet more genocidal weaponry at enormous cost.
We desperately need new thinking in America, which is why I wrote the following article for TomDispatch. Maybe some of these are pipe dreams; then again, maybe we should all be smoking peace pipes more often.
The Power of America’s Example
When it comes to war, if personnel is policy, America is yet again in deep trouble.
As retired Army Major Danny Sjursen recently pointed out at TomDispatch, when it comes to foreign policy, President Joe Biden’s new cabinet and advisers are well stocked with retired generals, reconstituted neocons, unapologetic hawks, and similar war enthusiasts. Biden himself has taken to asking God to protect the troops whenever he makes a major speech. (How about protecting them by bringing them home from our pointless wars?) “Defense” spending, as war spending is generally known in this country, remains at record levels at $740.5 billion for fiscal year 2021. Talk of a new cold war with Russia or China (or both) paradoxically warms Pentagon offices and corridors with yet more funds. The only visible dove of peace at Biden’s inaugural was the giant golden brooch worn by Lady Gaga. So what exactly is to be done?
Peace-driven progressive policies will not emerge easily from the rainbow kettle of hawks Biden has so far assembled, but his inaugural speech did mention leading and inspiring others globally “not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.” It would have been an apt rhetorical flourish indeed, if not for this country’s “forever wars” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. America’s harsh war-fighting reality suggests that “the example of our power” still remains standard operating procedure inside the Washington Beltway. How could this possibly be changed?
I have a few ideas for Biden — a 10-point plan, in fact, for turning his softball rhetoric into hardball reality. Consider, Mr. President, the following powerful examples you could set as America’s latest commander-in-chief:
1. Stop the U.S. from building new generations of nuclear weapons and downsize the vast existing American arsenal, while launching global negotiations to work toward the elimination of all such arsenals. The U.S. military is set to spend well over a trillion dollars in the coming decades to “modernize” its nuclear triad of bombers and land-based and submarine-launched missiles. Such a staggering “investment” can only move the world closer to nuclear Armageddon. If America is to lead by example when it comes to the ultimate power on this planet, why not begin by cancelling this trillion-dollar-nightmare as part of a new global anti-nuclear initiative? Why not commit us, long term, to the elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere, while moving to adopt a “no-first-use” policy?
2. When it comes to President Biden’s commitment to slow climate change and clean up the environment, why not do something in military terms? America’s armed forces have an enormous appetite for fossil fuels. The Pentagon also has a sordid record when it comes to the poisoning of the environment. (Consider the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam, or the military’s burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the birth defects and severe health problems that were linked to the munitions its forces used in assaulting the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004.) If the president wants to set an example when it comes to demilitarizing this over-armed, over-polluted planet of ours, reducing both the military’s fossil-fuel emissions and its poisonous munitions would be a powerful way to start.
3. End this century’s forever wars and radically downsize this country’s unprecedented global network of military bases. Driving the colossal size of today’s military is what my old service, the Air Force, likes to call its “global reach, global power” mission. At least in theory, that mission, in turn, helps justify the sprawling network of 800 or so overseas bases, a network that costs more than $100 billion a year to maintain. Such bases not only consume resources needed here in the U.S. and help stoke those forever wars, but they present high-value targets to opponents and incite ill-feeling and resistance from “host” countries. So, downsizing that global base structure would be an act of peace — and fiscal sanity.
4. Make major cuts in the country’s war budget. Fewer bases and fewer or no wars should translate into a far lower defense budget. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 billion annually to defend this country and cover its real “national security” interests seems reasonable for the self-styled lone superpower. The money saved (roughly $340 billion based on this year’s budget) could then perhaps be partly rebated directly to American families in need in this pandemic. Perhaps every American family earning less than $50,000 a year could see a rebate on their taxes directly attributable to downsizing that budget and America’s imperial footprint overseas. Taking a page from Donald Trump, President Biden, as America’s thrifty and giving commander-in-chief, could even have his name put on those rebate checks. Call it a long-delayed peace dividend. Regular Americans, after all, need such “dividends” far more than giant defense contractors like Boeing or Raytheon. And don’t get me started on the need to invest in rebuilding this nation’s infrastructure at a moment when the extremities associated with climate change threaten to devastate parts of the country.
5. Create a Department of Peace (here’s looking at you, Dennis Kucinich) with influence at least approaching that of the so-called Department of Defense. Currently, the U.S. military is all about power projection, domination of the global battlespace, and similar buzzwords that add up to exporting violence abroad, special op by special op, drone by drone. You are what you do and the U.S. military does permanent war with plenty of “collateral damage.” (Picture mutilated black and brown bodies and flattened and poisoned cities and towns.) If the U.S. government can create a Space Force just to fulfill the fantasies of Donald Trump, then why not a peace force, too? (America’s current, humble Peace Corps asked for $401 million for Fiscal Year 2021, roughly the cost of four underperforming F-35 jet fighters.) Peace, much like war, doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it — and that would be precisely the mission of the Department of Peace.
6.Pay attention, for once, to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address and exert rigorous oversight and zealous control over the military-industrial complex. That means ending the 2001 AUMF, the authorization for use of military force that Congress passed in a climate of panic and revenge in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (though it was only to be against those associated in some fashion with those terror attacks), and the second one Congress authorized in 2002 in preparation for the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. They have been misused and abused by presidents ever since. Furthermore, end any conflict that hasn’t been authorized by a direct Congressional declaration of war. That means withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. America’s security is not, in fact, directly threatened by those countries. As a self-declared democracy, the United States should set an example by not fighting wars disconnected from the people’s will and the true needs of national defense.
7. And speaking of President Eisenhower, America needs to embrace his lesson that military spending represents a theft from Americans who are hungry, sick, and need help. For its “national security,” this country needs more hospitals, better education, safer food, a cleaner environment, and, most of all, clean water and fresh air. Eisenhower knew that warships and warplanes were simply not the answer to the American people’s real and pressing needs.
8. Reject threat inflation, including the heightening talk of a “new cold war” with Russia or China or of an ongoing “generational” war on terror. Eliminate talk of a new Red Menace, of likely wars with Iran or North Korea, or of America’s backwardness in cyberwarfare research and development. Terrorism is nothing new and will always be with us in one form or another (including, vis-a-vis the Capitol on January 6th, domestic terrorism). Indeed, since war is terror, a war on terror should truly be considered an oxymoron. Terrorist acts are mostly the recourse of the weak when taking on the strong. The United States isn’t going to stop them by getting stronger yet. Nor are China and Russia about to invade this country. (This isn’t Red Dawn.) Iran is not coming to impose Sharia law and North Korea is not about to launch nukes against us. As for cyber-attacks, don’t worry: no matter what you’ve heard, no country does cyberwarfare better than the U.S.A.
9. End the practice of foreign aid taking the form of military aid. When taxpayers give aid to foreign countries, it should be in the form of food, medicine, and other essentials, not cluster bombs, F-16s, and Hellfire missiles.
10. Learn from Abraham Lincoln. In President Biden’s recent Inaugural Address, as a call to national unity, he made reference to Lincoln’s initial inaugural appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” But he should have focused on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the finest speech ever given by any president. As Lincoln put it then, when it came to ending the American Civil War:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Lincoln was unafraid of speaking of and seeking a just and lasting peace. In this century, until at least the Trump years, Americans often heard their leaders speak of this nation’s “exceptional” nature. What could be more exceptional, more laudable, than seeking a lasting global peace?
Biden, like me, is Roman Catholic. My Catholic bible (Matthew 5:9) tells me that Christ said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Instead of beseeching God to protect the troops that American presidents have continually sent into harm’s way, Joe Biden might ask for blessings for America’s peace activists. To echo Lincoln again, that would indeed be a case of right making might, instead of the might-making-right vision that a militaristic America has grown far too comfortable with.
An Alert and Knowledgeable Citizenry
So long ago, President Eisenhower spoke of the importance of having an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry.” Isn’t it time for mainstream media outlets to foster real, critical, investigative journalism that would truly inform those very citizens about America’s wanton military spending and endless wars, while providing educators with crucial material to teach their students about the horrific costs of militarism? This country needs to free its collective mind from the prevailing forever-war narrative. To paraphrase Crosby, Stills, and Nash, if we teach the children well, perhaps they won’t repeat their father’s hell.
In his song “Imagine,” John Lennon asked us all to imagine a different world and said that it’s easy if you try. Lennon got the first and most important part right, but the second part sadly doesn’t apply, at least to this country in this century. Nowadays, Americans are so immersed in a culture driven by war, profit, and exploitation that it’s no longer easy to imagine anything but war. If Americans truly paid attention to war, up close and as personal as they could get, they’d begin to grasp the folly and wickedness of it and so perhaps relinquish what I’ve come to think of as their prisoner-of-war mentality in relation to it. They might actually begin breaking down mental barriers to peace.
Don’t count on Congress doing it, though. Congress is incestuously part of what should be renamed the military-industrial-congressional complex. Don’t count on the military doing it either. Its most senior men and women have been carefully selected, groomed, and promoted because they believe in the system, which includes incessant lobbying for more weaponry and exaggerating the threats to this country to get it. They exist to wage war; the rest of us should be willing to fight for peace.
Change, if and when it comes, will have to be driven by people like us.
It won’t be easy, but it is necessary for America’s survival. And it’s unlikely to come without campaign finance reform and the public funding of elections. In a “pay-to-play” oligarchy disguised as a democracy, the giant weapons-making corporations simply pay much more than you do and so speak through megaphones, leaving you with a dead mic. Unless the corporate dominance of our politics is curtailed, ordinary Americans will continue to be outshouted and overwhelmed by the bellicose and the greedy, leaving the country forever at war.
It won’t be easy to work for peace, but it sure is worth the try. It sure as hell beats the alternative of guns, bombs, and missiles being produced like so many sausages in a militaristic country that ever more resembles George Orwell’s nightmarish image of the future as “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
America’s new president has called for us to lead with the power of our example rather than just the example of our power. I can’t think of anything more exemplary and powerful than a strong commitment to making war no more.
President Donald Trump is incurious, ignorant, and ill-informed. He hides this with rudeness, bluster, and lies. As an anonymous German Foreign Ministry official said during Chancellor Merkel’s visit, Trump “uses rudeness to compensate for his weakness.”
Trump couldn’t hold his own with a brilliant woman of substance like Angela Merkel, so he changed the narrative. He accused Germany of not paying up with NATO; he said Obama wiretapped Merkel, just like he tapped Trump tower; he whined about unfair trade with Germany. In public, Trump showed little substance and no sophistication.
It’s not that Trump can’t learn; he doesn’t want to. He’s happy watching Fox News or movies like “Finding Dory,” golfing at his expensive resorts, signing executive orders and holding them aloft like a proud second-grader (Look Ma! I can sign my name!), and holding rabble-rousing rallies (“Lock her up!”) and basking in applause.
Trump operates in the shallows. His experience is in high-priced real-estate and media. He’s best at hyping a certain image of himself. He’s a bull-shitter, and he’s had lots of practice.
A big part of the presidency is ceremonial: the U.S. president is king and prime minister all in one. Trump is failing at both jobs. As a symbol of America, he’s boorish, boastful, and bullying. As a prime minister, he’s incurious, ignorant, and vain.
Five examples: Candidate Trump knew nothing about America’s nuclear triad. He didn’t know it consists of SLBMs (on Trident submarines), ICBMs (land-based), and “air-breathing” bombers. All he “knew” is that allegedly the U.S. nuclear arsenal is obsolete and inferior to the Russian arsenal. But actually the U.S. arsenal is more accurate, more survivable, and far superior to that of any other country, including Russia.
Second example. According to Trump, before he came along, nobody knew how complicated health care could be. We owe that stunning insight to Trump. Third example. According to Trump, Germany owes vast sums of money to the U.S. for defense costs, a false claim rejected by the Germans.
Fourth example: Based on a false Fox News report, Trump accused the previous president of committing a felony by tapping his phones during the campaign season, a charge for which there is no evidence whatsoever. Yet Trump refuses to rescind the charge, despite its repudiation by the FBI, NSA, British intelligence, and his own party.
Fifth example: Trump refuses to admit his Muslim ban is, well, a Muslim ban. Yet the ban refuses to target the one country that supplied 15 out of the 19 hijackers on 9/11: Saudi Arabia. Most experts agree that Trump’s ban is unconstitutional and counterproductive in the war on terror.
Being Trump means never having to say you’re sorry. In his unapologetic blustering, Trump echoes the foreign leader he seems to admire most: Vladimir Putin. In Putin’s Russia, with its history of Tsars and other strong leaders, uncompromising firmness and unyielding certitude are expected if not always applauded. In democratic America, an ability to compromise and a willingness to yield on matters of fact are generally seen as signs of adult leadership by statesmen who serve the people rather than themselves.
Trump’s behavior is better suited to that of Tsars and other anti-democratic strongmen. Trump the incurious has surrounded himself with loyalists, family members like his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, and commissars who watch over his cabinet appointees to ensure their loyalty. Pettiness, paranoia, and score-settling characterize the Executive branch.
Trump often harkens back to World War II and the likes of Generals Patton and MacArthur. How does he compare to the president back then? Franklin D. Roosevelt had a global view of the world while exhibiting a mastery of detail. (So too did Winston Churchill.) Self-confident, FDR looked for no-men, not yes-men. He and his administration took pains to be inclusive and bipartisan. And FDR, with help from Allies like Churchill and Stalin, won World War II.
By comparison, Trump has a parochial view of the world and can’t even master himself (witness those temper-driven tweets). He hires yes-men and demonizes Democrats and indeed anyone he sees as against him. Alienating allies like Britain, Australia, and Germany, Trump seems least critical of Russia.
Some leaders surprise: they grow in office. But Trump’s smugness, his unwillingness to admit when he’s wrong, his showboating to hide uncomfortable truths, are stunting him. Effective at selling himself and entertaining as a blowhard on (un)reality TV, Trump is failing as a statesman.
Rather than grow, it’s likely Trump will wither in office. The problem is he won’t be alone in his decline and fall.
Update: To state the obvious, Trumpcare is not a health care plan: it’s a massive tax cut for the rich combined with a cut in services for the working classes and poor. Under this “plan,” the CBO estimates that 14 million will initially lose coverage, rising by another 10 million in the next decade. How is this a health care plan? Add cynicism and broken promises to Trump’s qualities.
Update (3/25): As Heather Digby Parton puts it, Trump “truly believes that he’s never ever been wrong about anything and when he lies he’s actually telling the future. He said it over and over again in that astonishing interview [for Time Magazine].”
Matt Taibbi, in his inimitable style, captured Trump during the election season: “On the primary trail we had never seen anything like him: impulsive, lewd, grandiose, disgusting, horrible, narcissistic and dangerous, but also usually unscripted and 10 seconds ahead of the news cycle … maybe he was on the level, birthing a weird new rightist/populist movement, a cross of Huey Long, Pinochet and David Hasselhoff. He was probably a monster, but whatever he was, he was original.” (Insane Clown President, pg. 221)
I’d never watched a U.S. presidential candidate who scared me – truly scared me – until the Republican debate on March 3, 2016. This candidate literally gave me the creeps. As a historian and as a retired U.S. military officer, his answer to a question on torture and the potential illegality of his orders if he became the military’s civilian commander-in-chief horrified me. The next day, I wrote a short blog post in which I argued that this candidate had disqualified himself as a candidate for the presidency. That candidate’s name was Donald Trump.
What did candidate Trump say that so horrified me? He said this: They [U.S. military leaders] won’t refuse [my illegal orders]. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me. After again calling for waterboarding and more extreme forms of (illegal) torture, as well as not denying he’d target terrorists’ families in murderous reprisal raids, candidate Trump then said this: I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.
As I wrote at the time, “Our military does not follow blindly orders issued by ‘The Leader.’ Our military swears an oath to the Constitution. We swear to uphold the law of the land. We don’t swear allegiance to a single man (or woman) as president.”
“Trump’s performance … reminded me of Richard Nixon’s infamous answer to David Frost about Watergate: ‘When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.’ No, no, a thousand times no. The president has to obey the law of the land, just as everyone else has to. No person is above the law, an American ideal that Trump seems neither to understand nor to embrace.”
“And that disqualifies him to be president and commander-in-chief.”
Yes, I wrote those words just before the Ides of March. And yet here we are, with Trump as our president-elect and, come January 2017 the U.S. military’s next commander-in-chief. What the hell?
Confronted with criticism of his remarks that the U.S. military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality, Donald Trump soon walked them back. But for me his dictatorial instincts, his imperiousness, and, worst of all, his ignorance of or indifference to the U.S. Constitution, stood revealed in horrifyingly stark relief. Little that Trump said or did after this major, to my mind disqualifying, gaffe convinced me that he was fit to serve as commander-in-chief.
Here’s what I wrote back in March about the prospect of Trump serving as commander-in-chief:
Donald Trump: Lacks an understanding of the U.S. Constitution and his role and responsibilities as commander-in-chief. Though he has shown a willingness to depart from orthodoxies, e.g. by criticizing the Iraq War and the idea of nation-building, Trump’s temperament is highly suspect. His bombast amplified by his ignorance could make for a deadly combination. Hysterical calls for medieval-like torture practices are especially disturbing.
Another disturbing tack he took was to suggest that he’d clean house among the military’s senior ranks — apparently, America today doesn’t have enough men like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, Trump’s all-time favorite generals. Patton was a notorious hothead, and MacArthur was vainglorious, egotistical, and insubordinate. Leaving that aside, Trump doesn’t seem to understand that the president is not a dictator who can purge the military officer corps. Officers are appointed by Congress, not by the president, and they serve at the will of the American people, not at the whim of the president.
Combine Trump’s ignorance of the U.S. Constitution with his cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons and you truly have a combustible formula. Clearly, Trump had no idea what America’s nuclear triad was during the Republican primary debates, but few people in the media seemed to care. (Gary Johnson, meanwhile, was pilloried by the press for not knowing about Aleppo.) Trump gave statements that seemed to favor nuclear proliferation, and seemed to suggest he saw nuclear weapons as little different from conventional ones. He also repeated that hoary chestnut, vintage 1960, that some sort of “missile gap” existed between the U.S. and Russia: the lie that Russia was modernizing its nuclear forces and the USA was falling hopelessly behind. Again, there was little push back from the press on Trump’s ignorance and lies: they were enjoying the spectacle and profits too much.
When it comes to nuclear war, ignorance and lies are not bliss. Can Trump grow up? Can he become an adequate commander-in-chief? America’s future, indeed the world’s, may hinge on this question.
Much of the post-debate analysis I’ve read from last night’s presidential debate has focused on Donald Trump’s crudeness, his threat to prosecute and jail his political opponent, the way in which he stalked her on the stage, looming in the background and crowding her, and finally his non-apology apology about “locker room banter.” Yes: Trump is most definitely lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable, but that’s hardly the worst of his qualities.
His worst quality? His sweeping ignorance to the point of recklessness when it comes to matters of national defense, and specifically America’s nuclear arsenal.
This is what Trump had to say last night about the U.S. nuclear deterrent:
But our nuclear program has fallen way behind, and they’ve gone wild with their nuclear program. Not good. Our government shouldn’t have allowed that to happen. Russia is new in terms of nuclear. We are old. We’re tired. We’re exhausted in terms of nuclear. A very bad thing.
This is utter nonsense. First off, nuclear weapons are not people. They don’t get “tired” or “exhausted” or “old.” Second, the U.S. nuclear program has not “fallen way behind” the programs of other nations, certainly not Russia’s. Third, even if portions of Russia’s nuclear program are “new” (whatever that means), that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the United States. “New” in this case may mean safer and more reliable systems that are less prone to catastrophic error.
Here’s an undeniable fact: The U.S. nuclear arsenal is by far the world’s most powerful and advanced. The key aspect to nuclear capability is survivability, and nothing is more survivable than America’s force of Trident nuclear submarines. Virtually impossible to detect, America’s Trident force is essentially capable of destroying the world. One submarine carries enough missiles and warheads to devastate every major city in Russia (or any other country, for that matter). What more is needed as a deterrent?
Specifically, an Ohio-class Trident submarine can carry up to 24 nuclear missiles, each with up to eight nuclear warheads, each warhead equivalent to roughly six Hiroshima bombs. That represents a potential for hitting 192 targets, each with six times the impact of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 (which killed up to 200,000 people). That’s 1152 Hiroshimas from one submarine — a rough calculus, I know, but accurate enough to show the awesome might represented by a small portion of America’s nuclear force.
The Trident missiles are also incredibly accurate, with a circular error probability of less than 150 meters. And the U.S. has 14 of these submarines. (Not all are on patrol at any one time.) These highly sophisticated and ultra-powerful submarines are further augmented by land-based ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and bomber planes (the “air-breathing” element), forming the other two legs of the American nuclear triad. Again, when it comes to redundancy, accuracy, and survivability, no other country comes close to America’s nuclear capability.
This awesome nuclear force is not a sign the U.S. is “old” and “tired” and “exhausted.” It’s a sign that the U.S. is incredibly powerful, and, if you’re a foreign leader, incredibly dangerous, especially if America’s next commander-in-chief is undisciplined, thin-skinned, and in possession of a scattershot knowledge of military matters.
Back in March of this year, Trump boasted at a debate that the U.S. military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality. In this latest debate, he yet again revealed that he has no real knowledge of America’s nuclear capability and how modern and powerful (and scary) it truly is.
Sure, Trump is crude, lewd, and sexist, but those qualities won’t destroy the world as we know it. Ignorance about nuclear weapons, combined with impetuosity and an avowed affection for he-man wild-card generals like George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur, is a recipe for utter disaster.
Should the United States reject the “first use” of nuclear weapons? That question was put to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during their first debate. Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich asks us to take their answers seriously in his latest insightful essay at TomDispatch.com, which I urge you to read here in full.
Trump was asked to respond first, and his rambling answer, I thought, showed the evidence of someone who had crammed for a test. He was desperate to show he knew something – anything – about America’s nuclear forces (here some may recall how Trump obviously knew little about America’s nuclear triad during the Republican primary debates). So Trump rambled on about obsolete B-52s flown by the sons and grandsons of previous pilots, a non sequitur since the B-52 has been continuously upgraded with new engines, advanced avionics, the latest in high-tech weaponry, and despite their age they’re still more than capable of doing the job. But somebody must have told Trump to use the B-52’s age as a talking point, and he was determined to get it in.
As confused and incoherent as Trump’s reply was (read more about this at TomDispatch.com), at least he tried to grapple with the issue. Trump did reject First Strike. He did refer to the terror of nuclear war, even as he got lost in other talking points about North Korea, Iran, and allegations about how weak on national security Obama is.
By comparison, Clinton’s response was classic Hillary. Avoid and evade. Try to be all things to all voters. Bloviate, in other words, as Warren G. Harding did in 1920. In essence, Hillary ducked the question. She refused to address the issue of first use of nuclear weapons; indeed, she didn’t address nuclear strategy and policy at all. Instead, she drew a contrast between her experience and predictability versus Trump’s inexperience and unpredictability. Her message was clear: I’m not talking about nuclear weapons or policy, except to say you shouldn’t trust Trump with the nuclear launch codes.
Who won on this question? Bacevich is right to say neither candidate won, but it’s clear who lost: the American people. And the world.
It’s shameful that this country hasn’t rejected the first use of nuclear weapons. It’s also shameful that instead of working to eliminate nuclear weapons, the U.S. is actually planning to spend nearly a trillion dollars over the next 30 years to upgrade that arsenal. For what possible strategic purpose, one must ask? America’s current nuclear deterrent is the most powerful and survivable in the world. No other country comes close. There’s no rational reason to invest more money in nuclear weapons, unless you count the jobs and money related to building new nuclear submarines, weaponry, bombs, and all the other infrastructure related to America’s nuclear triad of Trident submarines, land-based bombers, and fixed missile silos.
Neither Trump nor Hillary addressed this issue. Trump was simply ignorant. Hillary was simply disingenuous. Which candidate was worse? When you’re talking about nuclear genocidal death, it surely does matter. Ignorance is not bliss, nor is a lack of forthrightness and honesty.
Next time, Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton, let’s have some rigor, some honesty, and some wisdom on the issue of nuclear weapons. Not only America deserves it – the world does.
America’s nuclear triad of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), sub-launched ballistic missiles (Ohio-class nuclear submarines), and nuclear-capable bombers is a relic of the Cold War. The triad may have made some sense in a MAD (as in mutually assured destruction) way in the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the Cold War with the USSR. But it makes no strategic or financial (or moral) sense today. Nevertheless, the U.S. is investing $10 billion over the next six years to update land-based ICBMs, missiles that should be decommissioned rather than updated precisely because they are both outdated and redundant.
The most survivable leg of the nuclear triad remains the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarines, which carry Trident II missiles with multiple warheads. These submarines are virtually impossible for any potential American foe to locate and sink in any timely fashion, therefore ensuring a survivable nuclear deterrent that is more than sufficient in any conceivable crisis.
Indeed, it’s arguable whether the U.S. needs any nuclear deterrent, given the size of the U.S. military and the power of its conventional military forces. Even old Cold War warriors like Henry Kissinger have come out in favor of eliminating nuclear weapons from the earth, as did Barack Obama when he first ran for president in 2008.
But morality and common sense quickly disappear when politics and fear-mongering intervene. States where nuclear missiles are currently based, such as North Dakota and Wyoming, want to keep them in their silos so that federal dollars continue to flow into local and state economies. Fearful “hawks” point to the existence of nuclear missiles in China or Russia (or even Pakistan!) as the reason why the U.S. needs to maintain nuclear superiority, even though no country comes close to the power and survivability of the U.S. Navy’s Trident submarines.
And let’s not, of course, forget morality. With Christmas coming, I recall something about “Thou Shall Not Kill” and loving thy neighbor. Spending scores of billions (maybe even a trillion dollars!) to update America’s nuclear arsenal, an arsenal that has the capacity to unleash genocide against multiple enemies while plunging the planet into nuclear winter, seems more than a little contrary to the Christian spirit, whether at Christmas or indeed any time of the year.
The decision to “invest” in outdated and redundant land-based ICBMs says much about the American moment. It’s almost as if our government believes the nuclear triad really is the Holy Trinity. Heck — why else did our country choose to anoint genocidal nuclear missiles as “Peacekeepers“?
It should sadden us all that some American leader of the future may yet utter the line, “We had to destroy the planet to save it.” Such is the horrifying potential and maddening logic of our nuclear forces.