The big story today is Trump’s threat to North Korea about “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in response to any aggression against the U.S. and its allies. The world witnessed American “fire and fury” in August of 1945 when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated by atomic bombs (indeed, today is the 72nd anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing). Roughly 250,000 people were killed in those two bombings, and Trump is apparently promising a worst form of fury against North Korea (“like the world has never seen”).
Back in October 2016, I wrote a piece at this site with the title: “On nuclear weapons, Trump is nightmarishly scary,” and that nightmare is beginning to take shape. As I wrote back then, Trump’s worst attribute is his “sweeping ignorance to the point of recklessness when it comes to matters of national defense, and specifically America’s nuclear arsenal.” I further wrote that:
Back in March … 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.
A man of Trump’s vanity and impetuosity — a man of raging grievances who lives in his own reality of alternative facts — is hardly a reassuring figure to have at the top of America’s “fire and fury” nuclear arsenal. Is it all just bluster? It’s impossible to know, and that’s truly the scary part.
All this fire and fury, even if it remains only bluster, should teach the world a critical lesson: the necessity of nuclear disarmament. Holding millions of people hostage to nuclear terror (as we’ve been doing since the Cold War) has long been immoral, inhumane, and unconscionable.
Instead of making nightmarish threats, a sober and mature U.S. president might actually lead the world in serious efforts to reduce and ultimately to eliminate nuclear weapons. That would be real moral leadership, That would be real guts.
Trump’s easy boasts of “fire and fury” do signify something vital — the need for global nuclear disarmament, no matter how long it takes.
Update (8/10/17): There’s been a lot of talk, more or less sensible, that Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric is just that: rhetoric. That it will not become reality because North Korean leaders are sensible and rational actors, and that U.S. leaders like Tillerson and Mattis provide a counterbalance to Trump. Well, maybe. But escalatory rhetoric can become reality, i.e. it serves to exacerbate tensions that can lead to miscalculation and war.
Think of North Korea’s latest threat to shoot missiles in the direction of Guam. If that threat is carried out, a U.S. attack on North Korean missile sites is quite likely, and where that would lead is impossible to say.
Reckless rhetoric is not harmless; words can and do box nations as well as people in, often leading to unexpected actions. Just think of hateful words flung by people in domestic disputes that escalate into something far worse. Rationality does not always win out.
Update 2 (8/10/17): Trump recently boasted that, during his short presidency, his actions have led to a U.S. nuclear arsenal that is “now far stronger and more powerful” than it was under President Obama. The truth is that this arsenal hasn’t measurably changed at all. The Washington Post gives Trump “four Pinocchios” for his latest lie, but surely big lies about nuclear weapons deserve a different rating system. Should we call it a four megaton lie? Lie-mageddon?
It’s hard to think of a higher priority than the prevention of doomsday. Global catastrophe could strike in quick-time via nuclear war, or in slow-motion via global warming. Yet our leaders persist in rattling and sharpening the nuclear saber while denying the very reality of global warming (even as state-size chunks of ice break off from the polar ice caps).
Global catastrophe: What, me worry? It’s a MAD world indeed.
Today at TomDispatch.com, I return to my days working in Cheyenne Mountain, America’s nuclear command and control center, tunneled out of a massive granite mountain in Colorado. I argue that it’s time to overcome our lockdown, shelter-in-place, mentality, before that fear-filled mindset leads us all to catastrophe. You can read the entire article here. What follows is an excerpt:
Duck and Cover, America!
Remember those old American Express card commercials with the tag line “Don’t leave home without it”? If America’s Department of Homeland Security had its own card, its tag would be: “Don’t leave home.”
Consider the words of retired General John Kelly, the head of that department, who recently suggested that if Americans knew what he knew about the nasty terror threats facing this country, they’d “never leave the house.” General Kelly, a big bad Marine, is a man who — one would think — does not frighten easily. It’s unclear, however, whether he considers it best for us to “shelter in place” just for now (until he sends the all-clear signal) or for all eternity.
One thing is clear, however: Islamic terrorism, an exceedingly modest danger to Americans, has in these years become the excuse for the endless construction and funding of an increasingly powerful national security state (the Department of Homeland Security included), complete with a global surveillance system for the ages. And with that, of course, goes the urge to demobilize the American people and put them in an eternal lockdown mode, while the warrior pros go about the business of keeping them “safe” and “secure.”
I have a few questions for General Kelly: Is closing our personal blast doors the answer to keeping our enemies and especially our fears at bay? What does security really mean? With respect to nuclear Armageddon, should the rich among us indeed start building personal bomb shelters again, while our government continues to perfect our nuclear arsenal by endlessly updating and “modernizing” it? (Think: smart nukes and next generation delivery systems.) Or should we work toward locking down and in the end eliminating our doomsday weaponry? With respect to both terrorism and immigration, should we really hunker down in Homeland U.S.A., slamming shut our Trumpian blast door with Mexico (actually long under construction) and our immigration system, or should we be working to reduce the tensions of poverty and violence that generate both desperate immigrants and terrorist acts?
President Trump and “his” generals are plainly in favor of you and yours just hunkering down, even as they continue to lash out militarily around the globe. The result so far: the worst of both worlds — a fortress America mentality of fear and passivity domestically and a kinetic, manic urge to surge, weapons in hand, across significant parts of the planet.
Call it a passive-aggressive policy. We the people are told to remain passive, huddling in our respective home bunkers, sheltering in place, even as America’s finest aggressively strike out at those we fear most. The common denominator of such a project is fear — a fear that breeds compliance at home and passivity before uniformed, if often uninformed, experts, even as it generates repetitive, seemingly endless, violence abroad. In short, it’s the doomsday mentality applied every day in every way.
Returning to Cheyenne Mountain
Thirty years ago, as a young Air Force officer, Cheyenne Mountain played a memorable role in my life. In 1988 I left that mountain redoubt behind, though I carried with me a small slab of granite from it with a souvenir pen attached. Today, with greying hair and my very own time machine (my memories), I find myself returning regularly to Cheyenne Mountain, thinking over where we went wrong as a country in allowing a doomsday-lockdown mentality to get such a hold on us.
Amazingly, Barack Obama, the president who made high-minded pleas to put an end to nuclear weapons (and won a Nobel Prize for them), pleas supported by hard-headed realists like former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, gave his approval to a trillion-dollar renovation of America’s nuclear triad before leaving office. That military-industrial boondoggle will now be carried forward by the Trump administration. Though revealing complete ignorance about America’s nuclear triad during the 2016 election campaign, President Trump has nevertheless boasted that the U.S. will always be “at the top of the pack” when it comes to doomsday weaponry. And whether with Iran or North Korea, he foolishly favors policies that rattle the nuclear saber.
In addition, recent reports indicate that America’s nuclear arsenal may be less than secure. In fact, as of this March, inspection results for nuclear weapons safety and security, which had been shared freely with the American public, are now classified in what the Associated Press calls a “lockdown of information.” Naturally, the Pentagon claims greater secrecy is needed to protect us against terrorism, but it serves another purpose: shielding incompetence and failing grades. Given the U.S. military’s nightmarish history of major accidents with nuclear weapons, more secrecy and less accountability doesn’t exactly inspire greater confidence.
Today, the Cheyenne complex sits deactivated, buried inside its mountain, awaiting fresh purpose. And I have one. Let’s bring our collective fears there, America. Let’s bury them under all that granite. Let’s close the blast doors behind us as we walk out of that dark tunnel toward the light. For sheltering in place shouldn’t be the American way. Nor should we lock ourselves down for life. It would be so much better to lockdown instead what should be truly unthinkable: doomsday itself, the mass murder of ourselves and the destruction of our planet.
In a recent article at TomDispatch.com, I argued that the United States, after defeating the former Soviet Union in the Cold War, seized upon its moment of “victory” and, in a fit of hubris, embraced an increasingly imperial and authoritarian destiny that echoed in many ways the worst attributes of the USSR. You can read the entire article here. What follows is an excerpt that details some of the ways the U.S. has come to echo or mirror certain features associated with the USSR, the “Evil Empire” of the Reagan years.
Also, for a podcast in which I discuss my article with Burt Cohen, follow this link or this address: http://keepingdemocracyalive.com/just-hacking-weve-become-like-soviets/
When I was a young lieutenant in the Air Force, in 1986 if memory serves, I attended a secret briefing on the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was president, and we had no clue that we were living through the waning years of the Cold War. Back then, believing that I should know my enemy, I was reading a lot about the Soviets in “open sources,” you know, books, magazines and newspapers.
The “secret” briefing I attended revealed little that was new to me. (Classified information is often overhyped.) I certainly heard no audacious predictions of a Soviet collapse in five years, though the Soviet Union would indeed implode in 1991. Like nearly everyone at the time, the briefers assumed the USSR would be our arch enemy for decades to come and it went without saying that the Berlin Wall was a permanent fixture in a divided Europe, a forever symbol of ruthless communist oppression.
Little did we know that, three years later, the Soviet military would stand aside as East Germans tore down that wall. And who then would have believed that a man might be elected president of the United States a generation later on the promise of building a “big, fat, beautiful wall” on our shared border with Mexico?
I wasn’t allowed to take notes during that briefing, but I remember the impression I was left with—that the USSR was deeply authoritarian, a grim surveillance state with an economy dependent on global weapons sales; that it was intent on nuclear domination; that it was imperialist and expansionist; that it persecuted its critics and dissidents; and that it had serious internal problems carefully suppressed in the cause of world mastery, including rampant alcohol and drug abuse, bad health care and declining longevity (notably for men), a poisoned environment, and an extensive prison system featuring gulags.
All of this was exacerbated by festering sores overseas, especially a costly and stalemated war in Afghanistan and client-states that absorbed its resources (think: Cuba) while offering little in return.
This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.
In case you think that’s an over-the-top statement, let’s take that list from the briefing—eight points in all—one item at a time.
1. An authoritarian, surveillance state. The last time the U.S. Congress formally declared war was in 1941. Since then, American presidents have embarked on foreign wars and interventions ever more often with ever less oversight from Congress. Power continues to grow and coalesce in the executive branch, strengthening an imperial presidency enhanced by staggering technologies of surveillance, greatly expanded in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Indeed, America now has 17 intelligence agencies with a combined yearly budget of $80 billion. Unsurprisingly, Americans are surveilled more than ever, allegedly for our safety even if such a system breeds meekness and stifles dissent.
2. An economy dependent on global weapons sales. The United States continues to dominate the global arms trade in a striking fashion. It was no mistake that a centerpiece of Pres. Trump’s recent trip was a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. On the same trip, he told the Emir of Qatar that he was in the Middle East to facilitate “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.” Now more than ever, beautiful weaponry made in the U.S.A. is a significant driver of domestic economic growth as well as of the country’s foreign policy.
3. Bent on nuclear domination. Continuing the policies of Pres. Barack Obama, the Trump administration envisions a massive modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, to the tune of at least a trillion dollars over the next generation. Much like an old-guard Soviet premier, Trump has boasted that America will always remain at “the top of the pack” when it comes to nuclear weapons.
4. Imperialist and expansionist. Historians speak of America’s “informal” empire, by which they mean the U.S. is less hands-on than past imperial powers like the Romans and the British. But there’s nothing informal or hands-off about America’s 800 overseas military bases or the fact that its Special Operations forces are being deployed in 130 or more countries yearly.
When the U.S. military speaks of global reach, global power, and full-spectrum dominance, this is traditional imperialism cloaked in banal catchphrases. Put differently, Soviet imperialism, which American leaders always professed to fear, never had a reach of this sort.
5. Persecutes critics and dissidents. Whether it’s been the use of the Patriot Act under George W. Bush’s presidency, the persecution of whistleblowers using the World War I-era Espionage Act under the Obama administration, or the vilification of the media by the new Trump administration, the United States is far less tolerant of dissent today than it was prior to the Soviet collapse.
As Homeland Security Secretary and retired four-star Marine Gen. John Kelly recently put it, speaking of news stories about the Trump administration based on anonymous intelligence sources, such leaks are “darn close to treason.” Add to such an atmosphere Trump’s attacks on the media as the “enemy” of the people and on critical news stories as “fake” and you have an environment ripe for the future suppression of dissent.
In the Soviet Union, political opponents were often threatened with jail or worse, and those threats were regularly enforced by men wearing military or secret police uniforms. In that context, let’s not forget the “lock her up!” chants led by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at the Republican National Convention and aimed at Donald Trump’s political opponent of that moment, Hillary Clinton.
6. Internal problems like drug abuse, inadequate health care and a poisoned environment. Alcoholism is still rife in Russia and environmental damage widespread, but consider the United States today. An opioid crisis is killing more than 30,000 people a year. Lead poisoning in places like Flint, Michigan, and New Orleans is causing irreparable harm to the young. The disposal of wastewater from fracking operations is generating earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma.
Even as environmental hazards proliferate, the Trump administration is gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. As health crises grow more serious, the Trump administration, abetted by a Republican-led Congress, is attempting to cut health-care coverage and benefits, as well as the funding that might protect Americans from deadly pathogens. Disturbingly, as with the Soviet Union in the era of its collapse, life expectancy among white men is declining, mainly due to drug abuse, suicide and other despair-driven problems.
7. Extensive prison systems. As a percentage of its population, no country imprisons more of its own people than the United States. While more than two million of their fellow citizens languish in prisons, Americans continue to see their nation as a beacon of freedom, ignoring Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In addition, the country now has a president who believes in torture, who has called for the murder of terrorists’ families, and who wants to refill Guantánamo with prisoners. It also has an attorney general who wants to make prison terms for low-level drug offenders ever more draconian.
8. Stalemated wars. You have to hand it to the Soviets. They did at least exhibit a learning curve in their disastrous war in Afghanistan and so the Red Army finally left that country in 1989 after a decade of high casualties and frustration, even if its troops returned to a land on the verge of implosion. U.S. forces, on the other hand, have been in Afghanistan for 16 years, with the Taliban growing ever stronger, yet its military’s response has once again been to call for investing more money and sending in more troops to reverse the “stalemate” there.
Meanwhile, after 14 years, Iraq War 3.0 festers, bringing devastation to places like Mosul, even as its destabilizing results continue to manifest themselves in Syria and indeed throughout the greater Middle East. Despite or rather because of these disastrous results, U.S. leaders continue to over-deploy U.S. Special Operations forces, contributing to exhaustion and higher suicide rates in the ranks.
In light of these eight points, that lighthearted Beatles tune and relic of the Cold War, “Back in the USSR,” takes on a new, and far harsher, meaning.
Did you know the U.S. has built nearly 70,000 nuclear weapons since 1945? Did you know the U.S. Air Force lost a B-52 and two hydrogen bombs in an accident over North Carolina in 1961, and that one of those H-bombs was a single safety-switch away from exploding with a blast equivalent to three or four million tons of TNT (roughly 200 Hiroshima-type bombs)? Did you know a U.S. nuclear missile exploded in its silo in Arkansas in 1980, throwing its thermonuclear warhead into the countryside?
That last accident is the subject of a PBS American Experiencedocumentary that I watched last night, “Command and Control.” I highly recommend it to all Americans, not just for what it reveals about nuclear accidents and the lack of safety, but for what it reveals about the U.S. military.
Here are a few things I learned about U.S. nuclear weapons and the military from the documentary:
During the silo accident, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) general in charge of nuclear missiles was a pilot with no experience in missiles. His order to activate a venting fan during a fuel leak led to the explosion that destroyed the missile and killed an airman. (Experts from Martin Marietta, the military contractor that built the Titan II missile, advised against such action.)
Airmen who courageously tried against long odds to mitigate the accident, and who were wounded in the explosion, were subsequently punished by the Air Force.
The Air Force refused to provide timely and reliable knowledge to local law enforcement as well as to the Arkansas governor (then Bill Clinton) and senators. Even Vice President Walter Mondale was denied a full and honest accounting of the accident.
Nuclear safety experts concluded that “luck” played a role in the fact that the Titan’s warhead didn’t explode. It was ejected from the silo without its power source, but if that power source had accompanied the warhead as it flew out of the silo, an explosion equivalent to two or three megatons could conceivably have happened.
Finally, the number of accidents involving U.S. nuclear weapons is far greater than the military has previously reported. Indeed, even the nation’s foremost expert in nuclear weapons development was not privy to all the data from these accidents.
In short, the U.S. has been very fortunate not to have nuked itself with multiple hydrogen bombs over the last 70 years. Talk today of a threat from North Korea pales in comparison to the threat posed to the U.S. by its own nuclear weapons programs and their hair-raising record of serious accidents and safety violations.
Despite this record, President Obama and now President Trump have asked for nearly a trillion dollars over the next generation to modernize and improve U.S. nuclear forces. Talk about rewarding failure!
Threatening genocidal murder is what passes for “deterrence,” then and now. This madness will continue as long as people acquiesce to the idea the government knows best and can be trusted with nuclear weapons that can destroy vast areas of our own country, along with most of the world.
To end the insanity, we must commit to eliminating nuclear weapons. Ronald Reagan saw the wisdom of total nuclear disarmament. So should we all.
An Addendum: In my Air Force career, I knew many missileers who worked in silos. They were dedicated professionals. But accidents happen, and complex weapons systems fail often in complex and unpredictable ways. Again, it’s nuclear experts themselves who say that luck has played a significant role in the fact that America hasn’t yet nuked itself. (Of course, we performed a lot of above-ground nuclear testing in places like Nevada, making them “no-go” places to this day due to radiation.)
Update (4/27/17): I’d heard of Air Force plans to base nuclear weapons on the moon, but today I learned that a nuclear test was contemplated on or near the moon as a way of showcasing American might during the Cold War. As the New York Timesreported, “Dr. [Leonard] Reiffel revealed that the Air Force had been interested in staging a surprise lunar explosion, and that its goal was propaganda. ‘The foremost intent was to impress the world with the prowess of the United States.’ It was a P.R. device, without question, in the minds of the people from the Air Force.” Dr. Reiffel further noted that, “The cost to science of destroying the pristine lunar environment did not seem of concern to our sponsors [the U.S. military] — but it certainly was to us, as I made clear at the time.”
The U.S. military wasn’t just content to pollute the earth with nuclear radiation: they wanted to pollute space and the moon as well. All in the name of “deterrence.”
Two pictures of above-ground nuclear testing in Nevada in 1955
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.