With Russia issuing warnings about using all weapons at its disposal to protect its position in Ukraine, it’s a good time to talk about the distinction between “tactical” and “strategic” nuclear weapons.
Put bluntly, there’s no real distinction. All nuclear weapons, regardless of size and yield, are devastating and potentially escalatory to a full-scale nuclear war. Were Russia to use “tactical” nuclear weapons, the U.S. and NATO would likely respond in kind. Even if a major nuclear war could be avoided, resulting political disruptions would likely aggravate ongoing economic dislocation, triggering a serious global recession, even a Great Depression, further feeding the growth of fascism and authoritarianism.
When you build weapons, there’s a temptation to use them. Weapons don’t exist in a vacuum. Within the military, people are trained to use them. Doctrine is developed along with contingency plans. Exercises are run to prepare for deployment and use in wartime, “just in case.” In short, we can’t count on sane heads to prevail here, not when some people seem to think you can use a “little” nuke to send a message.
Fortunately for the world, nuclear weapons haven’t been used in war since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. But they are used daily in the sense of intimidating other countries. Currently, Russia is using its nuclear forces to try to contain US/NATO aid to Ukraine and involvement in the Russia-Ukraine War. Russia is drawing a nuclear red line, and I doubt it’s a bluff.
It’s hypocritical of both the US and Russia to accuse the other of nuclear brinksmanship since both countries have contingency plans to use nukes. Hopefully, it’s obvious to both countries how devastating it would be if a nuclear exchange, even a “limited” or “tactical” one, were to occur.
Even as bluffs, nuclear threats are reckless, since there’s always some fool who may seek to call the bluff. Let’s hope the US/NATO collective doesn’t play the fool. We have enough problems in the world without tossing nuclear warheads of whatever size or yield at each other.
Supporting trillions of dollars “to update and modernize our nuclear arsenal” is akin to advocating for more production of Zyklon B and improved gas chambers.
Incendiary claim? I think not. Like Zyklon B, nuclear weapons are genocidal. They are designed to kill millions; used en masse, they will kill billions. They are ecocidal as well; nuclear weapons with their intense heat and blast and radiation kill virtually everything in their radius. How can anyone who’s sane want more of them?
I happened to catch Kelly Ayotte, a former U.S. senator who’s now the Chair of the Board of Directors for BAE Systems, a major weapons contractor, say that she’s “always” been a strong supporter of updating and modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Of course, she and her company stand to profit from this. But at what cost to life on this planet?
Nevertheless, nuclear “modernization” proceeds apace in the U.S. at an estimated cost of nearly $2 trillion over the next few decades. Is this not the very definition of a murderous insanity?
As Daniel Ellsberg pointed out, U.S. nuclear attacks plans in the early 1960s could have resulted in the death of 600 million people, mainly in China and the Soviet Union. As Ellsberg noted, the U.S. was prepared to launch 100 Holocausts in the name of defending its “ideals.” (And this was before we knew about the dangers of nuclear winter.)
This murderous madness has to stop before we put an end to ourselves and our planet.
We’ll produce new nuclear missiles like so many sausages. But it’s all OK because we need to “update” and “modernize” our (genocidal and ecocidal) nuclear arsenal. Sure makes me proud to be an American.
Addendum: When you think of nuclear weapons as “investments” or as “sensible” (see comments), please consider this scene from “Terminator II.”
What is “sensible” about any of this? Sorry, count me out of “investing” in mass death via nuclear holocaust.
Thirty years ago, I co-taught a course on the making and use of the atomic bomb at the U.S. Air Force Academy. We took cadets to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where the first nuclear weapons were designed and built during World War II, and we also visited the Trinity test site, where the first atomic device exploded in a test conducted in July of 1945. It was after that first test when J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, mused that he had become death, the destroyer of worlds. And that is what nuclear weapons are: they are death, and they can literally destroy our world, producing nuclear winter and mass sickness and starvation.
Over the last two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has killed millions of people across the globe. A general nuclear war could kill billions of people in a matter of days. As Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said in 1963, “The living will envy the dead” after such a nuclear cataclysm.
Despite this, an intellectual fad of the Cold War era was to “think about the unthinkable,” to “war game” or plan for various nuclear “exchanges” resulting in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, even to imagine that there could be a “winner” of such a war. Remarkably, in the context of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, that fad is returning today as pundits write articles that suggest the US needs to show the Russians it is willing and able to fight and win a nuclear war, as an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal argued on April 27th of this year.
Such suggestions are madness.
As a young Air Force lieutenant, I sat in the Missile Warning Center in Cheyenne Mountain during an exercise that simulated a nuclear war. This was 35 years ago, but I still remember those simulated Soviet missile tracks crossing the North Pole and ending in various American cities. There were no snazzy special effects or colorful high-definition computer monitors. It all happened in silence on a monochrome monitor as I sat under two thousand feet of solid granite in America’s largest nuclear bomb shelter. “There goes Kansas City,” somebody quietly said. It was a sobering experience that I’ll never forget.
Many years later, I watched a stunning documentary, The Day After Trinity, that detailed the development of the atomic bomb. I’ll never forget the words of Hans Bethe, legendary physicist and one of the bomb’s key developers. The first reaction among the scientists to the news the bomb had exploded over Hiroshima, Bethe recalled, was a feeling of fulfillment. The crash project to build the bomb had worked. The second reaction was one of shock and awe, of “What have we done,” Bethe quietly noted. And the third reaction: It should never be done again. And after Nagasaki the world somehow managed not to do it again, despite nearly catastrophic events like the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago.
I was raised Roman Catholic, and I can think of no worse crime against humanity than mass murder by genocidal weaponry, not only of ourselves but of all life forms that would be vaporized by thermonuclear warheads. Let’s not think about the unthinkable; let’s not think we must show the Russians (or anyone else) that we’re willing to use nuclear weapons. Rather, let’s achieve the difficult but doable. The only sane course of action here is for all the world’s nations to negotiate major reductions in nuclear arsenals with the eventual goal of total nuclear disarmament.
The U.S. government continues to denounce Putin for “genocidal” war crimes yet continues to persecute journalist Julian Assange for revealing war crimes. Contradiction?
Julian Assange’s persecution really isn’t about Assange anymore. It’s about intimidating other journalists and whistleblowers who’d dare to reveal the crimes of empire committed by the United States.
If I suggest that NATO expansion to the borders of Russia was a provocative move that was almost guaranteed to provoke hostility with Russia, as prominent experts like George Kennan and Henry Kissinger warned us about in the 1990s, does that make me a Putin puppet? Are Kennan and Kissinger retroactive puppets?
If I suggest that sending billions of dollars in weaponry to Ukraine is not in the cause of peace, that more people will die as a result, Ukrainian and Russian, does that make me a Putin puppet?
They say that bipartisanship is dead in Washington, yet why are both parties boosting Pentagon spending and competing with one another on how much weaponry can be sent to Ukraine without provoking nuclear Armageddon? That last part — do we trust the geniuses in Washington to walk that nuclear tightrope?
The Saudis recently made a major $2 billion investment in Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Looks like they’re betting on a Trump victory in 2024. Speaking of Kushner, he gained admittance to Harvard only after his father made a mega-donation to the school. Or maybe it was a MAGA-donation?
I was asked what I thought of Russia’s new offensive in eastern Ukraine. Here was my response:
The short answer is war is war and it’s going to be ugly, especially in cities and other built-up areas.
Of course, there’s new technology like drones and guided missiles, e.g. Javelin and Stinger. Those missiles will make it more difficult for Russia to prevail. I’m guessing the Russians will use more artillery as a way of neutralizing Stinger and Javelin operators. What that means is more destruction, more “collateral damage.” More blood and guts.
I expect the Russians will lean on “combined arms” operations, meaning closer coordination among infantry, tanks, artillery, and airpower. If you just send in tanks without cover, they’re going to get knocked out, which we’ve seen in videos.
What we could see is guerrilla warfare by Ukrainian forces in smashed cities, which is truly terrible for the people of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the U.S. keeps sending weapons in the name of peace …
I also got asked whether Putin would resort to nuclear weapons if the war in Ukraine went poorly for him. Here was my response to that:
Putin won’t use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. He’d have nothing to gain here.
The danger of nuclear weapons arises if the war were to widen outside of Ukraine. For example, if NATO enforced a no-fly zone and started shooting down Russian planes, I could see Putin responding with a tactical nuclear strike against a NATO airbase. That would risk a wider nuclear war, truly a horrifying scenario, which is why those who are calling for NATO escalation and direct involvement in the war are being irresponsible.
Of course, “irresponsible” is putting it mildly. “Batshit crazy” is more like it.
If more of America’s politicians were historians, or indeed almost any profession other than “lawyer,” would we see a bit more care and humility in their words and deeds? Sophistry, cleverness with words, fancy rhetoric, and blatant hypocrisy may play well in court when it’s all backed up by money, and lots of it, but it doesn’t necessarily play well on the battlefield. If lawyer-speak and lies won wars, America would be undefeated. (With apologies to principled lawyers everywhere who know the value of personal integrity and who fight for justice.)
“Dream it true” is a slogan I see in ads today in America. MLK had a dream, but he sure worked hard to put it in motion, and for all his work he paid for it with his life. Meanwhile, the dream still isn’t true, which isn’t the fault of MLK, who gave his life for his dream of a better America.
People may think Greta Thunberg is being overly dramatic here in her speech about climate change and the empty words of elite powerbrokers, but I think these are the sanest words I’ve ever heard.
Did you know the USA plans to “invest” $2 trillion in new nuclear weapons over the next 30-50 years? Imagine what $2 trillion could do if focused on green energy and a greener, cleaner environment. More nukes, or cleaner water and air: which should we be investing in? Hmm … I wonder.
Despite the possibility that what a deranged Vladimir Putin planned as a small war against Ukraine could morph into a nuclear catastrophe capable of engulfing us all, the United States is still the most warlike nation on earth.
Wars don’t come cheap these days, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the only truly non-partisan issue in Congress is the Pentagon budget. Democrats and Republicans alike, neither of whom expect to get shot at, vie with one another to show how resolute they are in keeping America strong no matter what the cost, even in human lives, though preferably those of foreigners.
The Pentagon budget, now creeping toward $800 billion, is more than three times that of China, our closest rival, a country that had the effrontery to build an aircraft carrier of its very own to challenge our eleven. The generosity of Congress enriches people who in the 1930s were stigmatized as “merchants of death,” but the latter have since learned the value of public relations. America’s military-industrial complex, as might be expected, led the way in recruiting the very best PR talent. The war to liberate Kuwait (Desert Storm) came to us thanks in part to the creativity of Hill & Knowlton (known in the trade as the Torture Lobby). Wars have persisted even as critical domestic problems continue to go unaddressed, such as American school children suffering brain damage due to lead-contaminated drinking water.
There is something immoral about all this. To be fair, the Catholic Church in the United States, for which morality is presumed to be a major concern despite some very public failings, does take notice of war now and then. Or rather it used to. It hasn’t done so lately.
The United States Council of Catholic Bishops meets twice a year, which you’d think would give a troubled bishop the opportunity to call into question the morality of much of what our armed forces have been up to. But you’d think wrong. Successive cliques of ill-educated, narrow-focused reactionaries—Burke, Gomez, Lori, Cordileone, Kurtz, and Dolan the most prominent among the current crop—have succeeded in keeping the topic of war off the agenda for more than thirty years. Nor have they seemed to have had much trouble doing so.
Recently, however, two bishops have spoken up in their own dioceses. Bishop Stowe of Lexington and Archbishop Wester of Santa Fe have pleasantly surprised Catholics like me by issuing pastoral letters calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, my pleasure is diminished by the realization that such efforts, however welcome, will do little to stave off a nuclear Armageddon after which, in the words of Nikita Khrushchev, the living will envy the dead.
The Vatican—even during the imperious reign of John Paul II, whose attention was fixed upon restoring freedom to his native land (which is now on the road to dictatorship)—has been forever calling for nuclear disarmament. But how has it called? In what tone of voice? That’s the key question.
Forty years ago, and far too long after the nuclear massacres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—atrocities that the Catholic Church in America, like its government, has yet to condemn—the bishops of the United States, prodded, I’m sure, by Ronald Reagan’s missile-rattling rhetoric, surprised everybody by announcing that they were going to prepare a pastoral letter on war.
The deliberations of the committee, headed by Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, got off on the wrong foot when Bernardin was forced to announce at the first meeting that they were by no means to condemn the possession of nuclear weapons, an edict from Rome that slammed the door in the face of the Holy Spirit, whose guidance they presumably would be imploring.
But the bishops labored on and brought forth “The Challenge of Peace.” It was a good but compromised document. Not compromised enough, however, for John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. After the first draft was scrutinized in Rome, Bernardin and Archbishop John Roach, chairman of the U.S. Council of Bishops, were called on the carpet in Rome to defend it to the “NATO bishops” (a Vatican dicastery previously unknown to me), who were more concerned about a Soviet armor thrust through the Fulda Gap than anything that Jesus might have said.
Bernardin and Roach duly met with their critics, and the NATO bishops came away content. The concessions were major. One, for example, was purging a declaration of “no first use” of nuclear weapons in response to an attack with conventional weapons. The first draft had not done anything quite so bold. It merely proposed that any circumstances in which a first use would be morally acceptable would be difficult to imagine. Well: Ratzinger and the NATO bishops had no problem imagining one.
When the final version of The Challenge of Peace came out in May of 1983, the Pentagon, which had been a bit worried, and hawks everywhere—especially devout Catholic hawks like William F. Buckley Jr—breathed a sigh of relief. It was obvious to all who cared to read it that the bishops had waffled. With all due modesty—well, some anyway—the title of a subsequent article of mine in Commonweal, “Sidestepping The Challenge of Peace,” summed it up. (Commonweal disagreed with me, and still does, but that’s another story.)
Whatever the case, the Peace Pastoral is gone and forgotten, a failure that casts a pall to this day over subsequent (and toothless) Vatican statements on how nice peace is and how bad war is.
What do I want the Church to do? Let me quote somebody else, somebody who answered that question far better than I ever could.
In 1948 the Dominicans of Paris invited Albert Camus to address them about what he and other non-believers wanted to hear from the Catholic Church in the wake of the horrors of World War II, their hope being that they could unite to confront the horrors that yet impended.
Camus, who described himself and others like him as “isolated individuals,” was quite willing to challenge the Church. He did not share the beliefs of the Dominicans, he said, but neither did he dismiss them. He recounted how during the war he, even as a non-believer, had looked to Rome. He wanted to hear a “great voice” raised to condemn the monstrous evil of the war, but he failed to hear it. There were those who said that they had heard it, but what little the world heard from Rome was the Church speaking in what he dismissed, not without cause, as its “encyclical voice,” a form of speech that was prolix, abstract, and devoid of inspiration for all those not attuned to it. (The word “Jew,” incidentally, did not make the cut.)
The Dominicans wanted to know what the world expects of Christians. He gave them his answer:
What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out loud and clear and proclaim their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. Christians must get away from abstraction and confront the bloodstained face that history has taken on today.
And what happens, Camus went on to ask, if Christianity doesn’t rise to the challenge? And here Camus shows a prescience that eludes the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. For it was a question quite pertinent to our own era, marked as it is by empty churches and tepid bishops.
If Christianity does turn away from the challenge, Camus told the Dominicans,
Christianity will lose once and for all the virtue of revolt and indignation that belonged to it long ago. In that case self-proclaimed Christians may still be among us, but Christianity itself will die, and world will suffer greatly for its loss.
In the spirit of Camus, here’s my recommendations. However reluctant our bishops might be to confront the blood-stained face of history, they could make a start by talking to people who know more than they do and have experienced more than they have.
In his book The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg, working for RAND, tells how he was shocked to see an unguarded fighter plane on the tarmac armed with a nuclear bomb. (This was more than 60 years ago, but even today nuclear surety remains less than sure.). A drunken pilot could jump into the cockpit and be off to Beijing to set off World War III just like that. In any case, Ellsberg took the opportunity to place his hand on the bomb and feel the heat of radiation. I’m sure he would be happy to share his feelings at the next USCCB conference if invited.
Then there’s Bishop Botean, who leads the Romanian eastern rite Church in the United States. He’s the only Catholic bishop who issued a letter condemning the Iraq invasion, calling it an unjust war in which Catholics may in nowise participate. If the USCCB was willing to hear what he had to say, it would give some of the disgruntled brethren an opportunity to ask what prompted him to be such a spoilsport.
There’s also Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel and veteran of the Vietnam war, who is the head of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He’s a conservative Catholic who is a severe critic of American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.
Finally, Archbishop Wester had the grace to praise the late Sr. Megan Rice who appeared on the front page of the New York Times after, at age 82, invading the Holy of Holies of nuclear weaponry in Oakridge, Tennessee. The USCCB could follow up on the incredible feat that she and her two companions carried off by recognizing and commending the Plowshares Movement, founded by the Berrigans, a group of heroic men and women who have borne witness against nuclear weapons and suffered greatly for it. They have heeded Jesus’ command to shout what he taught them from the rooftops, instead of keeping their mouths shut about anything that might disturb major donors. (Those big churches and episcopal palaces aren’t going to maintain themselves!)
The bishops have much to learn from talking to people like the ones I’ve listed here. They might even learn to denounce the abomination of genocidal nuclear weapons—and especially any idea that a “first use” policy of the same is in any way morally defensible.
Michael Gallagher served as a paratrooper during the Korean War. His book on Catholic activists, Laws of Heaven, won the National Jesuit Book Award in theology, and his translation of Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow was a finalist for a National Book Award.
Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is making a comeback as the Pentagon hypes a new Cold War with China and Russia. Threat inflation is a big part of this “new” war, just as it was in the old one. So too is greed. There’s much money to be made (a trillion or more dollars, perhaps) in building new nuclear missiles and bombers, even though these weapons represent incipient holocausts.
We need to stop this MADness. There is no need for a new Cold War, and there is no need for new nuclear weapons, weapons that could very well destroy human civilization and most of life on our planet.
This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch.com. What follows is an excerpt. I encourage you to read the article in its entirety here.
Only Fools Replay Doomsday
In the early 1960s, at the height of America’s original Cold War with the Soviet Union, my old service branch, the Air Force, sought to build 10,000 land-based nuclear missiles. These were intended to augment the hundreds of nuclear bombers it already had, like the B-52s featured so memorably in the movie Dr. Strangelove. Predictably, massive future overkill was justified in the name of “deterrence,” though the nuclear war plan in force back then was more about obliteration. It featured a devastating attack on the Soviet Union and communist China that would kill an estimated 600 million people in six months (the equivalent of 100 Holocausts, notes Daniel Ellsberg in his book, The Doomsday Machine). Slightly saner heads finally prevailed — in the sense that the Air Force eventually got “only” 1,000 of those Minuteman nuclear missiles.
Despite the strategic arms limitation talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the dire threat of nuclear Armageddon persisted, reaching a fresh peak in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. At the time, he memorably declared the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire,” while nuclear-capable Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles were rushed to Europe. At that same moment, more than a few Europeans, joined by some Americans, took to the streets, calling for a nuclear freeze— an end to new nuclear weapons and the destabilizing deployment of the ones that already existed. If only…
It was in this heady environment that, in uniform, I found myself working in the ultimate nuclear redoubt of the Cold War. I was under 2,000 feet of solid granite in a North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) command post built into Cheyenne Mountain at the southern end of the Colorado front range that includes Pikes Peak. When off-duty, I used to hike up a trail that put me roughly level with the top of Cheyenne Mountain. There, I saw it from a fresh perspective, with all its antennas blinking, ready to receive and relay warnings and commands that could have ended in my annihilation in a Soviet first strike or retaliatory counterstrike.
Yet, to be honest, I didn’t give much thought to the possibility of Armageddon. As a young Air Force lieutenant, I was caught up in the minuscule role I was playing in an unimaginably powerful military machine. And as a hiker out of uniform, I would always do my best to enjoy the bracing air, the bright sunshine, and the deep blue skies as I climbed near the timberline in those Colorado mountains. Surrounded by such natural grandeur, I chose not to give more than a moment’s thought to the nightmarish idea that I might be standing at ground zero of the opening act of World War III. Because there was one thing I knew with certainty: if the next war went nuclear, whether I was on-duty under the mountain or off-duty hiking nearby, I was certainly going to be dead.
Then came 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was over! America had won! Rather than nightmares of the Red Storm Rising sort that novelist Tom Clancy had imagined or Hollywood’s Red Dawn in which there was an actual communist invasion of this country, we could now dream of “peace dividends,” of America becoming a normal country in normal times.
It was, as the phrase went, “morning again in America” — or, at least, it could have been. Yet here I sit, 30 years later, at sea level rather than near the timberline, stunned by the resurgence of a twenty-first-century version of anticommunist hysteria and at the idea of a new cold war with Russia, the rump version of the Soviet Union of my younger days, joined by an emerging China, both still ostensibly conspiring to endanger our national security, or so experts in and out of the Pentagon tell us.
Excuse me while my youthful 28-year-old self asks my cranky 58-year-old self a few questions: What the hell happened? Dammit, we won the Cold War three decades ago. Decisively so! How, then, could we have allowed a new one to emerge? Why would any sane nation want to refight a war that it had already won at enormous cost? Who in their right mind would want to hit the “replay” button on such a costly, potentially cataclysmic strategic paradigm as deterrence through MAD, or mutually assured destruction?
Last night, I got outside with my camera and took this shot of the moon.
It reminded me of one of my “genius” moments as a kid. In the playground, I recall looking up at the moon in the daytime. What is that thing, I asked myself. See, I associated the moon with the nighttime sky; I didn’t know it came out in the daytime as well. So what was that strange object in the daytime sky? Tapping into my little kid brain, I guessed I was seeing a reflection of the earth.
I don’t know when I got sorted out on this. Maybe my older brother, the amateur astronomer with the Tasco telescope, straightened me out. Still, given the way things are going on this earth of ours, we could use a smaller earth close by to escape to. I had one as a kid, if only in my imagination.
I’m still amazed that we went to the moon in 1969, more than a half century ago, and we haven’t gone further into space since. Sure, our probes have, and remarkably so, but I’m astonished that humans haven’t yet been to Mars, a difficult but achievable mission. In “2001: A Space Odyssey,” humanity was already visiting Jupiter and witnessing the birth of the star-child twenty years ago! Obviously, 2001 should have been 2101. Maybe in 80 years we’ll visit the outer planets, assuming we haven’t nuked ourselves back to the Stone Age.
For some reason, I was thinking of the movie “Planet of the Apes” yesterday and its jaw-dropping ending. In the U.S., we seem far more intent on building new nukes than exploring space. We have a mania for destruction, a mania for weapons and wars, thus the ending words of Charlton Heston in that movie were and remain all too appropriate and haunting.
I wish we had a shadow earth, an unspoiled one sitting in the sky, shining down on kids in playgrounds across the world. But we don’t, so we had better wise up and take better care of this one. Unless you want Charlton Heston cursing you out.
Imagine you’re a parent with a difficult son. You send him to the most expensive schools, you give him prodigious sums of money, but when Johnny comes home from school with his report card, you see he got an “F” in Afghanistan, an “F” in Iraq, and an “F” in Libya, among other “classes.” Projects he’s working on, like the F-35 jet fighter or Ford-class carriers, are also proving to be expensive failures. Even in deportment he’s receiving an “F,” with the teachers telling you he’s prone to bullying his fellow students as he boasts of being the most exceptional student in the world.
How would you handle Johnny? Well, our collective Johnny is the Pentagon and the National Security State, and our government’s way of handling him is to shove more money his way, another $24 billion or so, with more promised in the future.
Is it any wonder why Johnny Pentagon never changes its behavior?
That’s the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch.com. Here’s the first half of the article; please go to TomDispatch.com to read the rest. Many thanks!
William Astore, A Bright Future for Weapons and War
Yoda, the Jedi Master in the Star Wars films, once pointed out that the future is all too difficult to see and it’s hard to deny his insight. Yet I’d argue that, when it comes to the U.S. military and its wars, Yoda was just plain wrong. That part of the future is all too easy to imagine. It involves, you won’t be shocked to know, more budget-busting weaponry for the Pentagon and more military meddling across the globe, perhaps this time against “near-peer” rivals China and Russia, and a global war on terror that will never end. What’s even easier to see is that peace will be given no chance at all. Why? Because it’s just not in the interests of America’s deeply influential military-congressional-industrial complex.
When that vast complex, which President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about six decades ago, comes to my mind, I can’t help thinking of a song from the last years of the then seemingly endless Cold War. (How typical, by the way, that when the Soviet Union finally imploded in 1991, it barely affected Pentagon funding.)
“The future’s so bright (I gotta wear shades)” was that 1986 song’s title. And I always wonder whether that future could indeed be nuclear-war bright, given our military’s affection for such weaponry. I once heard the saying, “The [nuclear] triad is not the Trinity,” which resonated with me given my Catholic upbringing. Still, it’s apparently holy enough at the Pentagon or why would the high command there already be planning to fund the so-called modernization of the American nuclear arsenal to the tune of at least $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years? Given this nation’s actual needs, that figure blows me away (though not literally, I hope).
What is that “triad” the complex treats as a holy trinity? It consists of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs; nuclear-weapons-capable bombers like the B-1, B-2, and the venerable B-52; and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs. Given our present vast nuclear arsenal, there’s no strategic need for building new ICBMs at a price beyond compare. In fact, as the most vulnerable “leg” of the triad, the ones the Air Force currently has should be decommissioned.
Nor is there a strategic need for an ultra-expensive new bomber like the Air Force’s proposed B-21 Raider (basically, an updated version of the B-2 Spirit “stealth” bomber that’s most frequently used these days for flyovers at big college and Super Bowl football games). America’s Ohio-class nuclear submarines that still wander the world’s oceans armed with Trident missiles are more than capable of “deterring” any conceivable opponent into the distant future, even if they also offer humanity a solid shot at wholesale suicide via a future nuclear winter. But reason not the need, as Shakespeare once had King Lear say. Focus instead on the profits to be made (he might have added, had he lived in our time and our land) by building “modernized” nukes.
As my old service, the Air Force, clamors for new nuclear missiles and bombers, there’s also the persistent quest for yet more fighter jets, including overpriced, distinctly underperforming ones like the F-35, the “Ferrari” of fighter planes according to the Air Force chief of staff. If the military gets all the F-35s it wants, add another $1.7 trillion to the cost of national “defense.” At the same time, that service is seeking a new, “lower-cost” (but don’t count on it) multirole fighter — what the F-35 was supposed to be once upon a time — even as it pursues the idea of a “6th-generation” fighter even more advanced (read: pricier) than 5th-generation models like the F-22 and F-35.
I could go on similarly about the Navy (more Ford-class aircraft carriers and new nuclear-armed submarines) or the Army (modernized Abrams tanks; a new infantry fighting vehicle), but you get the idea. If Congress and the president keep shoveling trillions of dollars down the military’s gullet and those of its camp followers (otherwise known as “defense” contractors), count on one thing: they’ll find ever newer ways of spending that dough on anything from space weaponry to robot “companions.”
Indeed, I asked a friend who’s still intimate with the military-industrial complex what’s up with its dreams and schemes. The military’s latest Joint Warfighting Concept, he told me, “is all about building Systems of Systems based in AI [artificial intelligence] and quantum computing.” Then he added: “All it will do is give us more sophisticated ways to lose wars.” (You can see why he’s my friend.) The point is that AI and quantum computing sound futuristically super-sexy, which is why they’ll doubtless be used to justify super-expensive future budgetary requests by the Pentagon.
In that context, don’t you find it staggering how much the military spent in Afghanistan fighting and losing all too modernistically to small, under-armed units of the Taliban? Two trillion-plus dollars to wage a counterinsurgency campaign that failed dismally. Imagine if, in the next decade or two, the U.S. truly had to fight a near-peer rival like China. Even if the U.S. military somehow won the battles, this nation would undoubtedly collapse into bankruptcy and financial ruin (and it would be a catastrophe for the whole endangered planet of ours). It could get so bad that even Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk might have to pay higher taxes, if, that is, they haven’t already slipped the surly bonds of Earth to mingle with the twinkling stars.
If America’s post-9/11 war-on-terror military spending, including for the Afghan and Iraq wars, has indeed reached the unimaginable sum of $8 trillion, as Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates, imagine how much a real war, a “conventional” war, featuring the air force, the fleet, big battalions, and major battles, would cost this country. Again, the mind (mine at least) boggles at the prospect. Which is not to say that the U.S. military won’t fight for every penny so that it’s over-prepared to wage just such a war (and worse).
The idea that this country faces a perilous new cold war that could grow hot at any moment, this time with China, crops up in unusual places. Consider this passage by Dexter Filkins, a well-known war reporter, that appeared recently in the New Yorker:
“We’ve spent decades fighting asymmetrical wars, but now there’s a symmetrical one looming. The United States has never faced an adversary of China’s power: China’s G.D.P. is, by some measures, greater than ours, its active-duty military is larger than ours, and its weapon systems are rapidly expanding. China appears determined to challenge the status quo, not just the territorial one but the scaffolding of international laws that govern much of the world’s diplomatic and economic relations. If two forever wars are finally coming to an end, a new Cold War may await.”
A new war is “looming.” Our adversary has more money and more troops than us and is seeking better weaponry. Its leadership wants to challenge a “status quo” (that favors America) and international laws (which this country already routinely breaks when our leaders feel in the mood).
Why are so many otherwise sane people, including Joe Biden’s foreign policy team, already rattling sabers in preparation for a new faceoff with China, one that would be eminently avoidable with judicious diplomacy and an urge to cooperate on this embattled planet of ours?
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?