The Threat of Nuclear Weapons to America

W.J. Astore

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?

nuclear_explosion_AP
On more the one occasion, the U.S. has come close to nuking itself

That last accident is the subject of a PBS American Experience documentary 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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 Times reported,  “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

Atom Bomb Blast

Atom Bomb Blast
Here’s a tip, ladies: Wear light-colored dresses during a nuclear war.  They absorb less heat

Trump: A Worrisome Commander-in-Chief

Trump holds a rally with supporters at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Michigan, U.S.
He doesn’t speak softly, even as he now inherits a very big U.S. military stick. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

W.J. Astore

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.

On Nuclear Weapons, Trump is Nightmarishly Scary

ohio6
An Ohio-class nuclear submarine

W.J. Astore

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.

Ignorance and Dishonesty: Trump, Hillary, and Nuclear Genocide

castle-romeo-573x720
Some honesty, please!

W.J. Astore

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.

Senator Tom Cotton: Bomb Iran — It’s Easy!

A Panel from Tom Tomorrow lampooning Tom Cotton.  Love the R-Lunacy designation!
A panel from Tom Tomorrow lampooning Tom Cotton. Love the R-Lunacy designation!

W.J. Astore

Would a war against Iran take “only a few days“?  According to Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a few days of precision bombing would be enough to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability.  Oh, there might be a few (thousand) innocent Iranians killed.  And perhaps some radiation spread about.  But wouldn’t some dead and irradiated (Iranian) bodies be worth it?

Despite his military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, Senator Cotton is a proponent of imaginary war.  You know, war like in a video game, where you drop bombs on target, witness a few explosions, and then it’s game over, with victory for Play Station America.  When you view war like this, as a game, it’s easier to think of it as “inevitable,” which is precisely the word Cotton uses: War with Iran, he says, is inevitable, so let’s flatten them now before they have nukes.

Let’s consider, for a moment, the worst-case scenario: Iran conspires successfully to gain a nuclear weapon in seven years.  What would Iran do with such a weapon?  Iran would face a regional neighbor, Israel, which possesses roughly 200 nuclear weapons. Iran would face a superpower, the United States, which has more than 2000 active nuclear warheads with another 3000 or so in reserve.  Any use of nuclear weapons by Iran would lead to overwhelming retaliation by Israel and/or the United States, so it’s extremely unlikely that Iran would ever use such weapons, unless Iran itself was faced by invasion and destruction.

And there’s the rub.  Relatively weak countries like Iran know that acquiring WMD is a potential game-changer, in the sense that such weapons can deter aggression by the United States.  An Iran with a nuclear weapon is a country that’s less easy for the U.S. to bully.  And Iran has regional rivals (India, Pakistan, and of course Israel) that already possess nuclear arsenals.

Look at what happened to Gaddafi in Libya.  He gave up his WMD (chemical weapons and nerve agents) and the next thing he knew he was being overthrown by a U.S.-led coalition.  We came, we saw, he died, cackled Hillary Clinton.  But would “we” have come if Gaddafi could have threatened a coalition with WMD?

(This is not an argument for WMD or for nuclear proliferation.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, I’d like to see the complete elimination of nuclear weapons on our planet.  They are genocidal weapons, pure and simple.)

It’s all well and good for the U.S. and its partners to work to eliminate any chance of Iran acquiring nukes, but the U.S. needs to go one giant leap further and work to eliminate all nuclear weapons everywhere.  If we did that, maybe Iran wouldn’t want one so much.

In the meantime, Senator Cotton needs to stop imagining how clean and simple it would be to destroy Iran’s nuclear program.  Dropping lots of bombs on Iran while hoping for an imaginary “happy ending” for the U.S. is more than facile thinking.  It’s lunacy.

Update (4/17/15): After I wrote this, I came across Jon Schwarz’s “Seven Things You Didn’t Know the U.S. and its Allies Did to Iran” at The Intercept.  Schwarz also makes the point about the Iranian desire for a nuke as a deterrent against U.S. aggression, and he notes other prominent American leaders who’ve threatened Iran with bombing and/or obliteration.  From his article:

U.S. leaders have repeatedly threatened to outright destroy Iran

It’s not just John McCain singing “bomb bomb bomb Iran.” Admiral William Fallon, who retired as head of CENTCOM in 2008, said about Iran: “These guys are ants. When the time comes, you crush them.” Admiral James Lyons Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in the 1980s, has said we were prepared to “drill them back to the fourth century.” Richard Armitage, then assistant secretary of defense, explained that we considered whether to “completely obliterate Iran.” Billionaire and GOP kingmaker Sheldon Adelson advocates an unprovoked nuclear attack on Iran — “in the middle of the desert” at first, then possibly moving on to places with more people.

Most seriously, the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review declared that we will not use nuclear weapons “against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” There’s only one non-nuclear country that’s plausibly not in this category. So we were saying we will never use nuclear weapons against any country that doesn’t have them already — with a single exception, Iran. Understandably, Iran found having a nuclear target painted on it pretty upsetting.”

The Nuclear Triad Is Not the Holy Trinity

An Ohio-Class Submarine, armed with Trident nuclear missiles
An Ohio-Class Submarine, armed with Trident nuclear missiles

W.J. Astore

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.

 

What Americans Value

There's no shortage of tanks in the USA
There’s no shortage of tanks in the USA

W.J. Astore

A sentiment attributed to Vice President Joe Biden is, Show me what’s in your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.  These words resonate with me whenever I consider the yearly budget for the Department of Defense (DoD), Homeland Security, the Department of Energy (which handles nuclear weapons), and the various intelligence agencies (roughly 17; that’s why they form a community).

When you add up what we spend on defense, homeland security, “overseas contingency operations” (wars), nuclear weapons, and intelligence and surveillance operations, the sum approaches $750 billion dollars each and every year, consuming more than two-thirds of the federal government’s discretionary spending.

Here are some figures for Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15):

Defense: “Base” budget of $496 billion

Afghan War (not part of “defense”): $85 billion

VA: $65 billion

Homeland Security: $38 billion

Nuclear Weapons: $12 billion

FBI and Cyber Security (part of Justice Department budget): $18 billion

Total: $714 billion

Some of the budget of the State Department and for foreign aid supports weapons and training (“foreign military sales”), bringing us to roughly three-quarters of a trillion dollars, each and every year, on the military, intelligence, security, weapons, and wars.

How much do we spend at the federal level on education, interior, and transportation?  Roughly $95 billion.

When a government spends almost eight times as much on its military, security, wars, weapons, and the like as it does on educating its youth, fixing its roads and bridges and related infrastructure, and maintaining its national parks and land, is there any question what that country ultimately values?

Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.  Sobering words. Sobering — and scary.

Technology and the Role of Scientists and Engineers in Society

Earth as seen from orbit by Apollo 11 in 1969
Earth as seen from orbit by Apollo 11 in 1969

W.J. Astore

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote the following paper for a class in the history of technology.  Back then, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and acid rain as well as global warming were issues highlighting the drawbacks of technology.  CFCs were damaging the ozone layer, acid rain was poisoning our lakes and streams and damaging trees, with the buildup of greenhouse gases looming as a future threat.  The future is now, of course, since we’ve done virtually nothing to address global warming.  If anything, the debate in 1989 was far more sober, since back then there were no “climate change deniers.”

Written at the tail end of the Cold War, my paper from 1989 is colored by the threat of nuclear annihilation, another threat (like acid rain and CFCs) that has abated in the last two decades.  Reason for hope, perhaps?

Yet in those 25 years, technology has only proliferated even as compassion for those less fortunate has declined.  I wrote this paper before there was an Internet and World Wide Web, before cell phones and smart phones became ubiquitous, before we had so much conclusive evidence of the dangers of man-accelerated global warming.  I was attempting to argue that scientists and engineers had an obligation to consider the larger impact of their work, to include the moral implications of their research.

I’ve made one major change to this paper as written 25 years ago.  Back then, I concluded with the idea that an ethics based on Christianity needed to inform the work of scientists and engineers.  Today, this argument seems far too parochial and limiting, so I have removed it.

Technology and the Role of Scientists and Engineers in Modern Society (1989)

What is the proper role of scientists and engineers in modern society?  This question is especially relevant today, as can readily be confirmed by opening the September 1989 special issue of Scientific American entitled “Managing Planet Earth.”  Technology, it seems, has spawned many monsters: chlorofluorocarbons that tear holes in our protective ozone shield, factory smoke that turns our rain acidic, carbon dioxide that threatens to convert our planet into one big greenhouse.  The contributors to Scientific American assert that humanity must regain control over technology before its monsters inflict irreparable damage to the earth.

Defenders of technology, not surprisingly, advance the opposite thesis.  Samuel Florman, an engineer and the author of Blaming Technology, counters that “technology is still very much under society’s control, that it is in fact an expression of our very human desires, fancies, and fears.”  In Florman’s opinion, engineers should dedicate themselves to doing works for the good of society, but they should not try to define what is good for society.  Their mission, Florman holds, is to achieve rather than to set society’s goals.

Florman does not exonerate engineers from all responsibility, however.  He asserts that engineers must be guided by their individual consciences, but he also suggests that society should not expect any “special compassion” from its engineers.  In fact he implies that society must resign itself to emotionally-detached engineers: “If we accept the single-minded dedication of ballet dancers and other artists,” Florman analogizes, “we should be able to accept, however regretfully, the same characteristic in a number of scientists and engineers.”

But a serious flaw lies at the heart of Florman’s plea for the sanctity of the engineering profession.   He disregards the vastly different societal roles of artists versus scientists and engineers, as well as the serious dangers of a powerful technical elite.  The philosopher Hannah Arendt noted these dangers in the context of atomic experimentation:

     The simple fact that physicists split the atom without any hesitations … although they realized full well the enormous destructive potentialities … demonstrates that the scientist qua scientist does not even care about the survival of the human race on earth or, for that matter, about the survival of the planet itself.

Arendt makes an important point here.  Scientists and engineers sometimes pursue their interests even when they threaten the survival of humanity (or themselves for that matter).  Evidence from the Manhattan Project lends credibility to this argument.  Most scientists who worked on the project were too caught up in the technical challenges of building the atomic bomb to entertain moral qualms about the bomb’s purpose.  Robert R.  Wilson, the leader of the cyclotron group during the Project, observed that he never considered quitting:

We were the heroes of our epic, and there was no turning back.  We were working on a problem to which we were completely committed; there was little time to re-examine our moral position from day to day.

The atomic bomb was the grail for these knights of science; they focused on their pursuit and little else.  Perhaps they believed they could wash their hands clean of the stains of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for they neither made the decision to drop the bombs nor did they pilot the planes.  Yet they could not deny that it was their expertise that brought humanity to the brink of its own destruction during the Cold War.

So what does our nuclear heritage teach us?  It teaches us that humanity needs a more humane technology and more humane engineers.  In sum, we need a new purpose for technology, one that is inspired by social and humanitarian concerns.

Jules Verne captured the risk of failing to do so.  “If men go on inventing machinery, they’ll end by being swallowed up by their own inventions,” Verne prophesized.  There are still some people, however, who continue to believe that technological advances themselves will eliminate technology’s harms.   Charles F. Kettering, a remarkably inventive General Motor’s executive and a quintessential company man, captured this idea.  In Paul de Kruif’s words, Kettering felt that

You cannot put the brakes on any discovery … you’ve got to go on with it even if we’re all blown to hell with it.  What you should do is step up the study of human nature, you may even find a chemical, a vitamin, a hormone, a simple pill to take the devil out of human nature….

Here one cannot help but be reminded of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where another automotive engineer, Henry Ford, was god, morality was but a faint memory, and drugs were the panacea for human ills.

Elting Morison, in Men, Machines, and Modern Times (1984), suggests that since technology forces humanity into its categories, humanity has no choice but to create a new culture to accommodate it.  He proposes that a series of small experiments be performed world-wide, with “man as the great criterion” (or, perhaps more accurately, the great guinea pig).  Apparently, a successful experiment will be one in which humans thrive, while an unsuccessful one will be one where humans “break down.”  Rather oddly, Morison believes the military provides us with the paradigm of how to proceed.  In his words:

They [the military] have the nuclear weapon that has fulfilled the exaggerated extreme toward which the system always tends … But for practical purposes they have created around this extreme a whole arsenal of carefully graded instruments of limited destruction – old-fashioned armaments of lesser power and new weapons of modulated nuclear energy.

It’s shocking how Morison waxes nostalgic over those “old-fashioned” weapons, and his addition of “modulation” to atomic bombs makes them seem downright cozy.  As George Orwell observed in his famous 1946 essay entitled Politics and the English Language, “such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”   Thus cluster bombs that send shrieking hunks of shrapnel through the air, napalm that sears lungs and burns human skin, and atomic artillery shells that annihilate armies (but not cities, we hope) become, for Morison, “modest examples of how to begin to proceed.”

A more pessimistic prospectus for the future of technology is held by Arnold Pacey in The Maze of Ingenuity (1980).  For Pacey, history reveals that technology cannot “easily accommodate the broad aims and the mixture of human and technical factors which a socially-orientated direction of progress in technology … require[s].  Thus the efforts made to encourage a more directly social form of technical progress … have been relatively ineffective.”

Pacey attributes this failure to the dominance of the mechanical world view.  Beginning with Galileo, Pacey maintains, scientists and engineers restricted their own view of the world, blinding themselves to the larger purposes of technology.

Pacey does more than lament, though.  He offers several potential solutions, all of which seem flawed.  He assumes that new, less destructive, technologies are needed to meet human needs, or to ease poverty, yet the world currently has enough resources to end poverty, and present technology could doubtless be used more constructively.  Pacey also unconsciously undermines his argument by citing education and medical care as “examples of how continuous improvement is possible without any large accompanying drain on material resources.”  Unfortunately for Pacey, both education and medical care are currently (and rightly) under siege in this country.  Despite large sums of money spent and countless reform proposals, education remains mediocre, while medical care remains compassionless and costly.

No wonder Pacey despairs.  He half-heartedly mentions other potential balms, e.g. critical science, which pursues “careful, rigorous researches into the relationship between technical innovation, nature and society,” and general systems theory, yet it is unclear from reading Pacey how critical science differs from general systems theory.   In the end, Pacey supplies the reader with little in the way of hope, for he despondently observes that systems theory is corruptible.

In the end, we’re left with today’s dehumanizing technological imperative, as noted by Carlo Cipolla, a noted historian of technology, in this passage:

Each new machine … creates new needs, besides satisfying existing ones, and breeds newer machines.  The new contrivances modify and shape our lives and our thoughts; they affect the arts and philosophy, and they intrude even into our spare time.

To prevent this dominance of the machine, science and technology need to serve social and humanitarian needs more directly.  In “Thinking about Human Extinction,” George Kateb holds that individuals must attach themselves first and foremost to existence.  This attachment “cannot be cultivated by way of a theology that bestows [from the outside] meaning or worth on existence,” and it must be able to withstand “all temptations to go along with policies that may lead to human and natural extinction.”

Existence is justified by a sense of beauty; specifically, Martin Heidegger’s wonderment at the very indefiniteness of existence.  For Kateb, “because there could have been earthly nothingness … one must finally attach oneself to earthly existence, whatever it is, and act to preserve it … [To this end] persons must be schooled in beauty to acquire the disposition to sustain wonder that there is earthly existence rather than none.”  In sum, we must learn to revel in the very fact of humanity’s existence against the longest of cosmic odds.

In a world that grows ever more fragile with each passing day, an appreciation for the fragility of our existence, as well as an abiding compassion for humanity, is exactly what we need from our scientists and engineers.

________________________

Sources in order of citation

Samuel C. Florman, Blaming Technology: The Irrational Search for Scapegoats (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981).

Hannah Arendt, “A Symposium on Space: Has Man’s Conquest of Space Increased or Diminished his Stature?”, The Great Ideas Today 1963 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1963).

Robert R. Wilson, “The Scientists who Made the Atom Bomb,” Science, Conflict and Society (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1969).

Jules Verne, Five Weeks in a Balloon (1862), quoted in James R. Newman, “The History and Present State of Science Fiction,” Science, Conflict and Society (San Francisco: W.H.  Freeman, 1969).

Paul de Kruif, Life Among the Doctors (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), p. 445, quoted in William Leslie, Boss Kettering (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

Elting E. Morison, Men, Machines, and Modern Times (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1966, 1984).

Arnold Pacey, The Maze of Ingenuity: Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology (New York: Holmes/Meier, 1974, 1980).

Carlo M. Cipolla, Clocks and Culture 1300-1700 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978).

George Kateb, “Thinking about Human Extinction: (I) Nietzsche and Heidegger,” Raritan (Fall 1986), pp. 1-28.

Prediction for 2014: War Will Continue to Find A Way

“War is like love; it always finds a way.”  So wrote Bertolt Brecht, and when it comes to American politics and foreign policy in 2014, you can bet on Brecht being right.  There is no major anti-war party in the USA today.  Despite claims to fiscal austerity, Democrats and Republicans fall over themselves to fully fund the Pentagon and its ongoing wars across the globe.  Our misguided involvement in Afghanistan lurches into its thirteenth year with promises that it won’t end until 2024 at the earliest.  The only certainty for 2014 is more dead bodies, more casualties of war, more money wasted.

Barbara Tuchman, a historian who knew how to write for the educated public, was right in pointing out the persistence of folly in history.  A heavily militarized U.S. foreign policy is an illustration of that.  Our country continues to seek global dominance through militarized measures, perhaps because we’ve exported so much of our non-militarized economy to countries having cheaper labor. War and weapons are now are primary export.  That, and our desire for total information dominance that produced all of the abuses that Edward Snowden is revealing.

As we persist in war and weapons and surveillance, we’d do well to recall the words of John Bright, a British statesman who spoke about war and its dangers in the House of Commons in 1854. Here’s what Bright had to say:

“It is a painful and terrible thing to think how easy it is to stir up a nation to war … and you will find that wars are always supported by a class of arguments which, after the war is over, the people find were arguments they should not have listened to.”

When are we going to stop listening to arguments in favor of more wars and more weapons and more infringements of our rights, all justified in the name of “toughness” and “sanity” and “security”?

Sadly, not in 2014.

But if we’re truly looking to make meaningful resolutions for 2014, how about bringing our troops home?  How about building fewer weapons?  How about working to eliminate our nuclear arsenal? How about spying less and trusting more?

There are those that think that pursuing a less militant course is naive.  But what’s truly naive is the idea that constant warfare is consistent with any kind of enlightened democracy.

Let’s work together to ensure my prediction for 2014 is wrong.  Let’s find ways to stir up our nation to pursue peace.

John Bright
John Bright

Fresh Thinking on U.S. National Security Policy

More Athens, Less Sparta
More Athens, Less Sparta

Here, as promised, is what I hope is some fresh thinking.  I also posted this at Huffington Post.

Currently, so-called “fresh” thinking on national security from the Obama administration includes the pivot to Asia, more emphasis on cyberwar and drones, continued expansion of Special Forces, a withdrawal from Afghanistan in super-slow motion, and intervention (sending arms at minimum; troops possibly to follow) in Syria. “Defense” budgets are to remain high, with each service getting its usual assortment of high-priced weapons (most notoriously, the $400 billion devoted to procure the F-35 joint strike fighter for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines).

In other words, it’s pretty much business as usual at the Pentagon.

How about some truly fresh thinking on national security? Here are five ideas that are more visionary than anything our sclerotic and self-absorbed bureaucracy will ever produce:

1. Eliminate nuclear weapons in U.S. military arsenals by the year 2025.

The U.S. remains the only country ever to use nuclear weapons (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). It would send a powerful message to the world if we took the lead in eliminating nuclear weapons from the planet. And we can afford to take this risk. Why? Precisely because of our enormous conventional (non-nuclear) military might. Such a bold step would also help to restore our moral standing in the world.

2. Get out of Afghanistan now.

If the Afghan National Army (ANA) isn’t ready to take charge after a decade of U.S. training and scores of billions of dollars, it never will be. The U.S. effort to train the ANA was always a case of putting the cart before the horse, since you can hardly create a national army where there is no nation. It’s time to cut our losses and leave.

3. Define a new “Good Neighbor” Policy.

Remember when FDR declared a “Good Neighbor” policy to improve relations with Latin American countries? Yes, it was eight decades ago. It’s high time that we reach out again to our immediate neighbors, even the “bad boy” ones like Cuba and Venezuela, rather than wasting resources in faraway places like Afghanistan.

4. Renew the Monroe Doctrine — With A Twist.

Remember the Monroe Doctrine? In the early 19th century, we said “hands off our hemisphere” to the other major powers of the world. Backed up by the power of Britain’s Royal Navy, we helped to keep foreign meddling in the Americas to a minimum (we, of course, filled the gap and did plenty of meddling of our own).

Related to (3) above, we need a new Monroe Doctrine, one in which we vow to keep our hands off of other hemispheres.

It’s time to come home, America. We’ve got plenty of problems to fix here. The kind that can’t be fixed by buying more ultra-expensive jet fighters, unwanted main battle tanks, and superfluous nuclear attack submarines.

5. Put an end to threat inflation. In other words, grow up.

Do we have to react like Chicken Little to every threat, real or unreal? China has a stealth fighter! So? We’ve had them for four decades. China has an aircraft carrier (Russian-built)! And they’re building another one! So? We have 10 carrier task forces and 90 years’ experience operating them. Indeed, our Navy must be ecstatic: Finally a problem we understand!

These are not “threats,” unless you’re trying to justify business as usual at the Pentagon and among major defense contractors.

The same goes for terrorist attacks, whether successful or failed. How long are we supposed to doff our shoes at airport security checkpoints because of the inept “shoe bomber”? Another 10 years? Twenty? Forever?

Most Americans know the world is a dangerous place. But the greatest danger isn’t Chinese stealth fighters or the occasional terrorist attack (however tragic for the victims). The greatest danger is the ongoing erosion of our rights as citizens as we continue to expand the militarization of our society in the name of “safety” and “patriotism.”

America is slowly being turned into an enormous prison in which we meekly acquiesce to being monitored and even “locked down” (for our own safety, naturally). This is not the nation of John Wayne and Gary Cooper that I admired in countless westerns I watched as a boy.

Well, there are my five steps to a better national security policy. As a bonus step (and an obvious one), the U.S. must close Gitmo. The prison there is a blot on our nation’s moral standing in the world, and a cause célèbre for would-be terrorists everywhere.

Finally, and perhaps most of all, we need to change our mentality. We need a much broader definition of what “national security” really means. It’s not about having the biggest military or 16 intelligence agencies or expensive weapons. It’s about living a life worth living in which we respect others.

After all, the U.S. is supposed to be a shining city on a hill, not a bristling citadel on a hill.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached atwjastore@gmail.com.