Gavin Versus Ricks: Why the U.S. Military Keeps Flailing and Failing

By Daniel N. White. Introduction by W.J. Astore.

Why has the U.S. military failed so consistently since World War II?  A popular thesis advanced most notably by Tom Ricks is that today’s military leaders simply aren’t called on the carpet and dismissed for poor performance as in the “greatest generation” era.  But is it that simple?  Should we simply stop coddling generals and cashier a few to encourage the others?  Dan White begs to differ, turning to the writings of two generals, James Gavin and Robin Olds, for support.  White persuasively argues that more firings and ostensibly tougher generals are not necessarily the answer, not when America’s wars are so poorly defined and essentially unwinnable to begin with.  So why does the U.S. military both acquiesce to and persist in waging unwinnable wars for unattainable objectives?  And what does that tell us about America’s approach to and understanding of war?  Read on!  W.J. Astore

A Flailing and Failing Military Has Forgotten the Fundamental Tenets of War 

Daniel N. White 

Tom Ricks, the Washington Post military affairs correspondent, argued in his book The Generals that US military failures in our ongoing and recently past wars are due to a reluctance to relieve commanders for cause.  Ricks tells of how in World War II numerous mid-level and senior officers were relieved for cause—nonperformance of their units on the battlefield.  Under-performing units turned around (every time, Mr. Ricks?) with new commanders and relieved commanders were given second chances that they often succeeded at.  Ricks argues that despite the obvious military failure in our current military ventures, no general officer has yet to be relieved for cause.  According to him, this sea-change in US military policy and practice is what now ails us. 

Ricks, however, fails to look at the overall history of relieving officers in the US military in wartime; thus his conclusions are suspect.  America’s current military failures have little to do with a failure to relieve officers for cause during wartime.  Ricks, like so much of this country’s population at large, its political and media elites in particular, looks no further back in our history than to World War II.  The American obsession with the “good war” fought by the “greatest generation” is a blinding defect that will ultimately kill many more Americans unless we wise up soon. 

Consider World War I, for example.  The US Army in the First World War generally didn’t perform very well on the battlefield.  Yet to my knowledge no studies have been done that affirm that relieving officers for cause improved US battlefield performance.   

Consider the Korean War as well.  The Army performed poorly in the opening stages of the war and was beaten again after the Inchon turnaround at Chosin Reservoir, after which General Matthew Ridgway turned things around and the US Army became a capable fighting force again.  Anyone who wants to argue about how relieving officers for cause is the key to effective performance on the battlefield needs to look at the US Army and its relief of officers in World War I and Korea.  Ricks doesn’t. 

The Retreat from Chosin Reservoir, Korea

Now let’s consider the Vietnam War.  The US Army officer corps was riddled with ticket-punching and widespread personal and professional dishonesty and a wide range of other vices during that war, yet it still managed to relieve officers in the field for cause.  The 1st Infantry Division regularly relieved officers for cause, while other divisions rarely used the practice.  Was there any real difference in the field performance between the two types of divisions?  Ricks doesn’t say. 

A better argument to be made against Ricks’ premise is from General James Gavin, in his war memoirs, On to Berlin (1978).  Gavin and the elite 82nd Airborne Division were sent to the Battle of the Bulge (1944), where they fought alongside the 7th Armored and the 106th Infantry Divisions.  The 7th was an experienced unit whose performance in fighting while badly outnumbered in the first days of the battle is now generally considered an outstanding example of defensive fighting against odds.  The 106th was a green division whose performance Gavin considered as good as could be expected under the circumstances, and whose commanding general gets several favorable mentions from Gavin for his performance in those most difficult circumstances of a green unit being attacked by superior forces. 

These two units led the US defense in the key defensive battle of St. Vith, a battle that didn’t get the press that its less important crossroads battle of Bastogne got, despite its larger importance.  Bernard Montgomery said of these two units’ performance, as they withdrew from their defensive positions they had held for the first week of the battle to new ones further back: “They can come back with all honour.  They come back to the more secure positions.  They put up a wonderful show.”  Gavin quotes the official Army history on Montgomery’s comments on two retreating US Army divisions: “Montgomery showed the ability to honor the fighting men which had endeared him to the hearts of the Desert Rats in North Africa.” 

Gavin further tells of how the commanders of both of these divisions were relieved once they finished their withdrawal to their new positions.  In the case of the CG of the 7th Armored, Gen. Robert Hasbrouck, the orders for his relief were sent at 6:25 on the morning of Dec. 22nd, while the countermanding orders, from the same Corps Commander, were sent to him restoring him to his command of the division the same evening, at 7:00 pm.  The CG of the 106th Inf., Alan W. Jones, wasn’t so lucky and was relieved permanently from his command.   Gavin has this to say about the matter here, and the US Army’s quickness to relieve officers for cause in WWII—which Ricks finds most admirable—here, on p. 258: 

      Once again I was struck by the manner in which the system treats senior officers in combat.  I have a haunting memory that does not diminish with the passage of time of how unfairly and thoughtlessly we treated some of our senior officers.  And I use the word ‘system’ because that is what it is.  It is not a personal matter.  It is something that one has come to expect of senior officers in our Army.  In this case, one is particularly impressed by the manner in which Montgomery congratulated all those who fought at St. Vith for the fine job they did.  We relieved the two senior commanders, although one was restored.  In the situation at Arnhem, in our earlier battle in Holland, the British general lost three-quarters of his command and a battle.  He returned home a hero and was personally decorated by the King. 

There is no doubt that in our system he would have been summarily relieved and sent home in disgrace.  In the case of General Jones and his 106th Division, higher command knew no more about the German plans than he did.  Higher command also knew of his dispositions and approved them.  His leading green regiments were overwhelmed before they could offer much resistance, and there is little that he—or anyone else, for that matter—could have done about it.  Summarily relieving senior officers, it seems to me, makes others pusillanimous and indeed discourages other potential combat leaders from seeking high command.  Again, it is not individuals acting against other individuals—it is not a personal matter–it is the way the system works and is expected to work.  It must be changed.  The shift from peacetime to a war footing and then to battle has a tremendous psychological impact on individuals.  Summarily relieving those who do not appear to measure up in the first shock is not only a luxury that we cannot afford—it is very damaging to the Army as a whole.  We have much to learn from the British about senior command relationships.   

And it is worth bringing to the table peacetime relief of command for cause.  The US military organization most famous for that practice was Strategic Air Command (SAC) in the US Air Force, in its halcyon days of General Curtis LeMay.*  SAC was in its day notorious for a horrific pressure-cooker environment but is nowadays regarded by some as a model of a peacetime military organization at the top of its form—the most highly skilled personnel, running the most technologically advanced weaponry, all ready 24/7/365 at the drop of a hat.

 

General Curtis LeMay, on a Navy ship, ready to observe a nuclear bomb test

SAC awaits a truly critical historian, but whoever it might be will be wise to heed the comments about SAC made by BGen. Robin Olds, an outstanding fighter pilot, a triple-ace, and wartime military leader and commander, in his posthumous memoirs, Fighter Pilot.  Olds was thoroughly dissatisfied with what he saw of SAC in the late 1970s, and wrote in his memoirs, on p. 372, of SAC’s longstanding history of relieving officers from command slots at the drop of a hat:  

Under their (SAC’s) rules, if a wing commander messed even a little bit he was canned and gone forever, so SAC fostered attitudes about how tough they were.  What they really did was make a bunch of liars out of many wing commanders, DM’s, and DO’s.  Guys at wing level were scared people.  They would lie, cheat, steal, and deny—anything to make themselves look good. 

The net result of this over time is described by Olds on p. 374: 

When LeMay scared the hell out of his people, he made some-thing out of them that I don’t think was in their true nature.  He made them cringe and hide the truth.  He made them say,  

’Yes Sir, Yes Sir,’ becoming chronic liars protecting their own skins…A man like that has to have someone working for him that he can dominate and he is invariably going to pick a lesser individual (for promotion) … a big group of guys were developed into people who were afraid to think for themselves.  They damned near destroyed the air force in the process (emphasis  mine)** 

Gavin and Olds versus Ricks on the merits of the US military’s past quickness to relieve commanders.  The choice is yours.  I’m with Gavin and Olds. 

Ricks and his writings on war and the US military deserve more comment than I want to give them here.  Fundamentally Ricks is a fan of the US military and of things military in general.  A fan isn’t an impartial judge of whatever it is they are a fan of.  That’s simply the nature of fandom.  Perhaps Ricks sees himself as a friend of the US military, but fans aren’t true friends, either. 

The worst sort of fans are accurately described by the athletes themselves as crotch sniffs, and that’s a telling turn of phrase.  Ricks is fundamentally a crotch sniff for the US military.  Journalists have mostly (and editors invariably) been a bunch of crotch sniffs for their own country’s militaries and Ricks is no exception. 

There’s unfortunately nothing new about that situation; it has almost always been the case about military/war journalism ever since newspapers were invented.  Anyone wanting to argue otherwise needs to reread Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty (1975), 3rd edition in 2004, still the best book on war reportage.  

A complicating factor is that what most Americans know about war and warfare comes via Hollywood, whether they realize it or not—and most Americans lack the self-perception to realize how much Hollywood/ PR they’ve internalized.   An additional compounding factor is that the military is one of those institutions, like the judiciary, that invariably gets a pass from editors from critical analysis, and from probably the same reasons.  Most journalists simply know little of war or law, and when you combine technical ignorance with institutional sacred cowism you get uncritical coverage.  Ricks to his credit isn’t ignorant; he’s knows a fair amount about the US military and military history.  But Ricks’ strong belief in the goodness and efficacy of the US military dooms his writings to hackwork status, much like the rest of his militarily ignorant journalist colleagues’.***    

Ricks deserves credit for trying to come to grips with why the institution he admires so much has failed so badly against weak opponents like the Iraqis and Afghans.  His is an all too typical American attitude, particularly among conservatives, of harkening back to the glory days of World War II, when America seemed completely right and completely omnipotent.  This belief in America’s goodness in those days is dumb and wrong, yet it’s a belief that’s endemic in this country, and one that shows no signs of ever soon diminishing.     

The reasons for America’s recent military failures are more obvious than Ricks wants to acknowledge.  America simply had (and has) no realistic objective for wars whether in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Both wars had lies as their stated rationales, and nobody has yet explained how any sort of good is supposed to come from wars started by and waged on lies.  What is worse, far, far worse than that, is that both wars lacked any coherent political or military objective, at any time before or during their commission,  and if there is a worse crime or sin in the professions of politics or arms than fighting wars without objective I cannot name it.  I defy anyone else to, either. 

The US military has continued both wars in the face of obvious failures to achieve meaningful goals, despite however many times the political leadership here moved the goalposts.  Persons who remember the Vietnam War, or who bothered to learn anything about it beyond the Rambo cartoons, should be noticing more similarities than dissimilarities in our failed efforts then and our failed efforts now. 

Ricks fails to address how (as have likewise, for decades now, most all others in the media, political world, our moral leadership, and intelligentsia), once again, the US military has saluted smartly while participating in wars in distant lands that required more men in the field and a bigger war effort than they knew they were going to get from the home front.  Once again, senior military leaders willingly involved themselves and their organizations in efforts that they knew from the beginning were almost certain to fail.  They fought wars without realistic war objectives and without adequate resources (most especially, support at home).  This is institutional failure at the highest level, a master class in moral cowardice and corruption.  

Sadly, instead of covering this, most media sites post the usual puff pieces about our noble troops as they fight terrorists in the cause of freedom.  Few people have asked the dreaded question of whether and why our military leaders are willingly participating in odious demi-wars staged largely for domestic political reasons.  The sickness and corruption—moral and professional corruption of the worst sort possible—that this question raises is an issue that fans like Ricks simply cannot comprehend. 

Ricks, who is again a reporter with considerable military knowledge, simply misses the target here.  The US military isn’t flailing and failing because it hasn’t fired enough generals: It’s flailing and failing because it engages in wars that are lost causes to begin with, as well as being illegal and immoral to boot.  Ricks is too much of a military fanboy to see this; so too are most Americans, who continue to salute the troops as heroes without ever questioning their actions in the field.  It is all most discouraging. 

Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.  He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.     

*My favorite story about SAC and its willingness to relieve commanders comes from its earlier days when a B-36 Wing Commander was called on the mat by LeMay for a low level of operational readiness of his aircraft.  The Wingco explained that his squadrons at the base had had a rash of bird strike accidents involving buzzards, and these accidents had caused damage to parts of the airframes that were beyond the capabilities of wing maintenance to repair, and that new airframe parts from Convair were necessary to restore safe airworthiness to the airplanes.  The USAF didn’t have these airframe parts in its inventory, and Convair did not have them as spare parts yet, and Convair was unwilling to interrupt its production schedule for new B-36s by pulling the necessary parts off of its assembly lines and shipping them to his squadrons’ repair shops like he’d asked them to.  LeMay listened and said: “I have neither the time nor inclination to distinguish between the unfortunate and the incompetent.  You are relieved.” 

**SAC was the preeminent branch of the US military during its Cold War salad days.  It had more money than God courtesy of a complacent Congress that gave it everything it wanted and then some.  There is of course nothing to show for all this expenditure; such is always the case for military expenditures.  But this line of Olds is as good an epitaph for SAC as an institution as it is ever going to get.  And SAC, as big and significant an American institution as it was in its day, really needs a good historian to look at it with a critical eye, before everyone involved in it is dead.  Most already are. 

***Anyone who thinks I’m being too hard on Ricks needs to go read his account of the Battle of Fallujah in his first book on the Iraq War, Fiasco.  A truly revolting bit of crotch sniffery towards the jarheads.

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

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W.J. Astore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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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