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International campaign to abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) activists wearing masks to look like US President Donald Trump and North Korean Kim Jong-Un pose next to a Styrofoam effigy of a nuclear bomb while protesting in front of the American Embassy on September 13, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo: Omer Messinger/Getty Images)

On False Alarms and Nuclear Realism

No mathematical model can tell us the likelihood of World War III, but we can say that a genuine realism would suggest negotiations to take weapons off hair-trigger alert.

John Buell

Sometimes life throws a bouquet our way, a little message that could make our lives better if only we scooped it up. The recent mistaken test of Hawaii’s nuclear warning system—complete with the false admonition that “this is not a drill”-- should be an occasion to examine the prevailing “realism” about nuclear weapons. Any time advocates of disarmament argue on behalf of a nuclear free world they are deemed naïve. The realistic posture demands recognition that this is a dangerous world and that our enemies will only respond to power and the threat of massive retaliation in the face of an attack.

This realism leaves unanswered several vital questions. What kind of realism is it that assumes complex technologies always work as advertised? US Navy ships, possessing the most sophisticated navigational instruments, cannot avoid collisions.

CNN recently reported: Naval crashes-- In addition to the USS McCain crash on Monday, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off the coast of Japan in June, the USS Lake Champlain hit a South Korean fishing boat in May and the USS Antietam ran aground off the coast of Japan in January.

CNN’s report inadvertently exposes another important aspect of this story—the complex interactions of sailors, technologies, maintenance, shipboard routines in collisions and/or their avoidance.

Retired Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, a CNN diplomatic and military analyst, said “the Navy's review will look at a number of factors to try to understand whether there's a systemic problem. They'll look at the quality of leadership at all levels, the amount and the quality of training that commanders have been able to get done, shipboard watch-standing procedures and qualifications, and system and equipment readiness.”

If avoiding collisions at sea requires more than a technology fix how much more of a challenge is the safe management and deployment of nuclear weapons? In his work on nuclear accidents, Eric Schlosser points out the contradictory imperatives faced by weapons makers and their handlers. The weapons must be fired quickly when necessary yet they must also never be fired inappropriately. Experts call this the always/never problem. Usually progress on one front entails a loss on the other.

The same dilemma is likely in play with respect to the Hawaii missile warning system. Emergency management specialists want it to be sensitive and fast enough to provide timely warnings yet able to be recalled or verified quickly enough to avoid false alarms.

Any solution to those problems will have to be embedded in chips. One IT specialist confidently points out that in Hawaii now a second person has to sign off on sending an alarm, while cancelling them will be easier. But as the editors of Naked Capitalism remind us “this report comes amid a seemingly unending level of reports of software and hardware screw-ups. For instance, Finnish researchers have found yet another Intel security hole, with the saving grace that this one affects only laptops.”

How is it that nuclear systems have avoided catastrophic accident so far? The short answer is that numerous accidents have occurred, but fortunately these have not involved the detonation of a nuclear bomb. Perhaps the most important reason there is too little discussion of nuclear risks is the complete secrecy enveloping the program. Throughout the Cold War era the US led the nuclear arms race at every single step. (Even the so- called missile gap was a campaign-inspired creation of John Kennedy’s presidential bid.) Cold Warriors claimed secrecy was the key to technological dominance and blamed spies for gains by our enemies. Though spies there were, their contribution to the arms race was minimal. The larger contribution made by government enforced secrecy was to blunt public discussion of nuclear risks and to portray nuclear critics as Soviet dupes.

The realism of the pro nuclear establishment also extends to the sure confidence these modern warriors display in assessing potential casualties and long- term effects of a nuclear strike. In the aftermath of the false alarm one Pentagon official “told a recent event … that Washington regards Pyongyang as a grave threat and is prepared to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike if necessary,” the Sunday Times also reported. …If Mr Kim used his artillery to attack Seoul, there would be thousands of casualties but Seoul would be able to build a reunified Korea.” As though we could just put the lego blocks back together. Recent experience with far less lethal attacks has hardly been reassuring.

Beyond Crackpot Realism

Throughout the history of the nuclear age, fear, nationalism, and secrecy have interacted in ways that sustained the nuclear arms race and increased the risks even to the leaders in that race. Manhattan Project scientists believed that US deployment of this weapon would make international control unlikely and would increase the likelihood of a dangerous arms race. They also knew that it was only the precursor to weapons far more lethal, 1000 times the power of the weapons dropped on Hiroshima. Some sought to convey these reservations to the President. Their communication never reached him, only to be classified and kept from the public. Daniel Ellsberg points out that several Manhattan Project scientists later “expressed regret that they had deferred to the demands of the secrecy managers.” What we are left with—especially in the text books—instead is a sanitized picture of the initial use of the bomb, that it was deployed to save hundreds of thousands of US and even Japanese lives, a perspective now questioned by most scholars. Another scholar who never withheld his dissent is just as relevant today as during his own lifetime.

At the height of the Cold War the radical sociologist C Wright Mills coined the term crackpot realism to characterize the militant Cold Warriors, the Cheneys and Kristols of his day. Political economist Robert Higgs has elucidated Mills’ provocative concept: Crackpot realists “explain that childish things, such as keeping the country at peace, simply won’t get the job done. Sometimes, the public must recognize that as a no-nonsense response to the harsh situation we face, the serious people have to drop some bombs here and there in order to reestablish a proper arrangement of the world’s currently disordered affairs. . So “practical” are these serious people, however, that they understand nothing beyond their noses and outside the circle of their own constricted understanding and experience. Especially when these movers and shakers deal with matters of war and peace, they continue to make the same sorts of disastrous decisions over and over, constantly squandering opportunities to maintain the peace, almost invariably painting themselves into corners of their own making, and all too often deciding that the only option that makes sense in their predicament is to bomb their way out.

These serious people are fools. They seem to know what’s going on, and how to right what’s wrong with the world, only if one accepts their own view of how the world works…. Especially when these movers and shakers deal with matters of war and peace, they continue to make the same sorts of disastrous decisions over and over, constantly squandering opportunities to maintain the peace, almost invariably painting themselves into corners of their own making, and all too often deciding that the only option that makes sense in their predicament is to bomb their way out.”

Finally Mills explores the depth psychology of these leaders in language that might help explain the involvement of some fundamentalist evangelicals in this movement: “ [A] high-flying moral rhetoric is joined with an opportunist crawling among a great scatter of unfocused fears and demands. The expectation of war solves many problems of the crackpot realists; it also confronts them with many new problems. Yet these, the problems of war, often seem easier to handle. They are out in the open: to produce more, to plan how to kill more of the enemy, to move materials thousands of miles. . . . So instead of the unknown fear, the anxiety without end, some men of the higher circles prefer the simplification of known catastrophe.”

No mathematical model can tell us the likelihood of World War III, but we can say that a genuine realism would suggest negotiations to take weapons off hair-trigger alert. Peace groups, both in South Korea and internationally should encourage both governments to re-establish a hot line and to keep diplomacy alive. Realism today must also include a healthy distrust of the nuclear establishment and their spokespersons. These weapons are intrinsically dangerous, even sitting in their aging silos or submarines. Anti nuclear activists should continually remind the media and our citizens of the interests secrecy has served. Beyond that, although literal nuclear disarmament may not be feasible,, dramatic unilateral steps are possible. A vast scaling down of our stockpile—especially the most dangerous-- might make us safer and also encourage a process of mutual de-escalation beneficial to everyone. Nuclear war is not a basketball game. In a nuclear exchange if even one or two thermonuclear bombs land vast sections of the country will be uninhabitable even before nuclear winter sets in. Victory is a defeat for winners and losers alike. The only realistic goal is a world free of nuclear weapons.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressive for ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." 

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