Open thread: ballistic missile defence

An episode involving missile defence* from the West Wing holds up very well today. The craggy old American chief of staff is in favour, out of fear of what rogue regimes might do to America. The British ambassador is opposed because it’s impractical, violates international law, and risks worsening the global nuclear weapons situation.

I can see why people like the idea of being able to stop a few missiles launched by North Korea or Iran, or by a rogue commander somewhere. At the same time, I think the dangers of a nuclear arms race make the development and deployment of such a system unwise, even if the major technological hurdles could be overcome. It’s the classic security dilemma: you build something meant to make you safer, potential opponents interpret it as making them less safe (by reducing the credibility of their deterrent) so they build expensive countermeasures. In the end, everyone has wasted money on the race and everyone ends up less safe. It could also tempt decision-makers into recklessness, based on false confidence that the system will nullify any response to their aggression.

We should be working to de-alert and dismantle the nuclear arsenals of the authorized nuclear powers under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Against that backdrop, resisting proliferation to new nuclear states would be more plausible.

* I don’t mean defending things like aircraft carriers from ballistic missiles. I mean systems to protect domestically-located military facilities and population centres from ballistic missile attack, probably with nuclear weapons.

Ellsberg’s broad conclusion

Yet what seems to be beyond question is that any social system (not only ours) that has created and maintained a Doomsday Machine and has put the trigger to it, including first use of nuclear weapons, in the hands of one human being – anyone, not just this one man, still worse in the hands of an unknown number of persons – is in core aspects mad. Ours is such a system. We are in the grip of institutionalized madness.

Ellsberg, Daniel. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Bloomsbury; New York. 2017. p. 332 (italics in original)

Fire excluded from U.S. nuclear death estimates

The fact is that the estimate of fatalities, in terms of what was calculated at that time—even before the discovery of nuclear winter—was a fantastic underestimate. More than forty years later, Dr. Lynn Eden, a scholar at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, revealed in Whole World on Fire the bizarre fact that the war planners of SAC and the Joint Chiefs—throughout the nuclear era to the present day—have deliberately omitted entirely from their estimates of the destructive effects of U.S. or Russian nuclear attacks the effects of fire.

Yet even in the sixties the firestorms caused by thermonuclear weapons were known to be predictably the largest producers of fatalities in a nuclear war. Given that for almost all strategic nuclear weapons, the damage radius of the firestorms would be two to five times the radius destroyed by the blast, a more realistic estimate of the fatalities caused directly by the planned U.S. attacks on the Sino-Soviet bloc, even in 1961, would surely have been double the summary in the graph I held in my hand, for a total death toll of a billion or more: a third of the earth’s population, then three billion.

Ellsberg, Daniel. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Bloomsbury; New York. 2017. p. 140–1 (italics in original)

Ellsberg’s on America’s nuclear posture

The basic elements of American readiness for nuclear war remain today what they were almost sixty years ago: Thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, aimed mainly at Russian military targets including command and control, many in or near cities. The declared official rationale for such a system has always been primarily the supposed need to deter—or if necessary respond to—an aggressive Russian nuclear first strike against the United States. That widely believed public rationale is a deliberate deception. Deterring a surprise Soviet nuclear attack—or responding to such an attack—has never been the only or even the primary purpose of our nuclear plans and preparations. The nature, scale, and posture of our strategic nuclear forces has always been shaped by the requirements of quite different purposes: to attempt to limit the damage to the United States from Soviet or Russian retaliation to a U.S. first strike against the USSR or Russia. This capability is, in particular, intended to strengthen the credibility of U.S. threats to initiate limited nuclear attacks, or escalate them—U.S. threats of “first use”—to prevail in regional, initially non-nuclear conflicts involving Soviet or Russian forces or their allies.

Ellsberg, Daniel. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Bloomsbury; New York. 2017. p. 12 (italics in original)

Ham, the first primate astronaut

Then they led him out again, trying to get him near a mockup of a Mercury capsule, where the television networks had set up cameras and tremendous lights. The reporters and photographers surged forward again, yammering, yelling, exploding more camera lights, shoving, groaning, cursing—the usual yahoo sprawl, in short—and the animal came unglued again, ready to twist the noodle off anybody he could get his hands on. This was interpreted by the Gent [the news media] as a manifestation of Ham‘s natural fear upon laying eyes once again on the capsule, which looked precisely like the one that had propelled him into space and subjected him to such severe physical stresses.

The stresses the ape was reacting to were probably of quite another sort. Here he was, back in the compound where they had zapped him through his drills for a solid month. Just two years ago he had been captured in the jungles of Africa, separated from his mother, shipped in a cage to a goddamned desert in New Mexico, kept prisoner, prodded and shocked by a bunch of humans in white smocks, and here he was, back in a compound where they had been zapping him through their fucking drills for a solid month, and suddenly there was a whole new mob of humans on hand! Even worse than the white smocks! Louder! Crazier! Totally out of their gourds! Yammering, roaring, brawling, exploding lights beside their bug-eyed skulls! Suppose they threw him to these assholes! Fuck this—

At some point in the madhouse scene out back of Hanger S, a photograph was taken in which Ham was either grinning or had on a grimace that looked like a grin in the picture. Naturally, this was the picture that went out over the wire services and was printed in newspapers throughout America. Such was the response of the happy chimpanzee to being the first ape in outer space … A fat happy grin… Such was the perfection with which the Proper Gent observed the proprieties.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; New York. 1979. p. 223–4 (italics and ellipses in original)

The space race as single combat

With the decline of archaic magic, the belief in single combat began to die out. The development of the modern, highly organized army and the concept of “total war” seemed to bury it forever. But then an extraordinary thing happened: the atomic bomb was invented, with the result that the concept of total war was nullified. The incalculable power of the A-bomb and the bombs that followed also encouraged the growth of a new form of superstition founded upon awe not of nature, as archaic magic had been, but of technology. During the Cold War period small-scale competitions again took on the magical aura of a “testing of fate,” of a fateful prediction of what would inevitably happen if total nuclear war did take place. This, of course, was precisely the impact of Sputnik I, launched around the earth by the Soviets’ mighty and mysterious Integral in October 1957. The “space race” became a fateful test and presage of the entire Cold War conflict between the “superpowers,” the Soviet Union and the United States. Surveys showed that people throughout the world looked upon the competition in launching space vehicles in that fashion, i.e., as a preliminary contest proving final and irresistible power to destroy. The ability to launch Sputniks dramatized the ability to launch nuclear warheads on ICBMs. But in these neo-superstitious times it came to dramatize much more than that. It dramatized the entire technological and intellectual capability of the two nations and the strength of the national wills and spirits. Hence … John McCormack rising in the House of Representatives to say that the United States faced “national extinction” if she did not overtake the Soviet Union in the space race.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; New York. 1979. p. 124–5 (ellipses in original)


Fighter pilots’ hazardous lifestyles

More fighter pilots died in automobiles than in airplanes. Fortunately, there was always some kindly soul up the chain to certify the papers “line of duty,” so that the widow could get a better break on the insurance. That was okay and only proper because somehow the system itself had long ago said Skol! and Quite right! to the military cycle of Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving, as if there were no other way. Every young fighter jock knew the feeling of getting two or three hours’ sleep and then waking up at 5:30 a.m. and having a few cups of coffee, a few cigarettes, and then carting his poor quivering liver out to the field for another day of flying. There were those who arrived not merely hungover but still drunk, slapping oxygen tank cones over their faces and trying to burn the alcohol out of their systems, and then going up, remarking later: “I don’t advise it, you understand, but it can be done.” (Provided you have the right stuff, you miserable pudknocker.)

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; New York. 1979. p. 37 (italics in original)

Ghosts of the Ostfront

I’m surprised I have never mentioned Dan Carlin’s historical podcasts here yet. I got a lot out of “Blueprint for Armageddon“, his six-part history of WWI (source of this account). Listening to his thoroughly-researched and passionately-delivered work has led me back to a number of books by serious historians as well as primary accounts. Those include G. J. Meyer’s A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 which I have gone through more than once as an audiobook and Ryan Cornelius’ The Last Battle about the fall of Berlin in 1945.

On the Greyhound trips to Ottawa and back, Myshka and I listened to three of the four episodes in “Ghosts of the Ostfront” — a macabre but instructive account of the Nazi-Soviet war from 1941 to 1945.

There are lots of reasons to be interested in the eastern front in WWII, but the familial connections were at the forefront of my mind. The series does a good job of explaining the situation faced by those in countries between the two great powers during the war, including all those who became double victims oppressed by both the Soviet and Nazi autocracies.

Carlin and his research and production team have lots of other great stuff, from a free discussion with favourite historian and thinker James Burke to his detailed history of the life of Genghis Khan to the unbelievable story of the Anabaptist takeover of Munster in 1534. His preference for the bloody ought to be noted, but to me his work doesn’t seem to revel in violence for its own sake but more to try to discern the broad lessons of history.