Bomb Thinking

In my recurring dream of the bomb, which I had for almost ten years, I would see it falling towards the ground, very slowly, sometimes attached to a parachute. I would stand frozen while a scream welled up within me.

There were times when, although I was awake, the bomb caused almost as strong a reaction in me: when I understood that the world was in the hands of men who seemed almost psychotic, thinkers of intricate and violent thoughts that bore no relation to my reality. I remember two instances in particular, one dealing with nuclear and the other with conventional weapons.

The latter was a device used during the Vietnam war: an ordinary bomb that, when detonated, shot a mass of little steel arrows in all directions. It was an antipersonnel weapon, and when I thought about its implications, it seemed blind and horrible to me, as effective against civilians as against soldiers, and designed sadistically to maim wherever possible, not just kill. When we start thinking this way, the moral gradations are small and ludicrous. But, just as defense attorneys make it a virtue that their client did not torture his victim, but merely dispatched him with a shot to the head, it seemed very reprehensible to me to use a weapon that, instead of merely killing its victims via a blast, shot them full of little steel arrows.

Next, I started thinking about the suspension of morality in the man who would design such a thing. Just as Dr. Guillotine was, fittingly, sent to the guillotine, I wished the designer of the arrow bomb would be shut up in a concrete room with his own invention. (I was fifteen years old.)

The second time I encountered the screaming panic headache, the feeling of being trapped, was reading about the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks during the 1970's, particularly the discussions about the number of warheads a MIRV (Multiple Independently-targeted Re-entry Vehicle) could have. I had the sense that death sat in the room with the negotiators, nodding and smiling. I understand negotiations like those that happened in recent years in South Africa and between Israel and the Palestinians; I understand killers who want to stop; but the nuclear talks, as American negotiator Herbert York confirms, were the santimonious monologing of murderers who want to put on a pious face, but do not wish to stop.

York was involved in the Comprehensive Test ban negotiations, for President Jimmy Carter. His experience was a sad one; after decades of involvement in nuclear weapons development, beginning with his recruitment from school directly into the Manhattan Project, York had come to believe devoutly in a test ban. But his years of negotiating led to no result at all, not because of obstreperousness by the Soviets, but largely because of nitpicking by his own side. On occasion, when the Soviets gave in on a point, York was instructed by his own government to ask for more--which, as everyone knows, is not good faith negotiation.

People who did not want a test ban at all had the power and independence, under the decentralized and democratic American system, to bury the negotiations under an avalanche of objections and minor nitpicking, without formally admitting their motives at all:

And in any bureaucratic process, the person who wants only to obstruct the process has an advantage. There is nothing one can do to satisfy him. He does not want some particular change. He simply wants no agreement at all.

"Midway through the test ban negotiation," York says, "the United States became unwilling to discuss issues that we previously wanted to discuss....At that point, the Soviets became convinced there was no chance for a test ban negotiation to succeed, and, from then on, they refused to make even the slightest concession."

Who were these people who torpedoed the negotiations? They are half in love with the bomb. Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, subtitled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb", captures a rueful truth. Just as there is of the body, there is a radiation of the mind. All human qualities leach out, all cooperation and compassion, and one is left with the calculus of destruction. For a while, it may be arguably in the service of a greater good, but after a short while, it is its own end, the archetype of the Freudian death-wish:

If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o'clock, I say why not one o'clock?

The speaker is not Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, George Metesky, or John Hinckley; it is world-famous mathematician and father of game theory, John von Neumann, who obviously had gotten lost in the sterile, death-like numbers and thought death was the only way to break out:

The difficulty with atomic weapons, and especially with missile-carried atomic weapons, will be that they can decide a war, and do a good deal more in terms of destruction, in less than a month or two weeks. Consequently, the nature of technical surprise will be different from what it was before. It will not be sufficient to know that the enemy has only fifty possible tricks and that you can counter every one of them, but you must also invent some system of being able to counter them practically at the instant they occur.

Is it possible to such a personality that the extreme illogic of the endlessly recursive bind is unbearable? That to wage preventive war--as von Neumann advocated-- is really a disguised way of committing suicide, laying down the burden of volition?

Another celebrated bomb thinker was Edward Teller. After the Manhattan Project, his career included the following highlights: helping to ruin J. Robert Oppenheimer, apparently because of his declared remorse about the bomb ("Physicists have known sin"); incredibly proposing in the '60's that bombs be used to create a new harbor in Alaska; and, in old age, getting Ronald Reagan interested in that epitome of bomb thinking, the Star Wars defense scheme.

At the time of Star Wars, the nuclear balance had been stable for some decades, based on the proposition that it was impossible to prevent a first strike, but that a counter-strike could be made so punishing that no-one would dare attempt an attack. "Nuclear weapons make wars hard to start," writes bomb thinker Kenneth Waltz, who believes that having more of them around is better. He is the apologist who holds the gate open, saying just a few will come through, while meanwhile a horde passes.

Teller's idea for Star Wars was to shift the balance back from deterrence to defense, using space-based weapons that would, supposedly, have a chance of knocking out every ICBM in flight. The profound import of this, of course, is that an enemy that believes it can prevent a strike--first or second--is not deterred from launching a first strike.

Allan M. Winkler reminds us that Ronald Reagan's education in Star Wars began during World War II, when he "played Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft in the film Murder in the Air. His mission was to defend a new superweapon, a 'death-ray' projector that could stop enemy planes, make America invincible, and so serve as 'the greatest force for world peace ever discovered."

Teller had long dreamed of strategic weapons that could provide effective defense against missiles; he had presented his ideas to Reagan in 1967, when the latter was governor of California, and then again in the White House in 1983, accompanied by three of the President's close friends, all of them businessmen (including the brewer Joseph Coors). Teller's pet project was "a nuclear-bomb-pumped X-ray laser which could shoot down Russian ICBM's."

In March, 1983, Reagan outlined the Star Wars plan, which has since cost us billions and led to absolutely nothing. Other variations on the theme included chemical lasers, particle beams, orbiting mirrors to focus the latter, and even the "Jedi Concept", involving the firing of "plasma globs" into space at close to lightspeed.

Carl Sagan said of Star Wars:

A contraceptive shield that deters 90 percent of 200 million sperm cells is generally considered worthless--20 million sperm cells penetrating the shield are more than enough. Such a shield is not better than nothing; it is worse than nothing, because it might engender a false sense of security, bringing on the very event it was designed to prevent.

The bomb thinking produced by irradiated minds never ends. In 1995, a book appeared called The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, in which two respected political scientists discuss whether the bomb is good or bad for us. Kenneth Waltz takes the position that more bombs are better. It seems remarkable that a highly intelligent man could make statements like the following as we approach the 21st century:

But what is hard to comprehend is why, in an internal struggle for power, the contenders would start using nuclear weapons.

[If it happened, however:]Such an act would produce a national tragedy, not an international one.

If [small] states use nuclear weapons, the world will not end. The use of nuclear weapons by lesser powers would hardly trigger them elsewhere.

[T]he gradual spread of nuclear weapons is better than either no spread or rapid spread.

If we believe that terrorists could, if they wished to, wield nuclear weapons to threaten or damage their chosen enemies, than the important question becomes: Why would they want to?

It is hard to believe that nuclear war may begin accidentally, when less frightening conventional wars have rarely done so.

Notice how he slips in that "rarely". Walz lives in a poisoned chess world. He takes no account of the psychology or the self-destructiveness of the humans who actually wield the weapons. He represents the divorce of technology from morality.

In a recent essay, I quoted the designer of a gas chamber van in the Holocaust, who in his report wrote about "the shifting of the cargo toward the rear" and the necessity to vent "thick and thin fluids" afterwards. Neither the man who designed the arrow bomb, nor the man who wishes to hurl plasma globs at near-lightspeed at our enemies, is a human being that I recognize. Each either enjoys the thought of murder, at a distance, or has at least murdered his own conscience, like the character in the Mark Twain story.

The nuclear world is full of such unrecognizable humans. The calculus of the bomb is inconsistent with our most basic human qualities.