Archive for the 'on Society' Category
Tags: civilization, Cold War, ICBMs, John Kennedy, Nuclear Weapons, Page International Screenwriting Contest, Strategic Air Command
It is thought the atomic weapon dropped on Hiroshima resulted in the deaths of approximately 90,000 to more than 100,000 people most of whom were non-combatants. In Nagasaki, the second target, at least 80,000 casualties resulted. During the Cuban Missile Crisis large Soviet cities were targeted with hydrogen weapons to be delivered mostly by ICBMs with less than 30 minutes of flight time from US silos. Large American population centers were likewise targeted by the Soviets. It is certain that with such little warning millions of people would have been killed on both sides.
Warfare began with sticks and stones and until modern times, counted casualties in ones and twos, then hundreds, then thousands and generally involved only actual combatants. Until weapons such as cannons and longbows it was also usually a matter of one-on-one personal combat. Today a crew of two has the power to kill millions of people thousands of miles away most of whom would be innocents. The power to kill millions of human beings in one fell swoop was once unimaginable and today military personnel in the US, Russia, and China sit around the clock at their underground consoles with exactly that capability.
When I served as a launch control officer in the Strategic Air Command during the Cuban Missile Crisis and thereafter I don’t recall conversations about the ethics or morals involved in expending nuclear weapons. Our concerns were about lawful orders and technical matters not moral or ethical issues. Philosophical considerations would not have served the purpose of reactive or proactive national defense in the face of what was believed to be an imminent Soviet threat. We were the front lines of deterrence and took that responsibility seriously. It is true, however, some officers and airmen did ask to be relieved of their assignments as launch personnel because of their religious beliefs. I personally assisted a few airmen to find different assignments without prejudice.
I managed to carry out my duties as a launch officer for several years because I believed mutually assured destruction was the deterant. Our unhesitating willingness to launch was what kept nuclear war at bay. Had there been a nuclear exchange I would be safe in my underground launch control center while it was certain my family would be annihilated, not an easy circumstance to live with but we all did. Ultimately there would have been no safe place anywhere from the effects of a nuclear exchange. There would have been no escape not even for those secured in underground bunkers. Eventually everyone would have to emerge. And, as John Kennedy warned, the planet would be uninhabitable.
Recently the disaffection of Minuteman missile crews standing alert has been a major scandal. Cheating on tests was apparently rampant as was sleeping on the job. The crews were bored perhaps by inactivity. Minuteman crews have meals prepared for them topside, above ground sleeping quarters, all in all pretty cushy arrangements compared to the Atlas and Titan crews of the 60s. I have no doubt the lack of a clearly defined threat or tangible enemy was a contributing factor. Of course the Air Force was alarmed and perhaps shocked as more and more questionable behavior was exposed. The immediate remedy was the removal or retraining of the officers involved. Efforts were also made to render the living and work situation more tolerable. The other day I read in the news crew members are being awarded medals apparently not for facing down an enemy but, it would seem, for overcoming ennui. I hope it works. The air and missile crews of the Cuban Missile Crisis received not even a thank you – what we did was nothing less than what was expected. What we got was more training, more testing, more alerts – doing exactly what was expected of us. Minimum passing grade on tests remained 100%. That was then – this is now.
Over the years I find myself thinking more and more about my own thinking during those tense days. I remain secure with the correctness of my decisions at that time and, at the same time, discomfited by them. On the one hand, how could anyone go along with mutually assured nuclear destruction while on the other, how could we have not? Several years ago my wife and I wrote a screenplay about that time and its dilemmas titled “Commit” after the name of the last button on the launch control console, a command from which there was no reversal – once pressed the missile was committed to launch, a hydrogen warhead would be on its way to target. The screenplay won a prize from the Page International Screenwriting competition in 2011and was recently performed as a table read in Santa Fe, New Mexico where the story was well received by most of the audience.
Interestingly, for some, especially the younger crowd, I got the feeling the events described in the screenplay were abstract and, for them, the likelihood of nuclear war so remote they could have just as easily been listening to a reading of Beowulf. That disconnect I think expresses the crux of the matter. The general awareness of warheads underground in the Northern Plains attended to by increasingly disaffected crews paints a picture both dangerous and encouraging. The danger lies in the existential weariness in facing hypothetical threats compared to the reality of the Cold War. The encouraging aspect is that we have averted nuclear war for decades and now there is a growing international awareness of the nihilism represented by such warfare. There would be no winners only losers – nothing would be gained, civilization would be lost – we would be back to sticks and stones. If there is hope for civilization, abolition of nuclear weapons is the first step. May we live to see that day, it’s the world I want my grandchildren to live in.
I know not what weapons World War III will be fought, but WWIV will be fought with sticks and stones. – Albert Einstein
Tags: American Exceptionalism, Brooks Adams, corporations as humans, cynicism, Dave Brubeck Quartet, Integrity, intelectual honesty, Izvestia, morally corrupt judges, Paul Desmond, Pravda, rent-seeking politicians, Supreme Court, Tanglewood
June 30th, 1960, Tanglewood, slipping in a side door and climbing to secluded seats high above the stage. Dave Brubeck, Joe Morello, Gene Wright, and Paul Desmond are warming up ahead of their evening performance. I remember Desmond’s notes rising clear, fully formed, beautiful, intimate, unmistakably Desmond. I experience that perfection still.
May 30th, 1977, Bear Creek, California. Paul Desmond died that day. A San Francisco station playing his music though the night. Pure Desmond – clarity, notes projected with perfect understanding of their shapes and relationships. His music an expression of absolute integrity. I sat up and listened until I fell asleep sometime before dawn. What has always made Desmond’s music beautiful for me is the integrity.
April 3rd, 2014, dense blowing snow out the window, a good fire in the wood stove, Paul Desmond in the background – thinking about virtue and integrity. I’m wondering why so few people, especially in high places, seem incapable of the virtues of personal integrity and intellectual honesty once considered essential to the conduct of a viable civil society. How long does any society have to live I wonder when there are so many liars and so many lies? A society based on lies cannot be viable and 4000 years of history give truth to this. We have always suffered rent-seeking politicians, morally corrupt judges and greedy businessmen but they were not then, as they are now, the dominant minority.
I’m reminded of the Cold War, behind the Iron Curtain, cynicism was the coin of the realm. About the two major Russian newspapers Izvestia and Pravda it was said, “There is no truth in Izvestia and no news in Pravda.” amusing cynical take but not so amusing when applied to courts of law or Congress in a democracy where truth needs to be the vital currency. What happens when the foundational, “All men are created equal” is no longer a belief? When a court, in a God-like gesture, endows corporations with human status? How often can beliefs be disregarded before they are discarded? What replaces abandoned beliefs?
In the commons, integrity and intellectual honesty have all but disappeared, strangled by insatiable unrelenting greed by politicians, business people and judges. A judge excused a jail term for a wealthy man who raped his 3 year old daughter because, the judge said, he wouldn’t “fare well” in prison. Does she make the same allowances for not-wealthy people? Is this judicial integrity? Do society and children deserve this cynicism?
There is a high societal price for deceptive political calculation that highjacks hope but delivers alienation. There was that “hope and change” sales pitch for example that eventually revealed itself as shuck-and-jive-business-as-usual politics, regressive education policies, secret rendition and tapped telephones. Lots of us fell for it. Will we ever again be lured to the rocks of disappointment and cynicism because we wanted to believe? Cynicism is, by itself, likely the most dangerous and contagious disease in any society it undermines everything corroding all that it touches. Cynicism destroys belief, hope, faith, trust – all the necessary components of healthy viable societies, it bleeds any social contract dry.
Brooks Adams in his 1896 “The Law of Civilization and Decay”, speaking of 5th C Rome says, “Wealth is the weapon of a monied society; for though itself lacking the martial instinct, it can, with money, hire soldiers to defend it.” Updated for our times it could read, “… it can, with money, hire politicians and other people of low self-esteem to defend and promote it.” This idea is nowhere more articulately expressed than in the recent 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision allowing even more corporate money into the election process. What will be the ultimate consequences of corporations being made human by the Supreme Court? Where social integrity is absent, social commitment has historically taken its leave because people no longer believe.
When a populace no longer perceives a common good it devolves to everyone for themselves as a matter of survival. This cannot be denied nor, once past a certain point, can it be resisted. There is always a critical point in momentum that is irreversible when chaos supersedes order. If plutocrats think they can easily herd impoverished angry mobs they are paddling against a rip-tide of history. Human beings never long tolerate being treated as serfs when they have tasted better fruit.
From the top of the food chain on down our country is rapidly taking on classic symptoms of a failed society. I never thought the day would come when the UN would cite my country for human rights violations. This is a new aspect of our self-anointed “exceptionalism” wherein we are cited for jailing homeless people, torture and 23 other violations of human rights while berating other countries for doing the same. It must be understood, the social contract is at once experience, perception and belief. How can rational people not look back over 4000 years of one civilization after another rising and then falling to the same causes without seeing themselves? They must ask, where are our virtues? What happened to our integrity?