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.