When I first joined the military, we didn’t have a lot of options when it came to force.
For the most part, there was either deadly force or there was no force.
And not a lot of options in between.
Allow me to explain: You have a gun. Someone with a knife of a club or their fists violently demonstrates that they intend to do you harm. You order them to stop, they don’t. You’ve only got two options, shoot or don’t. There is very little in between no force and deadly force. Sure, there are exceptions, if you’re the star of a Chuck Norris movie you can kick the gun out of your adversary’s hand, pound him to a pulp with fists like mallets, mumble a simple minded platitude on the virtues of America, and then glower at the camera in a bearded and manly fashion. But in the real world, you either shoot, or you don’t (also, in the real world, Smith & Wesson trumps Kung-fu pretty much always, trust me on this).
When I first joined the Navy, this situation generally applied at all levels.
Let me give you a real world example, one from my own experience: A US Navy warship is chasing a drug smuggling boat at high speed across the ocean. The Navy issues a radio call to the fleeing vessel and orders it to halt. It doesn’t. Now what? That Navy Aegis Guided Missile Cruiser was designed to fight Soviet warships on the high seas and defend the Carrier from air attack, she can sink entire fleets and destroy squadrons of deadly aircraft and lay waste to continents – but when it comes to stopping a fleeing Columbian go-fast loaded with cocaine, she doesn’t have a lot of options. She can either shoot, in this case using the main battery – weapons designed to sink Soviet battle cruisers, try to imagine what that does to a 30 foot cigarette boat – or not. There just aren’t a lot of options in between. You can either use no force, or you can induce obliteration and go in afterward with a broom and dustpan to pick up what little remains.
And this situation led directly to a number of fairly terrible incidents. Over the years there were a number of “peace keeping” missions where soldiers, faced with imminent threat or what they perceived to be imminent threat, shot first and asked questions later. Because they had no choice, they didn’t have any non-lethal, or less-than-lethal, options. It was either no force or deadly force. The converse was also true, the Marines didn’t always default to deadly force, even when they should have, and as such a large number ended up dead. Same with Navy ships. Same with, well, hell, a lot of situations – I’m sure you can think of plenty if you try, from Kent State to Beirut to the Port of Aden to Iraq.
This situation is also common, if not even more so, in civil law enforcement. Up until very recently, law enforcement was often caught between the rock of no force and the hard place of deadly force – with nothing in between.
However, in recent years, the state of the art has advanced dramatically. Nowadays those bent to the business of force application, both on and off the battlefield, often have a variety of options – from the physical technology of non-lethal or scalable-lethality tools to those that are far more esoteric, such as Information Warfare and aggressive psychological operations.
Take a cop for example. Not so long ago, a small town cop would have carried three basic tools, a flashlight, handcuffs, and his .38 (or 9mm or .357 depending his locality). Now? Now he or she is a walking hardware store – CS gas and taser and stungun have been added to the utility belt. Real-time camera and voice recorder, smartphone, bean bag guns, flashbang, a variety of restraints, body armor and more tools arriving every day. In the sky, UAV’s and information heavy manned vehicles extend the cop’s visual and awareness horizon and extend his information gathering ability. Networks and databases provide almost instantaneous realtime intelligence and support at any level of granularity. In the trunk of his cruiser, a cop might carry a shogun with a dozen specialized rounds – everything from blowing the lock out of a door to illumination flares. More than that, many cops are now highly trained in the psychology of criminals and victims and their tools have extended into the use of verbal and a non-verbal management to alter the outcome of certain types of encounters - without the use of force at all. Much of this technology and many of these skills have crossed over to military applications, giving soldiers in the battlespace options they never had before.
It takes training, and skill, and experience to use these tools correctly. To know when and how and where to apply these options. It takes training and experience to know how and when to apply the escalation of force, up to and including deadly force if necessary. But it is a naïve and foolish cop (or soldier) who believes that today there are only two options, no force and deadly force, when it comes to the profession of peace keeping or war.
And again, this is also true on a larger scale. Navy vessels now often have a variety of methods and tools they can use short of blowing a target out of the water or out of the sky with the main battery. Forgive me if I don’t specify what some of those methods are. But an example can be found in the use of high-intensity sound and light devices now being effectively employed against pirates in the Indian Ocean by commercial cargo vessels and passenger liners.
And this is also true on an even larger scale.
Consider: for three nights, 13-15 February, in 1945, over a thousand heavy bombers of the US and British air forces dropped nearly 4000 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the German city of Dresden. The result was a holocaust the likes of which would compare only to the dawning of the Atomic Age over Japan in August of that same year. The Dresden firestorm incinerated nearly 20,000 people and turned twenty square miles of beautiful old cityscape into hell on earth. You might have heard of it, the famous writer Kurt Vonnegut was caught in the middle of the bombardment as a prisoner of war and many years later wrote Slaughterhouse 5 based on his experience. The morality of that military action has been debated for decades. Moral or not, Dresden was the heart of German Saxony and the location of hundreds of factories and numerous legitimate military targets and the only way to reduce those targets and gut the Nazi war making machine (and thereby force an end to the war) was massive area bombardment – because that was the only tool available to the Allies at the time.
Nowadays? Nowadays we have other options. The precision and range of our weapons allows us to make surgical strikes into the heart of cities with relatively little collateral damage (The key word being relatively. We get better at this all of the time, but war is never clean nor without collateral damage and unintended death – if you can’t understand that, then don’t engage in it). One hundred and ten Tomahawk cruise missiles could have destroyed Dresden’s one hundred and ten factories without killing 20,000 German civilians. Better, smart laser guided bombs and precision strikes could have taken out power stations and electrical grids, rendering the factories inoperative and leaving them intact for reconstruction after the war was over. Stealth bombers could have taken out transportation hubs, preventing those factories from receiving raw materials or shipping out finished machine parts. A handful of B-2 Spirit bombers could nowadays do in an hour what it once took thirteen hundred Flying Fortresses and Lancasters three terror filled nights to do – and they could do it precisely and with minimal loss of life and destruction.
In point of fact, events such as Dresden – and more pointedly, Hiroshima and Nagasaki – have spurred the development of just such weapons and options for the last seventy years.
And that takes us to the point of this article.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I’m not interested in the morality of it – that is a useless exercise. The events happened. The bombs were dropped, the cities were destroyed. The outcome was both horrific and profound.
In seconds, two cities ceased to exist for all practical purposes, a thousand years of history gone in a flash. In less than a minute, hundreds of thousands were killed or horribly maimed, vaporized, burned alive, parboiled in their own skin, charred by gamma rays and bombarded with lethal dosages of neutrons. Hundreds of thousands more died in the aftermath, of burns, of radiation poisoning, of shock and blast, sieved or crushed by debris flying at sonic speeds, trauma in a thousand varieties. Thousands were blinded and deafened and scarred forever. The horror of it can not be described and they say the stench of death lingered for years, burned into the very earth. The shadows of those mushroom clouds remain to this day. If you don’t believe me, visit the Hiroshima memorial.
And yet, those bombs ended the war. A war so vast, so far reaching that it killed millions and profoundly changed the very course of human history (the vastness of that conflict staggers my mind, it is too large to imagine properly. I’ve sailed around the world, across the oceans where great fleets once steamed, and beneath which many today lay entombed, and I’ve walked the battlefields on the soil of Asia and Europe and the Aleutians and even I can hardly visualize the sheer impossible scale of the thing). The bombs, the sacrifice of those cities, ended the war – and most likely saved the lives of millions, both Japanese and American – but at a terrible, terrible cost.
That toll wasn’t just in lives – that cost was also in what followed World War II. And we are still paying it.
I was born barely six months before the Cuban Missile Crisis and I am just barely old enough to remember duck and cover drills in elementary school. I’m more than old enough to remember living with the specter of nuclear war. I remember when every public building had a trefoil on the door jam, indicating the location of a basement fallout shelter. Hell, I remember when people used to have personal fallout shelters in their backyards. When I was fourteen I travelled across country from Michigan to New Mexico with my dad on a bus full of boy scouts on a trip to the Philmont Scout Ranch. We stayed at military bases along the way, one was Ouffit Air Force Base where we got a tour and lectures on mutually assured destruction and Strategic Air Command. The memory of those B-52’s idling on the runway at full alert, armed with nuclear bombs and ready at any moment in the event of a Soviet attack, stayed with me for many years. I grew up reading the science fiction of that time, Andre Norton’s Daybreak 2250 AD (Starman’s Son) and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, and Mordecai Roshwald’s utterly terrifying and nightmarish Level 7. But it was a decade later, as a Sailor onboard USS Ticonderoga in the Gulf of Sidra that I lived through an event many of us truly believed (at the time, in the moment) was the beginning of that final war for real. In that moment, when the enemy missiles were roaring skyward and the best information we had said they were submarine-launched nukes and we thought we were looking at our own death and the death of everything, when we thought the crazy bastards on the other side had finally done it, that’s when nuclear war became very real to me indeed and I’ve never been as terrified before or since – though I have been in far, far worse situations.
But, you see, there was a time when Mutually Assured Destruction, when the threat of ultimate violence and ultimate suicide, was our only option. When the threat of nuclear Armageddon was the only thing that kept the superpowers from falling on each other’s throats. There was a time when the technology of war, and the politics of the age, and the primitive communications, and the lack of real-time information from satellites and a global information grid simply gave us no other options. If was either no force, or the ultimate force.
Oh sure, there were wars in there – of course there were. Proxy wars fought in Korea and Vietnam and South American and the Middle East. And there were times when the world teetered on the brink – and just how close we came on more than one occasion is pretty damned sobering (and if you think it’s sobering from the viewpoint of history, try it ringside sometime). To quote one of my favorite movie lines, “It’s terrifying to think that we’re depending on the Russians being less crazy than we are…when they are clearly crazy*.” I think that line sums up the Cold War perfectly.
Again, I’m not interested in debating the morality of Mutually Assured Destruction. You can argue the morality of MAD and the Cold War all you like, but in the end it kept us alive long enough to develop better options.
And that’s the point.
We have better tools. We have options that do not require us to vaporize entire cities.
Understand something here, war has been my profession for over two decades. I helped to design some of those new weapons and I pioneered their use in combat. We have options. Non-nuclear options. And for the first time since the start of the Cold War we have the beginning of a real, sane nuclear weapons policy. Carter and Brezhnev started it with SALT II, but Reagan and Gorbachev really set the ball rolling with START and the CTBT. And last week President Obama took the next steps forward on that path. If the treaty is ratified here and in Russia, then the number of nuclear weapons worldwide will be reduced by nearly one third – that is literally thousands of nuclear weapons that will be taken out of commission and destroyed. Thousands.
Of course, predictably, without fail, conservative pundits immediately seized on this agreement as evidence of liberal treason. Sarah Palin opined:
"It's kind of like getting out there on a playground, a bunch of kids, getting ready to fight, and one of the kids saying, 'Go ahead, punch me in the face and I'm not going to retaliate. Go ahead and do what you want to with me.’”
Go ahead, punch me in the face?
This is how people like Palin and Newt Gingrich see the world. As a playground. It doesn’t occur to Palin to be the adult in the room, to behave in a rational manner, to not to fight in the first place. They’re like angry petulant children who can only respond in simple absolutes. To Palin, reducing our nuclear arsenal means “punch me in the face, I’m not going to retaliate.” It’s a simple worldview, the worldview of a cheerleader, a beauty queen, a spoiled shallow pretty popular girl who never actually had to work for a damned thing in her life or educate herself. It’s part of a set piece, it’s the absolute immutable worldview of a creationist: My viewpoint is holy and righteous, everybody else is evil – even if they are saying the same thing as my prophet, Ronald Reagan and the other revered Conservatives.
But it’s more than that. It’s the astounding, clueless hypocrisy. It’s the morality of it all.
Now, I said I wasn’t interested in debating the morality of the atomic weapons that ended WWII and I’m not interested in debating the morality of MAD – but I am, very much, interested in the morality of this question: You are a cop and someone with a weapon, a knife, a stick, fists, violently demonstrates that they intend to do you harm. You order them to stop, they don’t. You have many options, from use of physical intimidation to pepper spray to the taser and stun gun to finally your .9mm. If you can stop the attacker with a non-lethal option, would it be moral to just shoot him down anyway? And his family, and all his friends, and all his neighbors, and the whole goddamned city he lives in? Would it be moral to announce that this is your intention, that you always reserve the right not to just defend yourself but to annihilate those who threaten the public, and not just annihilate them but all they hold dear – and that you reserve this right in every single case even if other options exist to resolve the situation. Period. Would that be a moral position?
Well, would it?
You know we did that once, or at least the moral equivalent of it, in places like Dresden, because we had to.
But we don’t have to any more.
We have better options, we’ve spent decades and trillions of dollars developing those options.
And knowing that we have those options, is it moral not to reduce the inventory of nuclear weapons? If we can achieve the same objective without the threat of their use? If we can fly a cruise missile through an airshaft from a thousand miles away with the utmost precision and destroy the factory without destroying the city, is it moral to pretend that our only option is and remains the incineration of millions? If we can reduce the number of weapons pointed at us, at our children, at our nation – and we don’t, is that moral? If we have the chance, and we don’t take it, and we leave it for our kids – is that moral?
If the advance of technology give us hope for the future, hope that our descendents will not have to live with the threat of nuclear annihilation as we did, and we don’t take it – is that moral?
If we can change, if we can move away from the brink, if we can increase the odds of survival not just for ourselves but for the entire human race, and we don’t – is that moral?
Or is it cowardice writ large?
It astounds me that the party and people who consistently and passionately and vehemently claim the moral high ground at every turn, from marriage to patriotism to the right to life, are outraged at the thought of no longer being allowed to consider the incineration of entire civilian populations, of millions of human beings, of the human race as a viable or desirable military option.
No, strike that, I am not astounded.
I am appalled.
I am disgusted.
I am fucking revolted.
There is no single greater indicator of Sarah Palin’s staggering unfitness to lead this country than her position in this matter. A woman who who claims to revere life at all costs, who claims to be a Christian** and who lays claim with such unctuous self-righteousness to moral superiority over us liberals, moderates, and progressives, this woman speaks with a staggering hypocrisy that beggers the imagination. In Palin’s myopic and oh so morally superior vision, it is perfectly moral to force women to bear unwanted pregnancies to term because her God so wills it and yet consider the incineration of entire populations at the hand of man an acceptable foreign policy option.
Those who think this vacuous hypocrite is fit to lead the United States of America, those who think this insane and spite filled beauty queen should have her finger anywhere near The Button, are mad.
Tell you what, I’ll take my hope and change, you can keep the Palin.
* 2010, Victor Milson.
** I’m having a hard time visualizing Jesus advocating for the use of nuclear weapons. Call me silly.