Posts Tagged 'Presidents'

Porcupines And The Social Contract

Porcupines and the Social Contract

Sometime back there was an image on the internet of a snake that had swallowed a porcupine. I didn’t click on the image to see the video of the event as the photo was sufficiently vivid. That image came back to me after seeing photos online of Trump and members of Congress beaming into the camera having reached a happy compromise over the debt limit in order to facilitate hurricane aid to the affected states. The Republican Speaker of the House did his best to make it seem like a good time was being had by all. The Republican party, I think, swallowed a porcupine when they climbed onto the Trump bandwagon and they know it. The daily damage and destruction inflicted on the American social contract by the Trump administration has revealed a number of people who are now realizing they too have swallowed a porcupine.

Not long after hurricanes struck Puerto Rico, the President explained that Puerto Rico is an island way out in the ocean, thus making aid difficult. Despite begging from elected officials, prevarication characterized the presidential response to the emergency and attendant tragedy. Puerto Rico was still engaged in an ongoing humanitarian emergency weeks later as well as a verbal duel with the president, who visited the island and demonstrated his concern for the people by throwing packages of paper towels to them. Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the government and its partners were providing only 200,000 meals a day to meet the needs of more than 2 million people. As if the Puerto Rico tragedy were not enough, just a week or so later a gunman, firing from a hotel room 39 floors above street level in Las Vegas, shot and killed 59 people and injured more than 500 who were attending an outdoor concert. The President’s response?  It’s “premature” to discuss guns.

In some respects the porcupine seems to be going down easily. The President is eagerly joined by Congressional Republicans on certain issues. Speaker Paul Ryan in discussing the Republican sponsored tax cuts, explained that the middle class would somehow benefit from those cuts that were mainly for the wealthy. Middle class people would pay more to fund the cuts. Oh, yes, of course. So far the proposal has been stalled and new, sweeter proposals offered. This is the same Paul Ryan who led the Republican assault on Social Security and public education which should also give people a clue to just how destructive his party and this President are intending to be to American society and our limping democracy. The assault on public education, by the way, is the same strategy employed by demagogues and dictators throughout history; control education to control the minds of children and young adults so they become easier to manipulate as a general public. Control information with falsehood or distortion to control the public in general. And, let’s privatize public education to make a profit while we are at it.


What we have here is an untethered reality, a president who believes whatever he says is real and true. It is true, of course, that people can believe and not believe the same thing simultaneously. It’s a form of solipsism, the idea that anything outside your own mind doesn’t exist so you can inhabit your own reality simultaneously with inhabiting the outside social world shared with others. This self-defined world is fueled by what is sometimes referred to as “existential fatigue” which has been defined as a personal search for meaning and purpose in a world increasingly bankrupt of both. It isn’t a complicated matter for the people who voted for Trump who know his  background of financial cheating, child molestation, self-admitted sexual assault complete with comments on how to approach that. Yes, good church-going, self-defined “Christians” remain supportive of the President and his agenda. What to make of this? A remarkable fluidity of perception, loose commitment to a social contract, and a fungible belief system. Now, while the porcupine is getting a lot of attention it’s the snakes facilitating the porcupine that we have to watch out for. And the snakes had better understand that once swallowed, the Porcupine has only one path out.

Sticks, Stones, and Nukes redux again…

I published the essay, “Sticks, Stones, and Nukes”,  several years ago never thinking we would ever have a nightmare Commander In Chief like the present one. Our current President, in my opinion, is a person who has no regard for logic, reason, or personal integrity, nor respect for knowledge. He is pals with Vladimir Putin who has no regard for democracy not even a reduced and damaged one like ours. While I trust the men and women of our military not to do stupid things, a Commander In Chief is the commander. We have never openly tested that position’s authority against the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the simple reason that we have always had Presidents who were generally sentient and responsible adults. Whether we liked their politics or not we could trust their judgement when it came to war and the instruments of war.

I am personally concerned with the volatility posed by the man-child presently holding our highest office and his access to nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. And, when you add China and North Korea to the stew, the international situation is extremely volatile requiring a steady hand and a mature intellect to navigate us through these times. We do not have, except for the Joint Chiefs, a steady hand on the tiller today and that is my motivation for publishing this essay again.

Sticks, Stones, and Nukes

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, a zero sum game if there ever was one.

Warfare began with sticks and stones and until modern times, casualties were counted in ones and twos, then hundreds in World War 1, then in World War 2 thousands and those 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, however, a crew of two has the power to kill millions of people thousands of miles away on the opposite side of the planet most of whom would be innocents. The power to kill millions of human beings in one fell swoop once unimaginable is  today’s reality. Military personnel in the US, Russia, and China sit around the clock at their underground consoles with exactly that capability.

Atlas F – ICBM


When I served as an Atlas F ICBM launch control officer in the Strategic Air Command during the Cuban Missile Crisis, SAC was called to DEFCON 2, one step from launching our weapons. I don’t recall conversations about the ethics or morals involved in expending nuclear weapons then. 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, also, that some officers and airmen asked 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 deterrent. I trusted the Commander In Chief, John F. Kennedy. Our unhesitating willingness to launch was what kept nuclear war at bay.  Had there been a nuclear exchange I would have  been 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 of us 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 also 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.

Recently I read in the news crew members 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 no medals not even a thank you – what we did was nothing less than what was expected. What we got instead was more practice countdowns, more testing and on-site performance evaluations, more classroom work, more alerts – doing exactly what was expected of us. Minimum passing grade on tests remained 100% and some officers and airmen, a few personal friends in fact, were eliminated. That was then – this is now.

Over the years I have found myself thinking more and more about my own thinking during those tense days. I remain secure with the correctness of my decisions and my commitment at that time and, at the same time, I am 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 very large hydrogen warhead would be on its way to target. Detonation was 15 to 20 minutes minutes away or less depending on the target. The screenplay won a prize from the Page International Screenwriting competition in 2011 and was 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 too 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 and under the ocean in submarines attended to by increasingly disaffected and bored crews paints a picture both dangerous and encouraging. The dangers remain real, however, and I have come to understand that for many people nuclear war cannot be imagined. Several years ago I had a personal experience that made my time sitting at an ICBM launch console real.

I worked for several years in North Western Poland, in the beautiful and ancient city of Torun, immediately after the fall of Communism. There were still Soviet soldiers present who had been stranded there selling their gear in the market place  for money to buy food. I arrived in the middle of the night on my first visit and taken from the airport in Warsaw by a company driver. I was dropped at my hotel and went to my room hoping to get a few hours of sleep. I opened the window for fresh air and plopped down on the bed but wasn’t able to sleep. I could hear in the distance what I took to be heavy artillery fire. Looking out the window to the West I could see the sky illuminated with each firing.

In the morning I was met by my tlumacz (my interpreter) and driven to the factory. As we were driving along the Vistula River I asked about the  heavy artillery and was informed that this was a former Soviet base which had been taken over by the Polish army and converted now for artillery training. Converted from what? I asked. It had been throughout the Cold War, I was told, a Soviet medium range missile base generally thought to be targeting most of Western Europe. It took me a moment to continue the conversation as I realized this base had been one of my targets during the Cold War! There would be no city here had we struck that base. Of course I never mentioned this to anyone for as long as I worked in Poland. The wheel turns in amazing ways.

The danger today, I believe, lies in the existential weariness of nearly 60 years, more or less, facing hypothetical threats as compared to the reality of the Cold War and in the moment an unsteady hand on the nuclear trigger. On the other hand, 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 nuclear warfare and there are actions to eliminate those weapons. There can be no winners in a nuclear war only losers – nothing would be gained, civilization would be lost – we would, without question, be back to sticks and stones. If there is hope for civilization, abolition of nuclear weapons must be the first step. May we live to see that day, it’s the world I want my grandchildren and their grandchildren to live in.

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but WWIV will be fought with sticks and stones. – Albert Einstein

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