Noam Chomsky: The Dimming Prospects for Human Survival
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A previous article I wrote explored how security is a high priority for government planners: security, that is, for state power and its primary constituency, concentrated private power - all of which entails that official policy must be protected from public scrutiny.
In these terms, government actions fall in place as quite rational, including the rationality of collective suicide. Even instant destruction by nuclear weapons has never ranked high among the concerns of state authorities.
To cite an example from the late Cold War: In November 1983 the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization launched a military exercise designed to probe Russian air defenses, simulating air and naval attacks and even a nuclear alert.
These actions were undertaken at a very tense moment. Pershing II strategic missiles were being deployed in Europe. President Reagan, fresh from the "Evil Empire" speech, had announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed "Star Wars," which the Russians understood to be effectively a first-strike weapon - a standard interpretation of missile defense on all sides.
Naturally these actions caused great alarm in Russia, which, unlike the U.S., was quite vulnerable and had repeatedly been invaded.
Newly released archives reveal that the danger was even more severe than historians had previously assumed. The NATO exercise "almost became a prelude to a preventative (Russian) nuclear strike," according to an account last year by Dmitry Adamsky in the Journal of Strategic Studies .
Nor was this the only close call. In September 1983, Russia's early-warning systems registered an incoming missile strike from the United States and sent the highest-level alert. The Soviet military protocol was to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own.
The Soviet officer on duty, Stanislav Petrov, intuiting a false alarm, decided not to report the warnings to his superiors. Thanks to his dereliction of duty, we're alive to talk about the incident.
Security of the population was no more a high priority for Reagan planners than for their predecessors. Such heedlessness continues to the present, even putting aside the numerous near-catastrophic accidents, reviewed in a chilling new book, "Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety," by Eric Schlosser.
It's hard to contest the conclusion of the last commander of the Strategic Air Command, Gen . Lee Butler, that humanity has so far survived the nuclear age "by some combination of skill, luck and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion."
The government's regular, easy acceptance of threats to survival is almost too extraordinary to capture in words.
In 1995, well after the Soviet Union had collapsed, the U.S. Strategic Command, or Stratcom, which is in charge of nuclear weapons, published a study, "Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence."
A central conclusion is that the U.S. must maintain the right of a nuclear first strike, even against non-nuclear states. Furthermore, nuclear weapons must always be available, because they "cast a shadow over any crisis or conflict."
Thus nuclear weapons are always used, just as you use a gun if you aim it but don't fire when robbing a store - a point that Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, has repeatedly stressed.
Stratcom goes on to advise that "planners should not be too rational about determining ... what an adversary values," all of which must be targeted. "[I]t hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. . That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project to all adversaries."