Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

If you look at the Pentagon’s official list of how many nuclear weapons accidents, serious accidents, we have — what they call “broken arrows” — the list contains 32 accidents. But I was able to obtain a document through the Freedom of Information Act that said just between the years 1950 and 1968, there were more than 1,000 accidents involving nuclear weapons. And many of the serious accidents I found don’t even appear on the Pentagon’s list. So I’m sure there were many more that I was unable to uncover that occurred.

The problem today is that we have very aging weapons systems — both in the United States and Russia. It’s very old technology. Our principle nuclear bomber, the B-52, hasn’t been built since John F. Kennedy was president. Our principle land-based missile, the Minuteman III, was put into the ground originally in 1970. [It] was supposed to be retired in the early 1980s, and the infrastructure is aging — the wiring, the computers in our Minuteman launch complexes use 9-inch floppy discs. There’s all kinds of potential for problems there — and in Russia, the same thing.

—  Eric Schlosser, in an interview with NPR about his new book on nuclear weapons.

Video — Superpower for Hire: Rise of the Private Military

Today’s post will be light but no less interesting. Vice Media, known for covering many interesting but neglected cultural and sociopolitical topics, has a short documentary on the controversial private military industry, which has risen in both influence and popularity across the world. Though its only 14-minutes long, it offers a pretty good look at this largely hidden world.

Given the rising number of low-intensity conflicts in many parts of the world, and the preference for dealing with through non-governmental means, this will certainly not be the last we hear of PMCs. What are your thoughts and reactions regarding this video?

Check out other Vice videos here.

Arlington National Cemetery

Few symbols are more iconic on Memorial Day than Arlington National Cemetery, which is located in Arlington County, Virginia, directly across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial. Like Memorial Day, this historic treasure has its origins in the American Civil War, which remains the deadliest conflict in U.S. history. 

It was established during the war on the grounds of Arlington House, which had been the estate of the family of Mary Anna (Custis) Lee, wife of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington (George Washington’s wife). Most military personnel who died in battle near Washington, D.C., were buried at the United States Soldiers’ Cemetery in Washington, D.C., or Alexandria Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, but by late 1863 both were nearly full.

On July 16, 1862, Congress passed legislation authorizing the U.S. federal government to purchase land for national cemeteries for military dead, and put the U.S. Army Quartermaster General in charge of this program.In May 1864, Union forces suffered large numbers of dead in the Battle of the Wilderness, leading Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs to find eligible sites for large new military cemetery. Within weeks, his staff recommended Arlington Estate: it was high and free from floods, had a view of the capital, and was aesthetically beautiful. Moreover, as the home of the supreme commander of the Confederate States of America, its confiscation had an important political purpose. 

The government acquired Arlington at a tax sale in 1864 for $26,800, equal to $400,000 today. Mrs. Lee did not appeared in person but rather had sent an agent, who was turned away. In 1874, Custis Lee, the eldest son of Robert E. Lee and the heir to the property, sued the government for ownership of Arlington. In 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor, deciding that Arlington had been confiscated without due process. Congress subsequently returned the estate to him, and shortly after Custis Lee sold it back to the government for $150,000 (over $3.2 million today) at a signing ceremony with Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln.

On May 13, 1864, William Henry Christman was the first soldier to be buried (although burials were not formally authorize until June 15, 1864). The date or name of the first African American burial is unknown but said to have occurred on either July 2 or July 3, 1864; Arlington did not desegregate its burial practices until 1948 under President Harry Truman. The southern portion of the land now occupied by the cemetery was known as Freedman’s Village, a settlement for freed slaves. Over 1,100 freed slaves had lived there during and after the Civil War. They were evicted in 1888 when the estate was repurchased by the government and dedicated as a military installation.

The first national Memorial Day ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery was conducted by President Herbert Hoover on May 30,1929. Commemorated on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day honors men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War – the bloodiest war in American history – and became an official federal holiday in 1971.

Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades. Cities and towns across the United States host Memorial Day parades each year, often incorporating military personnel and veterans. Some of the largest parades take place in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. Additionally, many people take the opportunity to reflect on the noble sacrifices made by our troops throughout history and to this day.   

Victory Day

Russia’s iconic “Iwo Jima” moment — the raising of a flag over the Reichstag, during the seminal Battle of Berlin (2 May 1945).

Yesterday, May 9th, was Victory Day (also known simply as the Ninth of May) a holiday that commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany by the  USSR, which ultimately ended the Second World War in Europe. Although celebrated by most former Soviet republics (especially Belarus and Ukraine, which bore the brunt of the conflict), it is an especially big event in the Soviet Union’s successor state, Russia, where it is known as the “Great Patriotic War.”

Victory came at a tremendous cost: the Eastern Front was by far the largest and bloodiest theatre of World War II, and the deadliest conflict in human history, claiming the lives of over 30 million people (half or more being civilians). The USSR lost at least 9 million soldiers — a third of them in Axis captivity — and just as many civilians, if not more. Some sources suggest that as many as 17 to 27 million Soviet citizens were killed, while others have calculated that perhaps as many as 20 million Soviet civilians lost their lives.

By comparison, the United States lost over a quarter of a million men for the entire war, and fewer than a 3,000 civilians, while the Germans lost 5 million troops on the Eastern Front (and perhaps another one to two million civilians when the Russians invaded). So many young men were killed that the USSR’s population was nearly 50 million less than it should have been, given the families that these men would’ve had. To this day, many former Soviet states have an imbalance between men and women, having not fully recovered from the scale of dead men.

This is a scale of carnage and death that is difficult to grasp. Think of all the pain and suffering caused by loss of several thousand troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans). Now amplify that anguish by several million, with nearly 20% of some countries wiped out (namely Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Poland). The human mind simply can’t process that level of death. How the Soviets managed to move on and rebuild is beyond me.

And while the Soviet Union came out of the war victorious, was economically and structurally devastated. Much of the combat took place in or around densely populated areas, and the brutal actions of both sides contributed to massive loss destruction. The property damage inflicted on the USSR by the Axis invasion was estimated at a cost 679 billion rubles, probably a trillion or more dollars by today’s standards. The siege of a single city, Leningrad, alone cost 1.2 million lives, while the fight over another city, Stalingrad, cost a similar number of lives and by some accounts became the single largest battle in history — not to mention a turning point in the entire war.

In all, the combined damage consisted of complete or partial destruction of 1,710 cities and towns, 70,000 villages/hamlets, 2,508 church buildings, 31,850 industrial establishments, 40,000 miles of railroad, 4100 railroad stations, 40,000 hospitals, 84,000 schools, and 43,000 public libraries. Over 20 million sheep, goats, horses, and other cattle were also slaughtered or driven off. Western Russia, as well Ukraine and Belarus, still bear signs of this devastation (in some cases, fragments of bone and metal have been dug up, though that also happens in Western Europe occasionally).

There is no denying that this sacrifice was instrumental in winning the war. The Russians were dealing with around 85 percent of Axis forces, and German armed forces suffered anywhere from 80 to 93 percent of its military deaths in the Eastern Front. If the USSR had capitulated, Allied forces would have had to contend with a lot more resistance. The war would have been far bloodier and more drawn out. The Russians nearly bled themselves dry in our place.

But this wasn’t merely the result of bravery and stereotypical Russian resoluteness (though those were certainly factors). The markedly brutal nature of warfare on the Eastern Front was the result of the often willful disregard for human life by both sides: Hitler and Stalin each used terror and mass murder to further their aims, and had no qualms about leading millions to their deaths in the name of victory. This included victimizing their own troops and civilians, through mass deportation, threats of execution for cowardice, and human wave attacks.

And keep in mind that all this is in addition to atrocities carried out by the Nazis, including routine massacres of civilians and the brick-by-brick destruction of entire communities (and their inhabitants). There was simply no parallel to this on the Western Front. According to Time:

By measure of manpower, duration, territorial reach and casualties, the Eastern Front was as much as four times the scale of the conflict on the Western Front that opened with the Normandy invasion.

The fact is, as monstrous as Stalin was, and as brutal as the Soviets tended to be (before, during, and after the war), we arguably needed that kind of viciousness on our side in order to win. To put it crudely, Soviet Russia was the bad cop in the war. It took playing Hitler at his own cruel game to put a stop to him, and only the USSR was willing and able to do so. Such is the nature of war. The horror and destruction of the Eastern Front proves exemplifies, in the most extreme example, the fact that most conflicts are hardly black-and-white, nor are they matters of honor and glory. It’s simply about winning in whatever way you can, period. There’s no romanticizing that, although we can certainly do so for the average Soviet soldier who was mixed up in all this, and fought valiantly to the end.

All this stands in contrast to the Allied experience. We Americans would remember the conflict very different, simply because our conduct and memory of the war was much cleaner – we were a democracy fighting a conventional conflict against a fraction of the enemy’s forces. We weren’t occupied and invaded.* We didn’t need to use heartless and self-destructive tactics (nor could we, given the vast differences in the ethics of our political and military leadership).

I’m in no way denigrating the U.S. contribution to the war effort (nor that of other Allied members), especially considering that America helped prop up the USSR during the earlier stages of the way until it could recover its own industrial output.  Moreover, the U.S. did much of the heavy lifting in the Asian theatre — although the Russians, not to mention the Chinese, played a much underrated role in that effort as well (indeed, the latter’s costly resistance to the Japanese was instrumental to weakening them).

I’m simply noting the obvious fact that World War II could not have been won without the Soviet Union, at least not without investing far more of our own blood, money, and time. It’s very unfortunate that few people outside of Russia seem to realize that – as if the sacrifice itself wasn’t horrific enough, it’s barely even acknowledged.

So while the Russians, as well as other Europeans, celebrate their hard-fought victory over Nazi oppression, there’s a level of somberness that underlies all that glory that we can barely relate with. They’ll keep on romanticizing of course, as humans are wont to do. And indeed, the typical soldier deserves it. But we mustn’t forget just how messy and gray most of these conflicts tend to be. With all that said, my heart goes out to the tens of millions of men, women, and even children who fought and died in the single most horrific conflict in human history.

The International Arms Market

The Economist’s #Dailychart  from yesterday revealed the countries that buy and sell the most weapons. The United States, Russia, Germany, China, and France accounted for three-quarters of international arms exports over the past five years, with the first two taking the lion’s share of the export market (largely a legacy of the Cold War, which led both nations to build up a massive and still influential indigenous arms industry).

 

Other major arms dealers include the U.K., Spain, Ukraine, Italy, and Israel. Only 10 other countries, mostly in the developed world, have some sort of presence in the global arms market.

Notably, China — which was once a net importer of weapons, mostly from the U.S.S.R. — has tripled its share of exports in that time, overtaking France and set to surpass Germany as the third largest arms dealer (it still receives almost as many weapons as it sells, however). Germany’s significant role in arms dealing is interesting given the country’s otherwise pacifistic and low-key foreign policy, which is characterized by a reluctance to intervene in international affairs.

Some of the bigger importers include rising powers like India, China, and to lesser degrees Pakistan and South Korea. The Persian Gulf nations of the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia also top the list, as does the tiny but influential city-state of Singapore (which is said to have one of the most advanced and well-trained armed forces in the world). Australia’s fairly high import rate likely reflect’s its growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region and its desire to play a bigger role therein.

Needless to say, this is revealing stuff. Read more about it here.

No Glory For Killed Soldiers

The following was a very interesting read, although I wonder if the issues described in the excerpt and wider article are really anything new in American history (or for that matter, military history in general).

Throughout history, our nation’s greatest leaders have understood on a deeply personal level that however honorably a soldier acquits himself, he can die in vain, and that it is the responsibility of the leaders and citizenry to see to it that they don’t. Our country has lost its sense of that responsibility to a horrifying extent. Our generals have lost the capability to succeed and the integrity to admit failure. Our society has lost the courage and energy to hold them accountable. Over the last decade, our top leaders have wasted the lives of our sons, daughters, and comrades with their incompetence and hubris. After each failure, our citizens have failed to hold them accountable, instead underwriting new failed strategies as quickly as their predecessors with our apathy and sense of detachment. And then we use the tired paeans of “never forget” and “honor the fallen” to distract ourselves from our guilt in the affair. When we blithely declare that they did not die in vain, we deface their honor by using it to wipe the blood from our hands.

Thomas E. Ricks, Yes, Marcus. They Did Die in Vain.

What are your thoughts?

America’s Bloated Military

When one thinks of government largess and inefficiency, the military is hardly the first thing to come to mind — in fact, it’s very often seen as representing the pinnacle of efficiency and integrity, acting as a sort of foil for the incompetent bureaucrats and sleazy politicians in Washington.

Unfortunately, like any large institution, the military — and the rest of the defense apparatus — is just as prone to waste, abuse, and inefficiency, especially when you throw in the pernicious influence of big business (and their supporters/benefactors in Congress).

Mother Jones has provided an excellent in-depth look that explores just how costly our national defense is becoming. From opaque accounting practices and messy bookkeeping, to overindulgence in over-priced and questionable projects, it seems that our military is becoming an increasingly unsustainable burden on our budget and our wider economy (insofar as it drains resources from other worth initiatives).

I encourage you to read the piece in its entirety, as it’s one of the most comprehensive reports on the subject (at least to my knowledge). Obviously, investing in national security to some degree is necessary; but it’s unlikely that defending our borders to the fullest extent requires the amount of spending currently demanded.

Indeed, much of the money goes to things that seem irrelevant in the 21st century battlefield: are all those expensive overseas bases, particularly in peaceful allied countries and regions, necessary? Do we really need to invest tens of billions of dollars in maintaining a fleet of aircraft carriers, when only a handful of countries maintain no more than one or two? Maybe a case could be made to justify it, but in that instance, we should be evaluating such investments, not granting them as a given.

Of course, this is made all the trickier by the fact that many other industries — which tend to employ American labor — are dependent upon the defense apparatus’s largesse: from weapon’s builders to suppliers of food or textiles — not to mention the millions who work directly or indirectly for the many agencies and departments that fall under the national security umbrella. Cutting back on this military-industrial complex — and shifting the resources, money, and manpower to other needs — will take a lot of effort, especially with so many members of Congress having military-centered businesses in their constituencies.

Ultimately, our society and economy alike need to shift focus to more constructive pursuits, such as infrastructure development and job training, perhaps in some cases through the existing military structures (such as the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for many building and maintaining civilian public works). Otherwise, there’s no doubt that far too much financial and productive power is put into national security than what is needed — and not enough people are questioning that, let alone doing something about it (although that seems to be changing, encouragingly).

What are your thoughts?

Your Tax Dollars at Work

While many Americans — particularly on the mainstream right — associate government inefficiency and waste almost exclusively with social programs (namely welfare and social security), the military is clearly not exempt, despite the tendency to lionize it as an almost flawless institution. It, too, is a bureaucratic state agency subject to perversion by special interests and self-serving politicians.

One major case in point concerns the F-35, a stealth fighter jet that is billed as the most sophisticated in the world. Setting aside the fact that modern warfare is relying increasingly more on intelligence and infantry rather than conventional military equipment, this boondoggle has managed to cost far more than its strategic value would merit. As Foreign Policy reports:

The Pentagon’s inspector general has found 363 problems in the way Lockheed Martin and five other defense contractors build the Pentagon’s primary fighter jet of the 21st Century. Hundreds of production errors  “could adversely affect aircraft performance, reliability, maintainability, and ultimately program cost” of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, according to an IG report published today.

The flaws largely consist of the companies’ failure to follow safety and quality control techniques while building the stealth fighter jets. Contractors failed to make sure that manufacturing spaces were clear of harmful debris or that glues used to hold parts of the jets together had not passed their expiration dates. Instructions telling workers how to install parts on the airplane were incorrect.

These production flaws likely contributed to each jet in a recent batch of F-35s needing an average of 859 “quality action requests” before they were ready for delivery, according to the IG. This means that about 13-percent of all work done on a brand new F-35 is “scrap, rework and repair work” to fix problems built into the planes, according the 126 page report.

And how many tax dollars went into this still-unfinished, 50-year project? $1.5 trillion.

But on the plus side, the Pentagon and Lockheed have already addressed 269 of the issues.

Say No to “Support the Troops”?

Steven Salaita of Salon takes a contentious — and no doubt widely-unpopular — stance on the oft-repeated exhortation to “support our troops”, a mantra that has become ubiquitous since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001. His issue is less about actually providing material and emotional support to soldiers, but more about how this concept is abused, to damaging effect:

“Support the troops” is the most overused platitude in the United States, but still the most effective for anybody who seeks interpersonal or economic ingratiation. The platitude abounds with significance but lacks the burdens of substance and specificity. It says something apparently apolitical while patrolling for heresy to an inelastic logic. Its only concrete function is to situate users into normative spaces.

Clichés aren’t usually meant to be analyzed, but this one illuminates imperialism so succinctly that to think seriously about it is to necessarily assess jingoism, foreign policy, and national identity. The sheer vacuity and inexplicability of the phrase, despite its ubiquity, indicates just how incoherent patriotism is these days.

Who, for instance, are “the troops”? Do they include those safely on bases in Hawaii and Germany? Those guarding and torturing prisoners at Bagram and Guantánamo? The ones who murder people by remote control? The legions of mercenaries in Iraq? The ones I’ve seen many times in the Arab world acting like an Adam Sandler character? “The troops” traverse vast sociological, geographical, economic and ideological categories. It does neither military personnel nor their fans any good to romanticize them as a singular organism.

And what, exactly, constitutes “support”? Is it financial giving? Affixing a declarative sticker to a car bumper? Posting banalities to Facebook? Clapping when the flight attendant requests applause?

Ultimately, the support we’re meant to proffer is ideological. The terms we use to define the troops — freedom-fighters, heroic, courageous — are synecdoche for the romance of American warfare: altruistic, defensive, noble, reluctant, ethical. To support the troops is to accept a particular idea of the American role in the world. It also forces us to pretend that it is a country legitimately interested in equality for all its citizens. Too much evidence to the contrary makes it impossible to accept such an assumption.

In reality, the troops are not actually recipients of any meaningful support. That honor is reserved for the government and its elite constituencies. “Support our troops” entails a tacit injunction that we also support whatever politicians in any given moment deem the national interest. If we understand that “the national interest” is but a metonym for the aspirations of the ruling class, then supporting the troops becomes a counterintuitive, even harmful, gesture.

Salatia also feels this has a negative impact on said troops as well:

This way of thinking also inversely demystifies the troops, who are burdened with untenable narratives of heroism the vast majority (like those in all professions) do not deserve. I am neither smart nor foolish enough to define “heroism,” but I am comfortable saying the mere fact of being a soldier doesn’t automatically make one a hero, just as the mere fact of being in prison doesn’t necessarily make one evil.

If we recognize that the troops are in fact human beings, then we simultaneously accept that they are too complex to be reduced to patriotic ephemera. Such recognition is unusual, though. People speak frequently of “our troops,” highlighting the pronoun as if it is imperative to their sense of national belonging. It is an act of possession that projects fantasies of virtue onto an idealized demographic in the absence of substantive virtuous practices that might otherwise foster national pride. Plutocracy ravages the state; we rebuild it with narratives of glory and selflessness, the troops acting as both the signifier and the signified in this nationalistic uplift.

The selflessness of our troops is particularly sacred. Not only do they bring order and democracy to lesser peoples; they also risk (and sometimes give) their lives for the good of others, so that civilians might continue driving, shopping, dining and watching movies, the hallmarks of American freedom. That these notions of sacrifice connote a Christ-like narrative of individual-death-for-collective-pleasure only endows them with even greater cultural power.

I agree that soldiers, like any other social or professional group, have their mix of good and bad people, as well as their own complex motivations and ideologies (e.g. for some troops, their service is just another job or a way to get into school, rather than a selfless patriotic service). But do you agree with Salatia’s take? Is he attributing too much harm to this platitude, or over-analyzing? Or is it indeed problematic, and indicative of vast socio-political problems, to heap so much seemingly reflexively praise? What are your thoughts?

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The following graph compares the 2011 budgets on military and defense with spending on various scientific initiatives that year, as well as with the entirety of NASA’s budget since its foundation in 1958 (yes, it’s been adjusted for inflation).

The conclusion speaks for itself — we spend exponentially more on the military in a given year than we do in all scientific programs and departments combined; and despite all the renewed scientific and public attention on space travel, NASA’s collective budget still pales in comparison to a single year of military spending.

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A friend pointed out that the graph doesn’t take into account military R&D spending, which has historically accounted for many scientific achievements well beyond war and security. However, as of 2010, the year before this graph’s data, military spending in this area amounted to $80 billion, which is a drop in the bucket compared to overall defense spending (and in any case is slated to decrease in future budgets).

Obviously, the point of this chart isn’t to denigrate any spending on the military. Obviously, security and defense are vitally important matters, as is the health of our veterans. But we must question whether our national security actually necessitates $900 billion dollars in a single year. Even the Pentagon has begun to ask for less spending, particularly as it pertains to white elephants that have little relevance in modern warfare.

Of course, the military industrial complex remains stronger than ever, and for all vast social and environmental problems we face in the coming decades, science has yet to develop an equivalent force.

Getting Our Priorities Straight: Science Versus Military Spending