Behind the Western Shoshone flag, protesters move down the road towards the Nevada Test Site gate, May 28, 2006

Andrew Lichterman

Sunday, I was at the Nevada Test Site, speaking at a demonstration against Divine Strake, a high explosive test that will detonate 700 tons of high explosive to simulate the effects of a low-yield nuclear explosion. One of the main points of my talk there was that mainstream debate about U.S. weapons programs remains largely confined to how best to pursue military dominance in service of what really is a global empire. Whether either empire or the use of overwhelming violence to sustain it are acceptable remains well outside the realm of “reasonable” discussion.

Yesterday, Exhibit A for the narrowness of Beltway discourse appeared in the New York Times: an article about the proposal to put non-nuclear warheads on Trident submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs; see Michael Gordon, “Pentagon Seeks Nonnuclear Tip for Sub Missiles,The New York Times online, May 29, 2006) Much of the piece was devoted to the hyper-narrow debate in Congress, focused mainly on whether or not a non-nuclear SLBM launch might be mistaken for a nuclear attack on another nuclear weapons state (particularly Russia), resulting in a catastrophe for us (and really, who else do U.S. politicians care about, anyway?). The rest covered the barely broader perspectives offered by Washington arms controllers, some of whom apparently support the move to conventional strategic missiles, and some of whom do not. The most critical comment came from Steve Andreason, a former Nation Security Council staffer:

“‘Long-range ballistic missiles have never been used in combat in 50 years,’ Mr. Andreasen said. ‘Once the U.S. starts signaling that it views these missiles as no different than any other weapon, other nations will adopt the same logic.’” Gordon, “Pentagon Seeks Nonnuclear Tip for Sub Missiles.”

Bruce Blair, President of the World Security Institute and normally a sensible and insightful voice on arms control issues, offered views that were, if correctly reported, pretty disappointing. According to the Times, Blair described the development of highly accurate and destructive non-nuclear missiles with global reach as “a welcome trend toward substituting conventional weapons for nuclear systems, assuming that adequate safeguards can be worked out to avoid the risk of inadvertent nuclear confrontation.” The Times piece quoted Blair directly as saying

“‘They make a lot more sense than 14 subs loaded to the gills with nuclear-armed Trident missiles in this day and age.’” Gordon, “Pentagon Seeks Nonnuclear Tip for Sub Missiles.”

One can never know what someone really said to a reporter, or what the context was–reporters’ agendas frame the interview, and inevitably drive the choice of quotes. But to put it simply, anyone who thinks that its good for the U.S. to spend a single dime on new, more useable strategic weapons, whether nuclear or conventional, is not on the same side of the global struggle that I am. Further, under anything like the current distribution of wealth and power and with nuclear arsenals still numbering in the thousands, substituting a few highly accurate, destructive, and usable “conventional” missiles for nuclear ones will not reduce the nuclear danger. In the real world of a military industrial complex intertwined with thoroughly corrupt political and corporate elites firmly committed to global military dominance, we won’t get conventional strategic weapons instead of nuclear weapons. We will get dangerous numbers and varieties of both.

There was no discussion in the Times piece of the fact that the “conventional” Trident clearly is intended to conduct surprise first strikes inside of sovereign states. It is part of a broader plan to develop “Global Strike” capabilities capable of hitting targets anywhere on earth in a few hours or less, which aims to make it easier to act on the Bush doctrine of preemptive–really, preventive–war. As the 2004 Department of Defense Strategic Deterrence Joint Operating Concept noted, many of the envisioned “Global Strike” scenarios “involve threatened (or actual) preemptive attacks on very-high value targets….” U.S. Department of Defense, Strategic Deterrence Joint Operating Concept, February 2004, p.37.

Although it did mention that states with missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction were a potential target for the conventional Trident if deployed, the Times devoted considerably more ink to the possibility of hitting “terrorists,” for example as they were in the last stages of preparing a strike. William Arkin already has done a good job of rebutting this rationale for conventional Trident and similar “Global Strike” options. As Arkin put it in his Early Warning blog,

“We are talking here about confidence levels that will allow the President of the United States to decide to preemptively attack a terrorist operation in the middle of a sovereign nation within 30 minutes. Why would we believe that U.S. intelligence could detect this with any level of confidence and yet have failed to detect all of the days, months, or years of preparation to get there?”

All the talk about hitting terrorists in their lairs, furthermore, may largely be propaganda cover for a larger agenda involving traditional force-on-force missions against nation-states. Conventional Trident and other Global Strike concepts appear for the most part to be intended to deal with difficult targets the military has been trying to figure out how to destroy for decades, such as mobile missile launchers and hardened targets:

“Global Strike capabilities must be capable of defeating anti-access strategies imposed by distance, physical hardening or active and passive defenses and be able to operate in an environment where friendly forces may not have battlefield dominance.” U.S. Department of Defense, Strategic Deterrence Joint Operating Concept, February 2004, p.36

The Strategic Deterrence Joint Operating Concept describes the range of potential “Global Strike” targets as including “WMD production, storage, and delivery systems, adversary decision-makers, critical command and control facilities, and various adversary leadership power bases.” U.S. Department of Defense, Strategic Deterrence Joint Operating Concept, February 2004, p.36.

The military hopes that advances in missile accuracy and other delivery-system capabilities, together with improved space-based surveillance and other technological advances permitting faster and better targeting, will allow them to destroy some things they now can not, and to destroy with conventional weapons some things currently targeted with nuclear weapons. But if there are targets that can’t be destroyed without nuclear weapons, the military still plans to use them. As Strategic Command (StratCom) Commander General James Cartwright told Inside the Pentagon, “It’s more than just precision; I can’t generate enough energy for some of these targets to destroy them. So I’m not leading you down a path that I can get rid of nuclear weapons.” “U.S. General: Precise Long-Range Missiles May Enable Big Nuclear Cuts,” Inside The Pentagon, April 28, 2005, Pg. 1. Further, developments like increased missile accuracy and earth penetrating capability can be applied to nuclear as well as conventional weapons. They can make existing nuclear weapons more effective, and may make it possible to reduce the yield of nuclear weapons assigned to some targets, making their use more feasible. As General Cartwright also pointed out, “If I can’t get more precise or the energy is just not enough for the conventional explosion, then again we can go to the lower yield discussion.” id.

The tools for making the determination of which targets can be destroyed using conventional weapons and which will require nuclear weapons, and to maximize the circumstances where U.S. decisionmakers will feel comfortable making the choice, are being developed via tests like Divine Strake. For as described in budget request documents, a goal of the program of which Divine Strake is a part is to “develop a planning tool that will improve the warfighter’s confidence in selecting the smallest proper nuclear yield necessary to destroy underground facilities while minimizing collateral damage.The focus of the demonstration is to reduce the uncertainties in target characterization and weapon effect/target response….” Department of Defense Exhibit R-2a, RDT&E Project Justification, February 2006, RDT&E, Defense-Wide/Advanced Technology Development - BA 3, 0603160BR, Project BK - Counterforce

If these programs go forward successfully, they may allow future U.S. decision makers to believe that they can act more aggressively in a crisis, even against a nuclear-armed adversary. Hitting such things as air defenses and less hardened command and control facilities with conventional weapons can emphasize an adversary’s vulnerability, with the target country facing thermonuclear annihilation from the still-vast US arsenal if they use their own nuclear weapons in response to a devastating conventional onslaught. Missile defenses also come into play in this kind of thinking, with even an imperfect missile defense further shifting the odds in favor of the “preemptive” attacker. Its just another round in the game of escalation dominance, but as long as nuclear weapons remain at the top of the ladder, it’s the same suicidal game. And as for adversaries without nuclear arms, conventional ballistic missiles would provide increasingly unaccountable U.S. political elites with new instruments of violence, ushering in an era of push-button punitive expeditions against anyone who refuses to cooperate with their global agenda.

Sooner or later one must look reality in the face, and choose sides. Its not enough to make arguments about the risks or costs of one or another weapons system, or about the environmental impacts of the tests used to develop weapons and refine their use. There’s no such thing as a safe, clean military industrial complex. And so long as the debate is about how to sustain global military dominance, rather than about whether anyone has the right to pursue such a goal, mainstream critique will remain limited to a kind of peer review for empire, with those with the most money and power the final arbiters of the argument. The kinds of elites that are willing to kill poor people wholesale on the other side of the world to maintain their grip on resources and trading relationships that allow endless accumulation of enormous wealth are equally willing to poison their own people while developing the weapons to do so. They also are willing to lie about any and all of it. In the end, both abroad and at home, all but the powerful few lie in the zone of potential “collateral damage.”

Here’s some of what I said about all of last Sunday at the Nevada Test Site Divine Strake protest:

I have been coming out to protests at places like this– test sites, nuclear weapon laboratories, weapons plants– for decades now. The magnitude of the danger that nuclear weapons pose for humanity and the planet is undiminished. Thousands remain deployed around the world, still more than enough to destroy most of human civilization in a day or two, and to devastate the web of life on this planet in ways that would change it forever.

Yet at the same time, the range of debate in this country over what we can do about these terrible weapons, what we are told we can hope for or should talk about in the way of disarmament, seems always to grow smaller. Today, there are few visible on the national political stage who are even willing to mention nuclear disarmament. Despite the fact that the United States has thousands of nuclear weapons and is spending billions every year to modernize them and to study new ways to use them, almost all the talk about nuclear weapons is about how to keep other countries from getting them.

The main focus of debate about U.S. nuclear weapons is not over getting rid of the huge and diverse nuclear arsenal we still have, but over whether building new kinds of nuclear weapons will better serve a declared goal of global military dominance–or whether we can do it just fine with the nuclear weapons we have, and perhaps some new, more accurate and destructive conventional weapons. The goal of military dominance itself is debated hardly at all; the range of respectable discussion is limited to the least risky and expensive ways to achieve it.

As I struggle with this, with how to respond not only to the crisis we are in, but to the lack of a visible, principled opposition in the mainstream, I often turn to the work of Martin Luther King. I find these words every bit as compelling as when they were spoken, perhaps more so in the barren political landscape of the present, when few are willing to go beyond challenging a particular military program or at most a particular war.

In his beyond Vietnam speech, King said,

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.”

It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.

This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

And there is a less-known King address that I often come back to, delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington on March 31, 1968, four days before he was killed. That same day, Lyndon Johnson, the nation split and his presidency in crisis due to the Vietnam war, announced that he was not going to seek re-election. This was also three months before the United States, together with the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in which they promised, over three decades ago now, to negotiate the early cessation of the arms race and the elimination of nuclear arsenals.

King said that day,

“It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.”

King then offered some thoughts on the criticism he had taken for speaking out against the Vietnam war:

“One day a newsman came to me and said, ‘Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you.”

In reply to views of this kind, King said,

“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?”

Social movements, ordinary people acting together by the millions, are the only force that can change history for the better. Our role is not to cut deals in Washington, or even to think about what deals might be cut. Our task is to change the terrain on which the entire debate takes place, to move the boundaries of what is politically possible, even if it takes years or decades or lifetimes. We have to be willing to stand up and say, clearly and loudly, that we don’t want nuclear weapons. We don’t want any more missiles. We don’t want the endless wars that those who profit from war making are trying to sell us. And in the end, we have to be willing to say that we don’t want to be an empire.