How to live while under constant threat?

Russian president Putin has announced Russia’s newest weapon: a hypersonic missile, which flies so fast that it cannot be stopped, and can barely be traced, to land destruction on precise targets either by simple collision or by conventional warhead (no nukes here), (see https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/08/22/is-russias-doomsday-missile-fake-news-putin-hypersonic-nuclear-cruise-moscow-kremlin/). So we have always hanging over our heads, so to speak, weapons which can strike with no warning, together with the continuous cyberwarfare which may as you read this be affecting political and social campaigns, actual election counts, businesses’ and cities’ computer systems, power, water, and other infrastructure systems, aviation, and so on. Add to that the possibility of pop-up storms and other violent weather systems which appear before we can be warned, and we are in a very threatening environment.

I am reminded of earlier attempts to deploy military threats which could not be predicted or intercepted: fragmentary obit bombardment systems (FOBS), multiple orbit bombardment systems (MOBS), and of course anything that could fly below the radar (cruise missiles and drones). We’ve been here before, and apparently never left. The new military element really is the underlying cyberwarfare, which keeps us from knowing, for example, what the U.S. is really doing to China, N. Korea, and Iran (and vice-versa). The new non-military element is the climate emergency (to be addressed in a late post).

Of course,  served during the earlier Cold War, and lived the time since, I realize that this political and military situation, which managed to eventually feel less threatening, has existed since WWII. There was a time when the Communist Threat was very strong in America; the building of bomb shelters was so common in housing and public buildings that new churches under construction sometimes considered whether to include one (and should it be big enough for the regular congregation, or also for the Christmas/Easter attendance). Children were taught to hide under school desks in event of nuclear explosion. Spies were very active. Intermediate Ballistic Missiles were posted in Europe, aimed at the Soviet Union. B-47 medium-range bombers were based in Africa and other places to somewhat surround the Soviet Union. The strategic bombers, ICBMs, and sea-launched nuclear missiles, together composed a danger; at least one national command centre was built underground, and airborne command posts were in the air all the time. The DMZ between the Koreas was firmly established; the Middle East was a continuous powder keg; the wars in Southeast Asia continued; and China was being brought into the community of nations only very slowly. India and Pakistan continued to be at odds; as were the Soviet Union and China at one point. The Pentagon Papers exposed the U.S. falsifications which formally committed that country to the wars; clouds were being seeded to induce heavy rains on enemy territory; secret wars were being fought; the arms race continued in other forms even after START I which, I think, was nothing short of a miracle in itself (see the “New Yorker” articles in May and June of 1973 – I have hard copies; sorry, you’ll have to find the URL yourself). Proxy wars between the U.S. and Soviet Union took place in Asia and Africa, along with all sorts of political subversion by each country in the other’s spheres of influence. Mutually Assured Destruction (even if you hit us first, we will have enough left over to wipe you out) was the nuclear doctrine.

It is to be remembered with great gratitude that, notwithstanding all the spying and military action, and the political turmoil around the world, the BIG ONE never happened even when countries had tactical nuclear weapons at hand (little things could easily have led to bigger things) and continues not to happen.

In my ninth post “Why can’t we live up to our ideals?” (January 3, 2019) I told a story which underlies my personal conviction that only really stupid or crazy people give wars. In the current U.S. administration, where many very smart people have been dismissed from serving in some powerful advisory and decision-making positions, it is fortunate that the President, while a severely aberrant decision-maker, at least seems more adverse to war than his (very recently) past and present advisors. However, many news reports show that some intelligence and military advisors are loath to provide him full information for fear that he will divulge it publicly or to Russians, and might even disclose sources (see for example https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/11/military-officers-trump/598360/). One wonders what quality of decisions he can make without adequate information. One also wonders whether commanders with fuller information will find it necessary to evaluate presidential orders before complying. Of course, the reverse is also possible: what if people guide the president by their selective arrangement of information, deciding among themselves beforehand what might prompt or derail a possible decision. Add to this the variety of ways in which the National Security Council and others have processed information and developed recommendations (see Amy B. Zegart Flawed by Design: the Evolution of the CIA, JCS, and NSC), some accidentally competent, others not so much. Paranoia reigns here.

A standard requirement within probably all governments is that leaders be briefed on the top decision-makers of other countries: what are their backgrounds, their philosophies, who are their mentors, their most trusted advisors, and who their followers; how do they make decisions; what are their values; how have they acted and spoken in the past publicly and non-publicly; how to evaluate their intellectual abilities, temperament, psychological and physical health, whether there are addictions, and what is their character. One wonders how these briefings describe Trump and his advisors and cabinet officers. These evaluations affect how other decision-makers construct their approaches. All this uncertainty has always been present in international relations (how did they evaluate Stalin and later Soviet leaders, Mao and his successors, Sun Yat-Sen, Chiang Kai-Shek, de Gaule, Churchill, Roosevelt then Truman, Eisenhower, and so forth) as now. And yet we have survived, but not necessarily because we always knew what we were doing.

So, things are not really that different from earlier years, but that really does not comfort us, nor, more importantly, does it provide reason to be optimistic about the future. One wants to be able to believe that “systems are in place,” or that there are “steady hands” at the wheel of the ship of state, and that “reason will prevail,” to use common assurances.

What is required is that many, many people at high levels and low (see my post “Character in Politicians”, Aug. 31, 2018), and we in the general public, insist on having informed consent to what is going on in the corridors of power; that we understand the systems and be in control of them (increasingly unlikely as more artificial intelligence enters those systems – see Coders: the Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, Clive Thompson), and that the conventional behaviours upon which we used to depend (without realizing it) return. We have been learning that those conventions have had much more to do with how decisions of state have been taken than we had realized (see Samantha Powers’ “Afterward” in The Education of an Idealist). We had assumed that laws, rules, regulations, and court decisions had formed protective barriers against aberrant behaviour. We were wrong. We realize now that it is only the values, moral courage, sense of duty, and those conventions which protect us from madness, autocracy, and self-destruction.

 

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