One of the fundamental issues in personal ethics has to do with facing singularities in life. We will all die someday, and face something at the end, which could be sudden and random or predictable and prolonged. But facing sudden violence from an enemy, especially fed by resentment, is especially problematical; for me, pimping victimization just won’t get it.
We generally think about appropriateness of behavior and bearing in terms of playing by the rules of the system, of “democratic capitalism” as it is in the West, given a narrow focus on personal responsibility and transparent consequences, with the expectation that the legal and physical infrastructures will always function with stability as they do now. People who do well in life legitimately (from any Western or reasonably stable country) generally deal with this personalized moral paradigm well. But a sizable minority of people (at least in my own social media feeds) talk as if they believe everyone has an obligation that they could start out with nothing and start over in a post-technology world – the doomsday preppers.
While there were scattered kooky publications predicting financial ruin throughout the nineties, most of us suddenly felt we had to deal with the idea of sudden apocalypse after 9/11. Many asymmetric threats, including small nuclear bombs and dirty bombs, as well as biological weapons, became the subject of widespread speculation. The anthrax attacks shortly after 9/11 contributed. An online preview of a chapter on terrorism in my DADT II book got hacked on April Fools Day, 2002, at exactly the point where I was talking about small nuclear weapons.
Like Dr. Strangelove, we’ve learned to live with all this, and the fear, from my perspective, has receded. But the scare has returned with the increasing threats from North Korea. There are two main threats. The most obvious would be North Korea’s long range ICBM’s actually being able to deliver thermonuclear weapons on US cities. Off hand, it sounds like this may be more difficult for North Korea to achieve than most reports (and Kim Jong Un’s bravado) suggest but by mid 2019 it would probably be a realistic threat. But in the meantime, based on scattered reports (including James Woolsey’s) it sounds like North Korea might well be able to detonate an EMP weapon at fairly high altitude, from either a satellite or missile; this may be easier to do. Such an event would much more likely be an E1 (from a fission device) than an E3 (fusion, or Carrington solar storms) but it could severely damage the US technological infrastructure and home devices, unless they were shielded. That’s why I disagree with some speculations that North Korea would only use nuclear blasts.
While North Korea has said it would use the weapons only if it felt threatened, it has recently said that all of its nukes are pointed at the US only. (That’s absurd; only the medium or long range ones can reach US territory.) Since most of North Korea’s people as individuals have almost nothing, Kim Jong Un can play the card of targeting US civilians for personal loss, having everything to lose personally. This was a common tactic of revolutionary communism in the 60s and 70s (consider the Khmer Rouge, and Patty Hearst, for that matter), long before Al Qaeda brought its own horror to American civilians. I think of this as the “Scarlet O’Hara” problem, in the opening of “Gone with the Wind”, where Scarlet first contemplates that her privileged life could be taken away from her by force during war. But she gets it back (“I’ll never be hungry again”). But maybe the rest of us would not be so personally resilient. (Think about a similar scene in the middle of “Cold Mountain”—“I can embroider but I can’t darn!”)
The concern about EMP has been known a long time (a Popular Mechanics magazine issue called attention it a week before 9/11) but concern increased somewhat in 2009 with the publication of Fortschen’s novel “One Second After”, which has yet to make it to film. Ted Koppel’s 2015 “Lights Out” book has reinforced the concern, as has perhaps NBC’s series “Revolution” (which really offers a different explanation for the blackout). The US has an EMP commission, which was reportedly defunded in October. As I’ve noted, it’s mostly conservative media outlets which have been willing to talk about this, some of them reporting explicit EMP threats from Kim and reporting that Trump recently has said he understands the threat. So far, Huffington Post is the only major “liberal” publication to deal with it in detail.
That brings us to the subject of US missile defense. If in fact NORAD and similar systems could knock down 100% of missiles that North Korea or any future rogue state could fire, the US citizens would not have to take the nuclear threat from Kim personally, as aimed at them out of vengeance.
Mainstream journalistic reports on current capacity are not too encouraging. A Washington Post article Nov. 29 by Bonnie Berkowitz and Aaron Steckelberg talk about a GMD system that right now could handle “only” 44 missiles. (I thought, that’s the maximum number of characters in an IBM mainframe dataset name!) But the New York Times on Nov. 16 has an article about layered defense by David Sanger and William Broad. PBS News Hour after Thanksgiving gave a more pessimistic assessment.
What, we may ask, happened to Reagan’s Star Wars (Strategic Defense Initiative) proposal of 1983? SDI would not have defended against all kinds of threats, but one of the issues was that the very concept contradicted MAD (mutually assured destruction) so it was seen as inappropriate for the traditional Cold War with the Soviet Union and China. But it makes a lot more sense in defending against rogue nations, who also could hire clandestine terrorists (as from Al Qaeda or ISIS).
An effective defense system would have to anticipate submarine launches or possibly from rogue hijacked ships (as seems to happen in “One Second After” and is speculated in Michael Maloof’s “A Nation Forsaken”).
This brings up my own background. Early in my career, my background seemed to point to defense, and my second full time job was working coding missile intercept subroutines in FORTRAN (later assembler) at the Naval Command System Support Activity (NAVCOSSACT) at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington DC, from 1971-1972, about nineteen months. I worked in a four-story building near the river and Water Street which surely has been renovated by now, beyond recognition; but there were no windows inside. One of the systems was called “COMINT” and the results of the simulations were to be used in the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitations Talks). Perhaps the result of these talks was a scaling back of defensive systems. But I know from having worked there that the mathematics and theory of how to do everything was quite advanced at the time, 45 years ago.
One reason for my leaving this job and going to Univac in New Jersey in 1972 was the issue of my getting a Top Secret Clearance (I had Secret only) given my pseudo-psychiatric history after my expulsion from William and Mary in the Fall of 1961 (for admitting “latent homosexuality” to the Dean covertly). I would have my programs keypunched (or would punch them myself) and turn in compiles and test shots upstairs at a “production control center”. Eventually the modules and results would be taken to an “inner sanctum” of other programmers with top secret clearances. We surely are way beyond all this now.
While in the Army (“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, 1968), I spent a summer in the Pentagon. I do remember conversations to the effect that the draft, enhancing conventional capability, were seen as part of psychological nuclear deterrent by enemies (i.e., we could demand some sacrifice by individuals if we had to). I’ll get more into the “McNamara’s Morons” issue in a book review soon. But the issue of exposure of civilians to involuntary risk and inequitable sacrifice (the Battle of Britain issue in 1940) was on people’s minds. We see that today the way we refer to Vietnam-era draft dodging (both Clinton and Trump) by politicians today. I would go to the library and read articles on the impacts of nuclear strikes on various cities (I remember one about St. Louis, and in 1983 the TV movie “The Day After” would show Kansas City in such a situation; or later, “Testament“, showing northern California residents awaiting radiation sickness after San Francisco gets it). Even then, though, the ability of the US to defend itself with missiles was said to be considerable, following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which had unfolded suddenly while I was a pseudo-patient at NIH, and with my daytime student passes, the only one on the ward who understood what was going on.
I also worked three summers (1965 through 1967) at David Taylor Model Basin (near Washington) while finishing graduate work at KU; similarly, it seemed that weapons systems detection systems were really quite advanced then. Although computing has become personalized in a revolutionary way since then (the Internet and social media), the basic command and control hardware and software were intact in the 1960s, when we put a man on the Moon.
So, coming back to where we are with missile defense today, in short, it is not politically controversial to expect missile defense approaching 100%. Having that capability would take Kim Jong Un’s direct threats to individual Americans (I take them personally) off the table. Nothing less than that should be acceptable.
It would be necessary to take down missiles even before they enter continental US air space. Missile tests that result in missiles go beyond Japan out into the Pacific should be shot down.
But, there are those in the world who want to see everyone brought equally low, to start over. That is radicalism 101. It also relates to nihilism. (The extreme Left wants this to happen to almost everyone, like in North Korea; the extreme Right wants to waste those whom it deems unfit to live – that’s what Nazism was all about.) Right now, we have to wonder if we’ll have the world as we know it eighteen months from now. There are plenty of moralizers on social media who will preach mandatory prepping for everyone; you don’t know if thirty minutes from now, the lights go out forever. It shouldn’t be that way. We need to do the least controversial thing to protect ourselves, and make our missile defense solid. Maybe then I could personally pay more attention to more localized “identity politics” which seems pretty meaningless right now.
The Libertarian Party had stressed missile defense, while avoiding foreign engagements, back in the 1990s, as Harry Browne had explained in his book “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World“. I remember his talking about this at a conference in Manassas VA in May 1996.
(Posted: Wednesday, January 10, 2018. At 9:30 PM EST)