The Casual Blog

Tag: Command and Control

Looking on the bright side — how to fix our nuclear problem

This week Trump has been threatening to start a nuclear war against North Korea, which got me rattled.  So far, the sun has come up every morning, and with each additional day with no mushroom clouds it seems more likely that those threats are just bombast.  His continuing along on his golfing vacation is also reassuring, if ridiculous.  But how could anyone with the slightest clue as to what nuclear war would do even talk like that?  And how could anyone think it a good idea to explore what happens when you provoke a nuclearized,  paranoid dictator with threats of ultimate destruction?   

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that Kim Jong-Un is only pretending to be crazy,  Trump’s impulsivity is contained, and we survive.  Even so, the threats will have done real damage.  Markets have been roiled.  In the community of nations, our government is viewed as even more irresponsible and unpredictable.  At the personal level, my own mood has been darker than normal, tense and uncertain, and I’m surely not the only one.  Our mental health is not good.

I usually try to find the bright side of dark situations, so I’ll take a swing at it here. If we’re lucky and avoid disaster, we might finally wake up, realize we’ve long been on the edge of the nuclear precipice, and carefully back away.  Nuclear risks are not something anyone likes to think about, which in part accounts for why we are where we are.  But we can’t not think about them now, with the threat so clear and close.  We might take this as an opportunity to reconsider received ideas and correct some mistakes.    

We thought initially  that nuclear weapons could assure our safety by terrifying others into submission.  When that didn’t work, we raced to build still more weapons, with ever more destructive force, until we could in a matter of hours destroy the world several times over.  We put the weapons on hair-trigger alerts, and the risks of accidents and miscalculations increased.  

In the past decades, there have been several nuclear accidents and close calls that could have killed thousands or sparked an all-out conflagration. In  Command and Control, Eric Schlosser  recounts a number of these, and there was a quick overview last week in the HuffPost .  Our engineering is imperfect, and always will be.  Maintaining large numbers of weapons on hair-trigger alert is incredibly dangerous.   

In addition to the risk of system accidents, we live each day with the risk of human failure.  People make mistakes in the use of violence for any number of reasons — lack of knowledge, lack of sleep, intoxication, mental illness, etc.  And people’s reasoning powers are frequently overwhelmed by  powerful emotions.  It’s far from impossible that fear or anger could cause a nuclear attack that results in a counter attack and the end of the world as we know it.  

The worst possible way to manage this risk is the one we’ve adopted:  give one person with no training or qualifications complete power to launch the missiles.  The dependence on the good judgment of a single individual with no constraints is inherently dangerous.  Even the best of us from time to time make poor decisions when angered or confused.  To put it mildly, Trump is not the best of us.  

So is the situation hopeless? No.  It’s not hard to imagine international agreements that greatly reduce nuclear forces and the risk of total annihilation.  Indeed,  the START treaties accomplished a lot.  The new U.N. treaty banning nuclear weapons adopted by 120 countries shows that more is possible.  It’s not hard to imagine doing away with the hair trigger and engineering in more time for analysis before launching.  Likewise, we could put in place checks and balances on the executive, as we do in other areas.  

But we need to start with adjusting our thinking, and recognizing that the nuclear risk is intolerable.  We need to treat this problem as time-sensitive and high priority.  If we do nothing . . . well, it’s unthinkable.

In the news: some problems with our nukes

This week there was some good and some bad technology news, but first the good news. Kudos to the European Space Agency, which managed the remarkable feat of landing a robot on a modest-sized comet. Understanding and managing the risk of asteroid and comet collisions is a big challenge, and it appears we’re making progress. Also three cheers that the world’s two largest contributors to global warming (that’s us and China) officially agreed to work on it. Sure, talk is cheap, but it’s a step in the right direction.

But I wanted to call attention to a news story that you may have missed, as I almost did: two separate Pentagon studies concluded that the infrastructure of our nuclear program is in serious disrepair and will cost billions to fix. The NY Times put this on page A16 (news death valley).

Though far from the front page, the language was strong: “a searing indictment” of how nuclear weapons facilities have been allowed to decay. They described “a culture of micromanagement and attention to the smallest detail . . . creating busywork, while huge problems with equipment and readiness, most arising from the age of the systems, were ignored.” One study found that morale was low and turnover high among crews for intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers. Missile submarines were frequently out of service.

You may remember the cheating scandal involving missile crews of some months back. One of the new reports blamed not the crews but “a culture of extreme testing” in which tests were required to be near perfect so that good results could be reported up the chain of command, instead of a program to improve the crews’ readiness.

A few months back I wrote about reading Eric Schlosser’s excellent book, Command and Control, Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. The book cites chapter and verse of major problems in our nuclear program, including some that put Americans at serious risk of a catastrophic accidental nuclear explosion. Schlosser found there had been important improvements in safety, but the Times story made me worry.

The Times also reported that the President had told the Pentagon to plan for 12 new missile submarines, up to 100 new bombers, and 400 land-based missiles. Holy kamoly! I thought we were at least keeping in sight the possibility of reducing our nuclear stockpiles and the threat of nuclear war.

Before we spend billions or trillions more, I’d like to hear a good answer to the question, what is the purpose of our nuclear weapons? What good do they do?

The conventional wisdom, more or less, is that we need them to deter nuclear attacks and maintain our prestige. But no nation is currently threatening us, or anyone, with a nuclear attack. Only one nation has ever been the victim of a nuclear attack (by us, on Japan). All other nations without nuclear weapons – that is, those with no deterrence forces – have not come under nuclear attack. That includes ones that got us and other nuclear powers really mad, like North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

Furthermore, even if North Korea or Iran somehow managed to destroy one of our cites with a nuke, does anyone seriously think we’d retaliate against their civilians with a massive nuclear attack? I submit that deterrence, whatever its validity as a theory in the cold war, is valid no longer.

As to prestige, our nuclear weapons have not appeared to strengthen our negotiating power with enemies or friends. Iran and North Korea have been notably unimpressed. And our nukes certainly haven’t saved us the trouble of fighting conventional wars. We have surely not won the contest of who can spend the least on actual war fighting, having spent over a trillion dollars fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The nation with the most nuclear weapons is also the nation that has lost the most treasure through conventional warfare.

A major nuclear war would not only destroy millions of lives directly, but would alter the earth’s ecosystem so as to cause untold additional deaths. As Jonathan Schell explained in The Fate of the Earth, it could amount to the end of human civilization, not to mention the extinction of countless other animals and plants.

It would be nice to think that mismanagement of our nuclear force has reduced this risk, but I’m afraid that it suggests an increased risk of nuclear accidents, and an uncertain capacity for disaster. I submit we need to change our direction, and recommend a visit to

Let me close on a positive note: civilization still exists! In fact, right here in Raleigh, NC, there is great music making and art. Last Sunday, the N.C. Opera did an excellent concert presentation of part of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. This is very dramatic, romantic music. They did the prelude and second act, which focuses on the intoxicating love story of the title characters. Jay Hunter Morris, who was a sensation in the Met’s recent Siegfried, was a sensitive and moving Tristan, and Heidi Melton was an Isolde for the ages. Her voice was amazingly powerful, but also warm, flexible, and true. Conductor Timothy Myers seemed to have a real feeling for this strange and irresistible music, and he had a good band. Thank you N.C. Opera!

I should also give a plug for the current exhibits at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art, which we visited on Sunday afternoon. We started with the late works of Joan Miro. I liked his sculptures, better than his paintings. It was inspiring to see him continuing to experiment with new ideas into his 70s and 80s. There was also a strong exhibit of the work of Robert Rauschenberg. I never quite got Rauschenberg before, but it really helped seeing the wide range of techniques and concepts he worked with. It turns out he was serious about his photography, as well as his painting and constructions. I liked it.

Sleepwalking, yoga, Bach, Schlosser on the nuclear precipice, and Spiegelman’s Maus

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So I apparently had another bizarre sleepwalking experience. After what seemed like a normal night’s sleep, I got up to find several unusual things. There were two wine glasses full of beer on the coffee table – one sitting on top of my laptop. There was a bowl with popcorn kernels, and a lot of popcorn on the floor. In the kitchen, the light on the stove hood vent was on, and the microwave popcorn wrappers were strewn about.

My first thought was that we’d had a break in, but the various quasi-valuable things in the vicinity were still around, and the door was locked from inside. That left just two possibilities – Sally and me. When she got up, she verified she had not knowingly done any of this eating and drinking.

From my prior somnambulism, I figured it had to be me. But I had absolutely no recollection of any such activity. And I would never, ever put beer in a wine glass – or worse, set the glass on my computer! And I did not know exactly how to operate the light on the stove hood, which I never use.

It is very strange to think of such complex activity happening without any consciousness whatever. Eating and drinking without meaning to is bad, but it could get worse. Is there any safety module that keeps the sleepwalker from going over the balcony rail? And falling twelve stories?
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In the last few days, I’ve taken note of various waking automatic behaviors and strange forgetful episodes. I expect everyone has some. Did I take that pill already or not? I parked that car, but where? My foot is bouncing up and down, which I did not tell it to do. Sally had a good one: she couldn’t find the pomegranate juice, and looked high and low, before realizing she’d already gotten it out of the refrigerator.

So a lot of our behavior is taking place without our consciously knowing anything about it. This is at times surely a good thing, allowing us to save mental energy for where it’s most needed. Cultivating good habits is partly an accommodation to the reality that there’s just not enough time or energy to think about every behavior. We choose a template that we think is likely to be effective in different future situations and repeat it until it is automatic.

But still, sleepwalking is pretty weird.

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Some yoga

The weather for most of this week was unseasonably warm and sunny, but it turned cold and rainy for the weekend. So no golf, but I did get in two yoga classes. On Saturday morning Suzanne filled in for Yvonne at Blue Lotus, and led an hour-long open level vinyasa class. She kept things flowing pretty fast, which I like, and I did a reasonable amount of sweating.

On Sunday morning, based on the recommendation of Larisa (my personal trainer), I tried a class with Hayley at Evolve. Her style involved holding poses for longer, which was challenging. When she said we’re going to do hand stands, I was surprised, but game. I managed to kick up and stay up for a while against the wall. Then Larisa asked Hayley to give me some pointers, and I had another go and managed to have a fairly spectacular crash. But I learned something: Hayley theorized that I got a little surprised when I touched the wall and let my elbow bend. Onward and upward.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

On Saturday night we had a fine Italian dinner a Caffe Luna, then went to a performance of the N.C. Symphony and the N.C. Master Chorale of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. I was not familiar with the piece, but liked it very much. The chorus sounded great in some very challenging choral writing. The four soloists had pleasing voices and style, and the orchestra played well. Our friend trumpeter Paul Randall had a very high and prominent part in the last cantata, and shined.

My only complaint was conductor Grant Llewellyn seemed overly metronomic — without much rhythmic flexibility. I guess that’s one way to do it, but it seemed to me Bach would have liked more expression. We went out for a drink with Paul and a couple of his colleagues afterwards. It was interesting hearing the younger musicians talk about the intense challenges of auditioning for orchestra jobs.

Command and Control — the Nuclear Weapons Precipice

Speaking again of sleeping problems, for several nights recently I had anxiety dreams, inspired, I think, by reading Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion o Safety, by Eric Schlosser. The headline is: for decades we lived frighteningly close to the edge of an accidental nuclear disaster. A hydrogen bomb could have exploded in any of numerous training or maintenance accidents, while the huge arsenal of missiles could have been unleashed through computer error or human misjudgment.

In the final chapter Schlosser indicates that the risk of an accidental explosion from a US weapon has gone down, but it may have gone up in countries like Pakistan and India. And we’ve still got the irreducible human factor – that is, imperfect humans are in charge of these incredibly destructive weapons, and they could make a bad decision that could cost thousands or millions of lives.

Even before reading the book, I was generally of the view that it is insane to build, maintain, and keep on alert nuclear weapons capable of destroying many millions of innocent civilians and much of the planetary ecosystem – ending, as they say, life as we know it. This was true in the cold war, but even more so now, when there is no existential military threat. Why would any rational person or society do such a thing? After reading the book, and learning more about the theories of nuclear war and the practical engineering problems of the weapons, it seems even crazier.

How can it be that de-nuclearization is not a high priority issue in national and world politics? Of course, we do much hand wringing about Iran’s potential for a nuclear weapon, which makes it even odder that we somehow mostly avoid discussing our own weapons and their disastrous potential. It’s like we’re sleepwalking. Perhaps Schlosser’s book will help us start to wake up.


On a cheerier note (ha!), I started reading Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel masterpiece about the Holocaust. It’s in part about Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, who was concentration camp survivor. The early pages are about his life in pre-war Poland, first as a bachelor and then meeting Spiegelman’s mother. It’s surprisingly sweet, but also direct and honest, and remarkably vivid. I’ve never read anything remotely like it, and I really like it.