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Tomgram: Rajan Menon, Normalizing Nukes, Pentagon-Style

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

Despite the dystopian fantasies about nuclear terror and destruction that hit popular culture in the Cold War era and those "duck and cover" drills kids like me experienced in school in the 1950s, the American people were generally sheltered from a full sense of the toll of a nuclear cataclysm. Consider, for instance, the U.S. military's secret 1960 Single Integrated Operational Plan, or SIOP, for loosing the American arsenal against Russia and China at the height of the Cold War. Three thousand two hundred nuclear weapons were to be "delivered" to 1,060 targets in the Communist world, including at least 130 cities, most of which would, if all went according to plan, essentially cease to exist. Estimates of casualties ran to 285 million dead and another 40 million injured (figures that undoubtedly underplayed the effects of both mass fires and radiation). Such a strike would, theoretically at least, only have been launched in retaliation for a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States, yet the figures don't even include U.S. casualties.

And mind you, those estimates were offered almost a quarter of a century before we learned even worse news. Thanks to the phenomenon of nuclear winter, a "war" of that sort would have been likely to threaten human survival on this planet. Today, we know that even a far more localized and modest version -- say, a South Asian nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan -- could throw enough particulates into the stratosphere to block sunlight for significant periods and cause mass global starvation, threatening the deaths, it's estimated, of perhaps a billion people across the planet.

In his new book, The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg, a man deeply involved in nuclear planning of the Cold War era (before he became the famed leaker of the Pentagon Papers), describes the situation:

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"What none of us knew at that time -- not the Joint Chiefs, not the president or his science advisors, not anyone else for the next two decades, until 1983 -- were the phenomena of nuclear winter and nuclear famine, which meant that a large nuclear war of the kind we prepared for then or later would kill nearly every human on earth (along with most other large species)."

As you read TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon's analysis of the first Nuclear Posture Review of the Trump era, think about the Pentagon's urge to create ever more "useable" nuclear weapons and ever more advanced delivery systems for them. Then try to take in just what a path of folly we remain headed down -- especially with a president once reportedly eager for "a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal" and proud beyond belief of the size of his "nuclear button."

This is indeed the road to hell and it's paved with the worst intentions imaginable. Tom

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Dr. Strangelove in the Pentagon
Lowering the Nuclear Threshold and Other Follies of the New Nuclear Posture Review
By Rajan Menon

If you're having trouble sleeping thanks to, well, you know who... you're not alone. But don't despair. A breakthrough remedy has just gone on the market. It has no chemically induced side effects and, best of all, will cost you nothing, thanks to the Department of Defense. It's the new Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR, among the most soporific documents of our era. Just keeping track of the number of times the phrase "flexible and tailored response" appears in the 75-page document is the equivalent of counting (incinerated) sheep. Be warned, however, that if you really start paying attention to its actual subject matter, rising anxiety will block your journey to the slumber sphere.

Threats Galore

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that the United States devoted $611 billion to its military machine in 2016. That was more than the defense expenditures of the next nine countries combined, almost three times what runner-up China put out, and 36% of total global military spending. Yet reading the NPR you would think the United States is the most vulnerable country on Earth. Threats lurk everywhere and, worse yet, they're multiplying, morphing, becoming ever more ominous. The more Washington spends on glitzy weaponry, the less secure it turns out to be, which, for any organization other than the Pentagon, would be considered a terrible return on investment.

The Nuclear Posture Review unwittingly paints Russia, which has an annual military budget of $69.2 billion ($10 billion less than what Congress just added to the already staggering 2018 Pentagon budget in a deal to keep the government open), as the epitome of efficient investment, so numerous, varied, and effective are the "capabilities" it has acquired in the 17 years since Vladimir Putin took the helm. Though similar claims are made about China and North Korea, Putin's Russia comes across in the NPR as the threat of the century, a country racing ahead of the U.S. in the development of nuclear weaponry. As the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler has shown, however, that document only gets away with such a claim by making 2010 the baseline year for its conclusions. That couldn't be more chronologically convenient because the United States had, by then, completed its latest wave of nuclear modernization. By contrast, during the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia's economy contracted by more than 50%, so it couldn't afford large investments in much of anything back then. Only when oil prices began to skyrocket in this century could it begin to modernize its own nuclear forces.

The Nuclear Posture Review also focuses on Russia's supposed willingness to launch "limited" nuclear strikes to win conventional wars, which, of course, makes the Russians seem particularly insidious. But consider what the latest (December 2014) iteration of Russia's military doctrine actually says about when Moscow might contemplate such a step: "The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, and also in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy."

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Reduced to its bare bones this means that countries that fire weapons of mass destruction at Russia or its allies or threaten the existence of the Russian state itself in a conventional war could face nuclear retaliation. Of course, the United States has no reason to fear a massive defeat in a conventional war -- and which country would attack the American homeland with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons and not expect massive nuclear retaliation?

Naturally, the Nuclear Posture Review also says nothing about the anxieties that the steady eastward advance of NATO -- that ultimate symbol of the Cold War -- in the post-Soviet years sparked in Russia or how that shaped its military thinking. That process began in the 1990s, when Russian power was in free fall. Eventually, the alliance would reach Russia's border. The NPR also gives no thought to how Russian nuclear policy might reflect that country's abiding sense of military inferiority in relation to the United States. Even to raise such a possibility would, of course, diminish the Russian threat at a time when inflating it has become de rigueur for liberals as well as conservatives and certainly for much of the media.

Strangelove Logic

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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