Oops!

The central premise of Lethal Arrogance, this extended warning by Lloyd Dumas, is unassailable mathematics. If there is some probability, per year, that an event will happen (however small the probability is), and that probability is not decreasing – then if you wait long enough, it will certainly happen. Toss a coin long enough, you are sure to see tails; roll dice long enough, you will surely throw snake-eyes. And keep nuclear weapons around long enough, they will eventually go off. Of course, for people to care about some potential event happening, we must be convinced that the probability is sufficiently high that it will occur on a time scale meaningful for us. Any reasonable number of monkeys has such a small probability of typing out a page of Shakespeare that we would have to wait longer than the age of the universe for them to produce King Lear. Unfortunately, there is no way of accurately estimating the probability of accidental nuclear war – or for that matter, of a single accidental missile launch, or a reactor meltdown – in any given year.

One of the services that Lethal Arrogance provides is to debunk the estimates of risks routinely provided by the people who control dangerous technologies. As he shows rather convincingly, there are too many things that no one ever thinks about that can and do go wrong, and too many ways that inevitably fallible humans can defeat the best safeguards, for such assessments to be realistic. In order to convince us that the long term threat is real, he must therefore use anecdotal evidence, in the hopes of producing an “Oh shit, this could happen!” experience in the reader.

These speculations, based on actual events, make very interesting reading. One favorite is the story of the theft of 4.5 kilos of enriched uranium from a Russian shipyard storage facility. The thieves turned out to be a director of one of the divisions of the shipyard, and a retired naval officer. The theft would probably never have been noticed, but they were caught because they left the vault door open. Another amusing tale is the story of an American Lieutenant Colonel and seven other soldiers who find that, under their watch, twenty-four nerve gas shells have gone missing. They paint empty shells to look like the live ones, and leave it at that.

Perhaps I like these stories because they provide comic relief to events such as occurred in the Kremlin in 1995. A U.S. scientific rocket, launched from an island off Norway, was detected by Russian defenses and thought to be headed for Moscow. The Russian embassy had been notified of the rocket launch, but that information somehow hadn’t made it to the command center. As the sections of the rocket separated, they were interpreted by Russian analysts to be several Trident missiles, launched from a submarine, carrying multiple, highly accurate warheads, and due to arrive in fifteen minutes. Alarms alerting the military of an attack sounded all over Russia, the legendary nuclear control suitcase was opened for the first time, and Boris Yeltsin got to study the options there for a Russian counterattack against the United States. The crisis lasted for eight minutes – a few minutes short of the time period that Russian battle plans specified for the decision on a launch or no-launch counter-attack.

The book’s anecdotal approach is buttressed by accumulating statistics on serious accidents. One chart recites fifty-nine major nuclear accidents involving U.S. nuclear weapons, and fifty-six incidents involving the nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of other countries. The sheer length of the chart, and the scale of the incidents it describes are – or ought to be – sufficiently sobering information to throw doubt into the heart of the staunchest advocate of “peace through strength.”

Lest one think there are ways to control the situation indefinitely, Dumas (who is currently a professor of political economy at U.T.—Dallas, and a former consultant to the Los Alamos National Laboratories) takes the reader through a series of preventative strategies: all, he seeks to demonstrate, are doomed to fail. Carefully vet the people you put in charge of the missiles and other lethal technologies? Consider the incidence of alcoholism, drug use, and serious mental illness amongst the military so charged, or the inevitable effects of boredom and stress. Entrust critical decisions to groups? Consider the coercive effect of participation in groups, with people afraid to express their doubts as a consensus builds, or the effects of charismatic leaders. Put computers in charge? Consider the tale of a forty-six cent computer chip, the failure of which in 1980 gave the appearance of a massive Russian missile attack, and scrambled 100 SAC bombers carrying live warheads.

The inevitable conclusion: If we are to have an indefinite future, then we must reduce the threat of disaster from our dangerous technology, and to believe otherwise is, in the author’s terms, “lethal arrogance.” The nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons must all go, and Dumas gives some suggestions about how to do that safely. Develop a non-offensive defense, improve “the current process for imposing multilateral economic sanctions against countries threatening the peace,” encourage economic development in the Third World (since “poverty and frustration can be a fertile breeding ground for conflict”), find alternatives to dangerous and polluting technologies, and clean up the mess of nuclear and toxic waste we’ve already created.

Considering just two of the issues today in which technology plays a dominating role – genetically engineered foods and ballistic missile defense systems – Lethal Arrogance seems prescient. It is certainly arrogant for the biotech industry to use the population as a whole as an experimental group for bioengineered foods, while attempting to deny citizens the right to know what they are eating. Whether that experiment proves lethal or not, only time will tell. And what else can one say about the colossal nonsense being used to justify deploying a ballistic missile system to defend against a non-existent threat, with a technology that doesn’t work? Or of a President who seeks to allay Russian fears of a first strike, so that he can proceed with deployment of an anti-missile system without violating the A.B.M. treaty, by encouraging the Russians to put their missiles on Launch-on-Warning? (Remember that experimental missile launched from the Norwegian island?)

While an unfounded faith in the continued controllability and efficacy of technology plays a role in the missile defense saga now playing itself out (i.e., “Let’s get something up, we can get it working later with enough money”), missing from Lethal Arrogance is any analysis of the class interests of the people who make the decisions about the development and deployment of new technologies. It is not arrogance alone that moves U.S. policies, but also greed and the will to dominate. Profits in the military-industrial complex are much higher than in the rest of the economy. (When I last checked, profits on invested capital were running at 22 percent a year, although I’m told that things have worsened for Boeing, making them even hungrier.) The missile defense system, while completely unable to prevent a suicidal attack with a bomb in a suitcase, would provide (should it ever become workable) a credible first strike capacity against China, and perhaps against Russia should its forces continue to deteriorate – a military fist useful in all sorts of negotiations, presuming that Russian and China wish to wait politely while we unilaterally deploy such a threatening system. Such a system would also allow the U.S. to continue to intimidate with impunity those smaller nations that might develop a nuclear capacity to defend themselves. An unlikely motive? Consider the Air Force Space Commands stated purpose: “Protecting U.S. interests and investments through command of space.”

Lethal Arrogance is written from the conventional presumption that the United States reflexively seeks democracy and peace in the world, a presumption necessary to any writer who wishes to be taken seriously by The New York Times (and I don’t know that Dumas does). Dumas silently ignores massive evidence that what the U.S. seeks, in fact, is military and economic domination. He accepts, for instance, the State Department’s (recently revised) characterization of “rogue states” (the U.S. is not among them) as “countries threatening the peace,” hence becoming proper targets for sanctions by a benevolent world order. But there is no discussion of the actual effects of the brutally grinding economic sanctions against Cuba and Iraq, that might belie this presumption of U.S. benevolence. Dumas writes, “Poverty and frustration can be a fertile breeding ground for conflict,” when he might just have readily (and more persuasively) concluded, “Conflict is an inevitable result of the domination and exploitation of Third World countries, and poverty is sustained by that exploitation.”

Sometimes this limited perspective leads to seemingly minor but annoying misinterpretations. It was not, as Dumas asserts, “groupthink” and bumbling that led to the pre-World War II Munich Agreement. As shown convincingly by Clement Leibovitz, Alvin Finkel, and Christopher Hitchens in In Our Time: The Chamberlain-Hitler Agreement, the consistent support of Hitler by the British ruling class (who saw him as a bulwark against communism) allowed him to violate agreements and to develop the power to launch World War II. The Munich Agreement did not intend “peace in our time”– but instead that Hitler would strike to the East, against Russia, and leave the West alone.

Sometimes this misapprehension is more egregious. To discuss, as Dumas does, “state terrorism,” yet omit any mention of the U.S. role in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Indonesia, and Somalia (to name only a few obvious instances), is to contribute to a completely distorted melodrama about terrorism, for which the main actor is not on the stage. But of course, since the thrust of that melodrama is designed to raise fears about U.S. safety from what Edward Herman calls “retail terrorism” (as opposed to the “wholesale” version practiced by the U.S.), there would be no point in bringing it up, at least to American readers.

That gets to the heart of what I see as the main limitation of Lethal Arrogance. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to use fear to foster any sustained progressive movement of the sort that Dumas indeed recognizes is necessary to achieve nuclear disarmament. Yet by attempting to make real the dangers of terrorism in order to pursue his larger argument, Dumas winds up proclaiming with the same scary messages (perhaps updated a bit with a fashionable fear of biological weapons) of the Cold Warriors and the Reaganauts: messages inevitably employed to promote Fortress America as well as attacks on civil liberties. Progressives can never outdo the Establishment politicians and media at that game, nor should they attempt to do so. Enough people already know that our safety doesn’t lie in nuclear weapons, and there are sizeable majorities in favor of abolishing them. What is needed now are positive visions that can pull together the diverse movements of people who sense that we are living in an irrational and decaying society, and organizational initiatives to knit together the fabric of a new social system.

Despite the limitations in its analysis of the social forces sustaining our nuclear establishment, Lethal Arrogance – with its well-researched compendium of accidents, tragedies, and farces – provides a useful service. The book is a sobering reminder that as a nation and a species we are living on the razor’s edge, and need to attend to that perilous condition if we are to have a future at all.

George Reiter is a professor in the physics department at the University of Houston.

You May Also Like:

Published at 12:00 am CST
Top