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February 27, 2013

Bulletin #165: Reflections on the Deterrence Summit

Dear friends –

I recently returned from a week in Washington, where I was mostly at the annual “Nuclear Deterrence Summit” organized by the Nuclear Weapons and Material Monitor, along with a couple of meetings on The Hill. 

That summit (themed “Maintaining a Credible Deterrent…Amidst Funding Constraints”) was, as it always is, a pretty good venue for listening and talking to lab directors, plant managers, subcontractors, and the various government decisionmakers involved in nuclear weapons policy and management.  We were grateful for the opportunity to go. 

In the nature of things, any conference of nuclear weapons leaders is a twisted affair, as you might well imagine.  In that business, black is white and up is down.  “Modernization” of nuclear weapons (“evil” things “considered in any light,” as Fermi and Rabi, the scientific progenitors of the scientists attending such meetings today did not hesitate to say in 1949) is considered not just a good, but an essential, activity. 

The corporations and executives attending such a conference comprise a small universe of “mutually-assured self-interest” selling “mutually-assured destruction” to government.[1] 

That said – and I think this is something the “activist” community needs to hear – most of the people in the nuclear weapons business, and those making decisions about it, are quite as decent and honest as most U.S. citizens today, including their critics on the political left and in the “anti-nuclear movement” (such as it is). 

Of course the values expressed by the enterprise as a whole are, by our lights, profoundly wrong.  But most of the people in it try to be as upright as they can be in day-to-day matters – while avoiding thinking much about the purpose of their work.[2]  The evil that was new and frightening to Fermi and Rabi is normal today.  Our moral vision and identity have contracted, not been expanded, by the scientific “progress” produced in our weapons labs.  Vannevar Bush’s “endless frontier” has become a nightmare of nuclear claustrophobia, broken dreams, and seemingly eternal environmental dangers and costs. 

Most of us see the urgent necessity of looking beyond the blinkered “morality” of the “good soldier” or “good engineer,” the one who goes to work every day in order to produce the worst objects in the world, the ultimate death machines.  At least three of the world’s major religions flatly condemn such work, and so do we.[3]  But how do we do that?  We are in this country and this world together, and the menace of nuclear weapons is just the beginning of the contradictions in our lives and policies.  We now know that without lowering the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere quite soon, we and everything else we love will be cooked.  Nuclear weapons per se are not our biggest problem, by far.

At this conference, like the previous ones, the most tedious aspect is the fundamentalist flavor of much of the discourse – the intense intellectual and psychological attachment and rehearsal of a nebulous and highly abstract construct, into which great power is projected.  This is the exercise and refreshing of ideology that is so essential to the enterprise.  

That concept is Nuclear Deterrence, which in such a conference must be spelled with a capital “N” and a capital “D.”  It reminded me of Santa Claus, or the Tooth Fairy, or their evil twins.  The root of this faith is simple.  The nuclear tooth fairy leaves billions of dollars under the pillow each and every year.  And that, in our culture, is pretty much the highest value there is. 

There was much discussion over the money and how it will be spent, i.e. shared out.  But all the talk only goes to show that “It” – Nuclear Deterrence – truly is an essential, precious, and many-splendored thing which cannot be praised highly enough.  This year, like other years, aging cold warriors are brought forth to lead the hosannas, renew the faith, recall the glory days when the enterprise was running on all eight cylinders (when it was as large and “important” as the U.S. automobile industry itself) and contribute their ideas as to how to keep faith alive in an age of doubt.  I stress these ideological components of the discourse because I think they are much more important than the management ideas expressed, which after all only implement the former.   

I have been to all but one of these conferences, and I think the tone of this conference was different than last year’s – and very different from the first one (a triumphalist celebration after the “election” of G.W. Bush; a giant image of Senator Pete Domenici was projected onto a screen during the keynote address and Albuquerque Operations chief Rick Glass urged all parties to work together without squabbling to build the new weapons and infrastructure that would make real the latent promise of the new, neoconservative-flavored Administration). 

This year the mood was detectably somber.  When Dr. Johnny Foster, who has spent his life inventing, managing, and promoting nuclear weapons, offered his usual panoply of ideas as to how to renew the nuclear weapons field I really did not detect that much enthusiasm in the audience.  Privately, some contractors told me they expected the field to shrink.  This did not trouble them in the least.  “How could it not shrink?” said one, whose name tag said he was part of a recent successful bid for the $22.8 billion contract to run the Pantex and Y-12 nuclear weapons plants.  “All the generals in the Pentagon are post-Cold War generals,” he went on to say.  “Why would they think nuclear weapons are very relevant to today’s needs?”

I tend to like the plant managers, who seem to me direct and grounded.  On the other hand, the directors of the two physics laboratories are invariably the greatest bullshitters in the room, offering the greatest ratio of arrogance and prevarication to truthful content of anybody in an active management role.  One government official present privately characterized their talks as boiling down to a very simple message: “We do great science; send us money.” 

But is it “great science?” That’s a long story, and my time is nearly up.  To me, it almost goes without saying that nobody should think that the directors of the NNSA weapons laboratories are highly educated people, or people with very sophisticated ideas about science policy or technology.  Many of their flagship projects don’t make much technological sense – that should be your first clue – and their talks often don’t make much sense.  They are highly-incentivized science promoters, to be sure. 

Invariably, the labs are the drama queens of the complex.  Perennially, they “protest too much.”  Blame – and there is plenty of it to go around – is for them something that must always be shifted to the federal hand that so bounteously feeds them.  This is an endlessly creative process; after all, science – which at these laboratories is mostly an amalgam of propaganda, careerism, institutional advancement, personal bank-account-building, and lobbying – must march on. 

Former NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks remarked that he had never heard any nuclear weapons plant manager complain about federal micromanagement.  He left it at that. 

Despite its internal contradictions, this system is remarkably resilient as long as its ideology remains unchallenged – which is to say, as long as the dollars continue to flow in very large amounts and the salaries are "to die for."  Right now, the nuclear bureaucrats are furiously writing nuclear work requirements to make sure there is no lack of that in the coming years.  The White House will soon ask for more money than ever for the plants and labs, but it is far from clear that they will get it all.  I would like to tell you, in general terms, about those plans, but that must wait for the next Bulletin. 

Greg Mello, for the Los Alamos Study Group


[1] One of the speakers made the interesting private suggestion that these actors could be called a “faction” in the sense of Federalist No. 10.  

[2] I think the real challenge to the nuclear enterprise posed by the break-in of the “Y-12 three” (Michael Walli, 63, Sr. Megan Rice, 82, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 57) was not exposure of security and operational lapses, or even exposure of failed management and federal oversight overall, but rather the intrusion of the suppressed moral values which these three embodied and represented.  Fences, cameras, and guards are no barriers to truth, especially truths about human security and how it should be fostered, which is very inconvenient and threatening to the nuclear weapons enterprise.  Denial is not just a physical security measure but also a way to minimize cognitive dissonance, manage personnel, and maintain ideological coherence. 

[3] This has management implications.  The failure to acknowledge – and to the extent possible attempt to reconcile – the moral, legal, and strategic imperative to disarm along with NNSA’s mandate to maintain the stockpile, is the biggest root cause of NNSA’s management difficulties.  How does one reconcile such opposites?  One of these mandates is supported – as polls repeatedly show – by citizens; the other, by the militarized state.  

In place of acknowledging this difficult but potentially fruitful contradiction, NNSA’s mission, as it is portrayed by its leaders at conferences such as this, is entirely one-sided, so much so that it is strongly at odds with universal human morality – and standing U.S. treaty law.  And that is how the agency is managed – with very poor results.   NNSA has trouble recruiting, managing, and above all, trouble deciding what to do, which is rather devastating.  In the suspension of decision from higher authorities, people who are very sure of themselves, because they have oversimplified the problem and eliminated things they should not have eliminated, acquire and exercise power. 

There is no political consensus supporting NNSA’s program – discounting for example the armed services committees which really have only the military as stakeholders (and funders!) and so, with our present system of elections, have only the most tenuous legitimacy.  Without strong disarmament progress, and progress in limiting the roles of nuclear weapons and thus their perceived probability of use, there never will be such a consensus.  The “credibility of the deterrent” is precisely what undermines NNSA’s public support.  Long-continued preparations to blow up the world, or fanciful thought about a “limited” nuclear war to halt somebody’s “aggression” – “opening the nuclear umbrella,” as such war was delicately described at this conference – will never be successfully managed because it is at odds with the mores of this and any society. 

NNSA or its successor agency can and should do much better, but it will take White House and military leadership, and it will take a new and more qualified senior management team at NNSA.  But the resulting gradual resolution of the management contradictions posed by nuclear weapons will be, even in the best case, dynamic and temporary. 

The alternative path to “trouble-free” management of the weapons complex – and which also would only be temporary, because it would lead to nuclear war – implies a fully authoritarian society strongly given over to the death instinct and thus accepting of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. 

Nuclear weapons management is and always has been a dynamic, uncertain, and temporary business, one way or another.  Norris Bradbury used to tell new hires at Los Alamos, “We’re only here to buy time for the politicians,” which made enough sense to most.  That saw is dull today.  Attempts to make nuclear “stewardship” permanent, as we see today, insufficiently appreciate the instability of the arrangement. 

Some of the “lifers” in the nuclear weapons business have found meaning in “The Bomb” and indeed do want to make that permanent.  It is their “immortality project” (sensu Becker, The Denial of Death).  Some of these old men have really “gone over to another order” (Plotinus), resolving any doubts they may once have had by “doubling down” on death-dealing power.  One of the truly unfortunate things about this conference and the previous ones is that the least mentally healthy people are often showcased and lionized.  This has happened because there is no moral clarity forthcoming from any part of government.  There is no balancing authority or celebrity to relativize The Bomb and re-place it in its all-too-flawed human and historic context.  It is a real myth, a god. 

The iconic cultural reference to these weird phenomena is of course “Dr. Strangelove,” and you might think there would be at least some ironic distancing in such a gathering, but there never is. 

A deeper portrait of this malady, and a very American one, is in the character of Ahab, whose demonization of the White Whale could easily be a portrait of the Cold War psyche, the forge of today’s nuclearist ideology, and the end toward which it drives. 

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it…

Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form. Ahab’s full lunacy subsided not, but deepeningly contracted; like the unabated Hudson, when that noble Northman flows narrowly, but unfathomably through the Highland gorge. But, as in his narrow-flowing monomania, not one jot of Ahab’s broad madness had been left behind; so in that broad madness, not one jot of his great natural intellect had perished. That before living agent, now became the living instrument. If such a furious trope may stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentred cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object….

Now, in his heart, Ahab had some glimpse of this, namely; all my means are sane, my motive and my object mad. Yet without power to kill, or change, or shun the fact; he likewise knew that to mankind he did long dissemble; in some sort, did still. But that thing of his dissembling was only subject to his perceptibility, not to his will determinate…

Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses Job’s whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals—morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask…What skiff in tow of a seventy-four can stand still? For one, I gave myself up to the abandonment of the time and the place; but while yet all a-rush to encounter the whale, could see naught in that brute but the deadliest ill. (Melville, Moby-Dick, Chapter 41)

Today’s weapons complex abjures charismatic leadership.  A highly-edited Oppenheimer, placed with his colleagues like so many dolls in a doll-house in a highly-edited version of history, is on display at Los Alamos – like Lenin in his tomb, beyond the vicissitudes of time.  No great leader is required or desired.  An impersonal and automatic bureaucracy, guided internally by ideology and sustained externally by propaganda, has been established. 

Ideology is “a specious way of relating to the world” (Havel, in “The Power of the Powerless”). It serves power, not truth, and therefore is as antithetical to science as it is, in this case, to life. The ideology of nuclear weapons casts a very dark pall over the human condition and especially over our own country, far more than the physical weapons themselves, in my opinion.


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