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Nuclear Actors


Imperial powers can be the greatest moralists. The Roman Empire projected the ius gentium as a principle of collective worth, the fictitious laws of the peoples that remains the cornerstone of international law. As much as one believes it, it remains a belief, the spirit written into conventions with the hope that states will follow a form of good conduct, provided they are compelled to do so. At the end of the day, please don’t ask one to prove it. The pudding is presumed to be there.

This might explain why the U.S. military complex, for all its heavy handedness, remains one of the world’s most morally inclined establishments, a murderous outfit policed by misguided Boy Scouts and bible bashers. They might kill, maim and violate their own ethical frameworks, but that need not matter. The principle is clear: bad behaviour is not tolerated. Especially in the nuclear forces.

What exactly of this behaviour? Those officers of the U.S. ICBM forces resemble bored, and boring white knights. It may seem a touch challenging to extract a “good” behavioural code from any nuclear force, given the exterminatory worth of its weapons, but that doesn’t stop the military from doing so. Major General Michael Carey, the grand nuclear honcho, was given his marching orders last Friday “due to a loss of trust and confidence in his leadership and judgment.” Two days prior, Vice Admiral Tim Giardina, second-in-command at the U.S. Strategic Command, was also told to pack his bags on claims of having used “counterfeit chips at a casino”.

Air Force General Robert Kehler, in an interview last Friday, did not bring the house down with his remarks that there had been two “unfortunate behavioural incidents” that had not destabilised the nuclear force. All is well in nuclear land. “I still have 100 percent confidence that the nation’s nuclear deterrent force is safe, secure and effective.” This should have stirred more interest, given that deterrence itself is that most unfortunate emperor with no clothes. All it needs is the audience to speak up a bit more loudly. Few are game.

It would be remiss to say that no efforts had been made on the part of various presidential administrations to cut back on the bulging nuclear arsenal. Focus, instead, has been on finding other more viable ways to do the killing – drones, beefed up conventional forces, “smart” technology. A reduced, and reducing supply of the doomsday weapons, has not made controlling them any easier. There is much to suggest, some of this self-inflicted, that the task has become more of a challenge.

The men dismissed are after all playing at war, a game of rest rather than activity. When one is overseeing a massive murderous deterrent, outlets are few and far between. They are merely guardians of the apocalyptic trigger, no more.

The Giardina and Carey dismissals suggest that the ICBM arm of the U.S. military forces is far from secure, if security is in fact what the armed establishment is fretting about. Moral militarists by their nature can’t be trusted, so a closer inspection of behaviour is warranted.

This year has seen a series of revelations on a seeping “rot” in the ICBM forces. In May, 17 officers responsible for operating missile launch control centres using the Minuteman III at Minot Base in North Dakota were deprived of authority. They were given systematic re-education via “60 to 90 days of refresher training on how to do their jobs” (The Hindu, Oct 12).

In August, a nuclear missile base at Montana, which operates one-third of the U.S. Minuteman III nuclear missile inventory, failed a safety test. “Tactical level errors” were cited, though officials were quick to point out that none of this related to operational capabilities. The commanding officer was relieved.

Sackings in war time over the way nuclear weapons are handled are not without precedent. General Douglas MacArthur thought himself, to use the expression of William Manchester, an American Caesar, that haughty genius of the military who could purr his way through administrations with murderous charm. His Brutus turned out to be the former haberdasher President Harry Truman, who proceeded to dismiss him when a desire to use nuclear weapons on China was rebuffed. Lowered by this brutal snub to military authority, MacArthur nursed fantasies of revenge. They never eventuated.

Among President Barack Obama’s conspicuous setbacks during his presidential terms has been the inability to realise the Prague Declaration on a world free of nuclear weapons. The words are enticing, the gestures less so. What we have instead is the procedural and bureaucratic nature of “safety” in the face of nuclear conflagration. The two are nonsensical in company – there is no such thing as a safe nuclear option to begin with. Instead, we get aspiring thespians yearning to be distracted.

As for the unfortunates who perish because of ruthless operational procedures in the military, accountability for their demise will continue to be absent. The star killers of the Apache helicopter in the leaked WikiLeaks video Collateral Murder will continue to remain in military colours. Gamblers and drinking may not be tolerated, but killing most certainly is in the conventional armed forces. The nuclear warriors, however, can’t use their treasured possessions. They, for all their power, have absolutely no means of using it. For that reason, they have but one option: to continue acting.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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