"Global Thunder: Bombers practice for nuclear war." – Air Force Times, five days ago.
The headline itself, its casual yet confident language – and that it barely raises a collective eyebrow – desperately deserves deconstruction. But in practice, this madness involves the definitionally a-strategic U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) – in conjunction with British and Australian personnel – sending big bombers like B-52 Stratofortresses, out on an annual nuclear command and control exercise known, therefore, as Global Thunder 21. STRATCOM’s, news release said Global Thunder 21 provides "realistic training activities against simulated targets" to allow forces to train in "all" mission areas, but what they really mean – and admit – is on "nuclear readiness."
Will we never learn?
A full 56 years after Peter Sellers roasted America’s nuclear absurdity in Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy classic Dr. Strangelove, Pentagon planners remain dedicated to delusions. That old Pete’s three-role – in three nationalities – performative evisceration of the fantasy that nuclear wars can be won didn’t stick raises serious questions about human nature, and our species’s survival prospects. Don’t take my word for it: just six years ago Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, penned a piece in the New Yorker titled "Almost Everything in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ was True." Give it a read next time you’re wondering whether to take a chance on love or otherwise live in the moment. It’s 2,500 words-worth of mindfulness motivation.
And if you haven’t seen the film – seriously, do so immediately. It holds up at least as well as your leaders’ diagnosable derangement. Get cracking guys, because – in the formulaic lingo of the same military planners dutifully designing doomsday – there’s an "occasional probability," with "catastrophically severe consequences," that Washington’s next spin of the nuclear roulette wheel may land on red. According to the U.S. Army’s trusty little four-by-five line ("idiot-proof," as soldiers say) "matrix,” that equates to a "high risk" of potentially extinctive war. Who’s feeling lucky?
Worst Case Combo
It is an old formula indeed. Tried and true. Any state wishing to convince its teenagers to kill another’s country’s teenagers must do two things: exaggerate the threat from an ostensible enemy, and gradually dehumanize its people. Language inextricably links the two mass murder prerequisites. Listen closely to the hawks in any American administration. Catch the subtext, and – channeling classic songwriter Gordon Lightfoot – "If you read between the lines, you’d know that" they’re just trying to make you understand that the enemies "others" aren’t quite like us…I mean not really. Their military-age sons and daughters, even their babies, aren’t as precious as ours, you know?
It is only thus that American parents can breezily sprinkle powdered sugar on their childrens’ French toast as their government simultaneously sanctions starvation for 100,000 Yemeni kid – in their name, of course. Our’s is a vague democracy, after all, isn’t it? And it is only through subtle state-bestializing of foreign foes – and their families – that the citizenry could countenance nuclear brinksmanship at the current, and to some degree unprecedented, levels.
Usually the dehumanization messaging is more subliminal in this pretended PC-age. Not even imperial-nostalgic GW-Bushies dared deliver the sort of racial and religious rancor common in our past military adventures. I’m thinking, for example, of Major General John Pope’s orders to his subordinate officers during the Great Sioux uprising of 1862: "They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people…" Then there was the Philadelphia Ledger’s description of Filipinos in the wake of the Spanish-American War: "It is not civilized warfare, but we are not dealing with a civilized people. The only thing that they know is fear and force, violence and brutality."
There are even Americans alive today who might remember a Marine Corps’ Leatherneck magazine cartoon depicted the Japanese as lice, with a caption stating "Before a complete cure may be effected the origin of the plague, the breeding grounds around the Tokyo area, must be completely annihilated." The drawing was published in March 1945, the same month that the US Air Forces killed at least 85,000 mostly women and children in a single night’s raid on Tokyo. Such overt mass-dehumanization was beneath Bush, certainly Obama, and most presidents since VJ Day, at least. Not that they stopped killing mostly brown and black civilians, naturally – they were just more genteel in their justifications.
The Trumpsters are another story. These cats still like to kick it old school – or Old Testament, given the infusion of six apocalyptic end-times fundamentalists in the president’s inner circle. Mike Pompeo, as ever, is the ideological vanguard of the enemy-exaggeration and Cold War throwback team. While mainly avoiding racialized insults – through his boss has a penchant for "Chinese virus" and "Kung Flu" digs – Pompeo’s point is that the problem with these Asian hordes is that they don’t think like us. They’re basically brainwashed, incapable of rational calculation – unlike we freethinking Americans.
In a July speech at the Nixon Presidential Library – in which Mike insulted even Tricky Dick’s family by lambasting his entire "Go to China" legacy – the secretary of state billed Beijing as a "Marxist-Leninist regime," and General Secretary Xi Jinping as "a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology." Forget the fact that China long ago leaned into (admittedly state-directed) capitalism and is a top trading-partner with much of the world. Pompeo is trapped in the Disneyified and sanitized cinematic world – think Red Dawn meets Top Gun – of the Reagan era.
And why not? Those were what Bruce Springsteen would call – in a song released just two years prior – his "Glory Days." Have you heard Mike was valedictorian of his 1986 West Point class? Don’t worry – he’ll tell you! And he sure did in the recent speech, kicking Cold War nostalgia into full throttle with this super useful offering: "I grew up and served my time in the Army during the Cold War. And if there is one thing I learned, communists almost always lie." At the very moment he’s speaking of, mind you, Soviet Premier Gorbachev was expressly not lying about his genuine desire to end the Cold War standoff – which he soon did. Maybe Mike knows something we don’t?
But sure, let’s go with that: communists almost always lie. Well, so does your boss, Mike. So does his Democratic opponent. And so do you.
Point is, this combination of racial-religious dehumanization, and ideological othering would be bad enough, but when combined with practical policies grounded in the distinct delusion of winnable nuclear wars – then you’ve got a lethal combo.
Strange Behavior for a Putin Proxy
One would think a Russian colluding "asset," "toady," or "useful idiot" – take your pejorative pick – would bend to Moscow’s will on all matters, especially the more existential. Only that hasn’t been The Donald’s game at all. Curious, that. This presumed patsy of a president has, for starters: refused to extend the New START Treaty – the last remaining Russo-American nuclear reduction pact; accelerated already ongoing and expensive US nuclear modernization; and deployed new, lower yield, "more usable" nukes. These "lower the threshold of use" – rendering nuclear annihilation a bit more palatable, at least. Small mercies, as they say.
Now, of late, Trump’s Pentagon has been just streaming super-bombers designed to carry super-sized thermonuclear payloads on super scary sorties all around the Russian periphery – from the Arctic to the Baltic, and all the way over to the Sea of Okhotsk, "an offshoot of the Pacific Ocean surrounded by Russian territory on three sides." As a result, the world’s situation coheres closer than ever to that described a few years back by known hippie William Perry – who served as President Clinton’s defense secretary – "the danger of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War."
On nuclear policy, the Trump team is unsavory, unsafe, and unhinged a trillion ways from Tuesday. Yet its path was paved and it stands on the shoulders of nine administration’s worth of mental midgets – who lent new and inverted meaning to the trope "failure of imagination." Recall that even that paragon of polite and urbane liberals everywhere, Barack Obama, bowed under pressure and refused to make a "no first strike" pledge. In other words, that weak-sister peacenik president, reportedly considered assuring his fellow Earthlings that the nuclear hyper-power he helms wouldn’t, you know, be the first to vaporize toddlers naughty enough to utter their first words in Russian, Mandarin, or (gasp!) Farsi. Such a sissy; Thanks Obama!
Here’s how crazy it gets, though: at the same time a nearly lame-duck Nobel Peace laureate president was kicking off a 30-year, $1 trillion "nuclear modernization” program, candidate Trump was running to the left of Obama on the issue in debates with Hillary Clinton. Not that he’s followed through, but in one exchange Trump pledged "I would certainly not do first strike…Once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over."
Unfortunately, since then, nuclear lunacy has been the one Obama legacy that Trump has actually sustained – and, wouldn’t you know, skyrocketed! And, until China became the favored bad boy of the moment, his main nuclear strong-arm target had been Russia. Only Muscovites are supposed to be his buddies, chums, handlers, masters even. Rather peculiar, no? Unless that’s precisely what The Donald wants you to think – who knew Keyser Söze slept in the White House?
Look, the polite left must decide: either Trump is a monstrous moron – Putin’s perfect useful idiot – or he’s a secret evil genius masking his Russian fidelity through extra hazardous hawkishness. He can’t be both, friends. Channeling a far more recent fictional muse of mine, the great Walter Sobchak: "Smokey this is not ‘Nam, this is bowling. There are rules."
Or are there? Because this is nuclear policy we’re talking about here, after all…
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), and director of the soon-to-launch Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, Scheer Post and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge and Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War. Along with fellow vet Chris "Henri" Henriksen, he co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and on his website for media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen