ICBMs are a guaranteed apocalypse waiting to happen.

by David Swanson

There’s a simple idea, advanced most effectively by Daniel Ellsberg. Whether you love nuclear weapons, believe they’re unfortunately necessary, or think they’re the stupidest thing ever to spend a cent — much less trillions of dollars — on, you ought never to imagine a need for more than the nukes on submarines and airplanes. Having them on land as well, whether you call it a Holy Triad of nuclear weapon types or not, ought to be understood as really, really dumb, no matter what you think of loading up subs and planes with enough weapons to end all life on Earth many times over. You may, as I do, believe that almost nothing could be crazier than nukes on subs and planes; or you may swear that such deployments amount to the wisest action ever taken by the human species, or by the 4% of humanity that you give a damn about, or anything in between. But there is something crazier, that we should all be able to come together and recognize as the single craziest thing ever: nukes on land, ICBMs, Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles.

ICBMs are crazy because Russia knows where all the U.S. ones are, and vice versa, and because there are only two plans for when to use them: (1) to initiate the end of life on the planet, (2) to make a mad rushed decision in a matter of minutes that there’s definitive proof that someone else has initiated the end of life on the planet and quickly fire off the ICBMs so as to have been sure to play a part in the Earth’s destruction. Of course there are various kinds of accidents possible, but one kind is that of making the wrong determination of the facts , believing falsely that someone else has launched nukes aimed right at your nukes, and not discovering in the nick of time (as has happened) that actually the problem is a flock of geese or a computer error. With the nukes on airplanes and submarines, scenario number two does not exist because the planes and subs are not sitting ducks, the other guy doesn’t know where they are, so they can contemplate their role in the possibly ensuing insanity with more leisure.

A Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile is launched from a pad on Vandenberg Air Force base. Aug. 20 1982.

Even if we all agree on the need to be able to render the Earth lifeless many times over — and surely agreeing to that constitutes a significant gesture of good will toward accommodating whatever it is you think you understand — we ought to be able to agree on the advantage of having a few more minutes during which to verify whether the destruction has already been created or not, so as to be able to avoid starting it if it hasn’t, while yet being able to accomplish the apparently important if sickening act of actively taking part in it if it has.

Of course, you could plan to just allow the ICBMs (and the upper midwestern United States) to be destroyed by the missiles you suspect to be incoming, since, if you are right, the upper midwestern United States will be destroyed whether you launch the missiles or leave them in the ground, and the whole world is going to be killed off by nuclear winter if you are right or if you are wrong but launch the missiles. You could leave the flying apocalypse machines in the ground and calmly make your decisions about launching from subs and planes.

But that won’t work. And the reason it won’t work has nothing to do with deterrence. You can believe all sorts of things about deterrence, but you cannot be aware of how many nuclear weapons the United States and Russia have, and of the ability to put them on airplanes and submarines, and of what a nuclear winter is, and claim either that ICBMs add to deterrence or that compelling Russia (or China, or a Russia and China that you drive into a partnership against you) to fire lots of missiles into the upper midwestern United States somehow detracts from the ability of Russia to destroy the rest of the Earth. Pockmarking that one region with nuclear explosions, each one hundreds of times what was done to Hiroshima or Nagasaki, would destroy all life on Earth even if the submarines and airplanes didn’t exist.

No, the reason that it won’t work to keep all those ICBMs but plan not to use them, is that you can barely get people to take seriously the job of maintaining them right now. If the military personnel assigned to maintain and guard and practice using the things were all made to understand that they would never be used — not just that deterrence theory declares they will never be used, but actually never be used — the risk of accidental apocalypse would ride in on four horses. Already, as it is, the number of near misses suggests that merely keeping any nuclear weapons in existence gives us a limited amount of time for our luck to hold out. Already, people accidentally (or worse) stick unidentified nukes onto airplanes and fly them around the U.S. without telling anyone. Already, guarding the most powerful weapons ever is considered the least desirable career path in the U.S. military, and the people who do it are pissed off, when not drugged up and cheating on their tests, or getting drunk and driving nukes around the country, with a drunk in charge of the whole program, not to mention U.S. presidents sloshed out of their sadistic minds. Already, the ICBMs face flooding dangers. Already, the people who live near the things hardly give them a passing thought.

You could do like China and keep the nukes and keep the missiles, but keep them separately, not ready to fly on a moment’s notice, but you’d have the same problem: nobody would even pretend to take them seriously. If the nukes didn’t show up for sale on eBay, tickets to tour them would. So the choices are to get rid of them, with no downside from anyone’s perspective other than those profiting financially, or keep them and all tell each other they’re super important, whether we believe it or not, in order to delay the day on with some stupid accident ends everything. This is one of the most important choices facing us. It’s not a difficult one. It’s one that runs up against financial corruption, but the main problem is that it’s not only people living near the things who avoid thinking about them. Darn near everybody avoids thinking about them. And when they’re talked about, it’s with wildly inaccurate information and assumptions, or the ludicrous advice of the City of New York that you should handle the problem of nuclear war by planning to go indoors.

So, what do we do? Dan Ellsberg writes books and makes videos. We all do countless webinars. On each webinar we tell each other endlessly what a great idea it would be for network television to re-air The Day After. We email and phone Congress. We write and call the media, demonstrateprotest, make art and t-shirts, rent billboards, and ever a slightly less tiny percentage of people have any clue what’s going on. Two or three more people, usually people who are already in the little club that doesn’t want life ended by environmental destruction, come around to also not wanting it ended more quickly through nuclear environmental destruction. Well, here’s something new to me that may boost our numbers a bit. Here’s what motivated me to write this. Peter J. Manos has published a novel, a fictional account of what might happen is a single person in Minot, North Dakota, dedicated herself to opposing ICBMs.

The book is called Shadows. It’s a terrific story, full of love and friendship and intrigue. It’s a story of outrageous insanity, yet well within, if not far short of, the reality. I’d love to know what people in Minot, North Dakota, or anywhere else on Earth, think of it. The story is in part itself a contemplation of what it might take for corporate media to serve a useful function. But to the extent that books of fiction can reach people that books of nonfiction cannot, and move us all in ways that books of nonfiction cannot, the creation of this book may be an answer to the question it raises and answers differently through the course of its highly entertaining narrative.