The night before my 18th birthday, I sternly reminded myself to get down to the post office in the morning and sign up for the Selective Service. I wasn't in a hurry to get drafted or anything like that; it was a chore and I wanted it off my desk … and yes, there was an element of ritual to it, a martial rite of passage into manhood that was mandated by law. Volunteering to be involuntarily dragooned into fighting a war far away is what American men do on their 18th birthday, and I was a man. It said so right there on my driver's license.
I woke up the next day with Alice Cooper ringing in my head, cracked open the newspaper, and realized I was suddenly on a different planet: The Berlin Wall had fallen. People were dancing on the rubble and sledgehammering the rest. Checkpoint Charlie was a disco. It was the party of the century. My very first birthday present that day was history, living history -- brilliant, jubilant, rowdy, oh-shit-what-now history.
Filling out the Selective Service card later that morning, I found myself grinning like a fool. Yeah, sure, fellas, here's my name and vitals, but the Cold War just ended right there on the TV, so I don't think you'll have much use for these. I walked out of that building sure and certain in mind and heart that now, finally, there would be less war, less fear, less everything bad.
Before you go calling me starry-eyed, you had to be there to understand -- not in Berlin so much as anyplace with a television -- and if you were there, you remember. That mood, that feeling of lightness, was infectious even thousands of miles away. For more than 50 years, we had all been waking and working and sleeping and waking again under a nuclear sword of Damocles, a fear that was pervasive and permanent. It didn't disappear on my birthday, but damn if it didn't feel just a little bit better, and a little bit of that goes an awful long way.
I was a fool that day, of course. We got two years of politicians talking about the "peace dividend" and the end of history after that, and then we kicked off a war in Iraq that hasn't ended some 27 years later. The Cold War turned out to be a nifty little dry run for the "war on terror," except this time the weapons weren't ballistic and coming over the pole.
The missiles are still there, though. Thousands and thousands of them, marking time in their holes like funnel-web spiders.
They were airplanes out of a clear blue sky, shoes, any car at any moment anywhere, so we got the mail with our oven mitts on and were told to watch what we say by the president's top spokesman. The threat was different, but the affliction of permanent fear was exactly the same. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
The missiles are still there, though. Thousands and thousands of them, marking time in their holes like funnel-web spiders. The astonishingly toxic byproduct left by their creation is still there, entombed in places like Yucca Mountain, and will be there for thousands of years unless it leaks or is stolen. The ability of a sitting president to use them is still there.
Some 25 years ago, we mostly broke the habit of building and testing more of these engines of annihilation, an absolute good in every sense. Not entirely, to be sure: The nuclear weapons program had its own gravity long before Trump came along, and it was President Obama who first put the trillion dollar weapons modernization program on the table. Still, it feels as if we've forgotten the things still exist and are existentially lethal.
We talked about Donald Trump's lack of fitness to have control of such weapons during the 2016 campaign, but it was almost an abstraction. Regardless, the man won the election, which means a great many people didn't much care that he could conceivably blow the mantle off the planet with a single conversation if he gets a bad bit of burger at bedtime.
Not even Trump's ongoing middle school shoving match with North Korea's Kim Jong-un and his growing nuclear toybox appears to have ruffled a great many feathers around here. Perhaps it's the surreal nature of this president and his administration that explains our national shrug at this incredibly dangerous, feckless faceoff. It's a strange plot twist in a weird animation starring two cartoon characters ordering bombs from the Acme catalog. Who could take these guys seriously?
Enter Robert R. Monroe, Vice Admiral, US Navy (Ret.) and his recent article in The Hill titled, "Only Trump Can Restore America's Ability to Win a Nuclear War." Vice Admiral Monroe, former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency, is the kind of man Curtis LeMay would have recognized as a brother on sight. "When the Cold War ended in 1991," laments Monroe in his opening line, "America made an unwise decision."
An arsenal of smaller bombs is key to Admiral Monroe's fever dream of a winnable nuclear war. It is a dream Trump appears to share.
It goes downhill from there. "Ongoing nuclear programs were stopped," seethes Monroe. "Budgets were cut. New nuclear capabilities were prohibited by law. A presidential moratorium denied underground nuclear testing. No research into advanced nuclear technology was allowed. Essentially, America went into an unannounced a nuclear freeze, and we have progressively increased its restrictions and denials for a quarter-century."
These are all good things, unless you are one of those interesting individuals who still believe a nuclear war can be won. "Putin has threatened military action in many areas of Europe," warns Monroe, "to recover the former Soviet empire. If armed conflict broke out tomorrow, the advancing Russian armor, mobilized troops, artillery, and tactical aircraft would be preceded by dozens of low-yield nuclear detonations, killing everything but leaving roads and bridges intact. The war would be over in days -- or hours. How would we react?"
Well, when you put it that way, Admiral, obviously we would knuckle up and win that nuclear war just like The Plan says, and then learn to breathe plutonium dust as we build impenetrable geodesic domes to fend off attacks from the swarms of giant mutant butterfly sharks created by the fallout. It's all so simple, really. Only a coward could see it otherwise.
Some of those old bombs might still have the fingerprints of a friend of mine on them. He was a sergeant and crew chief in the Air Force during the Nixon administration, stationed at an air base in Thailand. In October of 1973, the Yom Kippur War broke out. The US was arming Israel while the Soviet Union armed Egypt and Syria, and all of a sudden, a highly volatile Cold War proxy fight was underway on the Sinai Peninsula. My friend and his crew were ordered to Guam by way of a KC-135, where they spent the next several days arming B-52D bombers for nuclear war.
"Our military had been elevated to DEFCON 3 alert level," my friend (who requested his name not be used) explains, "just one level below imminent nuclear war. It was the highest alert status since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our mission was to convert the B-52Ds from conventional weapons to nuclear weapons capabilities. Not long after we arrived, my crew commenced to converting and testing the weapons system on one plane after another."
"The hypervigilance and fear were overwhelming at the time," he recalls. "That mission and all the emotions that went with it are something never to be forgotten. The real danger associated with what I was doing didn't sink in until years later. It's still hard for me to comprehend that I was actually participating in preparing for nuclear war. It was not a drill. It was happening in real time. I still have flashbacks of being in a B-52 cockpit, running tests, watching nuclear weapons being loaded and preparing for the worst."
"The worst" was very real. Israel was threatening to deploy nuclear-armed fighters, and US intelligence had reason to believe a Soviet ship carrying nuclear weapons was on its way to Egypt. It was at this point that Nixon lifted the US military's alert status to DEFCON 3, and the two superpowers found themselves sliding into a precarious nuclear standoff. That matters reached such a dangerous pitch is not widely known these days -- it isn't part of the common Cold War lore like Cuba is -- but it happened all the same.
Donald Trump makes Richard Nixon look like Marcus Aurelius.
My friend endured this for a series of 20-hour days, all the while loading bombs, and every member of that crew knew what he knew: In the event of war, any Soviet nuclear target package would include Guam, because that's where the bombers were. A peace accord was struck on October 26, and he returned to Thailand with his crew. "Over the years," he says, "this event manifested itself into my psyche and I had no idea how to handle it. I was 21 at the time, not knowing if I'd live to age 22. I still see a VA psychiatrist every month for PTSD."
My friend, as you can imagine, doesn't truck much with the opinions of Vice Admiral Robert R. Monroe, US Navy (Ret.), nor do I or most anyone else. I still remember the fear during those years. My friend closes his eyes sometimes and sees the bombs to this day. Our experiences are not comparable, except in that we both survived an era of peril that must never, ever be allowed to return.
Donald Trump has already announced his desire to increase the massive US nuclear arsenal tenfold. The draft of his soon-to-be-released Nuclear Posture Review seeks significant production of so-called "low-yield" nuclear weapons, because our current weapons are theoretically too big to use with any degree of tactical success. It should be noted that, according to modern metrics, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were also "low-yield." An arsenal of smaller bombs is key to Admiral Monroe's fever dream of a winnable nuclear war. It is a dream Trump appears to share.
The world is dangerous enough as it is, one would think. It is so dangerous, in fact, that a great many people are frozen to near-immobility by it, by the sheer immensity of the perils we face. Where to even begin?
If you seek a place to lay your chisel, I have two words: "No Nukes."
Should you choose this path, your first task is to remind everyone that the threat not only still exists, but is growing again. White House officials were concerned about Richard Nixon's mindset during the 1973 crisis, mired as he was in the Watergate scandal. Donald Trump makes Richard Nixon look like Marcus Aurelius. We are all in a great deal of trouble, and no one seems to care.
Make them care, please and thank you. Let's go find that peace dividend they were talking about on my birthday. I think we've earned it.