Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Armageddon

Ernest Partridge

Published in Viewpoints 1994, The Wisconsin Institute
Reprinted: Newsletter of Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Spring, 1996

Just when we thought that the nuclear threat had ended with the cold war, we are jolted out of our complacency by India's and Pakistan's pounding on the door of "the nuclear club." And we have known for years that a terrorist can carry a nuclear bomb into the country in a diplomatic pouch. Will we have critical intelligence to respond appropriately to these threats. If the past is any indicator of our good strategic sense, don't count on it.


Truth, they say, is the first casualty of war. To that casualty list, I would add "critical intelligence." And when critical intelligence departs, logical absurdity and farce abound unchecked. It is said that "Dr. Strangelove" began as a serious Cold War drama, but that the sense of comic absurdity so captivated the screenwriters, that they gave in and produced instead a black comedy classic.

Unfortunately, Strangelovian thinking persists. For example, near the end of the first Bush administration, I saw the Defense Secretary, one Richard Cheney on the tube, defending the stationing of US troops in Germany. (I understand that at the time, the "defense of Europe" constituted some 40% of our military budget). As best I recall, he remarked, in classic pentagonese, something like "We must honor our commitments to maintain the force structure of the NATO deployments.."

I had to check the calendar to assure that I had not walked through a time-warp.

Now let's see: This "force structure" was set up to protect Germany from Russian (then Soviet) troops. And, sure enough, even as he spoke, the Russians were in Germany. Why?

Because they had no "home" to go home to. So, in order to maintain the stability of the Russian government, the Germans kindly consented to allow the Russians soldiers to remain awhile.

So it came to this: we were spending billions to defend the Germans from an invasion from the army that they had invited to remain on their soil.

Never underestimate the power of an idea whose time has past -- but refuses to die. Such notions attain their immortality through the institutions -- read "careers and investments" -- that are established in their behalf.

For all that, we may now, at last, have the opportunity to look back upon the institutionalized folly of the Cold War in a manner which was impossible while we were in the midst of it -- while critical dissent suggested a whiff of disloyalty and "softness toward Communism." At the same time, these events are close enough in time to be more than "merely academic," and thus we might take warning and be reminded of our capacity to indulge in collective folly and, who knows, even suspect that our current "conventional wisdom" might be tomorrow's folly.

In this paper, I would like to display, in retrospect, both the power and the absurdity of two fixated ideas and mind-sets, which have contributed lavishly to the squandering of our national treasure these past four decades. These two paradigms are (a) "deterrence" against the "nuclear Pearl Harbor," and second, (b) the "worst-case" assumption of Soviet technical prowess and moral depravity, as allegedly manifest in the 1983 Korean Air Line tragedy. In both cases, the threats of aggression were significantly outstripped by the threats of "defense" gone awry -- by the psychological delusions and technological devices which arose in response to the perception of strategic nuclear threat. I will close with some thoughts on a new mind-set that may lead us to bungle the Post-Cold-War as decisively as we did the Cold War itself.



If asked to identify in one word the fundamental justification these past forty years, for the nuclear arms race, the answer would have to be "deterrence." In other words, the objective was to minimize the risk of nuclear war. What else could possibly have justified this expenditure of trillions of dollars? And yet, in fact, the runaway nuclear arms race, in particular the priorities and strategies of our military budget, significantly increased that risk. It is no small miracle that we escaped annihilation during these past four decades. On a few occasions, it seems, we came very close.

In January, 1988, I was asked by the University of Redlands to teach an "Inter-Session" course in "Nuclear War as a Philosophical Issue." In class, I asked my students: "with over fifteen thousand nuclear warheads aimed at the Soviet Union, and a comparable number aimed back at us, how would you rank the likely causes of nuclear war, in terms of probabilities?" Ranking from most to least probable, we developed this list:

Uncontrolled Escalation. ("World War I Scenario")
Contagious War ("World War I Scenario")
Unintended, Due to Malfunction. ("'War Games' Scenario")
Unintended, Due to Human Error
Unintended, Due to Derangement. ("Strangelove Scenario")
Catalytic War ("James Bond Scenario")
Pre-emptive Strike ("1967 Arab-Israeli Scenario")
Bolt from the Blue ("Nuclear Pearl Harbor")

(The "Catalytic War," is a strike brought about by a devious third power fooling one great power into believing that it is being attacked by the other. "Contagious Wars" occur when great powers get "drawn into" a war between client states -- similar to "uncontrolled escalation." The "Pre-Emptive Strike" might be the final stage of the Uncontrolled Escalation).

The exact order, of course, is open to endless speculation and debate. However, we were quite settled on the idea that the unintended war (the first five) were far more likely than the last (the premeditated "Bolt from the Blue"). In fact, given current technology, the "nuclear Pearl Harbor" was judged, on reflection, to be virtually impossible. Why? Given current technology, the historical Pearl Harbor attack would itself have been impossible. The Japanese fleet could never have crossed the Pacific undetected by satellites. But in addition to all that, preparations for a first strike, under current conditions, could not plausibly be kept secret. Strategic preparations would be detected by satellite or communications monitoring. Furthermore, it is unlikely that absolutely none of the several hundred or thousand officers with a "need to know," would not "blow the whistle" on such preparations. But note, too, that for a "bolt from the blue" to work, total secrecy must not only be "merely possible" or even "plausible" -- it must be confidently assumed to be absolutely certain, lest these preparations trigger a pre-emptive strike. While some strategic planners might believe that preparations for a first strike might plausibly be kept secret, no one can reasonably argue the certainty of such security. Lacking certainty, the danger of a pre-emptive strike effectively precludes the unprovoked first strike. In short, two improbabilities are required: (a) the ability to prepare for a first strike without detection, and (b) total confidence in (the improbable) (a). Thus, "nuclear Pearl Harbor," the product of two improbabilities, is virtually impossible.

Now consider: in view of these six scenarios, how did we allot our military appropriations? Answer: Virtually in inverse order of the probabilities. The "triad" system of deterrence, by far the largest share of the appropriations, had as its objective the prevention of the virtually impossible "bolt from the blue." (True, this "impossibility" was due, in large part, to the existence of a deterrent. But, as I will argue, the scale of this deterrence was beyond all reasonable justification). Still worse, this hypertrophied nuclear war machine made each of the remaining seven roads to Armageddon more likely. The smallest fraction of the military budget was directed to the avoidance of inadvertent nuclear war.

Undue attention to the deterrence of the first strike (the least likely scenario) led to a "zero-sum," "us vs. them" mind set. Thus, for years, any "gain" on our part was seen as a "setback" for the Soviets -- and vice versa. But surely, with unintended war by far the most likely threat, we were actually in a "plus-sum" contest -- that is, we had far more to gain by cooperation than by conflict, since our far greater interest, avoiding war, was shared, while our lesser interest, "prevailing," was contested. Of course, politicians often gave lip-service to the "plus-sum" aspect of our confrontation. Unfortunately, the military budgets did not reflect these sentiments. And so, compounded by the habit of "worse case planning," opportunities for accommodation were overlooked, while the common dangers mounted.

My claim that the arms race increased, rather than decreased, the probability of nuclear war might be demonstrated by the concept of "marginal deterrence" -- i.e., the deterrent value of the "next" nuclear weapon added to the stockpile. (The idea is borrowed from the economic concept of "marginal cost" -- the cost of producing the "next" item).

As most will agree, the deterrent value of the "first" nuclear weapon is enormous. Consider how our attitude toward Saddam Hussein would have been altered had we assurance that he had just one nuclear weapon that could be targeted on any city in the world. The "marginal deterrence" of his second weapon would also be very large, though not as great as the first. And so on for the tenth, the hundredth and the thousandth. The larger the arsenal, the less the marginal deterrence of the "next" warhead, so that eventually, say with the ten-thousand and first, the marginal deterrence is virtually zero. (How much "relief" would we have felt had we learned that the Soviets had retired one and only one of their ten thousand warheads?) From this function of marginal deterrence, we might plot the following (roughly hyperbolic) curve, with number of deterrent warheads on the horizontal axis, and danger of war due to a first strike (the inverse of "deterrence") on the vertical axis:

Consider next the danger from an unintended war (e.g., the "war games" and "Dr. Strangelove" scenarios). The danger that any given warhead will detonate due to malfunction, human error, or derangement is, admittedly, extremely small. The danger that any of a number of warheads will inadvertently detonate is an arithmetic function of the number of warheads. (No "declining marginal probability" here). Thus that danger grew to roughly 15,000 times the "extremely small" probability of each detonating -- no longer an "extremely small" danger. Drawn against a simple arithmetic x-axis, we would plot a gently rising straight line. However, drawn against our logarithmic axis, we get an ascending curve:

What, then, should be the optimum number of nuclear warheads if our only objective is to minimize the probability of nuclear war? (There were far better ways to minimize that probability -- most prominently, just quit unilaterally as, it turned out, Mr. Gorbachev did). Clearly the optimum number would be the number indicated by the intersection of the curves, thus:


Now, of course, I can assign no values to the y-axis. That would require the sort of data (possibly classified) that I am unfamiliar with. (I wonder how much of those trillions of dollars have been devoted to such research). So I am unable to determine just where that intersection might be. The task is further complicated when we seek to plot the "risk curves" for the other scenarios. Still, I believe that the functions have some intuitive value. Given this much, I find it very difficult to believe that the intersection in question lies very far to the right side of this graph. Surely all the psychological testing, the "permissive action links," the redundancies and quality control of the electronic components, were not so fabulously successful that the cumulative danger of a catastrophic failure among 15,000 warheads was less than the cumulative deterrence value of that many warheads. The record of "broken arrows" and systems malfunctions testifies otherwise. No, the stockpile of least danger must amount to not tens of thousands, or even thousands, but more like hundreds or even tens of warheads. Beyond several thousand is catastrophic folly. Beyond ten thousand lies madness, brought about, I submit, by uncontrolled techno-industrial "imperatives."

Missing from the above functional analysis of "war dangers" is the calculation of "risks in toto." With this we add, to the possible casualties of a nuclear war, the actual (if "statistical") casualties of nuclear weapons production: the uranium miners, the weapons production workers, the "downwinders," ordinary citizens unfortunate enough to live in the vicinity of weapons plants -- and, of course, future generations. These dangers are also roughly in arithmetic proportion to the amount of weapons production: the more weapons, the more victims. This consideration, which is only now beginning to receive even a fraction of the public attention it deserves, must surely move that "optimum number of weapons" still further to the left on the horizontal axis, above.



On the night of August 31, 1983, a Korean Airlines civilian airliner was shot down near Sakhalin Island, with the loss of all 269 lives aboard. This tragic incident, I submit, offers vivid evidence of cold-war thinking at work, of dangerous distortions of mind-set, of the ready willingness to use tragedy for political advantage, and, finally, it revealed for just a moment, the administration's "psychological investment" in the continuation of the arms race.

With the recovery of the doomed aircraft's "black box' by the Russians, and the release of the relevant files, we can now conclude that the destruction of that airliner was indefensible. But it was an act of negligent homicide, provoked by pilot error, not of cold-blooded murder. The essential facts are these: At the time, a US Air Force surveillance plane (a Boeing 707) was flying a figure-8 pattern, in and out of Soviet radar range, due east of Sakhalin Island, a strategic Soviet military installation. Completing its mission, it headed for its home base, out of radar range. KAL-007 then entered Soviet radar range at about the time and place the Air Force plane might have been expected to reappear. It then proceeded to fly over the southern tip of that very narrow island. It is clear now that the plane was off course, due to navigational error. The Soviets were thus faced with a deadly dilemma: either shoot down a plane that they were not entirely sure was on a spying mission, or allow it to leave their air space, possibly with vitally important military information on board.

As so often happens in such cases, had any of a number of circumstances been different, the catastrophe would have been averted. First of all, (a)  the fighter pilots had no tracer bullets that might serve as warning shots, (b) they chose the safer approach from below, whereas from above they would likely have recognized the markings and the 747's telltale "hump," (c) the fighter pilots, again showing undue scruple for their own safety, did not fly ahead of the KAL and thus identify themselves. Finally, (d) since the airliner was to leave Soviet space within a couple of minutes, the decision had to be made on the spot.

We know now that our intelligence agencies were aware of all this within hours of the event. Yet they somehow couldn't resist this opportunity to "bash the Russkies." So we had the spectacle of the pilots' air-chatter replayed at the Security Council. And, from a prepared script, Ronald Reagan read:

What can be said about Soviet credibility, when they so flagrantly lie about such a heinous act? What can be the scope of legitimate mutual discourse with a state whose values permit such atrocities? And what are we to make of a regime which establishes one set of standards for itself, and another for the rest of humankind? The brutality of this action [must] not be compounded through silence or the cynical distortion of the evidence now at hand. . . (Quoted verbatim from a news clip, included in the TV docudrama, "Tailspin: Behind the Korean Airline Tragedy." I have emphasized passages which, as the story develops, appear sadly ironical).

Not content with that, he escalated the rhetoric and piled it on:

There is no way that a pilot could mistake this for anything other than a civilian airliner. They deny the deed, but in their conflicting and misleading protestations, the Soviets reveal that, yes, shooting down a plane, even one with hundreds of innocent men, women, children and babies, is a part of their normal procedure, if that plane is in what they claim as their air space. This was the Soviet Union against the world, and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere. It was an act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life, and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations. [ibid.]

Could that incident have been not murder but a tragic blunder? Is it possible that modern, sophisticated technology could fail, causing the death of over two-hundred innocent civilians? Our official line was that this explanation was not credible (Note the Reagan quote, above). Then, five years later, in July, 1988, we shot down the Iranian Airbus, in what was essentially a morally equivalent blunder. "Instrument and human error," we concluded. Certainly not intended.

Finally, the alleged "crime" simply made no sense. Even when we attributed the basest moral degradation to the Soviet government and military, we at least "trusted" them to be intelligently calculating in the pursuit (by any means) of their perceived self-interest. What could they possibly have gained by a cold-blooded destruction of a civilian airliner? And what could they have lost? Just read the world press following the event.

Poor old Ronald Reagan may have believed every word of that script that was prepared for him. But his intelligence advisors knew differently. So why did they "milk" this tragedy for all it's propaganda payoff?

Now the matter gets speculative, but nonetheless interesting for all that. The truth is that KAL 007 (and later the Iranian Airbus) went down because of technological and human failure, in the face of a falsely perceived threat. Time and technological imperatives forced a decision by a local commander which, upon further review and reflection, might have been overruled. The lives of the KAL passengers were lost as a result not of Soviet cruelty and viciousness but of the inadequacies of their equipment and personnel, and the exigencies of the moment. And so too, the lives of the passengers of the ill-fated Iranian Airbus.

But this is exactly what our "conventional Military-Industrial wisdom" could not admit to us, or even perhaps to themselves. The tragedy of KAL 007, as we now know, tells us that the Soviets were not malicious, calculating, evil supermen with infallible Star Trek technology. Instead, they were weak and fallible human beings whose inherently limited technology, coupled with perceived strategic necessities, controlled the Soviet operator's responses as much or more than the operators controlled their technology. And as we discovered with the Airbus tragedy (not to mention numerous "broken arrow" incidents), our machines controlled us as well. In short, the machines and command structures designed to "defend" us against "the perfidious Russians," and, reciprocally, to defend them against us -- these devices became a common "enemy" to us both. In those everlasting words of Walt Kelly's Pogo: "We have met the enemy, and he is us!" As one reflects upon all this, and upon the aforementioned obsession with "Nuclear Pearl Harbor" and the attending casualness regarding "nuclear accidents," it seems ever more amazing that we did not blunder into a nuclear war and oblivion.

Now that was the very last thing that our Military-Industrial Complex wanted us to contemplate. Instead, they went about their business of concocting enemies and ordering weapons for scarcely imaginable conflicts, while the greatest threats to our "national security"-- neglect of our education, our public institutions, our infrastructure, our research and development, in short the abandonment of our future -- continued, and continues, unabated. "Worst-case" assessments of the opposing "threat," were used by both sides to justify huge budgets and to enhance careers and investments. As the late Kenneth Boulding once remarked to me, the US and Soviet military-industrial establishments developed a mutual symbiotic alliance against their own respective civilian populations.

In short, had we been wise enough to notice, KAL 007 could have exposed the myth that captivated us for four decades at the cost of trillions of dollars of our national treasure. We would have seen that the technological, economic, and institutional imperatives set up to defend our national independence and prosperity threatened to take them away. But to acknowledge all this, we would have had to give up the comforting notion that all the world's troubles, and ours, were "their" fault -- that, as President Reagan once claimed, "the Soviet Union underlies all the unrest that is going on. If they weren't engaged in this game of dominoes, there wouldn't be any hot spots in the world." ("Reagan's World, Republicans' Policies Stress Arms Buildup," Karen Elliot House, the Wall Street Journal, June 3, 1980.)

Rejecting such a bald-faced, self-serving rationalization might have caused us to entertain the thought that we might be our own worst enemies. That we have been all-too ready to spot the mote in the Soviet eyes, while ignoring the beam in our own.

The application of all this to the nuclear arms race is, I trust, abundantly clear. Focusing on the "external threat" of the Soviets (which, I do not deny, has had some validity, more or less, in the past), we tolerated assaults of our own making upon our own populations. The production of tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, and the dreadful radioactive devastation which followed, were justified by the myth of Soviet power and technological prowess. Suggestions of military weakness and tactical error on their part --- either in their strategic nuclear attack and defense capabilities, or in their air defense facilities on Sakhalin Island -- were heresy to the "nuclear priesthood" and, by extension, to polite political debate. The implications of such hypothetical weakness on the part of the Soviets -- i.e. that our machines and institutions had become common threats to us both, greatly exceeding our mutual threats to each other -- these implications were downright subversive to the established order.



A funny thing happened on the way to Armageddon.

The "other side" got smart, let go of the tug-o-war rope, and sent us sprawling.

For forty years, each side was warned of the terrible things that would result if "our side" quit the arms race. Then, finally, one side did. And nothing terrible happened.

So who won the cold war?

Those inclined to ask this question, generally regard it as rhetorical. It's obvious: We won! That said, a more vexing question arises: "Are the losers, the Russians, entitled to our charitable assistance?" Both questions are profoundly misconceived -- both beg insupportable and scarcely examined assumptions. Both betray a seemingly indelible Manicheanism in the national American thought-process: an insistence upon seeing the world as a contest between opposing forces of good ("our side") and evil ("their side").

In point of fact, both the US and the USSR "lost" the Cold War, as they bled each other to exhaustion through an unrestrained forty-year Potlatch. The result was a Russian economy in ruins, and an American economy polarized and uncompetitive. And at the same time, both sides "won," with the ending of this extravagant travesty, though we can take no credit for that closure. The other guy did it. The only "winners" were the Germans and the Japanese who, to their enduring advantage, we excluded from the arms race -- a result of our "unconditional victory" in the last great war.

Yet the Republicans insists upon claiming credit for "winning the Cold War," while the Democrats, poor saps, say "no you didn't -- we did." It's like asking, "who 'won' the Los Angeles earthquake?"

To the nonaligned onlooker, it must be a fascinating spectacle: For over forty years, a succession of US administrations have charged the Soviet peoples to throw the Bolshevik rascals out. To protect itself from the aforesaid "rascals," the US has spent over four trillion dollars. Now the long-suffering peoples of the former Soviet Union have thrown the rascals out, and they have done so at a dreadful economic cost and political risk to themselves. Our response, while verbally generous, has been fiscally miserly -- words, after all, are cheap.

A Russian friend expresses the hope that the American leadership will not be moved to help, through feelings of "charity." "Every country," she writes, "must solve its own problems. Nobody can help if you have no self-respect and can't feed your own."

But it's not a matter of "charity." We forget that the Russians are our moral creditors. The peoples of the former Soviet Union deserve, not our charity, but our gratitude. They offer the entire world, at last, an opportunity to devote its resources to life, not to annihilation. Aid to the Commonwealth of Independent States at this crucial moment would constitute our part in a cooperative exercise of mutual sacrifice for the sake of a priceless dividend. The Commonwealth's contribution is being paid in economic misery and political risk. The West's reciprocation may be accomplished simply by investing in the recovery of its new global partners, utilizing some of the enormous resources previously devoted to threatening their annihilation -- resources now made obsolete by the courageous initiative of our former adversaries.

To sum up: "hypertrophic deterrence" and the KAL 007 incident both exemplify "the mote-beam phenomenon" -- namely, the universal tendency to exaggerate the vices of our adversaries while discounting our own. Thus, while devoting full attention to deterring a "first strike" ("their" fault), we ignored the peril of an unintended nuclear war (our responsibility). Similarly, two morally equivalent disasters -- KAL 007 and the Iranian Airbus incident -- were given radically different interpretations: respectively, their "act of barbarism" and our "tragic and regrettable failure of technology and judgment."

Now that the Cold War is over, it is quite possible to recognize, in retrospect, the workings and the consequences of "mote-beam" distortion during that unfortunate era of recent history. The far more difficult task, of course, is to recognize such self-righteous distortions while they are at work. The remedy is familiar and dates back to the dawn of moral reflection: philosophers call it "the moral point of view," psychologists call it "mirror-image thinking," and religious teachers call it "the Golden Rule." In the simplest terms, this remedy is nothing less than a capacity to become a critical spectator of one's own behavior as well as the behavior of one's adversary. And this entails a willingness to see oneself, and one's common peril, from the perspective of an intelligent adversary.

Can we learn from such misadventures as "hypertrophied deterrence" and the KAL-007 incident? Neither history, nor current political rhetoric give us much cause for encouragement. Still, the situation is not hopeless. The remedy -- critical intelligence applied to moral reflection -- is perpetually at hand, should we have the good sense and moral stamina to put it to use, and should we be willing, for once, to learn from the history of our folly.

Copyright 1994 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .