Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D
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STAR WARS THE NATIONAL SANITY TEST

(1988)


As the context immediately reveals, the first of these two unpublished pieces was written during the 1988 Presidential campaign.  However, it reflects concerns that were very much on my mind ever since Ronald Reagan proclaimed his "Strategic Defense Initiative" in May, 1983.  I will post this as it was written.  Sad to say, time has not eroded much of the relevance or the force of argument.  Indeed, it has become even more relevant today, as George Bush (The Younger) appears to have been bewitched anew by Ronald Reagan's fantasy.  And so I have added, as a follow-up, my reflections as of June, 2000:
Strategic Defense -- It's BAAACK!  

 


The Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars," is emerging as one of the few issues of this (1988) presidential campaign. It should be -- though not quite the issue that Mr. Bush [Senior] and Senator Quayle might wish it to be.

The essential questions about "Star Wars" should be these: Why do we continue to debate about and throw money at this  fantasy? Why does Governor Dukakis now feel that he must call SDI anything less than a "fantasy."

A moment's reflection will show that President Reagan's original conception of the "space shield" is absurd on its face. Consider the following three assertions:

< Nuclear weapons can be delivered by a variety of means: intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), bombers, missiles from offshore submarines, cruise missiles, and even tramp steamers, suitcases, and private light airplanes.

< Even if SDI performs precisely as projected, it will be effective only against ICBMs.

< Through it's projected capacity to "intercept and destroy" all incoming ICBMs, SDI promises to "[render] ... nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete." (Ronald Reagan, March 23, 1983).

Clearly, the President's claim in the third statement is inconsistent with the undisputed facts in the first two. This simple refutation, pointed out immediately after Reagan's celebrated announcement, should have ended the debate then and there. It has not. Instead, the proponents have chosen to ignore this inconsistency and walk away from it. (What else could they do, except to capitulate?) Thus the debate continues, and the money continues to flow. (Over fifteen billion, and still counting).

Having failed to draw attention to, much less provoke discussion of, this patent absurdity, the critics of SDI have moved on to address the suggestion that SDI might possibly "perform as projected."

That article of faith has no support whatever among independent scientific investigators. (Find support, and you will almost certainly also find a Defense Department Research Grant or Appropriation in evidence). The objections are straightforward, and by now quite familiar:

< This system of space weapons, designed to destroy thousands of moving targets within a few minutes of launch, can be totally disabled by a well-aimed shot by the aggressor at a "command and control" satellite in fixed orbit.

< The system can be overwhelmed with decoy warheads.

< The computer program written to control this array of hardware will have to contain millions of lines of error-free programming. This is, practically speaking, impossible.

< Even if an error-free program were written, we could not know that we had achieved this amazing accomplishment unless SDI were actually employed against an attack, since the full system cannot be tested. And yet high confidence is essential if SDI is to be a credible defense.

< A 95% "success rate" of SDI against a massive nuclear attack would allow enough warheads through to assure the destruction of the United States as a functioning civilization.

< The one assured consequence of continued funding of SDI will be still more transfers of funds from ordinary taxpayers to the nuclear weapons laboratories and to defense contractors.

In the face of such objections, and many more, SDI has been decisively rejected by the AAAS, the American Physical Society, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Office of Technology Assessment (at least twice), by a poll of members of the National Academy of Sciences, and by other agencies and scientific associations too numerous to mention.

The proponents' rejoinders are equally familiar:

< "They all laughed at the Wright Brothers!"

< "That's an interesting point you make, and I want to assure you that we have some of our best people working on it."

< "If you only knew what we knew -- but, unfortunately, we can't tell you. It's Top Secret."

Finally, that question-begging evasion that we know so well: "What's the matter with you? Don't you want to be protected from nuclear weapons?"

But, of course, we do want to be protected! Such a pity that we can't -- at least, not from hardware in orbit. In essence, "don't you want to be protected" is the same sort of question-begging argument as: "Why not buy the Brooklyn Bridge from me? Don't you want to make a fortune in tolls!"

Unfortunately, it appears that many are quite willing to buy the bridge -- compelling scientific opinion and evidence, reflective intelligence, and simple common sense to the contrary, notwithstanding.

Admittedly, in the face of unrelenting scientific criticism, the early extravagant claims of the fully-effective continental "space shield" have been withdrawn by all proponents except, apparently, Ronald Reagan and Dan Quayle. Instead, the objective of "the New SDI" will be to protect ICBMs in their silos. Thus the system which was first proposed to "make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete," has evolved into a system to protect nuclear weapons. That which was meant to "replace" the strategic doctrine of deterrence is now designed to "enhance" deterrence. And yet, through a persistent employment of what Senator Cohen describes as "bait and switch tactics," the public is being sold a "space shield" that even the proponents no longer credit.

How have so many been taken in by the Star Wars gimmickry? There are sobering intimations all about. We are fast becoming a nation of individuals who have, on the average, spent more time before a television screen, than in a classroom or facing a printed page -- a public addressed more and more as potential customers, and less as citizens, advocates, and reflective thinkers. Thus, our public and political discourse is no longer designed to inform or to offer rational argument, but rather to entertain, to reassure, and above all, to sell.

The promotion of SDI has not proven the feasibility of a space-based defense from nuclear missiles. Instead, it has demonstrated anew the lack of sales resistance of much of the American public. This continuing "debate" exhibits our collective capacity to fall for, and pay for, virtually anything, provided enough public relations geniuses are assigned to the sales force. And that notorious trait of the American public poses a greater threat to our security, and to the future of our democratic institutions, than all 10,000 strategic Soviet warheads.

For the American public, the most compelling question raised by Star Wars, is not "can we protect ourselves with a space shield?" We can not, and for reasons that should be clear and persuasive to the reflective citizen. The essential issue posed by SDI is that of our collective credulity, of our national "reality principle" -- in short, "Are we capable of dealing with the real world?" To ask this is to ask, in effect: "are we the masters of our fate?"

Accordingly. those who persist in their support of the Strategic Defense Initiative have failed this national sanity test.


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 .