Missileers: Seeking meaningful employment

By , January 20, 2015

If you’ve followed the rolling scandals that have afflicted the US intercontinental ballistic missile force, you know how tawdry and pathetic the revelations have been. Taking the cake for tawdriness was Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, the man then in charge of all the nation’s ICBMs, who in 2013 took an official trip to Moscow and got himself good and drunk. Carey bragged, sulked, offended his hosts, tried to get on stage with a bar band, and spent unauthorized time with “suspect” women, one of them known as “the cigar shop lady.”

The pathos prize goes to an inanimate object—the notorious wrench that, unique in its ability to facilitate warhead-missile attachment, had to be shipped from missile base to missile base via Federal Express. But if pathos is properly reserved for living beings, the prize goes to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a man forced to announce in public that “[w]e now have a wrench for each location. We're going to have two wrenches for each location soon.” Poor Hagel, victim of a recent kitchen accident, made this dire proclamation with an unsightly bandage on his face.

But the heart of the scandal has been bad behavior and poor morale among missileers—the luckless souls who, about twice a week, descend 60 feet into holes in the ground and spend 24 hours awaiting their orders to perpetrate destruction. As the scandal has revealed, many missileers cheated on their monthly proficiency tests. Some consumed ecstasy, amphetamines, and synthetic marijuana. Two missileers, in grievous violation of procedure, opened blast doors while their partners were sleeping. The list of misdeeds continues, but the upshot is this: Missileers behaved like people who hated their stupid jobs.

This is a troubling picture of individuals who, as news reports so often claim, are “entrusted” with the nation’s ICBMs. But in reality, missileers aren’t entrusted with much of anything. To the contrary, they’ve long been micromanaged, tested excessively, and placed under onerous oversight regarding their mental fitness. The Pentagon has pledged to moderate the petty harassment, but missileers will continue to be entrusted with precisely one significant duty: executing a launch order that never comes.

It’s an order, frankly, that should be disobeyed. Imagine that Russia has launched a devastating first strike against the United States. The missiles are airborne, irretrievable, and Americans are certain to perish in their millions. At such a moment, it’s hard to identify the precise purpose of slaughtering Russian innocents. Deterrence theory, to be sure, demands the slaughter of innocents. But if missiles are in flight, deterrence has already failed. The relevance of theory diminishes with the passing seconds. Even obedience to superiors might seem excessively punctilious. Missileers have just one job—or maybe none at all. Synthetic marijuana, anyone?

The hypercompetence myth. I feel bad for the missileers. Empathy compels it. But missileers don’t worry me much. Unless permissive action links are more fallible than advertised—certainly a possibility—it’s beyond the missileers’ capacity to execute an unauthorized launch. These people have a very tough go of it, but they probably aren’t hurting anyone.

What worries me is their tedium and hopelessness, the probability that the entire nuclear undertaking is shot through with tedium and hopelessness. Indeed, few occupations in the nuclear enterprise seem conducive to contentment, pride in a job well done, and exemplary esprit de corps. If waiting endlessly for unforthcoming launch codes makes missileers feel silly, do crews at early warning centers feel ennobled by scanning the skies for nonexistent missile attacks? Contractors in the Tennessee hills stand guard forever over a deposit of dull, dangerous metal that demonstrably means nothing to them. The military aide with the presidential football must drag a desperate cargo for which the executive hand never reaches in anger.

Over recent months and years, the public has learned a lot about buffoonery within the nuclear enterprise—from drunken commanders to misplaced warheads to unsecured uranium and beyond. No danger of detonation has arisen from any single incident (or so the public is told). In the long run, though, keeping an arsenal safe and secure requires an unerring competence, something human beings don’t exhibit. Great chess champions commit hideous blunders. World-beating boxers get dramatically kayoed. Chess and prizefighting, of course, aren’t directly analogous to maintaining a nuclear arsenal—but that’s partly because these pursuits are conducted in the public eye.

Where does hypercompetence really reside? Only within opaque institutions, and only for a while. The Central Intelligence Agency projects competence bordering on omnipotence—at least on Hollywood screens and in the minds of conspiracy nuts—but whenever the veil on CIA activities is lifted, these masters of spycraft tend to be revealed as a pack of bumbling nobodies. A similar fate has befallen the nuclear enterprise in recent times. Hypercompetence has been exposed as lack thereof.

Sure, the nuclear enterprise can probably be managed a little better. I wish the Pentagon and the Energy Department all the luck in the world. But if they mean to rationalize the nuclear endeavor, they’ve set themselves a hopeless task. It’s irrational to protect a nation—any nation—by maintaining a capacity to render the world uninhabitable. It’s irrational to retain in perpetuity a destructive force that can never be exercised. Nuclear weapons, supremely serious on one level, are supremely dopey on another. So though it’s discouraging to see missileers misbehave, it’s no great surprise that they do so. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. But the missileers aren’t a hopeless case. Far from it—they are bright and talented people. All that’s needed to make them productive members of society, and incidentally to make the world safer, is to put those notorious wrenches to use detaching warheads from missiles. Two wrenches per base are enough to get started on the job.

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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