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Douglas Mattern: Nukes, Fools, and Asteroids

Nukes, Fools, and Asteroids

by Douglas Mattern

"A fools game" is how the former chief of the U.S. strategic Air Command, General George Lee Butler, describes nuclear weapons and policy. The General says there is no security in these weapons and the only rational option is for their complete elimination.

Today, however, the "fools game" continues with new members in the macabre nuclear club, others desperate to join, and the Bush Administration planning to build a new class of tactical nuclear weapons, including a new "bunker-busting" bomb that would be thousands of times more powerful than the bunker-busters used in the "Shock and Awe" bombing of Baghdad.

Perhaps the bigger fools, even more than the nuclear planners, the nuclear profiteers, and the nuclear policy makers, are all of us who accept this condition. It goes back over four decades with a nightmarish peak during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. I vividly recall the October night when U.S. and Russian ships were about to meet on the high seas. Tension and fear were the rule, and as evening grew into darkness, I turned on the television to learn the latest news. The anchorman opened with a hushed voice and with an ashen face slowly said, "We may be hours away from nuclear war." Then, after a short pause, he recovered to say, "more after these commercials." Commercials! The last chance to make a buck before it was all over. At that point all doubt then dispelled that we were living in a time of nuclear lunacy that it endures today.

After the 1962 crisis, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense at the time, said: "We came within a hairbreadth of nuclear war without realizing it... It's no credit to us that we missed nuclear war--at least we had to be lucky as well as wise." Luck continues to play a major role in this bizarre madness with many documented close calls to nuclear war over the years. And who knows just how many we do not know about?

The nuclear lunacy came to the forefront recently when the BBC reported that a group of scientists and military leaders are worried that an asteroid passing close to our planet could "trigger nuclear war" if mistaken for a missile strike. To underline their concern, each year about 30 asteroids pierce the atmosphere and explode. Even the smaller sized ones unleash as much energy as the nuclear bomb that laid waste the City of Hiroshima.

Escalating lunacy! The Rand think tank gives a frightening assessment of the current situation, reporting that U.S. and Russia maintain large nuclear forces on "hair-trigger" alert that could be launched in minutes and destroy both countries in an hour. The study states that economic and social problems have led Russia to rely more on nuclear arms, and warns a war could start, among other reasons, by an accidental missile launch. Let's add an asteroid to the equation.

And now add to this "doomsday" scenario a report from the Center for Defense Information that Russia has come online with their Kovzvinsky Mountain facility with equipment designed to ensure a "quasi-automatic" Russian missile retaliation in case a U.S. first strike destroyed their nuclear chain of command.

Forty-one years after the TV anchorman warned that nuclear war may be hours away, and more than a decade after the end of the cold war, there are 30,000 nuclear weapons stockpiled in the world, including the thousands of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads on a hair-trigger alert. We remain, therefore, every day, under the threat of nuclear incineration whether by accident or design.

This enduring "fools game" must be ended before the fools who play it end us all. Step one is the removal of all nuclear warheads from "hair-trigger" alert to avert nuclear war by accident or miscalculation. Step two must be the total elimination of these weapons from the face of the earth.

Every presidential and congressional candidate should be confronted on how they will work to achieve this imperative goal.


Douglas Mattern is the president of the Association of World Citizens, a San Francisco based international peace organization with branches in 50 countries and with UN NGO status.

This article was also published on Monday, October 27, 2003 by

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