Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Nuclear War Imminent?

Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William J. Astore who served in the nuclear missile command fears the end of human life through nuclear war is more likely than in the Cold War era.

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War with China in two years90 seconds to midnight, fighter jets to Ukraine. The climate of war is brewing around the world. It is seen flashed across the news, felt by those in close proximity to warzones and sustained by the corporations funding it. Yet, there is no major opposition force, no peace movement and no urgency to move towards diplomacy.

Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and writer William J. Astore discusses his latest essay, “Can the Military-Industrial Complex Be Tamed?” with host Robert Scheer on this episode of Scheer Intelligence. Coming from a long career in the military, Astore shares his perspective on the current state of the conflict and how it is both unique and reminiscent of the past, how the reach of the military industrial complex is deeper than ever and how indifferent the population feels.

“We need to act together as citizens to be that vital check on the military industrial congressional complex, which is why I think there are so many forces in our society today that are actually trying to keep us… asleep and isolated from the real impact of war,” Astore says.

Astore speaks of the rot within the business of war and how, despite military officers not necessarily earning a lot of money, a “revolving door” of power and wealth exists with companies like Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Raytheon post-retirement. “To paraphrase Condoleezza Rice, we can’t let the golden idol become a mushroom cloud. And I think, unfortunately, we’re heading in that direction,” he says.

When it comes to the outlook of ordinary people, the normalization of war and conflict has created a docile and callous population. “I think people have this illusion…that somehow that escalation is something that can be modulated and that simply isn’t the case. History shows us this. We got very lucky with the Cuban Missile Crisis, that it didn’t escalate into nuclear war. We may not be that lucky again.”


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Credits

Host:

Robert Scheer

Producer:

Joshua Scheer

Transcript

Robert Scheer:

Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guest and in this case, William Astore, Lieutenant Colonel William Astore, retired from the Air Force. And we are here to talk about the gloomiest, most frightening subject in the world, which is not part of the conversation now, amazingly enough. The possibility of destroying all life on the planet except some beetles and cockroaches and so forth. And I’m familiar with your work, but we’ve never actually talked to each other before. And you said in a little note that actually we met through a book I wrote called With Enough Shovels so maybe you could put us back. You were in ROTC, you’re in college and let’s just begin there. 

William Astore:

Well, thanks, Bob, for having me on your show. And thanks for all the times that you’ve run my articles at your site. Yeah, I know your work from your book With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War, something like that. 

Scheer:

Exactly the title. Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War. 

Astore:

Yeah. I had it as a college student in the early 1980s. I was doing a project on the Reagan defense buildup, and I was also Air Force ROTC at the time. And I always remember that book because of the quote from it. You know, the idea that, you know, nuclear war isn’t that bad, you know, as long as we’ve got enough shovels and dirt, you know, it’s the dirt that does it. That’s somehow will always… 

Scheer:

T.K. Jones. But the interesting thing about that is I actually first got into this because I interviewed Bush when he was running for president and I derailed his campaign, it was not my intention. We were coming from Iowa actually on a small plane, just the two of us, and his assistants. And I asked him about, you know, why do you need more of these weapons? What are you going to do with them? Isn’t there a point of excess? And he says that’s if you don’t believe nuclear war is winnable. And I was just shocked. And the plane was bouncing up and down. And, you know, I was checking my recording materials. And that’s the first time I realized that there was a popular notion in conservative, militaristic circles that we were over-intimidated by nuclear weapons, that actually we could survive, we shouldn’t be bluffed and so forth. And in fact, he was running against Ronald Reagan so I then went and interviewed Ronald Reagan—this was all done for the Los Angeles Times—and Reagan gave… You remember, Bush was the head of the CIA and was the ambassador to China, so he was supposed to be a sophisticated person. Reagan was supposed to be the rube, you know, the hick in the election. And yet Reagan actually, because we had this publicity about Bush, he gave a more sensible answer. He said, well, I don’t believe it’s winnable, but those monsters, the Russians do. And then he ended up negotiating with Gorbachev and actually brought some measure of peace to the world. So I want to say, though, that right now we’re at a point which is much more frightening to me than I ever was in the 1980s. And it’s because people just seem to be giddy about those Russian nuclear weapons. And the irony is that, you know, we thought we could negotiate as Nixon did with Mao Zedong, we negotiated with Brezhnev and, you know, Khrushchev and so forth. And now we don’t even have the idea that we can talk to an anti-communist like, you know, Putin. But also we don’t seem to care about nuclear weapons. So like, how do you see it now? And I do want to say something. I just printed an article by you, reprinted from TomDispatch, which is a great news service that carries all your stuff, and the title of your piece was Can the Military Industrial Complex be Tamed? But I know it’s a very strong piece. While I was reading I thought, you know, the big problem with the military industrial complex is not that they waste money, which they certainly do. They’re more than half of the discretionary budget, but they actually now have the idea that maybe they can use these weapons. So bring it on. And I even quoted there’s a piece by Mike Minihan. You might know him, a general in the Air Force, that you were a lieutenant colonel in. And he’s actually like the T.K. Jones of this moment where he’s even like Dr. Strangelove. And this was reported on NBC and CNN and others, but he actually said, we’re going to be at war with China, not just Russia, China in two years. And he’s telling the troops it’s good for your family life. This is Strangelove, you know, this is the old idea it’ll make you a man or something. So are we in a particularly nutty position? 

Astore:

Yeah. General Minihan, he seems like the new wannabe General Curtis LeMay in the sense of bombing people back to the Stone Age. But yeah, you know, I remember the early 1980s, we actually had the nuclear freeze movement. You know, people were getting out in the streets and Americans and Europeans were opposing the deployment of the Pershing II missiles, the Ground Launched Cruise Missiles that were deployed to Britain. You know, it was a dangerous time. And people were well, they were more aware then than they are now because, you know, the threat of nuclear war over the last 40 years or so, I think at this time has increased because of the situation in Ukraine and tensions with China. And of course, as we know, the Doomsday Clock has been moved yet closer to midnight and yet you don’t see the same level of awareness and opposition. In fact, what we see instead is the secretary of defense getting out there, Lloyd Austin, and introducing the, you know, the new B-21 bomber as a great, you know, sexy plane. And basically it’s designed to drop nuclear bombs on other countries. That’s its primary function. And yet you hardly hear that is really what it’s all about. The Air Force is also building a new sentinel ICBM that’s completely unnecessary. The ICBMs that we have, the Minuteman, you know, they should be retired. And yet we have this you know, the military industrial complex will retire no weapon unless it’s forced to retire them. 

Scheer:

But what’s really frightening is that, you know, you mention a worldwide movement of concern about nuclear weapons. And actually, Germany was probably the leader in this, the German [inaudible] And, you know, not with us and we don’t want this. Now, Germany is being pressured and is actually responding, you know, “send advanced tanks, let’s get involved, bring it on.” And what I don’t understand is the mindset. It’s that somehow we were able to negotiate with communists in China and Russia when they were militant. Certainly Mao was, we were able to negotiate arms control. And the idea that with Putin, we don’t have to and we can’t trust him and we won’t negotiate. And I wanted to relate this to your own career, because after you read my pamphlet, you went into the Air Force, despite my effort to educate people like you, that we really didn’t need you there. But the fact is… So why don’t you tell us about your own career, your relation to nuclear weapons, your expertise. And, you know, not only did you not have a few feet of dirt on top of you, you had, you know granite and you were in a cave, so why don’t we get into that a little bit? 

Astore:

Yeah. I had 2000 feet of solid granite protecting me in Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado Springs, Colorado. That was my first assignment as a lieutenant. And, you know, it made me think a little bit of your book, because we knew we knew in Cheyenne Mountain that even with all the granite over the top of us and the fact that, you know, you had to you had to go into the truck, drive into the tunnel, we had enormous blast doors. You know, buildings were mounted on gigantic springs to try to absorb the shock of a nuclear attack. I mean, maybe Cheyenne Mountain could have survived a nuclear attack in the early to mid 1960s, but Soviet ICBMs became increasingly accurate. So we all knew that if there was a nuclear war, you know, Cheyenne Mountain was going to be one of the first targets and we were all going to be dead. But the idea was at least we could survive long enough, you know, to get off our counter missile launch. So, you know, I was there for three years. And then I went on, I ended up teaching history at the Air Force Academy. 

Scheer:

Before you get to that. So for three years, you were going into this death hole, really, and the mission was that if you got attacked enough would survive, that you could destroy all of their society. It was a mad, mad deterrent, right? 

Astore:

Yeah. Cheyenne Mountain was America’s nuclear command center. And so there was a missile warning center there. And its purpose was to ensure that we were able either to launch an attack or first strike or to respond to a Soviet first strike. And in fact, I remember one exercise I was on in the mountain where we ran a war tape scenario, those old computer hard drives, you know, the old tape drives that you saw from vintage 1980s, although they were probably from the seventies, really. Cheyenne Mountain was a little bit behind the times. And I still remember on those old screens that we were seeing now again, these were fake. It was a scenario tape. But the missile launched from the Soviet Union going over the North Pole and then the missile tracks terminated in American cities. And that was, even though it was fake, it was just a scenario, that was an incredibly sobering moment for me. I was in the missile warning center and everyone got quiet. You know, we all knew it was phony, but there was just something about that. You just thought to yourself, if that was real, you know, well, there it goes, there goes Wichita, you know, there goes Denver, you know, there goes San Francisco. 

Scheer:

And, you know, most of the people listening to this are too young to really remember the great fear about nuclear weapons but we’re talking about a mutual suicide pact. I mean, there’s no surviving what the Russians have now, post-communist Russia, and what we have now. And then throw in what the Chinese have and other stuff in the world. So you really were sitting here for three years thinking that basically your job was you couldn’t save America, but you could threaten to take everything out there and maybe they would come to their senses. But instead, what happened was Ronald Reagan, for all of his seeming to be the real conservative, pro-military and everything, when he met Gorbachev, they agreed to get rid of these weapons. And, you know, and even the first President Bush, he wanted to cut the defense budget by a third. And yet look at it now, look at the… talk a little bit about what your piece talked about, the amount of money we’re spending. And, you know, I mean, it’s bizarre and there is, I don’t know, one there was… AOC was the one Democrat that voted against the military increase. And she went to great pains to say it wasn’t because she didn’t believe we need the weapons. It was about some you know, we shouldn’t cut other things or something. Right. We have no, you know, where are the Wayne Morse’s? Where are the Gruenings? Where are those, you know, Mansfield even. Where are the people who spoke out in real time? Fulbright, Senator Fulbright. We have no active movement for peace. We have no peace movement and even internationally. So how would you describe it? Is this kind of insanity, giddiness, escapism and just bring us… I mean, the mentality that you had for three years in this, the most secure cave. Why don’t you remind people what we’re talking about? 

Astore:

Yeah, well, yeah, you know, I’ve been to Los Alamos National Labs and I’ve been to the Trinity Test site where the first atomic bomb was exploded in July of 1945. The atomic device that Oppenheimer was the mastermind of. And, you know, just walking around the desert there and seeing, you know, the tower was obliterated, but you can still see the concrete pad and walking around the desert and you realize that was just an atomic bomb. You know, that the hydrogen bombs that we have mounted on missiles today are 100 to 1000 times more powerful than what destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So I don’t know why we’ve forgotten this. It’s a strange, almost a strange form of amnesia, perhaps, or perhaps suppression of you know, it’s such a grim thing to think. It’s sort of like they say, thinking about the unthinkable. Right? I don’t think we want to think about it, nor are we encouraged to think about it. I mean, back in the eighties, as you know, you know, we had movies like what was it, The Day After? It’s kind of a famous movie that envisioned a nuclear attack on the United States and what would happen. And I remember after The Day After was shown on TV, they actually had a panel discussion. I think Kissinger was there and Kissinger was asked about it and he said, Whatever you saw in that movie, it would be a lot worse if we ever had a real nuclear attack. If I’m remembering that correctly. But again, it’s like you said, there’s a form of giddiness that’s overtaken certain people, certainly in the military industrial complex. You know, now the budget is $858 billion, which is $45 billion more than even Biden requested in the Pentagon. Part of that is just the enormous sums being devoted to nuclear modernization. So now, instead of talking about getting rid of nuclear weapons, which Reagan and Gorbachev dreamed of, in which, you know, only 15 years ago, Obama was talking about getting rid of nuclear weapons. In the end, again, he had Kissinger, Sam Nunn, former Senator Sam Nunn. I think George Shultz, I think, was saying. 

Scheer:

Definitely Shultz and even Rumsfeld when he went into the Pentagon the first time that he talked about it being a center of corruption and waste, the Pentagon itself, and that, you know, there’s two issues here. I want to really tap into your own experience. One is the waste issue, which has been, you know, Martin Luther King and others said you really can’t solve a lot of your worldwide problems if you keep spending. We now spend more than what the next top ten nations do on the military and so forth. So the waste is real, and yet it’s the profit from the waste that obviously drives a lot of this. But what I’m more concerned with at this moment in time is the disconnect between, okay, you build these things, but what if you do use them? And we have actually put the Russians in a situation that… No, I was at Los Alamos a lot and Livermore. That’s why I did that book. I interviewed Edward Teller, I interviewed Reagan. I interviewed a lot of people. They all knew that we did not want to be counting on the rationality of our opponent to never use this. We know, you have to talk to them. That’s why Nixon went to see Mao. You cannot be indifferent to these folks. We now have this idea that we can try to intimidate them. We call them war criminals. They’re going to face war crimes. We’re not going to negotiate with them. And the idea is we’re assuming that the Russian military, that this leadership, which we have said is now already guilty of serious war crimes and we want to get rid of them, there’s no negotiation. Why do we think the weapons would never be used? That must be… The giddiness is based on the idea that these are video games or war toys. And, you know, most people have not had your experience. And by the way, talking about your experience, take us up from those caves. What did you do in the military? What did you learn and what brought you now to be a member of the Eisenhower Institute? And we should talk a little bit about Eisenhower’s warning about the military industrial complex. And, you know, you’re one of the few veterans of this thing that is speaking out for peace at a time when we’re not hearing that message. 

Astore:

Right. Right. Yeah. No. Eisenhower’s warning was just so important. Of course, it was 1961. And what he was really telling us, as you know, is that we need to be alert and knowledgeable citizens and we need to act together as citizens to be that vital check on the military industrial congressional complex, which is why I think there are so many forces in our society today that are actually trying to keep us, I mean I say non alert, you know, kind of asleep and isolated from the real impact of war. And so you hardly ever hear any discussion about the potential of nuclear war and the way that it would lead to. I mean, we used to talk a lot more about nuclear winter and the fact that, you know, it wouldn’t take that many large explosions, you know, hydrogen bombs to throw us into a scenario where, you know, billions of people on this planet could starve because of nuclear winter. This is something that’s also not discussed. 

Scheer:

It’s climate change with a vengeance. You know, it’s amazing. Not only are we losing the opportunity to deal with the real threat of climate change and negotiate with people like China and Russia and elsewhere about cutting back fuel consumption and so forth. But we’re really ramping up the most wasteful, destructive enterprise. And again, I want to get back to it because, you know, we had the warning from Eisenhower, by the way, no one ever mentions the warning from our first general term president, George Washington. I always quote it. But he also gave a farewell address in which he warned us about the impostures of pretended patriotism, the danger of building an empire and so forth. You’ve been in this Air Force of ours. You know, about our 800 bases. We are, I mean, we are this nightmare that our founders warned us against. We are Rome. You were part of this massive Roman Empire. 

Astore:

Absolutely. You know, but. But we don’t think that way. In fact, you know, I think most Americans still think that we’re more of a Roman republic than a Roman Empire. But of course, you know, we are a vast and powerful empire. 

Scheer:

The biggest that ever existed by far. 

Astore: 

Sure.

Scheer:

But I have to ask you, because much of the danger now is not coming from Republicans, even though we can be, you know, yes, Trump. But Trump was talking about trade deals and everything. You have a situation now where the Democrats, in response to what has turned out to be a phony Russiagate scandal, this is McCarthyism but of the liberal side. So McCarthy was saying the Reds are taking over everywhere and now the Russians aren’t even reds. But we have a red scare with somebody who ran for office and defeated the communists in Russia. But nonetheless, we have Democrats who are so angry they blame the rise of Trump not on failures of American society, jingoism, nationalism, you know, disproportionate wealth in the economy, loss of job, none of that. It’s all an invention of Russian bots that have done this. And then that fuels their jingoism to say, we’ve got to really topple this guy. We’ve got to get rid of them. And it’s exactly the opposite of the logic of even the establishment in the Cold War. Wait a minute. We got… We can’t put these people against the wall. They have the means to destroy us. You know? So you’re in the you know, you guys at the Eisenhower… So you’re kind of the last of the peace movement. A few, you know, vets who know the reality. Isn’t it scary? I don’t know. I looked at that doomsday clock of the atomic scientists and everything, and I thought, you know, they’re right. This is the scariest. Certainly, I’m much older than you so I even went through World War II. And I’ve been to, you know, in Japan discussing this issue. And I interviewed people who saw the explosion quite close and everything. But, you know, I think because of our lack of attention, it is the most frightening time. 

Astore:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, no, I agree. And there’s, as you were saying, there’s just way too much threat inflation going on. You know, from my perspective, you know, again, I was in the Air Force, 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and we’re all celebrating. You know, this is like, you know, the Cold War is over. And we won or so we thought. And yet, I mean, it’s so deeply ironic and tragic as well to our prospects and the prospects of the world that here we are just a little bit more 30 years later and we’re talking about fighting a new Cold War. It’s like, why would we want to re-fight a war that we won 30 years ago? 

Scheer:

Not a new Cold War. The Cold War implied that violence was only done through surrogates or kept down. I wanted to ask you before we run out of time, does General Mike, did I pronounce it right? Minihan. He’s in charge of an important sector in Asia of our mobility Air Force. 

Astore:

Right. Air Force Mobility Command. Yeah. 

Scheer:

Yes. He is like the character in Dr. Strangelove, right? He’s actually talking about our vital fluids. He doesn’t actually mention that, but he says he’s telling the troops, you guys, your marriage is going to improve. What does that mean? You’re going to be sexier or more aggressive or something. But he’s actually talking about fighting. It’s like we’re so threatened by China’s economic success, the response is going to be to destroy them. He’s actually talking about not a Cold War, a hot war with China over Taiwan. 

Astore:

Well, yeah, it is amazing how our… 

Scheer:

What is he not fired? I mean, even when MacArthur talked this way, he lost his job. Truman pushed them out. 

Astore:

Well, here’s the thing, Bob. I think the problem there is that, you know, that what the general is saying is, at least in some quarters, seen as, you know, refreshing frankness. And he’s taking a strong stance against China. And the sad thing is, is that, you know, Republicans have attacked Biden as being weak on China, just as Biden and Clinton attacked Trump as being weak on Russia. 

Scheer:

A Russian agent, a Russian agent knows that they went way beyond McCarthy. You know, McCarthy never said Eisenhower was a Russian agent or even the top Democrats.

Astore:

But we see domestic politics at play here as well, because maybe, you know, I think Biden should fire Minihan for just being an idiot. But I don’t think he will because, you know, he would you know, that would be spun in such a way that, oh, well, of course, you know, Biden doesn’t take a strong stance against China. We know that. And then Hunter Biden would come back into play and all the rest. So, you know, our flawed domestic politics, the military industrial complex, the threat inflation, and then just amnesia and ignorance about what a nuclear war would really involve is what is really dangerous at this point. Because, again, even under 2000 feet of solid granite, I knew I was going to die. We’re never going to have enough shovels to get out of this mess. 

Scheer:

So how do we get people to think about this? I mean, look, I want to say I mean, I’m, again, I’m pretty old, but I’m still teaching in a college with students. I’ll see them tonight who are 20, 21, 22. They haven’t been educated about nuclear war. They’re still in the idea that this is beyond them. Nothing they could do. We don’t have a draft. You know, we don’t know what there’s no… It’s a video game. It’s a video game. And other people will take care of it. And I mean, there’s a deafening silence. You are one of the handful of people… Daniel Ellsberg, somebody who actually studied nuclear war when he was working for the… 

Astore:

I love his book on you know, his book on doomsday is just an awesome book. 

Scheer:

Yeah, but everyone ignores it. Even former Governor Jerry Brown, who’s shown some interest. Nobody pays attention to him. You know, he’s really spoken about it. But we have you know, there are no Bertrand Russell’s or Sartre’s or great philosophers. And I look at the German people, for instance, I mean, they’re giddy. What do they want? They want to send their tanks out. Let’s bring it on. And the whole assumption here is you can contain these wars to non-nuclear… Well, you’re a military person. By the way, this General Minihan was bragging that your branch of the military, the Air Force, is responsible for more deaths than the rest of the military in his statement. I mean, but again, I don’t think it’s… 

Astore:

It’s nothing to brag about. It’s nothing to brag about. When you think about the Air Force, you’re looking at Air Force history, there’s no such thing as precision bombing. And we’ve seen it from World War II, Korea, Vietnam. You know, we’ve killed or wounded millions of people in various bombing campaigns. Nothing to brag about. 

Scheer:

Yeah, but that’s you taking that to the next step. Again, I’ve used this word giddiness. I mean, I know it’s not scientifically accurate, but it does capture the mood of the country that they want to… First of all, they want to get rid of Trump and then Trump would want to get rid of them. So domestic politics here, where are the adults watching the store. You got a hand… Tell us about the Eisenhower Institute. You get a handful of people there and we don’t even hear much from them. And thankfully, to a guy who invented the best ice cream we ever had. Right? Ben Koerner. 

Astore:

Yeah. 

Scheer:

Ben & Jerry finances the thing, but there’s no impact. There’s no peace movement. I don’t think there’s ever been a time where a modern country that is involved all over the world has not had a peace movement to challenge it. 

Astore:

Yeah. No, you’re absolutely right. We need to talk a lot more about peace. And I’ve written about this myself. As you know, you just don’t hear peace being talked about as a word or even as a concept. The only time I hear peace now is if I go to Mass and, you know, I was raised Catholic and, you know, you give your neighbor the sign of peace and that’s about the only time, otherwise, all of us are giving signs of war instead. So, no, it’s constantly on my mind. I mean, for me, you know, one of the most powerful scenes everyone could watch, I think it’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, there is an awesome scene in that movie where, you know, Sarah Connor witnesses a nuclear attack and it shows the devastation that would come on to an American city during a nuclear attack. It’s one of the few Hollywood scenes, of course now. I think this movie is now about 30 years old, but everyone should watch that scene. It’s only two or three minutes long and yet it is a very powerful scene of what would happen if a nuclear bomb landed in an American city. 

Scheer:

Well, let’s end, though. I don’t want to end on a depressing note, but it is depressing and what your column was all about, and I hope people will read it. It’s published on my website, ScheerPost, but elsewhere. And as I say, I want to take my hat off to TomDispatch who does a really great job. But the profit in this industry that Eisenhower warned about. It’s compelling because people, I mean, you’re not paid, as far as I know, any significant amount of money to advocate for peace. Maybe you get a little bit here or there. But the fact of the matter is what we mean by the military industrial complex and people really should… I reprinted Eisenhower’s speech today on our website. You know, most people don’t even know about it. And he was the great war hero warning us about this institutionalization of war. And you can’t justify it if you don’t have hot wars. Well, the war on terror, you know, the day before 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld gave a speech at the Pentagon where he warned, and I have it in one of my books, he warned about the great enemy. And the enemy was the Pentagon, because they wanted to waste all… I can’t even keep accounting for what they spend. And there was Donald Rumsfeld, then you have 9/11. All the wraps are off. We’re going to spend whatever. Then the war on terrorism runs out of steam. You know, these guys just don’t have high tech weapons. They don’t scare us enough or what have you. And maybe we can do business with some of these sponsors like Saudi Arabia and so forth. And so fortunately, we got a new foreign enemy and we fake it. We make it seem… It’s not really communism because communism turned out to succeed only when they do capitalism. That’s China, right? The whole idea of the Cold War was based on they are inherently militarized. No, the Chinese communists actually are successful because they’re good capitalists. So what are we going to do? And then we got this ex-communist, anti-communist Putin, and somehow we got the whole Russian Federation, which we backed, we backed Putin. We wanted Putin, this is the guy after Yeltsin, we backed Yeltsin, we rejected Gorbachev. So, I mean, it’s madness. If you actually look at the construction of this thing, it’s just nutty. You know, it’s as nutty as the invention of enemies in Orwell’s 1984. It doesn’t matter who they are, what they say. You know, we’ve got an enemy and they’re thrilled about it. And you, you know, let me ask you a final question, though, because I’ve talked to a number of people who were active in the military as a career. I remember my first one, I don’t know. It shouldn’t take a lot of time. But Bard Bernstein, who ended up at Stanford, was sitting in front of me in my atomic physics class at Queens College when I was studying there and he had on his uniform and he had on his hat. And almost every session I had to have a little thing, “Hey, could you take off your hat so I could see the blackboard, you know?” So, you know, he was a guy, but he ended up writing about nuclear weapons more effectively maybe than anyone else and fearing them and I guess rejected a military career. You know, I just ask you, what do you get feedback from people in the military? Is this General Mike Minihan, is he the lone outlier, the nut, you know, or is he typical? 

Astore:

No, no. I think, unfortunately, he has a lot of company. You know, perhaps perhaps, you know, people are a little bit more circumspect in the words that they choose. But unfortunately, you’re right. There’s a tremendous amount of power and profit that comes. I mean, you don’t make a huge amount of money in the military, even general officers. But they do enjoy a lot of power and perks. And then, as we all know, when they retire now, they go through the revolving door and they go to work for Northrop Grumman or Boeing or Raytheon and typically making somewhere in the high six figures or even into the seven figures as far as, you know, stock options and salaries and all of that. So, unfortunately, you know, too many people have their eyes on a golden idol, so to speak. But to paraphrase Condoleezza Rice, you know, we can’t let the golden idol become a mushroom cloud. And I think, unfortunately, we’re heading in that direction. 

Scheer:

And she’s not opposing it. You know, I was in an arms control seminar at Stanford with her. This wass before she was secretary of state. And I must say we had contact, Russians came once in a while. People spoke, you know, there’s a lot to do with arms control. And the one thing you didn’t have to argue about, I think I was only invited because I did my book, With Enough Shovels. But everyone in that seminar, with famous atomic physicists [inaudible] and so forth. But everyone understood that nuclear war is the end of civilization. Okay. Now we’re having this discussion, the reason I wanted to talk to you now is because I saw this general’s statement and I read your column and I thought, you know, this guy is very smart. However, it’s not just a waste of money and the profit. The fact is, we are in a situation where people want to use these weapons. And it’s not just the bad guys. It’s, you know, why are we spending all this money on it? Why didn’t… Yes, they are usable. We use them in a tactical way. I mean, it’s insane right now, let’s say, you know, and Poland is talking about putting these tanks in and maybe F-16s and this and that. What happens when there are some significant attacks on the Russian Federation and lots of people get killed? Then don’t people in Russia say, wait a minute, Putin, you know, what the hell is this about? How can they attack us with impunity? That plane came from Poland. Don’t we have to attack Poland, though? Right? Or that that came from, you know, where? Germany maybe. You know, look what happened. And we, you have studied war your whole life. You participated in it and so forth. Why are we assuming these other folks are going to show restraint when we’re not showing restraint? 

Astore:

Right. Yeah. I go back to Gore Vidal and the United States of Amnesia. Right? Because we should know, we should know from history. And of course, I trained as a historian. We should know about the Cuban Missile Crisis and how close we came to nuclear war 60 years ago. You know, we should know about the various accidents that we’ve had with nuclear weapons, you know, with nuclear bombs being dropped on Spain, for example, in the 1960s, it fortunately didn’t explode. But we also had a Titan missile silo malfunction, a malfunction there where a nuclear bomb almost exploded on American soil. I don’t know what it is. I think people have this illusion, Bob, that there’s some that they can control this, that they can prevent a catastrophe from happening, that somehow that escalation is something that can be modulated and that simply isn’t the case. You know, history shows us this. We got very lucky with the Cuban Missile Crisis, that it didn’t escalate into nuclear war. We may not be that lucky again. 

Scheer:

Well, also, what is the strategy you discussed? You studied the strategy. So did Daniel Ellsberg, he wrote a very good book on it. What happens? You know, there was the Soviet, the Russians almost said Soviets again, have the ability evidently, to fire with their newest weapon and land very close to Poland. Right? That was one of the recent things, it could have been a nuclear weapon. It could have been a smaller nuclear weapon. But isn’t there a strategy that if such is used, there will be a response? And if there’s a response, you get into that mad world, as it was called, of use them or lose them.  Isn’t that the dominant… We’ve lost this whole language. Use them or lose them. I remember talking to Ronald Reagan about that, to Edward Teller. I talked to Soviet political people like, you know about that. And it was very clear that the weapons themselves cannot be controlled. You know, the logic. 

Astore:

Yeah, I mean, I used to read about this stuff, you know, I used to read about the different strategies. You know, for example, should we have a first strike? You know, what kind of target? What would the target list be? Will it be a counterforce? In other words, if we were to launch a nuclear strike, would it focus mainly on the enemy’s nuclear weapons and not, you know, not the enemy’s population centers or cities? And you start to get into sort of some real esoteric details. And when you stop and think about it, I mean, really think about it, you’re talking about the deaths of millions of people. You’re talking about radiation poisoning. You’re talking about the possibility of nuclear winter, all of those things. In some sense, you know, I almost go back to, you know, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, where you had the, you know, the people there worshiping the atomic bomb, the mutants. You know, we’ve almost reached that kind of point in the amount of money that we’re dedicating to so-called modernizing our nuclear arsenal. You know, new sentinel ICBM, new B-21 nuclear bomber, new submarine for the United States Navy. And we’re talking about spending somewhere between one and $2 trillion on nuclear modernization. It’s, you know, forget about worshiping Allah or Christ or whoever. It seems like we’re really worshiping a nuclear bomb. 

Scheer:

You know, I went to Chernobyl a year after the disaster. I went in with a group of American scientists and some Soviet scientists, [inaudible] and other people. And this is, after all, a facility that was designed to be safe. This was not even a small atomic bomb, right? 

Astore:

This was supposed to be a controlled nuclear reaction, not an explosion. 

Scheer:

Yeah. And I have never experienced such fear myself. And I’ve been in a few war zones and so forth. But, you know, I did go to Vietnam at one point as a journalist and other places, but this was incalculable. It was just like… I would ask some of these leading scientists. Should we be going there or is this going to do this? And they don’t know! They don’t know. It’s uncontrollable once it gets going. Okay. Now we have nuclear facilities that are in that position. But the idea that we have weapons that are used tactical, right, nuclear weapons for small theater combat. And the idea that there would… Let’s say we had this wish fulfillment of the hawks now in the U.S. government, you know that, oh, we’ll show Putin, he’ll be kicked out. All these people were kicked out. They’ll be war criminals. Are you going to tell me there aren’t people in the Russian military that would think we got to use a few of these weapons to straighten things out, to challenge this unbridled power? 

Astore:

I mean, that worries me. What comes after Putin? You know, or who comes after Putin? And if and if Russia becomes fragmented and unstable because, you know, Putin is overthrown or what have you, what happens to all the nuclear weapons that Russia has? You know, in a way, Putin is, you know, it’s sort of like what Margaret Thatcher said about Gorbachev, you know, we can do business with him, you may not like Putin, but we can do business with him. He has a certain… 

Scheer:

Oh, Putin was our candidate, for God’s sake. We had this hopeless drunk Yeltsin that we picked and he couldn’t function. And then he, you know, appointed Putin. And then Putin won his election. We were cheerleading that because, first of all, he’s not ideological. He is a good Christian who, you know, pays deference to the theology. He doesn’t quote Marx. Now, on the other hand, I want to maybe just end this because your general, I can’t get him out of my mind as I think I just don’t understand why he wasn’t fired. I don’t understand why there wasn’t any publicity about it. I mean, you know, NBC had it, The Washington Post had the report, you know, others. And this guy is actually talking as a result. Now, think about it here, right Nancy Pelosi decides she has to go to Taiwan and stir the pot. It’s not stirred enough, okay. And most of my liberal friends think, well, that’s right. She had a right to go. Human rights, you know, and she’s defending the rights of… Just like this whole agreement that Nixon had created and Kissinger that, you know, we’re going to have ambiguity about, you know, Taiwan, because after all, the people who left mainland China, who are from the Han majority, and so they want all of China. So it’s not just that it can be kept as this small country. But nonetheless, we have this insane situation where we’re fed into American domestic politics and we forget the Chinese. What we forget, let me end on this, because I’ve taken up so much time, but I want to end on this, you assume went into the military because as opposed to other young people around you at that time who also read my pamphlet, they probably thought, no, the military is not a progressive force in our society. We have to give peace a chance. You presumably thought that this was a patriotic thing to do that would strengthen maybe world peace and so forth, we haven’t talked about your own journey at all. If you want to take a few minutes, we should do that. But certainly one understanding, way before you were in ROTC was we could learn to live with other nationalism. Certainly that was reflected in the Chinese. They weren’t so much communists as they were Chinese nationalists. That’s why there was a Sino-Soviet dispute. That’s why we, after we lost in Vietnam, our most ignominious defeat, the Vietnamese Communist and the Chinese Communist went to war, the exact opposite of what was predicted. 

Astore:

I remember that. I remember being shocked at that. I was only maybe 16 or 17, I think, when that happened. And it went contrary to everything I was taught. You know, it’s like I thought I thought communism was a monolithic block, right? And yet all of a sudden, you know, China is invading Vietnam. How is that possible? 

Scheer:

Right. And they’re now fighting. There’s still two communist governments fighting over some islands. Right. And we like Vietnam. And nobody even mentions that. What irony is that we caused all this damage, probably five million people that McNamara once said three and a half million, but that was in early one five, six million people died because Vietnamese communism was inherently aggressive, would threaten us and was an agency of China, right? Now we want Apple to start producing phones more in communist Vietnam rather than communist China. 

Astore:

My running shoes are made in Vietnam. You know, a lot of things we have now, in fact, speaking of which, with all the fear mongering about China, you stop and think about how much our economy depends on China and how many things we buy that are made in China. And yet somehow we were supposed to see China as a major threat when, you know, it’s the United States that has 750 military bases around the world. You know, China has only one or two. You know, we’ve got 11 or 12 aircraft carriers, I think they have sort of, I think they have one or two. One old one and one newer one. But, you know, they can’t compare. China, Russia, both those countries cannot compare to our military power. And yet we’re being told to fear both of those countries. 

Scheer:

Well, but we have this idea we can humble them and we can topple their leadership. And this is the old thing. We don’t respect any other people’s nationalism. And the Chinese have said over and over again, we made peace with you on the assumption that you are not going to determine our future relation. But it didn’t even have to come up now. It came up now because Nancy Pelosi wanted to make some political capital out of going to Taiwan and not a single Democrat, as far as I know, including the Bernie Sanders of this world, or the, you know, the squad or what have you, objected. Why are you doing this warmongering? So, okay, that’s the… We’ve done enough depressing talk. I will give you the last minute if you want. Gotta keep it under 50, got a last word?

Astore:

Right. Well, you know, I think your work has helped to point, you know, a saner way forward. We need to remember. We need to return if we can, you know, to the early 1980s when we really were concerned about nuclear war, you know, where people were getting out and we were protesting against these weapons, because right now our government is going ahead with nuclear modernization without really any real opposition at all. And that is simply something that we as citizens and I stress that word citizen, which as I think I wrote in my piece, you know, as citizens, we outrank the generals in the admirals. They are supposed to answer to us. And we as citizens have to come forward and say, enough is enough. We’re not going to spend another trillion or $2 trillion on nuclear weapons we don’t even need. That would only make the rubble bounce on a worldwide scale. 

Scheer:

All right. On that note, it seems that the warmongers have seized the temple. And, you know, it’s a depressing moment.

Astore:

We need to cast them out. 

Scheer:

Yeah, well,  keep up your writing and I’ll keep publishing it, and I hope others do as well. 

Astore:

Thanks Bob. 

Scheer:

You know, the title of that article was Can the Military Industrial Complex be Tamed? I personally don’t think it can. I’m hoping I’m wrong. That’s it for this edition of Sheer Intelligence. I want to thank Laura Kondourajian and Christopher Ho at KCRW, the great NPR station in Santa Monica for carrying these shows. I want to thank Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, Diego Ramos, who does the intro and the JKW Foundation in the name of Jean Stein, who wrote a lot about the folly of our foreign policy, the late Jean Stein, for helping to support these shows. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.


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