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Nuclear War is the Most Urgent Threat - Andrew Cockburn Pt 2

While climate change is an existential threat, the more immediate danger is nuclear war which would end human life on earth. Both must be averted. Andrew Cockburn joins Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news

TRANSCRIPT

Paul Jay

Welcome back to theAnalysis.news, this is part two of my interview with Andrew Cockburn about his book Spoils of War. Andrew is the Washington Editor of Harper’s magazine and the author of many articles and books on national security, including the New York Times Editor’s Choice Rumsfeld and The Threat, which destroyed the myth of Soviet military superiority underpinning the Cold War. He is a regular opinion contributor to the Los Angeles Times and has written for, among others, the New York Times, National Geographic and the London Review of Books.

I interviewed Bill Black, who used to be a financial regulator. He now teaches about white-collar crime. He says if you want to understand modern financial banking fraud, you have to understand that it’s about the bankers, not the banks. That often, the bankers, in order to enrich themselves individually, didn’t even care they were creating systemic risk for their own institutions.

It seems to be the same thing in the military and in the whole military-industrial complex. As you say, it’s not about if the military is even effective, even in asserting some kind of dominant, imperialist, hegemonic, or whatever word you want to use. It’s actually about the money itself. It’s more about the for-profit process than the military or geo-political objective.

Andrew Cockburn

Yeah, well, it’s very worthwhile to compare what goes on in the financial world with what goes on in the military world because it’s exactly that. The bankers, we found out after the 2008 crash, how the bankers had put their own institutions at risk in order to keep their bonuses pumped up and the money flowing into their pockets. Actually, it wasn’t so dumb of them because they knew they’d be bailed out. They had every expectation that they would be bailed out by the U.S. government and the Federal Reserve.

With the military, I think it’s the same mindset. They think about it in the same way. Although, I’m not sure who they are counting on to bail them out if something goes wrong and the nuclear missiles start to fly. To me, it’s astonishing that people can blind themselves so much.

 Paul Jay

It’s either God or Jesus that can bail them out; that’s about it.

Andrew Cockburn

Yeah.

Paul Jay

And some of them apparently really believe it. Apparently, [Ronald] Reagan was pretty much a true believer, and so was George Bush. I don’t think we should actually underestimate the extent to which religion and metaphysics is all tied up with their version of Americanism. And it is not just Americans that intertwine religion and nationalism. 

There’s that NBC interview with [Vladimir] Putin not long ago, in which he was asked: if you were attacked with nuclear weapons in a limited way, would you counterattack the United States, even though it might, not might, would lead to all-out nuclear war and end life on Earth? And apparently, Putin’s reply was, what’s the point of life on Earth without a Russia? Maybe the Americans feel the same way.

Andrew Cockburn

Well, they do. Yeah, he may have felt that, but he had to say that because he couldn’t say because of the rules of the game. He couldn’t say, well, of course, we wouldn’t retaliate because then he’s inviting an American attack according to this whole mad religion of deterrence. So you have to always say, of course, we’ll counterattack.

Paul Jay

The Tension over Taiwan and with China, I’m reading increasingly in magazines like Foreign Affairs and other places, serious talk about the possibility of limited nuclear war. And then, in your book, you talk about dial-a-yield. What is that all about?

Andrew Cockburn

Yes, well, it’s very important. There is this very pernicious school of thought among actually younger people who are either in the Pentagon or in the decision-making, planning process, or in the sort of related think tanks and so forth. Who think that you can actually fight a limited nuclear war with China. If you said it’s a limited war, and everyone would agree, and that China and the other side would keep it limited.

To that end, they’re saying, well, it wouldn’t be so bad if we use just a little nuclear weapon. It’s a sort of small one, not like a great big sort of multimegaton warhead, but that’s different. So they claim to have produced a— I mean, I say claim, I’ll explain why in a minute, but a dial-a-yield bomb. I think one of them is the B60-112, where you can program in how big a blast you want, and it can go down, allegedly, as low as a third of a kiloton. The equivalent of, say, roughly 300 tons of TNT, which is in any other terms, it’s 300 tons of TNT, and it will blow half a city apart. But still, that’s considered sort of a mini-nuke, and therefore no one would take too much offence if you used it against them. And there are serious grown men propounding this thesis. Of course, the relevant bureaucracies and relevant corporations love this because it’s more money to develop that, and you can have all new bureaucracies to plan how to use it.

But that is especially dangerous because if the other side thinks that, oh, well, they’re thinking seriously about using nuclear weapons in a sort of conventional way. If that’s not a contradiction in terms, I guess it is. But anyway, they think about that, then we have to take appropriate countermeasures, like preparing our own mini-nukes and so on and so forth. It’s hugely irresponsible.

I mean, there’s this book that’s floating around that’s greeted rapturously by the foreign policy elite. It’s called Strategy of Denial, which is all about— it’s being read avidly around town— it’s all about how we could indeed fight a limited nuclear war with China. Well, it’s not all about that, but it certainly entertains that thought.

Paul Jay

Do you get a sense if they are serious about actually doing such a thing, like over Taiwan? Or is this another theory to justify another big round of military expenditure, another round of profit-making?

Andrew Cockburn

Well, I think they’re confused. If you say, do you want a nuclear war with China? They’d say no. I think they would; they would. But they say we have to plan for the worst-case scenario. Maybe it’s unlikely the Chinese will attack Taiwan, or the Philippines, or Japan, but we have to be ready, and that’s the get-out. Once you say this is very unlikely, but we have to entertain it as a possibility, even though there’s a 0.1% chance or something, then you’re off to the races. The budgetary floodgates open.

I’m surprised they don’t. Maybe it’d be a good idea for it to say, well, the major threat facing the Earth is a giant asteroid hitting it. So we have to devote all our resources to that. It’s very unlikely, but it might happen. So, therefore, give us $10 trillion a year to defend against that. You might be able to sell that.

Paul Jay

Maybe they will, but the thing I think we have to keep reminding people about is how incredibly dangerous all this is. Even if there’s never an intention on either the side of the Americans, or the Chinese, or the Russians to actually use even low-yield nuclear weapons, but shit happens. 

And as you mentioned, in the [Zbigniew] Brzezinski example, there are several other examples. Only because of some individual, a Russian, a Soviet that didn’t make the phone call to Moscow, we wouldn’t be here talking about this. There’s been so many near accidents. I think [Daniel] Ellsberg thinks there’s at least hundreds, maybe even thousands of false positives. So far, they’ve been able to figure it out, but it only takes one where they don’t. For something that is clearly almost entirely useless because, as you said, once there’s a few subs, you’ve got your deterrence, and everything else is unnecessary. There is no point for ICBMs [Intercontinental Ballistic Missile]. If you need such deterrence, then I guess as long as one country has nukes, then others do need some kind of deterrence; at least that’s their thinking. But everything else is BS. And for the sake of that BS the risk factor gets higher and higher. And even if they had such a thing, so what? 

 Andrew Cockburn

Well, yeah, it goes without saying; we hardly need to be saying this. The danger is so extreme. To me, people talk about the existential threat of climate change, another pandemic. I mean, what we’re talking about is so much more important, so much more urgent, and so much more frightening than any of the other threats that have supposedly kept us awake at night. That’s why I’m glad you’re doing this. I’m glad Dan Ellsberg, who has certainly paid his dues all the way along, is still sort of fighting this and working on this because we really have to get people to understand just how dangerous a situation we’re in.

And with each new pumping up of the threat, I mean, like in recent times, we’ve had an announcement that the Chinese have developed this new hypersonic missile that can go all the way around the world and sneak back over the South Pole and hit us in the rear. And therefore, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called it close to a Sputnik moment. It was no such thing. This was entirely irrelevant in terms of what the Chinese might or might not be able to do to us because it was sold as the idea that this could get around or evade our missile defences. But we have no missile defenses. We’ve been trying to make them work and spending untold billions for half a century, and they just won’t work, and they can’t work, and they will never work. But somehow, that thought gets put aside. And when the Chinese come up with this supposedly miraculous hypersonic missile that can go all the way around the world and hit us in the rear, that’s been taken seriously and isn’t laughed out of the room, which it certainly should be.

Paul Jay

There’s still nuclear counterattacks. Why on Earth would they shoot the United States up the rear end when they’re going to get counterattacks so massively?

Andrew Cockburn

Yeah, there’s so many reasons why this is nonsense.

Paul Jay

So why do you think there’s so little discussion of this in the media? Certainly outside of foreign policy, journals, and maybe some elite press, in terms of the mass media, the whole issue of the danger of nuclear weapons, nuclear war, it’s like it’s sacrilegious to even discuss it.

Andrew Cockburn

Right, well, I don’t know. You can look pretty hard in the elite press to find any mention either. Occasional, op-ed in the New York Times, maybe, but that’s about it. I don’t know, but it’s years of successful propaganda. I think it’s years of brainwashing and something you mentioned earlier, which is it’s all sort of out of sight. It’s not just the bases overseas that are out of sight. We have this vast military apparatus, $7 trillion heading for— but you see very little sign of it here in Washington, D.C. 

You hardly ever see a uniform on the street. If you’re near the Pentagon, across the river, the most sort of overt sign of a military presence you see is lots of people, rather trim-looking people with short haircuts jogging. It’s all very out of sight and therefore out of mind. Combined with those huge sort of militarist propaganda all the time, in such a way, so many war games and video games and all this sort of fake stuff about honouring our veterans. I don’t mean it’s fake to honour the veterans. I wish they did honour the veterans. I wish veterans were properly taken care of, but instead, we get this sort of make-believe, do this for our veterans and honour the veterans. So there’s this whole sort of almost religious aura that surrounds the military. I mean, militarism is the right word for it without actually taking a realistic view of, on the one hand, risks of nuclear war, on the fact that we have this corrupt and greedy defence sector and that we don’t actually care much about, really, the welfare of troops.

In Spoils of War, in my book I talk about, I give a couple of examples to illustrate this. In the Korean War, the first winter of the Korean War, half of the U.S. casualties were from frostbite. The reason was that no one had bothered to give U.S. troops proper boots that were properly insulated and protected their feet in freezing temperatures, sub-zero temperatures.

On the other side, the Communist troops, by the way, did have good boots, well-padded, felt-lined boots. So I was astonished when I heard this. A veteran of the Korean War, a very brave and accomplished officer, told me how they would do raids on the enemy trenches to steal their boots. He thought, why am I a soldier for the richest country in the world, stealing the boots of the soldiers from the poorest country in the world? Because the boot-makers weren’t a big lobby, I guess. And they were preparing to spend the money on big, exotic, expensive items like nuclear bombers. That’s one example. 

And more recently, in Iraq or recent wars, working-class families who had sons or daughters in the military were going into debt to buy them essential items like body armour and night-vision goggles. I mean, how disgusting is that. We’re spending billions and billions of dollars a year on exotic things that didn’t actually work. Exotic systems for detecting roadside bombs, and yet we couldn’t be bothered to buy initially, at least, to give them the basic equipment they needed. We couldn’t be bothered for a long time, during which time many people died or were [inaudible 00:46:44], we couldn’t be bothered to give them properly armoured vehicles. Who cares? Who cares about the ordinary people we enlist to fight?

Paul Jay

That needs to be understood because I think this is a big piece of the propaganda that justifies all this military expenditure, is that somehow, first of all, that the Soviet Union was going to invade Western Europe. So it took this militarization of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] to stop it. And now it’s clear from all the documents the Soviet Union never had any intention of invading Western Europe. Ellsberg has shown they had no intention of a first strike on the United States, in fact, they didn’t try to develop the capacity in the late 1950s for a first strike at a time when they could have accomplished it.

And there’s absolutely no reason on earth for China to start invading anybody. Taiwan is a specific case. The idea that China wants to bring Taiwan back into China, sure that’s a possibility. Maybe someday that could lead to some military action. But to a large extent, that’s being provoked by American rhetoric right now and arms sales to Taiwan, and recognition that’s coming close and closer to recognizing Taiwan’s independence.

China is not going to invade Australia. China is already Australia’s major trading partner. The idea that China would invade Australia is preposterous. The days of that kind of colonialization are long over. If direct colonialization was profitable, the U.S. would be doing it everywhere. Neocolonialism, working through local ruling elites and often dictatorships, is far more profitable. 

Andrew Cockburn

True. Well, yeah, it is, it’s absurd, but yet we’re signed on for it. In fact, spending is more out of control now than it’s ever been. If you look closely at the way various programs are going, the whole series of weapons programs that are underway ceded their position in such a way that they’re committed to production, which means across the country. It’s called political engineering. So they’re politically engineered, which means they’ll be impossible to turn off. So we’re really locked into budget growth of at least 5% a year for the foreseeable future.

Paul Jay

Andrew, in the last few minutes we have left, let’s assume there’s some progressive members of Congress listening to this interview. What should they be doing right now? What should they be fighting for, advocating?

Andrew Cockburn

Well, I think the progressives tried to pass something calling for a 10% reduction. Bernie Sanders speaks 10% reduction in the defence budget. Bernie Sanders speaks eloquently, and he says he’s voting against the defence bill. Well, that’s good, they should do that. But they’ve been doing that for quite a while, and it doesn’t seem to be having much effect.

I think they should really take a greater interest in how the whole system actually works, I think. For example, very recently, there’s one, in the 1980s, there was quite an active military reform movement in Congress, and it had a lot of support in the press. And their major success was to get the creation of the Director of DOT&E, the Office of Test and Evaluation. Basically, to force the military to test their weapons independently and have an independent testing system so that before we bought some new multibillion-dollar thing, see if it actually worked. The military hated that, hates it still. And they’ve done their best to either abolish it or emasculate it. 

Now, just recently, there was a new official appointed to head this office, and he’s clearly not going to give the military any grief at all. He was chosen clearly because he had no experience of testing, and there’s not much to be hoped for there. Not a single member of Congress raised questions about this and said, wait a minute, what’s going on here? You’re trying to emasculate this very important office. They didn’t take an interest. 

I think the progressives in Congress need to be more aggressive, not just in denouncing the whole thing, but in asking those awkward questions. And actually, you can get Republican, at some fringes of the Republican Party, you can get support for that. Because clearly just sort of taking a well-justified but pious attitude to say this is all madness, we’ve got to cut it, doesn’t seem to get you anywhere. It points out how the system works and why and how it doesn’t work; that would do us a lot of good.

Paul Jay

Hearings on American nuclear war strategy and then a focus on what is the point of an ICBM arsenal? 

Andrew Cockburn

Yeah, and have some people there with informed comebacks because I guarantee you, if they ask that question, you’ll hear a lot of these arguments that are well-honed. You’ll hear the justification for why, if you have any fewer than 400 U.S. land-based missiles, then that invites an enemy attack. The theology of this is quite intricate. So you’d have to have people who’ve taken the time to educate themselves. We used to have people like that. I’m not sure we do now. Who can engage in a proper argument.

Let me just say, at the time when Donald Trump was present, minds got a little concentrated when Trump was in office because people thought, my God, we got this lunatic with his finger on the button. And they had the commanders of the commander, or recently former commander of the Strategic of Stratcom, Strategic Nuclear Force, in to testify, and the Senator said people are getting a bit worried that Trump’s got his finger on the button. If he gives us a mad legal order, what can you do to stop him?

Basically, the only answer they had after a bit of beating around the bush was they’d mutiny. I don’t think so. These are people trained to do what they’re told. I think the possibility that would be. But they got away with it. And no one said, wait a minute, we have to change the system radically. They said, oh, okay, well, thanks. That was it. That was as far as we got for an informed debate about this whole issue of launch on warning and instant alert and all the rest.

Paul Jay

After working on your book, Spoils of War, what are you left with? What’s sort of your final conclusion or thing you would say after having gone through all this research?

Andrew Cockburn

Oh, I don’t know manic depression. I just hope people get the point, and every little bit helps. Dan Ellsberg has made huge contributions, not just obviously with Vietnam, but with his books, his writings on nuclear weapons. I just think the more people, the more truth we can sort of drip into the bloodstream, society’s bloodstream, the better. People, I have faith in the end that if people have it explained to them clearly, they’ll get the point.

Paul Jay

Well, thanks very much. I urge everyone to go read Spoils of War, and we’ll find out why Daniel Ellsberg got so excited about the book. Thanks very much for joining me, Andrew.

 Andrew Cockburn

Hey, you’re welcome. It’s been fun. Thank you.

Paul Jay

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2 Comments

  1. Andrew Cockburn “More recently, working class families were going into debt to buy them essential items.” THIS!!!!!! It’s like America loves only CERTAIN PARTS of war, the filming of war. Not THE REALITY of war. If only Hollywood would do war justice.

    of course I only pick up a knife for war when it is a fight for love. but even that isn’t honorable.

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