We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
This is the anniversary of “the day the world almost died.” On September 26, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was bunkered near Moscow, monitoring readings from the Soviet nuclear early warning satellite Oko, when he received an alert of impending U.S. nuclear attack. But he judged the warning a false alarm and chose not to notify his superiors, who, operating under the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, may have been compelled to respond in kind. Petrov was right; the United States had made no attack. The system had malfunctioned, but catastrophe was averted.
Last year, on the thirtieth anniversary, the United Nations held high-level disarmament talks. Now the body has declared September 26 the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.
But while many share this aspiration, nuclear weapons have remained a stubborn feature of our lives. Though Barack Obama made arms reduction an early centerpiece of his presidency, and won a Nobel Peace Prize partially on the strength of his “vision of a world free from nuclear arms,” the United States is plowing money into upgrades of the nuclear arsenal. Annual spending on nuclear weapons is now greater than at any time during the Cold War.
But nuclear weapons haven’t been used since 1945. Is the persistence of the arsenal really a problem?
Philosopher and Boston Review contributor Elaine Scarry believes it is. Earlier this year she published Thermonuclear Monarchy, a book that continues her arguments about the corrupting effects of unaccountable executive power, particularly in the realm of national security. Scarry contends that because nuclear weapons make citizen control of military force impossible, maintaining a nuclear arsenal is fundamentally anti-democratic. To be a nuclear-armed state is to invest the executive with dictatorial powers over immeasurable destructive capacity.
In the United States, Scarry argues, popular control is a constitutional obligation. Article I, Section 8 requires congressional assent in the use of force. And the Second Amendment, Scarry maintains, provides another opportunity for the people to ratify the prosecution of war. That is why the right to bear arms on behalf of the state is left in the hands of individual citizens. Congress can declare war, but only the people, through their bodies and their weapons, can make it. Nuclear weapons break the contract inherent in the Constitution and in democratic governance by eliminating the role of the people as ratifiers. Further, by so empowering the state, they incapacitate citizen protest, breeding complacency.
I met Scarry in her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts to discuss her Second Amendment theories, the antinuclear movement, the legal frameworks of imminence and emergency that have become grounds for suspension of constitutionally required consultation and ratification, and the need for rapprochement between the armed forces and the left. Our conversation focused on the nuclear issue but also turned to drones and U.S. military engagement with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, other instances in which national security initiative seems to have been wrested from the people.
• • •
Simon Waxman: In Thermonuclear Monarchy, you characterize the Second Amendment as a roadblock against making war. Why is that sort of “clogging,” as you call it, vital for democracy?
Elaine Scarry: Yes. That is a major argument in the book, that clogging is vital to democracy. What’s crucial is what is clogged. There’s no argument here that constitutions clog the act of making love, or clog our wish to use the library, or clog our publication of journals, or anything that has to do with civil society or personal life. They clog one thing and one thing only, and that is the infliction of injury.
So constitutions don’t just impede the act of injury as a declaration or as an ornament but as absolutely their central function. That’s why in, for example, the Second Treatise of Government, when Locke speaks about consent, when he uses the word consent, he often follows it by the words “in punishment” and “in going to war.” Why those two? Well, because each of those is a moment where we’re going to be using injury to accomplish something. Ordinarily, the social contract has an absolute prohibition on injury.
A perfect world would maintain that absolute requirement, but it’s an imperfect world because other people might break the no-injury rule. A criminal might injure someone. Now you might have to injure him back—that is, take away his freedom of movement—in order to address that. Another country might break the no-injury rule by crossing over our border and beginning to shoot us. Okay, so we then have to lift the no-injury rule.
But because allowing injury is antagonistic to the norms of the social contract and to the whole idea of what a social contract is, which is to establish peace, it means that if you are going to allow injury, both in the case of criminal wrongdoing—that is, at trial—and in the case of going to war, you can only lift the gates by going through intentionally encumbering provisions. I think that the analogy in the realm of trials is very easy to see. In many centuries—let’s say, just going to seventeenth-century England—they had what we have: the grand jury that decides whether there can be a trial, and then what they call the petite jury, or what we just call a jury. Both of those test the legitimacy of the accusation. Only if it passes through the first gate will it go to the second gate, and then only if there’s a guilty verdict at the second gate will there be punishment. I’ve looked at the figures because other scholars have happily collected them. In the time Hobbes was alive, in England, 44 percent of murder charges and 52 percent of infanticide charges were eliminated by the time you went through the two gates.
Now imagine the reverse. Imagine that you could have a suspicion that someone did something, and you just send out a drone and you execute the person. Then, to borrow a term from the scholar George Questor—a term that I think is very important and that and I often use—you don’t have any “intervening layers of possibly resistant humanity” to test the claim that we need to lift the gate and inflict an injury.
That’s the case of criminal wrongdoing, where it can be summarized very quickly. In the case of war making, we again have a double brake. The first brake is Congress. The Constitution requires a declaration of war. Not an authorization of force, not something that says, yeah, “We’ll give away our powers to the president,” but an actual declaration of war, where the Congress takes responsibility for the fact that probably thousands of people are going to die. But that is then followed by a second brake, and that is my claim about the right to bear arms.
SW: How does the Second Amendment serve as an impediment to war?
ES: The Second Amendment is crucial because the Congress is going to authorize the war, but its 535 members are not the ones who are going to pay for it in their own blood and treasure. The people of the United States are. And therefore it should be tested on the pulses of the people who are themselves going to risk injury and also risk inflicting injury, which is a moral hazard. Or the relatives of people, you know, the sisters, the parents, the children of those who are going to go through that, going to make the war.
I think it’s important that the Constitution says the Congress declares war because the word “make” is being reserved for the people of the United States, who are going to fight or not fight. That—the inclusion of the idea of declining to fight—may seem strange, but that’s in part because we don’t talk about the number of soldiers in every war who actually exercise the power of dissent. And their dissent makes clear that when we do go to war, in a period when we have conventional arms, it’s only done with the authorization of the population.
So, just as a quick summary. We all know that in Vietnam many people dissented on the threshold and refused to go. But even soldiers who went to Vietnam and were in the war dissented. Thirty-three thousand deserted during 1971 alone. And in every war there’s been something like that. So, for example, at the end of World War I, Winston Churchill writes to Lloyd George—I’m paraphrasing here—“I want to go into Russia and stand with the Whites and fight the Reds. But I can’t. The soldiers won’t let me.” And all over England and Canada there were soldier strikes saying, “Enough. We’re not doing any more.” And we can go back to draft riots at the beginning of the Civil War. In fact, in the Civil War, scholars have shown—particularly one scholar, Ella Lonn, who wrote in the 1920s—the amount of desertion on both the sides, the North and the South. As the war goes on, more and more people are deserting, until finally 250,000 Southerners have deserted. Lonn records the announcements sent out by Robert E. Lee. The daily dispatches would say things like, “Twenty-three more soldiers deserted today”; “One hundred and fifty more soldiers deserted today”; “Hundreds of men are deserting nightly.”
Again, this is not to say that there can never be a time when we should go to war. I mean, that’s an interesting question. Some of us might say, “War should be absolutely prohibited.” Others might say, “No, let’s allow for the possibility of going to war.” But one thing that’s crucial, regardless, is that the population itself only has the power to stop war if its arms are needed, if its limbs are needed to participate in the war. If the government has a way of fighting the war without the citizenry, then the citizenry has lost its voice completely. Gandhi said, “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest.” He’s not assuming arms will be used. His position is that people should use passive resistance, not arms. But you don’t even have the power to practice passive resistance unless you have distributed the military power across the full population.
SW: Why are nuclear weapons, in particular, an affront to that system of ratification by the population?
ES: It’s the change of scale that matters. So your question is right. There are other weapons that are way out of ratio. Aerial bombing is one. Incendiary bombing of a city is very close to nuclear weapons. But the fact that you can have a tiny number of people, whether one or twenty-three or two hundred and sixty, send this missile, and within a matter of minutes tens of thousands of people will be dead, means that it’s so out of ratio, that you can’t reclaim it. You can’t recover the ground.
We have lots of weapons. Ideally weapons would have a one-to-one kill ratio. I can get killed, and I can kill one person. And ten minutes later I can get killed, and I can kill one person. That would be the fairest thing. Or maybe, I suppose, if both sides have a one-to-twenty ratio, so I can get killed and I can kill twenty people, but they also can get killed or kill twenty. Then you have a framing symmetry. But if you can annihilate a whole population in a very short time, then you’ve eliminated completely the right of self-defense. And eliminated the right of self-defense from your own population, from other populations, and from every creature on earth.
SW: The likelihood of nuclear arms being used is, I guess, fairly small, but there are other ways in which this sort of problem arises. With respect to drones, for example. There isn’t really a Congressional oversight element in that. Maybe the White House is in consultation with individual members of Congress or members of the Intelligence Committees, but that’s it. Do you see that as being a similar breach?
ES: Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m 100 percent opposed to drones.
SW: So why focus on nuclear weapons right now?
ES: Because the scale of injury may include the actual destruction of the whole earth.
SW: I’m assuming that none of them will be used, at least soon.
ES: Has there ever been a weapon that wasn’t used?
SW: Well, this one has been used twice.
ES: Yes. It’s been used twice. If they’re not going to be used, why this readiness, this genocidal readiness? We talk all the time about the possibility of accidents and theft by terrorists and rogue states. But where are the terrorists going to get the weapon? They’re going to get it from those who have set up a huge nuclear structure. How can a terrorist really do the thousand steps you need to prepare a weapon? He doesn’t need to. Because a state has already made it ready for him. And we are misled into thinking that if a country’s leader is going to use a nuclear weapon, we’ll know about it. But out of ten instances I know of when presidents came close to using it in the United States, only one of them, the Cuban Missile Crisis, was known to the population. The other nine were not known and were only released to the public thirty or forty years later. Thirty years from now, it may be revealed that presidents in our decade came close to using it. So yes, I think absolutely we should all work to stop the drones. But you can stop the drones after the 300th one is used. You can stop them after the 800th is used. If you try and stop nuclear weapons after there’s been an exchange–
SW: There’s just no turning back.
ES: There’s no turning back.
You can’t have nuclear weapons and Congress. You can’t have nuclear weapons and a citizenry.
SW: Getting back to the consent issue—as it applies to all of these weapons—part of the reason there’s so much power invested in the executive is that there’s this rhetoric, and maybe reality, of very high-speed war making. We’re always on an imminent footing. Do you think that is a fair characterization of the American national security status? Are we under imminent threat?
ES: For sure, if you have nuclear weapons in the world, we’re under imminent threat. And more important, our larger threat is the one we pose to other countries. Joseph Gerson from American Friends shows in his books, in addition to the ten times where we’ve actually come close to using nuclear weapons, there are lots of times where we’ve actually used them, in his view, by threat, in order to get what we want from people. But the whole idea of eliminating them is to eliminate them from all the world’s people, and my assumption is that you can’t eliminate them from the world’s people if you don’t begin by eliminating what is by far the most powerful arsenal, namely our own.
Why does India have nuclear weapons? Why does North Korea? Because when they went to the International Court of Justice in 1995 they said to the court, “We don’t have them yet, but we’re going to get them if they’re not declared illegal.” Other countries, too, are saying that if the nuclear states don’t honor Article 6 of the Nonproliferation Treaty, which requires the nuclear states to give up their arms, then they’re going to get them too. So, yes, if you assume that we have them and they have them, then we’re all under immediate threat.
And yes, we’re living in a time when things are so rapid that there’s not even time for one person to make a decision, let alone more than one person to make a decision. But look at the absurdity of it. Why aren’t we getting rid of the things that put us in a situation where thousands of lives, millions of lives, are at stake, and we feel obliged, because there’s no time, to say, “Go ahead, leave it up to the one person who can do it.”
There was a very important article in the year 2000 by Bill Joy. It was about whether robots could carry out a revolution against their human makers, whether robotics and other kinds of new technologies—nanotechnology and being able to generate life and so forth—could eliminate the human species. And surprisingly for someone in the technological world, as Bill Joy is, he was arguing that there’s a real danger. And the whole article seemed like a fantasy and science fiction, until he said, again I’m paraphrasing, “Well, we already have the paradigm instance, which is nuclear weapons. Because they can eliminate us, and we can’t eliminate them.” We’ve built so much power and so much will into weapons technology; you feel you can’t undo it, and yet it’s going to annihilate us.
SW: The discourse of imminence seems pretty engrained, like we feel so threatened at all times that there isn’t much public interest in exercising consent. Consider that Hilary Clinton ad from the 2008 election, about the 3:00 am phone call to the White House emergency line. The assumption was that the population wants an executive that is able to respond on the spur of the moment to a threat and act decisively, without consulting anyone, certainly not the people and not Congress.
ES: I think that ad was a disgrace. The Constitution already says there are two ways that the president becomes commander in chief. One, when the country is attacked, in which case he can begin to make arrangements to defend us. The other is if there’s a congressional declaration of war. This distinction is also incredibly clear in Scandinavian constitutions, which say that the executive can act to defend the country up to the border but not one step beyond without the authorization of the legislature. Even the Russian Constitution, currently, gives great power of command to the executive but then says that their equivalent of the Senate is responsible for declaring war and also says that the people of Russia share the responsibility for defense. These provisions in the Russian Constitution are kind of equivalent to our Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11, the requirement for a declaration of war, and our Second Amendment.
The distinction concerns what you can do if there’s somebody invading your land—not invading it metaphorically, not invading it in the preposterous ways that the vocabulary of defense has been used in the post-atomic Age. The vocabulary of defense now has nothing to do with homeland defense. The Department of Defense is a department of international aggression. It’s not doing anything to protect the people at home. That’s why on 9/11 they couldn’t do anything to bring down the plane that hit the Pentagon. They’re not practiced in defending the country.
But can a president act to defend us? Yes, Roosevelt in World War II—on the morning after we were attacked at Pearl Harbor—went to Congress to get the declaration of war. But he could begin, even without authorization, to do things that didn’t involve going outside the country. What he couldn’t do is begin to bombard Japan because that’s acting outside the boundaries of the state. But he could begin to act within the country, and he did.
SW: At the very least, political marketers seem to think people don’t actually want that, that the voters want an executive who is going to take decisive action on their own, in the event of an imminent threat, not necessarily an invasion that’s already happened.
ES: I don’t know why marketers think that; the polls I’ve read say 70 percent of the U.S. population wants complete elimination of nuclear weapons. But let’s assume that you’re right because, certainly, there’s a lot of passivity.
SW: I think you can see it in the population, and you can see it in Congress’s hesitation to hold the executive accountable for taking military action without explicit approval.
ES: I think that it’s circular. Once the population and the Congress have lost their stature—that is, lost their responsibility for overseeing the most important thing that they can do, overseeing the question of whether we can enter war—once you’ve given that up, you forget what it is to exercise the power of consent and dissent and become infantilized. Or maybe that’s too negative a word, but become incapable of acting. It’s long been recognized that civil stature follows military stature. The Fifteenth Amendment, extending the right to vote to blacks, was argued on the basis that 180,000 blacks had fought in the Civil War. The Nineteenth Amendment, extending the right to vote to women, was argued on the basis that women can defend themselves. It was less tied to military service than was the extension to African Americans in the Fifteenth, but it was there. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment, lowering the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, was argued on the basis that both soldiers fighting in Vietnam and students on campus arguing about it had earned for themselves and future generations the right to vote at an earlier age.
Speaking of military service, it’s interesting to me that some of the people who do see with alarm that we’ve got to get rid of the nuclear arsenal are those who once had power to use it. And that might seem like a conundrum, but it isn’t at all.
Once the population and the Congress have lost their oversight capacity, the people forget what it is to exercise the power of consent and dissent.
SW: Whom do you have in mind?
ES: Well, for example, Robert McNamara says they’re “immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, and dreadfully dangerous” and have to be gotten rid of right away. And the Four Horsemen—that includes people like Henry Kissinger, and so forth, people who were in the position to authorize massive injury but now see there has to be worldwide elimination. Bruce Blair, who had been a Minuteman silo commander, is one of the leading voices for getting rid of nuclear weapons. And Noam Chomsky cites General Lee Butler, the former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, talking about the moral depravity of having this nuclear arsenal, our own nuclear arsenal, and how key it is to get rid of it.
Now, you might say that the reason we hear from them is because they’ve seen it close up, and they know how real it is, and the rest of us have a hard time understanding how real it is. And I think that’s part of the reason. But I think there’s a second reason, which is the very fact that because of the position they were in, their power to speak about our use of war materials didn’t wholly atrophy. They’ve actually got the power of dissent; they’re among the few people who still do. By contrast, the rest of us, whom they helped to disenfranchise, have lost our power to dissent, because it’s just atrophied.
In 1823 William Sumner wrote a treatise on the militia. He understood that, for very high-minded reasons, people might come to disdain military action and not want to have anything to do with it. And, he said, when that happens, democracy is finished. Because you have to take whatever force there is, whether it’s a huge force or a little force, whatever amount your country has, and divide it up across everybody. Now each person is in charge of their own small, little packet of force, and can exercise moral responsibility over it. But just by virtue of our position, you know, it’s atrophied.
SW: Is that an argument for a conscription army? Or for having greater rights to selective conscientious objection among the armed forces?
ES: Both of those. It’s absolutely in favor of having a draft. I think it’s an argument in favor of conscientious objection, too. I can understand why the population, including myself, wanted the elimination of the draft. But no one wanted it gone as much as the executive office did, because they didn’t want to have to go through, again, what they went through with Vietnam. Historical research has shown that a large part of the impetus for the elimination of the draft came from the right and from executive powers, not from the left.
SW: Are there measures short of reinstituting the draft that you think would help to re-empower dissent among the population?
ES: Well, for sure, if you eliminate nuclear weapons, that would be a means to restore the voice of the population. It would no longer be possible to achieve ultimate destruction without the support of the population.
SW: I’d like to return to the point about imminence for a moment because this legal fiction seems to be an important one in the construction of executive authority. We have all of these alert levels and threat levels that seem to be a legal shortcut to emergency. We talk a lot about defending American interests, as well, and that can be a capacious term, applying to almost anything. Is there any way to interrupt this situation where officials just say certain interests are under threat, and maybe they don’t even specify which, but therefore we are under imminent threat all the time?
ES: So far, none of these invocations of emergency by the executive ever seem to be used to protect citizens or residents of the United States. The announcement of emergency licenses harming other people or carrying out acts of surveillance on others or ourselves. But if emergency is actually being used for people, for the citizenry, then I think that something like floods, earthquakes, invasion by terrorists or a foreign-state army—in all those cases, you would be relying on the citizenry to address it.
There are lots of cases of actual harm addressed by citizens. On 9/11, citizens brought down Flight 93. A citizen brought down the shoe bomber. And then the Christmas bomber in Detroit—a citizen defended us. In cases of disaster—floods, hurricanes, et cetera—the citizenry works hand in hand with the executive in order to respond.
As I discuss in the book, billions of dollars are spent on the presidential nuclear fallout shelter, while nothing is spent on shelters for citizens. Much more is spent protecting the executive than on civil defense from hurricanes or earthquakes. That infrastructure of protection barely exists. I looked at one website that was put together by governors for protection in emergency, and you had to have passwords, and it just had forms you could fill out. It had nothing to do with emergency.
SW: Are you suggesting that while there’s a lot politically hinging on this idea of emergency, actual emergencies are not really being taken care of?
ES: Yes. Clinton Rossiter said in his book Constitutional Dictatorship: Crisis Government in the Modern Democracies (1948) that the atomic era is going to be an age ruled by emergency because it gives the executive power. And Jules Lobel, a scholar writing in the Yale Law Review, showed that by the mid-’70s and early ’80s, this emergency rule had infiltrated every area of life and law enforcement, including the drug wars. It didn’t do anything to increase the safety of the population. And the emergency footing has only increased since that time; the number of emergency rules and signing statements and so forth has increased.
But the whole thing, I believe, really does go back to one thing, and that’s nuclear weapons. I think if we got rid of those, we would regain our civil stature, our civil voices.
How to be fair and practice the rule of law when military capacities are so unequal, when our own power is not a constraint?
SW: Has there been legal action pointing out that, actually, the Constitution requires a certain amount of consultation when it comes to using nuclear weapons, or the Constitution requires us to abandon them because the population can’t have any oversight of them?
ES: I don’t think anyone would want to argue that we have to have Congressional oversight and popular oversight of nuclear weapons. No. Nuclear weapons and oversight are simply, starkly incompatible. The idea of a citizenry deliberating about firing a nuclear weapon is ludicrous. The idea of Congress deliberating about it is ludicrous.
The things can’t coexist. You can’t have nuclear weapons and Congress. You can’t have nuclear weapons and a citizenry. If you have nuclear weapons, you have to get rid of Congress and you have to get rid of your citizenry. So I’m not at any point arguing that we need Congressional and popular deliberation about nuclear weapons. I’m saying, no, we have to get rid of nuclear weapons. Unless we do that, we have to rid ourselves of the citizenry and the Congress because we have eliminated any possibility for effective oversight of war making.
But have cases been made? There have been cases about using the Congressional Declaration of War. Some have used Article 1, Section 8 to show what’s wrong—show that we have a legal ground for getting rid of nuclear weapons. And I’ve begun to ask legal scholars if we can form a case relying on the right to bear arms. I haven’t seen any glimmer of one, but that doesn’t mean that tomorrow there can’t be one or there shouldn’t be one. It’s sometimes hard to get legal standing if everyone is equally affected. The question is how to formulate the case.
Justice John Paul Stevens, in his new book on revisions that need to be made to the Constitution, says that the language of the right to bear arms should be changed so that it’s clear that the right to bear arms pertains to the military—that is, to defending the country, and not to other uses of guns. The only problem with that is when you look historically at popular disenfranchisement, it’s often achieved by disarmament, by prohibiting them from having guns for hunting, for example. In the French Revolution, Mirabeau said the very fact that we have inequality of who’s allowed to have arms is at the heart of why we need a revolution. After the Berlin Wall opened, there was outspoken protest in East Germany about the fact that Communist Party members were allowed to have guns and others weren’t. So whatever you do, you can’t wait until the executive declares his need for an army and then hands out the guns. It’s got to be that people have control over this.
SW: Your focus is on the Second Amendment as an impediment to war and also a source of popular ratification of military engagement. But these days the Amendment is mostly debated as a personal right. Is there any relationship between the personal and collective rights?
ES: I would like the courts to say, look, it’s a distributive right, not an individual right. That’s what the right to bear arms is, a distributive right. But I don’t think it can be wholly decoupled from the individual right. We should see if there is some way that it can be. But from the debates I’ve read on both sides of this, I feel that it can’t be. As I write in the book, though, understanding it only as an individual right would be like understanding the First Amendment only through pornography. It’s an important question, whether the First Amendment protects pornography or doesn’t, but you can’t infer the greatness of the amendment and what it’s trying to do by that.
SW: Following on the personal rights question, does the disparity between the military and the people—where we have this incredibly powerful armed forces, vastly better armed than even a heavily armed population—serve in itself as a form of disarmament? Is it also an affront to the Second Amendment?
ES: I think it is an affront to the Second Amendment, but I don’t feel that it’s an actual, physical threat, simply because it’s inconceivable to imagine our own soldiers turning on our own citizenry.
More troubling is that those soldiers are so well armed, yet they have to act outside the rubric of civil discourse. Only a tiny number of people in universities, in Congress, or among Boston Review readers have sons or daughters or siblings who are in the military, and therefore the military doesn’t benefit from the mix of liberal and conservative views on when we can inflict injury on other people.
When America has colossal military force, even conventional force alone, and everyone else has a very small force, the opposition has almost no choice but to use procedures that are outside the rules of war, as retired Major General and former Deputy Judge Advocate General Charles Dunlap argues. The question is how are we going to maintain our gallant response? How to be fair and practice the rule of law when military capacities are so unequal, when our own power is not a constraint?
That requires the involvement of the people. In 1992 Dunlap wrote an essay, “The Origins of the American Military Coup of the Year 2012,” exploring this. The article is well known throughout the military world and ought to become equally well known among civilians. Dunlap uses a fictional frame. He pretends that in the year 2012 the president has a heart attack, but when the vice president goes to take the oath of office, a military leader, whom Dunlap calls Brutus, persuades the vice president not to take the oath and to let him become the new president. This is then sent out to the U.S. population for a referendum, and amazingly, they vote to have this military coup, to have this leader be the legitimate president.
Dunlap’s central question is: What happened between 1992 and 2012 that can explain how the population would ever permit a military coup? His observation is that, in the face of the military’s strength and expertise, Americans lost the power to dissent, consent, and supervise. Members of the military seem to be the only ones who know the laws, and people see this. Members of the military seem to be the only ones that can handle emergencies. One of the main problems Dunlap isolates is that eliminating ROTC on campuses ensures that all the officers are people who have been trained at one of the Army or Navy schools, and therefore you’re not getting officers coming in from these more liberal contexts and having a mix, a debate. You begin to distill one point of view without testing it.
I think the big question for nuclear activists is, is the American population asleep or is it pretending to be asleep?
SW: The left has abandoned the military, leaving it for others to think about.
ES: I think that’s absolutely right.
SW: Is the American antinuclear community more committed? What does it need in order to make more progress?
ES: It needs every citizen to come forward and help. Then we would be able to eliminate these weapons quickly. Think of Obama’s speech in Prague, where he said that the United States, the only country that’s used nuclear weapons, has the responsibility to be in the lead in eliminating them. And of course we’re not in the lead. There are other countries that have done a lot more.
But why hasn’t Obama done much more? Why has he stepped back? Part of the answer—I think there are a number of answers one could give—but part of the answer is he needed a population there requiring him to do it. He needed all of us to step forward and say, “Do it. Do it.” It would take a very great president to do this. But how can he do it if he doesn’t have the population standing there saying, “I want you to do this”? There have been times when presidents have said—you know, in earlier periods—said to black leaders, “I need you to require me to do this.” And those black leaders did. But right now we’re losing a chance. Because to get another president who is going to stand up in Prague and say, “We need to eliminate nuclear weapons completely and the United States has to bear special responsibility—not Iran, not North Korea, not Iraq, but the United States,” that isn’t going to happen very soon. And so the clock is ticking.
There are lots of people who are antinuclear and who are activists. Very often their actions are not covered in the media. Sometimes they’re heroic actions. A main example is Megan Rice, the eighty-four-year-old nun who, with two other people, broke into Oak Ridge Nuclear Facility in Tennessee. They had to walk two hours in the middle of the night over ground that I don’t think most of us would want to walk. You don’t know what’s there; you don’t know whether there are dogs; you don’t know whether there are people with guns protecting the nuclear facility. They broke through four perimeter fences. The results were Congressional hearings about the lack of security at Oak Ridge and Sister Rice’s incarceration.
Her vision is right. I don’t think spiritual obligation requires one to risk one’s life, and I do think she and her two companions literally risked their lives. But many more of us need to put ourselves on record. Because if there were a nuclear exchange that led to some terrible number of people being killed, everyone on this street, everyone in this city, everyone in Massachusetts, everyone on the Atlantic Coast, everyone across the country would say, “I never wanted this. I didn’t want nuclear weapons. In my heart of hearts, I never wanted nuclear weapons.”
But it can’t stay in one’s heart of hearts. It has to be said on the streets, at City Hall, out loud. In his autobiography Gandhi says, “You can wake a man only if he is really asleep; no effort that you may make will produce any effect upon him if he is merely pretending sleep.” And I think the big question for nuclear activists is, is the American population asleep or is it pretending to be asleep? If it’s asleep, I think everybody can be awakened by just tapping—certain true facts put in front of them, such as the overwhelming fact that nuclear weapons are not a residue of the Cold War. These weapons are being modernized and kept up and replenished at every moment. If the country is pretending to be asleep, then some other strategies have to be found, and I don’t know what they are.
SW: There’s the upcoming UN conference on the Nonproliferation Treaty. Could international pressure be a source of awakening?
ES: That’s a good question. The negative model is the 1995 International Court of Justice case. Seventy-eight countries went to the International Court of Justice and pled with the court to declare weapons illegal. They invoked the Hague Conventions, the Geneva Protocols, the Declaration of St. Petersburg; they invoke the prohibition of genocide and treaties on the environment, such as those signed in Vienna and Rio. And our government, in a joint statement by the Department of Defense and the Department of State, argued that having nuclear weapons, threatening to use nuclear weapons, using nuclear weapons, and using them first does not violate Hague, does not violate Geneva, does not violate St. Petersburg, does not violate the convention on genocide, since even if we kill many millions of people, our intent wouldn’t be to wipe out a particular ethnic group. None of these actions violates the Rio Convention and none violates UN agreements. Yes, the UN has many times said that nuclear weapons should be prohibited, but the UN has no authority to do it, etc., etc.
I believe that these international provisions should be used, must be used. But I think they have to be used side by side with the constitutions of nuclear states, precisely because it’s so hard for American leaders and the wider population to listen to outside voices. Last spring I went, as did many other people, to the UN when they had a conference in preparation for next spring’s Nonproliferation Treaty review. Country after country said, “We want a guarantee that the United States will never target us with a nuclear weapon.” I mean, that may seem ho-hum to us. But imagine now if you’re a citizen of this other country and you don’t feel an absolute guarantee that the United States won’t do this? In the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, President Obama wanted to present an improvement—and it was an improvement. But do you know what its improvement was? It said, “We will not use nuclear weapons against any country that is a signer of the Nonproliferation Treaty and themselves do not have nuclear weapons, but we also reserve the right to change our mind.” Okay? Now, you think, “We won’t use them against countries that don’t have them? Wasn’t that always something we had a rule about?” Well, apparently not. This was seen as a big breakthrough. That’s as close as we have to a step forward. So I do think, you know, I think next spring, country after country is going to say, “The nuclear states still haven’t made enough progress. They have not honored Article 6 which requires them to abolish their nuclear arms.”
Other countries can see that, currently, in order to have swagger in the world, to have political clout, you have to have nuclear weapons. Can anyone wonder why North Korea wants to have them or Iran wants to have them? Look to our own reasons for having them.
If we begin to have a national call for eliminating nuclear weapons, I believe a lot of military people will step forward.
SW: It seems like we’re in a catch 22, because these overwhelmingly powerful weapons have the sort of infantilizing or incapacitating effect on dissent that you describe, yet we need dissent in order to eliminate these weapons.
ES: Absolutely. It is absolutely circular. I think of that Rosa Luxemburg statement—that you only begin to feel your chains when you begin to move. And I think once people begin to act, they will become more aware and more indignant about the jeopardizing of every tree, every plant, every creature, everywhere in the world, by this arsenal. If you take the best case, the very best case, which is that actually nuclear weapons are not going to be used—they’re not going to go off by accident, they’re not going to be seized—if that’s the case, then it should be easy to get rid of them. And to do so in concert with other countries.
And by the way, one thing that’s interesting is that so many people do care about the Earth, in terms of global warming. But, there again, I think they feel that it’s within the radius of their will: they can make a decision about whether to turn on the heat, and how often to use a car, whereas what is not within their arm’s reach is the nuclear arsenal. But what I argue is that there is a constitutional lever, that the constitution makes us responsible, and that if we place our hands on the constitutional lever, we will have the tool to eliminate the weapons.
SW: I was just going to get to that, because it sounds like part of the way to break those chains is to understand that the complacency surrounding the nuclear weapons is a product of the assumption that because they are terribly destructive we are not going to use them. But then you need to go the next step from there and say, “Well, that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. They’re still having some kind of effect.” And you’re saying that effect is fundamental: that even unused nuclear weapons break the democratic connection between the people and their leaders.
ES: Yes. And that is crucial. Every new weapon changes the nature of warfare, but nuclear weapons have changed the nature of government. And changed what we can do. So much follows from the powerless position we’ve been put in.
SW: Do you see what’s playing out in Iraq and Syria with ISIS—specifically the questions of consent and executive authority surrounding that—as part of the fallout here? That we just expect the executive will take action on its own?ES: I think that’s right. Don’t think I have anything insightful to say that hasn’t been said a million times. But I just feel the helplessness, again, of the general population in fathoming what’s going on. What do the people who did the beheadings tell themselves and their followers? Did they say it’s because of their comrades who had been killed?
SW: It’s hard to know how much of this is pretext, including the humanitarian intervention on behalf the Yazidis. Historically such intervention has often served as a pretext for expanding into larger kinds of engagements.
ES: As with all the drone strikes, the idea that this is going to be done by independent machines and some advisers on the ground—I mean, even if that’s true, even if it stopped at that, again, think of the double gates and going through a criminal penalty before you execute somebody. And there have now been a lot of wars where we’ve said we’re only sending in people as advisors on the ground, and then, no matter what happens, it’s been followed by soldiers.
SW: Do you think the military could be a positive force in changing the way some of these emergency measures are taken, or the way that conflicts expand, or the reliance on killing from such a great distance? You were saying before that ideally, or maybe most fairly, it would be one-to-one. They can kill as many of us as we can of them.
SW: On the one hand the military has a pretty strong incentive not to agree with that, because they don’t want their people dying. On the other hand, there may be a sense of honor that compels a soldier to fight that kind of war, a war that’s more close up, that’s not quite so asymmetric.
ES: That’s very thoughtful. That’s a very thoughtful answer. That two-part reaction.
SW: I know you read a lot of military thinkers. Is that something you’ve come across?
ES: I think that the military can be a great help. Now, some military people have told me that I shouldn’t make the error of overstating the visionary quality of the armed forces, because I often hear people who are visionary, who critique the military, who believe in the rule of law, and from that I might wrongly generalize and believe the whole military is visionary. For example, regarding torture, there is Admiral Alberto Mora, who really put the brakes on going ahead with torture and insisted that it cease. And so I see examples like that, and also I read the military handbooks and I see that they’ve got constraints, such as specifying what’s going to count as war crime. And, in fact, even when the handbooks talk about nuclear weapons, they say that at present there’s no law that’s been agreed upon as outlawing nuclear weapons, but you should know that there’s wide international belief that there’s something wrong. I may be misremembering this, it’s been some years since I read those handbooks. But sometimes military people say to me, “Don’t extrapolate from those voices and think that everyone feels that way, because a lot of the military does involve self training in ruthlessness and moral blinders.”
But if we begin to have a national call for eliminating nuclear weapons, I believe a lot of military people will step forward. I subscribe to the Navy magazine Proceedings. Back in the ’90s, there were already articles by pilots saying, “I do not consider sitting at a machine in a home state and firing a drone to be an act of piloting. I don’t want to do it.” They saw there was something obscene about this. And I think that once these things reach a national forum, there will be military voices on both sides, very articulate voices on both sides.
SW: As you point out, there are all these ways in which the left and the military distrust each other and are unwilling to cooperate. How could a coalition of the left and some of those military visionaries get traction on nuclear disarmament, cutting down the drone wars, and reinvigorating Congressional oversight of military deployment?
ES: Now ROTC is back on Harvard campus, and on other campuses, which I think is a very good thing. I wish I did know some concrete steps. But I think that it could happen, in the same way that things that we think can’t happen occasionally do. We have gay marriage, you know? How likely was that, even a few years ago? And suddenly it’s just, like, of course you have gay marriage. The Berlin Wall is open. How likely is that? Well, of course the Berlin Wall is open. But not before the Berlin Wall opened. Things can just [snaps fingers] snap open.
I think one has to just keep pressing at every possible place. I don’t feel that I have the power to reach a lot of people, but I feel someday somebody who hears me, who has a much better capacity than I do, may understand how to do it and will reach many more people.
I’m trying to provide the Constitutional tools for one way we could pursue nuclear disarmament. But how you go from there is challenging. Getting it to court is challenging. The first stage is to affect minds, to make people feel: this is my country, my small share of the arms is my small share, and I have to oversee it.
Elaine Scarry, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, is author most recently of Thinking in an Emergency.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
in your carpeted office you lay my life down / and say open up to that small room in my sternum.
In his new book, the former Fed chair cuts through economic orthodoxy on central banking. But he fails to reckon deeply with its political consequences.