Saturday, February 10, 2018

Ellsberg's Doomsday Machine

I have been hit like a ton of bricks by Daniel Ellsberg's new book, The Doomsday Machine, Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.i It reminds me of a book I read over ten years ago, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins.ii Like Ellsberg, Perkins had been trained in a discipline, was fascinated by it, and then used his abilities in the service of what turned out to be Establishment evil. In Perkins' case, it was selling loans to the governments of developing countries that he knew would be a disaster, but he went along with it until he awakened and wrote his exposé. We all know what Ellsberg did with the Pentagon Papers, his rather more famous turning against The Machine than is the current book. But it turns out that this later revolt is the more startling and compelling one. Like, ton of bricks compelling.

One of the reasons for my “ton of bricks” reaction is what I learned in graduate school in the field of public policy, first at the Goldman School at Cal, and later at Yale. At both universities we looked at public policy in a multidisciplinary way, which was key. We used economics and cost/benefit analysis, strategic rationality and decision making theory, political analysis, sociology, and – most eye-opening of all – organizational theory and behavior. (Given our current Trump-time, it seems we could have used personal psychology as well, but they did pretty well with the disciplines they had. Unfortunately, the Goldman School has abandoned organizational theory in favor of more quantitative work, alas.) The art of policy analysis is putting them all together to see why what happened did happen, and to try to craft policies with an eye to all these different points of view. Policy making is art – you can't just say “this program would be good,” you have to look at who would sponsor and support it, who would take it over, who would distort it, how it would be implemented, and could it pass. There was a debate as to whether or not a policy proposal should include all these aspects. I thought it should include as many as possible, especially politics and organizational analysis, and I wrote my book on the federal program of providing health care for migrant workers using economics, politics, and organizational theory.iii I thought it worked well putting it all together, and in a real world test, I used that book to get a whole new version of the Migrant Health Law passed by Congress, and today the program is working pretty much as I had envisioned it so far as I know. Amazing, I know.

At an exponentially more important level is The Essence of Decision, by Graham Allison, which I read at Yale after I wrote my little migrant health book. E of D looked at the Cuban Missile Crisis from the standpoints of rational decision making, political theory of interest groups within both American and Soviet governments, and organizational theory.iv This is a fabulous book that anyone serious about public policy should read – I rarely say anything that sweeping, but there it is. Here is an example of how organizations affected the Crisis: when Kennedy tried to control how the Soviet ships headed to Cuba would be blockaded (the term they used, “quarantined,” was intended to seem less bellicose) the admiral in charge of the Navy told Kennedy to back off. “Mr. President, the Navy will run the blockade,” was pretty close to what he said. They had their standard operating procedures, the modus operandi, and fine-tuning was not possible. Kennedy was concerned that if they didn't do it right and avoided being too strong-armed, you know what could happen. When you deal with organizations, you can try to get it to make fine distinctions, but you will probably fail. See also, for instance, the difficulty of having soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, trained killers, becoming peacemaking nation builders instead. It can sometimes work to some extent with prolonged effort, but it's hard.

So, the ton of bricks is this. Ellsberg looks not just at the theory of nuclear war, to which he contributed as a decision theory analyst, but what it meant in practice. He was present at the creation of MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction – a standoff that still persists. But, since he existed in the real world, and crucially, because his loyalty to America was completely assured and he could gain clearances way beyond Top Secret, since he was totally credentialed, he could go out and see and verify beyond theory, beyond the games and simulations and reliance on rationality that university guys like Herman Kahn and Albert Wohlstetter usually stop at.

He was young, energetic, and very smart – think Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, think the young Alex Baldwin, think the Hunt for Red October, but think the Pacific. The Chief of CINCPAC, Admiral Harry D. Felt, wanted to know what was going on under his command, really know, not just get reports. One of the things we learned in public policy school, I think it was from our favorite book, Inside Bureaucracy by Anthony Downsv – I think that was where it was, but maybe not – was about information, conformation to orders, and chain of command. Think about a chief giving an order to his or her subordinate. How much of that order is understood and accepted? Never 100%. Maybe 80% would be an average? Then the subordinate orders his or her own subordinate. As you go down the chain, you expect less understanding, more shading, so at the second level it's maybe 70%. By the time you get to the fourth level down, what's going on? 80% times 70% times 70 % equals about 40%. This means that if an order requires just three levels down, less than half of the order is understood and enacted.

It's a general issue, not just military. Remember the Hubble telescope disaster? They spent $1.5 billion to put a great telescope up in space and it wouldn't focus. Why? Despite the most quality control surveillance possible, the very best people working to maximum capacity at the respected Perkin-Elmer company, way down the production chain of command, the skilled workers found that there was a small flaw, and instead of reporting it up the chain of command, they fixed it on the spot the way they were used to fixing things, by putting in a small shim. It worked at their level, but when it integrated at the necessary higher level, it didn't. People do things the way they are used to doing things, and it is impossible to coordinate complexity in large organizations with 100% fidelity. It just can't be done.

So the savvy Admiral Felt was being very competent when he sent the young RAND analyst Ellsberg out to the field, to forward bases in Okinawa, in Korea, and in Japan where nuclear weapons were – and are - attached to planes close to China and ever-ready to achieve airborne alert status. He was right to be suspicious that on-the-spot commanders, especially those trained in the American way, to be able to improvise, to take responsibility on themselves, that diffusion of responsibility that had worked so well when it was local commanders who invented a way over the hedgerows in the Normandy invasion – he was right to think that his information in command headquarters in Hawaii would be incomplete.

And incomplete it was. Ellsberg found, for one thing, that they rehearsed their roles constantly, and no matter the time of day or night, planes were ready for takeoff with their nuclear loads within ten minutes. Amazing – ten minutes. But, being very smart, Ellsberg went to the next steps. The battle plans called for them to take off and rendezvous with other squadrons from other bases at a forward point in the air, and await radio signals there which would order them forward if there were to be a real honest to goodness attack. If they were ordered back – or, if there were no communication at all at that time – they were to return to base. Ellsberg asked, “Is this ever practiced?”

Answer – no. It was impractical. The bombs were not really well enough secured to trust them if there were to be takeoffs time and time again. It would be very expensive to constantly rendezvous. So it was only the initial part that was practiced. What were the implications of that? Ellsberg reasoned that part of practicing was to get used to routine, so that mistakes would be minimized – see Thinking Fast and Slow by Danny So if there would ever be an event that led to the squadrons actually taking off, it would be very unusual, everyone would be extremely edgy, and many would reason that this time it was the real thing.

So what would happen if they took off and made their rendezvous as ordered, and then, no signal came to them? First, how likely would that be? Ellsberg asked the Korean base commander how often communications were out. It turned out that communications were regularly out part of every single day! Weather conditions, other problems, they said. If what had triggered the alert in the first place was some kind of accidental explosion somewhere, it would also be likely that this would interrupt communications. So it would be quite possible that at the rendezvous there would be no signal forthcoming; they would be on their own, never having practiced this part before, and having to remember under stressful conditions that they were supposed to return to base. And believing that if they got no signal it could well be that a capitation event had occurred in Washington and/or Hawaii.

Ellsberg's account of this possibility, of airplanes circling at the rendezvous and getting no communication, in interviewing the forward base commander in Korea, pp. 55-56:

I asked, “How do you think that would work?”

The major said “If they didn't get any Execute message? Oh, I think they'd come back.” Pause. “Most of them.”

The last three words didn't register with me right away because before they were out of his mouth my head was exploding. I kept my face blank but a voice within me was screaming, “Think? You think they'd come back?”

This was their commander, I thought, the one who gave them their orders, the man in charge of their training and discipline. As I reeled internally from that response, the next words, “most of them,” got through to me.

He added, “Of course, if one of them were to break out of that circle, I think the rest would follow. He paused again, and then he added reflexively, “And they might as well. If one goes, they might as well all go. I tell them not to do it, though.”

Then there was the question of the nuclear football that is carried by an aide to the President. We all think, we are told repeatedly, that the President has the power, and only he has the power, to order a nuclear strike. But was that, and is that today, really true? It's not really logical, after all. What if there is a decapitation strike? Would all of the US retaliatory forces not be launched then, because the President and his entourage had been destroyed? It is much more logical to think that others had the command ability as well. In his Jack Ryan role, Ellsberg asked Admiral Felt about it and was put off. There were rumors all over CINCPAC that there was a letter sent from the President authorizing CINCPAC Commander to order a nuclear strike on his own. There were rumors that others had that command possibility as well. Ellsberg couldn't find evidence of the letter, until years later. But then he found that yes, there was a letter. The idea we have of unitary command over nuclear strikes is false.

Then there is the issue of different points of view. This gets down to bureaucratic politics of a sort. The chief concern of the civilian sector of the nuclear project was that there be no accidents and no mistaken attacks because of mistakes in thinking that we were being attacked. That was the civilian focus. The military focus, however, had a different priority. The military's priority was that if there were an attack, that a nuclear counterattack was assured. To them, the possibility of an accidental attack from our side was less worrisome. So, anyone who has worked in a bureaucracy knows where this leads. The civilians wanted to make sure that bombs were only dropped with full authorization. So each plane had a specific code that it would need to match with the order coming in – as we are used to getting into our accounts on the internet, as we need the code texted to our phones. But the military's priorities being what they were, they knew that codes get lost, you can't find your code sheet, etc. So they made every single code the same, 0001, or something like that. You don't need to be an organizational theorist, you just need to have worked in a bureaucracy to know that this would happen, as it did. It took a close looker like Ellsberg to discover this. In short, our control over bureaucracies is limited.

These competing priorities would also be reflected in the organization of the war plans. Ellsberg discovered that the specific war plans were a closely guarded military secret, and not only from the enemy. The civilian masters of DOD, and the President himself, were not privy to these plans! In the estimation of the military, there was no need for them to know! As in, “The Navy will run the blockade, Mr. President.” In fact, the plans were so closely guarded that it was forbidden for anyone to mention the name of the plans!! That way, there would be no troublesome requests to see the plans.

The war plan as developed by the military – think Curtis LeMay, if you want to think of the mindset of where this came from – could not be too intricate. Large organizations are ponderous by their nature; they cannot be otherwise. So many logistics, so many details, so many people. So, when it came to war plans, Ellsberg discovered that there was only one. If we were attacked, we would retaliate by taking out the Soviet Union and China. What if China were not involved in the attack? Well, too bad, said the military, we can't do more than one plan, and 300 million Chinese would just have to pay the price. What would set the war plan in motion? Conflict between the US and USSR. What would constitute “conflict?” Undefined. Forces fighting somewhere in the world? Maybe. Depends who was judging, maybe.

This is just the way organizations and people work. A few weeks ago Hawaii experienced the incoming missile alert fiasco, a half-century after the time Ellsberg describes. What led to it? A worker who had had difficulty previously differentiating practice from the real thing, and had been counseled (or not) and had been kept on. When the call came in from the U.S. Pacific Command secure line to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, the worker who received the call didn't put the initial part on speaker phone, the part that said “exercise, exercise, exercise.” He did put it on for the part that said, mistakenly, “This is not a drill.” The AP relates: “the agency had a vague checklist for missile alerts, allowing workers to interpret the steps they should follow differently. Managers didn't require a second person to sign off on alerts before they were sent, and the agency lacked any preparation on how to correct a false warning.” And the Governor forgot his Twitter password. There is no excuse for our believing that people and large organizations will be any different in the future, be it making infant formula in France ( rolling recall with infants dying, corporation delaying and denying) or trying to control life-destroying armaments.

I was born three weeks before Pearl Harbor; I'm exactly ten years younger than Ellsberg. His father, a superb structural engineer, was a complete patriot. He was in charge of building the Ford Willow Run plant and the Dodge Chicago plant that produced B-24's and B-29's which was what I pretended to be as a four or five year old jumping off our porch on Osage Avenue in Philadelphia, arms extended laterally, as the war came to an end. Ellsberg's family history led to his becoming a Marine and taking his plunge into defense policy at the highest level. My own family history led me to medicine. While he was pursuing defense policy I was wondering why I kept studying when Kennedy has just been on TV about Cuba, and when our pompous professor of physical chemistry who had been and Eisenhower adviser, George Kistiakowsky, declared that Kennedy had made a basic error in leaving Khrushchev no way to save face. I looked askance at the Ban The Bomb marchers, maybe because they were so “sensible,” with no real plans on countering evil aggression. Were they willing to have standing armies, etc.? There is evil out there, do you remember Hitler? I took more seriously the clock on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, but did what most people did, marched against the Vietnam War, chanted “Fuck you, Agnew,” but otherwise stuck to my knitting. That is, I chose denial.

Now we are faced with more and more nuclear problems, not fewer. What started as Eisenhower's less expensive alternative to keeping vast armies in place in Europe to guard against the Soviets – Brinksmanship enabled our 50's economic expansion – and then morphed into American domination by ultimate nuclear threat and our military all over the world “training” – now looks worse than ever. We can imagine an ignoramus such as we see in the White House now saying, “Why do we have these weapons if we can't use them?” We can see him saying, “Why don't we at least use the little ones?” Indeed, the Pentagon is currently reconsidering the use of tactical nuclear weapons.vii

LeMay had wanted to use them earlier – wipe out the Commies, he said. He and others were real militarists. Wiping out huge swaths of people was fine with him. WWII was a great opportunity to experiment – would wiping out a city with firebombs demoralize a country and take them out of the fight or make them more steadfast? Hey – a chance to experiment! Luckily for them, the Japanese militarists kept the war going long enough for them to see what Little Boy and Fat Boy would do. Seriously. I read elsewhere that LeMay told McNamara at one point, “If we lose this war, we'll be hung as war criminals.” And McNamara nodded assent. How different are the Iranian Revolutionary Guards? I'm on our side and I'm against those terrible Iranian militarists, but among people who think that way, there is a lot of commonality. In Japan, after all, it was Tojo and the militarists who were in charge. They had to be told by the Emperor to stop fighting; many of them wanted to go on. There are militarists everywhere, and it's not hard to see the connection between arguments for gun control and arguments for nuke control.

To our eyes, the militarists are clearly nuts. As Ellsberg says, during the Berlin Crisis, when nukes were contemplated against the Soviets, he wondered, after all is said and done and we use nukes on each other and we look back, will we think, was Berlin worth it? As Ellsberg says, what was once an issue of the destruction of civilization as we know it, since the discovery in the 1980's of Nuclear Winter, the stakes have been raised even higher. We are talking about an extinction that would dwarf the other five in our past. We are facing the possibility of extinguishing most of all the life forms we know. We are talking about starting from scratch.

What we know about human nature is frightening. What we know about organizations and how they work and don't work, is frightening. What we know about modern history is frightening. And we haven't even mentioned WWI and wiping out a generation, of the disillusionment with the wonders of technology born of machine guns and attacks over the top.viii

Putin interfering with our elections? China constructing bases in the South China Sea? North Korea threatening what, a defense of its awful government? Let's remember Ellsberg's question, would Berlin have been worth it?

The wise men cold warriors, McNamara, Schultz, Kissinger, Nunn, – all those who were the most aggressive – what they say is, we have to get rid of these weapons. Look at what can happen. These organizations that have control of nuclear weapons are only poorly controllable.

The intimate history of the top leaders of the United States as told by Ellsberg is that they would never have used the nukes. Kennedy wouldn't have, McNamara wouldn't have, others wouldn't have. Eisenhower wouldn't have, no matter what. To them, it was the biggest bluff in the world. The survival of the world is a large task to leave to a small and ever-changing leadership group. Like, for instance, now.

Finally, here is what is the most amazing thing to think: Dr Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, was not a work of fiction. It was fictionalized and exaggerated, but the essence was amazingly true. From “Bodily Essence” Buck Turgidson, to Dr. Strangelove and his dream of bunker survivors with the most beautiful women, to forward commander Major “King” Kong, to a system with no recall the bombers capacity, to the Doomsday Machine itself – in it's essence, it is all essentially true!! It is. Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern got some of their information from Herman Kahn, with whom Ellsberg worked as a junior colleague, but they must have had lots of other inputs, because what they wrote was essentially true, (Tom Lehrer's song was also true, I guess), just made funny with the gallows humor that we were familiar with as medical students when we saw our patients sicken and die.

Denial is a pleasant state. We live in denial most of the time. I deny that I will die, despite the fact that most of my tomorrows are in the past. We leave to others the custodianship of the world, despite the fact that we know that they and the organizations that they sit at the head of, are not sufficiently responsible to trust them with the future of the world.

There's a lot more in Ellsberg's book. It will make you think and tremble. It will make you long to Ban the Bomb. Hey, a universal service obligation isn't a bad idea, anyway.

Budd Shenkin

3/3/2018 -- After posting this piece, I became aware of a New Yorker article by Eric Schlosser that makes many of the same points I make, including the essential truth behind Dr. Strangelove.


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