Ron Rosenbaum

A Truly Profound Moral Debate: A Medal for Cold War Veterans?

Jarvisites (see below) don’t seem to get that I love the ‘net. I love surfing. I love the debates one comes upon (and sometimes starts–see below). And I love Google (just not kool-aid drinking Google- worshippers), for instance for rthe way Google Alerts has helped me with my new book on the new face of nuclear warfare.

And so it was that on Christmas morning I woke up to find one of my Google alerts directing me to what I consider a truly profound and important moral debate, one initiated by the campaign to create a medal for “Cold War veterans”.

These are the guys who manned the missile silos and the nuclear armed subs, flew the nuclear armed bombers. The guys who–depending on your point of view–saved the world from a nuclear holocaust, by making deterrence–the prevention of nuclear and conventional war, possible in the 45 years between Hirsohima and the fall of the Soviet Union.

Or took part in the reckless policy of Mutually Assured Destrruction at the heart of deterrence that pledged them to what anti-nuke types such as Jonathan Schell called “conditional genoicide”: our threat to attack and vaporize entire cities full of unarmed civilians if we should be attacked. To carry out a genocidal threat even after the threat had failed in its purpose. Or even, as happened on more than one occasion, carry out that threat on the basis of “false positive” warnings of an attack.

On the other hand what was the alternative? And also on the other hand they were doing it because we, as a populace, in effect ordered them to do it.

On the other, other hand (I’m running out of hands) there were some who questioned and opted out of it. I wrote about one in a Harper’s article “The Subterranean World of the Bomb” (March, 1978; reprinted in The Secret Parts of Fortune). And I talked to guys in Minuteman misile silos who had doubts, but I had no idea, as the post below shows that some went as far as hanging themselves from the stress of the moral quandry our policy makers (and the Soviet Union’s) put them in.

Was deterrence a profoundly moral doctrine inthat it saved tens, hundreds of milions of lives, perhas the entire human species. Or was it profoundly immoral because it threatened genocide after it had failed to deter nuclear attack?

And do the “footsoldiers” in that unconventional, non-physical–very real, but metaphysical, conceptual–combat that deterrence represeneted, deserve medals for their service regardless because of the impossible demands it made upon them as human beings?

That’s the contention of a campaign for a Cold War Medal campaign I came upon in this blog posting (lined above):

“Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cold War Veteran Spot to Air on Weekend America on Dec 27th.

ACWV and Independent Producer Eric Molinsky have put together a montage of interviews of Cold War Veterans to commemorate the End of the Cold War. Dr. Frank Tims, Scott L’Ecuyer and Bill Robinson are featured on the radio spot.

This weekend marks the 17th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the official end of the Cold War. Some Americans will be observing this weekend as if it were a holiday. These folks flew the Berlin Air Lift, or played cat and mouse games with Soviet subs, like in a Tom Clancy novel. Independent Producer Eric Molinsky says these retired servicemen are facing a new battle.

Bill Robinson was part of an elite crew: People who had their finger on the button. He flew a B52 bomber in 1968, circling the Arctic for 24 hours at a time. If given the order, he would’ve nuked Moscow. “We had one purpose and only one purpose, and that was to put our bombs on the target, regardless of battle damage, regardless of anything other than complete destruction of the airplane. So we all knew that we were basically flying a suicide mission.”

Officially, they were called “Chrome Dome” missions. Bill worked for the Strategic Air Command, or SAC. They were tested constantly – rehearsing World War III over and over again.

“Every time we had a practice alert, we never actually knew whether if it was real or not,” Robinson says. “But if it were the real thing, we would have nothing to come back to. In the back in our minds, and my mind, I knew that my family would probably be vaporized.”

Bill and his crewmates were on the front lines of the Cold War. But when the Soviet Union fell, there were no victory parades and no medal ceremonies. Gorbachev was barely clinging to power. The first President Bush was worried about sparking a backlash in the Soviet Union if America appeared to be gloating. Bill Robinson gets that, but he still feels unappreciated.

“It would have been nice to have somebody say thank you.” Bill says. “It would be nice to have somebody say, as my old OPS officer used to say, ‘It was a real bucket of snot but thanks.'”

Bill is part of a growing movement of retired servicemen who support The American Cold War Veterans Association. The organization is lobbying Congress to create a Cold War Service Medal. They have the support of seven senators, but the Pentagon is against it.

Here’s the problem: The Department of Defense does not consider The Cold War a real war. They’re worried that if they give medals to people who didn’t serve in combat, they’ll water down the whole meaning of the word “veteran.”

Scott L’Ecuyer believes that he was on the front lines of a real war. The contribution of his crew needs to be recognized.

“Sometimes I wonder, if President Reagan was still around and conscious of this, would he recognize us?” Scott contemplates. “I’ve spoken to Ronald Reagan. On a Christmas day, when I was out on the missile site, he called us, and said ‘Merry Christmas.'”

Scott spent four years as a chief mechanic at a nuclear missile silo. The job was grueling. The missiles were constantly malfunctioning, but the base had to be fully operational in case the Soviets took a first strike. The crew was tested every day, unaware if was the real thing or just a drill. One of Scott’s roommates couldn’t handle the stress. He was kicked out.

“I can’t tell you how much that guy did for the mission,” Scott explains. “He couldn’t do the job, but he propped us up so much, he might as well have been the truck that drove us there. When they kicked him out, it was unbelievable to all of us, because he was like our parent. We didn’t realize he couldn’t go home because of family issues, and he hung himself in our room. I have a flag that’s on my mantel right now that was flying over the squadron at the time, and I keep it in a box for his memory.”

Those memories weigh heavily on Scott. He had trouble adjusting to the outside world. He had nightmares from underground in solitary confinement. Scott was eventually diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. He showed up at a local VA hospital, and that’s when he discovered that he wasn’t technically a veteran. He didn’t serve during an official time of war, like Vietnam.

“I was locked out from being a new applicant,” Scott says. “I went crazy. That’s when I really got involved.”

Scott recruits members for the American Cold War Veterans Association. He’s hoping to change the system, which he thinks is unfair.

According to Scott, “Everyone’s made hay on the Cold War, from authors to politicians to the media. Everyone for 50 years has made their careers on the Cold War, and it was us that carried out that mission, and the fact that we’re forgotten is unbelievable.”

Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton have pledged their support, but getting money is going to be tough. A new generation of soldiers is coming home, with pressing concerns. The Cold War veterans might have to hunker down for a long fight. The payoff may be years down the road. They’re used to that.”

How do you feel about the stories of Bill and Scott above? I’d like to hear from “Cold War vets” about their experience–what they thought then, what they think now. Post them in “comments”. I’d like to hear what the non-combatants among you think. I think we just can’t bury their experiences, we need to think about them, because the way things look we’re going to have to deal with these questions again, soon.