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North Korea. World peace. Nuclear weapons. Life and death. Who knew being President was so hard? I am sure that our President is sufficiently confused at this point and probably damn angry that such bothersome issues have conspired to intrude upon his well-deserved vacation at his New Jersey retreat. Yet while sufficiently confused there also seems to be no inclination to alter his routine by investing time, energy and intellectual capacity into an examination of carefully prepared options and their potential consequences in lieu of extemporaneous outbursts. Bellicosity seems to always be the default mechanism when careful thought and studious preparation is required. This is neither a way to run a railroad nor a country.

nuclear showdown

On the eve of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 President John F. Kennedy was deeply influenced by a book he was reading by historian Barbara Tuchman entitled the Guns of August. The book is an exhaustive examination of the events leading up to World War I. It received the Pulitzer prize for non-fiction the following year. I wonder what books are on the Donald’s reading list during his August vacation?

Because the book focused on the importance of miscalculations and miscommunication that facilitated faulty decision-making that would ultimately result in the deaths of 20 million people Kennedy was determined not to allow the same thing to happen again, particularly after his disastrous adventure at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba just two years earlier. The threat of a nuclear exchange would entail hundreds of millions of deaths so the need to get it right was deadly serious. Over a 13-day period he successfully fended off concerted military pressure for preemptive action and negotiated a settlement with his Soviet counterpoint that avoided a global catastrophe.

Strength was projected through patience and negotiation not bombastic rantings. Instead of playing into a position that afforded no obvious or effective exit he allowed an escape valve for both sides. This has become the seminal definition of statesmanship and diplomacy. Now, one can argue that the difference then was that two experienced leaders who happened to be military veterans who had witnessed the horrors of combat could rationalize the avoidance of catastrophe whereas now we have two irrational men separated by age but similar in temperament, knowledge and lack of experience.

The key is that the President is not in this alone; he has capable, knowledgeable and experienced counsel to aid his decisions and he must avail himself of such expertise.

Point well taken, but that is the conundrum to which we must adapt and accept for the time being. The key is that the President is not in this alone; he has capable, knowledgeable and experienced counsel to aid his decisions and he must avail himself of such expertise. This, of course, rests on his ability to concede that he alone should not be expected or capable of solving the problem alone and that may be the biggest problem of all.

So how can we negotiate around what seems to be an inevitable collision course? A major difference between the early 1960’s and now is that we have the luxury of history and experience to guide us. Just as Eisenhower, a Republican President and commander of Allied troops in World War II, admonished us not to allow our decisions to be unduly influenced by an expanding military industrial complex and Kennedy’s masterful handling of the Cuban missile crisis should be used to help guide us, we have a military leadership that is far better educated and professional today than at any time in history. I choose these words carefully and even surprise myself when looking at them on paper.

As an anti-Vietnam War activist, opponent of nuclear power and weaponry, and lifelong dedicated liberal political and public policy advocate I offer the following with a healthy degree of humility. Several years ago I had the privilege of attending the U.S. Army War College to participate in a intensive weeklong series of seminars on national security issues. During that time I developed an appreciation for the professionalism of the military representatives from all branches of the services and several countries. There was a sense of intellectual curiosity that at least gave me a glimmer of hope that rationality could prevail over saber-rattling. I sincerely hope that such hope is not misplaced but at this point I feel we have few options on the table that do not involve a military solution so here goes. President Trump seems to be somewhat infatuated with military leaders, as witnessed by the inclusion of flag staff officers at the Department of Defense, National Security Advisor, and Chief-of-Staff positions, so it seems critically important to utilize their best thinking to influence his decision on how to proceed.

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I participated in a radio program yesterday on the importance of the recent commemoration of the 72nd anniversary of the atomic detonation on Nagasaki and the 42nd anniversary of President Nixon’s resignation, which both occurred on August 9 and it was suggested that an appropriate response on behalf of the nation would be a general strike. Nice idea but I doubt that we have either the public will or the luxury of time to effectuate such an action.

Rather, why not have a General’s strike. The idea is that we have the three generals referenced above, Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly recommend to the President that:

  • His threats and intimidation tactics are more of a problem than a solution; and
  • Any orders to initiate a nuclear exchange would be opposed by all three and would necessitate their rejection and resignation.

They should also make an impassioned plea to the President that they have all taken an oath to “obey the orders of the President of the United States…according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” However, they are only required to obey LAWFUL orders and that an order to initiate a nuclear attack would represent an unlawful order thus subjecting them to prosecution by a military court. In other words, they should refuse an unlawful order to put into effect a nuclear option because it represents a criminal action.

To bolster their argument they can reference the recommendation of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 in Gaudium et Spes, “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” which states that “any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.”

And if that doesn’t work maybe they can appeal to a more basic lesson to be found in the 1992 movie A Few Good Men, in which Lt. Col. Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, in an impassioned defense of his ability to issue unquestioned orders explains that “I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it.” Unquestioned loyalty is to a higher power rather than to an individual, even the President of the United States. The Nicholson character sealed his fate by assuming that his judgement superseded all others and he was arrested. It is a tricky business but refusing orders does have a place at the military table.

No Mr. President, the ends do not justify the means. Our nation is based upon concepts of freedom, liberty and justice and we have the right, in fact the obligation to question the means by which we execute policies that affect the lives of whole populations. The application of public policy decisions must be in accordance with a greater good and benefit to society. That is the value of public service and the President must represent the ideals of a nation that is dedicated to adherence to law, not personality, temperament, or hubris.

It is not humiliating to admit that others may possess more knowledge than you, Mr. President. It is not embarrassing to seek the best advice available. It is indeed a sign of maturity to admit when you are wrong. Do not let your vanity doom peaceful coexistence.

Lance Simmens