This is the first time I have ever written to a workshop presenter. I just had to write. You spoke briefly of how people can be dramatically disconnected from the implications or results of their actions, not in tune with how their destructive, hurtful behavior impacts real, live human beings. Your example was of a, hypothetical, military man pushing a button in England that launched a missile aimed at one of the Balkan countries without any thought of his relatively small role in creating death and destruction.
I’m afraid I didn’t hear much of what you said after that. Off and on for the remainder of that day, and to this very moment, I was and have been transported back to my U.S. Air Force duty in a Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile silo in Montana. Crews were never informed of the specific targeting of their ten ICBM’s. (Too much chance of connecting?) We did know the destructive power—in the clean terms of kilotons—of each of the multiple warheads perched atop the missiles.
At least once during each twenty-four tour, the two man crews in each of the ten command capsules in the Wing would go through a simulated launch. We would receive the launch message on the radio and go through the launch procedure right up to the point of simultaneously turning the keys that would send the missiles on their way. “In the nick of time” we would invariably receive an “abort” message and stand down from the launch.
At some point fairly early in my duty as a Deputy Combat Crew Commander it did occur to me what this activity was all about. I envisioned a beautiful park in downtown Moscow. I could see the deep green of the grass, the majestic trees, a placid lake, and the brilliant blue sky, with just a scattering of puffy white Springtime clouds. There were no people save a mother and her little girl. I don’t know how I knew it was mother and daughter, but I did. The young mother was pushing the four or five year old in a swing. She pushed harder and harder and as the arc of the delighted, squealing girl’s swing reached its apex, one of “my” missiles detonated just above them. End of daydream, but not end of the daydreams. I have no idea how often that scenario played out in my mind, but it was many, many times during those months and has been countless times since. It had been some time since the little play had visited me or I had revisited it, whichever way that happens. What you were saying and your story brought it back.
I think one thing that bothered me then and bothers me still is the question of whether I would have turned the key had the abort order not accompanied one of those messages. Because of the Pavlovian nature of the training, I suspect I would have been “a good soldier” and “done my duty”. Thank God or Whoever, I never had to find out.
As I ponder this letter I am haunted by a line from T.S. Eliot: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”
Postscript: From a follow up letter:
I am touched that you would consider incorporating that first letter in a book of yours. Please feel free to include it or any portion of it in any way you see fit, with or without attributing it to me. ..In that way perhaps it could qualify as at least a small contribution to a great, no, one of the greatest causes. My grandkids, if I ever have any, and I would be appreciative.
While I doubt that my experience was unique, it was powerful for me and has taken up an inordinate amount of thought since it first occurred. I can’t help but wonder if the power brokers and policy makers of that time and since shared that vision, whether or not it might have influenced decisions then and now. What if every Pentagon, Kremlin, congressional hallway, etc. had a poster of that image, with the mother and child and swing beneath a nuclear air burst the nanosecond before all was vaporized? Would that influence decisions and directions? Probably not. Just a too too simplistic, but it’s a thought.