Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
I heartily agree with Elaine Scarry that U.S. government decisions about the use of armed force, and particularly about the possible use of nuclear weapons, are not subject to anything near an adequate degree of democratic control or popular consent. I agree that even if nuclear weapons are not used, maintaining a nuclear arsenal is not compatible with democratic governance; and that the best hope for safety from a nuclear holocaust, both in this country and elsewhere, would be for the United States to take the lead in moving the world toward nuclear disarmament. Finally, I agree that if the United States took the lead in supporting global steps toward nuclear disarmament, other countries with nuclear weapons would be likely to follow.
But some of Scarry’s other arguments are wrong or misleading. First, abolishing nuclear weapons would not require a return to the draft or a huge increase in U.S. conventional military forces. All such forces are intended for use in foreign wars because no country has the capability to launch a major conventional attack on U.S. territory. The existing U.S. army, navy, and air force are much larger than would be needed to deter or win any near-future threat of major war overseas (regardless of how one might view the merits of U.S. involvement in any such war). This would still be the case if nuclear weapons were abolished.1
Second, the speed of a possible U.S.-Russian or U.S.-Chinese exchange of nuclear-armed missiles—the thirty minutes it takes for a ballistic missile to go from one side of the world to the other—has not eliminated democratic control altogether. Members of Congress, representing their constituents, have an opportunity during budget season every year to insist that policies regarding the retention and possible use of nuclear weapons be changed radically. But there has never been a congressional attempt to require administration support for U.S. policies aimed at global nuclear disarmament.
Third, the United States does not need a civilian militia or universal military service in order for citizens to defend themselves in an egalitarian manner because, to a first approximation, there is nothing to defend against—that is, there is no conventional military threat to U.S. territory. The only threats of massive violence that face U.S. citizens are 1) the unpredictable, isolated attacks that might be undertaken by non-state terrorist or criminal groups; 2) more severe terrorist-type threats that could be posed by hostile governments with access to nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons; and 3) the longstanding, well-known danger of a Russian or Chinese nuclear missile attack. None of these threats can be diminished, deterred, or effectively defended against by a conventional military force, whether professional or draft, executive or egalitarian. Scarry argues that terrorist threats using commercial airliners can be eliminated by agreement among the passengers to sacrifice their own lives, if necessary, but it is hard to think of another type of threat in which ordinary citizens can foil an attack by voluntarily risking their own lives. If terrorists put some lethal substance in a city’s water supply, for example, ordinary citizens would be hard put to save lives through self-sacrifice or any kind of voluntary individual action.
To some extent, these criticisms involve matters of detail. I agree on the more important points:
U.S. citizens would be safer than they are now if nuclear weapons were abolished and their lives were no longer in the hands of politicians authorized to order the use of nuclear weapons on a few minutes’ notice.
The lack of democratic control over U.S. military policy is profound.
To these I would add one other key point: The lack of democratic control over U.S. military policy lies most profoundly in the lack of general knowledge that none of the Defense Department’s spending goes to defend U.S. territory, in the narrow and strict sense of the term “defense.” If we prorate infrastructure and overhead, ten percent of U.S. military spending goes to nuclear deterrence, the dangerous policy that Scarry and I oppose; ninety percent goes to conventional forces intended for intervention abroad. To reestablish democratic control over military policy we would need not only to abolish nuclear weapons, but also to eliminate nearly all U.S. conventional forces—or else engage citizens in a vigorous, well-informed debate on policy issues and options in the areas of international affairs, foreign policy, and interventionary uses of armed force.
I am currently working on two popular campaigns focused on increasing citizen input in precisely these two areas. UrgentCall.org is an Internet-based grass-roots campaign that calls for the United States to build on decades of international nuclear arms control agreements and continue to move, step by verifiable step, toward global nuclear disarmament.Global Action to Prevent War (www.globalactionpw.org) is an international coalition-building program that combines steps to reduce the outbreak of armed conflict around the world with measures to reduce unilateral military intervention and instead strengthen reliance on collective security and the rule of law, as originally envisioned in the U.N. Charter.
After working in this field for more than three decades, I conclude that increasing citizen knowledge about and input into national military decisions is, not surprisingly, an incredibly difficult undertaking. By tradition, this field is left to experts, and that is likely to be the case until colleges offering liberal arts degrees require an introductory course in security policy. Yet democratic control in this area is essential to the full development and flowering of democratic institutions, and equally essential to the safety and well-being of ordinary citizens here and throughout the world.
1. At the height of the Cold War, when nuclear weapons were being used to help deter a major East-West conventional war in Europe (by threatening escalation to a nuclear catastrophe), military officials argued that if we reduced or abolished nuclear weapons, we would have to increase the conventional armed forces needed to deter or fight in a war in Europe with the former Soviet Union, which had a huge army. This is no longer true.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Both regulators and employers have embraced new technologies for on-the-job monitoring, turning a blind eye to unjust working conditions.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.