Posted By POSCA
Those of us of a certain age remember the movies: “On the Beach,” “The Bedford Incident,” “Fail Safe.” “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” “A Boy and His Dog,” “Dr Strangelove,” and on and on. All of these films either tried to scare the hell out of everyone concerning thermonuclear war or they explored the horrible aftermath of a total nuclear exchange. The duck and cover drills, backyard shelters, and survival rations strategically placed around major cities are now vague and distant memories. Praise God. (Not too many years ago they decided to pull the survival rations from the Boston underground, and they discovered that the survival biscuits had formed giant blocks of yuck, but that some bad person(s) had stolen all the morphine. What a surprise. By the way, rats seem to enjoy nibbling on giant blocks of yuck.)
It may surprise you that those of us who played an active role in the Cold War (Posca has a certificate somewhere to prove it) were more than casually aware of the paradoxes and absurdities that beset the nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. We were well aware of what we were doing. We wanted to avoid accidents at all costs. And we were very deeply serious about what was at stake. There were special programs to monitor the behavior of those who worked in and around nuclear weapons, and there were equally strict programs to control who was given access to nuclear weapons storage areas, let alone nuclear weapons themselves. Amazing—and Posca means amazing—precautions were taken to ship nuclear weapons around the country, and the Department of Defense and Department of Energy were fully prepared to ensure the security of those weapons with lethal force (and still are).
Posca DID NOT WANT nuclear war, but it was Posca’s job to fight a nuclear war should our deterrence posture fail to sufficiently scare the Soviets to keep them from pushing “the button.” We were caught in a genuine paradox—to prevent this thing we all wanted to prevent, we had to practice it over and over so that someone watching via satellite would believe we would fight it if we had to. Alert pad bombers had to taxi for takeoff when they were supposed to do so, and we had to show that we could easily transition from a conventional war to a nuclear war if circumstances arose. Although somewhat puerile, the made-for-TV series “The Day After” did a pretty good job depicting what we did for real on a regular basis. (Yes, there really is a box that makes the sound of teeth chattering when opened. It is called the “Clacker Box..”)
A few years back, the Department of Philosophy—responsible for teaching Professional Ethics—at the Air Force Academy hosted a series of exchanges with more liberal institutions along the Colorado Front Range for the purpose of discussing WWIII.. Posca has since been exposed to the intense rays of the sun, so his memory is a bit vague, but he does remember sitting in an auditorium at CU Boulder (all the military guys sitting in an isolated group in Service Dress uniform) as that great thinker William Gass of St Louis University railed against us for having some arrested masturbatory complex or other—only sick, sexually twisted monsters would traffic in nuclear deterrence (not very original, “Dr Strangelove” said it first and better).
In return for so graciously hosting us—an act of magnanimous reciprocity—the Academy Department of Philosophy hosted a group of undergraduates (sans Bill Gass and his masturbatory obsessions) for a day of serious discussions about nuclear war, the paradoxes of deterrence, and the perils of unilateral disarmament. The capstone for the day was a dinner at the Officer’s Club. Each table was hosted by an officer whose purpose was to promote conviviality and bring the day’s discussion to something like a useful summary conclusion. Posca hosted one of these tables, and despite his best efforts to be bored with the whole process, felt good about how things went. At the end of the evening, a very attractive, fresh-faced coed sitting to Posca’s left reached out, touched his arm, and in a completely sincere voice said, “You know, you almost seem human.” With that, our visitors departed.
Almost seem human? Hell, I had a wife and a couple of kids at that time. I changed dirty diapers. I worried about balancing the checkbook, cutting the grass, the kids getting sick, getting my next promotion, and everything else human beings do. I seem to have feelings and fears like everyone else; I can be offended when people know which motions to push. Why almost?
For the longest time I was offended by the Parthian shot from the fresh-faced coed from the liberal school up north; but now I take it in a completely different light. There are times when a leader cannot afford to be a human being, even if he has deep doubts, raging fear, or the desire to be anywhere else but the spot where he happens to be standing. Sometimes, a leader must do the hard, even insane thing because that is precisely what must be done at the time. A leader must ignore the smell of fear (yes, it has a smell), or the wild-eyed looks in the eyes of his troops, or the screams of those who are about to die.
A leader must be almost human so that fresh-faced coeds can go on splitting logical hairs in warm colloquium rooms on sheltered, tree-lined campuses.
On the night before the war starts and you know it is the night before the war starts, you cannot afford to be human. The pressure of knowing is unlike anything I have ever experienced before or since—almost human is perfect. When you kneel in the ice-caked mud to perform a flawless operation on a 2000lb that has bounced across the ground and come to rest against a major hospital—almost human is indispensable. When you order your people to undertake an operation regardless of personal cost—then almost human is the only way to go through with it. And when you take live nuclear weapons in clip-in assemblies and upload them in B52s in rehearsal for a war you hope never happens—then being almost human is a prerequisite.
Posca willingly spent 25 years being almost human He would gladly do it for another 25 years, and asks for nothing in addition to what he has received. But please remember that being almost human—even if it eventually becomes second nature—can exact a horrible toll on those who have served. And some wrestle in the dead of night with becoming completely human again.