For the past 40 years, there has been no more eloquent or passionate opponent of the madness of nuclear weaponry than James Carroll.
A child of the duck-and-cover era and son of a three-star Air Force general, Carroll entered adulthood as what used to be called “a radical priest,” part of the anti-war Catholic Left of the 1960s. After leaving the Paulist order in 1974, he turned prize-winning author of both fiction and non-fiction, on matters ranging from the Cold War to the history of anti-Semitism in the Church, as well as a longtime columnist for the Boston Globe. On the topic of nuclear disarmament, he is arguably without peer in the English language.
Yet Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine caused Carroll to reconsider the anti-war beliefs that have undergirded his entire adult life, and nuclear disarmament in particular. Watching Vladimir Putin’s naked aggression, and the bravery and devotion of the Ukrainian people in response, he writes, “For the first time in decades, I was unabashedly in favor of war.”
Carroll has crystallized those thoughts in a lengthy essay called “Revelations of the War in Ukraine: An Anti-War Activist’s Personal and Political Reckoning,” a profound survey of the implications of the Ukraine war on global security and the cause of peace. Public Seminar, a digital publication of The New School in New York City, has been serializing it online for the past two months, in six parts. I urge you all to read it. Links below:
4. Moments of Moral Reckoning after Wars End
I was among a small group of writers whom Jim—who I am honored to call my friend—asked to deliver brief responses to his powerhouse essay. My piece can be found here, along with those by Frida Berrigan, the anti-war activist and daughter of Philip Berrigan; Randall Kennedy, the Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School; Jeremy Varon, professor of history at The New School; and Robert Jay Lifton, the eminent psychiatrist, Columbia professor, and author of The Nazi Doctors (1986). Jim himself has also published a postscript, called “Life on Earth: Repeating Myself about the Putin Revelation.”
What follows is a greatly expanded and modified version of my essay.
LIKE RIDING A BIKE
For Carroll, the Ukraine war began with a reminder of what courage looks like.
He writes that he found in Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people the same commitment to “a commonwealth of liberal democracy”—to the point of willingness to give their lives—that in his youth he found in the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, John F. Kennedy, and Daniel Berrigan. “(W)hat Ukraine has been showing me all these months is that it is possible not only to want such values, and to defend them, but actually to fight to enable them to prevail.”
And he does not mean “fight” figuratively, which matters. For a longtime anti-war activist ever to endorse the resort to force of arms is a sobering moment.
At the same time, he notes the alarming muscle memory with which America quickly popped back to the Russophobia ingrained by forty-six years of Cold War:
The Kremlin was once again the supremely unifying adversary, a malevolent role from the last century that it promptly recapitulated….(H)ow great to be free once more to openly demonize Moscow—and not only Russia’s elites and power brokers, but the whole Russian people, who seemed, by the millions, to assent to Putin’s war. The “evil empire” was back.
In fact, this Russophobia was even better—new and improved!—because Putin’s wanton aggression was so blatant, so brutal, and so unforgivable in any plausible way. Historically, hawks have never bothered with any reservations in the first place, but this time around, even bleeding heart liberals could hate on the Kremlin with unrestrained, unqualified righteousness. There was no doubt Putin deserved it.
Of course, there were some in the West who took Russia’s side, but Carroll—quite correctly, in my view—has no truck with those who want to blame the war on anyone but Putin:
Some of my friends who had railed against American militarism for decades diluted condemnations of the Russian assault with equivocations about US and NATO provocations, as if Putin was somehow justified in his aggression; as if a kind of American exceptionalism still applied, making the US responsible for all the world’s ills. Some who had long denounced American appeals to the Monroe Doctrine to justify its “sphere of influence” aggressions in the Caribbean and Latin America now accepted Russian claims to its own sphere of influence.
Carroll notes how he was appalled by those who wished “to place blame for Putin’s war on America’s drive to protect, in the left-wing argot, its ‘global hegemony’….even parroting the Russian president’s talking points.” (No Pink Floyd on Jim’s turntable, I take it.) For my money, there has been no better evisceration of this position than Carroll’s observation that it is comparable “to ‘understanding’ Hitler’s nursed resentment of Versailles Treaty injustices as the cause of the Nazi’s crimes, which would amount to blaming the Holocaust on Woodrow Wilson.”
But it is not just—or even principally—the left that is guilty of this bullshit. Apologia for Putin was rife on the right before the war and remains so even now, after months in which he has showed the depths of his monstrousness. Indeed it is a great irony that a significant chunk of the most hawkish right wing demographic has, over the past decade, and especially during the Trump years, flip-flopped to become the chief cheerleaders for Putin and the Russian Federation. On the subject of Ukraine, one could hear the far right making the same pro-Russian arguments as the far left, often verbatim. I defy anyone, in a blindfolded test, to tell them apart.
NO NUKES REVISITED
Like many, the particular area that disturbed Carroll most was the possibility that Putin might use nuclear weapons against his Ukrainian foes, and the implications of eight decades of anti-nuclear activism in the West on that scenario.
Ukraine had voluntarily—heroically, even—given up its nukes in 1994, yet now found itself menaced by a far more powerful neighbor that still had them. Carroll asks: “(W)ould Putin have attacked a Ukraine that had clung to the nukes it surrendered in 1994? Would Putin have stopped at Ukraine if his crossing NATO’s borders—in the Baltics, say—did not put Moscow itself at risk of destruction?”
Pretty good questions.
Looking back, Carroll is hard on himself as he reassesses his “own mainly critical assessments of US national security policy across decades defined by American pre-emptive wars.” He acknowledges that the nuclear abolitionist movement of previous decades failed to reckon with the need for a “massively re-imagined structure of international security, new modes of crisis management, (and) an agreed global regime that would check powerful nations from their inbuilt aggressiveness, while offering vulnerable nations sufficient security guarantees that would make their own acquisition of nukes unnecessary.”
That movement, he says, of which he was a prominent part, “never got serious about authentic political argument, the realities of international law, or the plain obligation of thinking a problem all the way through to its hardest part.” He even blames “his kind” for failing “to make the anti-nuclear case persuasively enough to spark second thoughts if not in the nuclear elite, then in the broad population of citizens.”
By contrast, he goes too easy, in this writer’s opinion, on the national security establishment, generously absolving them of the “amoral detachment of which I had accused them” and granting that they may have had “an implicit and quite rational understanding of the transcendent scale of the social and political transformations required by nuclear elimination.”
Some may have. But some were very much the monsters he thought.
The tragedy, Carroll notes, is that “a multitude of nuclear ‘have nots’ have surely drawn one large lesson from Ukraine’s having given up its nuclear weapons”: that it was unwise. He therefore predicts “a cascade of nuclear proliferation” on the part of so-called “threshold states,” those on the verge of obtaining nuclear weaponry, in what one national security expert calls a coming “arms control dark ages.”
“Indeed,” Carroll writes, “it would be naive to think that a fiercely escalated nuclear arms race, involving multiple nations, has not already begun.”
PUTIN ON THE RITZ
A few years ago Jim wrote a brilliant stage play called “Midnight Ride,” centered on the doomed James Forrestal, America’s first Secretary of Defense, whose life ended in 1949 when he leapt to his death from a window of Bethesda Naval Hospital, having been hospitalized after being found running down a Florida street hysterically yelling, Paul Revere-like (or Carl Reiner-like) “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!”
(With no discernible irony, a bust of Forrestal greets visitors in the foyer of the Pentagon to this day.)
In the play’s denouement, Carroll notes, “it falls to Forrestal’s wife Josephine—a one-time showgirl reimagined as an American Cassandra—to warn of an imminent nuclear war,” and to condemn the audience for its sin of omission as silent accomplices. But now Carroll has regrets about that portrayal, and the implication that government figures like Forrestal “had less responsibility for the decades of nuclear nihilism than the mass of passive citizens who had lacked any real knowledge of what was long being done in their names.”
“Who was I,” he asks, “to wag my finger in the faces of people who only wanted a night out at the theater?”
Of course, “Midnight Ride” is not mere escapism, and people do go to the theater for reasons other than light entertainment. (Jim’s wagging finger would be doing a public service outside “Cats,” for instance.)
When it comes to the culpability of governmental leaders, Carroll spends significant time focusing on how the malevolence of one man—Vladimir Putin—has justifiably triggered this renewed global panic, given his all but total, iron-fisted rule of the country with the largest nuclear arsenal on earth, measured in sheer number of warheads.
No human being, Carroll writes, “should be allowed to possess such ascendancy. Even in democratic states, this dominance dwarfs any claim to supremacy ever made in olden times by divine right kings, who, at their worst, could only murder by the thousands, not the billions.”
The logic of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) places an absolute power over life and death in the hands of one person, which contradicts every political aspiration for egalitarian self-determination. The bomb, simply by its still-justified existence, is like a hidden viral infection eating away at four centuries’ worth of post-Enlightenment progress toward liberal democracy.
One might well say the same of Donald Trump. Carroll notes how, even before Ukraine, the ascension to the White House of our own malicious and unstable sociopath raised anew fears of nuclear holocaust prompted by a whim, or a mistake. Is it too much to hope that Ukraine might give impetus to changing US nuclear warfighting protocol to take the button-pushing power away from one man (or woman), after seeing our own homegrown monster in the White House, one who makes Nixon look sane?
Now that Putin has suffered a series of shocking and humiliating military setbacks in Ukraine over the past few weeks, a defeat few Western military experts ever thought possible, the nuclear stakes have been raised higher still…..because Putin himself has overtly raised them, pointedly telling the world: “Russia will use all the instruments at its disposal to counter a threat against its territorial integrity. This is not a bluff.”
Generally, when someone says “This is not a bluff” it’s a sure sign that they’re bluffing. But I’m not so sure in this case….and I’m not willing to gamble on it.
A WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY IN THE HOUSE OF WAR
Even as the war in Ukraine drove Carroll to an admirable questioning of his beliefs, he lays out a convincing case for the ways in which it has only proved the validity of those beliefs, beginning with the heightened risk of nuclear disaster:
If Russia could not deliver unspoiled meals-ready-to-eat to its troops under siege or fuel to its stalled tanks in Ukraine, what were the chances that the Kremlin’s highly complex nuclear control mechanisms were being properly maintained? With the corruptions and inefficiencies of the Russian military’s high command exposed for all to see in Ukraine, what of the nuclear arsenal’s unlock-and-launch authorization codes for which that same command is responsible? Are Moscow’s cluster of orbiting satellites and space-based radars on which all early warning depends able to be sustained as Russian technologies are universally degraded by sanctions? There is no star-sighting navigation or global positioning system without microchips—to take a conspicuous example—and sanctions have abruptly cut Russia off from its main chip suppliers. How long before that shortage shows up in the performance of precision guidance systems? Of launch safety protocols?
Carroll’s self-scrutiny thus leads to a welcome place: a re-affirmation of the urgent need to arrest the continuing danger of nuclear war; to reduce—and ideally eliminate—the number and lethality of nuclear weapons in the global arsenal; to put in place credible, practical, enforceable international controls and restrictions; and to halt and even dial back the number of nations in the nuclear club, and permanently close the rolls on new members going forward.
In other words, far from making the case for expanded resort to military might to protect all that is good and pure in the world, the war in Ukraine reinforces the argument for nuclear disarmament. To that end, Carroll believes that this newly refreshed awareness of the dangers—and madness—of the nuclear balance of terror could create an opening for real and substantive change.
To wit: “Nuclear weapons must be eliminated.”
The naysayers will of course sneer about the impossibility of putting genies back in bottles, but Carroll argues that “Such a call today can seem less radical than ever, in light of the recently laid bare dangers of one man’s radically unshared nuclear domination.” (He means Putin, but he could just as easily mean Trump.)
Jim’s plea is not mere blue sky vaguery. Among his concrete proposals, he calls for revision of the power of the UN Security Council and the mechanism of the veto. (Since the publication of his essay, proposals have indeed been introduced to strip Russia of its permanent seat. There remains, of course, the Catch-22 that it must agree to the measure. But clever minds are at work on the issue.) He also promotes the little-known 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as a framework for new, workable international arms controls, noting that new technology offers increased possibilities for compliance and verification, reducing the reliance on good faith and any sort of international umpire, which conservatives traditionally fear. He also proposes new limits on the US President’s single-handed authority to initiate a nuclear war, which is actually quite easy to imagine the Pentagon supporting, particularly in the wake of Trump.
But how likely is it that the American national security community, and the senior leadership of the US military in particular, would support the other bold steps that Carroll calls for?
The first impulse is to scoff that the chances are infinitesimal.
Beginning with the Baruch Plan in 1946, wariness toward arms control has been an article of faith in American politics. The noteworthy successes—the ABM and INF treaties, SALT, START—seem unlikely to be repeated if they require the consent of the contemporary conservative movement, which is not known to be keen on nuanced solutions to thorny geopolitical problems. If anything, that faction, with its “America First” neo-isolationism, clings more than ever to the delusion of an atomic Maginot Line behind which the US can withdraw.
There are certainly many in the armed forces who share those views, from the humblest private to the most decorated general. But not all.
Over the past few tumultuous years, senior US military officers, both active and retired, have shown a surprising willingness to breach longstanding protocols in order to protect the republic from what they rightly viewed as grave threats. From reducing the risk of war with North Korea, Iran, and China, to rejecting calls to deploy US military forces to quell domestic dissent, we have been treated to a Strangelove-in-reverse scenario of sober generals restraining their reckless civilian superiors.
After Mattis and Kelly’s astonishing “babysitting pact,” and Mark Milley’s brow-raising backchannels both to his Chinese counterpart and to Nancy Pelosi, is it so unthinkable that the current crop of American military leaders—including Milley, who continues to serve, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, another retired four-star—might be willing to contemplate other bold new measures to secure the safety of the country and the world? Lest we forget, it was Ronald Reagan, a revered foreign policy hardliner, who, with Mikhail Gorbachev, proposed the most sweeping nuclear disarmament plan in history, and together almost brought it to fruition. One can quibble over the uselessness of “almost,” which famously counts only in horseshoes (and hydrogen bombs). But the mere fact that an archconservative like Reagan was willing to pursue disarmament is an encouraging precedent. That very reputation, of course, also made him better equipped to sell the idea, both to Congress and the public, than his predecessor Jimmy Carter, on the principle that only-Nixon-could-go-to-China.
Carroll reminds us that in 1945, following the only two uses of atomic weapons on human beings in history, a consensus of US national security mandarins, including Secretary of War Henry Stimson and all the multi-starred members of the Joint Chiefs, met favorably with the idea that international control of such weaponry was the only sane way forward.
Not a misprint, folks.
It’s a fact so at odds with contemporary American orthodoxy that it’s hard to fathom—forgotten, as Carroll says, even by national defense professionals. One of the most chilling moments in his essay is when he recalls researching his 2006 book House of War, and asking both Arthur Schlesinger and Robert McNamara about the Stimson proposal. “Neither of them had ever heard of it.”
In the 77 years since, history has been so thoroughly rewritten, and American public opinion on arms control moved so far to the right, that any suggestion of international custody of nuclear weapons elicits only snorts of contempt and accusations of starry-eyed naïveté. But times change.
The senior leadership of the US military is uniquely positioned to pursue a similar path in the present moment. The respect and esteem in which the American people consistently hold our armed forces year in and year out make it the premier institution—maybe the only one—whose endorsement of such plans would assuage public anxiety.
The “military,” of course, is not a monolith. In contrast to the cool heads listed above, one has seen the opposite impulse from retired generals like Mike Flynn and Don Bolduc, or retired colonel Doug Mastriano, to name just a few. Neither wisdom nor folly is an automatic companion of rank, nor experience.
Which faction will prevail? Part of the answer will hinge on which civilian leaders hold power following the upcoming elections and have the opportunity to pick the uniformed leadership. Watching how a malevolent sociopath can, almost singlehandedly, bring the world to the brink of Armageddon ought to offer a refreshed awareness of the senseless fragility of the nuclear balance of terror. No competent military professional can observe that and believe that the current system is advisable, or that a renewed arms race is the solution.
It will certainly demand great boldness and moral courage for the men and women atop the military pyramid to embrace stringent new arms control measures. It will require bucking reactionary public opinion and the allure of ill-conceived tough-guy solutions, and defying deeply ingrained impulses of the military culture itself. But it’s not beyond the realm of imagination. After all, the Overton window can move or it would not be a window at all, except one that has been painted shut. We may soon learn whether, off the horror of Ukraine, the senior leaders of the much-admired American military are visionary enough to take a revolutionary stand in the interest of global peace and US national security.
Which, after all, is their job.
It’s axiomatic that, in war, the losers learn more than the winners, and increasingly the US expects to be the winner in Ukraine, by proxy. The danger then is that we will take away from this war the wrong lessons, and a misplaced eagerness to resort to force. I recently wrote in this blog about the ways in which the war in Ukraine risks opening a new chapter in US military adventurism (“Violence and the Heroic Impulse,” April 2022), pondering how a “good fight” shines a light on the urge for bad ones. For one thing, the Ukraine war serves as excuse for Pentagon to lobby for an even bigger slice of the budgetary pie, if you can wrap your head around that, and to boost our own nuclear arsenal.
It is characteristic of Carroll to subject himself and his lifelong convictions to rigorous re-examination, while those powerful figures who would blithely lead us headlong into extinction carry on with their usual preternatural arrogance, never wavering in the belligerent beliefs that have kept us perched on the knife’s edge of nuclear apocalypse for almost eighty years.
Precisely, some might say! Isn’t eighty years without a third use of nuclear weapons itself proof that the so-called “balance of terror” works, and by extension, that this peacenik hysteria has always been overblown? Can we please retire the hoary old tropes of Armageddon, apocalypse, and balance-of-terror itself and send all the Chicken Littles back to the henhouse?
Such confidence, I hasten to say, has been with us since Hiroshima, and remains as dangerously misplaced as ever.
The Greek word “apocalypse,” Carroll notes, “most commonly suggests a world-ending calamity,” but literally it translates as “‘unveiling,’ which is why the last book of the Bible, Apocalypse, is also called Revelation.” Thus the poetic title of this own essay. As he writes:
The great unveiling of the War in Ukraine was, for those who would see it, a fresh laying bare of the most important fact of the re-conceived human condition: nuclear deterrence is not protection.
It’s the threat.
At first, in seeing such purpose in the bloody resistance to Putin, I had found myself in favor of war—an unprecedented turn. But now I see as I never had before, in relation to the transcendent threat of nuclear devastation, that the embrace of peace is more urgent than ever. The nations of the world, with the next leg of the nuclear arms race well begun, are on the cusp of abandoning the dream of peace once and for all.
But peace is still possible. Without moralism or naivete, I am convinced we can insist on that.
(I)f Zelenskyy and his people can stand against the odds in defending their land, with no guarantees for the outcome—precisely because of the truth and justice embodied in their struggle—why can the rest of us not stand against the odds in defending the human future?
From his lips to God’s ears.
Further reading: my two-part interview with James Carroll from 2017:
“The Disadvantages of Decency”
Photo: The ubiquitous Cold War-era “fallout shelter” signs, which still dot the American landscape, rusted and ignored, as memento mori.