On August 30, 2007, six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were mistakenly loaded onto the wings of a B-52 aircraft and flown from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. It was a major error in the handling of nuclear weapons, leading to various investigations and the replacement of the commander of Minot Air Force Base. The new commander, Colonel Joel Westa, commented, “Our goal in this line of work is not to make errors. Our goal is perfection. It’s one of those missions where the tolerance is very low for error. In fact, it is zero.”
Colonel Westa sounds like a well-meaning fellow, but perhaps someone should explain to him that humans are prone to errors, not only of judgment but of memory and inadvertence. For example, on the same day that Colonel Westa was professing that there is zero tolerance for error, February 12, 2008, the US Secretary of Defense, surely not purposefully, slipped on ice outside his home and broke his humerus, the bone connecting the shoulder to the elbow. Accidents occur.
Even Edward Teller, father of the H-Bomb, recognized, “Sooner or later a fool will prove greater than the proof even in a foolproof system.” With 26,000 nuclear weapons still in the world and 3,500 of these weapons still on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired in moments, and with policies of launch on warning in effect in the US, Russia and other nuclear-armed states, there is unfortunately fertile ground for proving Teller right about the fool proving greater than the proof.
Mikhail Gorbachev, who had his finger on the nuclear button for many years and who called in the mid-1980s for the abolition of nuclear weapons, offered sage advice when he stated “that the infinite and uncontrollable fury of nuclear weapons should never be held in the hands of any mere mortal ever again, for any reason.”
Perfection is not possible, but it is possible to abolish nuclear weapons. Our choices are to play Russian Roulette with the human future, seeking an impossible standard of perfection for all possessors of nuclear weapons, or to recognize the wisdom in Gorbachev’s words and eliminate the overwhelming danger posed by these weapons by eliminating the weapons themselves.
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.