Realism and Resistance: Can Americans Unite Against Our Strange Love of Super Weapons?


Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Fulton Sheen, Martin Luther King, Jr.: in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, these men are champions of a nation united under God, icons of a cultural consensus forged in the fires of the Second World War and gilt in the material prosperity of the new American Age. For Douthat, the headliners of the postwar years are America’s strong religious institutions and their influential shepherds. But where he focuses on the ideological dimensions of the postwar consensus, especially its consolidation within a broad Christian orthodoxy, Douthat passes over some realities of the 1950s that went as far or farther to bring Americans together. Americans were united as much by external pressure and existential uncertainty as by shared ideals. If we wanted to expand Douthat’s roster of midcentury icons—to acknowledge the dark side of those “happy days”—we could not do better than Bert the Turtle.

Bert starred in the short film “Duck and Cover,” which taught millions of Cold-War era schoolchildren the virtues of crouching underneath their desks to avoid vaporization by Soviet nukes. Menaced by a dynamite-wielding monkey, Bert the Turtle sees the flash of the explosion and shrinks into his shell. Moments later, he emerges from the blast unscathed. In the film, human actors demonstrate this “duck and cover” technique in a variety of settings, because as the narrator says, “The flash of an atomic bomb can come at any time, no matter where you may be.” Indeed, “Duck and Cover” frequently reminds viewers that the threat of nuclear annihilation is ever-present: “Sundays, holidays, vacation time; we must be ready everyday, all the time, to do the right thing if the atomic bomb explodes… No matter where we live, the city or the country, we must be ready all the time for the atomic bomb: Duck and Cover!” With the Iron Curtain in tatters and the nuclear apocalypse postponed, Bert the Turtle took an indefinite leave of absence from the classroom. We must hope it proves a permanent retirement.

Yet the technology of violence has not stopped its march in the Digital Age. Particularly worrisome is the recent fad for killing by remote control, using unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as “drones,” to conduct combat from half a world away. Among those troubled by this trend is Gabriella Blum, who in a recent article in the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas contemplates a future where robotic warfare will have advanced to the point that insect-sized assassination drones will be employed by the military and even available on the black market. She predicts that technologies presently confined to the battlefield may one day infiltrate our homes. Aware that some will find her predictions “unduly alarmist or too futuristic,” Blum points out that “the mind-bending speed at which robotics and nanobotics are developing means that a whole range of weapons is growing smaller, cheaper, and easier to produce, operate, and deploy from great distances.” For those still skeptical, she adds that even now “[d]rones the size of a cereal box are widely available, can be controlled by an untrained user with an iPhone, cost roughly $300, and come equipped with cameras.”

Wars waged by robots are not just the idle speculation of academics. As reported in Wired, recent war games held at the United States Army War College postulated that, in 2025, America’s military would have at its disposal “missile-armed pilotless warplanes,” “high-endurance spy drones,” and “swarms of insect-size micro-drones.” Of course, the two former technologies already exist in some fashion, but the designers of the war games predict that “[t]he drones of 2025 will have computing capacity a billion times greater than today’s models.” This exponential growth in their lethal efficiency could make drones the next atom bomb, and the 20th century may foreshadow the 21st.

While “the shadow of the atom bomb” is not entirely absent from Bad Religion, Douthat keeps it tidily off-stage. But by the mere fact of its existence, the Bomb shaped decades of history; nations scrambled to adapt to a world where a city could be destroyed by a single device delivered by a single plane flown by a single pilot. Moreover, as “Duck and Cover” reveals, the Bomb was an invasion of the American mind, which it occupied “everyday, all the time.” If the midcentury was also an era of cultural consensus, it is certain that this common threat, not of the Soviets or of Communism but of a technology beyond our power to comprehend or control, contributed to its formation. And those of us interested in reviving a cultural consensus, a sense of being together in history, should look to the prophets of the Atomic Age for guidance in interpreting and challenging our own time’s technological revolution-in-the-making.

While the Bomb may not find a central place in Douthat’s narrative, it weighed heavily on one of his icons. Douthat calls Reinhold Niebuhr “the most sophisticated interpreter of the American soul at a moment when the United States had suddenly achieved global preeminence, the conscience of a deeply religious nation reckoning with the moral perils of the nuclear age.” Niebuhr himself was deeply concerned with nuclear weapons and saw a deep irony in America’s innocent self-image coupled with its embrace of the atomic bomb. He observed that, in a nuclear conflict, America “would be in danger of destroying itself as a moral culture in the process of defending itself physically.”

Niebuhr’s theology stressed sin’s pervasive influence on human events, and so he rejected idealism in both personal morality and interpersonal ethics. He extended this logic of Original Sin all the way to the affairs of nations, as Douthat puts it, “calling America’s leaders to a sober realism, a reluctant shouldering of adult responsibilities in a world inevitably deformed by sin.” Niebuhr’s rejection of idealism requires a certain attitude of resignation if not quite one of pessimism. Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” is now better known for its use by Alcoholics Anonymous, but it neatly captures his realistic attitude toward nuclear weapons, which like alcoholism seemed to be a chronic problem only partially susceptible to human efforts to manage or correct. In its best-known form, the “Serenity Prayer” reads, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, / Courage to change the things I can, / And wisdom to know the difference.”

One criticism that may be leveled against the “Serenity Prayer” and the resigned realism that it represents is that it acquiesces in the fallen condition of the world and tends to make one complacent, if not complicit therein. This criticism is not incompatible with a simultaneous acknowledgment that the prayer gets something right about our relationship to imperfection. Such seems to be the case with Kurt Vonnegut’s use of the poem in Slaughterhouse-Five, his novel reflecting on his experiences in World War II and the problem of violence.

In the novel, protagonist Billy Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time” and flashes backwards and forwards between different periods in his life, particularly his time in the War and his abduction by the Tralfamadorians, a time-traveling alien race. Because the Tralfamadorians experience every moment in time simultaneously, with no distinction between past, present, and future (“The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains”), they have a fatalistic view of the universe. Their fatalism is summed up by the novel’s refrain, “So it goes,” which is what the Tralfamadorians say whenever someone dies. Vonnegut quotes the “Serenity Prayer” in ironic juxtaposition with Billy’s Tralfamadorian view of time: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change… Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.”

Irony aside, Vonnegut is not rejecting the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer outright. Indeed, while his black humor had always had a pessimistic streak, in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut is more sympathetic toward moral resignation than in his previous novels. At the same time, there are several occasions in Billy Pilgrim’s story where Vonnegut rebels against fatalism and resignation. For example, in one episode of time-travel, Billy has a vision of war running backwards in time, with its implements being disassembled, transformed back into minerals, and buried in the ground. At another place, the narrator confides, “I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres… I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.” Inveighing against “massacre machinery,” the technological dimension of violence, Vonnegut hearkens back to his acerbic third novel, Cat’s Cradle.

Published in 1963, Cat’s Cradle is, among other things, an extended meditation on technological hubris, mankind’s tendency to overstep his ethical limits in his quest to master the natural world. Of course, the atom bomb features prominently. The character Newt Hoenikker, the son of a fictional contributor to the Manhattan Project, gives voice to Vonnegut’s views on the absurdity of technical achievement in the absence of moral constraint. Newt: “[D]o you know the story about Father on the day they first tested a bomb out at Alamagordo? After the things went off, after it was a sure thing that America could wipe out a city with just one bomb, a scientist turned to Father and said, ‘Science has now known sin.’ And do you know what Father said? He said, ‘What is sin?’”

Cat’s Cradle expresses a less temperate, more defiant attitude toward humanity’s self-destructive tendencies than does Slaughterhouse-Five. But while the later work is arguably more mature, the derision and ridicule in Cat’s Cradle are more potent challenges to an image-conscious, hubristic scientific establishment and its entanglement with the military-industrial complex. The novel especially highlights the risk of unintended consequences that attends every technological advancement. This theme is epitomized by the novel’s Ice-Nine: a fictional substance invented to help Marines cross swampy terrain, it ends up freezing all the water on Earth, dooming humanity and all other life on the planet.

Niebuhr and Vonnegut (in his rebellious mood) represent two poles of an intellectual revolt against reckless “progress,” the kind that plunged the world into peril with the creation of the atomic bomb. Alternatively, one might view Niebuhr’s realism as a stable foundation upon which Vonnegut’s aspirational, idealistic critiques can be erected. Aligned as they are across political and religious lines, Niebuhr and Vonnegut are prophetic voices; theirs is a panhuman response to an inhuman weapon. By better understanding the role of technological revolutions in history and the corresponding slow evolution of our ethical paradigms, we can apply the example set by Niebuhr and Vonnegut to new developments in the science of violence. At the same time, this prophetic effort can create space for cultural consensus by uniting humanity against inhumanity, renewing an alliance between realism and idealism.

Ross Douthat, with whose interpretation of the 1950s this reflection began, has written about a different kind of technological revolution, one sparked not by the Bomb but by the Pill. The so-called sexual revolution attended (or perhaps precipitated) what Douthat calls the “Locust Years,” the cultural crackup that followed the halcyon days of the midcentury. In a blog post entitled “Two Ways of Looking at a Revolution,” Douthat writes, “[P]artisans on both sides of the culture wars often tend to think of the sexual revolution as fundamentally a political upheaval, in the style of the Russian or the American Revolutions.”

Douthat urges us to reconsider this interpretation: “But suppose for a moment that we thought of the sexual revolution as something closer to the industrial revolution instead: a shift that was… fundamentally driven by economic and technological changes.” The implications of this alternative reading of the sexual revolution are that both knee-jerk reactionism (social conservatives are “sexual Luddites”) and unchecked enthusiasm (social liberals endorse “sexual laissez-faire”) miss the mark. The point is that our ethical standards take time to catch up to radical technological progress: We invent the steam engine, and it immediately revolutionizes trade and travel; then, it takes us a hundred years to realize that children shouldn’t be working the coal mines. Douthat concludes, “[J]ust as a more balanced view of the industrial revolution managed to acknowledge its benefits while also trying to mitigate its evils, a more balanced view of the sexual revolution would accept some contemporary realities as goods… while also recognizing the crying need to address the revolution’s excesses, disappointments and nasty side effects.”

Of course, there are certain bridges that simply should not be crossed. Arguments about the atomic bomb’s use against Japan aside, it is hard to see the benefits of the Nuclear Revolution in Armaments. Our ethics clearly have not caught up to our technical progress when the use of atomic weapons remains unthinkable while their possession is a practical necessity. We remain, in the words of Omar Bradley, “a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.” While reasonable minds may differ, the world might be better off if the atom had never been split. Of course, most technological revolutions present a mix of ethical situations, those in which the malignant can be severed from the benign and those in which the cancerous tissue must be excised entirely. In such cases, a multivalent response that draws upon both Niebuhrian realism and Vonnegut’s militant idealism could be itself revolutionary.

The ongoing Digital Revolution is one such mixed bag. While there are concerns in other areas, such as the desocializing effects of immersion in virtual media, the most dangerous developments are, unsurprisingly, in the area of weapons technology. Of course, there are some advantages to the digitization of military technologies. For example, precision weapon guidance systems have the potential to minimize collateral damage and civilian causalities. But judging by the results so far, the expansion of robotic warfare may prove to be, like the atom bomb, a Pandora’s Box we wish we had never opened. While there is considerable disagreement about the precise number of casualties (in part because of dubious counting practices such as assuming all adult males in a strike zone to be enemy combatants) American drone strikes in Pakistan have killed dozens, and probably hundreds, of innocent civilians.

Because no American lives are at risk in these operations, they have proved politically expedient. This expediency has enabled the Obama administration to engage in what Niall Ferguson calls an “astonishingly uninhibited use of political assassination.” This illustrates one major ethical concern with remote killings: reducing an operation’s risk cheapens the lives of both the targets and the innocents in the blast radius. Strikes that would be considered strategically insupportable if they required boots-on-the-ground are carried out to deadly effect. What does it say about the justifiability of these killings that those giving the order would not be willing to put themselves or their comrades at risk to follow it? Drones also seem to enable a cavalier attitude toward the rules of war. There seems to be remarkably little reluctance to use drones in nations that are not otherwise considered combat zones, like Pakistan and Yemen, or to use them against American citizens like 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.

Americans have already witnessed the exponential growth of digital technology in many areas. Cell phones, once a status symbol, have now become ubiquitous at the same time that they became infinitely more sophisticated. The Internet has become so pervasive and integrated with the physical world that we truly inhabit a quasi-virtual infosphere layered upon our natural environment. Robotics seems on course to follow this trend. But because of their physicality, drones and micro-drones pose unique challenges. You can log off Facebook anytime, and Siri isn’t packing heat. But if we populate our physical environment with semi-autonomous, weaponized machines (“flying deathbots,” if you prefer), we may live to regret it. Just like the atom bomb, drones could become an everywhere, all-the-time concern.

As the Digital Revolution proceeds, and not just in the area of robotic warfare, we should revive the legacy of Niebuhr and Vonnegut to confront the evil inherent in the technology of violence. Realistically, we cannot halt the march of technological progress. Even if public opposition and political action could dissuade America’s leaders from continuing to develop new weapons technologies, they would be developed elsewhere. But perhaps the balance could be shifted toward developing not 21st-century swords but 21st-century shields, deescalating technologies that would disable and disarm rather than destroy. And perhaps a few idealistic voices can bring attention to the ongoing abuse of America’s technological prowess, as we have devalued the lives of non-citizens in the name of protecting our own.

As always, realism and idealism are interdependent. Idealism needs a realistic foundation because progress towards an ideal always occurs incrementally by practical action, but realism needs idealism to sharpen its powers of discernment between good and evil and to stimulate its latent will for change. Finally, while alarmism is never a catalyst for healthy social change, an increased popular awareness of the pitfalls of technological development—the prospect of a new atom bomb—could create opportunities for a renewed cultural consensus. Because no one wants to bring back Bert the Turtle.

Charlie Clark

Charlie Clark lives in his hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee with his wife Sarah. An alumnus of Dartmouth College and the University of Tennessee College of Law, he works in his family’s fourth-generation scrap metal recycling business. Charlie is a founding editor of Fare Forward and chairman of its board of directors.