34 officers responsible for managing U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles are suspected of having cheated on a test of their knowledge of how to handle an "emergency war order" that would result in the launch of a nuclear weapon.
Are we seeing the dangerous development of anomie in the operation of our doomsday machine?
In addition to the current cheating scandal, recall last year's story reporting how the commander of the ballistic missile units, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, was fired for drunken and inappropriate behavior while on a security delegation in Russia.
Now as of last week, two officers overseeing nuclear missiles at a Montana air-base are reportedly under investigation for "involvement in illegal drugs, " according to the LATimes.
The AP quotes internal email from Lt. Col. Jay Folds saying that "we are, in fact, in a crisis right now." Folds was commenting on a March inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., which earned the equivalent of a "D" grade when tested on its mastery of Minuteman III missile launch operations, according to the CBS story.
The group's deputy commander said it is suffering "rot" within its ranks.
Earlier this month, Defense Sec. Chuck Hegel diagnosed the "rot" in an interview with the LATimes:
They [air force personnel assigned to operating nuclear missile silos and other nuclear facilities] do feel unappreciated many times. They are stuck out in areas where not a lot of attention is paid. And I know they wonder more than occasionally if anybody's paying attention.French sociologist Emile Durkheim identifies the social disorder of "anomie", wherein rapid changes in the standards and values of societies lead members to feel alienated from the purposes that had been rationalized by an earlier, antiquated ideology. The conditions for anomie are apparently ripe among US missilers. Following WWII, these missile sites were rationalized under the ideology of total war, and mutually assured destruction of contending superpowers. Today, the US faces no such imminent threat from nuclear adversaries. Yet the instruments of that ideology remain in place, along with a community of alienated operators.
Are the military units operating these sites plagued by anomie?
Cheating behavior is indeed linked to anomie.
But another study has found links between such cheating and other attitudes and dispositions that appear to be prevalent on the missile bases: disposition to use drugs and alcohol, a low regard for ideals of conduct. And then there's this: this same study suggests that cheating propensity is most conspicuous among those least committed to the ethical principal of doing no harm to others. Perhaps that particular ethical principal might be downplayed in a community tasked with terminating civilizations upon command.
Is the problem best understood as Durkheim's anomie, or the ethical vacuum surrounding sites prepared to decimate human societies, or as a combination of these? Regardless, following Hegel's remark, perhaps we should be paying closer attention to the demoralized operators. And sending flowers or mittens is probably not the attention needed. It's US policy that needs attention: we should be taking the lead in highlighting the antiquated and unethical logic of maintaining an international regime of doomsday machines.