Should Presidents Be Required To Physically Murder An Aide In Order To Launch Nukes?

Analysis
Photoillustration/AP Images/Getty Images

So I got to thinking last night, as I do every couple of years: What if, in order to access the codes he needs to authenticate his identity and order a launch of nuclear missiles, the president of the United States of America had to personally kill a man with a meat cleaver?


No, seriously, this is a possibility that the military has considered before. Bear with me.

Pretty much ever since North Korea became a nuclear power in 2005, started underground testing, and crowned a new, squat dictator, Americans have lived again with a once-quaint Cold War idea: Unprecedented nuclear devastation could begin whenever an unpredictable, undeterrable rogue world leader wanted it. And that was before last night, when President Donald Trump tweeted his now-notorious boast to Kim Jong Un about the size of the presidential, uh, nuclear button.

Trump being Trump and Twitter being Twitter, that tweet sent pundits — professional and armchair alike — into frantic swoons about brinkmanship and U.S. nuclear command authority. They have a point: America is the most powerful (and powerfully armed) nation in human history, and in this interconnected society of 320 million citizens, built over a quarter-millennium of constitutional rule, we invest the power to literally blow up civilization in a single human: namely, whichever dark-suited, heavily bankrolled character wins the most purplish states in an election every four years.

That flurry of media angst sent me back to an old idea I’d first learned about in a grad-school study of nuclear strategy, put forward in a 1981 speech by arms negotiator Roger Fisher, reprinted that year in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Fisher, who’d crewed a B-17 bomber in World War II and later advised NATO military officers on strategic decision-making, was no wilting flower when it came to war — but he feared leaders who seemed aloof to war’s costs. So he floated “an early arms control proposal” to counter what he called “the problem of distancing” that a president might have when considering the nuclear option:

There is a young man, probably a Navy officer, who accompanies the President. This young man has a black attaché case which contains the codes that are needed to fire nuclear weapons. I could see the President at a staff meeting considering nuclear war as an abstract question. He might conclude: “On SIOP Plan One, the decision is affirmative, Communicate the Alpha line XYZ.” Such jargon holds what is involved at a distance.

My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.

It may sound bizarre as hell, but this idea bubbles up in the national conversation every couple of years, whenever someone starts talking about using nukes as a serious policy instrument. A lot of commentators believe that Fisher’s proposal would be horrible for the credibility of American nuclear deterrence; at least, that’s how the first U.S. military planners responded when he told them about it:

When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.”

The Pentagon planners’ assumption is clear: Most presidents couldn’t bring themselves to cleave a man’s chest cavity with their own hands… or, at least, they’d need a couple of minutes and a stiff drink. The notion of physically bludgeoning someone to death in cold blood and then mutilating the body really bothers most people.

Good, Fisher seems to say to that: If close-in murder bothers you so much, then maybe immolating millions with fission reactions and salting the earth with cesium-137 should bother you, like, at least that much. It’s supposed to be a little absurd, like Jonathan Swift’s old 1729 essay, “A Modest Proposal,” a master class on satire in which he argues that to end Irish overpopulation and poverty, everybody should eat Irish babies.

All in all, I think Fisher’s proposal is a good exercise in circumspection about nuclear conflict. I used to think it was a pretty good idea to put into practice, too, for the same reason I also once favored televising executions: a belief that Americans would be more educated — and circumspect, if not hesitant — about killing in their name if they had to witness it, participate in it. But in an era where our kids make a YouTube millionaire out of an idiot who goes hunting for the corpses of suicides, I’ve had to seriously lower my expectations of humanity.

Maybe you were already thinking about this stuff months ago, when the penultimate episode of HBO’s The Leftovers aired. In that episode, viewers see “the Fisher protocol” in action when a president has to hack into the heart of his twin to get his atomic apocalypse on:

HBO screenshot via Paste Magazine

How did that POTUS resolve the sticky situation? Uh, well…

HBO screenshot via Showsnob

What’s your take on the “Fisher protocol”: Useful moral exercise, urgently needed safeguard, bleeding-heart fantasy, or an invitation to elect presidents with an urge for meat-sculpting where their scruples should be? Tell us what you think — in the comments below, or with an email to editor@taskandpurpose.com.

In this June 16, 2018 photo, Taliban fighters greet residents in the Surkhroad district of Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan. (Associated Press/Rahmat Gul)

While the U.S. military wants to keep roughly 8,600 troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban's deputy leader has just made clear that his group wants all U.S. service members to leave the country as part of any peace agreement.

"The withdrawal of foreign forces has been our first and foremost demand," Sirajuddin Haqqani wrote in a story for the New York Times on Thursday.

Read More
U.S. soldiers inspect the site where an Iranian missile hit at Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province, Iraq January 13, 2020. (REUTERS/John Davison)

In the wee hours of Jan. 8, Tehran retaliated over the U.S. killing of Iran's most powerful general by bombarding the al-Asad air base in Iraq.

Among the 2,000 troops stationed there was U.S. Army Specialist Kimo Keltz, who recalls hearing a missile whistling through the sky as he lay on the deck of a guard tower. The explosion lifted his body - in full armor - an inch or two off the floor.

Keltz says he thought he had escaped with little more than a mild headache. Initial assessments around the base found no serious injuries or deaths from the attack. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted, "All is well!"

The next day was different.

"My head kinda felt like I got hit with a truck," Keltz told Reuters in an interview from al-Asad air base in Iraq's western Anbar desert. "My stomach was grinding."

Read More
A U.S. military vehicle runs a Russian armored truck off the road in Syria near the Turkish border town of Qamishli (Video screencap)

A video has emerged showing a U.S. military vehicle running a Russian armored truck off the road in Syria after it tried to pass an American convoy.

Questions still remain about the incident, to include when it occurred, though it appears to have taken place on a stretch of road near the Turkish border town of Qamishli, according to The War Zone.

Read More
(U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

We are women veterans who have served in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. Our service – as aviators, ship drivers, intelligence analysts, engineers, professors, and diplomats — spans decades. We have served in times of peace and war, separated from our families and loved ones. We are proud of our accomplishments, particularly as many were earned while immersed in a military culture that often ignores and demeans women's contributions. We are veterans.

Yet we recognize that as we grew as leaders over time, we often failed to challenge or even question this culture. It took decades for us to recognize that our individual successes came despite this culture and the damage it caused us and the women who follow in our footsteps. The easier course has always been to tolerate insulting, discriminatory, and harmful behavior toward women veterans and service members and to cling to the idea that 'a few bad apples' do not reflect the attitudes of the whole.

Recent allegations that Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie allegedly sought to intentionally discredit a female veteran who reported a sexual assault at a VA medical center allow no such pretense.

Read More
A cup of coffee during "tea time" discussions between the U.S. Air Force and Japanese Self-Defense Forces at Misawa Air Base, Japan, Feb. 14, 2018 (Air Force photo / Tech. Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton)

Survival expert and former Special Air Service commando Edward "Bear" Grylls made meme history for drinking his own urine to survive his TV show, Man vs. Wild. But the United States Air Force did Bear one better recently, when an Alaska-based airman peed in an office coffee maker.

While the circumstances of the bladder-based brew remain a mystery, the incident was written up in a newsletter written by the legal office of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on February 13, a base spokesman confirmed to Task & Purpose.

Read More