James Carroll: The Pentagon as President Obama’s Great White Whale

There’s finally good news when it comes to the renewal of the Faith. I’m talking, of course, about the nuclear faith. In case you happen to have forgotten, that’s the Cold War belief that a U.S. arsenal big enough to destroy several Earth-sized planets and on a hair-trigger alert remains crucial to the preservation of the American way of life and, at a more mundane level, that an Air Force career as a “missileer” isn’t a dead-end path in a terrorism obsessed century.

For years, it’s seemed like sitting in a silo in the American West with your proverbial finger on the trigger might be the definition of military meaninglessness. And it can’t have helped that, early in his first term, President Obama committed himself to banishing from the planet the very weapons the missileers were guarding and preparing to launch one of these days, or that there had even been discussions inside the Pentagon about shrinking the force. Talk about corrosive or, as one deputy commander of operations and missileer put it, a “rot” in the ranks! In religious terms, think of this as a loss of confidence among the military priesthood in what had once been the Only True Faith, and a fear that “thinking the unthinkable” — as it was called in the nuclear arsenal’s Cold War heyday — might someday actually become unthinkable.

As a spate of news articles in recent years has indicated, the “rot” has been all too real. There was that widely reported “cheating” scandal when it came to nuclear “proficiency” exams resulting in the axing of nine Air Force commanders; there were those nuclear weapons flown across the U.S. by mistake, those missile silo blast doors left open while their guards slept soundly, and those suspensions of missileers for “incompetence,” drug problems, and sexual harassment, among other issues.

There was the firing of a general in charge of “three wings of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles with 450 ICBMs” for “misconduct” while in Moscow, including gross and repeated drunkenness, “associating” with two women who might have been spies, offending his hosts, and so on. There was even a distinctly Biblical “infestation” of rats in a force reputedly “rusting its way to disarmament.”