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By (March 1, 2014) One Comment

thermonuclear_scarryThermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom
by Elaine Scarry
Norton, 2014

The subject of our great social philosopher Elaine Scarry’s new book Thermonuclear Monarchy is starkly terrifying: the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world and the ability of a very small number of people to unleash those weapons on the rest of humanity if they so choose. Those of Scarry’s readers who are old enough to remember the gnawing daily dread of the prospect of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War will find the subject macabrely familiar, but her younger readers are hardly free of that dread: they – we all – live in post-Cold War world in which an increasing number of nations possess nuclear weapons … and a potentially unlimited number of stateless terrorists who might somehow gain access to them. Those intensely sobering two words, loose nukes, would have made little sense to political commentators in 1964, or 1974 – but in 2014 they represent a danger the 21st century can’t ignore. The ubiquity of these weapons and their almost incomprehensible destructive power seem like a nightmare from which there’s no awakening.

And Scarry argues that the ubiquity isn’t even the worst of that nightmare. The fuel of her long indictment is disproportion: not only what she calls the “out-of-ratio” destructive capability of nuclear weapons but also the grotesque excess of how those weapons get used.  She opens her case by delivering an outline of the staggering scope of the problem, the sheer number of nuclear weapons in the world. She mentions, for instance, the fourteen U.S. Ohio-class submarines currently roaming the world’s oceans, “each carrying the equivalent in injuring power to 4000 Hiroshima blasts,” the very epitome of military overkill:

Each of the fourteen ships carries enough power to destroy the people of an entire continent, to do this as a solo performance, without the assistance of its thirteen fellow ships. The precise arithmetic of this blast power can be hard to keep in mind. But one pair of numbers is easy to grasp: the earth has seven continents; the United States has fourteen Ohio-class submarines.

(She reminds her readers that these vessels usually patrol at depths too great for easy communication and that in the event of absent expected signals, “the commander of a ship during those periods had the ability to launch nuclear weapons without an order from the civilian government”).

To take just one of the world’s nuclear powers, the United States has over 10,000 atomic weapons and currently operates on a first-strike standing, with procedures in place to launch weapons in anticipation of an attack, and these things make Scarry angry. She is in fact a magnificently angry writer, incising her marvelous prose on every page with a cold outrage provoked by offenses to her idealized version of American liberty. The picture she paints – of a world that must be angrily wary every day of these nations (primarily, by simple expedient of preponderance, the United States) with the power to annihilate their entire populace – derives its particular vehemence from the fact that the mechanism of that annihilation is beyond the reach of the general population (both weapon wielder and weapon victim).  This disproportion more than any other incenses her:

Millions of people reside at the receiving end of the injury; only a handful of people reside at the end where the injury is authorized: the voices of millions – both foreign and domestic – are excluded from this zone. Imagine if this structure were reversed: imagine a system of defense whose target of injury was the smallest number of people possible and where information gathering and authorization were distributed to the largest number of people. Does that sentence have an odd ring? Let us hope not, for what it describes is democracy.

That this precisely American slant of democracy has a talismanic strength for Scarry will come as no surprise to anybody who read her scintillating 2002 essay “Citizenship in Emergency” about the passengers of Flight 93, who used a hurried and bare-bones improvisation of representational democracy in order to decide to attack their hijackers and crash their plane into a Pennsylvania field (rather than let it fly on to its destination very likely the U.S. Capital). In that essay, Scarry systematically dismantled the idea that a state of emergency justifies the suspension of due democratic process. That due process is sacred to Scarry, who draws no meaningful distinction between theory and practice. “It would be tempting to think that a country with monarchic arrangements in the real of nuclear war can maintain a more attractive form of government throughout the rest of its civil fabric,” she writes. “That would be a mistake.” A country is its defense mechanisms, she argues.

She inevitably centers on the defense mechanisms of the world’s nuclear titan, the United States, and here she pounds home her points that the existence of a vast nuclear arsenal under the discretion of a tiny handful of people is doubly illegal. First, it flies in the face of the constitutional article requiring the President to obtain the approval of Congress before launching war. That this article has been honored in the breach for the last rough half-dozen U.S. wars matters not at all to Scarry; it’s still her foremost bulwark. And her second legal objection is not only unexpected but canny: she argues that the existence of a hugely destructive arsenal in the hands of a tiny group of Americans is a fundamental violation of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. It’s not a maneuver I’d ever have seen coming, but she does it beautifully:

The Second Amendment is a very great amendment, and coming to know it only through criminals, personal protection against criminals, and the disputed claims of gun clubs seems the equivalent of our coming to know the First Amendment only through pornography … The history of its formulation and invocation makes clear that whatever its relation to the realm of individuals and the private uses they have devised for guns, the amendment came into being primarily as a way of dispersing military power across the entire population. Like voting, like reapportionment, like taxation, what is at stake in the right to bear arms is a just distribution of political power.

“Some will say that the two constitutional provisions presented here – Article I, Section 8, clause II, and the Second Amendment – are not the best tools for dismantling thermonuclear monarchy,” she writes, “To this I say: if these tools look inadequate, that is only because they are at present lying unused on the ground.”

This is stirring stuff, as is Scarry’s optimism – simple and straightforward but a universe away from naive. Those tools against her constitutional monarchy are all-important in her Hobbesian system of distributive power flowing upwards from the people rather than downward from a figure who’s a king in all but name. The ethos here is the same that’s animated all her recent work: a calm and methodical valuing of individual volition over the grabbiness of King George III-style tyranny. She asserts that future generations, looking back at this period of the immediately post-nuclear United States, will marvel that it took the nation so long to re-assert its own basic principles against a swollen executive overreach determined to infantilize the populace and keep it in ignorance. That populace has always had at its hand the constitutional means to retrieve its sovereignty, Scarry writes:

Together, these two provisions place a large brake on the attempt to go to war; they stipulate that the United States cannot begin to injure a foreign population unless reasons can be given that are so persuasive that they survive scrutiny and testing by both the national assembly and the population at large. These provisions were meant to ensure that military authority would be distributed to the whole population. In turn, that distribution was meant to guarantee that the country would remain a democracy, not a tyranny. By setting aside these constitutional provisions, the country gives up the form of government it should rightfully treasure and protect. We give it up whether or not the weapons are ever actually fired.

She traces the history of that form of government Americans should treasure and protect, and these over-lengthy historical discourses are the weakest parts of her book, mainly because they tend to undermine the second half of her coined term. Perhaps she views it as a foregone conclusion that the idea of monarchy is inherently debased, but that would be a strange thought. Her discussed parallels of historical monarchy mostly begin with James II and William and Mary, and this leads her to characterizations like this one (the italics are hers):

War-making, more than any other activity, turned kings into tyrants by permitting them to inflict their personal will on foreign populations. But only modern weapons have allowed vast injuring power to be folded inside the weapon and placed at the personal disposal of the executive. In the past, the king could not act in monolithic solitude because (like American presidents in the preatomic age) he had to convince men to carry the weapons onto the battlefield and convince them to pay for his wars.

“Kings sometimes formed executive armies of ‘standing armies’ that permitted the monarch to act without consulting the population,” she writes, “far from being tolerated, such standing armies sometimes (as in early America) became the occasion for getting rid not just of a particular monarch but the monarchic form of government altogether.” But monarchy has been the governmental form of mankind for 99 percent of its history, and monarchies have been chucked due to maintaining standing armies about four times in seven thousand years. Scarry’s case against the tyrannical overreach of the executive isn’t strengthened by her tendency to idealize democracy; she brings up the first man with a claim to having ruled all of England, Aethelstan, “credited with unifying the island, defending it against external aggressors, and then presiding over it peacefully.” Aethelstan gets praise for instituting the beginnings of the kind of broad-based popular support Scarry esteems, the kind of parliamentary representation she holds as essential to the modern social contract. But Aethelstan in fact had a weapon of vast injuring power at his personal disposal: his kingdom. He poured his writ and authority into the old Danelaw regions like water into a sluice; he imposed ruinous financial penalties on Wales not by means of his bright blue eyes but by means of his chain-mailed soldiers; he invaded Scotland dragging along his easternmost magnates (who had no more been directly threatened by Scotland than they had been by China) and financing the whole thing with extra taxes levied on ordinary citizens who very much didn’t want to pay them.

The advocacy here is that the American people should take up the constitutional safeguards that have always been at their disposal and use them to abolish nuclear monarchy and the nuclear weapons themselves on which it’s based. Scarry clinches the villainy of the nuclear monarchy by hauling in President Nixon, who famously commented that he could pick up the phone in his office and cause the deaths of 70 million people. She chases this with the equally infamous comment of Nixon’s erstwhile acolyte, Dick Cheney, who, when asked why the executive branch isn’t amenable to restraint by the legislative or the judiciary, snarled, “We’ve got the helicopters.” That power-avarice never changes, and as Scarry herself points out, it works first to remove itself from legal challenge. Our author is right to say the average American citizen knows nothing about the extent of the country’s nuclear arsenal; she’s right to say there is no possibility of the Great Plains population storming the gates of the silo locations that still contain live payloads and dismantling the missiles; she’s right to excoriate U.S. presidents who claim to be men of peace and yet continue to advance their country’s covert nuclear proliferation, continue to remain nuclear monarchs even though such power fundamentally violates the Hobbesian social contract. We need excoriations like this one – they brace like tonic. But they have a wistful side, even when presented as fiercely as only Scarry among our current polemicists can do. After all, no nuclear monarch (even when the missiles were catapults) has ever done anything but laugh at articles and amendments, and no nuclear monarch ever will.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.