Right now, America is the world's only acknowledged superpower, almost
militarily omnipotent, and able to call the shots on global politics. In
the past year, we've launched cruise missiles at Iraq, Afghanistan, the
Sudan, and Serbia. Last week, a tragic, hard-to-comprehend targeting error
resulted in several of these missiles blowing up the Chinese embassy in
Belgrade. America's strategy has been to use cruise missiles for military
retaliation against dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan
Milosevic, as well as terrorists like Omar Bin Laden. Our high technology
superiority allows us to selectively punish those nations or leaders we
deem guilty, without risking the lives of pilots and aircrews on dangerous
bombing missions. All things considered, from our point of view it is a
peachy way to wage war. The dark side is it can make the men and women who
lead us believe themselves invulnerable, almost godlike in their impunity.
Those countries against which we use these weapons generally have no
similar capability of retaliation, though we believe North Korea and Iran
are developing embryonic intercontinental missile delivery capabilities.
To forestall that possibility, our congress recently voted funds for the
development of a limited missile defense system, better known by the
now-discarded name, "Star Wars." Yup, we're going to design, test,
manufacture, and place on-line a rocket defense system that will detect and
shoot down incoming nuclear missiles from North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya,
Yugoslavia, or even China. It is supposed to render America safe from all
the smaller bad guys out there, though it does abrogate a treaty we made
with the Russians not to do such a thing when we and they agreed on nuclear
disarmament. Somehow, though, as a former physicist who learned long ago
not to believe completely in the infallibility of science and technology,
to place something less than utter faith in managers and company
vice-presidents, and to listen in cerebral disbelief when politicians
postured, I'm concerned.
Without much logic or connection, something way back in my past comes to
mind, and I remember a much beloved film with some wonderfully human
creatures in it. The Wizard of Oz, made in 1939, was a classic movie I
hope lasts forever, but the Wizard turned out to be a gentle humbug. This
benevolent fraud, incapable of protecting anyone, was finally exposed by
Toto, a small, feisty dog who showed him to be a bumbling, well-meaning
charlatan. Since I saw that movie at the age of nine, the only thing I
ever totally trusted was my frogman rubber boat crew. Every man in it
could be depended on to tell the truth and paddle as hard as I did.
Without any intention to carp or be negative, an attitude that is
considered politically incorrect and unacceptable these days, I think it's
worth mentioning that the last six satellites our Defense Department tried
to put in orbit failed to get there. They all, it's true, got off the
ground, but one was blown up a few miles from the launch pad and the rest
ended up in useless orbits. It makes you wonder. These missions, with a
satellite on-board worth half a billion bucks or more each, were important
and carefully run. What's more, our contractors simply intended to park
their payloads somewhere safely up in space in the appropriate orbit.
Their route and the timing in getting there weren't of special importance.
They weren't trying, as our Star Wars defense system must do, to meet a
missile streaking in at 3,600 miles an hour, get close in the limited time
before it reaches us, detonate a payload at precisely the right moment, and
destroy the attacking rocket.
Now that's a neat trick, particularly if you want to nullify every enemy
missile coming at you, and I get really uncomfortable when I think of that
string of six consecutive satellite launching failures. My own guess as an
aging, but still bright and highly realistic physicist, is we'd better make
our peace on earth, rather than depend on its guarantee using Star Wars.
There's a lot of sky up there, and bullets and defensive missiles don't
take up much space. The duck hunters and trap shooters among us rarely
talk about how easy it is, and they are ready, guns up and safety off,
waiting for their target to come. Besides, ducks haven't even hit
supersonic velocity yet!
Now, it isn't hard at all for me to say as a scientist, with a very high
probability of being right, that an operational, practical Star Wars system
capable of destroying 90% of all incoming missiles isn't going to work.
That's why I'd suggest our militant leaders consider bombing Serbia a whole
lot less and negotiate a whole lot more. And where, oh where, is our
fearless Toto to pull the curtains back and expose these Wizards for the
shams they are? The path through history is a tragic journey when you
wander from the yellow brick road.
Has anyone heard how soon we're going to take out the Russian embassy in
Sam Orr firstname.lastname@example.org