Figures of Speech–Dressed for the H Bomb

Figures of Speech–Dressed for the H Bomb

By Allen Tullos

Vol. 5, No. 1, 1983, pp. 1-4

By any reasonable and fair-minded standard, our Southern members of Congress ought to have felt proud of the year they had as military procurers. Here was close to a billion dollars for Lockheed-Georgia’s beginning production of fifty C-5B Air Force transport airplanes, a project ultimately to cost eight billion. Here was the ensconcing of the Rapid Deployment Force at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa and at the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina–a force soon to total nearly 500,000 soldiers. Here were a couple of nuclear powered aircraft carriers (at $3.4 billion each) headed for assembly at Newport News, Virginia; an attack submarine was being named after the city itself. And here and there throughout the South were the scattered small contracts and subcontracts, like that of a few million dollars to Pineville, North Carolina’s Aeronca, Incorporated, to supply titanium engine shrouds for the B-1 bomber.

Nor had the vigilance and resolve of these Southern statesmen gone uncommended. At a convention of mercenaries held late in the year at Charlotte, General William Westmoreland saluted the signs of a rebirth of American fortitude. “The odds of war are exceptionally high in the future,” said the former big gun, “but the route to peace lies in the ability to wage war.” His audience tossed their cannisters in delight.

Despite such achievements and such blessings, and a $230 billion military appropriations bill for 1983, the shrewder members of the Southern delegation felt a few shivers run through their early warning systems. Even before Christmas recess, these congressmen were seen nodding to each other. Nodding turned to huddling and then escalated into closeting.

Simply put, they had two problems: how to justify and

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secure their rightful share of the five year $1.6 trillion military build-up that President Reagan and Secretary of War Weinberger were pursuing, and how to deploy their counterforce to pin down and negate an increasingly bothersome disarmament movement.

When it comes to making military socks and raincoats and to quartering troops, Southern legislators and contractors have long done all right by each other and may well continue to do so (see “Shaping the South’s Pre-War Economy,” Southern Changes, August/September 1982). The South has its congressmen setting on ready in hardened silos of seniority on armed services and appropriations committees. In terms of total payroll for military personnel, six of the top seven states are Southern. The South supplies the War Department with textiles, tobacco, coal and food. Yet, most Southern states, compared with states in other regions of the U.S., sell little weaponry.

Under the Reagan-Weinberger rearmament campaign, an increasingly larger proportion of the total military budget will be spent for weapons. For historical reasons (the old story of Southern defeat and colonialism and their long legacies), the South lacks the highly technical, capital intensive industries which are essential to the new generation of hardware the Pentagon seeks. Economist Ray Marshall has projected, by US Census region, the increase in distribution of military dollars between now and 1986: a growth of thirty-seven percent for the Pacific states, sixteen percent for New England, fourteen percent for the East North Central, but only six percent for the East South Central and four percent for the West South Central states.

There are a few Southern congressmen, perhaps senators Pryor and Bumpers are the leading examples, whose residence in a state at the furthermost periphery of Pentagon contracting seems to have had a bit of a liberating effect. These men have grown more sceptical and more visible in their questioning of budgets. Betty Bumpers has organized a disarmament group–Peace Links (Southern Changes, November/December 1982). Most of the Southern congressional delegation, however, has been trying to find ways to put their fingers on weaponry money while they; maneuver to keep their regular military dependents happy: “We must not let our conventional forces erode,” they say.

Even by the mega-boodle standards of corporate-state war contracting, the hardware that lies within the horizon of the 1980’s is an enormity. By 1985, the Pentagon’s budget (measured in constant, 1972 dollars) will surpass that of both the Korean War and the Vietnam War at their peaks. In the eye of Creation, this is not to be spit at.

Not only does traditional pork barrel profit-taking make the weaponry of rearmament expensive, so does the increasing complexity of the products, and the extraordinary specialized resources–both human and natural–required for production.

In its military or non-military uses, technological change is directed by human values. For some time now, the arms race has been propelled and the world jeopardized by the values of white males with seemingly unlimited appetites for power and vast capacities for suspicion and mistrust. Sophisticated systems of weaponry become antiquated at a faster and faster pace. “Security” keeps sliding away.

The continued unwillingness of nuclear nations to negotiate disarmament has allowed military technicians to continue leaping the fences of invention. As we now stand, state-of-the-art war machinery is lodging itself ever deeper in the nervous system. For patrolling the hostile frontier of the microsecond, tongues and heartbeats have become intolerably slow triggers. B52’s hang on trees, clumsy plums of an outmoded husbandry. Instead, for example, we have hightech’s high refinement, Stealth, a bomber so alienated that radar can’t reach it.

Trends in the actual production of weapons have moved in tandem with the costs and the capabilities of the weapons themselves. Technological modernization (Tech Mod) by means of computer assisted design and manufacture (CAD/CAM) is putting the quietus on the forever flawed and fatigued human element. In the rare Southern locations where these young machines of promise have already elbowed their way, flesh and blood machinists have begun to feel like hand loom weavers in early nineteenth century England. “At Lockheed-Georgia,” observes the trade publication Iron Age (September 1,1981), “The skills of a thirty-year workforce are captured in a numerical control tape. It is relatively easy to train a new employee to load a tape and put material in a machine.” Military contracting dollars shape the speed and direction of capital intensive Tech Mod.

Tech Mod may be the shaper of things to come, but shell South has few manufacturers at the level of Lockheed.

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This circumstance, rather than gun-shyness, makes it a little easier to understand why several Southern congressmen seem to be moving slowly in giving their wholehearted support to portions of Reagan and Weinberger’s proposed new weapons systems. Take the MX missile for instance.

At a late November (1982) news conference in far away Wyoming, that state’s congressional delegation showed sheepish glee. “Senator Malcolm Wallop Brings Home the Big Bang,” read the headline. For a time, one hundred MX missiles, worth from $26 billion to fifty billion dollars, seemed headed West. “I think the MX is going to be great for Cheyenne,” said Mayor Bill Nation. “After all, the military has had a one hundred year relationship with the town, back to the days of the cavalry and old Fort Carlin. I think it’s great.” Blessed was the Peacekeeper.

The South, however, had little to gain from MX. The project’s prime contractors–Martin Marietta, Rockwell, Northrop, Morton Thiokol, Boeing, Aerojet–were located in places like Colorado, California, Massachusetts, Utah and Washington. Realizing their need for Southern friends in high places, these contractors gave their largest campaign contributions for the reelection of Florida Democrat and Appropriations Committee member Bill Chapell ($33,900) and Alabama Republican Bill Dickinson ($19,500), the ranking minority member of the Armed Services Committee.

Despite the contractors’ and the Administration’s efforts, production of the weapon has been postponed. The Reaganites failed to strike sufficient terror or glamor into the hearts of members of Congress to give depressed Americans the Christmas gift of MX. Perhaps the contractors should have thrown a few meaty ribs towards Dixie. Was it coincidence that at the heart of the failure to get MX production underway was the opposition of two key Southern senators?

Coincidence or not, South Carolina’s Ernest Hollings and Georgia’s Sam Nunn leaped on the Administration’s marketing failure with MX, turning it into an opportunity to assume the leadership and vocabulary of the contingent of tough-minded friends of the Pentagon, the ones who do their homework and know the value of a dollar. Here, on the holy ground of American pragmatism, is where the battles for military procurement will be waged in the next few years.

By waving the spangled banner of industriousness, efficiency, accountability and productivity, Hollings and Nunn (and the like-minded from other regions such as Ohio’s John Glenn and at times, even Colorado’s Gary Hart) seem capable of rallying a consensus and shifting the weaponry debate into the reductive calculus of cost-benefit ratios and away from the fundamental questioning of increased armaments and nuclear war policy posed by the disarmament movement. With micro-chip wisdom, comparative casualty counts from this or that weapons system over a spectrum of video war scenarios can now be fleshed out on the head of a pin. At the arcade of nuclear gamesmanship, the hooked players look for a winning strategy and for high and stringent criteria for waging war. Such absurdity masquerades for realism in a world where thousands of warheads yearn for their night on the town.

“Most Americans,” says Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, “have begun to connect military spending not with strength, but with waste.” The ludicrous search for a secure MX basing mode has done much to help the public make the connection. This is where the punch card pragmatists log-on. Senator Hollings, who knows that the winds of this mood may well blow someone into the White House in 1984, recently abandoned his support of the B-1 bomber and led Senate opposition to the Dense Pack MX deployment. “Careful, pragmatic and thoughtful decision making is required,” says Hollings, “if we are to maintain a strong, credible defense posture. Our economy has no room for procurement of a Pentagon wish list.” His solution? Continue Pentagon spending at present levels plus three percent real growth per year.

Having gotten his multi-billion dollar C-5B airplane through Congress for Lockheed and the homefolks, Senator Nunn was also ready to assume the stance of scrutiny. Adapting his lines from the cliche of a television wine commercial, he helped to stymie the MX until such time as it can be properly seasoned. “I’ve never felt,” he patiently vouched, “like we should buy a missile until we know what we’re going to do with it.” Among his colleagues on the Armed Services Committee and on the Hill, the far-seeing Nunn’s opinions wield considerable throw weight. In order to “fight recession,” he is willing to “slash” defense spending by five or six billion dollars.

As an example of an imaginative proposal which Nunn says, “is simply dead in the present sober atmosphere,” he cites Georgia Congressman Larry McDonald’s attempt to ride the publicity plume thrown off by the completion and dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial on the Mall in Washington. McDonald had advanced a military jobs program to trench away at North Georgia’s Etowah Indian Mounds and produce a rubble and bone-filled crater as a monument to World War III. “It should be built now,” McDonald pleaded, “so speeches can justify it and so there will be living tourists to visit it.”

Nunn also disparaged Alabama Senator Jeremiah Denton’s “Project Interface-Off.” This would have posed an unblinking, laser killer satellite eyeball to eyeball in

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space with anything the Soviets chose to send up. Denton is gathering himself for another try.

More to Senator Nunn’s liking was Strom Thurmond’s promotion of a three billion dollar plutonium blender-reactor at South Carolina’s Savannah River Plant where three reactors already produce the weapons grade plutonium that goes into all US nuclear warheads and bombs. “I believe that this reactor will be important to our nation’s production of weapons material and an asset to the state of South Carolina,” says Thurmond, “provided that environmental concerns are properly addressed.” Happily, Thurmond’s cautionary quibble reveals no new found concern for ecology but comes as a theoretical salve to the embarrassingly unpatriotic disclosures of two Atlanta Constitution reporters that residents near the Savannah River Plant have a much higher than normal incidence of Polycythemia vera, a rare blood disease linked to radiation exposure.

Other Southern congressmen have also begun to float on the rising pragmatic tide. Senator J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, a Democratic member of the Appropriations Committee, offers the Multiple Launch Rocket System, a mobile Army weapon that fires a dozen rockets a minute at targets eighteen miles away. He seeks as much of the four billion dollar system for his state as he can swing.

In Florida, St. Petersburg’s Republican Congressman Bill Young, noting that the bikini swimsuit was a spinoff of the atomic testing once done in the Pacific, has proposed that a five hundred square mile section of the Everglades National Wilderness be set aside as a testing range for the new generation of weapons. His eye, and the eyes of several Florida retailers, are fixed on the job-creating and commercial possibilities of the inevitable fashion aftershock. Already, designers are toying with prototypes of the “Everglaze,” a kind of permanent rain- and swimwear fused to the skin.

Even North Carolina Senators Helms and East are coming into phase with their call for authorization of Fayetteville and Fort Bragg’s annual August Heat and Death Festival as the official 1984 World’s Fair, or, in a compromising mood–as a kind of living, flaming monument of the sort Representative McDonald seeks at the Etowah Mounds.

“We like to close all our shows with a good sacred number.” So spoke the leader of minimalist rock band Po’ White Noise one recent night as it rolled through Atlanta from Japhet, Georgia, lingering in a local bar long enough to deliver the lyrics:

I’d rather die a red lizard’s death on a limb Than ascend in that hydrogen cloud. *

*”Lizard On A Limb,” in lieu of copyright, Square Root Music, 1982.

Luckily, Senator Nunn and our elected Southern leadership never heard this cheap shot of a song from this disaffected bunch of street jeremiahs. In the land of promise, a way was opening. Death was the growth industry of the 80’s and Megadeath the final index of productivity. The bacon would yet come home to roost.

Figures of Speech is an occasional feature of Southern Changes which grants the editor temporary license.