So now we (or at least the 0.03% of us who care to hunt for it) discover that U.S. military spending is not actually being cut at all, but increasing. Also going up: U.S. nuclear weapons spending. Some of the new nukes will violate treaties, but the entire program violates the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which requires disarmament, not increased armament. The U.S. policy of first-strike and the U.S. practice of informing other nations that “all options are on the table” also violate the U.N. Charter’s ban on threatening force.
But do nuclear weapons, by the nature of their technology, violate the U.S. Constitution? Do they violate the basic social contract and all possibility of self-governance? Thus argues a new book called Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom by Elaine Scarry. It’s not unheard of for people to see out-of-control nuclear spending as a symptom of out-of-control military spending, itself a symptom of government corruption, legalized bribery, and a militaristic culture. Scarry’s argument suggests a reversal: the root of all this evil is not the almighty dollar but the almighty bomb.
The argument runs something like this. The primary purpose of the social contract is to create peace and prevent war and other injury. The U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8, clause 11) bans the making of war without the approval of both houses of Congress. This approval was to be required not just for an existing military to attack another country, but for a military to be raised at all — standing armies not being anticipated. And it was understood that an army would not be raised and deployed into war unless the citizen-soldiers went willingly, their ability to dissent by desertion not needing to be spelled out (or, let us say, their ability to dissent by mass-desertion, as desertion in the war that led to the Constitution was punished by death).
And yet, because this point was so crucial to the entire governmental project, Scarry argues, it was in fact spelled out — in the Second Amendment. Arms — that is 18th century muskets — were to be freely distributed among the people, not concentrated in the hands of a king. “Civilian” control over the military meant popular control, not presidential. The decision to go to war would have to pass through the people’s representatives in Congress, and through the people as a whole in the form of soldiers who might refuse to fight. By this thinking, had the Ludlow Amendment, to create a public referendum before any war, passed in the 1930s, it would have been redundant.
Before the 1940s were over, in Scarry’s view, a Ludlow Amendment wouldn’t have been worth the paper it was written on, as the existence of nuclear weapons erases Constitutional checks on war. With nuclear weapons, a tiny number of people in a government — be it 1 or 3 or 20 or 500 — hold the power to very quickly and easily kill millions or billions of human beings, and other species, and very likely themselves in the process. “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both,” said Louis Brandeis. We may have democracy, or we may have thermonuclear bombs, but we can’t have both, says Elaine Scarry.