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In his eloquent reappraisal of the anti-war beliefs that have undergirded his entire adult life, James Carroll concludes that the war in Ukraine—as a blunt reminder that humanity remains perched on the edge of nuclear apocalypse—offers a rare opportunity for a renewed push for nuclear disarmament. 

So how likely is it that the American national security community, and the senior leadership of the U.S. military, in particular, would support the kind of bold steps that Carroll calls for? 

The first impulse is to scoff that the chances are infinitesimal.

Beginning with the Baruch Plan in 1946, wariness toward arms control has been an article of faith in American politics. The noteworthy successes—the ABM and INF treaties, SALT, START—seem unlikely to be repeated if they require the consent of the contemporary conservative movement, which is not known to be keen on nuanced solutions to thorny geopolitical problems. If anything, that faction, with its “America First” neo-isolationism, clings more than ever to the delusion of an atomic Maginot Line behind which the United States can withdraw. 

There are certainly many in the armed forces who share those hawkish views, from the humblest private to the most decorated general. But not all. 

Over the past few tumultuous years, senior U.S. military officers, both active and retired, have shown a surprising willingness to breach longstanding protocols in order to protect the republic from what they rightly viewed as grave threats. From reducing the risk of war with North Korea, Iran, and China, to rejecting calls to deploy U.S. military forces to quell domestic dissent, we have been treated to a Strangelove-in-reverse scenario of sober generals restraining their reckless civilian superiors. 

After Mattis and Kelly’s astonishing “babysitting pact,” and Mark Milley’s brow-raising backchannels both to his Chinese counterpart and to Nancy Pelosi, is it so unthinkable that the current crop of American military leaders—including Milley, who continues to serve, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, another retired four-star—might be willing to contemplate other bold new measures to secure the safety of the country and the world?

Lest we forget, it was Ronald Reagan, a revered foreign policy hardliner, who, with Mikhail Gorbachev, proposed the most sweeping nuclear disarmament plan in history, and together almost brought it to fruition. 

One can quibble over the uselessness of “almost,” which famously counts only in horseshoes (and hydrogen bombs). But the mere fact that an archconservative like Reagan was willing to pursue disarmament is an encouraging precedent. That very reputation, of course, also made him better equipped to sell the idea, both to Congress and the public, than his predecessor Jimmy Carter, on the principle that only-Nixon-could-go-to-China. 

The senior leadership of the U.S. military is uniquely positioned to pursue a similar path in the present moment.

Carroll promotes the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as a framework, noting that new technology offers increased possibilities for compliance and verification, reducing the reliance on good faith and any sort of international umpire. The respect and esteem in which the American people consistently hold our armed forces year in and year out make it the premier institution—maybe the only one—whose endorsement of such plans would assuage public anxiety. He also suggests new limits on the U.S. President’s single-handed authority to initiate a nuclear war, something that is actually quite easy to imagine the Pentagon getting behind.

The “military,” of course, is not a monolith. In contrast to the cool heads listed above, one has seen the opposite impulse from retired generals like Mike Flynn and Don Bolduc, or retired colonel Doug Mastriano, to name a few. Neither wisdom nor folly is an automatic companion of rank, nor experience. 

Which faction will prevail? Part of the answer will hinge on which civilian leaders hold power following the upcoming elections and have the opportunity to pick the uniformed leadership.

It is often difficult in the moment to recognize when one is at a crossroads. In the 1991 Gulf War, I was a lowly tactical intelligence officer in a parachute infantry regiment of the 82nd Airborne, rolling through the Iraqi desert beneath an air campaign that left smoldering charcoal where an enemy army once stood. I can assure you that none of us thought that operation would lead to the attacks of 9/11, or a second invasion of Iraq, let alone set off the cascade of events that would bring us to where we are today, with the threat of homegrown autocracy menacing the republic from within, and a land war in Europe threatening the first combat use of nuclear weapons since Nagasaki. I venture to say that none of our bemedaled senior leaders thought so either.

Similarly, the war in Ukraine will surely have vast unforeseen consequences. What is partially within our control is whether any of those consequences will be positive. 

Watching how a malevolent sociopath can, almost singlehandedly, bring the world to the brink of armageddon ought to offer a refreshed awareness of the senseless fragility of the nuclear balance of terror. No competent military professional can observe that and believe that the current system is advisable, or that a renewed arms race is the solution.

Carroll reminds us that in 1945—following the only two uses of atomic weapons on human beings in history—a consensus of U.S. national security mandarins, including Secretary of War Henry Stimson and all the multi-starred members of the Joint Chiefs, met favorably with the idea that international control of such weaponry was the only sane way forward. It’s a fact so at odds with contemporary American orthodoxy that it’s hard to fathom—forgotten, as Carroll says, even by national defense professionals. One of the most chilling moments in his essay is when he recalls researching his 2006 book House of War, and asking both Arthur Schlesinger and Robert McNamara about the Stimson proposal. “Neither of them had ever heard of it.” 

In the 77 years since, history has been so thoroughly rewritten, and American public opinion on arms control moved so far to the right, that any suggestion of international custody of nuclear weapons elicits only snorts of contempt and accusations of starry-eyed naïveté. 

But times change. 

It will certainly demand great boldness and moral courage for the men and women atop the military pyramid to embrace stringent new arms control measures. It will require bucking reactionary public opinion and the allure of ill-conceived tough-guy solutions, and defying deeply ingrained impulses of the military culture itself. But it’s not beyond the realm of imagination. After all, the Overton window can move or it would not be a window at all, except one that has been painted shut.

We may soon learn whether, off the horror of Ukraine, the senior leaders of the much-admired American military are visionary enough to take a revolutionary stand in the interest of global peace and U.S. national security.

Which, after all, is their job.

Robert Edwards is a writer based in New York City (blogging at The King’s Necktie), and a former U.S. Army infantry and intelligence officer who served in Germany in the 1980s and Iraq during the Persian Gulf War.

Click here to read James Carroll’s six-part series reckoning with nuclear weapons, peace activism, and war in Ukraine.