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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

How Team Sports Prepare Us for the End of the World 

You are certainly aware of the heroic efforts by a number of retired generals to hasten the resignation of Don the Dom Rumsfeld, and the threats by a number of not-yet-retired generals to resign their commissions if the option of a nuclear first strike on Iraq is not taken off the table. (Mr. Bush on Tuesday: "All options remain on the table.") We are deeply gratified to see the Pentagon serving as a moderating influence on the White House, although we are not at all pleased to find ourselves in the sort of circumstances that enable us to make such a statement with a straight face.

For trenchant commentary on the buildup to elective war in Iraq, we direct you to our eminent colleagues Digby (who suspects that de facto war is already well underway); Chris Floyd (who reads the "war on terror" as phase one of a larger, long-term conflict with emerging superpowers China and India); and Billmon (who fears that we are witnessing a classic example of flucht nach vorne, or "flight forward," the gambler's urge that leads to increased recklessness in times of desperation -- it's so crazy it just might work!!) While you are visiting Billmon be sure to click through to the damage estimates from both the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Academy of Sciences, and the flash animation that shows the spread of fallout from a single tactical bunker-buster.

When you are done contemplating the catalogue of horrors that would result from even a limited nuclear strike, and have begun to wonder what sort of murderous moral cretins might entertain, even for a moment, the prospect of unleashing such havoc on their fellow human beings, come back to King of Zembla for some dime-store, dollar-book psychology. Our text for today is that Zemblan standby The Rise of the Vulcans, by James Mann, which includes this telling portrait of monsters in their youth:
At least once a year during the 1980s Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld vanished. Cheney was working diligently on Capitol Hill, as a congressman rising through the ranks of the Republican leadership. Rumsfeld, who had served as Gerald Ford's Secretary of Defense, was a hard-driving business executive in the Chicago area—where, as the head of G. D. Searle & Co., he dedicated time and energy to the success of such commercial products as Nutra-Sweet, Equal, and Metamucil. Yet for periods of three or four days at a time no one in Congress knew where Cheney was, nor could anyone at Searle locate Rumsfeld. Even their wives were in the dark; they were handed only a mysterious Washington phone number to use in case of emergency.

After leaving their day jobs Cheney and Rumsfeld usually made their way to Andrews Air Force Base, outside Washington. From there, in the middle of the night, each man—joined by a team of forty to sixty federal officials and one member of Ronald Reagan's Cabinet—slipped away to some remote location in the United States, such as a disused military base or an underground bunker. A convoy of lead-lined trucks carrying sophisticated communications equipment and other gear would head to each of the locations.

Rumsfeld and Cheney were principal actors in one of the most highly classified programs of the Reagan Administration. Under it U.S. officials furtively carried out detailed planning exercises for keeping the federal government running during and after a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The program called for setting aside the legal rules for presidential succession in some circumstances, in favor of a secret procedure for putting in place a new "President" and his staff. The idea was to concentrate on speed, to preserve "continuity of government," and to avoid cumbersome procedures; the speaker of the House, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and the rest of Congress would play a greatly diminished role . . . .

The outline of the plan was simple. Once the United States was (or believed itself about to be) under nuclear attack, three teams would be sent from Washington to three different locations around the United States. Each team would be prepared to assume leadership of the country, and would include a Cabinet member who was prepared to become President. If the Soviet Union were somehow to locate one of the teams and hit it with a nuclear weapon, the second team or, if necessary, the third could take over.

This was not some abstract textbook plan; it was practiced in concrete and elaborate detail. Each team was named for a color—"red" or "blue," for example—and each had an experienced executive who could operate as a new White House chief of staff. The obvious candidates were people who had served at high levels in the executive branch, preferably with the national-security apparatus. Cheney and Rumsfeld had each served as White House chief of staff in the Ford Administration. Other team leaders over the years included James Woolsey, later the director of the CIA, and Kenneth Duberstein, who served for a time as Reagan's actual White House chief of staff . . . .

"One of the awkward questions we faced," one participant in the planning of the program explains, "was whether to reconstitute Congress after a nuclear attack. It was decided that no, it would be easier to operate without them." For one thing, it was felt that reconvening Congress, and replacing members who had been killed, would take too long . . . . The Reagan Administration's primary goal was to set up a chain of command that could respond to the urgent minute-by-minute demands of a nuclear war, when there might be no time to swear in a new President under the regular process of succession, and when a new President would not have the time to appoint a new staff. The Administration, however, chose to establish this process without going to Congress for the legislation that would have given it constitutional legitimacy.
Aficionados of college basketball are familiar with the tradition of "Senior Day," usually the last home playdate of the season, when graduating benchwarmers get to start in place of more talented underclassmen. It's a way for coaches to honor the practice players who have given their time, sweat and dedication to the team without ever setting foot in the limelight. Emotions, needless to say, run high. For a four-year scrub whose playing time has been restricted to the last two minutes of blowouts, starting the final game -- and basking, at last, in the applause of appreciative fans -- represents a minor apotheosis.

Rumsfeld and Cheney have spent much of their adult lives hunkered down in reinforced rabbit-holes practicing for Armageddon, and now they're old, and their health is dodgy, and their careers will soon be coming to an end, and still Armageddon hasn't come.

But they've lived all these years with the threat of Armageddon. It's part of their daily lives. They've made friends with it. At this point, they may be unable to imagine a world that's not on the verge of Armageddon.

And why would they want to? All those years of practice, and no reward? For their hard work and sacrifice? No moment of glory? No Senior Day?

Come on, coach! Let me show you what I can do. Put me in the bunker!!

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