Armament Anxiety


Missile Envy: The Arms Race and Nuclear War, by Helen Caldicott, M.D., New York: William Morrow, 365 pp. $15.95

Dr. Helen Caldicott is one of the most effective leaders of the antinuclear movement in the United States. Since she joined the ranks of a once-obscure group called Physicians for Social Responsibility and began lecturing in its behalf, the group has achieved national prominence. Now boasting over 30,000 members, PSR sponsors seminars, endorses marches, and provides lobbyists in Washington. Its members have prepared medical school courses that are now required in some universities. Its viewpoint pervades the editorial offices of respected medical journals.

Caldicott's profession is pediatric medicine, but that's not what she spends her time on anymore. After visiting the Soviet Union as a guest of the Soviet Peace Committee in 1979, she relinquished her position at Harvard University to devote herself full-time to crusading against the imminent nuclear apocalypse. Why bother to save children with cystic fibrosis, she argued, if they will be incinerated within the next few years? Missile Envy is Caldicott's latest effort in that campaign.

Caldicott says reassuringly that she has a "hunger for concrete facts" in order to maintain her credibility and to "debate with any person who believes in deterrence." But this hunger does not prevent numerous errors.

Some errors seem to stem from a tenuous knowledge of physics. For example, she states that infrared sensors can penetrate buildings to observe manufacturing activities and that commercial power reactors are the equivalent of bomb factories.

Some errors are misquotations: A one-megaton missile striking a 1000-megawatt power station would allegedly "contaminate an area the size of West Germany," making it uninhabitable for years or even decades. She cites Steven Fetter and Kosta Tsipis, writing in Scientific American in April 1981, for this bit of information. But these scientists in fact conclude there that a ground burst that vaporized a reactor might render one-third of West Germany unfit for habitation for a month or so, under suitable weather conditions.

In other instances, Caldicott uses accurate quotations, but misleadingly fails to place them in perspective. Citing an all-out nuclear war scenario from Ambio (and a worst-case rather than a "conservative" analysis), she dwells on supposed long-term cancer and genetic effects. But she never notes that fewer than 1 percent of the survivors would be afflicted, even with totally inadequate shelter.

Some other contentions made by Caldicott are simply false. If World War II were fought today, she maintains that all of Europe would become a radioactive wasteland because of missiles hitting its nuclear power plants. In the unlikely event that a conventional bombing raid could both breach the containment buildings and destroy the reactors, Fetter and Tsipis still contradict her dire prediction.

References are listed, sprinkled liberally with Ibid., but the text contains no footnote numbers. So it is difficult to check the sources of implausible assertions—for example, that Israel now possesses 200 nuclear weapons. The bibliography is neither neutral nor balanced. The "physical examination" of world arsenals relies almost entirely on the Center for Defense Information, which has consistently opposed US weapons and underestimated Soviet ones.

The muddled and contradictory logic of Missile Envy is even more extraordinary than the factual distortions. In one discussion, Caldicott declares that most Soviet liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) require such lengthy preparation that launch-on-warning would be infeasible. Later, she warns against US deployment of the MX missile on the basis that it might force the Soviets to adopt a launch-on-warning strategy that has purportedly been openly declared. It's difficult to conceive how a policy could at once be infeasible, currently practiced, and a potential future alternative.

In another show of inconsistency, Caldicott avers, on the one hand, that US submarine-launched ballistic missiles are first-strike weapons but elsewhere remarks that they are only good for retaliation. She claims that the B-1 bomber being produced by the US government is already obsolete because the Soviets have had 21 years to devise air defenses against bombers. But she ignores the B-1's utility as a launch platform for cruise missiles—weapons whose accuracy against Soviet targets she earlier acknowledges. She says that in the aftermath of nuclear war, disease-causing bacteria will proliferate wildly. In the ensuing pages, however, she proceeds to claim that an increase in ultraviolet radiation might destroy the pyramid of life by killing microorganisms. It's difficult to have it both ways, but Caldicott seems not to notice the inconsistency of her statements.

Factual and logical challenges to Caldicott's position often have little impact. She herself admits that the essence of her message is emotional. Cold-blooded logic among generals and scientists caused our dilemma, after all, and intellectualization is a defense mechanism that prevents us from confronting the horror of the nuclear threat. According to Caldicott, men who quiz her about errors in the number of missiles instead of meditating on her vision of melted eyeballs have missed the whole point. Let's leave aside intellectual quibbles, urges Caldicott, and diagnose the cause and prescribe the remedy.

Caldicott does not renounce the Reagan concept of the Soviet Union as an evil empire but psychologizes it as a projection. She recounts the long history of American imperialism and points an accusing finger at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories and, even more, at profit-hungry corporations. The machinations of the Central Intelligence Agency receive 14 entries in the index; the Soviet Union's KGB is not listed once.

As a "neutral" born in Australia, Caldicott does not absolve the Soviets of all blame. The initially "reasonable man" Stalin did cause the collapse of the "grand ideals upon which that [Russian] revolution was based." Since then, the Soviets continue to be guilty of occasional misdeeds, as in Afghanistan, though she has four different explanations for the Korean Airlines mishap.

On lecture tours, she has in the past reassured the audience that the Soviets have never been accused of violating a treaty involving nuclear armaments. In Missile Envy she adopts a more-symmetrical stance—both the United States and the Soviet Union have been accused of violations, but nothing substantial has been proved. Once I had the opportunity to ask her about other treaties (the United Nations Charter, the Helsinki Accords, the Yalta Agreement, the Geneva ban on bacteriological and chemical warfare, etc.): "You see, you are angry with the Russians," was her reply.

Misdirected emotions, and our defenses against appropriate emotions, explain the pathogenesis of our terminal illness, according to Caldicott. She gives illustrations of such Freudian mechanisms as displacement, repression, denial, and above all, projection. The United States has projected onto Russia our hatred of Nazi Germany, our anger at Iran, our nuclear capabilities, our plans for a counterforce strike, our intentions of nuclear blackmail, and our own "dark side."

The diagnosis is clear, as is the remedy. Nationalistic defenses are, in Caldicott's view, extensions of Freudian ego defenses. They must be broken down, not augmented. More-precise conventional explosives—"indiscriminate," "near nuclear" bombs that do not produce radiation or fallout—might violate the Geneva convention. Civil defense receives the usual unsubstantiated ridicule.

Defensive weapons are the subject of the most egregious misinformation in the book. Caldicott describes the High Frontier project, wrongly attributed to Edward Teller, as a fantastic Star Wars scheme to generate laser beams from nuclear explosions in space. In actuality, High Frontier has explicitly rejected the use of nuclear devices and proposes to destroy opponents' nuclear warheads with mundane kinetic energy: the weapons of David against those of the Philistine giant Goliath.

Missiles, and projection, are primarily masculine problems in Caldicott's book. Even the great Sigmund Freud was afflicted. As Caldicott's chosen title, Missile Envy, suggests, Freud projected onto women the male sexual inadequacy that has resulted in violence throughout the ages as well as the current arms race. Unable to create life, men delight in destroying it.

Part of the male pathology results from conditioning and part from hormones. Androgens cause aggressiveness, big muscles, and body hair. Female hormones cause atrophy of the testicles and loss of body hair. They make men "softer and more sensitive psychologically."

To heal the world, then, requires a shift to feminine weapons—submissiveness and apparent weakness. When Caldicott has a conflict with her husband, she says, she always wins by abandoning her selfish needs and making herself vulnerable. Once, she recounts, when faced with a hostile audience, she "capitulated totally" and thereby "deflated" them. Extending these conflict resolution skills to the world situation: if tens of thousands of people were to lie down in front of Soviet tanks, "what could they do?" Admirable past precedent for unilateralism, writes Caldicott, was Kennedy's moratorium on nuclear testing, which inspired the Russians to follow suit—until they were ready for another test, but that's a fact that Caldicott seems to have repressed.

As Freud realized, one response to envy is to cut off that which is envied. Disarmament. Just do away with the projectiles. Caldicott proceeds further: if we deny our egos, there will be no need for ego defenses.

While giving credit to Jesus Christ for being a brilliant psychologist, Caldicott herself is not merely the world's psychoanalyst. She calls on people to follow her in becoming like Atlas, saying "I will save the earth" (emphasis in original).

Will her therapy make us like Atlas, holding up the world? Or like another giant, Samson, who brought it down, assuring destruction of himself along with the Philistines? Caldicott proposes the ultimate female weapon, Samson's undoing: Delilah's scissors.

Jane Orient is a practicing physician in Tucson, Arizona, and the vice-president of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness.