As we grapple with the legal, political, and cultural implications of drone warfare and targeted killing, the renowned anthropologist draws on an older turning point in military ethics—weapons design at Los Alamos.
Photo courtesy George Mason University
Although the power to target “enemies” abroad who pose threats to national security has long been exercised by U.S. governments with little regard for civilian casualties, the Obama administration has ushered in a new era in which the targeted killing of individuals has become an open feature of our military strategy and national security agenda. Some hail the use of drone technology to kill suspected insurgents as a moral alternative to traditional warfare. This claim is bolstered by well-choreographed government leaks that paint a picture of precision (despite the fact that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a strike are labeled combatants) and restraint (other nations will surely come to acquire this technology).
In light of this political climate, the observations of anthropologist Hugh Gusterson on an older turning point in military ethics—the development of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos—are prescient and pressing. A pioneer in the anthropology of science and current professor at George Mason University, Gusterson has studied the culture of nuclear weapons scientists and antinuclear activists in the United Sates and Russia. He is a vocal critic of government recruitment of anthropologists in counterinsurgency projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a founding member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists.
The following interview is excerpted from the forthcoming Loving This Planet: Leading Thinkers Talk About How to Make a Better World, a collection of transcripts from the weekly radio program of physician-turned-activist Dr. Helen Caldicott. Caldicott has been a resolute voice in the antinuclear movement for over four decades, from organizing opposition to French nuclear testing in the South Pacific in the 1970s, to co-founding Physicians for Social Responsibility, to educating the public through impassioned speeches and writing. Although this interview took place in 2008, Gusterson’s reflections reveal stark parallels to the anesthetizing language in political conversation, the controversies of technological advancement, and the cultural denial surrounding warfare that exist today.
Helen Caldicott: You lived and drank with the scientists at Los Alamos for up to a year, got to know them, their culture, and then you described how they saw their bomb-making.
Hugh Gusterson: Being an anthropologist, we tend to move in with the people we’re studying, melt unobtrusively into the background, fit into the flow of daily life. I lived in three different houses at the weapons site for two years, with people who worked at the lab. I went to church every Sunday, different churches. I joined the lab’s singles’ group and its basketball and baseball teams. I tried to meet as many people who worked in the lab as I could. You get to know people in a really different way if you take the time to just become a part of the fabric of their lives. I want to put in a little plug for the anthropological method.
Helen Caldicott: As an Englishman, did you find it difficult joining the American cultural philosophy in the labs in Los Alamos and Livermore?
Hugh Gusterson: There are two nuclear weapons labs: one is Los Alamos, which developed the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the other is Lawrence Livermore in San Francisco, which was established in 1952. I have done extensive fieldwork at both labs. I was accepted, and I was a little startled by this. I’d thought that as a foreign citizen trying to understand the culture of a top secret military facility I would have a very hard time, but it turned out not to be true.
I vividly remember one weapons scientist telling me that he could never work on conventional weapons, because it would be immoral. He felt much more comfortable working on nuclear weapons, because he was convinced that nuclear weapons would never be used.
I moved to Lawrence Livermore first, at the end of the Reagan years. I expected to find the people who worked on nuclear weapons to be Reagan Republicans, conservatives who thought that there was a real threat of communist domination. I was surprised to find that many of the weapons scientists I got to know were Democrats as well as Republicans; some had protested the Vietnam War when they were younger. They’d been active in the civil rights movement. There was an interesting mixture of conservatives and liberals. And I vividly remember one weapons scientist telling me that he could never work on conventional weapons, because it would be immoral. He felt much more comfortable working on nuclear weapons, because he was convinced that nuclear weapons would never be used. I was very struck that he felt morally cleaner working on weapons that could destroy a city than he would have felt working on napalm.
The other thing I found was that about three-fourths of the people I interviewed were some form of active Christian. Most of them belonged to fairly moderate, midline Christian denominations: Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans. Relatively few belonged to the born-again Baptist sects. I did meet a few weapons designers who were evangelical. I found them the most troubling to get to know, because some of them believed that their work designing nuclear weapons was part of God’s plan, described in Revelations, to dissolve the Earth in fire and bring about the Day of Judgment. But most of the weapons scientists didn’t see much conflict between Christianity and designing weapons of mass destruction, and they were quite sure the weapons would never be used.
Critics of the arms race have focused on this strong belief held by weapons professionals, that nuclear weapons will never be used. Robert J. Lifton, the great antinuclear psychiatrist, has talked about it as a form of denial.
Helen Caldicott: Let’s go deeper into what you discovered about these actual bomb designers.
Hugh Gusterson: Since 1992 the United States hasn’t conducted any nuclear tests, something that causes some pain to the nuclear weapons scientists who were practicing a form of science that’s now a forbidden experiment. They can no longer test complete weapons, but they feel some bitterness about that. But back in the old days, up to 1992, life at the lab was structured around the design of new weapons and the testing of new weapons, so the lab produced nuclear tests. What they really lived for was to tweak the design of old weapons to figure out ways of making the weapons smaller and lighter, squeezing more explosive yield out of less plutonium, making them slightly different shapes. Weapons designers would compete with one another, proposing fiendish new design ideas that would be vetted by review committees within the Pentagon. If the designer was lucky enough to have one of the few ideas that made it onto the shot schedule, then they would work quite feverishly, often for months, as the tests neared completion. Particularly in the last weeks before a test, these designers could be working seventy-, even eighty-hour weeks. I would hear stories of people sleeping in cots in their offices in the lab. It culminated with a trip down to the nuclear test site in Nevada where nuclear weapons were tested.
The bomb would have vaporized enough of the earth that eventually a crater would collapse, and some of the designers to this day like to go down to the Nevada test site and look at their craters. These massive movements of earth.
They would dig an enormous, great hole, and the device—it’s never called a bomb—would be loaded onto a great canister with lots of very complicated, expensive diagnostic equipment. That diagnostic equipment would be completely destroyed in the nuclear tests. Its job was to measure the output of the nuclear device, in a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second, before it’s vaporized by what it’s measuring. These tests, by the late 1980s, were costing as much as $50 million apiece, and about eighteen a year were run. So you would watch the device being placed in this hole, with diagnostic equipment attached, and the hole gets backfilled, because it would have been a violation of international treaties for radiation to escape and cross international borders when the test happened. Then they would retreat to the control room, and from there they would watch a flickering of needles on the oscilloscopes, and that’s all they would see. It wasn’t like the old days, when nuclear weapons were tested aboveground and you would have to put on very thick glasses to protect your eyes from the flash, feel the heat and the shock wave and all that. It was more of a sterile experience by the 1980s, when nuclear testing had been forced underground.
Then came the final stage of the process: within a few hours of the explosion usually an enormous crater would appear in the desert. The bomb would have vaporized enough of the earth that eventually a crater would collapse, and some of the designers to this day like to go down to the Nevada test site and look at their craters. These massive movements of earth.
Helen Caldicott: Tell us about their psychological state as they built up to their very precious device.
Hugh Gusterson: It’s like any kind of creative process that’s very intense. It’s like someone working on a dissertation or a musician working on a recording. They become absorbed in the task. Unlike writing a book, this is a much more collective process, in which people have to interact with people in massive teams of chemists and engineers and machinists; people become quite tightly bonded. People would talk about feeling this psychological letdown when it’s over. They’d been working so feverishly, and suddenly it was over—what do you do? It’s a sort of vacuum that appears in their lives afterward. So the scientists are having this incredibly intense experience, bonding with their team.
For their families this experience was a real loss. The scientists are often traveling, so they’re not at home. Even if they’re not traveling, they’re working long hours in the lab and can’t be home very much. They can’t bring the work home, because it’s secret, so wives of weapons scientists would talk about being “science widows.” Their husbands weren’t dead, but they would be bereft of their husbands’ presence. They became psychologically focused on something going on elsewhere that they weren’t allowed to talk about, so their kids and wives would talk about this sense of having lost a family member in the process leading up to a test.
I’m talking about scientists’ wives as if all of these people are men. The majority are men, but by no means all of them. In the 1980s when I was doing my fieldwork, only about 5 percent of physics PhDs in the United States went to women. Physics was a male-dominated discipline. Actually, at the weapons labs there was a slight over-representation of women weapons designers, more like 6 percent or 7 percent. One woman weapons designer at Los Alamos told me that she thought that the female mind was particularly well suited to nuclear weapons design, because when you change one variable everything else changes with it. She argued that women think more holistically, so they had a better aptitude for nuclear weapons design.
Helen Caldicott: In the past you’ve described some of the terminology the scientists used. One talked about giving birth to the bomb and the need to push. And then, after the explosion, they talked about postnatal depression.
The language of death is banished from the world of nuclear weapons scientists; they don’t talk about killing people; they talk about collateral damage. People are not incinerated; they’re always carbonized.
Hugh Gusterson: They also talk about missiles being connected to the outside world by umbilical cords. The very first bomb tested was referred to as Oppenheimer’s baby. The one dropped on Hiroshima was Little Boy. So there is this language of metaphors of birth that surrounds this bomb enterprise. They talk about the results of radioactive decay processes as being daughter products. So there is this language of fertility and birth. There’s a man called Brian Easlea who’s a psychoanalytically-inclined academic, and he’s argued that this is all about men with birth envy. Because they can’t give birth the way women can, they’re trying to do something as awesome as birth. Testing a nuclear weapon is something as awesome as birth, so they’re betraying their deeper unconscious motives by using all this language of birth. I’ve asked many weapons scientists why they use these birth metaphors, and they say, You use birth metaphors to describe any creative process, don’t you? The language of death is banished from the world of nuclear weapons scientists; they don’t talk about killing people; they talk about collateral damage. People are not incinerated; they’re always carbonized—anesthetizing language from which death is banished. But there’s this very rich set of metaphors about birth. I’ve always wondered if that wasn’t an attempt on their part to say, We’re really about life, we’re not about killing people. Which you can see as a form of denial.
Helen Caldicott: Talk about the Replacement Reliable Warhead.
Hugh Gusterson: In 1992, the administration of Bush the Elder agreed to end nuclear testing. When Bill Clinton came to power he decided to turn the moratorium on nuclear testing into a test-ban treaty, which his administration negotiated. The weapons labs were not very happy about this.
Helen Caldicott: They can still keep some in storage.
Hugh Gusterson: They were worried that with this stockpile they could no longer work on improvements. Its design features were being frozen in place. They were worried about how to train a new generation of weapons designers without them being able to do any testing. Traditionally, the way you train designers is that you apprentice them until they get their own test. That old system of apprenticeship can’t work anymore. They were worried that these weapons they had designed were very temperamental, right on the edge of working properly. They were concerned that, as they aged, they might not work. They struck a bargain in which they agreed that if the Clinton administration gave them more money not to test nuclear weapons than they had given them to test nuclear weapons in the past, they would find a way of maintaining the stockpile and training new designers without nuclear testing.
They developed this enormous program of simulations called stockpile stewardship. It’s a way of simulating aspects of nuclear tests; for example, the Lawrence Livermore lab is in the process of building the most powerful laser on earth. It’s a $5 billion project. When it’s finished it will create temperatures and pressures greater than those inside the sun.* It will do this about 500 yards from a suburban housing development. When they push a button it will use the entire U.S. electricity supply for a fraction of an instant. So there’s an astonishing machine that enables the scientist to figure out more about the processes within a nuclear explosion and offers a different way of training young scientists. Since the 1990s the weapons labs have been building this very lavish program of simulations, and they’ve been recruiting new young designers. These temperamental, high-end new weapons they designed—as the parts wear out you can’t replace them with identical parts. They’d like to replace what is a stockpile of Porsches with a stockpile of Honda Civics. And the RRW, the Reliable Replacement Warhead, is a sort of bomb that will be superreliable. The point of designing it is also to give younger designers something to do so they can learn how to design a weapon. They had a design competition between Livermore and Los Alamos. Livermore won, and it looked as though they would be given $100 million to design a prototype RRW. Then Congress pulled the plug on the funding, and it’s been completely canceled. The weapons labs were begging for $10 million just to keep hope alive, to do little computer studies on it, and Congress didn’t even allow them to have that.
It is notoriously difficult for the United States to kill a weapons program. President Jimmy Carter thought he’d canceled the B-1 bomber, but military contractors waited for a more sympathetic president and brought it back. It was later used to drop bombs on Iraq.
Helen Caldicott: It’s totally hypocritical for the United States, even if they’re not replacing their warheads, to lecture other countries about not developing their own warheads, when America still has in stockpile, ready to go, thousands of hydrogen bombs, which could induce nuclear winter and the end of most life on Earth.
Hugh Gusterson: When the United States ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970, one of the things they ratified was Article 6, which committed the established nuclear powers to negotiate, in good faith, ending the arms race and eliminating all nuclear weapons. In 1970 they agreed to a prompt cessation of the nuclear arms program. I don’t think many people would think that waiting until 1992 to end nuclear testing was a prompt cessation of the nuclear arms race.
People from countries that don’t have nuclear weapons are getting increasingly impatient with the United States, especially, but with all the nuclear powers, wondering when they’re going to get serious about honoring their obligations under Article 6. The United States was busy proposing sanctions against Iran, which was enriching uranium. There are innocent and less innocent reasons for enriching uranium. Iran is allowed under the terms of the treaty to enrich uranium for nuclear energy plants. But the United States was proposing sanctions on Iran for violating the Non-Proliferation Treaty, when I think any detached, objective observer would say that by far the largest violators of the treaty must have been the Russians and the Americans for sitting on these enormous stockpiles in spite of Article 6 commitments.
I found, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, most people in the nuclear weapons labs were unaware of Article 6 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. I remember having conversations with very well-educated nuclear warhead designers, and one of them told me, flat out, I was wrong in saying that the United States and Russia had any commitment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty to end the arms race. I was so angry that I went home and Xeroxed the treaty and mailed it to him.
Those commitments under the treaty have been much better reported by the U.S. press more recently. In the last five or six years knowledgeable Americans have become more aware of how the rest of the world feels about them. As an anthropologist, I find it particularly offensive when you talk to weapons scientists, or to other kinds of nuclear weapons professionals, that there’s a uniform assumption that Americans are the only people who can be uniquely trusted with nuclear weapons in a way that black and brown people, non-Christians in particular, cannot. You hear it said that only Americans and Europeans have the strength required of people to have nuclear weapons. This flies in the face of the evidence, since the United States is the only country ever to abuse weapons.
Helen Caldicott: Is this the projection of the dark side by these Americans onto others?
Hugh Gusterson: All of this is a struggle with our unconscious persona that we find difficult to come to terms with, and then project onto other people. It’s been well established by psychologists as part of the process that makes it possible to wage war on other people. You don’t have to go to a nuclear weapons lab to find this kind of casual racism. You can open the opinion page of any American newspaper and find it there at least once a week, about Iraq or Iran or North Korea. It’s become something not even necessary to justify.
Helen Caldicott: There’s a lot of pathology. I’m fascinated by how the Department of Energy recruits anthropologists to work out what to do with the radioactive waste, huge amounts, and what scientists have put on the waste to warn future generations not to go near or they’ll develop cancers or die of acute illness.
The problem is that nuclear waste has a half-life of thousands and thousands of years … What would you put on the sign? [In 50,000 years] would a skull and crossbones intuitively warn any human being that there was something dangerous there, so you shouldn’t dig?
Hugh Gusterson: Many years ago the Department of Energy did sponsor a competition for signs. The problem is that nuclear waste has a half-life of thousands and thousands of years. If you go back 50,000 years, we don’t have a very good ability to understand the remains of languages that were being used then. So the question is, What would you put on the sign? Would a skull and crossbones intuitively warn any human being that there was something dangerous there, so you shouldn’t dig? Some anthropologists went for the money, tried to think what the signs might be, but the consensus is that it’s an impossible task. It’s impossible to predict how human beings we can’t visualize—50,000, 100,000 years from now—might interpret a particular sign. The skull and crossbones: we’ve been conditioned to see it as a sign of danger. But there’s no reason objectively why someone who’s never seen that sign before has to interpret it that way.
Helen Caldicott: Politicians, as they accept a nuclear country, say, Well, their politicians are safe, and it’s okay that they have uranium, but when you fix uranium in reactors you make plutonium, which lasts for half a million years, the fuel for nuclear weapons. There’s no discussion about the stability or instability of those societies as they proceed into the future.
Hugh Gusterson: If you talk to nuclear weapons scientists, there is this stunted imagination about the political context into which their weapons are inserted. There’s an assumption that the political reality we live in now should be our benchmark. The political scientists in security studies don’t have a strong historical sense of how the international system keeps changing, so they encourage these weapons professionals to think about the current international reality as if it’s somehow frozen indefinitely. But international systems change all the time. Some of your older listeners will remember a time when the United Nations didn’t exist. There never used to be an International Court of Human Rights.
Helen Caldicott: And that could change too.
Hugh Gusterson: The news isn’t all bleak. There have been countries that have acquired nuclear weapons and then given them up. South Africa had a small number of nuclear weapons under the white minority government, and they decided to abolish them when they handed over the keys to the country to Nelson Mandela. They destroyed all the plans for how to make them, all the facilities that were used in designing and making them. When the Soviet Union split apart, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus acquired nuclear weapons overnight. They were persuaded to give them up. There have been countries that were pretty far down the road toward nuclear weapons and were induced to turn back: Taiwan in the 1970s; Brazil; and Argentina. So although it’s part of the common sense of weapons scientists that you couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle, I don’t think that’s true.
One of the things I find particularly interesting about the moment we’re in right now is that there is a movement to abolish nuclear weapons. There has long been a movement on the left of America to completely abolish nuclear weapons. It’s been dismissed by people from the rest of the spectrum as naive and idealistic, but in the last years a very powerful, influential group of right-wing abolitionists appeared: Henry Kissinger, former Reagan secretary of state George Schultz, Sam Nunn, the former chair of the Senate arms committee, a conservative Democrat. They’ve written opinion pieces in the Wall Street Journal calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Three former British secretaries of defense wrote a piece for the Times of London. These hard-bitten realists are making a case for abolishing nuclear weapons. I think they’re terrified by the prospect of nuclear weapons spreading to subnational groups, to terrorist groups that cannot be deterred because they have no territory against which retaliation can be threatened.
Helen Caldicott: You mentioned the question of whether anthropologists should cooperate in counterinsurgency.
Hugh Gusterson: The former U.S. secretary of defense, Robert Gates, decided that the key to victory in counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan was cultural knowledge. He came to the realization, I think an accurate realization, that American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan generated opposition to themselves, made their lives more difficult with their own cultural insensitivity and cloddishness. They don’t know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite, or how you treat local women; they often don’t know that you don’t show the soles of your feet to local people: it’s an insult. So the Department of Defense decided to train troops to behave in culturally appropriate ways to figure out what was going on in the minds of the local population, so they would know which ones to kill, which ones might be on their side, and how to do a smoother occupation. The people who understand culture are anthropologists.
There was a big push by the Pentagon to recruit anthropologists. The project that particularly concerned me was called Human Terrain Teams. The idea is that every brigade in Iraq and Afghanistan would have attached to it a Human Terrain Team of several people, two of whom would be social scientists, preferably anthropologists. It would be their job to go out to local communities, talk to village leaders, collect intelligence about what was going on in a local terrain, and feed that back to military commanders. If you’re an anthropologist, this is a very troubling development. I hope that my colleagues in anthropology would be troubled by this even if they supported the wars. Because the prime directive in anthropology is that you do no harm to your human subjects, the people you study. I could have used what I learned about weapons scientists to try to do them in, to try and do great harm to the nuclear weapons labs and institutions. Although my politics are such that I don’t really support the nuclear weapons labs’ mission, I would never do that, because I think it would be a breach of anthropological ethics to study people and then use the knowledge you’ve learned from and about people against them, to subjugate and destroy their villages, to help them be occupied.
Most American anthropologists have been troubled by the Human Terrain Team system, and the American Anthropological Association issued a statement condemning the teams and strongly discouraging anthropologists from participating in them. I, along with ten other anthropologists, established the Network of Concerned Anthropologists; the NCA has gathered signatures from about one thousand anthropologists pledging not to be involved in counterinsurgency work in any way. If there’s a small minority of anthropologists busy working for Intelligence or for the Pentagon, trying to subjugate other people, all anthropologists everywhere will be suspected of doing this. You can talk to any anthropologist who’s worked abroad anywhere, and they will always tell you that there comes a point in their field research where someone will say, Come on, tell us you’re working for the CIA, and that’s why you’re doing this study. We often have to work quite hard to get people to trust us.
Helen Caldicott: It seems to me that anthropologists, looking at it broadly, have a responsibility, and an opportunity, to go in directions that they haven’t thought about before.
Hugh Gusterson: The study of anthropology is a sort of exercise in imagination. It’s an expanding discipline. You grow up in a society in which you take it for granted that one man has one wife, then suddenly you find out there’s societies where one woman has four husbands or one man has several wives. You can repeat this sort of shock of the encounter with cultural difference, with religion, folklore, origin myths. Anthropology really is a sort of opening of the imagination to all sorts of different possibilities that might be undreamed-of if you live within parochial life. But to go to where we began, understanding people, an anthropologist learns about people by moving in with them. If you study people through archival sources, you don’t have the same kind of moral obligation to them as when you live with them in their homes. If they learn to trust you, if they tell you their most intimate thoughts, you write these thoughts down in notes in which you disguise their identities, so if the notes fall into the wrong hands, what they say can’t be used against them. Anthropologists have this really unique ethical obligation toward people who make it possible for us to know things. That’s why we are the last who should be helping to subjugate the people we work with. Because they trusted us, we shouldn’t betray their trust.
*The construction of the laser has since been completed.
Excerpted from Loving This Planet: Leading Thinkers Talk About How to Make a Better World, edited by Helen Caldicott, to be published by The New Press, September 2012. © 2012 Helen Caldicott.