Not being a scientist or an engineer, John was nonetheless interested in science and engineering, and liked to think about the implications of technology on the world we live in. An abiding interest of John's was anti-ballistic missile technology. In the Reagan era, this was a hot political issue, with eminent scientists such as Carl Sagan taking strong stands against any attempt to build missile defenses.
Something that is often less clear is that equally eminent scientists such as Edward Teller were on the other side of the argument. Also less clear is how far anti-missile technology has advanced in the last thirty years.
The argument was two-pronged. The opponents of ballistic missile defense claimed that it could not be made to work, and that even attempting to build such a thing would destabilize relations between the US and the USSR, leading to greater, instead of a lesser, risk of war.
History has not been kind to Sagan and the other critics of ballistic missile defense. Both prongs of their argument were proven untrue by subsequent events. At this point, it is probably easy to make too much of their defeat; some of their arguments did have merit. On the technical side of the argument, SDI generated a lot of flashy concepts that never panned out. The laser system John cites in this post is a good example. The MTHEL project was eventually discontinued due to cost-overruns and poor performance. As for the political side of the argument, it certainly isn't crazy to suggest that an opponent who is backed into a corner might do something desperate. It is simply that this didn't happen. It is hard to evaluate all of the possible ways the Cold War might have turned out, all we can do is say what did happen.
On the gripping hand, due to continuing technological progress combined with ongoing conflict in the Mideast, we now have pretty reliable anti-missile missiles, such as the Israeli Iron Dome system. Without the opportunity to test these interceptor systems out in real-world conditions, the technology might not have progressed as far. The Patriot missiles worked after a fashion in 1991 as missile interceptors, but since Patriots were designed to intercept aircraft, the results on other missiles were mixed.
The Aegis BMD system remains untested as yet. Hopefully we won't get the opportunity.
John also finds time to complain about the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It isn't hard to find things about the USCCB to complain about, but at least in this case I find myself somewhat sympathetic to the argument that Iraq didn't present a threat in 2002. It is hard to remember now, but war fever really did grip the US, and only a few lonely voices dared to voice doubts. Of course, it didn't help that the USCCB statement suggested that there was a risk of lots of civilian deaths during the invasion of Iraq. The American military is better than any military in the world at practicing jus in bello. Suggesting otherwise usually makes people who know something about American tactics [especially in comparison to say, Russian tactics] not take you seriously. If you retroactively combine the paragraph about the risk of destabilization with the risk of collateral damage [non-combatant deaths], then the bishops conference statement seems to have a point, but I don't think this is what was meant at the time.
Just You Wait
A facet of deep history appeared last week, the kind of story that excites little comment, but which illuminates so much else that is happening. This was the announcement that the US Army has a laser system that can reliably destroy artillery shells in flight. The system was developed in conjunction with the Israelis, to shoot down tactical and medium-range missiles, which are actually much easier to hit. It was no great secret that lasers of this class were being weaponized. Maybe they have been already; there was some discussion earlier this year about moving the prototype to Israel. In any case, they are yet more evidence of the end of the era of strategic weapons of mass destruction.
The threat from the Axis of Evil is the tail end of that period. The threat could arise only when the science and engineering needed for nuclear weapons and strategic missiles had become accessible even to countries of the third and fourth rank. For a variety of reasons, a world in which many such countries had the nuclear-missile package would be a nightmare. The regimes that want it must go, or the technology that delivers the bombs must become obsolete. In fact, both are happening at the same time. Although the lasers now being tested are not intended to stop ICBMs, such weapons show that the total abolition of ICBMs should no longer be thought of as an impossibly distant prospect. However, there are two points to keep in mind about a world without Mutual Assured Destruction:
(1) The abolition of strategic nuclear weapons, and even of tactical nuclear weapons, is not quite the same thing as the abolition of nuclear weapons. They can still be used as terrorist devices. However, terrorist weapons cannot provide a deterrent shield for irresponsible governments. Deterrence requires a public certainty of immediate response; terrorist weapons are, by definition, secret until they are used.
(2) Though the era of Mutual Assured Destruction did have its downside, such as two generations raised amidst episodes of sickening dread, it did at least cap the scope of conventional warfare. No nukes mean more war until, frankly, the planet is pacified. But we know that by now.
* * *
For me, at least, the show that the Baathist regime in Iraq put on before pretending to accept the latest UN inspection resolution had a great deal of historical resonance. Stalin used to do the same thing with his legislatures. "Call and response" is the term: it's what cantors do with choirs, or preachers with congregations. The drill is that parliament urges the great leader to kill everybody. He sagely demurs and says he need kill only half; there is great rejoicing.
That was, pretty much, what happened when the Iraqi parliament affected to reject the UN resolution, but the executive went through the motions of accepting it. Of course, they did not go through the motions with much conviction; the six-page letter they gave to Kofi Anan was a strange way to say "yes." I find it hard to believe that the Iraqis think they can really diddle the weapons inspectors for more than a few weeks, if that long. More likely they hope that something else will save them. Maybe terrorist attacks in Europe will drive a wedge between the US and its allies that would make an invasion of Iraq logistically impossible. Maybe they will coordinate an incident with the North Koreans. Would such stratagems fail? Not necessarily.
* * *
While we are on the subject of futile assemblies, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is meeting this week. The chief item on the agenda, at least as far as the press is concerned, is their attempt to come to grips with the Vatican's modifications of their own plan for dealing with the sex abuse scandals. Their own plan consisted of a wonderful combination of Megan's Law, One-Strike-and-You're-Out, and other poll-tested devices that are happily unique to American jurisprudence. Don't get me wrong: the scandals really are scandalous, and some of the bishops at the current conference should instead have been sent to lead lives of silent contemplation at remote monasteries. The Vatican had a point, however, when it responded that the witch-hunt procedures the bishops put in place cannot be squared with canon law.
I heard one innocent radio commentator ask, "Since when is the Vatican interested in due process?" To that I answer, "You have no idea." Like Isaac Asimov's Trantor, the Vatican was conceived in red tape, and dedicated to the principle of the form in quadruplicate. Due process, like a perpetual penance, is what the Vatican does. Nonetheless things are not looking up. Some of the bishops seem to have been taken in by the victim-industry, "recovered memories" and all.
* * *
And of course, the bishops found time to consider questions of war and peace in connection with Iraq. In reality, it would be hard to imagine a military action more closely in accord with Just War principles: regime change is a matter of life and death; the real diplomatic alternatives were exhausted years ago; and the tactics, at least by the invaders, promise to be the most careful of collateral damage in the history of warfare. The conference said otherwise:
"We continue to find it difficult to justify the resort to war against Iraq, lacking clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack of a grave nature..."
In other words, like the editorialists the bishops read, they seem to believe that an attack should wait until the Baathist government plainly has weapons of mass destruction, and deterrence kicks in. Things could be worse, however. The conference did at least reject an amendment that would have encouraged conscientious objection by members of the armed forces. Instead, they produced this gem:
"We support those who risk their lives in the service of their nation. We also support those who exercise their right to conscientious objection."
Don't the bishops realize that they are exerting themselves, however feebly, to support Jonestown? And that they someday that may have to explain to the Iraqi people (many of whom are Catholic, by the way) why they tried to prevent their liberation? The American bishops, as individuals, are intelligent, humane, thoughtful people. However, when they get together, their collective intelligence drops by about 20 points. Surely the time has come to acknowledge that the experiment of a semi-legislative national conference has been a failure, and go back to diocesan government?
* * *
Finally, on the subject of "what is to be done" in the Catholic Church, we should note that not only protestantizing liberals are anxious to see the Papacy of John Paul II end. Out in the fever swamps of the Catholic Right, there have long been schismatics who claim that Vatican II was invalid, and that the popes who tried to implement it were illegitimate heretics. However, even people who characterize themselves as merely "orthodox" are beginning to think that they are more Catholic than the pope. Consider this from the November 2002 issue of the New Oxford Review:
"None of this [laxity of discipline and theology] will change until we have a new pope, one who -- let's tell the truth now! -- isn't always flying here and there, one who will 'mind the store' and pay close attention to administrative matters, one who has the same mettle as Karol Wojtyla but who directs his indomitable will to cleaning out the rot in the Church...John Paul II has been a wonderful teaching pope. Our next pope will have to insist, over his dead body, that the teachings of the Church are taught by his bishops with conviction, follow-through, and dire consequences for fifth columnists, and that bishops who are insubordinate seek employment elsewhere..."
That characterization of John Paul II's papacy is unfair, but I think it does suggest the probable trajectory of the next papacy. I have spent many weary hours explaining to incredulous progressives that, no, John Paul II is not a reactionary, and not even a conservative. Rather, his program really is the program of Vatican II. To the extent it has been thwarted, it has been thwarted by an over-indulged Left. Come the next pope, the indulgences will cease.