Asking One Question Got This Man Fired From The Military

There may be no American organization more hierarchical, or that demands more unquestioning obedience, than the U.S. military. There is no person more powerful in this organization than the President of the United States. And there is no order more potentially devastating than to dispatch a thermonuclear missile, and start World War III.

For a nuclear missile crewmember at the receiving end of this order, there is one question that is as world-shakingly important as it is impossible to find an answer to: When you get that command, and millions of innocent people will be dead in a blink, how do you know the president hasn't gone mad?

Air Force Maj. Harold Hering asked that question, as Ron Rosenbaum writes in Slate, in the middle of missile training class.

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Hering had done multiple tours in Vietnam, picking up the wounded and dead in live-fire zones. He wanted to be in the Air Force for life. He was expecting a promotion. But once he asked that question, the higher-ups immediately pulled him out of class and, after two years of appeals, Hering was forced to leave the Air Force.

He became a long-haul trucker, instead.

Such a question was beyond Hering's "need to know," the Air Force Board of Inquiry said. "I have to say, I feel I do have a need to know," Hering replied, "because I am a human being."

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Hering's question was particularly pointed at the time; it was the height of the Cold War, and rumors had it that Richard Nixon was getting twitchy, drinking heavily, once blurting out at a White House dinner party that, "I could leave this room, and in 25 minutes, 70 million people would be dead."

Later research has suggested that Nixon may have struggled with prescription drugs, was abusive to his wife and was, at times, mentally unstable. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger allegedly told people that they should double check with him if they received any "unusual orders" from the president.

But many believe the question remains just as valid today. The president is accompanied everywhere by an aide holding a "football," a suitcase full of all the nuclear codes (which is why it so irked the Secret Service that Bill Clinton liked to go jogging around the Beltway).

"He doesn't have to check with anybody," then-Vice President Dick Cheney told Fox News in 2008 about deciding to start nuclear war. "He doesn't have to call the Congress. He doesn't have to check with the courts. He has that authority because of the nature of the world we live in."

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And that is why Bruce Blair, a former missile crewman turned arms control advocate, who now has "above top secret" clearance to analyze the Pentagon nuclear command system, is officially opposed to any nuclear weapon existing on this planet. Because, he told Rosenbaum, "no one has yet come up with an answer to Maj. Hering's question."

The following years were hard for Hering. He felt that he asked his question out of duty, but yet was wracked with shame. He chose to forgo the free healthcare that he was entitled to as a veteran. Once in the 1980s, he spent an entire 16-month period alone. He worked as a counselor for the Salvation Army and volunteered at a suicide hotine, while battling his own dark thoughts.

He misses flying. He wishes it hadn't happened this way. But Hering says that if he had to do it all over, he'd ask the question again. Rosenbaum calls Maj. Hering "an unsung hero of the nuclear age."

"And shame on us that he did and we didn't feel shame," he writes, "that we didn't properly recognize his heroism." Rosenbaum's new book, "How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III" is dedicated to Hering.




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Filed under: Firings

Claire Gordon

Staff Writer

Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.

Follow Claire on Twitter. Email Claire at claire.gordon@teamaol.com. Add Claire to your Google+ circles.

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r.webb34

"Mad"? Sure Nixon was a bit of a nut. But, and this is the bigger "but", he was President at a time when there were men willing to stand up around him and keep him from doing what's been suggested. Today we have a man suffering from a severe case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder who has created almost his entire life story, and published it, from half-truths and whole lies. He has surrounded himself with career criminals who are willing to go along with anything he says (Eric Holder). What should we be doing now? And, when he's voted out in November, will he relinquish his post as POTUS?

June 25 2012 at 12:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
EXECUTIVEJANE

Tyranny not loyalty, loyalty to what, a Constitution turned inside out and upside down by imperialist ego-maniacs? Glad he asked, others need to follow suit and you all know why.

June 23 2012 at 6:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rss0246

Actually, there is no reason that a president needs unfettered, unilateral power to order the missiles fired. As commenter "danieldgj" points out, there are already people around the POTUS who can -- officially or unofficially -- impede an insane or impaired Chief Executive from starting a nuclear war. Adopting a more formal rule -- requiring that the President to act with the express concurrence of, say (1) the Vice President; or (2) the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs; or (3) the Secretary of State (etc.) -- would still allow very fast action and be eminently workable. Just as two members of the silo launch team must turn their firing keys, so too things could be structured so that TWO national leaders (the POTUS + any one of four or five other people) must concur in the actual firing order.

June 23 2012 at 5:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
bocavert

Not everybody is suited for the military. In my time we had a 45 aimed at your back to either force you to do some assinine order. Or they could coerce you by threats. If one wanted to steal a A bomb, missile or components or any weapon it seemed to happen often enough. more often reflected as lost or used and declared surplus. Paperwork was only a reflection of how things should be. Often Far from reality. Luckily we have a set of checks and balances built into our government system. Including some smarter , or untrusting who tend to oversee what is fair, equitable or right. So many military officers, cadre were complete idiots in uniform, or alcoholics. In the military I knew, one rose to one's ability, a lot of people left because of there inability. Like most truckers. salespeople, workers; temperament and intelligence place a person in a certain task that they are capable of achieving!

June 23 2012 at 1:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
danieldgj

The answer is: we have other people in place to answer that question, above this truck driver's pay grade. The Vice President, with the consent of enough Cabinet members, can relieve the President of power by declaring him unfit for duty, transmitting a message to that effect to the appropriate leaders in Congress. There are any number of people physically around the President who have sworn to follow his orders, but who could, if they saw evidence of insanity, impede those orders, ranging from his military advisers, to the Secret Service agent who carries the "football." It is not a foolproof system. But we also need a system that can work when the North Korean missles (or fill in your favorite potential nuclear power) are on the way, and the President has only minutes to respond.

There is no hope of ever eliminating nuclear weapons--if one evil country hoards them in secret, it will rule the world when all others have eliminated theirs. Had the Soviet Union been the first nuclear power, it would now rule the world. Period.

June 23 2012 at 12:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Stephen B.

I think he has gone mad now. With all of the bad things he has done lately, who knows.

June 23 2012 at 8:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
frhodes85715

"...how do you know the President hasn't gone mad?"
That's why no man who has been sexually traumatised as an infant by ritual infant circumcision should be allowed to become President. Infant sexual trauma is associated with different forms/degrees of psychosis. So, if the President is intact, a physical and blood test can clear him for possible delirium from STI's and UTI's. But, there still exists the possibility that his wife or partner may delude him into thinking eugenics/circumcision on infants is justifiable, so all the presidents sex partners should be psychoanalized for signs of religious programming.

June 23 2012 at 8:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to frhodes85715's comment
Carla

...WHAT???

June 28 2012 at 2:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
angler725

Worrying about a crazy U.S. president starting WWIII ? It is miracle that the world has managed to survive these many years with nukes all over the place. Nuke buildup is what's insane ! I guess we are either lucky, or just maybe us stupid humans have a tiny bit of sense after all.

June 23 2012 at 8:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
PRINCE

This is a double edge blade...if the higher up's realize that it was the wrong decision after is done, they will do ANYTHING to blame some one else...and guess who that will be? The one who pushed the button. But @ the same time being in the military myself, I knew better to ask: why this or that? There been LOT'S of time were the military has realize their mistake, and not to tarnish their reputation (more than already is) they will find a escape goat...

June 23 2012 at 8:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mc84414

WHY SHOULD ONE MAN HAVE ALL THAT POWER? HE IS NOT A GOD ! HURRAY FOR MR. HERING. TALKING ABOUT HEROES, MY HAT IS OFF TO YOU SIR. THANK YOU.

June 23 2012 at 7:47 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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