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.
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."
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."
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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