The top brass in the US Air Force have indicated that they were shocked and outraged to discover that missile launch officers have been cheating on their examinations and that their superior officers have turned the other way, allowing the cheating to go on. The Air Force has viewed the cheating as a moral failure and has suspended more than 90 of these officers from their missile launch duties.
This raises important philosophical and practical questions with regard to morality and legality. Which is the greater moral failure: cheating on an examination or being willing to launch nuclear-armed missiles that could lead to the deaths of millions of innocent men, women and children?
What kind of society would give young officers the task of carrying out illegal orders to destroy cities, countries and even civilization, with all the attendant pain, suffering and death that would be caused?
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The exams on which there was cheating were most likely technical in nature, aimed at finding out whether the missile launch officers understood the technical issues involved in launching their missiles, upon command to do so, and in preventing unauthorized launches. But shouldn’t the officers in charge of launching also be tested on the legal and moral implications of what they are being asked to do in a worst-case scenario?
With these larger legal and moral issues in mind, a more pertinent examination could be developed that would include True and False questions like these:
1. You are a cog in a nuclear threat system that could lead to tens or hundreds of millions of deaths and bring about the catastrophic destruction of civilization.
2. The nuclear-armed missiles you are responsible for launching would indiscriminately kill men, women and children, which is illegal under international humanitarian law.
3. Nuclear weapons cause unnecessary suffering, which is illegal under international humanitarian law.
4. It is illegal under international humanitarian law to launch a reprisal attack that is disproportionate to an initial attack.
5. The effects of nuclear weapons detonations cannot be contained in space or time.
6. US political leaders are failing to pursue negotiations in good faith for nuclear disarmament, as legally required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
7. US political leaders are failing to pursue negotiations in good faith for a cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date, as legally required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
8. The defense of following orders by Nazi officers was not accepted as a legitimate defense for criminal acts at the Nuremberg trials.
9. The Nuremberg trials after World War II held the Nazi leaders and officers to account, and some were given death sentences for committing crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
10. You are not required to carry out illegal orders from a superior officer, and an order to fire your missiles with the consequence of indiscriminately killing men, women and children would be an illegal order.
These are examination questions not only for missile launch officers to ponder, but for every member of our society to consider. The missile launch officers are only cogs in the US nuclear apparatus of death and destruction. They are not the only responsible parties, but they are instrumental parties to planning and preparation for indiscriminate murder and perhaps the death of all.
The key responsible parties are political leaders and the people themselves. Only our political leaders, with pressure from the people, can assure that the United States plays a leadership role in pursuing the legal and moral path to achieving the globally necessary number of Nuclear Zero.
The answers to all the above exam questions are True.