The U.S. Air Force general who would control all this country’s nuclear weapons in wartime has publicly made a claim that should curdle your blood.
In at least two recent public forums, Gen. John Hyten has said he would not necessarily launch nuclear weapons despite being ordered to do so by the President. That statement should get your full attention!
Especially because Hyten is Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, successor of the old Strategic Air Command, dreamed up by Curtis LeMay in the late 1940's. For decades, the four-star at the top has had responsibility to launch - or not launch - nuclear weapons in all services - not just USAF.
When a general makes public statements that he - and he alone - will decide the legitimacy or legality of a presidential order to launch the forces, it seems in keeping with the political mess we have in the White House. Damned dangerous!
The caveat Hyten offers with his statement is if he feels or believes the order from Trump to be “illegal.”
“If it’s illegal,” he said, “I’m going to say ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’ And he’s going to say ‘What would be legal?’”
Someone else at the top is saying the same thing. Retired General Robert Kehler, who preceded Hyten at Strategic Command, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month “the U.S. military is obligated to follow legal orders - not illegal ones.”
In neither case did the generals describe which they’d consider “legal” and which would be “illegal.”
My last two years of military service, I sat at a console about six feet from the “red phone” the SAC commander would use to order a nuclear strike - an order for the Army, Navy and any other branch with nukes. The commander and senior staff sat at desks above our heads on the command balcony from where the order would come to pick up the phone - should it be given. The whole place was tense 24/7. Highly professional. But tense.
During my time, we had the Cuban missile crisis. I know intimately how close we came to launching. But the President was John Kennedy and the SAC Commander was General Thomas Power. Despite the danger, we knew orders from the White House and the response would be legal.
Now, we have senior officers creating wiggle room if we get that close again. I have no idea what constitutes an “illegal” order. But I’m damned familiar with Trump and his fits of pique - of childish anger. He does things and says things that show he’s not a stable person when faced with crisis events. Even little bitty “crisis” events.
Military personnel - no matter the branch - are trained from the gitgo to obey lawful orders of anyone a rank or two up the chain. That’s the very backbone of structure that provides the clarity to try to keep people alive in wartime. Or it could kill them.
There have been many changes since my years of service. Personnel are smarter, better trained, work with better equipment and seem to have more leeway in most responsibilities. But the demand to obey a lawful order has not changed. Not one word. It is still the first commandment.
When a general - or two - or three - says he (or they) will decide which order is lawful, that frightens me. Especially when we don’t know what criteria he’d use to make the distinction. During the Cuban crisis, LeMay - Chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time - wanted to launch a strike on Cuba and promised Kennedy he’d “make a parking lot” out of the small nation. Legal? Yes. Crazy? Certainly!
A lot of political and military types have chewed on this “legal-illegal” business since Trump became Commander-In-Chief. They’ve talked of how to deal with him if he flies off the handle as he does regularly. Suppose that madman in North Korea says or does something crazy and Trump decides to launch. He’s already said publicly the response would be “something the world has never seen” and that “North Korea would be destroyed.”
Is that a “legal?” Or an illegal?”
General Hyten and others in the military are going to have to decide. And I’d like to know what the Hell their criteria is going to be.