A Literary’s Scholars Voice in the Wilderness

By Nathan Schneider
The Chronicle of Higher Education
John Dear is a Catholic priest who has chosen an especially haunted place to keep vigil. For the past 12 years, he has lived alongside the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico, birthplace of the atomic age and the country’s flagship nuclear facility, where he organizes regular protests. He has also written a steady stream of books and spoken widely, making him a troublesome man around town. After years of efforts to rein him in, the Jesuit order ejected Dear in December. His vocation is ever more that of a hermit.
“Few of my friends are working on nukes anymore,” he says. “This is the most evil place on the planet, and nobody’s talking about it.”
One exception is Megan Rice, an 84-year-old nun and another longtime member of the Plowshares antinuclear movement. In 2012, with two fellow activists, Rice broke into the secure nuclear facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where they splashed blood and hung protest signs. The security breach made headlines and prompted a Congressional investigation—into the breach, not the nuclear weapons themselves. Rice, who is expected to be sentenced this month, may spend the rest of her life in prison for the protest.
Nowadays, if nuclear weapons make a blip on the radar of public discourse, it is in reference to preventing their spread to nations such as Iran, although the United States still holds more than 5,000 warheads of its own. As an undergraduate, Barack Obama once wrote an article calling for nuclear abolition, but when his administration announced plans to build a new generation of such weapons, the outcry was mainly among those at the margins, like Dear and Rice.
NASA, AP Images The Armys “Honest John” missiles, like this one, were produced in the 50s and 60s and were the first to be fitted with nuclear warheads.
“I’m just going to keep at it no matter what,” says Dear.
A no-less-remarkable kind of perseverance appears in print this month: the 640-page Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom, by Elaine Scarry, who holds a professorship in aesthetics and general theory of value at Harvard University. The seed of the book lies in Scarry’s first and best-known work, The Body in Pain, a literary, philosophical, and political analysis that since its publication, in 1985, has been a favorite source for those seeking the prohibition of torture.
“I realized that nuclear war much more closely approximates the model of torture than the model of war because there’s zero consent from the many millions of people affected by it,” Scarry recalls, nearly repeating a sentence that appears in the 1985 text. She began working on Thermonuclear Monarchy in earnest the year after The Body in Pain came out—28 years ago, with the Cold War still well under way.
The monarchy in her title denotes the assertion that “out-of-ratio” weapons such as nuclear warheads, like the perversions of torture, are inherently undemocratic. It is the nature of nuclear weapons to place the lives of billions of people in the hands of the minutely few individuals with access to the launch codes. Regarding U.S. presidents since 1945, she writes, “Louis XIV was powerless compared to each of these men”; future generations, as she put it in The Body in Pain, “may look back upon our present situation the way we now look back upon the slaves building the pyramids of Egypt.” The new book, published by W.W. Norton, implores its readers to undo this condition, to “reacquire our powers of self-government and dismantle the nuclear arsenal simultaneously.”
Those who have been following Scarry’s work the past few decades will find much that is familiar, even redundant. Several of Thermonuclear Monarchy’s arguments appeared in a 1991 University of Pennsylvania Law Review article, while other parts mirror her polemics against George W. Bush-era policies of torture and surveillance. A version of a chunk of it has already come out as a much shorter book with the same publisher. The fastidiousness of her research also resulted in a several-years-long detour more than a decade ago, expressed in a series of New York Review of Books articles, when she proposed electromagnetic interference from military vessels as a possible explanation for the crashes of several civilian airliners, including TWA Flight 800. Though investigators ultimately dismissed it, her theory prompted a federal study and was cited in a NASA report.

“Scarry’s assault on the reigning complacency about nuclear weapons rests on her belief in the capacity of an interpretation to reconfigure the world.”

To an unusual degree for an English professor, Scarry has gotten into the habit of seeking to have an impact beyond the realm of pure discourse. While John Dear keeps his decade-long vigil and Megan Rice lives out the consequences of her break-in, Scarry’s assault on the reigning complacency about nuclear weapons rests on her belief in the capacity of an interpretation to reconfigure the world.
From time to time over the years, Scarry has visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, at the other end of Boston—in particular to study transcripts of Kennedy’s conversations in the White House for clues about nuclear-authorization procedures. As she browses the museum exhibits scattered across the airy building, her voracity for technical information is apparent; she identifies military airplanes and ships as easily, and with a similar degree of affection, as she recognizes a bush of rose hips shriveled by the cold in the parking lot. But the curve of her eyes and the lilt of her voice also convey a sense of melancholy, of mourning something. She seems just as much at home in the exhibit devoted to mementos of the president’s funeral.
Kennedy’s finest moment is generally thought to be his handling of the Cuban missile crisis, in which the middle course he charted may have saved the world from nuclear holocaust. In an exhibit about the incident, Scarry listens closely to the recordings in which the president talks down his advisers’ proposals for various sorts of aggression. One hears the calm and cool that make Kennedy so lionized. But for Scarry the whole setup is a problem from the outset—that the fate of the world was ever at his mercy in the first place. Or Truman’s, Eisenhower’s, Johnson’s, Nixon’s, Ford’s, Carter’s, Reagan’s, Bush’s, Clinton’s, Bush’s, or Obama’s. Decades after the fact, revelations have emerged that other presidents, too, had close calls.
“We think of the tremendous suffering that presidents have to go through in thinking about this,” she says. “It’s not that I don’t think their job is very hard, but it’s just no comparison to being burned and killed along with every other species on earth.”
For Scarry, confronting our suicidal tolerance for nuclear weapons begins with reconsidering two features of the Constitution. The first, and the more intuitively relevant, is the requirement for Congressional authorization of war, which the United States government and other nuclear-armed states have tended to relinquish in favor of executive authority. She chronicles, as others have in the past, how the existence of these weapons has systematically undermined the power of the legislature—and those who elect its members—at all levels of military policy. Thus there has not been a formal declaration of war by Congress since World War II, though there has been no lack of wars. The surest way to reclaim the spirit and purpose of this constitutional brake on monarchic executive power, Scarry believes, is to do away with nuclear weapons altogether.
The other constitutional resource she draws upon may be more surprising for one generally thought of as a liberal: the Second Amendment. “The right to bear arms” tends to be understood in public today—and in the Supreme Court—in terms of an individual right to possess whatever guns one pleases. But Scarry, drawing on her assessment of the framers’ intent, argues that the real purpose of the amendment was to spread out across the population the power to wield military force. The amendment’s “well-regulated militia” isn’t a bunch of hobbyists with AR-15s; it is meant as another democratic brake on the presidential power for war-making, and an opportunity for popular refusal.
“I absolutely think you have to have gun laws,” she explains. “Trying to understand the right to bear arms the way we usually talk about it is like trying to understand the First Amendment only through pornography.” Two hundred years ago, maybe this meant a musket in every household. Today, under the aegis of nuclear weapons that depend on the authorization of very few, holding true to the original intent is no longer feasible.
David A. Koplow, a scholar of national-security law at Georgetown University, finds Scarry’s strategy to be novel. “I’ve not previously seen a Second Amendment argument for nuclear disarmament,” he says. He also suspects that decades of precedent—of nuclear weapons existing alongside the Constitution unchallenged—amount to more inertia than legal reasoning like this can overcome on its own. “The fact that we’ve had nuclear weapons for now 60 years,” he says, “has become itself an important fact of constitutional life.”
Legal arguments about the Constitution are only a particular instance of what Scarry proposes as a much broader way of seeing. The middle third of Thermonuclear Monarchy extends that reasoning to social-contract theory writ large—by means of a lengthy rehabilitation of the extremely pre-nuclear political thinker Thomas Hobbes. During the Cold War, Hobbes was made into a patron saint of the nuclear-arms race by those who, seeking a deterrent against his imagined “war of all against all,” justified handing over to a benevolent sovereign enough warheads to end the world many times over. But Scarry reclaims a Hobbes who knows the horrors of arbitrary violence firsthand and whose system, with peace as its goal, is meant to constrain a ruler’s ability to injure. Hobbes enjoins allegiance to the sovereign in all circumstances—except when one is in danger of injury or called upon to injure others. Then, consent is required, and dissent may be justified.
Her recovery of Hobbes reminds us how often the object of modern political thought has been to yoke government’s destructive capacity to the will of the people—at least until nuclear weapons came around and the launch codes, ensconced in a 45-pound suitcase, started following the president everywhere he goes. For Scarry, the nuclear-ready presidency contradicts the duty of democracy to interfere with executive power—to “clog.”
“Clogging is bad if it’s stopping an ambulance or it’s stopping lovemaking or it’s stopping reading,” she says. “Clogging is not bad if what you’re trying to stop is injuring.”
If the Constitution’s troubles with nuclear weapons are just a subset of the Enlightenment’s democratic notions more generally, in the last third of the book these weapons come into conflict with something even more basic: autonomy over our own bodies and minds. That we should allow anyone, even a person we elect, to wield something so powerful as a nuclear weapon is, for Scarry, to relinquish our essential integrity. Lost is our capacity to deliberate in an emergency—leave that to Kennedy and company—or to decide whether to expose ourselves to harm. (Fallout will reach the conscientious-objector camps, too.) The subtitle of The Body in Pain is The Making and Unmaking of the World, and this pair of options still guides Scarry’s grand metaphysic; nuclear weapons stand firmly on the side of unmaking, in opposition to creativity and self-rule.
Thermonuclear Monarchy includes detailed considerations of the history of military desertions, the town where Hobbes grew up, a mistranslation of the Iliad, marriage, CPR, the Swiss nuclear-shelter system, mutual-aid societies, and Benjamin Franklin’s ideas about habit. Scarry’s project is not merely legal, or historical, or technical, any more than it is solely about nuclear weapons. It is a testimony of what is worthy of value in human nature and social life, measured against the machines that remain an especially dire threat, however much we keep them out of sight and mind. It’s less an argument that nuclear weapons should be eliminated, or how, than an entire worldview in which they have no rightful place.
One might consider this book, for instance, alongside the recent Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State, by Garry Wills, another professor who knows no disciplinary bounds. Wills raises many similar concerns with executive power and constitutional law, and comes to similar conclusions, yet he leaves it at that. He saves the metaphysics for other books. Wills was simply trying to make a political point, it seems, while over the course of nearly 30 years Scarry spun the topic into an epic. (Neither of them cites the other.)
“Compared to the different avenues I’ve gone down, it’s comparatively stark, believe it or not,” Scarry says of Thermonuclear Monarchy. She considers her task, after all, to be intrinsically expansive. “We have to eliminate these weapons and may have to reinvent citizenship to do it.”
Jonathan Granoff has spent most of his life trying to pose legal challenges to nuclear weapons, most recently as president of the Global Security Institute. He traces this career back to a lunch he had with then-Sen. Robert Kennedy while interning on Capitol Hill. “He told us how close we came to ending civilization during the Cuban missile crisis,” Granoff remembers. “He basically quoted his brother and said either we’ll eliminate these weapons or they’ll eliminate us. He said it was a moral and practical litmus test of our time.”
For Granoff, as for Koplow, using the Second Amendment as a weapon against the nuclear arsenal is a new approach, though he says he’s willing to entertain Scarry’s logic. For him and other legal activists concerned with disarmament, however, the real headway these days has been in international law rather than domestic courts. Because these weapons cannot be used in a way that truly protects civilians from their effects, the argument goes, they are incompatible with the laws of armed conflict and should be banned, just as land mines and biological weapons have been in many cases. A 1996 opinion by the International Court of Justice affirmed parts of this reasoning, and the U.N. General Assembly held a high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament in 2013. The United States and other nuclear-armed nations insist on retaining the bulk of their stockpiles, but the legitimacy of doing so is slipping.
Last year the government of Norway convened a conference with representatives of 127 countries on the human impact of nuclear weapons, accompanied by a convergence of antinuclear activists organized by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. John Dear refers to it as “one of the greatest experiences of my life.” A follow-up is taking place this month in Mexico. Meanwhile, Scotland’s independence movement has been gaining momentum in part thanks to public outcry against the British nuclear arms stationed there.
While momentum builds abroad, the idea of serious disarmament still doesn’t have much of a foothold in the United States. The interests that stand to benefit from the status quo in the military, industry, and universities have steered the conversation elsewhere. “Fear is able to trump reason,” says Jonathan Granoff. “That’s why I think we need to put forward a new vision, because vision can trump fear.” He hasn’t read Thermonuclear Monarchy, but he’s glad to know it exists.
For all her sweeping vision, Elaine Scarry is the kind of writer who can seem most herself in her endnotes. A note attached to Chapter 5, for instance, alludes to the prospect that such an uncommon, boundary-crossing book might be dismissed simply for being so. In the main text, Scarry had cited approvingly an article by the legal theorist Daniel Farber: “The Case Against Brilliance.” Farber contends that surprising, “brilliant” legal theories are automatically less sound, even less democratic, than theories that don’t so much unsettle the way of things. If it takes a brilliant person to think of a given legal interpretation, it’s probably not fair to expect the nonbrilliant majority to be governed by it. It stands to reason that Scarry would like this—another democratic brake, more of that good kind of clogging.
In the endnote, however, her tone shifts. She rises to the defense of some of the scholars Farber criticizes, among whom are some she cites in her constitutional case against nuclear weapons. “I myself believe,” Scarry concludes, “their brilliance (and brilliance in general) is often compatible with accuracy and with the soundness of thinking that eventually comes to be regarded as canonical.” It’s a retort that gives the impression of being equally a defense of herself, of her own uncommon treatise about a scandal that most people would prefer to ignore.
Brilliant things have happened before. Scarry was living in Berlin as the Cold War was ending, and during that time she wrote an article with a remark that the Berlin Wall might soon open. When her article appeared in German, though, the remark had been removed; the editors considered the idea, as she puts it, “hopelessly naïve and hopelessly American.” Yet within a few months of publication, crowds of protesters had torn the wall down.
The nuclear arsenal could still go the way of the wall, Scarry says. “I think it is possible that it could just suddenly be gone.”
Nathan Schneider is the author of “Thank You, Anarchy: Notes From the Occupy Apocalypse” and “God in Proof: The Story of a Search From the Ancients to the Internet,” both published by University of California Press. He is also editor at large of WagingNonviolence.org .