The US Pacific Fleet commander, nuclear weapons, Gene Hackman and the question of obedience
Admiral Scott Swift’s unfortunate remarks about a nuclear strike on China are disconcerting, but go to the heart of the question of whether there are limits to civilian powers and conditions to soldierly obedience
The US Pacific Fleet commander walked right into a media maelstrom when he said he would launch a nuclear strike against China next week if he were ordered by his commander-in-chief, President Donald Trump, to do it.
Even though it was a hypothetical question asked by an academic at a security forum in Australia, Admiral Scott Swift’s answer was frankly disconcerting.
Mainland internet chat rooms lit up. Understandably, if a top military officer from the world’s most powerful nation said he would nuke you to smithereens if he was ordered to by his boss, you might be concerned, too. Some have called the admiral a warmonger.
It’s a bit unfair to Swift. He was caught in a no-win situation. If he had said no and that he would disregard his order, it would presumably mean instant dismissal.
In retirement, though, he might get a cushy consultant job from the Chinese. Now, he gets to keep his day job even if it means upsetting a billion Chinese.
Maybe he could have said he would nuke Australia, Japan or South Korea if he was ordered to.
Then we would all get his meaning – he just follows orders, no matter what.
That would get the Chinese off his back but upset America’s allies.
My question is, would he nuke California, the largest liberal, Democrat and Trump-hating state in the US?
In his own defence, he said that like any US military officer, he submitted to civilian control of the military. And in his exalted post, Swift would take direct orders from the president.
His spokesman subsequently dismissed the question as “ridiculous”.
It actually isn’t. Rather it cuts right to whether there are limits to civilian powers, and conditions to soldierly obedience. What if your boss is someone like Nero or Trump?
All this reminds me of Gene Hackman, who plays the captain of a nuclear submarine in Crimson Tide.
In one scene, he explains to his more thoughtful second-in-command Denzel Washington why the navy pairs the two of them together:
“If someone asked me if we should bomb Japan, a simple ‘Yes.’ By all means, sir ... [You’re] complicated, ‘cause that’s the way the Navy wants you. Me, they wanted simple ... They gave me a target and a button to push. All I gotta know is how to push it, they tell me when. They seem to want you to know why.”
Watch that movie again. It’s the best commentary on Swift’s unfortunate remarks.