Society's Institutions and the Human Condition

The Problem Is Us

Sheila Tobias, 1984

Sheila Tobias is a pioneer in women's studies and the co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She is probably best known for her book Overcoming Math Anxiety and for her design of "math anxiety" clinics which have been implemented around the country. She co-authored What Kinds of Guns Are They Buying for Your Butter? A Beginner's Guide to Defense, Weaponry and Military Spending . Ms. Tobias believes that public understanding of defense, military spending and weaponry must be enlarged before a true national debate on national security can take place.

Whiteley: You began your recent book with a quote from Henry Kissinger that "the greatest danger of war lies not in the actions of wicked men..."

Tobias: The quote goes on, but rather in the harassment that men have to deal with when events get out of their control. And it seems to me this is one of the key issues that the general public doesn't entirely appreciate because the military and the strategic thinkers present themselves and the situation as if it is in control. And I think there is a danger in believing that machines or men can control human events, especially when we are in such immediate danger of short term of nuclear detonations.

Whiteley: And in your view one of the great challenges before the democracy is to gain control of the issue of peace and war.

Tobias: Absolutely. What constitutes a barrier to gaining control is the belief on the part of ordinary men and women, that without the expertise that comes from being an insider in these matters, that one hasn't a right to utter an opinion or to recommend an alternate strategy. And I'm very concerned with changing that belief system from one of passivity, to one of activism.

Whiteley: Education is, therefore, central in your system of thinking about the problem of peace. Where would you have people begin?

Tobias: There's a general view out there that one should begin with children, and introduce them to the dangers and consequences of nuclear war, and make them alert to the options and choices before them. I'm not sure I'm of that opinion. I think there's a tendency to fear in small children who feel, in any case, out of control. I believe that at the high school and at the college level, and among the general voting public, there is a greater capacity to understand the logic of the weapons, of the relations with our enemies and rivals, and of the doctrine that our country is pursuing, than has so far been admitted. I found myself capable of learning from the beginning; five years ago I didn't know the difference between and M1 and an M16 - the first is a tank, the second is a gun. And I found that it was not impossible for a lay person, with effort, to master enough of the language and the vocabulary and the logic of these systems to exercise some kind of judgment.

Whiteley: In applying your thinking to the educational systems, you singled out three things that you would like to see taught in the high schools and I'd like to present them to you one at a time. First, is a revisionist history. What do you mean?

Tobias: I mean by that a new look at the past from the point of view of the power of peace, the power of trade, the power of communication among nations. We have all too much allowed the history books and the historians to treat history as though it were a series of wars, as if the boundary changes that occurred as a result of war were very significant, even as if the nations that we care most about, including our own, were the result of wars, wars of independence. And there is a war orientation to the history as it is taught that I think communicates wrong lessons for, in particular, a nuclear age because the one major difference between the nuclear age and what preceded it is that there will be no victors in a nuclear age. And to write history from the point of view of victors and victory is, I think, to mislead young people for what awaits them.

Whiteley: This leads directly to your second point which is the study of the military since World War II.

Tobias: We tend to stop history, most of us, at World War II because of shortage of time, and because the issues since World War II are more controversial. But particularly, we do not teach military history, the history of the origins and growth of our defense department, the nature of defense planning and thinking elsewhere in the world. And I would incorporate into social studies, the study of war, peace, defense, spending, the process by which defense decisions are made, and if possible, even a short course in weapons that are threatening us today.

Whiteley: The third point for you was the relationship of military build-ups and the military establishment to our basic democratic institutions. What are the problems you see there?

Tobias: I think this is of greatest concern that we have in our military, in some ways, a not very typical democratic institution. Militaries organize hierarchically. Obedience and loyalty are salient characteristics in military organization, as they are not elsewhere in the country. And it seems to me that we need to Americanize the military, and Americanize military decision-making in ways that haven't been previously considered. We have isolated the general public from military thinking by defining it as a matter for experts only to consider. And it is the democratic polity itself, in its collective wisdom, on which Jefferson and our Founding Fathers based the entire American government, that needs to be brought back into the process.

Whiteley: In thinking about the role of government as distinct from education, you've indicated one problem of seeking peace in the nuclear age is that governments can't say 'halt.' What do you mean?

Tobias: I meant by that that the governments have a great difficulty saying no to further technological improvements in weapons. There is a driving engine to the arms race on both sides that lies in the area of weapons science. The weapons scientists are forever probing the frontiers of every known scientific possibility to see whether they can - and I'm quoting - 'weaponize the concept', if there's a possible weapons application to lasers or optics or any other kind of scientific breakthrough. So long as that goes uncontrolled, there is no way that even the military can predict what kind of weapons they will either be asked to develop or they will be asked to confront in the future. And so the combination of science, which has an internal forward motion, and economic profit, which of course causes a lot of industries to applaud these weapons developments. And it's very difficult for ordinary Congress people, whose interest is, of course, in balancing the budget, but also in seeing America strong, to say no to these weapons issues. We have seen, in the last few years, specific examples that are known to be flawed both in their design and in their possible applications, known to be provocative, known to probably increase the level of arms race, still making their way through Congress, because the pressure to produce and the pressure to pursue weapons possibilities is so great.

Whiteley: A second concern you've had about government is that politicians are afraid to be accused of making America weak.

Tobias: Well, I've said often that the congressperson's nightmare is to wake up one morning and read in the hometown paper, yesterday your congressman or woman voted to make America weak. And the reason this is such an effective ploy in getting the Congress to support military spending and military build-ups is that there has been an all too easy equation made, particularly since World War II, between national security, which is really a very complex range of issues, and military strength; and then a further equation between military strength and new weapons. So that congressperson, who for very good reasons votes to halt the production of a new weapon, can be accused in the popular press and among his constituents of actually voting to make America weak. The nature of American national security is much more complex than a simple equation to military strength and weapons, but there isn't the time, very often, to educate the public to appreciate that. And so that acts as a pressure point on the congressperson, and keeps that person from offering the independent judgment on the military that we expect from the people we elect.

Whiteley: You've had a corollary concern that congressmen and women have not tried to educate the people as much as they should on this issue. Why is that?

Tobias: I think there's been a tradition in America, certainly since World War II, that we have a nonpartisan or bipartisan foreign policy that every elected member of Congress, whether democrat, republican, is in support of the nation's security and strength. And so it's only been recently that these issues have come up for debate. I also think that the Congress is itself not as informed or master of the material that it might become. And so we need really not to limit our education to the high schoolers, the college students, and the general public, but to guarantee that the Congress and their staffers are as well-informed about military matters as the members of the military with whom they are going to have to compete in the debate.

Whiteley: In reflecting on the role of government, you've drawn attention to the limitations of the role of people in Congress, you've called attention to the hierarchical nature of the military and the fact that debates aren't as active as they should be. You've also singled out the role of defense industries in issues of war and peace. What is that?

Tobias: Oh that is considerable. I don't choose to use the term 'military-industrial complex', which like so many buzz-words seems to skirt the complexities of the issue, but there is no question that we have moved in the direction of militarizing the economy. We have about three million persons directly on the payroll of the defense department, and we have another three million persons who are working for defense contractors. You can calculate that six million employed people have families or relatives or dependents upwards of two or three times. That's eighteen million people in the United States, earning salaries that are directly dependent on that defense dollar - about 20% of our entire work-force. So there is a built-in inertia on the part, both of the owners of those industries, the managers, and those who work for them, to keep that money flowing. In addition, there is direct political manipulation of that industry. Our latest proposed defense systems, called 'Star Wars' by the press, is now in the research phase, and relatively small amounts of money are being distributed geographically around the country for research. Still, of the 351 contracts let in 1985 for 'Star Wars' research, 77% have gone to locations where elected representatives are on Armed Services committees. So the power of those dollars to oil the wheels by which those dollars keep being spent, is, I believe, out of our control.

Whiteley: You've identified a major national commitment to defense spending. What are the sources of that commitment?

Tobias: I think it's partly the 'technological fix' notion that we have among the people in general - engineers and scientists in particular - that if we have a national security problem, if we are in what I would call as a humanist, 'a dilemma,' that we can solve that problem, we can get out of that predicament by means of some 'tech fix.' And America has had a fair amount of success with technology over the years in the civilian, and in the military sectors. And it's perhaps understandable why we would fixate ourselves on technology. But these weapons which represent the imagined 'tech fix' are getting more and more expensive per weapon; they are more and more complex to operate and to organize, and there is, therefore, this drive to build many, many more, and to keep imagining the next round of weapons that will solve our problems for us. So part of the reason for the defense spending increase is definitely for new weapons. We've been calculating the percentage of the defense budget each year that goes to new weapons, not for operations and maintenance, not for personnel, not for salaries, not for benefits, but just for the production and research on new weapons. And that proportion is increasing from about 37% of the budget to over 50% of the budget today. So you get a tremendous commitment through technology to this high level of defense spending. If we could cut back just on new weapons production and research, we could trim that budget substantially.

Whiteley: What do you see the role of religion to be in the quest for peace?

Tobias: It's interesting that the religious organizations in America have had a sporadic energy directed toward issues of war and peace, although one would think from the history of Christianity, certainly, that the commitment to peace and solving conflicts through other modes of dispute settlement would be part of every religious sermon, and every religious congregation. But it seems to me religion has, in our country, just as it has historically, tried mostly to compromise with Caesar with existing governmental values and goals. And for that reason we haven't had the kind of leadership from religion, except sporadically, that one would have expected. An exception to that, of course, are the Bishops - the Bishops, who stated a year ago in a very much-quoted Pastoral Letter, that having reflected on a defense policy of deterrence, they found it to be immoral. And their logic is really unassailable. They say that if it is to be immoral to detonate nuclear weapons in anger, risking life on either side, and even the continued existence of the planet, then it is immoral to threaten to launch such weapons. And the threat to launch weapons has been, since forty years, at the heart of our deterrence policy. So for the first time, and I think it's very significant, for better or for worse, we have seen a religious group that speaks for a very large and powerful moral conscience, taking a position not simply on war and peace, which are generalities, but on a particular defense strategy called deterrence.

Whiteley: As part of this informed participation, this case by the Catholic Bishops, you've also indicated that religion has a capacity to stand outside the system and offer moral and ethical advice. What can it really accomplish?

Tobias: Well, religion is not the only institution that can stand outside, and I think that I specialize, and run in the pack of institutions and the kind of people who do not have vested interest in defense policies. The religious leaders don't tend to be employed by the defense industry; they tend not to be members of the military. And so potentially they have an enormous power of clear vision and making clear statements and moving us forward. Additionally, I think it is possible from a religious standpoint to think things through in a different way, not to accept the parameters of debate as presented to us by the military. Think for a moment about what the issues have been that came before the Congress or the public in the last few years. They have been weapons issues: Should we build an MX or should we not; Should we continue research on the Stealth Bomber or should we not; Should we trim the defense budget by 3% or trim it by 10%. These are all small implementation issues, as against the larger questions as to whether there isn't another way altogether to work out our competition with the Soviet Union other than through an arms race. And I would expect from religion a much more creative, nontraditional, restructuring of the military to date than we have heard so far.

Whiteley: Over three decades ago, Dwight Eisenhower, noted both President of the United States and military leader, said 'wars can no longer be won.'

Tobias: I think that is the most profound observation that he made in a very interesting long presidency, and an observation that has yet to really seep down into the consciousness of the American people. What has happened through the nuclear age, in my opinion, and I think Dwight Eisenhower would agree, is that we have not eliminated war; it's obvious, we have lost they say thirty million people to wars, small wars, since the end of World War II around the globe. So there is no question that war continues to be a mode of settling disputes. But what we have really eliminated from our purview is victory - the possibility of victory.

And if you think about the wars that have been fought with the United States' assistance, or directly by the United States or by England in the last few years, you will realize that in no case was victory won incontrovertibly, except in our war against Grenada, and in Britain's war against Argentina over the Falklands. That is when a very, very large power moved in on a very small power. But wars between Iran and Iraq, or the simmering conflict in the Middle East, wars that have occurred, and are still occurring in Central America, seem not to be winnable. It seems to me, only when people inside and outside government, inside and outside the military, understand that victory has been denied by modern weaponry, and by the vulnerability of human beings and their property to destruction, then will we cease considering war as a reasonable means of settling disputes. And this victory denial is what I would focus on in raising consciousness among Americans.

Whiteley: Your own career has been notable for its activities in the women's movement. How should the women's movement approach the issue of war and peace?

Tobias: Women have traditionally been for peace. In fact, with the exception of World War II, which was an extremely popular war, they were leaders in anti-war and restricting-war activities throughout our history. But what women have done traditionally is to rest their position, vis-a-vis war and peace, on the traditional woman's role. They see themselves as mothers, givers of life, and therefore are hostile to death and destruction. They see themselves as victims of war, victims of rape (which follows war), victims of bombing, unable to provide for their children and families (their primary goal), because of war which brings disorder, and they see themselves very often as protectors of the world's health. Women were very active in getting the end of the testing of nuclear weapons way back in the '60s.

What I am trying to do with my feminist colleagues is to move us from that traditional resting place of our peace activism, to a new position that is based less on traditional women's roles (which are in any case in flux), and more on the fact that we are outsiders of a military system, intelligent enough to make logical criticism, and specific criticism of what the military does, and to make it possible for us to take, in addition to the moral high ground, the intellectual high ground in military debate. One of the ways this is being put in dealing with women who are moving more and more into this debate, is that they should consider the issue not simply to be between good and evil, but between smart and stupid. And that, as women, they are capable of mastering enough of the material to make a judgment as to the wisdom of a policy, not just as to its morality.

Whiteley: You've commented on the male ethos and the female ethos as forces for war and peace in the world. How should those traditional ethos be rethought?

Tobias: There is a movement toward what we feminists call 'androgyny,' and that reflects a desire on the part of men and women not to restrict themselves narrowly to those characteristics that are approved in the belief systems of masculinity and femininity, but to allow themselves to draw from the feminine if they're masculine, from the masculine if they're feminine. And an application of that kind of thinking to the war/peace issue is expressed in the metaphor of game theory. We observe that underlying our defense posture, even the attitude which we take with us into arms control negotiations, is that of a win/lose game. That means either we win or we lose; either they win or they lose. The extent to which they lose, we win. And so, in a zero-sum metaphor, we are dealing with other people in the expectation, in the hopes that we will best them in this contest. An alternative metaphor for a negotiation, for thinking about the world and our place in the world, is called 'non-zero sum thinking,' which can be traced back to the more familial responsibility that a woman has in the family, but is by no means limited to women. It could be adopted easily by men. And that notion presumes that there are situations (we call them dilemmas, we call them predicaments), certainly the nuclear confrontation is one of those in which everybody could lose, and everybody could win. And that our goal in negotiation, and our goal in planning, is not so much to get an advantage over our rival, which will only cause them to be bitter and to try to get an advantage over us, but rather to find ways of winning for everybody.

Whiteley: In closing your book you indicated your purpose in writing it was not to tell people what to think, but what to think about. What do you want your fellow citizens to think about in the future on the issue of achieving peace?

Tobias: What I meant by that admonition at the end of the book was that many writers who write on the nuclear subject are at pains to persuade people of their point of view. They have an alternate blueprint to offer, they have an alternate defense budget, they have a very strong set of opinions. My goal, and that of my collaborators, was to create a learning environment in which people who previously thought themselves incapable of comprehending defense policy or defense weapons, would begin to understand. And so the goal was to scope out the subject to create a map, we said, of a very complex terrain which would permit them, on their own, to read the paper with greater understanding, and on their own, to come to their own conclusions.

Whiteley: Reflecting on the achievement of peace as an issue before our democracy, we also are part of the world stage. It's a dangerous world characterized by anarchy. What do you want your fellow citizens to think about in terms of our global predicaments?

Tobias: The most useful metaphor that I have been able to invent to make sense of this to myself is the following: Imagine, if we can get beyond today's politics and confrontation, situations, imagine if we can, that there is an asteroid on a collision course with our planet, and that our astronomers and astrophysicists have determined with certain exactitude that it will collide with our earth some time in the 1990s if we do not figure out some way to deflect it by means of a very long-range missile powered by some kind of laser beam that can set it off its course. What would be the very first thing that we, as a planet, would do with that information? It seems to me obvious. The first thing we would do, the certain thing we would do is to end the arms race, which is not only a draining of resources, but keeps us from employing the good science that would be available to us in this crisis from the Soviet Union and our allies and other enemies. And so it seems to me if we can imagine ourselves so threatened by an asteroid, we might even be able to take the imaginative leap and realize that we are threatened by such an asteroid, but that that asteroid is us.

Whiteley: Thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the ways to a more peaceful world in the nuclear age.