Chapter Twenty Six: Star Wars (Novel: The Professor)
The Professor who did strategic security and spent much of his time away from the campus on military bases came to Sucker’s office. Professor Don Rain brought a Ph.D. dissertation of one of his students that he wanted him to read. Sucker would be made a member of the committee to sign off on the work, but on a sort of ex post facto basis. In fact the dissertation had already been approved by Professor Rain and Sucker was just a cipher to sign his name on the line for approval.
The student was a full bird. A Colonel in the Air Force at nearby Maxwell Air Force Base. The department of political science had established a cozy relationship with the military down in Montgomery in recent years that resulted in what was said to be a “windfall” for the university. Now they were riding the gravy train. There was no way such a good deal was going to be threatened by anyone seriously questioning the Colonel and other students from the military base.
Sucker had plenty of material that he wanted to read, other than a dissertation on Star Wars, but he had been drafted. Star Wars, or Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was President Ronald Reagan’s pet project. The whole idea was pushed by Edward Teller at Lawrence Livermore Nuclear Laboratories near Berkeley, California. If there was anything that was likely to get under Sucker’s skin, it was a dissertation on Star Wars by an Air Force full bird, but now it was part of his job to read and approve it. It had already been approved by the Chair, so it was all a formality. Nevertheless, Sucker had not learned enough about how to go along to get along to completely dispense with his principles. A deadly impulse for one in the early stages of their academic career. All matters of principle should be dispensed with at least until one attained tenure. And that was going to take a minimum of five years, even if one was in a tenure track position.
Sucker had spent a day going through the dissertation. He was rather appalled at the work. It was mostly technical, nuts and bolts. It was doubtful if it was technically feasible. Politically, it was obsolete. The Cold War was on its death bed. As far as ethical questions were concerned, they were nowhere to be found. For Sucker, the neoconservative project to build an anti-ballistic missile system was not only futile and a waste of money, but dangerous. It might easily lead to nuclear war. What had happened to the old concept of deterrence that had theoretically protected the nation for the last forty years? All of that had now been thrown out the window. It looked like the neocons wanted to have a first strike capability and that was considered to be a dangerous concept.
On the afternoon of the defense, Sucker went to the seminar room. Three other professors were already there. An outside reader, a Sovietologist, Professor John Blank from another department, joined them.
The candidate appeared in his uniform. There was a big patch of ribbons down the left side of his uniform. His brass buttons were highly polished and shoes spit shined. The professors seemed to be rather over-awed at the military officer it seemed to Sucker. He had not known another student to be treated with such reverence. Sucker was rather amused. He took the view that, in terms of academia, the officer was no different than any other Ph.D. candidate and so should be treated no differently. In a sense, it did Sucker’s soul good to be able to question a military officer about his work. After being in the Navy and suffering the high handedness of officers as an enlisted man, he thought he was rather going to enjoy being on the other end of the stick.
The defense began with Professor Rain introducing the participants. He effusively welcomed the Colonel. He was to be on display as a creation, perhaps clone, of Rain himself, who had been grooming him for more than a year.
The Colonel began to explain his concepts. Sucker watched his hands with amusement as he made large arcs in the air in front of him, cutting the imaginary trajectory of a missile though the air.
God, he must do this in his sleep, Sucker imagined. It was so childish. Was he kidding? We are taking about nuclear war and millions, maybe hundreds of millions dying. For the Colonel, it was just another exercise.
Sucker’s colleague, an older woman who was an associate professor, started to imitate the Colonel creating her own imaginary trajectories of imaginary missiles.
“Oh my God. This guy has got them by the balls,” Sucker was starting to think.
Sucker had never been in such a position before to question a Ph.D. candidate in a defense. He would have preferred to hang back and watch how the thing unfolded. Unfortunately, the lot fell to him to ask the first questions. Sucker wondered if it was just a way to get him out of the way so they could move on to the more substantive issues. He had the list of questions next to him that he had jotted down while going through the work. He had read quite a lot on the issue, but not from a military strategic security angle.
Sucker thought that it was necessary to ask some fundamental questions, beyond the nuts and bolts mechanics of the operation of Star Wars.
Sucker got the nod from Professor Rain and began.
“You make the argument that Star Wars would result in reduced numbers of weapons on both sides, Colonel Fuchs,” Sucker said. “But some have argued that it would actually result in a large increase of weapons, as each side tried to overwhelm the other. How do we know that the numbers of weapons will be reduced with Star Wars?
The Colonel reached into his brief case and pulled out a military journal. “The argument is right here,” he pointed out. Then he read the conclusion of the author that he had highlighted with a yellow marker. “It is beyond dispute that the number of nuclear weapons deployed can be drastically reduced once Star Wars is in place and operational.”
For the Colonel, that settled the issue.
Then Sucker asked:
“Colonel, you have asserted that because people have lost faith in Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and deterrence, they have come over to supporting the Strategic Defense Initiative. But perhaps this loss in faith in MAD has led many people to stop trusting the experts altogether. What do you think? Why should they trust the experts now, if what they said for forty years has been wrong?”
“Oh, I haven’t seen anyone on the streets that does not support the Strategic Defense Initiative,” the Colonel said.
As if he had asked them all, Sucker thought. Sucker wondered if the streets he was referring to were those on Maxwell Air Force Base. He just could not think like someone in the military. That was for sure. This was not exactly dealing with the issue.
Next, Sucker asked: “Colonel Fuchs, you have argued that people have started supporting Star Wars because it addresses the moral issue brought up in the Bishop’s letter on nuclear war. But, it seems to me, that the moral issue must always remain an issue there. Isn’t there a moral issue involved when millions will die if a single nuke gets through the Star Wars shield?”
“Oh, there might be some small moral issues,” the Colonel replied, dismissing Sucker’s concern. It seemed that the Colonel was at a loss for an answer and didn’t expect to have to answer such a question. And, anyway, he hadn’t brought an article addressing the issue. He was simply not concerned with any moral issues.
Sucker pushed farther.
“Colonel, the Bishops letter linked the arms race with poverty, as weapons procurement uses the nation’s social surplus for weapons. They argue that Star Wars would tend to make this much worse. That has been emphasized as a concern of the Bishops in their letter. A point made by General Dwight Eisenhower in his famous speech, by the way, on the military industrial complex.
Professor Walker quickly spoke up disagreeing. But Professor Barbara Schultz came to Sucker’s defense that surely there was such a legitimate concern. Perhaps she was feeling bad that Sucker was taking such a beating having all his ideas summarily dismissed. And it was pretty fucking obvious, in spite of the objection.
“Oh, I don’t think the Bishops have linked the building of Star Wars with poverty,” the Colonel answered, avoiding the question. But he was clearly wrong. Sucker recalled that they definitely had. It had caught his attention. And, after all, the nuclear shield was going to cost a hell of a lot of billions of dollars. What the hell. He would not press it. If the Colonel could not answer a question he would just dismiss it.
“Well, it seems to me that there is a contradiction in your argument, Colonel Fuchs,” Sucker continued. “On the one hand, you argue that the number of weapons on both sides should be reduced to 2200. That would be a good start. But that seems to be enough to destroy the world many times over so I am not sure how much safer it would make us. But isn’t there a contradiction between reducing the number of nuclear weapons on the one hand and building a whole new costly weapons system on the other? Surely as long as this Cold War psychology persists that the US has to be on the leading edge in weapons, then the arms race must continue. Maybe what really needs to be deterred is this Cold War psychology. Isn’t that the root of the problem?”
The Colonel looked puzzled and claimed that he could not understand the question. Why was there was a contradiction there? In his realist logic, it was like a chess board and moves were being made to defend the country. The rulers were doing what they had to do. Everything cost a lot of money. One new system after another.
In terms of academic protocol, it was clear to all but Sucker that he had already badly stepped on his dick with this line of questioning and should now shut the fuck up. He had already gone too far outside of the bounds of proper academic decorum. To go farther would be even a bigger faux pas and embarrassing. The other professors where hoping that he would have the sense to just shut up. But then he asked yet another question. Thinking freely at Alabama was clearly out of the question. It was a terrible faux pas.
“Colonel, do you think that perhaps the historical conditions for the Cold War are vastly different today than in the past? Today revolutionary ideology is not coming from the Soviet Union but actually from the United States, from Berkeley, Chicago and so on.
Suddenly Professor Walker reacted once again. “Oh not Chicago.”
“Oh, I wasn’t referring to the university, necessarily” Sucker said.
“Hasn’t the Cold War issue lived out its time as a pretext for American global power?”
The Colonel glared at Sucker as if he had suddenly spotted the enemy. He would have loved to have had his finger on the red nuclear button and fired one of his high arcing missiles right at Suckers fucking head.
The professors around the table fairly blushed their embarrassment at Suckers irreverent faux pas with the military man. Revolutionary ideas from the US, my ass, they were thinking. Only from a few rag-tag anarchists in Berkeley, perhaps.
Sucker had shot his wad and shot himself down in a swirling cloud of smoke. He hit the ground.
Later Sucker realized that the last question was a mistake and that he should have actually let it go.
Later, the associate professor apologized to the Colonel that Sucker’s questions were peripheral to the dissertation. One was apparently not to ask any questions involving ethics.
Walker then took over the questioning and asked ‘why do we want to target the leadership of the Soviet Union?”
A soft ball. An easy question for the Colonel. Everyone knew that those were evil bastards, as Casper Weinberger had pointed out. The only good commie was a dead commie.
Professor Schultz then asked the Colonel: “How do we know that the psychology of the Russians is to destroy America.”
The Colonel resorted to pulling a series of books out of his brief case to make his points. He flourished the new issue of Foreign Policy that he wanted to demonstrate that he had just read. He had shaded in certain passages with a yellow marker as undergraduates do in their textbooks. He seemed to treat every word as the gospel truth. If it was in print in an article from his brief case, then who could question it?
The Colonel began to quote from an article from Casper Weinberger to the effect that “If we are prepared to believe Gorbachev, then we have already surrendered the national security of the United States.”
What rubbish, Sucker thought.
“He has come a long way,” the dissertation Chair Professor Don Rain asserted, proud of his boy clone.
“And he still has some way to go and probably will not get there,” Sucker thought cynically. But then why does he need to?
Sucker thought that as an intelligent individual, if his questions offended the other professors, then it said more about them than anything else. The Colonel did not have any books to hold up to defend himself against Sucker’s questions. It was clear that California had warped Sucker’s mind so far from the minds in the South and academia in general, that he was adrift in foreign seas.
Professor John Blank kept butting in, quoting lines from the Southern War College Review.
After the finish, Blank came and said to Sucker:
“I would dispute your ideas about revolution in the United States. Maybe in London or Paris.”
“I was actually thinking about E.P. Thompson, Sucker said. He has argued that the Cold War no longer has any real substance. He says that the Cold War is just about itself. It has become an institution. But now the highly paid military officers are living off the social surplus in the public sector and have vested interests in the perpetuation of the Cold War and military bases and war colleges and Sovietologists. They are, after all, the equivalent of demonologists, it seems to me. That’s what they really are. Sucker had now become as a raving maniac, within the academic context. He was clearly out of control.
“The crude Cold War propaganda targets the evil Russians as if they had horns and other evil features. The sophisticated intellectuals just engage in a more subtle form of such propaganda, but it is propaganda that serves to keep the system in place, nevertheless. It is part of the political economy of the Cold War. Perhaps these questions are peripheral to the dissertation, bit they are surely at the heart of the issue.”
Sucker’s questions had clearly gone off the rails in terms of academic protocol.
Maybe it was partly Sucker’s reaction to the military brass. He thought that it was ironic that ten years earlier, he was being brow beaten by the military brass for his beliefs in the Navy. Now he had been put in a position to approve the dissertation of an Air Force Colonel. It might have been appropriate to require that the officer address the moral and ethical questions involved in Star Wars. That probably is the reason that I am not in a position to require such a thing, Sucker realized. It was from a totally strategic security point of view.
He had followed his honest leanings, asking ethical questions. In doing so, he had shot to hell any chance that he would be seriously considered to remain in his present position. The professors would go through the motion of giving him a sort of interview, but the fix was clearly already in.
Well, fuck it, Sucker thought. I think that I am just as good a teacher and scholar as any of the others in this department. They cannot make me bow down and pay obeisance to a fucking Air Force Colonel. They cannot make me grovel in front of him just because he has all those flashy ribbons tacked to his lapel. My time of saluting military officers is over.
While Sucker did not fully realize it at the time, any effort that he would make in keeping his present position was completely superfluous. He had blown it completely by bringing up his unorthodox and even radical ideas. There was no place for them in academia. Certainly no place for them in the died in the wool political science department at Alabama.
Sucker signed the dissertation with his fountain pen from the People’s Republic of China. It might have been made by Communists, but now the country was quickly becoming a capitalist country under Deng Xiaoping. The Cold War was history, but nobody in academia seemed to have a clue.