Friday, July 29, 2011

The Ironic Ethics of Wernher Von Braun

Air Force Cites New Testament, Ex-Nazi, to Train Officers on Ethics of Launching Nuclear Weapons | Truthout

This story changed even before I got it published. Update below.

There are certain levels of irony that tend to render the ordinary human speechless. There are ways of getting through, and Jason Leopold guts it out with his usual determined outrage and the aid of direct quotation.
One of the most disturbing slides quotes Wernher Von Braun, a former member of the Nazi Party and SS officer. Von Braun is not being cited in the PowerPoint as an authority on a liquid hydrogen turbopumps or a launch vehicle's pogo oscillations, rather he's specifically being referenced as a moral authority, which is remarkable considering that the Nazi scientist used Jews imprisoned in concentration camps, captured French anti-Nazi partisans and civilians, and others, to help build the V-2, a weapon responsible for the death of thousands of British civilians.
"We knew that we had created a new means of warfare and the question as to what nation, to what victorious nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision[emphasis in document] more than anything else," Von Braun said upon surrendering to American forces in May 1945. "We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured." [emphasis in document]
Well, as stunning an irony and as compelling an insight as it is... it's not exactly new, either. So rather than react in amazement to the sudden realization that the people who build and deploy disintegrating totem poles with radioactive "happy endings" may have to struggle with the ethics involved... rather than that, I turn to Tom Leher. Because Just Moral Outrage Theory goes down better with a bit of piano. 

And this way... I turn you on to Tom Lehrer. He also had some things to say about the ethics of deploying nuclear weapons that really should have been included in that Air Force Power Point presentation.

UPDATE: It appears that the military found the optics as bad as everyone else did.
The Air Force, in response to a report published by Truthout earlier this week, has pulled a Christian-themed training session that used a quote from an ex-Nazi SS officer and numerous passages from the New and Old Testament to teach missile officers about the morals and ethics of launching nuclear weapons.

"It has been taken out of the curriculum and is being reviewed," said David Smith, chief of the Air Force's Air Education and Training Command, about the Nuclear Ethics and Nuclear Warfare training session. "The commander reviewed it and decided we needed to have a good hard look at it and make sure it reflected views of modern society."

Smith said the ethics course has been in place for "20-plus years." He added that it will now be "given thorough scrutiny" and if "folks will be appointed to look at what we have and determine its utility and if they think its useful to continue having an ethics course they will develop a new course."
So perhaps they will now consider including Tom Lehrer in the revised materials? It was a contemporary critical review of that ethos. Somehow, that makes this whole thing a little more darkly humorous, as "20+ years" puts it in range of not just Lehrer, but other thoughtful critiques of the ethics of atomic war.

Indeed, the Air Force need not even concern themselves with creating new materials. It turns out an Independent Contractor has met the need.

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