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Christmas hope amid lingering weapons

"Peace on earth" is a phrase of the season, a sentiment, an idea, a hope that, once a year, we allow to poke through the white noise of everyday life. Diane Sylvain put it another way in her Christmas reflection on page two -- "This is what it comes down to: At the darkest time of year, the light breaks through."

Sight, sound -- indeed all the senses -- seem to tingle a bit more with expectation this time of year. And if our imaginations can soar to new vistas of peace, cooperation and understanding, we know the hope that sustains the imagination is earned in smaller increments, on the ground, in the day-to-day work. Gospel love and hope never move for very long from the hubbub of the public square.

So it was significant, though too little noted, that Army Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, former supreme allied commander in Europe, and Air Force Gen. George Lee Butler, former commander in chief of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, both retired, appeared together Dec. 4 at the National Press Club in Washington. It is unlikely that either had the liturgical calendar in mind, but from their words -- a call for the total abolition of all nuclear weapons -- a little light broke through this Advent season.

The threat of nuclear war, which caused nightsweats and brought Christians and others to the barricades during the Cold War, has receded from our consciousness. But as Goodpaster warned, "The risks that are inherent in nuclear weapons have continued and in some ways increased" in the days since the fall of communism.

Those risks include the possibilities of accident, of seizure or theft of weapons and the fear that they could spread to additional nations.

Ironically, the warnings today come not only from the persistent religious prophets who have been crying out in the nuclear wilderness for decades, but from those who have been on the other side -- generals who helped design the nuclear forces and whose fingers were never far from the ultimate trigger.

The generals call for phased weapons reductions "consistent with stable security, as rapidly as world conditions permit," removal of the weapons from "alert status," and placing the warheads in "controlled storage" as negotiations for further reductions continue.

The ultimate objective is "complete elimination of nuclear weapons from all nations," a project that admittedly could take many years.

Even with a long timeline, the language of these generals paints the long-haul task as essential.

"I'm here today," said Butler, "because I feel the weight of a special obligation in these matters, a responsibility born of unique experience.

"Over the last 27 years of my military career, I was embroiled in every aspect of American nuclear policymaking and force structuring, from the highest counsels of government to military command centers, from the negotiating table to cramped bomber cockpits and the confines of ballistic missile silos and submarines. I spent years studying nuclear weapons' effects. I've inspected dozens of operational units. I've certified hundreds of crews for their nuclear missions. And I have approved thousands upon thousands of targets for nuclear destruction. ... As an adviser to the president on the employment of nuclear weapons, I've anguished over the imponderable complexities, the profound moral dilemmas and the mind-numbing compression of decision-making under the threat of nuclear attack."

The language quickly turns apocalyptic, the kind of language that was flowing from religious communities -- and being dismissed by the military as naive and simplistic -- while the generals were overseeing the building and deployment of the nuclear nightmare.

Butler said his concern is compelled by "a growing alarm that despite all of the evidence, we have yet to fully grasp the monstrous effect of these weapons, that the consequences of their use defy reason, transcending time and space, poisoning the Earth and deforming its inhabitants."

Accepting the existence of these weapons as a technological inevitability carries too high a price, he said. "Accepting nuclear weapons as the ultimate arbiter of conflict condemns the world to live under a dark cloud of perpetual anxiety. Worse, it codifies mankind's most murderous instincts as a legitimate basis of warfare."

The generals might well be adding an updated chapter to the U.S. bishops' pastoral on war and peace.

In religious communities, particularly among those who have paid a high price in careers and jail time for their protests, the message and the arguments are well-worn. These folks were the first to confront the conscience of humankind with the full dimensions of evil inherent in such weapons.

But the generals bring a specific credibility to the argument that while the rhetoric of the Cold War has subsided, military thinking about security needs has remained fairly entrenched in outdated categories. "Foremost among these policies, deterrence reigns unchallenged, with its embedded assumptions of hostility and its preference for forces on high states of alert."

The generals, and they are not the first military figures in recent years to do so, say the goal can be nothing less than abolition of nuclear forces -- a goal requiring radical rethinking of security needs and what they require.

It is a leap of thinking and imagination that can only be sustained outside the circles of government, military and industry that currently sustain the status quo. The religious community's continued insistence on peace -- grudging step by grudging step -- will be necessary if we are to build on disarmament already achieved.

Christians know that gospel hope burns brightest when it shines through at the moment of greatest jeopardy. The dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the movement of peoples in Eastern Europe toward democracy in the last decade showed that the human instinct for freedom is impossible to extinguish. That instinct, buoyed against all odds by the birth of the Prince of Peace two millennia ago, compels us to continue working for freedom from this threat of ultimate annihilation. The generals shone a small beam into our Advent this year. We can help that light grow.

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 1996