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Personal Ambivalence

Quotes from: Rosenthal, Debra. At the Heart of the Bomb: The Dangerous Allure of Weapons Work (Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, 1990)

This is a cop-out

"A woman engineer at Los Alamos figured we were trapped in the arms race. 'The Russians are going full tilt. The Chinese are going full tilt. Once I got past the fact that other countries are doing it full tilt, but don't have the Christian ethics I have, I thought it was okay. And people who work on weapons better be damn good at it.' Since she was damn good at it, she overcame her reservations and went to work in the weapons engineering division at Los Alamos.

" 'I'm Attila the Hun in an Itty-Bitty Body,' she joked, explaining her conservative Republican outlook. She thought the Democrats in Congress who supported arms limitations foolish. 'And I don't believe in welfare, I think those clowns ought to work. Or let them starve, I don't care.' Her interpretation of Christian morality emphasized industriousness, required that you treat others as you would be treated yourself, and, above all, forbade justifying immoral means by reference to desirable ends.

" 'When I first came to the lab it worried me a little bit morally because what I was working on could kill people,' she said. 'But if bombs are not made right, they'll kill people anyway. And it has to be done, so I might as well do it so it will be done right.' She had been shuffling papers on her desk as she spoke and stopped, manila folder in hand. 'That's probably a cop-out,' she said. 'I remember thinking, "This is a cop-out."' "Did she see conflicts between her work and her Christian principles? She paused, then sighed. 'No,' she said. 'But maybe that's because I don't think about them real deeply.'" (Rosenthal, At the Heart of the Bomb, pp. 133-34)

We weaponize

"Elton did no classified research. But was it weapons related? He wrestled with the question. Nothing he had ever done at Los Alamos was directly funded by a weapons program or directly connected to nuclear bombs. But everything he worked on for the laboratory had weapons applications. Was he doing weapons work? He tried to reason it out but the truth eluded him. Hemming and hawing, Elton finally compromised, saying that his efforts should be considered fifty-fifty.

"Elton's struggle to define how much of his work was weapons related was a familiar spectacle. An older Sandia scientist had warned me to expect problems with the question. 'Do you know what Sandia does?' he had asked. He predicted that a twenty-seven-year-old recently hired Ph.D. would tell me that Sandia did terrific exploratory research on important scientific and engineering problems. 'And he would say that he doesn't have much to do with weapons-he's doing research.' The older man thought that was a mistake or worse. The truth was harsh and simple. 'We weaponize,' he had said. 'We make weapons out of physics packages or nuclear components. We are an ordinance engineering laboratory.'" (Rosenthal, At the Heart of the Bomb, pp. 168-69)

The path of the serpent

"...only two groups of people at Sandia and Los Alamos had straightforward estimates of what percentage of their work was weapons work. Those in peaceful energy research groups (like solar and nuclear power plant research) almost all said, without hesitation, that none of their work was on weapons. Those in components and weapons design groups invariably reported that between 95 and 100 percent of their time was spent on weapons work. But for people in other areas at the laboratories, estimates about their personal proximity to nuclear weapons were based on all sorts of different criteria, including some apparently not measurable.

"For example, three people in the same small group at Sandia, working on the same mostly unclassified projects, had widely differing estimates of the proportion of their work related to nuclear weapons. The group did shock-wave tests. With an eighty-foot-long impact gun they created a shock wave and measured its effects on various materials and instruments.

"The group's technician thought that three-quarters of their time was spent on weapons work. The group happened to include the apocryphal twenty-seven-year-old energetic and enthusiastic recently hired Ph.D. Sure enough, he guessed that about 5 percent of his work was connected to the bomb. Sometime in the next year or two he would be expected to provide someone with the details on how his research helped the laboratory fulfill its prime mission. But an older staff member, nearing the end of his long career at the lab, insisted it was wrong to ask him to put his work into a little box with a label on it. Since Sandia was paying the bills, he supposed someone might say all his work was related to weapons. He maintained that it was all basic research. "Some people figured that weapons work was anything paid for out of a DOE weapons project fund. Others identified only classified work as weapons work. Others, like Elton, tried to foresee the path of the serpent that twisted and looped through the scientific community and the military-industrial complex, connecting their own research to some eventual application to national defense, sometime in the future, in someone else's office or laboratory. "A Sandia engineer who designed computer simulations of weapons components worried the question like a puppy does an old shoe. He decided, finally, 'It is weapons work, but I can make other people feel better about it by saying the vast majority of the components I work on are safing mechanisms. They make the weapons safer.' Who those other people were he did not say. Another man never laid eyes on anything remotely resembling a bomb or its parts. But because his job was indispensible for the operation of the Los Alamos Laboratory-he was a building maintenance supervisor-and because the purpose of the laboratory was to design nuclear bombs, he labeled himself a weapons worker." (Rosenthal, At the Heart of the Bomb, pp. 170-71)

Good intentions can have evil consequences

"Workers at the weapons laboratories gave two explanations for their trouble discriminating between weapons and nonweapons work. The effects of scientific and technological developments can never be foreseen, some said, because cause and effect in human history are unclear. DDT and deterrence were the favored examples. The megatons may be designed for shooting and dropping but may also be our only savior against large-scale conventional wars. "While intentions make a difference, people said, science is less predictable than nature. Good intentions can have evil consequences. The guy you hit on the head with a hammer might be a bad man. The church you build might shelter Nazis. The research on fusion may give us a cheap, clean source of energy. It may also produce better bombs. Doing weapons work may seem evil but serve the greater good, just as 'pure' basic research in universities may be the basis for the weapons of the future. "People also complained that moral responsibility in complicated social systems is almost never very clear-cut. You might easily admit, 'Yes, father, I did it,' when the question is, 'Who chopped down the cherry tree?' But if you are one of the people who design neutron generators at Sandia national Laboratories, should you say, 'Yes, I am responsible for the bomb?' Are you really more responsible than the president, the Congress, the ordinary citizens who elect them? 'The guy who delivers the mail to the lab is also responsible,' said one Sandia engineer." (Rosenthal, At the Heart of the Bomb, pp. 173-74)

At logic's dead end

"When reasoning about the necessity of keeping up or winning the arms race starts to look more and more like an exercise in rationalization, workers in the weapons laboratories begin to wonder if they have lost track of their moral values and suspect themselves of hypocrisy. When they try to be objective about the political and moral significance of their work, they become confused. Scientific objectivity is useful for dealing with small problems, but it becomes problematic when the big moral issues are at stake. How can you be objective about analyzing a problem that refuses to be contained? If every fact is a potential key to understanding the moral significance of your own life, every fact is equally capable of serving as a defense against guilt and anxiety. "Since logic reaches a dead end with mutual assured destruction, and empirical arguments flounder in a wealth of tenuous details, weapons lab workers find it easy to dismiss their own reservations about their work. Like their predecessors, modern weapons scientists and engineers prefer to see themselves as wizards who reveal and master nature's secrets. Day to day, they worry more about how to accommodate themselves to their institutions, and wonder aloud why no one from the laboratories has ever won a Nobel Prize." (Rosenthal, At the Heart of the Bomb, p. 229)


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