Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

December 25, 2008

A Truly Profound Moral Debate: A Medal for Cold War Veterans?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 6:57 am

Jarvisites (see below) don’t seem to get that I love the ‘net. I love surfing. I love the debates one comes upon (and sometimes starts–see below). And I love Google (just not kool-aid drinking Google- worshippers), for instance for rthe way Google Alerts has helped me with my new book on the new face of nuclear warfare.

And so it was that on Christmas morning I woke up to find one of my Google alerts directing me to what I consider a truly profound and important moral debate, one initiated by the campaign to create a medal for “Cold War veterans”.

These are the guys who manned the missile silos and the nuclear armed subs, flew the nuclear armed bombers. The guys who–depending on your point of view–saved the world from a nuclear holocaust, by making deterrence–the prevention of nuclear and conventional war, possible in the 45 years between Hirsohima and the fall of the Soviet Union.

Or took part in the reckless policy of Mutually Assured Destrruction at the heart of deterrence that pledged them to what anti-nuke types such as Jonathan Schell called “conditional genoicide”: our threat to attack and vaporize entire cities full of unarmed civilians if we should be attacked. To carry out a genocidal threat even after the threat had failed in its purpose. Or even, as happened on more than one occasion, carry out that threat on the basis of “false positive” warnings of an attack.

On the other hand what was the alternative? And also on the other hand they were doing it because we, as a populace, in effect ordered them to do it.

On the other, other hand (I’m running out of hands) there were some who questioned and opted out of it. I wrote about one in a Harper’s article “The Subterranean World of the Bomb” (March, 1978; reprinted in The Secret Parts of Fortune). And I talked to guys in Minuteman misile silos who had doubts, but I had no idea, as the post below shows that some went as far as hanging themselves from the stress of the moral quandry our policy makers (and the Soviet Union’s) put them in.

Was deterrence a profoundly moral doctrine inthat it saved tens, hundreds of milions of lives, perhas the entire human species. Or was it profoundly immoral because it threatened genocide after it had failed to deter nuclear attack?

And do the “footsoldiers” in that unconventional, non-physical–very real, but metaphysical, conceptual–combat that deterrence represeneted, deserve medals for their service regardless because of the impossible demands it made upon them as human beings?

That’s the contention of a campaign for a Cold War Medal campaign I came upon in this blog posting (lined above):

“Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cold War Veteran Spot to Air on Weekend America on Dec 27th.

ACWV and Independent Producer Eric Molinsky have put together a montage of interviews of Cold War Veterans to commemorate the End of the Cold War. Dr. Frank Tims, Scott L’Ecuyer and Bill Robinson are featured on the radio spot.

This weekend marks the 17th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the official end of the Cold War. Some Americans will be observing this weekend as if it were a holiday. These folks flew the Berlin Air Lift, or played cat and mouse games with Soviet subs, like in a Tom Clancy novel. Independent Producer Eric Molinsky says these retired servicemen are facing a new battle.

Bill Robinson was part of an elite crew: People who had their finger on the button. He flew a B52 bomber in 1968, circling the Arctic for 24 hours at a time. If given the order, he would’ve nuked Moscow. “We had one purpose and only one purpose, and that was to put our bombs on the target, regardless of battle damage, regardless of anything other than complete destruction of the airplane. So we all knew that we were basically flying a suicide mission.”

Officially, they were called “Chrome Dome” missions. Bill worked for the Strategic Air Command, or SAC. They were tested constantly – rehearsing World War III over and over again.

“Every time we had a practice alert, we never actually knew whether if it was real or not,” Robinson says. “But if it were the real thing, we would have nothing to come back to. In the back in our minds, and my mind, I knew that my family would probably be vaporized.”

Bill and his crewmates were on the front lines of the Cold War. But when the Soviet Union fell, there were no victory parades and no medal ceremonies. Gorbachev was barely clinging to power. The first President Bush was worried about sparking a backlash in the Soviet Union if America appeared to be gloating. Bill Robinson gets that, but he still feels unappreciated.

“It would have been nice to have somebody say thank you.” Bill says. “It would be nice to have somebody say, as my old OPS officer used to say, ‘It was a real bucket of snot but thanks.'”

Bill is part of a growing movement of retired servicemen who support The American Cold War Veterans Association. The organization is lobbying Congress to create a Cold War Service Medal. They have the support of seven senators, but the Pentagon is against it.

Here’s the problem: The Department of Defense does not consider The Cold War a real war. They’re worried that if they give medals to people who didn’t serve in combat, they’ll water down the whole meaning of the word “veteran.”

Scott L’Ecuyer believes that he was on the front lines of a real war. The contribution of his crew needs to be recognized.

“Sometimes I wonder, if President Reagan was still around and conscious of this, would he recognize us?” Scott contemplates. “I’ve spoken to Ronald Reagan. On a Christmas day, when I was out on the missile site, he called us, and said ‘Merry Christmas.'”

Scott spent four years as a chief mechanic at a nuclear missile silo. The job was grueling. The missiles were constantly malfunctioning, but the base had to be fully operational in case the Soviets took a first strike. The crew was tested every day, unaware if was the real thing or just a drill. One of Scott’s roommates couldn’t handle the stress. He was kicked out.

“I can’t tell you how much that guy did for the mission,” Scott explains. “He couldn’t do the job, but he propped us up so much, he might as well have been the truck that drove us there. When they kicked him out, it was unbelievable to all of us, because he was like our parent. We didn’t realize he couldn’t go home because of family issues, and he hung himself in our room. I have a flag that’s on my mantel right now that was flying over the squadron at the time, and I keep it in a box for his memory.”

Those memories weigh heavily on Scott. He had trouble adjusting to the outside world. He had nightmares from underground in solitary confinement. Scott was eventually diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. He showed up at a local VA hospital, and that’s when he discovered that he wasn’t technically a veteran. He didn’t serve during an official time of war, like Vietnam.

“I was locked out from being a new applicant,” Scott says. “I went crazy. That’s when I really got involved.”

Scott recruits members for the American Cold War Veterans Association. He’s hoping to change the system, which he thinks is unfair.

According to Scott, “Everyone’s made hay on the Cold War, from authors to politicians to the media. Everyone for 50 years has made their careers on the Cold War, and it was us that carried out that mission, and the fact that we’re forgotten is unbelievable.”

Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton have pledged their support, but getting money is going to be tough. A new generation of soldiers is coming home, with pressing concerns. The Cold War veterans might have to hunker down for a long fight. The payoff may be years down the road. They’re used to that.”

How do you feel about the stories of Bill and Scott above? I’d like to hear from “Cold War vets” about their experience–what they thought then, what they think now. Post them in “comments”. I’d like to hear what the non-combatants among you think. I think we just can’t bury their experiences, we need to think about them, because the way things look we’re going to have to deal with these questions again, soon.


  1. This battle has been going for about ten years. Some years it has been introduced in the Senate other years in the House. It did actually get passed as an Intent of Congress. That was the year DOD came up with the Cold War Certificate, a worthless piece of paper that makes no mention of military service, in fact if you worked for the Government for even one day you would qualify.

    I was on the line during the Cuban Blockade, I was at the Congo, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Naval Communications Station, Philippines during the hight of the Vietnam War, handeling all the communications between Vietnam and the U.S. Those were very trying times working 12 hours on and 12 hours off.

    I also was involved in tracking Soviet submarines from the time they left their port, as they went up and down the west coast. People have no idea how close these subs came to our shores. We knew they were nuclear subs carryng nuclear weapons.

    We lost many aircraft, shot down by Communist forces with loss of life. The USS Scorpion vanished under the sea, while tracking Soviet ships. The USS Pueblo was captured by North Korea, who still hold a U.S. Navy commisioned ship.

    Everyone in the military was fully aware that at any moment we could hear “the ballon went up” and that would be the begining of the end.

    People have forgotten how close the world was, some will remember the “duck and cover”, air raid drills, fallout shelters; but for the most part we “Cold Warriors” are a mistreated, misplaced group that are not considered “real veterans” because we did not
    serve during a “declared war”.

    Well if it were not for us, I would probably but writting this in Russian.

    It is time for Congress to remember and honor and DIRECT DOD to issue a Cold War Medal.

    National Vice Chairman
    American Cold War Veterans.

    Comment by Jerald Terwilliger — December 27, 2008 @ 2:08 am | Reply

  2. The VFW have published a book, Cold War Clashes: Confronting Communism, 1945-1991 by Richard K. Kolb, in which they document 382 known (unclassified) fatal U.S. combat casualties of the Cold War [not counting Korea and Vietnam].

    Cold War veterans have been actively struggling for recognition of the Cold War as an actual war and for a Cold War Service Medal or a Cold War Victory Medal. Cold War hostile-fire casualties of 382 are only 3 less than occurred during the Spanish American War and more than double the 147 hostile-fire casualties that occurred during Desert Storm. The Cold War [except Korea and Vietnam] was a low intensity conflict, but it was an actual armed conflict to achieve a specific political end…it was a real war.

    During the Cold War, I was an Army National Guard Engineer. At the time, over 70% of the Army’s Engineer force were National Guard Reservists. I am proud to say that my Cold War mission was, for a time, in support of the SR-71 (the strategic reconnaissance aircraft known as the Blackbird) as well as Strategic Bombers.

    Our mission was Rapid Runway Repair. We deployed OCONUS to train with the Air Force’s Red Horse, and I have a certificate from them for that mission. The airfield we trained on was one that was used by these magnificent aircraft.

    It was anticipated that the Soviets would bomb the airfield in the event of full scale war. Every third munition was expected to be chemical. It was expected that there would be air deployed mines to be cleared before the work of runway repair could begin. It was expected that we would also be facing Spetsnaz. Our mission was to deploy security forces, clear the mines and UXO, clear the debris, fill the holes, and deploy an aluminum patch…all within 30 minutes while wearing NBC (Nuclear/Biological/Chemical) protective suits.

    Why 30 minutes? To give time for our aircraft to land, rearm, refuel and take off before the second wave of Soviet bombers arrived.

    In addition to the above, we routinely trained with explosives…detonating cord, blasting caps, TNT, plastic explosives, shaped charges, and Bangalore torpedoes. These things are unforgiving and when you work with them you are holding death in your hands. Any mistake is fatal for you and all those around you. We also practiced deploying and recovering razor wire, using grenades, firing machineguns, bayonet fighting, anti-tank rocket fire, etc. Mistakes with any of these can be fatal.

    The operational tempo was such that during my Cold War service, we annually lost about 1,870 personnel due to all causes, including training accidents and operational accidents.

    To put that into perspective, the past 5 years of the Global War on Terror casualty rate for all causes (including combat) is annually less than 800. So, Cold War Veterans from 1984 to 1991 had a “peace time” casualty rate that was double the casualty rate of the current Global War on Terror.

    The Cold War was a real war and we won.

    Essayons! The duty is ours, consequences are God’s.

    Comment by George Husted — December 27, 2008 @ 9:17 am | Reply

  3. Give out as many medals as you want, but put A.J. Muste’s face on every one

    Comment by charlie finch — December 27, 2008 @ 9:47 am | Reply

  4. A.J. Muste

    “When the Depression broke like a storm over America, the CPLA became openly revolutionary and was instrumental in forming the American Workers Party in 1933–a “democratically organized revolutionary party” in which A.J. played the leading role.

    A.J. had now completed one stage of his evolution, from conservative young pastor to revolutionary American Marxist. He abandoned his Christian pacifism and became an avowed Marxist-Leninist. He was a key figure in organizing the sit-down strikes of the 1930s and, cooperating with James Cannon of the Trotskyist movement, he merged his own political group with Cannon’s, forming the Trotskyist Workers Party of America.”

    “He became the leader of the Committee for Nonviolent Action, an organization whose members sailed ships into nuclear test zones in the Pacific, hopped barbed wire fences into nuclear installations in this country, and went out in rowboats to try to block the launching of American nuclear submarines.”

    The mention of A.J. Muste in this context is either a ridiculous non sequitur or a deliberate provocative insult to the hundreds of thousands veterans that sacrificed so much in our struggle against Communist oppression and hegemony. Many of those veterans gave their last full measure of devotion.

    So which is it? Was the suggestion to dishonor Cold War veterans by putting a communist stooge’s face on a Cold War medal a sick joke or was it a deliberate insult?

    Comment by George Husted — December 28, 2008 @ 4:12 pm | Reply

  5. Muste did more to change consciousness even among those in the siloes than mentally challenged Reagan at Reykavik, who was influences by Muste, if only by osmosis. As Paul Tillich said the revolution begins when a man looks up from the assembly line and asks Why?

    Comment by charlie finch — December 29, 2008 @ 11:36 am | Reply

  6. Ron great Blog!! I am writing you today on behalf of American veterans who served during the Cold War era 1945-1991. We served all over. The Cold War was global in nature, and many facets and changing strategic considerations. During some parts of the period, actual shooting wars were involved, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Beirut, and Persian Gulf . Many of the losses in the Cold War were on missions that were under the veil of secrecy. A total of 123 of those lost (in addition to those of the Korean and Vietnam wars) are still classified as Missing in Action (MIA).The Cold War was a unique period in our history, and deserves a unique medal. Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) called it the most significant victory since World War II. It did not often have the kinds of dramatic battles that make newspaper headlines. It was the day-in-day-out routine where a successful mission meant you returned safely to port after patrolling the coast of Communist China or North Korea, or landed safely after evading Soviet interceptors. President Kennedy termed it the “long twilight struggle, neither war nor peace.” It called for dedication to duty, production of good intelligence, or manning a guard post along the border with East Germany through a harsh winter. Its casualties were less frequent, but real nonetheless.

    The “Recognition Certificate” falls far short of the recognition such service merits. The certificate can be awarded to any government employee, whether they were flying a U-2 over Cuba or a civilian clerk in the GSA in Kansas City. A service medal, on the other hand, recognizes military service. Congress has recommended that a medal be authorized. The Department of Defense has never substituted a certificate for a service medal in the past — our brave service men and women deserve a medal for Cold War service. I humbly ask the President-elect Obama to issue a executive order establishing a Cold War Service medal to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall 1989.

    Chairman Sean Eagan (Cold War and Gulf War Veteran)

    American Cold War Veterans


    “America’s line of defense is the Elbe River ”

    General D.D. Eisenhower, 1951

    “There is only one sure way to avoid global war, and that is to win the Cold War. ”

    President D.D. Eisenhower, 1953

    “By the grace of God, we won the Cold War. ”

    George H.W. Bush, 1992

    “And so the greatest of American triumphs.became a peculiarly joyless victory. We had won the Cold War, but there would be no parades.”

    – Robert M. Gates, 1996

    “The Cold War was a war, and we won it. ”

    Donald Rumsfeld, 2005

    Comment by Sean Eagan — December 29, 2008 @ 3:15 pm | Reply

  7. Allow me to quote from Stephen Haywards review of THE REAGAN I KNEW by William F. Buckley Jr. from the current number of The National Review (sorry, my quotes key is broken!): Recalling this chapter in the Reagan story (Buckley opposed the 1987 INF treaty with the Soviets) leads to Buckleys one significant revelation and revision: the doubt that, had the Soviet Union launched a nuclear attack, Reagan would have ordered a retaliation…Reagans sincere anti-nuclear pacifism is not a new theme among the writers who have studied him, but it is still amazing to contemplate. That Reagan largely concealed his probable dereliction from the pre-programmed duty of Cold War presidents was of a piece with his personal reserve, and must be closely related to his drive for the end of the Cold War by supremely Machiavelliam means.

    Comment by charlie finch — December 29, 2008 @ 6:44 pm | Reply

  8. Though a satire, this U-Tube explains why we did what we did.

    Sgt Jon Barter
    US Army 1957-1960
    Germany, France

    Comment by Jon Barter — December 30, 2008 @ 2:11 am | Reply

  9. First of all I would like to comment on the fact that the VFW (see comment #2 George Husted) has published a book about The Cold War. However, if you are a Cold War Veteran that served overseas you CANNOT join the VFW.
    The VFW is very short-sighted in the fact that you have to posess a chunk of medal to be considered “elite” enough to join their organization. I can guarantee you that if the Cold War Medal were authorized today and you could prove overseas service during that time you would magically become eligible for membership in the VFW. The VFW has no problem making money off the Cold War as well as numerous publishers and hollywood, but they are very unfair in their membership guidelines.
    It should also be noted that I have tried to “approach” the VFW several times about this issue and I am IGNORED!
    I hope that the American Legion prospers far above and beyond the VFW.
    My service: USAF F111F Bomber Crew Chief stationed in Europe from 1985-1990. I spent my time on nuclear alert missions overseas. The only difference between peace and WW3 was if the pilot gave you the signal to pull the chocks and launch the aircraft. Medically Retired Cold War Veteran
    Proud member of the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans.
    Give Cold War Veterans their medal, and don’t wait until most of us are dead!

    Comment by John Tomkins — January 5, 2009 @ 12:22 pm | Reply

  10. Great article Ron, Veterans of the Cold War Era appreciate your open discussion. I enlisted as an Army Engineer after High School during the mid 80’s. During my service I volunteered to be stationed at the National Training Center out in the Mojave Desert at Fort Irwin as an OPPFOR (opposing Force) soldier. After rigorous training in Soviet tactics we went to the field sometimes for months at a clip dressing up and acting as our enemy Soviet troops, to train against US and NATO troop’s in realistic Cold War games scenarios. We took our job serious and believed we would be saving lives if our troops were ever to go up against the Soviet Union. Unfortunately during these grueling war games lives were lost in so called “training accidents” out at the N.T.C. The dead soldier we cried for and their families mourned just as much as if they were killed in a hot war. Thousands of Cold War Era veterans were never recognized for their service and sacrifice and ETS with few if any awards and recognition. When I came home after four years of active service I was not even recognized as a veteran. I had a woman tell me when I went to apply for a position in my local county office that I “was not a real veteran” because I did not serve in a war. During Desert Shield they called me back into the Army Active Reserves. I never went over seas in the reserves however I was now finally considered a veteran for my one year in the reserve doing maintenance on equipment in a motor pool. Fortunately the training was not wasted as was proven in the Gulf War. Please support Cold War Veterans, VA benefits recognition and a Cold War Service Medal.

    Comment by Eric Anderson — January 14, 2009 @ 9:59 pm | Reply

  11. I was a soldier in a Field Artillery battallion in germany from 82-84 where the threat was all to real of the Soviets pouring through the Fulda gap. My job was more than as a field artillryman though, I was nuclear F.A. We trained constantly and had to maintain a high state of readiness all of the time.

    Whether or not I, or anyone else is authorized any kind of medal is beyond me. I do believe my brothers and sisters in arms during that time should be recognized for their service though. Who cares what the Russians or anyone else thinks.

    I know this. I am proud of my service to God, this country, and our people.

    SGT Fisher

    Comment by David Fisher — January 16, 2009 @ 10:40 am | Reply

  12. I agree that there should be a cold war medal but I would rather see a medal for all the vets that were disabled during war time service. These men and women became disabled and in some cases crippled for life while serving during a time of war. They will live the rest of their lives suffering for their service to our country. Many of these vets suffer with pain on a daily basis and will never be abled to led normal lives and yet they received no recognition for their sacrifice. There are no purple hearts for being disabled nor should there be, but a seperate medal would be something. Maybe a War Time Disabled Medal?

    Comment by Gary Garrett — February 10, 2009 @ 10:22 am | Reply

  13. I see how the poltics of this era as well the Cold War Era world wide award those in goverment for the Cold War Actions they had taken, yet still look away from those whom stood in harms way and worse forget those whom gave all from covert and non covert action following those leaders orders.

    Did Kipling have it right the population only has need once the shooting starts thats provided the public knows there has been some shooting ?

    Comment by Glen Talon — February 21, 2009 @ 9:18 pm | Reply

  14. Should there be a Cold War Victory Medal? Yes, there should (with the Korean, Vietnam, all the Expeditionary Service Medals, and national Defense considered as campaigns there of just like the American, National, European/African, and Asiatic/Pacific Campaign Service Medals were companion Medals to the World War Two Victory Medal). It only makes common sense. But, the Department of the Defense and the Department of Veteran Affairs will only do it when Congress forces them to due it because: 1. DOD will be responsible for issuing the Medals (though most will probably just buy it out of their own pocket, but the money for it makes a good dodge), and 2. The VA will fight it because they don’t want to find the funds to take care of hundreds of thousands “Veterans” that would then be qualified for VA Health Care by holding such a medal. The Cold War was a war where you stood at a moments notice, constantly prepared, to fight. We didn’t stand down like after WW1. Couldn’t stand down. Somebody had to be at 110% all the time to prove to the Soviets/Chinese that it wasn’t worth it to try and expand. And it was the US Military that held that line. I spent 3 years on the border in West Germany, and the toll was 197 days in the field the first year, 286 the next year, and 312 the year after that. Were we good at our jobs(well beyond any individual awards), yes, we had to be and had to prove to the fellow across the border that we were. Did we have much of a life beyond that, No! Did we have problems with terrorist (yes, one group in particular called the Red Brigade and all their little splinter groups that either took pot shots at us or start blowing things up, like our barracks and cars). And anyone that ever went up on the border will remember “lock and load” at the 1K sign. If it wasn’t a war, then why did we carry ammuniation and load our weapons and told we could fire if fired upon.

    Comment by EH Rice — February 28, 2009 @ 12:08 pm | Reply

  15. I too served in the very end of the Cold War. I personally have no stories of standing on fence lines across from Soviet/Warsaw Pact border guards or flying bombers to edge USSR air space or of hunting nuke subs on the high seas but I do know that from 1945 to 1991 there were millions of vets that did.

    I’m currently still serving in the Military and can tell you that they have Medals for everything today. Servicemembers that never leave the US today get two medals, the National Defense Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal for just serving 30 days on Active Duty after Basic Training.

    Yet most Cold War vets have zero medals,nothing, to show for their Service to our Great Nation.

    I have a Korean Defense Service Medal, I earned over a three year period as a Reservist going on training missions and exercises in South Korea. With that medal I earned the right to join the VFW and qualify as a “veteran” because I now have a campaign medal.

    Yet I know most Cold Warriors did far more dangerous missions then I did are not considered veterans.

    I don’t think that’s right. A simple medal to recognize these Cold Warriors is the least out Country can do for them.

    VA benefits and VFW membership, those are things that can be worked out later, but the Cold War Medal should be authorized now.

    Comment by Joseph J. Clune — March 3, 2009 @ 4:21 pm | Reply

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