On Thermonuclear Monarchy: An Interview with Elaine Scarry


One of the most striking characteristics of Elaine Scarry is the absolute balance she maintains between the rigor of her thinking and the compassion of her demeanor. This makes sense for someone whose prolific body of work links an appreciation for the beauty of palm trees to modern torture, and comparative translations of the Iliad to the history of war.

Scarry is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, and a newly-elected member of the American Philosophical Society. She is the author of eight books and many essays, three on aviation science, which speaks to the breadth and depth of her studies. Her book The Body in Pain remains the definitive work on torture and its world-destroying power, and her complementary book On Beauty and Being Just is a profound manifesto on the ability of beauty to assist us in addressing issues of injustice.

While speaking with Scarry on speakerphone, she reminded me that, because it would be difficult for her to hear me, “If you want me to stop talking, you’ve got to say so in a long sentence, and assertively,” a suggestion I found particularly endearing. In February, W. W. Norton will publish Thermonuclear Monarchy, its second book by Scarry. It is a groundbreaking work on nuclear war that argues that the possibility for one man to obliterate millions of lives with a nuclear weapon contradicts not only the philosophical foundations underlying international law, but also the laws of consent on which our country was founded.

—Sarah Gerard

Sarah Gerard: I’m talking to you today about Thermonuclear Monarchy, which is an incredible work. The book is a continuation of your previous work on phenomenology and consent, and government policy. In particular, The Body in Pain and Thinking in an Emergency hold nuclear war at the center of your thinking about emergency procedure and torture, and you actually excerpt the latter almost completely in the last chapter of your current book. Did you begin writing Thinking in an Emergency with Thermonuclear Monarchy in mind?

Elaine Scarry: Yes, absolutely. Thinking in Emergency was, from the outset, a chapter of Thermonuclear Monarchy; Norton chose to publish that chapter in advance as a stand-alone book in their Global Ethics Series. In 1993, I was a Leff Fellow at Yale, which was an invitation to give a few lectures and seminars. I gave one on Thinking in an Emergency. By that time, I had already done several other preliminary chapters for the book, and over the course of many years, I’ve written multiple chapters, some of which are in the final book, some of which aren’t. That chapter was, all along, planned because the book has to identify the aspects of the Constitution and of social contract that are violated by nuclear weapons, and that are the tools we can use to restore a constitutional and contractual society.

Thinking in an Emergency tries to understand why we permit ourselves to be talked into the idea that, in emergencies, there’s no time for thinking, or there’s no time for using these constitutional procedures, which is almost preposterous. The analogy I make is, it would be like teaching someone CPR and then telling them that if someone actually gets a heart attack, you shouldn’t use it because now it’s an emergency. The Constitution is there for emergencies, and particularly for the emergency of the claim that we need to go to war. It’s not that we can never go to war; it’s that, if we’re going to go to war, that’s a proposition that needs to be tested in many ways.

And so, Thinking in an Emergency asks, “Well, what is this seduction that lets us believe the executive office when it conjures up this aura of emergency?” One of the seductions is the idea that thinking and acting are incompatible. A quick way of seeing how wrong that is, is to realize that most of the great political treatises on government were also written by people who have done philosophic work on how we think. Thinking and governing go together. It’s not like when you govern, you stop thinking. If the people govern, the people have to keep thinking. If the people have stopped thinking, they’ve stopped governing.

But the real problem I try to address in that chapter is the notion that when something is a procedure, or a law, or a custom, or a habit, then we mistakenly judge that it doesn’t have anything to do with thinking. But when people can think and act, it’s because they have agreed in advance on certain procedures they will follow in emergency. Thinking in an Emergency draws on a huge range of examples from many different countries—Canada, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Switzerland—to show that citizens can act and can think, but need to have thought out these protocols in advance.


SG:  Would you say that we’re presently in a state of emergency, considering the number of nuclear warheads that the U.S. and other countries have collectively, and the fact that the power to launch those warheads in the U.S. is held solely by the president?

ES:  I think so. I think it’s an extremely dangerous situation. Most people, even people who don’t seem concerned about nuclear weapons, will, when asked, acknowledge that it’s almost inconceivable that they won’t be used in their children’s lifetime, or their grandchildren’s lifetime, either by accident or by intention. We don’t have an example of weapons invented for war that aren’t used. They are used. The most recent research on nuclear winter that’s appeared in many scientific journals, research that’s been published between 2007 and 2012, shows that even if a tiny percentage of these weapons are used—not 1 percent but .015 percent, which is a minuscule amount of the total arsenal—there will be 44 million deaths immediately, and one billion deaths within one month, from the worldwide consequences of even that small amount.

We can see that the weapons are spreading and that the number of near accidents is very high. I think that we can get widespread agreement: many people in the United States are worried about accidental explosions of nuclear weapons, or are afraid of terrorist appropriation of nuclear weapons. Given that agreement, you have to say, “Well, what is keeping us, then, from just saying that we have to get rid of these things immediately?” What’s stopping us is the entirely wrong idea that there’s some legitimate use for nuclear weapons.

If anything, the state use of nuclear weapons is far more dangerous than terrorist use, or accidental use, first of all, because of the thousands of steps that have to be taken for massive use of them. Nation states, not terrorists, have put these thousands of steps toward readiness in place. A terrorist might be able to get hold of one, or there might be an accidental dropping of one. Believe me, I dread those things, too. But far more dangerous is the situation of countries that have, as the United States does, this hair-trigger alert of many weapons, because many times, people have come close to misconstruing a signal. There is widespread recognition that hackers may soon be able to create the false image of an incoming missile, which would trigger a nuclear weapons-holding country to use an actual missile, or a set of missiles. Most important, we know that past presidents have contemplated using nuclear weapons even when there was no false signal. The use that is not coming from one of the many accidents that have occurred, but from actual, deliberate use, is what I try to focus on in the book.


SG:  The idea that nuclear weapons are a violation of the Constitution and social contract is at the center of the book, and that includes the seemingly conservative idea that citizens of the U.S. are permitted constitutionally to bear arms and form militia. You call this a good thing for its distributional properties. Do you find that people react badly to this idea?

ES:  So far they don’t, but I understand your question. We have a country divided between people who are passionately committed to individual use of guns—which is not my argument—and the population that wishes to believe they’re above military responsibilities, and that’s also a danger. It’s well-intentioned because it comes from wishing to be pacifist and wishing not to be in a position where one is being asked to harm someone, which is what happens in war. But the result is that we have a huge arsenal in place that’s totally at the disposal of the executive, and the executive office has a big stake in not having to deal with, for example, universal draft, because if there’s universal draft, then everybody is thinking and talking about the proposed war, and assessing it, and not just turning on their televisions to learn whether we’re at war. They know that they have a responsibility for determining whether or not we go to war.

First, let me back up a minute and say that when I talk about distributing arms, what I’m talking about is distributing authorization over whether we use arms. So, it might be that once the population is responsible for arms, then it gets to decide, “Are we going to have a big arsenal? A small arsenal? Or no arsenal at all?” The United States population could decide that it wants any of those three alternatives. The situation we have now is that the population has no say over the arsenal.

Your question is very important because people have good reasons for wishing not to think about being part of a military. There was a man named William Sumner in the nineteenth century, who said that, at the moment when a country’s population begins to disdain military service, that’s when democracy ends. There are all kinds of things that bear that out. Even pacifists have said that you can’t have governance if what you’ve done is put military power in the hands of a single person, or a small set of people—sixty people. Gandhi said that, of all the black acts committed by England against India, the worst was the disarming of its people: “Give us back our arms and then we will decide whether or not we wish to use them.”


SG: You lay out a multi-step process of consent in war, which goes as far as the already-enlisted soldier having to give his consent day-to-day. I found that moving.

ES: I think it’s true. The examples occur in every war. In World War I, there were soldiers in France who stopped fighting and rounded up a thousand horses and blocked the roads; soldiers in Britain at the end of World War I who refused to follow Churchill’s orders to go up to Russia to stand with the whites against the reds. There were soldier strikes all over England. In 1990, soldiers in Lithuania were asked to fire on their own people, and not only refused but also went into Parliament and signed a refusal record, possibly risking death in doing so. In the American Civil War, soldiers often deserted on both sides, especially southern soldiers who even went over to the other side. The large number deserting on the southern side eventually brought about a northern victory.

Vietnam was a demonstration of the many ways people can dissent to war either by refusing to go or, as many soldiers did, going and then relaying information back to the population about what was going on, that then showed much of what was wrong. But every war that I looked at contained similar examples of the capacity of soldiers and populations to dissent, and it means that there’s a very high bar for persuading people that there’s a need to go to war. Whereas, with automated weapons, you don’t have to persuade anyone. You don’t have people throughout universities and workplaces and schools asking, “Tell me again, why are we going to war? Why am I supposed to risk my own life? Or risk my brother’s life?” Usually, you need very powerful arguments to persuade people that this is so important that we’ll give up our lives for it.

There are things that are that important. But were the Taiwan Straits that important in 1954, when Eisenhower considered dropping the atomic weapon? Was the Berlin crisis in 1959 that important, when he considered using them? We know that Kennedy considered using them. Former Secretary of Defense McNamara reports that Kennedy came within a hair’s breadth three times. It continues up through Lyndon Johnson, who considered using them against China. Richard Nixon acknowledges that he considered using them three or four times. And it is there that the record stops, because three or four decades went by before we learned about the instances I’ve just named; and three or four decades will again have to go by before we’ll learn about contemplated uses by presidents after Nixon. It puts the population in the position of just having to guess what’s going on, whether our executive is contemplating using nuclear weapons.


SG: You draw a distinction between war, historically, and modern war, a difference which is grounded in consent. The United States hasn’t formally declared war since World War II.

ES: It’s a profound error to think that we would know if the president is thinking about using nuclear weapons. History shows that we did not know. The single instance in which we knew was the Cuban Missile Crisis. In no other instance was the American public aware of it. I give one footnote in Thermonuclear Monarchy, of the day of 9-11, when George W. Bush, who had been in Texas, is flying around on Air Force One, and stops at ­­­Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. The coverage of that, including even the official 9-11 Commission Report, does not ever raise the question of why, among all the air force bases in the United States, ­­­­­Offutt Air Force Base was chosen. Well, Offutt Air Force Base, up to that time, when it appears in news reports, and I cite one from the New York Times, is described as the center of our land-based and air-based nuclear strike forces.

In an article I cite from the New York Times, from the early nineties, it’s observed that Offutt Air Force Base is the nuclear strike center not just against states, but against non-state actors. Well, how do you use a nuclear weapon against a non-state actor? Nuclear weapons kill millions of people. How are you deciding on the guilt of millions of people on the basis of what a small number of terrorists did? But that’s a separate question. The main point that I’m trying to make right now is that we don’t even, in this country, say, “President Bush, can you tell us whether your stopping at ­­­Offutt Air Force Base means that a nuclear strike was on the table that day?” And because everything is so secretive, of course, were one to do that, they’d just be told, “This is a matter of top security.” That this disenfranchised population, this population that no longer has any legitimacy to raise questions about how we use our weapons that injure, ought to just pipe down and keep quiet.

We’ll find out thirty years from now about that incident, and when we do, thirty years from now, the people reading the paper will hardly be able to remember thirty years ago. The United States Constitution is designed so that things have to be transparent. If a president wants to go to war, or if anyone wants to go to war, it’s debated in open session, in both houses of Congress. It’s voted on. Your name is attached to it. Same with the citizenry; the citizenry debates. They talk to people on the streets. They talk to people at their workplace. They talk to people at school. It’s audible. It’s testable. It has to be testable. It doesn’t mean we’ll never go to war. Maybe we will find a reason to go to war. But it doesn’t mean that it’s untested.


SG: In an insightful analysis of Thomas Hobbes’s translation of the Iliad, you show how the philosopher’s word choices highlight the social contract structure of the work. It’s not often that we find literary criticism occupying so much space in what is essentially a book about contemporary political issues. Why was it important for you, as a writer and thinker, to follow this path?

In the nuclear age, Constitutions have been belittled and deformed by having their war provisions ignored. So, too, social contract theory has been set aside in the nuclear age. One of the leading theorists of peace, Thomas Hobbes has been turned upside down into an apologist for executive war making. I draw on twelve of his works to show how central the prohibition on injury is to his writings, and how crucial consent and dissent are in those writings. His word choices in his translation of the Iliad show his honoring of the soldier’s capacity for dissent.

The reason why I go on to talk about social contract is to say that the prohibition on executive war making isn’t an accidental feature of the U.S. Constitution. Even if it were, we should use it and know that we have not only the right, but also the responsibility to say, “Actually, we will be responsible for overseeing the entry into war.” There are provisions in the Constitution, but if one reads social contract, that’s what the social contract over many centuries actually is. The social contract, constitutions, and assemblies were invented precisely to make sure that a king or a central power could not take its population to war, could not involve its population in a war without having the argument for going to war tested and gaining the consent of the people. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, in turn, reach back to many earlier precedents to show that there are many centuries of weight standing behind this tool, if we want to use these two constitutional provisions. If someone has a better tool to use [than social contract], I’ll use it. I want to use whatever the best tool is. As far as I can see, this is the best tool we have.

If you look historically at civic rights, they’ve always been associated with military responsibility. So, I use the example of the Fifteenth Amendment, extending the right to vote to African Americans, which was voted primarily on the basis that 180,000 African Americans had fought in the Civil War, and have to be given the right to vote. The Nineteenth Amendment extends the right to vote to women. It’s not quite as dramatically linked to military service, but it is deeply linked—there were pageants, and suffrage pageants, and praise that celebrates women’s potential contribution to defense of the country, or defense of themselves. I also cite the Twenty-sixth Amendment, which lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen on the basis that the Vietnam generation, both because of going to Vietnam and because of debating the justness of war on university campuses, had earned for itself, and all future generations, the right to vote at a younger age.

This is replayed in the struggle for gay rights in the military. People correctly saw that if homosexuals were prohibited from serving in the military, it’s not just that they were denied military rights; it meant that they didn’t have full civic stature. Now that’s been corrected.

But, what we haven’t concluded is that it’s not just African Americans, and women, and gays—it’s our whole population that has now been deprived military rights. Meanwhile, what is the consequence of that? The consequence is that there’s a staggering arsenal of nuclear weapons that, even at the moment you and I are talking, includes fourteen submarines ranging around the ocean. You don’t know where they are. I don’t know where they are. It is not the case that they don’t have targets; they do have targets. Because of the increasing fear of a hacker being able to get into a system and launch a nuclear weapon, though some of our submarine weapons still have land targets programmed into the missiles, some of them now have open-ocean targets programmed into them.


SG: In The Body in Pain, you argue that torture is world destroying and is therefore antithetical to creation. The relationship between a torturer and his victim reminds me, structurally, of the relationship between a nuclear state and a state that doesn’t have nuclear weapons, but also the relationship between a nuclear state and its citizens who are disarmed. Would you consider possession of nuclear arms a kind of torture, or something that can be used for torture?

ES: Yes I do. And in fact, it was at the moment that I wrote those sentences that I realized I had to work on nuclear weapons because, until that moment, I had been thinking about nuclear war as a genre of war along with other genres of wars. When I wrote that—and that’s, I guess, back in 1980 or so—I realized that nuclear weapons don’t actually conform to the model of war, they conform to the model of torture. In the most literal way possible, they do not permit any right of self-defense between two parties. They are a structure of eliminating the right of self-defense, both from foreign populations and from the home population. They are a literalization of world-destroying power. Not just destroying the world in the mental context of the torture victim, but literally destroying the Earth and destroying large parts, if not all, of humanity and many other species.


SG: It seems to me also that, as serious as they are, they also are only a symptom of the complete dissolution of the rules of war. You use the example of U.S. drones killing thousands of people in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Do you think there’s any way back?

ES: I do. I really do. I think that our loss of control in all of these areas, and the fact that we stand by idle with no braking, no testing, no determination of guilt, goes hand-in-hand with it. Once we get rid of nuclear weapons, we will restore the power and right of self-defense to the population, and once we do that, I think the population will be much more vocal about any other form of weapon, or executive action, or breaking of international law, as we did during the Iraq War. There’s a Rosa Luxemburg sentence that says, “You only begin to feel chains when you move.” I think that once we take a step into the realm where we recover our responsibilities—where we defend one another, where we protect one another, where we protect people in other countries—once we take a step into that, other things will follow. Many people have challenged the truly grotesque level of secrecy in this country. It has become a major debate as a result of the work of Snowden and other people who have written books or made films about secrecy. But I think there really can be a turn back. If there isn’t, we’re all finished.


SG: You cite the legal principle: “What touches all must be approved by all.” Can you talk about how you interpret that phrase?

ES: That is the principle by which parliaments came into being in Europe and in England. It was a Latin principle that said that if an action is going to affect people, they get to have a say over whether that action is taken. They have to approve it; it has to be decided by them; it has to be approved by them. It’s why representative governments came into being in medieval Europe. And again, it’s not just that it came into being because of many different issues that the monarchs were deciding on, it was explicitly war that occasioned the invention of these assemblies.

There were two things that came into place as a result of this principle. One was that you had to have assembly representatives, and the second was that the representatives had to get a mandate from their own population because if they didn’t have a mandate from their own population, then there could be a call for a referendum where it would go back to the populations and they would approve it or not approve it. So, kings said to their representatives and their assemblies, “You have to come showing me that your town has signed something saying that you have the right to speak for them.” In some cases, there were multiple assemblies, where the representatives would come and discuss, and then go back to their citizenry, and then come back. They not only had to get permission to test the proposition of having a military, but also make specific provisions for how much money could be spent, and so forth.

Again, we’re so used to, in this country, wishing to be non-military, that we think, “Oh, well, a state is many things other than the military.” And a state is many things other than the military, but it exists primarily for the health and safety of the population. If what it’s done is put everybody in monumental jeopardy, then it has absolutely sabotaged the fundamental purpose of governance. You are absolutely in a state of non-governance.

If we get rid of nuclear weapons, people in the future will look on this period not as a period of governance. You know, I use the term “thermonuclear monarchy,” but Hobbes would say it’s a ghastly, obscene form of anarchy. Because day in and day out, they’ve made arrangements for the slaughter of the citizenry. How can that be a form of governance?

Of course, the reason I’m invoking that principle now is because nuclear weapons touch all of us, and the argument is the situation needs to be redressed by everyone. In some ways, in the very last part of the book called Against Us All, I make the argument that even things that aren’t nominally part of the social contract, like animals or flowers, or geological structures, actually are implicated. So that, if somebody particularly loves this kind of tree called the purple beach, that is something that will be touched by nuclear weapons. If somebody loves mockingbirds, that’s something that will be touched, and even now is touched, by nuclear weapons. The same with all kinds of geological structures, or pieces of language.

So, who should be called upon to do this? Everybody should be called upon to do this. I feel that people should see the things that they love as a call to work against nuclear weapons and in favor of eliminating them. If you love the Grand Canyon, or you love a small valley near your home, that is calling to you to be responsible for taking care of this huge problem.

One idea I try to stress at the end of Thermonuclear Monarchy is that, when we talk about social contract, it’s always about arrangements among human beings. These people who wrote about social contract also loved the Earth and its many other species, and I use the example, which is not that widely known, of Locke, who collected wildflowers on scores of days. We even have the dates on which he found them, and dried them, and labeled them. Rousseau said you couldn’t be a philosopher unless you learned botany first. Hobbes wrote a tract about the motion of horses, that’s just an amazing piece of work that reminds you that meter is something that is common to both poets and to horses.


SG: Your investigation of Hobbes’s translation and other documents including the constitution makes it explicitly clear how easy it is to manipulate language to seem to be in favor of this kind of brutality, but your work is encouraging in that it also shows us how investigating these historical documents can bring us back to an understanding of injustice. Can you talk about that?

ES:  Other people have shown, without alluding to nuclear weapons, how odd the picture of Hobbes had gotten around the 1950s and beyond. He seemed to have been turned into a monster. And yet, if you look at the timing, that is the nuclear age, and he was made to serve that purpose. These things take many different forms, and if our structures of thermonuclear monarchy demand that we give up the Constitution, it’s not that an executive goes out and says  (except maybe Nixon), “Okay, now I’m saying let’s get rid of the Constitution.” That would be preposterous. But, people start giving all different kinds of accounts of why we don’t need to follow the Constitution. “Oh, that was something from several centuries ago,” “Oh, that was something associated with nation-states and we’re above thinking of nation states now.”

Now, sometimes, you do have executives willing to say, “Look, we can’t do things constitutionally because I have a lot of power here.” There’s the amazing moment when Dick Cheney said—and I cite this in the book—on a television program, in response to questions about torture in the Bush administration and Guantanamo, instead of saying, “You’re over-estimating executive power,” says, “You guys are not thinking clearly. What we did is nothing compared to the power the president has. Day and night, he’s being followed around with a nuclear briefcase. Don’t deceive yourself. His power is far beyond what you imagine.”

We seldom have people talking so candidly, and when they do, we think, “Oh that’s just a bizarre stylistic feature of Dick Cheney.” That’s not a bizarre feature; that’s a candid statement of fact.

One of the reasons why I take some time going into the translation of the Iliad is because, during my early years of working on this, when I would lecture on it, I would often cite Locke, because he was readymade for this argument. He believes that the legislature is the soul of the country. He says very explicitly that anybody who thinks they’re safer standing against one man armed with the force of ten thousand versus standing against the force of ten thousand soldiers, is out of their mind. Or, in other words, that you’re much safer standing against a distributed military power than against a non-distributed power. All that is to say that Locke has a very clear presence in the provisions in the U.S. Constitution. There are similar provisions in the French Constitution, and the Russian Constitution, and the Indian Constitution. On the other hand, nuclear weapons have discredited constitutions, discredited political philosophy, and discredited live citizens.

The reason I spent so much time with Hobbes is that, during the Nuclear Period, Hobbes has been travestied. He’s been made into a figure that would be happy to have had executive monarchs and presidents hold nuclear power, which is absolutely preposterous. I go through many of his writings, including his translation of the Iliad, to say that this is somebody whose sole purpose is to get us out of the miserable condition of war. He says that the very worst thing that can happen from non-governance, and it can only happen in an Anarchic state of non-governance, is the massacre of the citizenry. And that is what we have right now: we have a huge system of non-governance with arrangements for a slaughter of the citizenry of the countries of the world.

One of the interesting things is that there is a solution. Solving the problem of nuclear weapons is straightforward compared to solving the problem of global warming. Addressing global warming is absolutely crucial. It’s hard to figure out the solution, but we will find it and we will work on it. At least where I live, everyone agrees that global warming is a problem, but there are still multiple-car families and trucks and all kinds of things. With nuclear weapons, there is a clear solution. We need to get rid of nuclear weapons. We need to get rid of our own, which then gives us a moral basis for asking other countries to give them up, and to work hand-in-hand with all the countries that have been begging to have a world free of nuclear weapons.