“How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?”
Major Harold Hering was not and is not a pacifist. He flew in the Vietnam War and served with distinction, and was part of the launch crew of the Minuteman nuclear missiles. But while going through training for a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, as the verification procedures for a launch order were explained, he asked the above question.
He did not ask it because he felt that a nuclear strike was inherently immoral. He said at the time that he felt it was his obligation because an order issued by an insane, intoxicated, or mentally incompetent President would be an illegal order. His opinion has not changed to today:
“But in the final analysis, I definitely would ask the question if I had it to do over. The Officer’s Oath of Office demands it, I think.”
The Air Force disagreed. He was immediately removed from training and referred for administrative discharge, and spent two years attempting to receive an answer or be reassigned. He was told that the legal or illegal status of the order was “need to know”, and that his position did not possess that need. In a judicial hearing, he replied,
“I have to say, I feel I do have a need to know, because I am a human being. […] It is inherent in an officer’s commission that he has to do what is right in terms of the needs of the nation despite any orders to the contrary. You really don’t know at the time of key turning, whether you are complying with your oath of office.”
He would have been a career officer, but from that point his military career was over. Much like Stanislav Petrov in the USSR, he questioned not the logic of the nuclear retaliation precommitment, but the possibility of a broken system. He pointed out a flaw which remains unfixed.
Mr. Hering (right) and a Russian marathoner.
These days, he has retired from his later work as a long-haul trucker and counselor for the Salvation Army. He still feels conflicted about his decision, but he does triathlons and runs marathons wearing Air Force insignia and was remarried in the modern dress uniform. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, does the best he can as he sees it, and largely has put that period of his life behind him. He believes, now, that there is something ‘generally insane’ about nuclear war, and particularly the concept of the first strike. But it is no longer his business.
In the same way that we remember Petrov Day on the 26th of September, perhaps we should remember Hering Day on January 12th, the day in 1975 he lost the final appeal as was discharged for taking his duty seriously and thinking through the consequences of their procedures.