You Can't Fight in Here! This is the War Room!

Ukraine - The real-life dilemma world leaders face when one of them simply loses it. And loses it while clutching a fist full of nukes.

You Can't Fight in Here! This is the War Room!
Slim Pickens as Major T. J. "King" Kong in Dr. Strangelove

"Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops! Uh, depending on the breaks."

The immortal words of one of America's foremost strategic military thinkers, General Buck Turgidson. Sitting in the War Room with President Merkin Muffley, he outlined two "regrettable but distinctly different postwar scenarios. One, where you have 10-20 million people killed, and one where you have 150 million people killed."


The idea that we laughed at these lines, delivered by the theatrical genius George C. Scott, now seems a little eerie. And it's ironic to me that I was watching Dr. Strangelove a couple of days before Russia invaded Ukraine and that Vladimir Putin, a walking, talking aggravated zit on the end of the world's nose, began within days talking about nukes.

Now, it does seem that Vlad is wrapped a little tight, which is like saying the Titanic is a little behind schedule. But this logic is on the order of A + B = L. He went straight for the saber and began rattling it like the percussion guy in the Miami Sound Machine. And with this week's Ukraine invasion, a comfortable version of the old cold war came to an end, and we suddenly realize how limited our options are when everybody has nuclear weapons.

Even after multiple arms limitation agreements, and the east and west settling into a boring stalemate that insured that any wars we both carried out were proxy affairs, arming this rebel group or that, and always careful not to risk any Russian or American instructors on the scene, we've hit the wall we never anticipated. After all, we have the bomb, Dimitri. The hydrogen bomb, Dimitri. And even after those agreements, we all have too many. I interviewed Winston Churchill II back in 1981, when he wrote a book called Defending the West. It revealed correspondence between his father and Harry Truman as they molded the shape of the postwar world.

When it came to nuclear "overkill," Churchill told me his father had a succinct phrase I've never forgotten. "There's no point in making the rubble bounce." Enough is enough. And even through risky events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, we ultimately depended on leaders on both sides who were willing to climb down from the ledge.

Khrushchev was a loudmouth and full of bluster, but helping Fidel wasn't ultimately worth risking his cushy life and the dacha on the Black Sea. And JFK wasn't wedded to some antiquated Jupiter missiles in Turkey, so a quiet swap was made and we all began breathing again.

But, now what? This isn't about tweaking the nose of a young President with a few rockets in the sunny Caribbean. This is a guy who looks in the mirror and sees Peter the Great. And the old empire he is nostalgic for is largely a part of NATO now.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization began with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, the other major event that year being me. The goal wasn't just a defense against the Soviets, but also preventing another conflict within Europe. Two in one century were quite enough. With the Korean War, and the russkies getting the bomb in 1949, NATO got serious and set up a formal command structure in Europe, with none other than Dwight Eisenhower as the first Supreme Commander.

A unified structure for military operations was established, right down to settling on a common caliber for ammunition. And Article 5 of the charter is the one that has the world on edge right now. An attack on one member is an attack on all. Think the Three Musketeers with B-52's.

The goal of political stability in Europe was achieved, new members like West Germany,  Greece and Turkey joined, and the Kremlin got nervous. So, the Warsaw Pact was formed in 1955 as a counterweight to NATO. Basically the two organizations faced each other over the Iron Curtain, another Churchill phrase. And so through the Berlin Wall and ensuing crisis, the Berlin Airlift, Cuban Missile Crisis, wars in Southeast Asia and Africa, and ultimately the fall of the wall and the USSR itself, we managed to keep our fingers off the button.

The author at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin

When we think of the Warsaw Pact and nations in the old Soviet bloc, we think of Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Albania, Estonia, Croatia, Poland, Slovenia and Lithuania. Well, one can only imagine Vlad's dismay that all of them, all of them, are members of NATO now. It's a sad development that he feels didn't have to happen. And by Lenin, he means to do something about it.

We shouldn't buy his rhetoric, though sadly some have, that he fears some kind of military encroachment from NATO. He knows better. We've had Presidents who are hawks and doves, but none thought about anything resembling an attack on Russia. It was never in the cards, well maybe for Curtis LeMay, but no one else, and Putin knows that. So, what we are dealing with here is simply, ego. If you want to be mentioned in Russian history books in the same breath as Peter and Catherine the Greats, you can't just sit in the Kremlin and stash cash, which to be sure, he has. It's time to get the band back together again, and one of those pesky breakaway states that isn't under the NATO umbrella is Ukraine.

Bigger than Texas with 40 million citizens, it has everything a dime store Napoleon could want. It has minerals, farmland, natural resources, and they know your language. You've harrassed them for years by proxy, so, hey, in for a dime, in for a dollar. So, to continue our Strangelove metaphor, Vlad has become General Jack D. Ripper. He has launched wing attack plan R on Ukraine, and found that it isn't as easy as it used to be.

Now, his setbacks and Ukraine's unbelievable resistance, can't last forever. In fact, he may have it done by the time you read this. Though, it's hard to take him seriously when you read that a group of gypsies found an abandoned Russian tank and stole it, ending up in a ditch. I'm glad to know Sgt. Oddball survived WWII.

In fact, one correspondent on the scene, Nicholas Laidlaw, says this invasion is being carried out by the gang that couldn't shoot straight. He says half the forces thought this was a training exercise, and their personal phones were confiscated when they shipped out. A few hours later and they are under fire. The officers are using two-way radios and cell phones and transmitting in the clear with no digital masking. The Ukrainians, and NATO, can hear everything they are saying. The officers are staging themselves farther and farther from the troops. No one can contact central command. That huge convoy is stopped because fuel is running out. The logistics involved in this are a bad Russian joke. Soldiers are looting stores and gas stations because they are out of food and fuel.

Putin's former speech writer,  Abbas Gallyamov, told the BBC that this was a huge miscalculation on Putin's part, and he is backed into a corner. With the army looking like the platoon in "Stripes" Gallyamov says Putin needs something out of this, some kind of trophy. To get it, he will double down on the destruction, and even a crappy army will win if there are enough of them.

Therefore, within a day of the initial attack, Putin was reminding all and sundry that he has nukes and they are all on high alert now.

And this is where our comfortable semi-cold war ends. What do you do? One's instinct is to launch the A-10's and strafe the hell out of that big Russian column. Send in a couple of fighter wings and retake control of the air. And that is what all the keyboard commandos of the 82nd Chairborn Division are recommending and concluding, of course, Biden is a complete wuss for imposing sanctions.

But, and here is the big but. We have never faced another nuclear power on the field of battle. Do you run the risk that his pit bull on black mollies demeanor hides a brain full of eels? After all, he is using cluster and vacuum (theremobaric) weapons, so would he really? Could he really?

Calling his bluff means you are calling it for the entire world. That is the calculus that all the world leaders who are involved in this decision have to weigh. Now, Pentagon leaders have to be also watching this unfolding Chernobyl of a battle plan, literally, and thinking to themselves, "Man, they really suck at this." But the humiliation of the war's first week may make Putin even more unpredictable. After all, when you spend your free time being photographed bare-chested on horseback, your self esteem is already teetering like Humpski-Dumpski and this fubar exercise may just make him more inclined toward some nuclear manhood compensation.

So, you are Biden, Johnson, Macron or Scholz. How far do you push this? There has been speculation over the years about whether Europe and America would have acted if Hitler had confined his evil to the borders of Germany. What do we risk in Ukraine, given that Putin seems to be unraveling like that ball Redford hit in The Natural.

I'm not advocating rushing in like the 7th Cavalry lest it end the way it did for them. But I think it would behoove all of us who love to take political pot shots at leaders because it is cost free, to think for a minute about the monumental and potentially deadly decisions they face. This isn't about infrastructure or high speed internet. It is about the potential for nuclear war with a potentially unhinged foe. Jack Kennedy faced a number of members of the Joint Chiefs who wanted a full scale invasion of Cuba and conceivably a direct confrontation with the Soviets. He rolled the dice with a blockade and came up all sevens.

I suppose we all knew this could happen one day, and the weapons we built for defense end up dooming us to inaction. It's frustrating for all of us as we watch the nightly news and the mindless destruction of a free state, but the consequences go far beyond Ukraine. I don't laugh at any of the western leaders. I pray for smart decisions.