The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine. By Andrew Cockburn. Random House, $16.95.
August 16, 1983        

Every rational person knows that the first use of nuclear weapons will probably not be the last use, and that the last use will probably end civilization. Yet the minimal concession to sanity embodied in a “no first use” pledge, lately much discussed in the United States, has little hope of being realized.

Apologists for militarism have convinced Congress and the electorate of a “present danger”: a vast and menacing Soviet military buildup, which has decisively tilted the global military balance in the Soviets’ favor. They argue that this buildup must be met, in the interest of peace, by a huge, economically devastating, probably unassimilable increase in American defense spending. Even liberal politicians with no real belief in (i.e., constituency for) such an increase are cowed. The Soviet “threat” is axiomatic.

In an important new book, Andrew Cockburn examines that threat in its real and mythical aspects. Besides poring over the literature, Cockburn has interviewed emigré Soviet armed forces veterans and dissident Americans within the far-flung defense-analysis community. His finding: “Anyone with an open mind who has had occasion to pay close attention to the way the Soviet military goes about its business in any particular area will usually conclude that the threat in that instance is probably misinterpreted and inflated.”

Examples of Soviet military in competence (interspersed with examples of American military incompetence) follow, in mind-boggling profusion. The Soviet T-64 tank introduced an automatic shell-loader, which tended to load gunners instead of shells. The T-64 also pioneered a 125-mm tank gun, the largest in the world, but with newly designed ammunition that neglected to take wind resistance into account, so that, according to a former Soviet tank officer, “it was an all-powerful gun, which always missed its target.”

In its fascination with ever more complex and inefficient technology, the U.S. Air Force has sponsored the B-70, the F-111, and numerous other monstrosities, which the Soviets have nevertheless slavishly imitated. “The best thing that ever came out of the F-111 program,” an air force official confided to Cockburn, “is that the damnfool Russians went out and copied it.” The Soviet Army is a Babel of Asian languages and a cauldron if ethnic tensions. Many of its members never handle a weapon, and roughly half, perform tasks which the U.S. Army does not assign manpower to or else accomplishes with a fraction of the men the Soviets require. Moreover, a fair proportion of the Soviet armed forces are incapacitated at any one time. A former Soviet lieutenant told one of Cockburn’s sources that “the time for the Americans to attack would be New Year’s Eve, because everybody was drunk and there was no one on duty.” He added: “But New Year’s Eve wasn’t that much different from any other time.”

Notwithstanding these and many other intimations of chaos, Pentagon propaganda manages to depict the Soviet military machine as a fearsome juggernaut, constantly challenging the American preeminence that alone stands between the free world and the dark night of totalitarian enslavement. A former high Pentagon official explains the interpretive principle of this “threat inflation”: “all our estimates of the military balance are based on the assumption that Murphy’s Law does not operate in the U.S.S.R.” Though usually wrong, these estimates have the overriding merit of producing the desired conclusion: eternal expenditure is the price of liberty.

Having our pockets picked is one thing; being engulfed in a war that all this mindless militarism may make inevitable is something else again—something to be up in arms about. Debunking the Soviet “threat” and other aspects of cold war mythology is probably the most useful thing we can do in the face of that very clear and present danger: American militarism. "The Threat" will help.