When It Comes to Missile Defense, Saying “We Can’t” Won’t Save Lives

Strange as it might seem, when I was pregnant with my twin sons, I had a recurring dream about World War I. I believe it was due to something every parent discovers: With the birth of children comes the fear that you won’t be able to protect them from the dangers of life.

When our eldest, a daughter, was born, I worried about crime. Before she was old enough to sit up, I plotted how to prevent her from ever walking alone in a dark parking lot. With boys, my thoughts turned to war.

The nine million men killed in World War I – 5.4 million for the allies and 4 million for the Central Powers1 – all had mothers. But even the most devoted of these moms couldn’t protect their boys from mistakes by politicians and military leaders who made that war excessively bloody by failing to adapt to then-new military technologies.2

Today some politicians are making this same mistake: Planning to refight the last war instead of preparing for the next one. They don’t really understand that war with 21st Century weapons will be fundamentally different than past wars have been. That’s the basic factor holding back a missile defense system. Forget talk about budgets, or how well a missile defense system would work. A possibly catastrophic failure to think ahead is the main reason we don’t have a full missile defense program in place today.

The stakes are enormous. In a major war, a missile defense system most likely would be the only thing preventing the deaths of hundreds of millions of civilians.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, few people believed that air travel was possible. Some children born then grew up to die in air battles.

Columnist Charles Krauthammer, a defense expert, believes missile defenses will be to the 21st Century military what air power was to the first half of the 20th.3

Technology moves much faster now than it did 100 years ago, but politicians haven’t changed at all. Missile defense systems would deter war; yet, they’ll save lives if war comes. Morally, they’re the best military expenditure ever. But politicians aren’t building them largely because they’ve never built them before.

Critics of missile defense say the systems may not work (although many experts disagree). But people once said that about airplanes. Science advances fast. A defense against nuclear weapons is the natural next step after the development of the weapons themselves, just as anti-aircraft weapons followed the development of airplanes dropping bombs.

One thing’s for certain. Sitting around saying “we can’t” won’t save lives.

I doubt I’m the only mother who worries about war. In a January 2001 McLaughlin & Associates poll, 72% of women said they favored building a missile defense system. That’s slightly more support than can be found among men, although missile defense systems are popular. Over 80% of Republicans and almost two-thirds of Democrats and Independents want such a system. 70% of African-Americans want it, as do 58.1% of self-described “liberals” – usually the last people to support any kind of new defense expenditure.4

Even the Europeans and the Russians – who have had their own rudimentary missile defense system since at least 1968 – are warming to the idea.5

Throughout all of human history, mankind has never learned to avoid war. It could be fatally foolish of us to assume we’ve suddenly learned.

In reference to World War I, Artist Max Slevogt painted “The Mothers,” an “endless column of wailing women alongside an endless ditch of dead men.”6 Without a missile defense system, the column of the dead will be even longer after a future war. But the column of mothers will be shorter, because the mothers will be dead, too.


Amy Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. 


1 Niall Ferguson, “The Pity of War,” Basic Books, 1998, p. 337.
2 Ferguson, p. 303.
3 Charles Krauthammer, “The Bush Doctrine: ABM, Kyoto and the New American Unilateralism,” The Weekly Standard, June 4, 2001.
4 “The American ‘Mainstream’ Wants a U.S. Missile Defense,” Decision Brief No. 01-D 11, Center for Security Policy, Washington, DC, January 31, 2001.
5 Kenneth R. Timmerman, “Missile Defense Deployed in Russia,” Insight, April 30, 2001, p. 14.
6 Ferguson, p. xxxi.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.