How Cold War Maj. Harold Hering Asked a Forbidden Question That Cost Him His Career

Scrutinizing culture.
Feb. 28 2011 5:40 PM

An Unsung Hero of the Nuclear Age

Maj. Harold Hering and the forbidden question that cost him his career.

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I was wrong about that. I replied by e-mail to clarify that I was trying to reach him because I had dedicated my book to him (and wanted to send him a galley). I also sent along some questions about what course his life had taken after the Air Force ended his military career. How The Question had changed his life. I must admit the response was moving and surprising.

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It was clear from his reply that he'd always been conflicted in a certain way about what he'd done. In his initial statements at the time of the Board of Inquiry he made clear that he was not seeking to disobey or ignore a "lawful" order, but he felt a responsibility imposed by his oath as an officer and by his "conscience" to be sure an order to launch his missiles was truly "lawful." He had wanted to be both loyal and unquestioning but had to question to be truly loyal. He'd found himself in an impossible catch-22 position.

It had taken him a long time, he told me, to absorb the "devastating" consequences of what he thought was strict adherence to duty. After cautioning me that he didn't want me to mention any family matters, he said, "I've been through some pretty rough times but have tried not to be bitter about it all."

The difficulty and the bitterness have been exacerbated by the kind of self division of which I speak. He told me: "I thought my actions were proper, but felt shame."

Proper. Shame. He was doing the right thing but had to suffer the ostracism of those who didn't understand the urgency of his question, who blindly sought to inculcate an unquestioning "follow orders" order of things.

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He seemed to have a kind of love-hate relationship with the military. He said, "For a number of years I did not use many of the military facilities available to me as a retiree." He said that was because, "I didn't feel like I fit in any more, like damaged goods or general inadequacy."

The military that so undeservedly caused him to feel this way, that treated his urgently important question without the seriousness it deserved, caused him to reject the free medical care available at VA hospitals or other outreach services to assuage the suffering he'd gone through. The suffering they'd caused!

Instead, he sought alternate remedies, he told me. "During this time I became involved in several personal growth workshop/events, some very intense and also spent over a year in solitude in the mid '80s." He had a lot to think about.

A year in solitude. Like burying himself in an underground launch control center.

"Sixteen months," he told me later, where his only companion was a cat and the only contact he had with the outside world was listening every Saturday night to Prairie Home Companion.

I know, it sounds a bit bizarre, but we all have our own ways of healing our wounds.

"I left work as a road driver early on to work for the Salvation Army as a counselor into the mid-'90s. During that time I also volunteered for a year as a clinical associate for the Crisis Suicide Line."

Crisis suicide line. What could be more appropriate? It's impossible not to infer a kind of connection: Maj. Hering's question went directly to the issue of whether the human race would commit collective suicide in a crisis. He felt a responsibility then and later to intervene. We were, we are, a system in need of salvation from ourselves.

All the while he was counseling the suicidally inclined, he was in a "dark emotional hole" himself, he told me.

For one thing, despite all that had happened, he said, he "missed the Air Force, especially flying with the Air Rescue Service."

Indeed, one of his proudest claims to me was that at age 72, he'd become a marathon runner and competed in the U.S. Air Force marathon. "And today," he adds, "I proudly wear the Air Force insignia." In fact, he tells me, he was recently married for the second time "in [a] Navy Chapel … wearing the new Air Force dress uniform."

But he can't help feeling a loss and he can't help feeling his question still goes unanswered.

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