Monday, December 10, 2012

Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger: A Nuclear Family Vacation

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In 2006, 15 years after the end of the Cold War, according to "A Nuclear Family Vacation," and I have no reason to doubt their numbers, the United States spent essentially the same amount of money- $6.61 billion dollars- on the nuclear complex as in 1984, during the height of the Cold War.  Part of that money funds "missileers": Air Force officers who sit underground awaiting orders to launch nuclear weapons. Two at a time, they sit strapped into chairs awaiting orders to follow a procedure and simultaneously turn two keys that, when turned, "launch their missiles toward enemy targets." In other words, there is no red button for the president or any other government official to press. They give an order, which travels down a chain of command to two lowly, and apparently young, officers do the deed. These officers rotate in shifts underground, and as Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger write, "It was hard to imagine that keeping young, educated, and highly trained Air Force personnel locked underground was really the best use of resources. If nothing else, it struck us as terribly unimaginative. Nuclear deterrence did not always exist, and it seemed somehow odd to think that it always would."

"A Nuclear Family Vacation" is a journey through an entire system that seems both unimaginative and odd. Hodge and Weinberger, a married couple, decided to spend their vacation time over the course of two years doing something rather imaginative: going somewhere they both of them wanted to go, which turned out to be "key nuclear weapons sites." Some of these were more accessible than others, and it seems that almost all of them were made slightly more accessible by the author's journalism credentials, and as the vacations piled up, Hodge and Weinberger realized they were learning more about the nuclear complex than they thought they would at the outset: the Cold War might be over, but as the numbers I gave at the start prove, the nukes aren't gone. Entire labs, even mini-cities, are devoted to the general upkeep and storage of nuclear weapons: both their maintenance and safety, and ensuring that they still work, without testing them. I learned more about the Bikini Islands than I have ever heard before, but only in the most literal, physical sense. "A Nuclear Family Vacation" is a travelogue, which is a slightly strange way to present the information in the book, but it really is possible that Hodge and Weinberger didn't set out to write a book, and it really is a readable, if slightly motley book. On the other hand, for dorks like me with a true pacifist, anti-nuke bent, the information falls slightly short: I kept waiting for More, and the travelogue genre doesn't really allow for that. Perhaps the book is most successful in this way, as a travelogue with a twist that leaves you searching for more.


thb said...

So, if it isn't over now, when will it be over. Seems like a body in motion has a tendency to stay in motion, and clearly the guys sitting in silos ain't making 6.6 Bil/year (even Greinke ain't getting that kind of money). Hey, is it okay to post a comment with baseball analogies in there every time?