Gods of Metal by Eric Schlosser

Have gone to the trouble of ransacking the shelves to find the Eric Schlosser book I own (see my post here!) I felt it was only fair to actually *read* the book reasonably soon, particularly as it’s been languishing on the shelves for over three years. The timing felt opportune after listening to Richard Clay’s stimulating programme on the nuclear threat, “Two Minutes to Midnight” (which I blogged about extensively) and I was in the right frame of mind for some hard facts. And Schlosser certainly provides those.

“Gods of Metal” was published in 2015 as a Penguin Special, alongside a new edition of John Hersey’s seminal “Hiroshima”, to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Schlosser is an investigative journalist, probably best known for “Fast Food Nation” (although “Two Minutes…” referenced his book “Command and Control” which also sounds fascinating); those journalistic skills are certainly on show here. “Gods…” explores the world of nuclear resistance in the USA through the Plowshares movement, and their actions are brave and terrifying in equal measure.

The fact that an eighty-two-year-old nun had broken into a high-security nuclear-weapons complex seemed unbelievable. But to some people familiar with the security arrangements at Y-12 the intrusion was the logical result of mismanagement that had plagued the facility for years.

In 2012, a small group of people broke into a high-security weapons complex in Tennessee; unfortunately, they gained access unimpeded; fortunately they were peaceful protesters. Schlosser relates the history of the Plowshares group, a movement inspired by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker newspaper, and which has spawned dissenters over many decades. Their belief in peace and disarmament is paramount, and they’re willing to be jailed in the most shocking conditions for their cause. Schlosser follows the three protesters from the moment of their break-in to their eventual imprisonment and aftermath, whilst considering the state of nuclear control in the USA as well as the increasing arms race from developing countries. And it’s really scary stuff…

Little Boy [the bomb dropped on Hiroshima] – a crude and highly inefficient atomic bomb, designed in the 1940s with slide rules – contained about 140 pounds of weapons-grade uranium, and almost 99 per cent of it harmlessly blew apart as the bomb detonated. And, when that happened, two-thirds of the buildings in the city were destroyed and perhaps 80,000 civilians were killed. The amount of weapons-grade uranium needed to build a terrorist bomb with a similar explosive force could fit inside a small gym bag.

As Schlosser is at pains to point out, the nuclear threat comes not simply from a conflict (and a really big war is going to end up with Mutually Assured Destruction, so one would hope that the major powers are still trying to avoid this – although that wasn’t necessarily the case when this book was published). There is the fact that smaller countries are developing nuclear capability, but without necessarily the proper controls; and the more weapons there are, the higher the probability of an accident. Then there’s the ideal of a nuclear terrorist threat which is mind-bogglingly awful, and when you consider how relatively easy the carnage of 9/11 was, the concept doesn’t seem so unlikely.

By Lgmelby [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

But possibly the likeliest threat (and this was highlighted in “Two Minutes…” as well) is from incompetence or accident. As Schlosser reveals, the various nuclear sites are run by a series of commercial agencies (G4S at one point, FFS!!!) and these are shown again and again to be totally motivated by money and to be failing the most basic security tests. What is particularly terrifying is the ease with which the Plowshares activists gained access to the sites; the security was abysmal and had they wanted to actual take drastic action, they really could have.

For nearly forty minutes, I stood on the shoulder of a dirt road within throwing distance of a Minuteman complex. I didn’t see another car on the road, let alone a security fence with guns drawn. The short-grass prairie that stretched before me was windswept, gorgeous, dotted with small homes. You would never think that hidden beneath this rural American idyll, out of sight, out of mind, were scores of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Just yards away from my rental car, sitting not far below my feet, there was a thermonuclear warhead about twenty times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, all set and ready to go. The only sound was the sound of the wind.

“Gods of Metal” (the phrase is how the activists refer to the missiles) is a stunning mixture of the factual and the personal, which makes it particularly compelling and very affecting. Schlosser writes beautifully, and whatever you might think of the Plowshares activities and beliefs, you can’t help but admire their commitment to their convictions and their willingness to go to jail for them. And Schlosser’s slim book (120 pages) packs a real heft (I wonder if it’s perhaps “Command and Control”-lite, and whether I need to explore that book too…) The facts are stark and Schlosser’s warning of the real danger we live with every day is chilling. After listening to “Two Minutes to Midnight” (which will still be here on the iPlayer for a little longer) I was convinced we were walking around with blinkers on; I’m even more convinced of that fact after finishing “Gods of Metal” and I can see why it was released alongside “Hiroshima” (kudos to Penguin Books for that). It’s a worthy companion piece to that work, and it’s about time that more people read these works and started paying attention to what’s going on in the world around them.

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