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“The burden of knowing” #TwoMinutesToMidnight #armageddon

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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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Three Things… #3 – “…the clock is ticking…” #richardclay #armageddon #bbcradio4 @thMnsandthInstr

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I’ve already had a couple of turns at Three Things, the meme created by Paula at Book Jotter; this is where we post things we are reading, looking (at) and thinking. I’ve been pondering a lot over the weekend and so I thought I would share a few thoughts via the meme, though I’m going to be bending one of the categories slightly so you can follow where my thoughts are coming from…

Reading

I’m back to work after the summer break and so of course my reading rate has instantly slowed down…. 😦

However, I’m currently spending some interesting time with this title – “Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar” by Yuri Tynianov, which I’ll be reviewing for Shiny New Books. Tynianov is a Russian modernist author from the early 20th century who’s new to me, and he seems to be rather under-translated. So far, this historical novel is proving to be fascinating. The author appears to be best known for his “Lieutenant Kijé” which inspired the famous Prokofiev suite of the same name. However, this novel hasn’t been translated in full before, and was rendered by Susan Causey before her untimely death. Look Multimedia have rescued the translation from obscurity and I’m very glad they have – I’m picking up shadows of Bely in the writing style, and the story itself (of diplomat and playwright Alexander Griboyedov, friend of Pushkin) is intriguing. Such a shame I have to work for a living, as I’d rather like to spend a day or two exclusively reading this…

Looking/Listening

“Looking” for me is more often than not at art, or the world, or documentaries: the latter have been a bit of a sanity saver in recent years, although we’re in a lean period at the moment suffering from a dearth of documentaries and I am only being sustained by watching repeats of Lachlan Goudie’s “History of Scottish Art”. But! BBC Radio 4 and Professor Richard Clay to the rescue! 😀

Friday saw the broadcast of an excellent and thought-provoking half hour, tucked away in a morning slot and entitled “Two Minutes to Midnight“. In this, the Prof took a look at our ever-changing views on nuclear weapons, from Ban-the-Bomb days through to our current seeming indifference about imminent armageddon. Drawing on a wealth of information, the programme packed much into its half hour slot to ask some uncomfortable questions about why we don’t seem to be bothered any more. Which set me…

Thinking

“Two Minutes to Midnight” was a very timely programme and brought home to me how we need reminding about the dangers we face from a nuclear conflict. Tracing the evolution of our attitude to nuclear war since the testing of the hydrogen bomb, Clay reflected on why we seem to have lost the sense of what these weapons can do. A number of experts pitched in with a variety of viewpoints, from sociologists to RAF Fylingdales’ artist in residence Michael Mulvihill to author Eric Schlosser (I own a book by him. Do I know where it is? No….)** They came up with many interesting discussion points; one that resonated particularly was the desensitizing effect of video games and films which are not as realistic as the programmes and movies produced during the Cold War (“Threads” and “War Games” were referenced, and I can recall their impact). The fall of the Communist Bloc and the end of the Cold War meant a shift away from the focus on the concept of global conflict and there is much less public awareness or discourse surrounding the issue, with CND membership numbers plummeting. We also have much less distrust of technology than we used to; however, it’s worth bearing in mind that we are generally a much more politically disengaged race nowadays, and in fact the greatest risk of nuclear problems nowadays could well be from accidents rather than a war…

But we forget too easily nowadays how long the Cold War went on and how seriously we thought armageddon was possible. I can recall the nuclear warning sirens being tested every Sunday morning, as well as the arrival of the Protect and Survive booklets advising us what to do in the event of a nuclear strike. Both of these were stark reminders of the hopelessness of any attempts to survive the fallout, and as the programme points out, the advice given was absolutely pointless.

Images c. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

It’s shocking really to realise how we simply accept that emerging nations, which may not have the necessary safety controls in place, are developing nuclear capability. And we live in a busy world, with endless trivial diversions to distract us from reality. Back in the Cold War days, popular culture was much more engaged with issues generally, understanding what the consequences of nuclear war were. It’s no coincidence that the subject made it into pop songs – Ultravox’s “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” springs to mind, and of course the “Two Tribes” of Frankie Goes to Hollywood featured voice-overs with examples of the “Protect and Survive” advice. Nowadays, we’re so distracted by who’s in the jungle, or the high-profile high jinks of preposterous politicians which ooze all over our broken media, that we forget the real issues and threats. Yes, climate change is menacing the planet and has to be taken seriously, but it’s not so instant and brutal as a nuclear event would be. It’s almost as if we’ve become resigned to the inevitably of MAD…

As for the title of the programme; well, that refers to the Doomsday Clock. As Wikipedia says, this is “a symbol which represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe. Maintained since 1947 by the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board, the clock represents an analogy for the threat of global nuclear war”. The nearer to midnight, the higher the danger of destruction. In December 2017, the clock was placed at two minutes to midnight, which is the first time disaster has seemed so close since 1953 when the US was first testing its H-bomb. So here we are on the edge of a precipice, and no-one seems to be taking any notice – which is pretty scary in itself….

I could go on a lot more about how good “Two Minutes…” was, and the different cultural strands on which it drew (Clay wears his erudition lightly); but instead I recommend you all go off and listen to the programme here while it’s still on the iPlayer, and reconnect with the real world and real issues. This quietly subversive programme makes sobering listening and really packs a punch; it definitely deserves to be widely heard, and in fact could have been twice as long. Hats off to Richard Clay for producing another stimulating piece of programming; he has another documentary in the pipeline, so watch this space as I’ll no doubt be rambling on about that too!

(As a coda, I thought I’d share another song from the 1980s about annihilation – by a long-lost band I used to love, Young Marble Giants. Their “Final Day” is short, but unbelievably chilling…)

** After writing and scheduling this post, I decided I would go and have a proper look for my Eric Schlosser book, and lo and behold I found it! It was actually where I logically thought it should be – alongside my copies of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and other related literature:

I picked it up in 2015 with a special reissued edition of “Hiroshima”. Yes, I know I have three copies of Hersey’s book, and I don’t care. It’s such an important book that everyone should have at least one copy, and reading it alongside “Black Rain” is a salutary experience. Perhaps the introduction of Hersey’s seminal work on school syllabuses all over the world would be a useful exercise…

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