This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
My childhood was a nuclear one and I'm not talking about the nuclear family. I'm thinking of those duck-and-cover moments when, with air raid sirens screaming outside, we went under our school desks, hands over head, to test out our readiness for a Cold War nuclear exchange and the coming of the end of the world. Even at that young age, I suspect, we understood just how pathetic those desks and our hands were as defenses against an atomic blast, but that mattered little. It was so in the spirit of the era -- and not just when it came to children either.
I've never, for instance, forgotten an illustration from Paul Boyer's classic book, By the Bomb's Early Light, on the American nuclear fallout (of a cultural sort) that followed the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as World War II ended and the subsequent Cold War nuclear arms race began. Boyer found that illustration in How to Survive an Atomic Bomb, a 1950 book that caught the spirit of its moment. It showed a natty-looking man wearing one of the signature fedoras of that time, its brim partially over his eyes. The caption for it went: "If you are caught outdoors in a sudden attack, a hat will give you at least some protection from the 'heat flash.'" Women were similarly urged to wear stockings and long-sleeved dresses just in case their day happened to be interrupted by a Russian nuclear strike.
Think of these as 1950s fashion tips for the apocalypse as American fears of a nuclear conflagration grew in those years. As a Federal Civil Defense Agency pamphlet of the time typically suggested, if a nuclear blast occurred, you could "jump in any handy ditch or gutter... drop flat on ground or floor... to lessen the chances of being struck by falling and flying objects, flatten out at the base of a wall, or at the bottom of a bank." Or you could simply "bury your face in your arms." Whatever you did, however, the one thing you weren't to do, the agency suggested, was "lose your head" -- and whatever bureaucrat offered that pungent advice undoubtedly didn't mean it literally.
In those years, when it came to the apocalypse, you might say that this country did indeed lose its head. One witness to that was retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and TomDispatch regular William Astore. He spent significant parts of his military career in the late 1980s locked inside a mountain (so much better than a ditch or gutter if you were seriously thinking about making it through the end of life as we knew it). He's never forgotten his professional experience of the nuclear mindset in this country and, in a later lockdown moment filled with rising apocalyptic fears, he naturally finds himself thinking about it again.
One small note, however, on Americans and doomsday: when it comes to the apocalypse, we turn out not to be equal-opportunity employers. Against nuclear war and the apocalyptic terror attacks of our national fantasy life, we've been all too ready to lock ourselves down over the years in stunning ways. Against another potential kind of apocalypse, however, we're not even willing to take the simplest actions. Quite the opposite, when it comes to climate change -- what we used to call "the weather" and now "extreme weather" -- our new president and his crew are unlocking doors everywhere and welcoming doomsday to take up residence in our land, our streets, our houses. Tom
Preparing for Doomsday
A Shelter-in-Place Mentality Is the New American Normal
By William J. Astore
Has there ever been a nation as dedicated to preparing for doomsday as the United States? If that's a thought that hasn't crossed your mind, maybe it's because you didn't spend part of your life inside Cheyenne Mountain. That's a tale I'll get to soon, but first let me mention America's "doomsday planes."
Last month, troubling news emerged from U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) that two of those aircraft, also known as E-4B National Airborne Operations Centers, were temporarily disabled by a tornado, leaving only two of them operational. And that, not surprisingly, caught my attention. Maybe you don't have the world's end on your mind, not with Donald Trump's tweets coming fast and furious, but I do. It's a kind of occupational hazard for me. As a young officer in the U.S. Air Force in the waning years of the Cold War, the end of the world was very much on my mind. So think of this piece as the manifestation of a disturbing and recurring memory.
In any case, the reason for those doomsday planes is simple enough: in a national emergency, nuclear or otherwise, at least one E-4B will always be airborne, presumably above the fray and the fallout, ensuring what the military calls "command and control connectivity." The E-4B and its crew of up to 112 stand ready, as STRATCOM puts it, to enable America's leaders to "employ" its "global strike forces" because... well, "peace is our profession." Yes, STRATCOM still references that old SAC motto from the glory days of former Strategic Air Commander Curtis LeMay who was so memorably satirized by director Stanley Kubrick in his nuclear disaster film, Dr. Strangelove.
The Pentagon reassuringly noted that, despite those two disabled planes, the E-4B's mission -- including perhaps the implementation of a devastating nuclear strike or counter-strike that might kill tens of millions and even cause a "nuclear winter" (a global nightmare leading to a billion deaths or more) -- could be accomplished with just two of them operational. Still, relieved as I was to hear that, it did get me thinking about the other 190 or so nations on this planet. Do any of them have even one "doomsday" plane to launch? And if not, how will they coordinate, no less survive, the doomsday the U.S. government is so willing to contemplate and ready to fund?
When it comes to nuclear weapons and what once was called "thinking about the unthinkable," no other nation has as varied, accurate, powerful, deadly, or (again a word from the past) "survivable" an arsenal as the United States. Put bluntly, the nation that is most capable of inflicting a genuine doomsday scenario on the world is also the one best prepared to ride out such an event (whatever that may turn out to mean). In this sense, America truly is the exceptional nation on planet Earth. It's exceptional in the combination of its triad of nuclear weapons, its holy trinity of sorts -- nuclear missile-carrying Trident submarines, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers still flown by pilots -- in the thoroughness of its Armageddon plans, and especially in the propagation of a lockdown, shelter-in-place mentality that fits such thinking to a T.
My Lockdown, Shelter-in-place, Cold War Moment
Once upon a time, I thought I was exceptional, or at least exceptionally well protected. My job as an Air Force software engineer granted me regular access to the innards of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, America's nuclear command center. In the 1960s, the complex had been tunneled out of granite at the southern edge of the Front Range of mountains, dominated by Pike's Peak, near Colorado Springs, Colorado.
I can still remember military exercises in which the mountain would be "buttoned up." That meant the command center's huge blast doors -- think of bank vault doors on steroids -- would be swung shut, isolating the post from the outside world. I don't recall hearing the word "lockdown" in those days (perhaps because back then it was a term generally applied to prisons), but that was certainly our reality. We sheltered in place in that mountain redoubt, the most literal possible version of a Fortress USA. We were then cut off (we hoped) from the titanic blasts and radioactive fallout that would accompany any nuclear attack, most likely by that Evil Empire, the Soviet Union. In a sense, we were a version of a doomsday plane, even if our mountain couldn't be sent aloft.
My tour of duty lasted three years (1985-1988), the specifics of which I've mostly forgotten. But what you don't forget -- believe me, you can't -- is the odd feeling of having 2,000 feet of granite towering over you; of seeing buildings mounted on huge springs intended to dampen the shock and swaying caused by a nuclear detonation; of looking at those huge blast doors that cut you and the command center off from the rest of humanity (and nature, too), theoretically allowing us the option both of orchestrating and surviving doomsday.
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