Report from the
". . . and they were doing cartwheels."
ALTHOUGH I HAVE spent much of the past three years
reporting for the Los
Angeles Times on our drift toward nuclear war, there are
still times when I lose my sense of the devastation that lies behind
the sterile acronyms by which these modern weapons are described. The
words have grown stale after nearly four decades of so-called strategic
development. We hear about SLCMs and MIRVs or of that weird hodgepodge
of nuclear-war-fighting strategies — the window of
vulnerability, the first-strike scenarios, the city strips —
and after a while, the mind doesn't react with the appropriate horror.
The question of universal death grows stale partly
because the arguments are often unnecessarily complex, rely on an
insider's lingo and use terms that mute just what it is these bombs
will do — which is, to start with, kill the people one loves
and nearly everyone else as well.
I came to appreciate this fully only during a
conversation with a former CIA analyst who had been responsible for
evaluating Soviet strategic nuclear forces. He has spent much of his
adult life concerned with the question of nuclear war and has heard all
the arguments about nuclear-war fighting and survival. But an
experience from his youth, he told me, remains in his mind and, he
admits, may yet color his view.
This man had conducted some of the most important
CIA studies on the Soviets and nuclear war. Now in his middle years,
still youthful in manner, clean-cut and obviously patriotic, the father
of a Marine on active duty, he recently left the CIA to join a company
that works for that agency, so I cannot use his name.
He told me about this experience of his youth
because he was frightened by the Reagan Administration's casual talk
about waging and winning a nuclear war and thought it did not really
comprehend what kind of weapon the bomb was. As an illustration, he
recalled having seen, as a lieutenant in the Navy, a bomb go off near
Christmas Island in the Pacific. Years later, at the CIA, he had worked
with computer models that detailed the number of fatalities likely to
result from various nuclear-war-targeting scenarios. But to bring a
measure of reality to these computer projections, he would return in
his mind as he did now to that time in the Pacific.
"The birds were the things we could see all the
time. They were superb specimens of life . . . really quite exquisite .
. . phenomenal creatures. Albatrosses will fly for days, skimming a few
inches above the surface of the water. These birds have tremendously
long wings and tails, and beaks that are as if fashioned for another
purpose. You don't see what these birds are about from their design;
they are just beautiful creatures. Watching them is a wonder. That is
what I didn't expect. . . .
"We were standing around, waiting for this bomb to
go off, which we had been told was a very small one, so no one was
particularly upset. Even though I'd never seen one, I figured, Well,
these guys know what is going to happen. They know what the dangers are
and we've been adequately briefed and we all have our radiation meters
on . . . No worry."
He paused to observe that the size of the bomb to
be exploded was ten kilotons, or the equivalent explosive power of
10,000 tons of TNT. The bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were 13
and 23 kilotons, respectively. Now such bombs are mere tactical or
battlefield weapons. Many of the ones to be used in any U.S.-Soviet
nuclear war are measured in megatons — million of tons of TNT.
He continued his account:
"So the countdown came in over the radio, and
suddenly I could see all these birds that I'd been watching for days.
They were now suddenly visible through the opaque visor of my helmet.
And they were smoking. Their feathers were on fire, and they were doing
cart wheels. And the light persisted for some time. It was
instantaneously bright but wasn't instantaneous, because it stayed and
it changed its composition slightly. Several seconds, it seemed like
— long enough for me to see the birds crash into the water.
They were sizzling, smoking. They weren't vaporized; it's just that
they were absorbing such intense radiation that they were being
consumed by the heat. Their feathers were on fire. They were blinded.
And so far, there had been no shock, none of the blast damage we talk
about when we discuss the effects of nuclear weapons. Instead, there
were just these smoking, twisting, hideously contorted birds crashing
into things. And then I could see vapor rising from the inner lagoon as
the surface of the water was heated by this intense flash.
"Now, this isn't a primary effect of the weapon;
it is an initial kind of effect that precedes other things, though it
is talked about and you can see evidence of it in the Hiroshima blast
and in Nagasaki — outlines of people on bridges where they
stood when the bomb was dropped. But that initial thermal radiation is
a phenomenon that is unlike any other weapon I've seen."
The men who now dominate the Reagan Administration
and who believe that nuclear war is survivable would surely wonder what
those reflections have to do with the struggle against the Soviet
Union. But what my CIA friend was telling me was that those birds are
us and they never had a chance.
(From "With Enough
Shovels/' by Robert Scheer, Playboy, December 1982.)
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