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Report from the L.A. Times

". . . 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.)


Published in Sources Summer 1983 

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