Saturday, December 7, 2013

Bill Lapham

NUKES

We had moored USS TENNESSEE (SSBN 734) in the explosives handling wharf (think of a pole barn over two football fields long, one wide). I was strolling along the missile deck one day, taking in the sights, when I looked down into an open missile tube. The weapons technicians had taken off the tube closure and nose cone from one of our 24 Trident II missiles. I could see the warheads, three sinister beasts arranged in an equilateral triangle. They were conical, coming to a slender, pointy tip. The tips looked like they could draw blood from a finger for sugar-levels testing. The vehicles reminded me of dogs on a chain, straining for permission to attack.
We could assign targets for each of them, unalterable destinations once we shot them. They were the proverbial "fire and forget" type of weapon. I smiled at them, called them derogatory names, slurs spoken under my breath. I hated the gray demons. I reminded them that they were doomed to live a dark, isolated life. We would not release them. They would live in leashed misery in a cold cell of solitude.
We were letting them out this time so we could replace them with telemetry-heads. We were going to shoot this missile just to see if it worked. Two weeks hence, we would be back in Kings Bay to reload these warheads on a new bird, and they would resume their sentence, confined to their cell, buried in the tube. An officer of the Russian Rocket Forces would verify we had safely locked them away in their tomb, and match their vehicle identification numbers with the ones he had on his "top-secret" list.
We do not call our warheads "warheads;" we call them "re-entry vehicles." The term "re-entry vehicles" sounds rather harmless, like bringing John Glenn back from orbit. "And we have splashdown!" They come down through the atmosphere at something like 3,000 miles per hour, in hot, straight lines. At night, they look like super cosmic electron beams of destruction shot from a UFO positioned somewhere above the clouds. They come down together to form a 'footprint'.
Funny thing about the START Treaty verification protocol, it lets the Russians know exactly what, and how many, warheads will have hit them, if we were ever crazy enough to shoot the things. (It would take crazy-reasoning – not cool calculation.) Chances are, however, if we do shoot them, the strike will not be against the Russians. We seem to have accepted their presence in the same sandbox with the other boys and girls of the global neighborhood. No, some other country that has not learned to behave as well will be our target. One might place North Korea first on that list, with Iran a close second. (However, Iran seems to be negotiating their way out of the crosshairs lately.)
The distinctive cloud that forms over the site of a nuclear detonation looks like a giant mushroom, hence its popular name, a mushroom cloud. Though they are most often associated with atomic/nuclear explosions, conventional weapons and volcanic eruptions can cause a similar effect in the atmosphere. The intense shock, heat and light created at the core of an atomic or nuclear explosion pulverizes the ground below it, vaporizes the air above it, and rapidly ascends tens of thousands of feet in a column. As it lifts, it cools, and as the atmospheric pressure declines, the cloud of vapor condenses and expands, hence, the mushrooming effect. Debris from the ground, which rises with the cloud and becomes ionized by the source of the explosion, falls back to Earth in a pattern determined by the wind, or is blown around the world until it loses speed and falls out, like silt at the bottom of a river. Fallout is the cause of much of the radiation poisoning and cancers found in the unfortunate survivors of the initial blast. They continue to increase the bomb's death toll for years after the event.
If atomic mushroom clouds did not hide their sinister intent, lethal effect, and a terrifying promise, they would be beautiful. Instead, they conjure fear and loathing. Indeed, the weapons that produce such an effect are the products of vast amounts of human ingenuity, creativity and innovation. Imagine the other things that could have benefitted from the time wasted on these behemoths. Crop production to feed the world's hungry, mosquito eradication to protect against malaria, water production in the deserts, paper production that requires the sacrifice of no trees, locomotion without pollution, extended battery life, solar panel electrical production, education for the children of the world, and the list goes on. Instead, we employed all that genius toward the development of weapons of mass destruction. Our solution to our problems was to work on weapons to annihilate each other.
Nevertheless, we will not shoot our nuclear weapons. We cannot. The United States is the only country ever to shoot/drop/explode atomic weapons in war. To do it again would be to turn the whole world against us, more than it already has, that is. We would become the biggest bully on the block rather than the global police force, the boy who cannot control his temper, the diplomats who always have a default position: war, nuclear war, if need be. In other words, we are not diplomats; we are arm twisters, the poker players sitting smugly behind iridium sunglasses, secure in the knowledge that we always have at least three aces in our hand, the re-entry vehicles I was looking at today. Slim, conical tips pointed right at the other guy's forehead.
This is bomb math. Three warheads (minimum) x 24 (missiles) = 72 (warheads/boat). Seventy-two warheads at a minimum of 350 Kilotons each = 25.2 Megatons total, minimum. One Trident II fleet ballistic missile submarine armed with 24 missiles outfitted for war cost roughly $2 billion when the U.S. purchased them in the 1980's. The United States had 18 of them built, but only 14 of them carry nuclear missiles today. The other four are loaded with over a hundred Tomahawk cruise missiles each, and are capable of delivering highly trained SEAL teams to any ocean beach in the world.
There must be a way to negotiate these things out of existence. Left to me to decide, I would do away with them by decree, unilaterally, if need be. What are we afraid of, an unprovoked nuclear attack? Here is an idea: Let us not provoke anybody. Then the threat evaporates. Are we afraid of an invasion from the east or west, across the two greatest oceans on the planet? By show of hands: which country has built a naval amphibious force of such immensity? Are we afraid of an invasion from the north or south, across vast stretches of tundra and desert? None of the above is likely. Who would mount an attack against a country armed as we are? It's not even safe to go to school here. We cannot un-create the weapons of nuclear devastation; we can only destroy them and promise each other to never build them again. We were smart enough to figure out how to build the damnable devices, we ought to be able to eliminate them, too.

© William Lapham 2013

Bill Lapham studied creative writing at Goddard College in Vermont. He teaches and tutors undergraduate writing at Davenport University. He lives in Brighton, Michigan.

9 comments:

  1. I’ve received my education about American war and warheads from Bill Lapham. I can’t think of a better teacher because, even if he is writing fiction, it’s GOOD fiction. And what were our history books, growing up, if not fiction? I liked the reference to John Glenn splashing down precisely because a hundred others have splashed down since, but his ride is the one that sticks in memory.
    The whole package – story and photographic art – works beautifully so kudos to Michael Brown for this presentation.

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  2. Forgot to say that, while it's all very well to wish that dangerous chemicals and weapons would go away, the trick is to not rub the lamp, in the first place. Supposedly, right now, the USA is taking custody of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. And that's a good idea because....? What do we need with thousands of tons of deadly poisons? We need more poisons like we need third teats! Oh jeez, now you've got me started.

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    1. Dear Gita, The US destroys its chemical weapons, and, presumably, Syria's, at a plant on Johnson Atoll in the South Pacific.

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  3. @GS, He got you started, and isn't that exactly what he's good at, I mean beyond the excellence of his writing itself? Incidentally, Bill supplied the illustrations, which I then doctored a bit, and I do hope I've done them justice. @BL, I didn't think I could make them scarier.
    Everyone needs to hear this author's voice as he is somehow able to frighten and calm a reader at the same time.

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    1. Thank you, Micheal. I hadn't heard back from you so I didn't now this was here until just now. Thanks for posting it!

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  4. metheothertwin@aol.comDecember 9, 2013 at 8:31 AM

    This should be read in every classroom.

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    1. Read in every classroom, talked about, moved upon, and DONE. It's not necessary for anyone to have these weapons, he's so right.

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  5. The doctoring did make them scarier because you roughed up the images.

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    1. I asked Michael to do some of the photo magic that he has become renowned for and he has done a remarkable job, a MuDJoB!

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