Forum — From the December 2017 issue

Destroyer of Worlds

Taking stock of our nuclear present

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Sleeping Giants

By Lydia Millet

Once there were eighteen of these sunken giants in a ring around Tucson, Arizona — eighteen underground silos surrounding this desert city. Each housed a Titan II missile more than ten stories tall, tipped with the most powerful nuclear warhead ever deployed by the United States.

They were massive weapons, named for a race of ancient gods, but their life span was brief, from the height of the Cold War, in 1963, to 1987, when their now-obsolete technology cost too much to maintain. The missiles were promptly dismantled and the silos blown up, caved in, sold off to private parties — all except one. That one, south of the city, on a highway that runs down to Mexico, was turned into a museum. Today I’ve driven there in 110-degree heat to tour it with my nine-year-old son.

The parking lot is all bare sand and concrete, plus a kind of tepee-shaped antenna I’ve never seen before. Beyond a chain-link fence, a Plexiglas pyramid is visible — from which, says a fellow tourist as we wait for the doors to open, we’ll be able to look down at the missile in its 150-foot shaft. The pyramid reminds me of the Louvre.

After we buy our tickets and join a tour group, we’re led across the hard, bright sand to a hatch in the ground. Our guide, Scott, is a gray-haired man in a hard hat and a light-blue shirt. He tells us that the Titan IIs were tipped with the nine-megaton W53, whose explosive force was about 600 times that of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima. They weren’t considered first-strike weapons, he says. You could destroy a whole nation with our local collection of Titans — to say nothing of the three dozen around Wichita and Little Rock — but only after the other guy started it.

There were always four crew members in the launch-control complex, Scott tells us, and for most of the 1970s, he was one of them. He never would have thought, back then, that he’d return here of his own free will. He never would have thought that he’d choose to spend his far-off retirement as a tour guide in this hole in the ground. But almost forty years later, here he is.

He seems mildly puzzled about it. He says: “Here I am.”

We descend some flights of metal stairs. A coolness envelops us. The walls are concrete and four feet thick, and everything is painted an institutional green. There’s a door that weighs three tons but swings open easily. Stenciled on the wall beyond are the words no lone zone. two man policy mandatory. One person alone could not be trusted when it came to nine-megaton warheads.

In the control room are banks of pale-green metal cabinets with rows of quaint analog buttons, chunky and obvious as Fisher-Price toys. They must be satisfying to push, I think. We hover around the edges of the room on the brown carpet, gazing expectantly at Scott, who rattles off his narrative of daily life in the silo. There was a kitchen, but the crew rarely cooked. “Cooking wasn’t an issue,” he says. “It was cleaning up afterward. I tell you, Pepsi and Twinkies make great alert food.” He was twenty-three when he started here.

Illustration of a Titan II silo. Courtesy the Titan Missile
Museum/Titan Missile National Historic Landmark

I’m not angling for it, but Scott chooses me to act as commander, along with a young mother who has an infant strapped to her chest. When the signal is given, we’ll turn the paired keys to pantomime a launch. I sit down at a Formica-topped desk in front of an array of buttons. The two of us tell everyone our names. And, obligingly, the array tells me its name: launch control console.

The buttons say ready to launch. launch no-go. umbilicals not connected. target 1, target 2, target 3. “Crew never knew what the targets were,” says Scott. “Didn’t want to, either.” My little boy detaches himself from the crowd and plunks down onto my lap. He sits there as Scott talks, occasionally kissing my cheek softly in sudden, public affection. “Women joined the crew in the 1970s,” Scott tells us. In fact, the director of the museum was one of the first women to ever pull a Titan II alert. It’s clear he’s proud of the role women played in the story of mutual assured destruction.

On Scott’s signal, the younger woman and I, both with our boys clutching us, obediently turn our keys. A Klaxon blares. Chunky buttons light up and flash red and green and yellow. After we’ve all predictably flinched, the system shuts off.

There’s a silence. Is it a letdown? The flatness of the mundane? A form of sadness? It was easy to turn the keys. As easy as nothing.

And now there’s nothing left to do. If the exercise had been real, the launch would have taken about a minute. With a gentle push from me, my son clambers off my lap. “This is, like, history,” says a guy next to me as we file out. He’s the only one talking, here in the anticlimax.

History, sure, but history isn’t done. In other silos dotted across Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming, 450 newer, sleeker missiles wait in their hidey-holes. The Minuteman IIIs, scheduled for phaseout in 2030, are smaller than their ancestors and carry three warheads, more modest than the W53 but still good to deliver at least twenty Hiroshimas. ICBMs by the hundreds ready to fly, still and always.

As I shuffle out, holding my son’s hand at the back of the crowd, I have the subdued feeling I’ve had leaving funerals. And even weddings. Sermons, movies. We emerge into the baking sun and file past Scott, who’s presiding over our exit rocked back on his heels, his hands clasped behind his back like a statesman.

I smile at him uncertainly and want to say: Why are you still here? Why did you come back? They must have been tedious and lonely, those long, long shifts he pulled in front of the Fisher-Price doomsday button. But I can’t summon the courage to ask.

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