Weekly Review — November 2, 2004, 12:00 am

Weekly Review

[Image: The pope cast into hell.]

The Bush Administration reversed itself and declared that non-Iraqis captured fighting in Iraq are not protected by the Geneva Conventions; such prisoners, it was reported, have already been transferred out of Iraq in recent months and could be taken to Egypt or Saudi Arabia where torture is more common than it is in the United States.ScotsmanFour British citizens who were held without charges in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, filed suit against Donald Rumsfeld and other senior administration officials, and claimed that they were tortured while in custody. The Pentagon responded that the men were “enemy combatants” and thus had no right to sue.ReutersA newly released document revealed that F.B.I. agents witnessed Iraqi prisoners being abused at Abu Ghraib but failed to report it because they saw nothing unusual about the abuse. One agent said that what he saw at Abu Ghraib was similar to what goes on in prisons in the United States.New York TimesA new study found that Iraqis are 58 times more likely to die a violent death than before the American invasion; the study concluded that 100,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the invasion, and that coalition air strikes, which mostly kill women and children, were the primary cause of civilian deaths.BBCPresident Bush suggested that the missing explosives from the Al Qaqaa military facility might have been removed before the invasion, and he claimed that by criticizing him John Kerry is “denigrating the action of our troops.”Washington PostSeveral news agencies confirmed that their embedded reporters were present at the facility with American troops and that they saw boxes labeled as explosives; KSTP Television in Minneapolis broadcast footage taken at Al Qaqaa of boxes of high explosives. KSTP also photographed the seal of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which indicates that the explosives were known to be associated with Iraq’s former nuclear program.KSTP.comRudolph Giuliani went on television and said that it wasn’t the president’s fault that the Al Qaqaa explosives weren’t secured; on the contrary, he said, “the actual responsibility for it would be for the troops that were there.”NBCThe Pentagon extended the Iraq tours of 6,500 soldiers, and aNew York Timesfederal judge ordered the Defense Department to stop giving troops the anthrax vaccine and said that the Food and Drug Administration broke its own rules by approving it.Washington PostCongress approved a measure that will permit soldiers and their families to seek reimbursement for combat equipment, such as body armor, that they have purchased with their own money.New York TimesU.S. forces were preparing for another large military assault on Falluja, and nearby Ramadi was said to be “slipping into chaos.”New York TimesOsama bin Laden released a new video message and said that it was U.S. foreign policy, particularly U.S. support for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, that led him to plan the September 11 attacks. “Bush says and claims that we hate freedom, let him tell us then, ‘Why did we not attack Sweden?'”CNNBush-Cheney campaign officials were happy to hear from Osama: “We want people to think ‘terrorism‘ for the last four days,” said one. Another said that “anything that makes people nervous about their personal safety helps Bush.”NY Daily News

Voter suppression campaigns were reportedly underway all around the country, though all indications were pointing to an historically high turnout.Talking Points MemoWisconsin Republicans were trying to challenge about 37,000 voter registrations in Milwaukee, and thereJournal Sentinelwere reports of gay-marriage push polls in Michigan.Talking Points MemoIn South Carolina a letter purporting to be from the NAACP claimed that voters will be arrested at the polls if they have outstanding parking tickets or child support payments and said that voters must provide a credit report, two forms of photo ID, a Social Security card, a voter registration card, and a handwriting sample.Associated PressEarly voters in Florida, especially in heavily Democratic districts, were standing in line to vote for up to six hours.Talking Points MemoBroward County’s election supervisor said that up to 15,000 absentee ballots would be resent to voters whose ballots mysteriously disappeared.New York TimesA federal judge said that political parties in Ohio may not station challengers at polling places and said that to do so would create a “substantial likelihood that significant harm will result not only to voters, but also to the voting process itself.”Associated PressA Sarasota man failed to run over Florida Republican representative Katherine Harris in his car. “I intimidated them with my car,” he said. “I was exercising my political expression.”Associated PressThe Bush Campaign was forced to withdraw an ad that had been digitally altered to increase the number of soldiers in an audience listening to the president speak.New York TimesThe IRS decided to investigate the tax-exempt status of the NAACP.New York Times

Mobs of machete-wielding Christians and Muslims were slaughtering one another in Liberia,Associated PressLatvia’s government collapsed, and thereNew York Timeswas violence between Han Chinese and Hui Muslims in central China.New York TimesA teenage suicide bomber killed three people in Tel Aviv when he set off his explosives in a vegetable stall.ReutersFidel Castro banned the U.S. dollar, andNew York TimesPakistan’s lower house of parliament passed a bill that would impose the death penalty for honor killings, which have traditionally been ignored.New York TimesGovernor Rick Perry of Texas refused to proclaim “UN Day,” and aNew York Timesnew study found that up to 21,000 people are injured every year from air rifles, paintball pistols, and BB guns.Associated PressChief Justice William Rehnquist, who underwent a tracheotomy last week, was recovering from treatment for thyroid cancer and was unable to return to work.ReutersA clinic in Cleveland was hoping to perform a face transplant using skin and the underlying fat from a donor.USA TodayScientists announced the discovery of a species of hobbit-like humans on Flores, an island 370 miles east of Bali, that lived as recently as 13,000 years ago. The adult hobbits, who apparently hunted pygmy elephants and Komodo dragons for food, were about the size of a three-year-old modern human child.National Geographic, New York TimesNew research found that it is better to be bullied for the first time as a young child than as an adolescent.New ScientistIt was discovered that the stem cell lines approved for federally funded research in the United States are tainted with mouse characteristics, theNew ScientistWorld Health Organization announced that avian flu probably has not mutated into a form that can pass from human to human, and researchersNew York Timesin South Carolina concluded that high-fat diets can cause brain damage.New ScientistYoung mice treated with Prozac, a study found, grow up to be depressed.New ScientistScientists in California successfully implanted a brain prosthesis in a dish of rat brain slices.New ScientistThe widow of former French president Francois Mitterrand auctioned off some of her designer furniture to raise money for the defense of her son Jean-Christophe, who is under investigation for selling arms illegally to Angola.New York TimesBritain’s House of Commons voted to stop calling visitors “strangers,” andAssociated PressRussia’s Federation Council ratified the Kyoto Protocol.New York TimesThe U.S. murder rate was up.New York TimesThe Boston Red Sox won the World Series.New York Times

Share
Single Page

More from Roger D. Hodge:

From the October 2010 issue

Speak, Money

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2018

Combustion Engines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

There Will Always Be Fires

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The End of Eden

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How to Start a Nuclear War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Article
There Will Always Be Fires·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
Article
The End of Eden·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
Article
How to Start a Nuclear War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Minimum cost of a “pleasure palace” being built for Vladimir Putin:

$1,000,000,000

Israeli researchers claimed to have identified a ruthlessness gene.

Trump and Putin puzzle out cybersecurity in Helsinki, John Kelly didn't like his breakfast in Brussels, and a family of woodchucks ate the wiring in Paul Ryan's car

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today