Political Asylum — October 24, 2012, 5:40 pm

Welcome to Easter Island

You could have predicted the outcome of Monday night’s debate on foreign policy by the expressions on the faces of both candidates. President Barack Obama had his game face on, as watchful and aggressive as a hawk. Romney, by contrast, was missing the bellicose mien from his previous debates. He smiled nervously, and crinkled his eyes, and, as several observers noted, perspiration began to appear on his cheeks and upper lip. As Albert Brooks tweeted, referring to his role in Broadcast News, “Any more flop sweat and he owes me a royalty.”

The sweat, and the nervousness, gave away a pathetic little gambit. Governor Romney came out swinging for a tie. Right from the beginning, he all but openly offered the president an olive branch, once again changing positions he has supported for years, abandoning his party’s libel on Benghazi and generally trying to minimize any differences between the two men.

It was, as a number of commentators noted, an attempt to wrap Obama up in a gigantic, ninety-minute clinch. The idea was to make the debate a draw and leave viewers with the impression of the Republican candidate’s slow but steady gain in momentum.

President Obama was having none of it, swooping in eagerly on every Romney inanity. He had plenty of opportunities. Among all sorts of other nonsense, Romney informed us that Russia, the only country that makes our occupation of Afghanistan still tenable, “is a geopolitical foe.” Syria, meanwhile, is Iran’s “route to the sea”—a conclusion reached apparently because his advisers failed to cross out “Persian Gulf” and “Gulf of Oman” on Mr. Romney’s map and write in “Iran’s Sea.” Or entirely erase the country of Iraq—that little impediment between Iran and Syria and its majestic ports.

Romney kept repeating his established talking point that under the Obama Administration, the Middle East had fallen into “tumult.” Like Paul Ryan before him, he warned direly that “al Qaeda type individuals” had “taken over the northern part of Mali”—another erroneous descriptive for “the Sahara Desert.” He claimed, “We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran. And we should not have wasted these four years to the extent they continue to be able to spin these centrifuges and get that much closer.” Implying, presumably, that Obama should have launched an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities immediately upon taking office.

When it came to military preparedness, Romney repeated the ageless Republican shibboleth that Obama had left us all but defenseless, sticking stubbornly to his inane factoid that our navy is “smaller now than at any time since 1917”—as if it would take a single modern carrier group more than fifteen minutes to demolish the whole of the Great White Fleet. Our Air Force, supposedly, is also “older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in 1947”—another meaningless characterization of a defense arm capable of attaining air superiority over any country on earth (not to mention ending all life on the planet).

Romney’s performance was, all in all, buffoonish and embarrassing: he repeatedly rambled and foomf’ed, seeming all but incapable of producing an intelligible English sentence. He called for “a form of—if not government, a form of . . . of . . . of council that can take the lead in Syria.” Latin America, he informed us, “is a huge opportunity for us—time zone, language opportunities.” He told us that he “went into the Olympics that was out of balance, and we got it on balance, and made a success there.” He accused the president of taking a path “which at the end of four years would mean we’d have $20 trillion in debt heading towards Greece.”

The Tumult Tummler’s own plans and solutions were vaporous and often contradictory. When he wasn’t digressing wildly about how much he loves American schoolteachers, he was promising to indict Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmandinejad for “genocide incitation” under the Geneva Convention. Just six days after accusing the president, in their last debate, of putting American live in danger by naming a date by which we will withdraw from Afghanistan . . . he weakly agreed to go along with that date if elected, and termed our training of the Afghan Security Forces a great success.

Just six minutes after claiming that America’s debt made it less likely that China would even want to trade with us anymore—“They look at the fact that we owe ’em a trillion dollars and owe other people $16 trillion in total”—he repeated his promise to label China “a currency manipulator” on the first day of his presidency, and dismissed the idea that this might set off a trade war by reasoning, “Well, they sell us about this much stuff every year, and we sell them about this much stuff every year. So it’s pretty clear who doesn’t want a trade war.”

Clear as mud. Whenever possible, Romney tried to swing the discussion in this foreign-policy debate back to domestic issues, and once again hammer home his well-worn set of damning economic statistics. Yet foreign or domestic, Romney’s talking points, when they were articulate enough to be comprehensible, were deliberately deceptive, mean-spirited, and slanderous.

Citing a few of the cuts he would make to pay for his promised doubling of our defense budget—already roughly equal to that of the rest of the world—he promised, “By the way, number one I get rid of is Obamacare,” a proposition that according to all objective analyses would raise the cost of health care in this country, not save anyone anything. He promised to keep Medicaid, which he told us was “a program for the poor,” but to turn it into block grants for the states. Only a Mitt Romney would feel he has to describe Medicaid to the average American, which is by no means “only” a program for the poor but the way much of the middle-class now gets its parents into retirement homes.

And finally, there was a return to the hoary right-wing claim that President Obama began his presidency with an “apology tour” through the Middle East and Europe—a claim that never quotes an actual apology, because none was ever rendered.

President Obama calmly ran all this brain bramble through a rhetorical wood chipper, as well it deserved. Romney gave a particularly thoughtless and shameful performance, one that, in a nation that took its role in the wider world seriously, would mark him unqualified to hold higher office.

But of course this is not that America. It is remarkable what there is about the world that simply doesn’t register anymore—not only with the average person but even with our media and political elite. A friend from Italy pointed out near the end of the debate, “But they’ve said nothing about Europe.” (This was just before the one, casual remark about how we mustn’t be like Greece.) A terrifying, prolonged financial crisis that is bringing our closest allies and trading partners to their knees merited hardly a word of discussion. Africa—save for those parts of its deserts being subjected to terrorism—was even more invisible. India, the world’s largest democracy and one of its largest economies, was not mentioned. Mexico, where over 53,000 people have died in the past four years in a war over products consumed by our people? No mention. Canada? Fugeddaboutit. Latin America in general? Well, you know—“time zone . . . language opportunities.”

Unmentioned also was the American worker, save in the passing saber rattle at China, or Obama’s glib assertion that “We in this country can compete successfully with anyone in the world, and we’re going to.”

In fact, the American worker cannot compete successfully with people—including children—working for starvation wages, in sweatshops and other hellholes, under dictatorships. The new world of manufacturing means fewer manual workers no matter what. But the president should be questioning how this tectonic social change is going to be brought about—how the real wages of working people around the world are to be maintained and raised—rather than rattling off a few more bromides about the need for more community colleges and better teachers, and how the wealthiest need to pay three percent more of their income in taxes.

The other missing topic was any discussion at all of climate change, which has now been completely banished from the national discussion by a massive corporate propaganda campaign and the pathetic acquiescence of our leading media outlets.

Just the week before, New York Times columnist David Brooks ran a triumphalist column in which he made out that government subsidies for green tech had flopped all over the world, to the point of creating a potential, global financial disaster. In the United States, he claimed, “green tech looks less like a gleaming beacon of virtue and more like corporate welfare, further enriching already affluent investors”—above all, Al Gore.

Green tech has been defeated by “the marketplace itself,” Brooks crowed, asserting that, instead, “Shale gas”—Brookspeak for “fracking”—“has become the current hot, revolutionary fuel of the future” and that “Fossil fuels will still be the default fuel for decades ahead.” In other words, more coal dust, more Deepwater Horizon spills, more Fukushima nuclear disasters, more chemicals in your wells and gas coming out your kitchen faucet. Even more bizarrely, Brooks maintained at the end of his victory dance that “Global warming is still real. Green technology is still important. Personally, I’d support a carbon tax to give it a boost.”

The world is undergoing unprecedented, manmade climate change, which most scientists tell us is accelerating uncontrollably every year, and which already promises to raise sea levels by over four and a half feet by century’s end and create vast droughts, killer storms, general chaos and devastation, and the answer is . . . maybe a carbon tax to nudge along the marketplace?

If a giant asteroid were hurtling toward Earth, David Brooks would propose a tax break to incentivize private rocket manufacturers.

But of course Brooks’s commentary isn’t supposed to be a serious policy formulation. It’s intended as maintenance of his brand as the Times’ “thinking man’s conservatism”—a narrow personal goal that easily trumps pending global calamity, just as their own goals do the same for President Obama, Governor Romney, the moderators of the four debates, most of the national press, and the Congress, and many, many others.

Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, writes of how the inhabitants of Easter Island, driven by some religious ritual or matter of kingly prestige, went about systematically destroying the fragile ecosystem of their island to build more and more of the great stone heads it would become known for—long after all the people were gone. Every day now, our own elite go about assiduously erecting their own stone heads, no matter what it does to the world around them. These idols are a good deal less literal, of course. But if you could look at them closely, you would see that each one is imbued with the face of its creator.

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is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine.

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There Will Always Be Fires

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The End of Eden

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How to Start a Nuclear War

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Combustion Engines

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Combustion Engines·

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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
There Will Always Be Fires·

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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
The End of Eden·

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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
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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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

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


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.”

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