Conversation — June 20, 2013, 8:00 am

(One Generation) Beyond Good and Evil: A Conversation with Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai on reconciling family history in writing

This interview first appeared on The Nervous Breakdown. Read the original exchange here.

In her essay “Other Types of Poison” (in the July issue of Harper’s) novelist and short-story writer Rebecca Makkai explores the legacy of her Hungarian grandparents — well-known leftist novelist Rozsa Ignacz and her divorced husband, Janos Makkai, principal parliamentary author and proponent of Hungary’s infamous Second Jewish Law of 1939.

The essay reads as acutely insightful, and will whet your appetite for Makkai’s other works, whether her debut novel The Borrower or her forthcoming short-story collection Music for Wartime (which will appear after her next novel, The Hundred-Year House, probably in 2015).

Davis Schneiderman: This essay deals with three distinct moments in your family history, but centers, most provocatively, on two of your grandparents. Take us back to the moment you began to discover this complex and contradictory family history. Who was your grandfather to you while he lived his postwar life in Hawaii?

Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai: The big disconnect for me is that I knew my grandfather as a goofy yoga instructor who set up elaborate games and obstacle courses in our basement, and spent a lot of his time entering sweepstakes. He lived till I was in high school, though the geographic distance (Chicago to Hawaii) meant I only saw him in person a few times. I remember him doing headstands, and I remember him pumping “Aloha” into my arm (a raspberry in my elbow, basically). He was a joyful, silly man. He would come up with pipe-dream inventions for things like musical diapers.

Until a few years ago, I had the impression that he was a bit of a hero. The narrative went that as a young, naive member of parliament, he’d been coerced into writing up these laws (I saw him as Rolph from The Sound of Music), but that later he stood up in parliament and made a speech against the Nazis and then ran for his life, only to be trapped in a Gestapo prison for the rest of the war. It is true that he later spoke out against the Germans, but what I’ve unearthed recently suggests that this didn’t necessarily represent a change of mind on his part. He’d been upset about the influx of Jewish refugees, which is what led to his political initiatives, and then he was upset about the influx of German soldiers. . . . It was really all part of the same nationalistic line of thought.

DS: And was this narrative, which led you to see him as an at least partially redeemed figure: a) a story the family told because of a need to reconcile the yoga/Hawaii version of János with his past, b) a story to let the children (you) have some knowledge yet remain protected from the difficult history, or c) something else (political cover?)? My family are pre-WWII American Jews. Although, we supposedly have a distant cousin who was a member of the Judenrat, survived the war, and was stopped from emigrating to the United States by a Walter Winchell column denouncing the cousin’s past. I don’t know any more details than this (although your story is inspiring me to dig . . .).

RM: I’m not entirely sure, but I think a lot of it got whitewashed even before my sister and I came along. My father was three when the law was passed, so his understanding would have come years later. . . . But even so, you have to remember that in Europe there’s still a lot of evasion surrounding that time. Things were confusing and poorly documented and secretive to begin with, and then after the war they weren’t exactly running out to write it all down. So as I was researching, some of this information actually came as news to some of my family — the scope of the laws, the way he fought for them.

There’s also the fact that it’s just very difficult, psychologically, to reconcile the face of a real person with one of the darkest moments of the twentieth century. It’s not the same as looking at someone who’s personally violent, likely to reach out and hit you. This guy is chopping up papaya on his balcony, telling jokes, and I think we have an instinct to forgive, to see just the best in that person, to see him at just that moment. (The irony being that this is what he and his colleagues failed to do — to see humans in front of them.)

As for option c, the idea of political cover . . . I don’t think there was any concerted group effort to cover things up, but when he moved to the United States he did change his name (to John Makkay). I was always told he was just Americanizing it, but of course now I’ve started to wonder at the implications.

It’s funny, he’s really only a small part of “Other Types of Poison” — it’s really a story about my grandmother — but his story does steal the scene a bit. I want to write more about both of them. There’s obviously a lot I haven’t figured out yet. And I think that’s always a good reason to write about something.

DS: Yes, his story is a small part of this wonderful essay, and you are clearly focusing on the dichotomy between your grandparents. I think that when you originally told me about this piece as you were writing it, you either led with János, or that was the part that stuck with me. I do want to get to your grandmother and her work but indulge me a bit more on the place of his story within this matrix. Does Rózsa help offset or balance this legacy? Would it be possible to write about János if there were no Rózsa? How and when did you decide to structure the essay in this way? You don’t bury the sensation of his story, but his role in the Second Jewish Law is not the lead, either. I imagine it would be difficult to write about this, and I hope you might give us some insight into the process. What was the genesis of the essay, the pitch?

RM: I mention in the section called “Acolyte” that I’ve been trying to tell that particular story — of my grandmother painting girls’ faces with age makeup so they won’t get raped — for years. If I dug back far enough, I could find drafts going back to high school. When I began putting together Music for Wartime, I decided I wanted these family legends sprinkled throughout the fiction. In the collection, they come at you separately, so that as you read you’re not just getting my short stories, but also some of my own psychology, the reasons a young American writer would be drawn to write fiction about refugees and war zones. As they appear in the collection, my grandfather’s history isn’t revealed until a fourth story, one called “Suspension: April 20, 1984.” In assembling and combining these legends for Harper’s, I couldn’t use that one, as it had already appeared in the Iowa Review (my first published story, in fact). And so I tried to weave the same information into these narratives.

In both cases, I do sort of bury the lead. My grandmother’s story would be worth telling regardless — she was an amazing woman — but half of what I’m fascinated with is the contrast between these two people. They were first cousins, they were married a very brief time, and they were on opposite sides of history (and justice, and empathy, and art). And of course I’d rather own her legacy than his. As unique and stark as my grandparents’ trajectories were, I do hope I’m getting at a sort of universal: as humans, we all have this double legacy of tremendous good and tremendous evil. And I do think each of us has the capacity for both. It’s just that in my case, the examples are sitting right there, one generation removed, begging to be analyzed.

Thinking back to the first time you and I talked about this essay, I think it came up because we were speaking about a mutual friend whose parents were Hungarian Jews. I was telling you how when I make this connection (it usually happens early in my acquaintance with someone, right after “Hey, isn’t that a Hungarian last name?”), I feel the impulse to get my grandfather’s story out of the way quickly. It would be a lot more awkward to wait five years and then say, “So, you know how your family was forced to leave Hungary in 1940 after half of them starved? Well, I have to tell you something . . .” 

DS: Well, that last comment is very interesting — and speaks to what I am perhaps wrongly taking as your feeling of potential or perceived involvement-by-association. Of course, no one would blame you for these laws, nor assume you held those beliefs simply by being the granddaughter. I’m a distant relative of baseball player Hank Greenberg, and while I will bring it up to rabid baseball fans on occasion, I never feel obligated to mention it once someone tells me they like the Detroit Tigers. Is this “impulse” (and that’s a good word) connected to your knowing your grandfather in his later years, when he appeared to you as the harmless, yoga-practicing Hawaiian retiree?

And, I’ll press a bit more . . . if each of us, as you say, has the capacity for both good and evil (I disagree, by the way), then you might have of course experienced the “good” aspects of János, perhaps in the relationship you shared with him. All of this is a complicated way of asking the same sort of questions I’ve been asking all along: Are you, merely one generation away, obligated to explain, to investigate, to “deal” with this legacy? And how much of your writing practice is intertwined with this “impulse,” for better or worse?

RM: We probably shouldn’t get into a debate on intrinsic evil right now, but I’ll say that one reason I think it’s dangerous to think people might be born one way or another — the essentialist argument — is that it isn’t a huge leap from there to thinking in black and white terms about whole groups of people. So in other words: I can’t let myself think my grandfather was purely bad (or that my grandmother was purely good, for that matter) because then I’d be falling to his level of thinking.

I do struggle a bit with the guilt issue, which I know is irrational. I went through a phase in high school where I let people think I was Jewish. (You can pick that one apart all day . . .) On the rational, adult end of things, I’ve come to the conclusion that if he were my grandson, rather than my grandfather, I’d have reason to worry about culpability, even indirect — something I did wrong, some lesson in compassion that I failed to pass down. But chronology is on my side.

As for the investigation, though . . . well, I’m a writer. And I’ve been handed this story. I’d feel the same way if I moved into an old house and found a box of old letters in the wall, ones that hinted at some crazy story that had never been told. And I’d think, “This box made its way to me for a reason!” My grandparents had only one child, and the next generation is just me and my sister — and she’s a piano teacher, so the story is mine to work out and tell. No one else is going to tell it. And — on a purely narrative level — it’s a great story. There’s love and betrayal and guilt and escape and cowardice and courage and the course of the twentieth century. I mean, some writers’ grandfathers worked their whole lives in a bank and only ever got excited about the Green Bay Packers. How could I not write about the guy?

Of course, most of my writing has nothing to do with this legacy at all. The same collection that will contain this piece (in pieces) also has a story about reality TV, and a story about a woman who coughs up J. S. Bach in her living room. But I’ll be returning to this subject, however obliquely, throughout my career — if only because fate has forced me to think more than I otherwise would about things like good and evil.

DS: As aside: I am not an essentialist, and quibble rather with the characterization of any act as “good” or “evil.” I don’t believe that one is born either way, or has the capacity for both acts, because the terms are in fact, for me, “empty.” This is a lesson of the Holocaust, again for me, in the works of everyone from Art Spiegelman to Raymond Federman to Hannah Arendt. The radical evil of World War II, and I’ll include the pre-Nazi Hungarian history we are discussing, is that this “evil” act of János’s — clearly such through our distanced cultural lens — could just as easily, were the outcomes of history different, be viewed as an act of good. While I hope this will not be the case, the future may indeed view his act in this way.

Therefore, I see your exploration as part of the larger way we deal with historical memory (think Walter Abish’s How German Is It?), and I see Rózsa, then, as the heroine of the story: the brave woman who was strong enough to resist, in her work and through her divorce, the “evil” embedded in János’ nationalism. How did you come to know her, and her work? What is her literary legacy?

RM: First I should say that we probably mostly agree about the evil issue. I do come down on the Nietzschean side of things, although I also agree with Dr. King that we all have a choice between creative altruism and destructive selfishness. But maybe that’s enough philosophy for now . . .

As to Rózsa: It’s strange how little I actually know about her. I have certain facts, but they get washed over in myth and hearsay — which is some of what I’m grappling with in this piece, really. I have forty of her novels sitting on my bookshelf, and I can’t read a single one. My father translated one for me, so I do have an idea of her style and subject, but it’s at a remove.

Basically, the two writers she gets compared to are Virginia Woolf and James Michener. The Woolf comparison I get: She was heavily influenced by Woolf, translated some of her work into Hungarian, and from what I’ve seen she was working in the modernist tradition. The Michener comparison is odd, and I think is only because some of her later books focused on specific geographic locales — Hawaii for one.

She tended to write historical fiction because it allowed her to be more political. If the priggish minister in a book set in 1880s Transylvania happened to resemble the current Minister of Culture . . . well, who was going to dare point that out?

She’s remembered in Hungary, and still read, though it’s hard for me to tell how much. If it’s any measure, there was a festival for the hundredth anniversary of her birth a few years ago, and there’s a small museum in the town where she was born. I feel like I’m looking at all of this through foggy glasses — because of the language barrier, the geographic divide (I’ve only been to Hungary once), the ways stories get mutated through the retelling. And along with not fully understanding her literary legacy, there’s so much I don’t know (or don’t trust, really) about her life in the thirties and forties.

There’s one thing I learned after I finished this piece that baffles me: sometime in 1939 (the same year my grandfather passed the second Jewish Law, the same year they got divorced), she took off for Paris and lived there for several months as a correspondent for a theater newspaper in Hungary. It makes sense that she’d take off . . . except that my father was three and he didn’t go with her. I have no idea where he was. Following his father to parliament? Home with the nanny in an empty apartment?

But now that I’m into the mystery of it, I don’t think I’ll be able to stop investigating.

DS: Wow. This implies — with the Parisian trip — a certain social and geographic mobility. I suppose one does not become a member of parliament without having some relative “means,” and yet to indeed take off, sans child, is to make a particular claim to Modernity and the construction of motherhood that could have been quite radical for the moment.

I have a knot of questions: Rózsa also immigrated to the United States? Did she and János come at the same time? Did they both settle in Hawaii? You mention her later work focused on the islands — did she continue to write her novels in Hungarian while living here? And what of this single novel that your father translated — only for you(?)! Why that particular book, do you think (if indeed he let you into his process)?

RM: Yeah, that’s a lot of questions! No, she never ultimately left Hungary. I’ll say first of all that yes, they were relatively wealthy, or at least as wealthy as anyone could be during the war. I mention in the piece that she pawned her silver, piece by piece, to survive — which is true, and sounds quite desperate and scrappy, but of course the underlying assumption is that she had enough silver to pawn to last her through the war. And there was a nanny involved, to the point that my father’s first language was the nanny’s native German. My impression is of a sort of first-wave feminism coupled with upper-class privilege. I think too of how few female writers that far back had children — they weren’t really part of Woolf’s Room-of-One’s-Own plan. I’ve always said that a supportive partner is the key to balancing motherhood and writing, but maybe this is an alternative: a lot of silver, and a blithe disregard for societal norms.

My grandparents were only married a few years, after which my grandfather married an American woman and (after a long, strange saga) ended up in the States. Rózsa stayed behind with my father, who only came over as a young adult in 1956, after the failed Hungarian Revolution. The irony is that the geographic mobility you mentioned vanished completely at the end of the war. My grandfather got out by talking his way through a checkpoint, and my father got out by crossing through mine-laden farmland on foot with friends in the middle of the night. I’ve never heard that she wanted to leave – she wasn’t comfortable in any language other than Hungarian, and if she escaped, the Hungarian presses would never have dared to continue printing her work — but even if she had, it would have been very difficult.

She lived for the rest of her life in Budapest, and was married for a while to a much younger man. As I mention in the piece, she died when I was a baby. And no, she only wrote one book about Hawaii. (I could be wrong, but I think the idea was that she got a special travel dispensation from the government to travel there, where my father was also living at the time, and the book was really a pretense for visiting her son.) Her other books were about other places, other historical eras.

The book my father translated was the same one (A Vádlott) that I describe my mother smuggling out on the train. I think my father attaches special significance to that text because it’s her most honest: she’s writing about contemporary Hungary, and the injustice of the way communism was implemented there. She’d been risking her own freedom simply by having this manuscript in her apartment, and — at least to me — that gives it a power even beyond what’s on the page. In that sense, I’m glad I read it first. I’d rather see her at her most honest before I see her writing under political constraints.

I’ll admit that I’m a little scared to read more of her work, or to see it translated more thoroughly, for fear I won’t love it. Of course that’s ridiculous. Because I will read it all, one way or another, and the point won’t be whether I have some magical connection with this person I barely met, but rather how much I can learn about someone who already fascinates me, someone I’m tied to.

Single Page
is a writer and incoming Associate Dean of Faculty at Lake Forest College. His most recent novels are Drain and the largely blank novel Blank.

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Combustion Engines

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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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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

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


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

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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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