Six Questions — July 30, 2013, 1:09 pm

A Marker to Measure Drift

Alexander Maksik on Charles Taylor’s Liberia, the oldest story in the world, and the trouble with elegant variation

Alexander Maksik. © Martina Bacigalupo

Alexander Maksik. © Martina Bacigalupo

Alexander Maksik, the author of You Deserve Nothing (Europa Editions, 2011) and A Marker to Measure Drift, out today from Alfred A. Knopf, has shown himself adept at illuminating uncertain journeys through isolating physical and psychological landscapes. In his new novel, Maksik explores the pain of adjustment for a young refugee of Libera’s second civil war as she scratches out a new existence on the Aegean coast. Haunting and sensual, Maksik’s prose deftly intertwines the tenderness and torment of memory with the hard reality of searching for sustenance and shelter. I put six questions to Maksik about his book.

1. In an earlier blog post for about the origins of your story “Deeper Winter,” you recall the volatile moods of an Ecuadorian friend as “remnants of an existence I couldn’t know.” A Marker to Measure Drift is about another existence you can’t know: that of a young Liberian woman who has escaped the horrors of her country’s second civil war. What attracts you to writing about lives so removed from your own experience?

For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in other people’s lives and their adventures. My parents told me stories, and read to me, from a very young age. I loved imagining myself as those characters. There was never any separation between them and myself. That’s what excited me about fiction from the very beginning — it allowed me to inhabit someone else’s life. I was Nancy Drew (with whom I had a rather intense relationship), and Scout Finch, and Lancelot, and Huck Finn. That’s why as a child I wanted to become a writer. It’s the same reason I loved to read — as a way to occupy the lives of people I found interesting, people I admired, who frightened me, who confounded me.

I’m not exclusively interested in the immigrant experience, but I certainly admire and have great respect for people who are willing to abandon their homes, their families, everything that is familiar, for places that will be hostile and foreign and dangerous bearing the hope of finding a better life. Isn’t that essentially the oldest story in the world? Isn’t that in one way or another what every story is about?

2. Jacqueline’s life of vagrancy on the Greek coast is structured only by solitary, aimless wandering. You’ve lived abroad and traveled widely: Paris, Italy, Greece, and other places. How did your own travel experiences — the solitude, spontaneity, and tedium of long-term travel — inform this part of the novel? How important is travel to your writing generally?

There’s no question that traveling so much and living abroad for so long has made me a better writer. It’s forced me to be a constant observer. I can’t help but think that because I’ve done so much of it on my own, I’ve learned to watch more carefully, to become better at paying attention. I’ve found that when I travel alone, strangers are far more inclined to start a conversation with me. And being alone, I’m less of a threat. People are more willing to tell me their stories when I’m by myself. And I’m forced to engage in ways that I might otherwise resist. Also, having so often been a foreigner I think I’ve become more sensitive to, and more interested in, the experience itself. I know what it’s like to exist for long stretches of time on the periphery of other worlds, to be outside looking in. I think all writers feel this way no matter where they live, or how much they’ve traveled. But in my case the feeling is compounded and intensified by travel and living abroad.

From A Marker to Measure Drift:

Here danger would come up the road. No band of lunatic children would rise dead-eyed from the jungle.
No, the danger would come in a car. It would be civilized. It would be uniformed. It would be clean.
What was the danger? What would her father say? He had once said that danger is not the point. What do you want? That’s the only question. Danger is only the obstacle to that thing. It must be irrelevant to your desire.
In this way, her mother said, turning her back on them, your father is the worst of men. 
And not only in this way, Jacqueline thought.
A long tour bus the color of dry blood turned and began to rise up the road.

3. Your writing is so rich in sensory detail, often rendered quite poetically, as in this passage where Jacqueline is finally able to eat a full meal: “Already she could feel herself returning. Or memory returning to her. Or her mind. Or whatever it was that came rushing back. Call it memory, she thought. And for a time the act of eating displaced memory.” Do you strive for a lyrical voice in your writing, and do you tend to favor that quality in other writers?

I’m not interested in lyricism for the sake of lyricism, beauty for the sake of beauty. I certainly love language and I pay close attention to the rhythms of sentences. I think prose should always be musical, but that doesn’t mean that it should necessarily be lyrical. I try to remember that language is a tool for telling stories, that it should reflect, and work in service of, narrative. I am always wary of the elegant variation. It’s a way of calling attention to myself, but I am not writing for myself. I am writing to be read. My responsibility is to tell a story and when story and character become secondary to language, I have failed. It is much easier to write beautiful sentences than it is to write beautiful stories. I want readers to be entirely unaware of me.  

4. The novel references some of the extreme violence, including use of child soldiers, that occurred during Liberia’s second civil war. What compelled you to write about this period of Liberia’s history in particular?

Mostly hazard. Many years ago I read a short article somewhere about the early history of Liberia, which I found interesting. Then I read Helene Cooper’s memoir, The House at Sugar Beach, and then Ellen Sirleaf Johnson’s This Child Will Be Great, and then Russell Banks’ The Darling, all of which led me to read about Charles Taylor, which led me to see a film called Liberia: An Uncivil War, which remains one of the most disturbing and moving films I’ve ever seen. And then Tim Hetherington’s extraordinary book of photographs, Long Story Bit by Bit. Most of all it was the film (Hetherington shot a lot of the footage, by the way) and the photographs. I couldn’t shake those images, those people, those various voices. And when that happens, I don’t know what else to do but write about it.

5. Simple interactions with other people require enormous effort of Jacqueline; when she feels weak and desperate, she seeks kindness from others even as she is ashamed to receive any. Do you see her failure to connect as a continuation of her trauma?

I don’t see Jacqueline as weak or desperate. She is strong and independent and determined to the point of making her life unnecessarily difficult. On the other hand, it is her determination, her pride and dignity, that allow her to survive. Everything she does, everything she thinks and feels is in some way a result of what’s happened to her, to her family. And I do think that her failure to connect with other people is a kind of continuation of that trauma, or is a symptom of it.

A Marker to Measure Drift6. In both this novel and “Deeper Winter,” you’ve written about immigrants — Jacqueline and Eduardo — who have been severed from their families and are maneuvering in landscapes vastly different from home. Yet they’re powerfully drawn to places even less familiar, more remote. Do you intend this movement to be hopeful?

I didn’t intend one thing or another, really. Neither journey begins nor ends where the story begins and ends. What’s important, I think, is not so much that their circumstances are better than before, but that they’ve each chosen to keep moving. That’s the most important evidence of their courage — that despite their respective problems they each have the strength to continue traveling through unfamiliar and treacherous landscapes. Jacqueline comes to understand that home has little to do with what is out there in the distance, on those ghost islands, but I’m not sure Eduardo has learned that yet.

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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.

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Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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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.

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Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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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

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