Special Feature — May 1, 2014, 11:37 am

Dottie’s Charms, by Jill Sobule

The new album from singer-songerwriter Jill Sobule

Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms

 

A couple of years ago, Jill Sobule was given a vintage charm bracelet as a gift. When she examined the bracelet, she found it unexpectedly compelling. It wasn’t simply a funky piece of costume jewelry: it was instead an archive of events in a person’s life, memorialized by twenty-two tiny, cheap, pewter mementos. But whose life? All Sobule knew for sure about the original owner of the bracelet was the name etched in one of the charms: Dorothy.

Sobule soon saw in that charm bracelet the architecture for a musical project, which she set out to realize in an unusual and ambitious way: each of the charms would be the inspiration for a song, and the lyrics for each song would be written by a different writer. She contacted ten authors whom she had long admired: David Hajdu, Jonathan Lethem, Sam Lipsyte, James Marcus, Sara Marcus, Nina Mehta, Rick Moody, Mary Jo Salter, Luc Sante, and Vendela Vida. Every one signed on. The lyrics were written across more than a year’s time, and Sobule matched each set with suitably variegated music: wistful, tender, comic, dark. The result, Dottie’s Charms, is rich in the kind of storytelling energy and buoyant humor that has always been Jill Sobule’s signature.

The only thing missing from this cinematic enterprise was a visual element. And that too was eventually addressed, first by the illustrator and painter Molly Crabapple (who did all the graphics here as well as the CD and vinyl jacket), then by three gifted filmmakers: Bette Gordon, Tom Kalin, and Sara Zandieh. They have made Dottie’s Charms a treat for the eye as well as the ear.


TRACKLIST  (charm, lyricist)

LISTEN     MY CHAIR  (office chair, James Marcus)
LISTEN     FLIGHT  (jet plane, Vendela Vida)
LISTEN     STATUE OF LIBERTY  (Statue of Liberty, Jonathan Lethem)
LISTEN     I SWEAR I SAW CHRISTOPHER REEVE  (Mackinac Island, David Hajdu)
LISTEN     WOMEN OF INDUSTRY  (ABWA logo, David Hajdu)
LISTEN     O CANADA  (Canadian penny, Sara Marcus)
LISTEN     OLD KENTUCKY  (Kentucky map, Luc Sante)
LISTEN     WEDDING RING  (wedding ring, Mary Jo Salter)
LISTEN     THE MEZUZAH  (mezuzah, Nina Mehta)
LISTEN     I HATE HORSES  (stirrup, Sam Lipsyte)
LISTEN     LONELY EIGHTY EIGHT  (piano, Rick Moody)

 

Jill Sobule’s pungent lyrics and graceful, gliding melodies have placed her (as Jon Pareles of the New York Times observed) “among the stellar New York singer-songwriters of the last decade.” She is perhaps best known for her 1995 single “I Kissed a Girl,” as well as her performance of “Supermodel” on the Clueless soundtrack. But Sobule has released seven studio albums of original songs, three EPs, and a variety of collaborations, with the comedian Julia Sweeney, Lloyd Cole, John Doe, and Don Was. Her recent projects include musical versions of “Yentl” (adapted from the original Isaac Bashevis Singer story, not the Barbra Streisand abomination) and Allan Moyle’s 1980 punk-rock film Times Square.Dottie’s Charms is her first full-scale release in five years.

Cover art and illustrations by Molly Crabapple. Crabapple is an artist and writer living in New York City. A columnist for Vice, she has also contributed to the New York Times, Newsweek, The Paris Review, CNN, Jacobin, and Der Spiegel. Her illustrated memoir, Drawing Blood, will be published in 2015.


STREAM THE ENTIRE ALBUM


TRACKLIST

Illustration by Molly Crabapple (Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms)

James Marcus is an essayist, editor, and translator, and the author of Amazonia and an upcoming book about Ralph Waldo Emerson. He is also the executive editor of Harper’s Magazine and a skilled musician.

MY CHAIR
(office-chair charm)

Lyric by James Marcus
Music by Jill Sobule

What do I see to the right of me?
The man in A-473
He’s got a rash where his sleeve’s rolled up
And a swizzle stick in his pencil cup

What do I see to the left of me?
It’s Ginger from Parsippany
Her hair is brown and her face is red
Her Labrador sleeps on the bed

And what do I see in front of me?
A hint of domesticity
The supervisor’s little boys
Their smiling faces, smiling toys

My chair is twenty stories high
I see you when you tell a lie
Where you ate and where you slept
The promises you never kept
You never kept

What do I see to the right of me?
A woman I would rather be
Taller, thinner, better skin
A dimple in her perfect chin

And what do I see to the left of me?
A man that I would rather be
The deeper voice and the dapper clothes
The leather shoes his girlfriend chose

Oh tell me what is left of me
At Great Republic Guaranty
The little kingdom that I rule
As empress of the invoice pool

My chair is twenty stories high
I see you when you tell a lie
Where you ate and where you slept
The promises you never kept
You never kept

My chair is twenty stories high
Another solitary night
I see there is no guarantee
Oh tell me what is left of me
What’s left of me


Directed by Bette Gordon

TRACKLIST

Illustration by Molly Crabapple (Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms)

Vendela Vida is a novelist, journalist, and the editor of The Believer, as well as the author of Girls on the Verge, The Lovers: A Novel, and other books.

Mike Viola is a Los Angeles-based performer, songwriter, and producer. His latest recording is Acousto De Perfecto. He also created the music for such films as Get Him to the Greek, Walk Hard, and That Thing You Do!

Bette Gordon is the director of Variety, Luminous Motion, and most recently, Handsome Harry. Her short films have won numerous awards and have been screened at the Berlin Film Festival, MOMA, and the Whitney Biennial. She teaches at Columbia University.

FLIGHT
(jet plane charm)

Lyric by Vendela Vida
Music by Mike Viola & Jill Sobule

Last time I was on a flight I was racing to see you
I’d packed flip-flops and a new black bathing suit
But from the very moment I got off that plane
All I saw through every window was pewter-colored rain

On Friday night you tried to make me smile
But everything about you was faded and diluted
You were much more solid in my memory
Up close you looked like a poor facsimile

Flight, flight
Never should have caught that flight, flight
Never should have caught that flight, flight
Never should have caught that plane

On Saturday morning we tried to go to the shooting range
We tried to make homemade pumpkin soup for lunch
We paid too much to go to the pinball machine show
And we both agreed — was so-so

We sat inside so much of that long, long weekend
On your grandmother’s old furniture — that itchy couch
And broken chair — at least the bed, thank God, was new
But by Sunday morning we both knew we were through

Flight, flight
Never should have caught that flight, flight
Never should have caught that flight, flight
Never should have caught that plane

I want to be so close to someone I can count all their eyelashes
Want to be so close they’ll ask to know my mother’s middle name
I want to be so close to someone they’ll know what I’m about to say
Want to be so close to someone that’s why I got on this plane

So on Sunday morning we had our talk
And complimented ourselves for not being mean
And tried to figure out the best way to still be friends
But what we were really saying was “The end, the end, the end, the end, the end, the end, the end, the end”

Flight, flight
Never should have caught that flight, flight
Never should have caught that flight, flight
Never should have caught that plane

Flight, flight
Never should have caught that flight, flight
Never should have caught that flight, flight
Never should have caught that plane


Directed by Tom Kalin
 

TRACKLIST

Jonathan Lethem is a novelist, essayist, and MacArthur “genius,” as well as the author of Gun with Occasional Music, The Fortress of Solitude, Dissident Gardens, and many other books.

From short experimental videos (Third Known Nest) to installations and live performances (My Silent One) to feature-length films (Swoon, Savage Grace), Tom Kalin’s award-winning work has been screened around the world. He was a member of the AIDS activist collective Gran Fury and is currently a film professor at Columbia University.

STATUE OF LIBERTY
(Statue of Liberty charm)

Lyric by Jonathan Lethem
Music by Jill Sobule and Mike Viola

When we started migrating
Across this great land
I should have know we’d never cross
Dancing hand in hand

You were my consolation
Maybe my booby prize
Fat chance I’d ever see
The horizon in your eyes

Went to see the Statue of Liberty
Feeling we’d have nothing to prove
And though they call it a Statue of Liberty
I swear I saw it move
I swear I saw it move
Yeah, when you showed me that Statue of Liberty
I believed I heard a song I could sing
But it’s only a Statue of Liberty
Not the real thing
Not the real thing
Not the real thing

Developing the footage
At the finish of the trip
In retrospect it’s obvious what made the camera slip

At a malt shop
In a booth
You offered me this charm
I knew you had no earthly reason to do me any harm

Went to see the Statue of Liberty
Feeling we’d have nothing to prove
And though they call it a Statue of Liberty
I swear I saw it move
I swear I saw it move
Yeah, when you showed me that Statue of Liberty
I believed I heard a song I could sing
But it’s only a Statue of Liberty
Not the real thing
Not the real thing
Not the real thing
Not the real thing
Not the real thing


TRACKLIST

David Hajdu is the author of four books of cultural history and criticism, including Lush Life and Positively 4th Street. Hajdu helped Jill Sobule develop this project and wrote about two charms: a pennant from Mackinac Island, and a medallion for the American Business Woman’s Association.

I SWEAR I SAW
CHRISTOPHER REEVE
(Mackinac Island charm)

Lyric by David Hajdu
Music by Jill Sobule and Mike Viola

You know, it’s not pronounced “Mackinack”
It’s “Mackinaw”
Mackinac
It’s an Indian name, but it almost sounds French
Mackinac
Le Mackinac

Quaint as crocheting
Silent as that “c”
Just came to Mackinac
Came here with me

It’s like Bermuda in Michigan
Mackinaw
Mackinaw
So tranquil I hardly need tranquilizers
Mackinaw
No Seconal

No moving vehicles
No glitz, no buzz
Preserving a history
That never quite was

So magically sweet and so sublime
They came here to shoot “Somewhere in Time”
So real and yet so like make-believe
I swear I saw Christopher Reeve

You’ll never guess where we met
Mackinaw
Mackinaw
He’s a bit of pudge, but I really didn’t mind
Mackinaw
Sir Mackinaw

Time can’t remove
What we had on that trip
The kiss in my vestibule
The stain on my slip

Quaint as crocheting
Silent as that “c”
I just came to Mackinac
Came here with me

So magically sweet and so sublime
Almost don’t care that there’ll be no next time
When he flew away, left me to grieve
I swear I saw Christopher Reeve


TRACKLIST

WOMEN OF INDUSTRY
(ABWA logo charm)

Lyric by David Hajdu
Music by Jill Sobule and Dan Wilson

Women of industry
Straighten your backs
Pull off your skirts
And buckle your slacks

Women of purpose
And women of means
Women of Menger and Keynes

We’re here to do some yelling
And this is the spelling

A . . . B . . . W . . . A
A . . . B . . . W . . . A

Women of enterprise
Lords of our fates
Captains of finance
And not just the mates

Women of business
Come take a man’s tie
Pull it and kiss him goodbye

So cheer and raise a hand for
Whatever these letters stand for

A . . . B . . . W . . . A
A . . . B . . . W . . . A

A . . . B . . . W . . . A
A . . . B . . . W . . . A

Gentility?
No!
Servility?
Go!
Give us no more than a try

Ability?
Yes!
Virility?
Guess!
A chromosome X if you wanna know why

A . . . B . . . W . . . A
A . . . B . . . W . . . A

A . . . B . . . W . . . A
A . . . B . . . W . . . A

A . . . B . . . W . . . A
A . . . B . . . W . . . A

A . . . B . . . W . . . A
A . . . B . . . W . . . A


Directed by Sara Zandieh

 

TRACKLIST

Illustration by Molly Crabapple (Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms)

Sara Marcus is a former punk rocker, a literary journalist, and the author of Girls to the Front.

Sara Zandieh’s The Pool Party, shot in Tehran on the eve of the 2010 Iranian election crisis, won a Special Jury Mention at that year’s Tribeca Film Festival. She has also written and directed several comedic shorts including Deadline and Reza Hassani Goes to the Mall, which premiered at Telluride. 

O CANADA
(Canadian penny charm)

Lyric by Sara Marcus
Music by Jill Sobule and Mike Viola

O Canada, you took me in
Just beneath your native skin
To the land we both belonged to years ago
O pal of mine, how young it was
Mountie you and Yankee cuz
Dog days, adolescent fuzz
Distortion, gain, delay

Oh Canada, you took me in, you took me in,
you took me in, O Canada

A summer long, a lakefront green
The profile of departed queen
Sat sweating by mosquito screens
In doors upon the wild
You gave your heart, I deigned a glance
It seemed so plain, but you thought fancy
Saw through it.
You were still a child

Oh Canada, you took me in
you took me in
you took me in
O Canada

In my pocket, getting warm
Like August in November
In my pocket, getting warm
A value-vacant ember
Oh Canada

O Canada, your penny buys
Not much more than a pair of eyes
Red and cold like dragonflies
It trolls the lake at dawn
That’s how much our stories earn
Worthless as a mountain fern
Summer glows for fall to burn
For fall to burn

Oh Canada, you took me in
you took me in
you took me in
O Canada


TRACKLIST

Luc Sante is an essayist, critic, and nonfiction writer, and the author of Low Life, Evidence, Kill All Your Darlings, and other books.

OLD KENTUCKY
(Kentucky map charm)

Lyric by Luc Sante
Music by Jill Sobule and Mike Viola

When it’s reckoning time in old Kentucky
I ask myself if I’m feeling lucky
Will it be champagne or flat cold ducky?
The sun shines down on my old Kentucky charm

Had a dollar to win but I lost my head
Had a dollar to place, I forgot my map
Had a dollar to show but I stayed in bed
All that’s in my pocket is my pocket flap

When it’s reckoning time in the court of law
All I can summon is my monkey’s paw
And all I’m asking is for a jury draw
The sun shines down on my old Kentucky charm

Had a line to walk but I walked it crooked
Had a rule to follow but I tried to lead it
I had a promise to keep but the devil took it
When it comes to losing I’m undefeated

When it’s reckoning time at heaven’s gate
I’ll grin like I’m meeting my mystery date
Hope I can keep my story straight
Oh the sun shines down on my old Kentucky charm

Had a life to lead and I spent it all
Had a dream to catch and I let it go to heck
Had a hope in hell and I helped it fall
Now I’m done losing and I’m ready to collect

It’s reckoning time in old Kentucky


TRACKLIST

Mary Jo Salter is one of the most respected poets in America, and the author of A Kiss in Space, Open Shutters, and other collections.

WEDDING RING
(wedding-ring charm)

Lyric by Mary Jo Salter
Music by Jill Sobule and Dave Palmer

I’m wearing your wedding ring
But it’s not on my finger
Remember when we married?
We slipped on rings and kissed
I’m wearing your wedding ring
No longer on my finger
No longer on my finger
But only on my wrist

Well, you sure you were charming
But charming can do harm
I learned at last just what I am
One more girl on your list
You may have been disarming
But I’ve put you on my wrist
Brace yourself, I’ve got a bracelet
And you’re no longer on my finger
You’re only on my wrist

You’re just one more of the many charms
I take around
They jangle to remind me
I’ve still got my own sound
I wear a little tambourine
Right here and when it shakes
I kind of like the music
And all the trembling makes

I thought you were my true love
You sure were a dead ringer
I loved it when we kissed
You’re no longer on my finger, honey
You’re among the charming many
Dangling from my wrist
You’re no longer on my finger
You’re no longer on my finger
You’re no longer on my finger
You’re only on my, only on my
Only on my wrist


TRACKLIST

Illustration by Molly Crabapple (Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms)

Nina Mehta is an award-winning financial journalist and essayist.

THE MEZUZAH
(Mezuzah charm)

Lyric by Nina Mehta
Music by Jill Sobule

I’ve traveled to cities you’ve never seen
Far from the town where I was a teen
To Budapest and west Odense
A million miles from New Providence

Thirty years later, my childhood’s gone
The blue-and-white house half-acre lawn
So why do I dwell on the elm tree in back
The mezuzah in front and the books in the stack?

There was nothing to do and the neighbors were mean
I sat in my room and tried not to scream
We fought and we squabbled every third day
And I longed for the time when I’d go far away

I never look back and I try to forget
So why do I think of this house with regret?
Why do I dwell on the elm tree in back
The mezuzah in front and the books in the stack?

Now I walk to work under a mackerel sky
The tears start to slide, I can’t fathom why
It’s been nine years since you’re in a grave
I keep on living and I even forgave

How you died in front of me that day
The clocks keeps ticking as you slide away
And time stood still for a full year
While I pretend you were near

Mom, you died in front of me that day
Four paramedics, they couldn’t say
That you would live to comfort me
Or one day know who I would be

I never look back and I try to forget
So why do I think of the house with regret?
Why do I dwell on the elm tree in back
The mezuzah in front and the books in the stack?

I never look back and I try to forget
So why do I think of the house with regret?
Why do I dwell on the elm tree in back
The mezuzah in front and the books in the stack?


TRACKLIST

Illustration by Molly Crabapple (Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms)

Sam Lipsyte is a Guggenheim fellow, a novelist and former noise-rock musician, and the author of The Ask, Home Land, The Fun Parts, and other books.

I HATE HORSES
(stirrup charm)

Lyric by Sam Lipsyte
Music by Jill Sobule and Adam Levy

Bobby was a cowboy
Liked to roam the Range
It’s a bar near Great Neck
The man sold vans and he was strange

Found a stirrup in the gutter
Did a bourbon stumble home
Laid the thing beside my pillow
Smelled like garbage and ice-cream cone

I hate horses
All my friends drew horses
Never looked that free to me
Scared and crazy as can be
I hate, I hate horses

Marina mimosas
Another dude another time
Said the stirrup changed the world
Like the printing press or Patsy Cline

He took me home to his pick-up
We drank booze and watched the stars
Said he team-roped in the rodeo
That’s code for something people did in cars

I hate horses
All my friends drew horses
Never looked that free to me
Scared and crazy as can be
I hate, I hate horses

But I got one stirrup to my name
Cracked and dirty stirrup for my claim
Trick rider, won’t you lean down for me?
I’m dying in this dust

Oh, I hate horses
All my friends drew horses
Never looked that free to me
Scared and crazy as can be
I hate, I hate horses
I hate, I hate horses


TRACKLIST

Illustration by Molly Crabapple (Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms)

Rick Moody is the author of The Ice Storm, Garden State, On Celestial Music, and other books. He is also a musician and songwriter.

Fred Hersch is a composer, six-time Grammy nominee, and (according Vanity Fair) “the most arrestingly innovative pianist in jazz over the last decade or so.” His most recent recording is Free Flying, a duet performance with the guitarist Julian Lage.

LONELY EIGHTY EIGHT
(piano charm)

Lyric by Rick Moody
Music by Jill Sobule and Fred Hersch

I learned a major scale when I was nine or ten
On the baby grand in the corner of the mud room
My mother picked out Debussy and Gershwin now and then
When she wasn’t weaving sweaters on her loom

I learned the minor scales in middle school’s dark ages
My dad had packed his things and moved ‘cross town
The keys were chipped, the G sharp stuck, and the piece was missing pages
But I practiced and I swallowed it all down

On the lonely eighty-eight
The lonely eighty-eight
Whether early, whether late
On the lonely eighty-eight

In high school there was football — but for me, diminished chords
And a book on how to fake a little jazz
In chem class, kind of restless, in algebra so bored
And the hallways were a kind of Alcatraz

I took some composition in my first year up at state
But the teacher liked that stuff that had no key
I never did get counterpoint, so I took an incomplete
But the practice rooms on Powers Street were free

On the lonely eighty-eight
The lonely eighty-eight
It was a Friday and no date
But the lonely eight-eight

I dropped out of law school when I got an F in torts
And I sold the Fender Rhodes to pay some bills
The paralegal gig, it was my last resort
But it wasn’t long before I got my fill

And now I’m here alone as the moon goes thru its phases
And the only folks who call are candidates
I blow the dust off, pick a score, and limber up my wrists,
And in the stillness I begin to celebrate

On the lonely eighty-eight
The lonely eighty-eight
Whether early, whether late
It’s a Friday with no date
But here I am with the lonely eighty-eight

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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
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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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