Postcard — September 30, 2014, 11:41 am

Marooned at the Mall

Iraq’s forgotten Christians in Kurdish exile

Six weeks ago, as Islamic State militants threatened Baghdad, Suleiman, a member of Iraq’s Christian minority, abandoned his job at the airport and set out with his family for Kurdistan, the autonomous northern region that has become a haven for persecuted religious minorities. Along the way, their car was stopped at an Islamic State checkpoint. Terrified, Suleiman decided to flatter the terrorists in the hope that they might let him and his family pass: “Good job, I told them. After only twenty-four hours you have taken over here.’” Recalling the incident, he paused. “Really, I was thinking about death.” The militants took his papers (“They knew I am a Christian”) and all of his money before finally letting the car pass.

ERBIL, IRAQ: The interior of a building that is now inhabited by displaced Iraqi Christians. Photograph by Sebastian Meyer

ERBIL, IRAQ: The interior of a building that is now inhabited by displaced Iraqi Christians. Photograph by Sebastian Meyer

Sitting cross-legged on a mattress in a makeshift refugee camp in Erbil, the Kurdish capital, where he and his family had ended up, Suleiman pulled open his wallet. It contained a small blue bill: 250 Iraqi dinar—about twenty cents. In Ankawa, the affluent, predominantly Christian neighborhood where the camp was located, 250 dinar is enough for one bottle of water. For Suleiman, whose scant possessions (mainly toiletries) were laid out fastidiously on a shelf, not having any money meant not having an identity, nor any hope of regaining one.

Suleiman and his family were not alone. In mid-August, hundreds of displaced Christians who had fled to Erbil were moved by Kurdish authorities into the concrete shell of a half-built mall. Most of them were from Iraq’s northwestern Nineveh Plain, home to some of the oldest Christian communities in the world. It made perfect sense, in a way: Iraqi Kurdistan is in the midst of an economic boom, the harvest of which, so far, seems to be half-built malls. With the Islamic State on the border, construction has come to a halt, and the malls and other developments—the future offices, apartments, and shops of the hyper-developed oil state that Kurdish leaders and investors like to envision—are being used to house the nearly 1.5 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have poured into Kurdistan.

Hauling foam mattresses, bright-blue U.N.H.C.R. blankets, and purses containing well-thumbed American visa applications, the Christian IDPs rushed to claim spots on the mall’s three floors. The structure, situated on a busy road, was exposed and dreary, full of construction hazards and looking more post-apocalyptic than pre–grand opening. Still, it was better than sleeping outside.

Displaced people from Karamlish, a town of about 10,000 that lies fifty miles west of Erbil, took the top floor. Up there it was open and breezy, relatively private, with good views of Saint Joseph’s Church, a fortress-like building topped by a glowing cross, where many of the displaced had spent their first nights. But being up high was also more dangerous. The outer walls of the third floor were unfinished, and just beyond them was a perilous drop onto the craggy rubble of a construction site. A temporary stairwell connecting the floors had no railing, and, in the middle of the structure, what would one day become the mall’s atrium was now a gaping hole.

On the first floor, families from Qaraqosh claimed space as far away from the busy main entrance as possible. Men policed that entrance, but they feared strangers; it was hard to know who belonged. Some refugees leaned their belongings against the cinder blocks that had been stacked into rudimentary walls. They were grateful for the privacy. Others gravitated to the open areas—temperatures had reached 110 degrees in Erbil and even a thick, hot breeze was better than nothing. They hung blankets and jackets on the rebar that jutted out of columns and tried to claim even a small bit of turf as their own.

Latecomers from Qaraqosh and nearby Bartella, as well as the sick or wheelchair-bound, were forced below ground into the future parking garage. Down there, the air was still. Sick IDPs lay on mattresses. Water dripping from buckets or plastic bottles formed puddles that never seemed to dry. A two-foot gap just below the ceiling let in some breeze, which brought along dust and garbage kicked up by passersby on the street; many of the residents blocked the opening with cardboard. It was dark even during the day. One elderly woman wept, sweeping bits of trash into a dustpan. She said that she felt like she was living in a grave, and that her real home was a ghost town.

The Christians living in the mall knew that they were just a few among a multitude of IDPs. Some were quick to point out that, compared with other minorities in Iraq—the Yazidis in particular—they were lucky. The Islamic State had not ambushed them in their homes. Instead, the Kurdish peshmerga who had been guarding the towns had determined, in the days before the U.S. began assisting them with air strikes, that they had to retreat and regroup. The Christians were warned, and given time to leave. Most received word through an unexpected late-evening phone call. “Some areas fall by fighting,” Stephen, a Catholic priest from Karamlish, told me. “We fell by cell phone.”

“No one is prepared to receive 20,000 people in one day,” Father Douglas, a local priest, said, as he watched parcels of food aid being unloaded in the mall’s basement. The bulk of the aid came from a local Catholic diocese, with about 20 percent coming from private donors; so far, they had sufficient food and medical aid. Father Douglas was a familiar type of religious leader, as concerned about the mental well-being of his congregation as their spiritual devotion. Messages on a whiteboard in his office across town urged IDPs to “stay positive and stay strong.” He’d seen worse. “I’m from Baghdad,” he liked to say. “To me, this is a picnic.”

ERBIL, IRAQ: Mark sleeps in a cubicle room inside an abandoned building that's now inhabited by displaced Iraqi Christians. Photograph by Sebastian Meyer

ERBIL, IRAQ: Mark sleeps in a cubicle room inside an abandoned building that’s now inhabited by displaced Iraqi Christians. Photograph by Sebastian Meyer

Each plastic-wrapped parcel contained moderate portions of belly-filling staples: rice and soft cheese, cooking oil, pasta. They rolled off the back of a truck into the eager hands of the Bartella and Qaraqosh IDPs, who looked both relieved and embarrassed. Back home, most had jobs. I met electricians, nurses, famers, and pharmacists, as well as airport cooks who proudly referred to themselves as “chefs,” drivers now without cars, and grocery owners who imagined their inventory feeding the Islamic State.

Daniel, a Qaraqosh native in his twenties, with faint acne scars and spiked black hair, had worked as a janitor in a wedding hall, cleaning up after the last guests had drained their drinks and gone home. Sometimes he was there until sunrise, sweeping the floor and scrubbing the tables—but that meant the wedding had been particularly large and probably happy.

“To be honest, our life in Qaraqosh was really good,” Daniel said. “We worked. I had two laptops, an Xbox, a camera.” He missed Facebook and God of War III, a combat video game loosely based on Greek mythology. He hadn’t been to church in five months. “I don’t know why,” he said, looking at the floor. “I don’t know what to say. I just always feel bad.”

Daniel lived in a corner on the first floor of the mall, but he hadn’t met many of his neighbors. One of them, a young mother, had traveled fifteen hours in a car with her eight-day-old baby. A seat in the car cost a hundred dollars, and the trip had been slow and frightening. But it hadn’t been uncomfortable, she told me—there was air-conditioning, and they let her carry her son on her lap for no extra charge. Her husband was still in Baghdad.

The boy slept swaddled in white cloth, and each adult who touched him seemed to receive a shock of delight. But Daniel only nodded at the baby, chuckling to see the source of the crying that kept him up at night. Choosing not to interact with other people, or to bond with neighbors over a shared horror, is a right that many of the IDPs seemed determined to exercise. No comfort, not even a newborn baby, could compare to the comfort of familiarity. Even though they were out of immediate danger, suspicion colored every interaction.

Small groups of roving men monitored the flow of people between floors. A local priest, one of these informal guards told me, had advised them to keep an eye on who came and went. Their behavior mimicked what they had experienced crossing the border on their way to Erbil. Security is paramount to the success story of modern Iraqi Kurdistan, and the influx of IDPs has fueled widespread anxiety—hence the rigorous profiling of refugees at Kurdish border checkpoints. “You cannot undermine your own security just because you are doing a humanitarian job,” Safeen Dizayee, a Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.) spokesperson, told me.

Many Christians I spoke to assumed that their religion had helped them get through the checkpoints at the Kurdistan border. It was hard for them to feel guilty about the preferential treatment. Still, some Christians in the mall declared that they could no longer live among Muslims, which seemed both an acknowledgment of their homelessness and an expression of their newfound prejudice against their former neighbors back in Iraq. (The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but their strong collective identity generally derives more from ethnicity than religion.)

“At the Erbil checkpoint we had to get a taxi, but they were scared of us,” Daniel said. “I told the taxi driver, don’t be afraid, we are Christians. We are just happy to be alive. The driver relaxed. He said, ‘I’m sorry that I have to take money from you. We are peaceful, we just want to live our lives.’ But when you tell them you are Muslim, they give you a paper that lets you stay for seven days. They don’t trust Arab Muslims.”

One afternoon in early September, a crowd formed in the mall’s basement. “We are disrespected, all of us!” a man shouted, waving his arms. His audience shuddered. “I waited for three hours and all I got was this,” he said, holding up a bag of chocolate cookies and one of powered milk. “There’s no rice. When the rain starts, the basement will be full of water. They’ll throw us into the streets and kill us because of this,” he said, pointing to the cross around his neck. “Either you are Muslim, or you will die.” His voice cracked. “Our government treats us so badly. We don’t want them anymore. We want the European government. There are only 200,000 of us, Europe could take us.”

ERBIL, IRAQ: A young boy plays with burning garbage in an abandoned lot across the street from a camp for displaced Christians where he lives with his family. Photograph by Sebastian Meyer

ERBIL, IRAQ: A young boy plays with burning garbage in an abandoned lot across the street from a camp for displaced Christians where he lives with his family. Photograph by Sebastian Meyer

Among the IDPs on all floors the desire to leave Iraq was unmistakable. The project of securing a visa to America or Europe was a distraction from the empty days, one that replaced the jobs and social lives they had left at home in Nineveh. Many people clutched applications and new passports like trophies, which they displayed to each other or to visitors as proof of their determination. It was clear to them that Kurdistan, in spite of its autonomy, was very much a part of Iraq. They had themselves blurred the borders when they crossed them.

One large family was trying to nurse their four-year-old son back to health, but in the dank atmosphere of the basement they were pessimistic. A doctor, the mother told me, had said that the child could die if they didn’t move in one month. He needed treatment abroad. “The only solution is to leave this place,” she said. The woman also needed to see a specialist; she had been hit by a car, and her foot was twisted and deformed, the outer toes folded toward the middle.

Absorbing the influx of refugees and IDPs has given Kurdistan the chance to prove that its reputation for progress and open-mindedness is more than just rhetoric. In many important ways it has succeeded. There have been very few reports of harassment by locals, and the government has worked quickly to set up camps and to offer as much assistance as possible, even when foreign aid has been slow to materialize. The humanitarian burden shouldn’t be underestimated. “Can you imagine if 560,000 people in one month went to France or to the U.K?” Dizayee, the K.R.G. spokesperson, asked me. “Do you think even they could manage?”

But in other ways, the crisis has amplified some of the region’s difficulties. Budget disputes with Baghdad, which have gone unresolved since January, make it difficult to pay for the humanitarian efforts, and not all of the blame for these disputes can be pinned on an intractable central government. Profiling at checkpoints may be justified by officials for security measures, but it hampers the image of Kurdistan as an ecumenical refuge.

There are also limits to how comfortable IDPs feel in Kurdistan. Many in the shopping mall were upset by the Christians in Ankawa, who hadn’t opened their homes to refugees. No one in Bartella would ever let another Christian sleep on the street, they said. One Karamlish man complained about being rebuffed by the peshmerga back in Iraq, which, he said, showed the limits of Kurdistan’s inclusivity. “I said, ‘We are here, we have 1,800 people. Give us guns and we will fight,’” he told me. “They said, No, we will fight for you. Go sit.”

The crisis has also exposed some of the ways in which Kurdistan’s economic growth has made it a more difficult place to live. Finding affordable housing in Erbil is daunting, and the price of groceries has soared. The cost of living is untenable for IDPs with limited resources. And Kurdistan’s medical infrastructure, which has long been underdeveloped and stymied by government inefficiency, has buckled under the weight of ailing refugees. The Christians in the Ankawa shopping mall were grateful for the security, but had no desire to stay.

Meanwhile, Father Douglas treated his congregation as though they were in hospice care. It was his job, he said, to make them feel comfortable and cared for, and to reinforce their connection to their religion. But even amid his feel-good rhetoric, he did not urge the displaced Christians to stay in Iraq. He expected that within a year, 50 percent of Iraq’s Christians would be gone, whether physically relocated or, as he somberly predicted, psychologically out of reach. “During the service, I say, ‘Think about your kids,’ ” he told me. “Only the parents can make this decision. Not the government, only the parents.”

The family with the sick four-year-old built their lives in the mall basement around their determination to leave. They stacked their children’s passports next to their mattresses, brandishing them whenever an aid worker or journalist visited, and snuck onto neighborhood wireless networks when they could, to connect with friends and family on Facebook who had already made it out. They sent query after query to U.N.H.C.R., and they checked and rechecked pending visa applications as though they were overturned hourglasses. Each small action was another step out of the country. “The only thing we can do is find a good place for our children,” the father said. “These children don’t love Iraq.”

Single Page
is a writer based in Istanbul and is the recipient of a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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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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There Will Always Be Fires

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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
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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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