Special Feature — October 27, 2014, 3:00 pm

A Band of Her Own

Anne Sexton’s lost tapes


Anne Sexton reading her book of poems “Live or Die,” which won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. AP Photo/Bill Chaplis

In early March 1966, poet and public-television presidium Richard O. Moore traveled to the buttoned-up Boston suburb of Weston, Massachusetts, to interview the poet Anne Sexton at the home she shared with her husband, Kayo, and young daughters Linda and Joy. The interview was to be a cinéma vérité–type glimpse into the life of the increasingly famous poète maudite, who just a year later would be awarded the Pulitzer for her second collection, Live or Die. Sexton’s star had been on the rise since the 1960 publication of her first book, To Bedlam and Partway Back, which focused on her psychiatric hospitalization and subsequent return to a degree of normalcy (hence “partway”). Throughout the interview, later aired on San Francisco television station KQED, Sexton presents her home life to the viewer: she reads her work, comforts her daughter, cajoles her camera-shy husband to join her on film, and contemplates death. At one point, she puts on a Chopin record, Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 23. Sexton melts at the opening notes; her demeanor, hitherto coquettish, becomes euphoric. She closes her eyes, arches her neck, and bites her lip as if she’s seducing someone or being seduced. The camera travels down her long, pale arm, which swings just slightly to the beat.

“I’ll tell you what poem I wrote to this,” she says to Moore, smirking. “‘Your Face on the Dog’s Neck.’ Makes no sense, does it? A love poem.” As the music crescendos, the frenetic camera homes in on Sexton’s eyes, which she closes as she exclaims, “Oh, it’s beautiful!” Her joy is overwhelming and carnal and more than a little disturbing. “It’s better than a poem!” she says. “Music beats us.”


A year after she gave that interview to KQED, Sexton tried to bring the forces of music and poetry together with a “chamber rock” outfit dubbed Anne Sexton and Her Kind, named for her ode to deviant women. A single picture included in Diane Middlebrook’s polarizing biography of Sexton shows the group rehearsing in her Weston living room: Anne’s model-long legs are crossed in front of her, flautist Teddy Casher holds his instrument with one hand and conducts with the other, and a few children are facing away from the camera, listening intently.

Internet searches turn up just one recording of the band playing: a boogaloo melody, happy but languidly paced, lightly accompanying “Woman With Girdle,” a poem about the grotesquerie of old age:

over thighs, thick as young pigs,
over knees like saucers,
over calves, polished as leather

What in the poem is an unappealing display becomes, with the addition of the soul-influenced, flute-inflected background, funny, almost self-consciously so. The tone changes from disgusted to celebratory; it’s easy to imagine the fleshy old woman unclipping her garters and rolling down her stockings for a whooping audience, genuinely relishing the attention. The humor was a revelation to someone like me. I had always felt irrepressibly drawn to Sexton’s poetry, but her reputation as an oversharer disturbed me. Was my admiration for her work just a wanton attraction to the bare disclosure of pathologies? I loved the salacious, sure, but was there something more there?

Sexton is a well-known member of a group in poetry commonly known as the “confessional” school, which emerged in the late fifties and early sixties. She was something of an anomaly in poetry, still the arena of scholarly white men, in that she was a housewife with little education. Sylvia Plath, her friend and easiest parallel, was far better positioned for poetic success, as she had attended Smith College and Cambridge; Sexton, by contrast, dropped out of Garland Junior College to get married. “Confessional” is generally considered an irritating and dismissive label. But it articulates what these disparate artists did that was, at the time, so revolutionary. They revealed, more nakedly and honestly than any poets had before them, the intimate and often painful details of their personal lives. For some, like Boston Brahmin Robert Lowell, this expository effort was met with critical acclaim. For others, like Sexton, who wrote—just as Lowell did in some poems—of female sexual desire, mental illness, abortion, and illicit love, the impulse to divulge was often seen as exhibitionistic and dramatic, even campy. This appraisal is less valid when one examines her early work, particularly the pieces collected in Bedlam, All My Pretty Ones, and Live or Die, which are marked by a command of formalism extraordinary in someone who didn’t start writing poetry until she was in her late twenties, after the birth of her two children and her first nervous breakdown. As her career progressed, however, Sexton experimented increasingly with free verse, which yielded mixed results. Over time, the voices of praise quieted, and those who claimed she painted a perverted picture of womanhood grew more vocal. Of all her experimental forays, none is as ignored as her endeavors with music. “Music,” Linda Sexton told me, “was my mother’s muse.”


Listen to Anne Sexton & Her Kind

Seven live performances recorded by Bob Clawson between 1967 and 1971.

“Music Swims Back To Me”

“The Addict”

“Eighteen Days Without You”

“For Johnny On The Forgotten Beach”

“The Sun”

“From the Garden”

“Cripples and Other Stories”

The former booking agent, talent wrangler, and erstwhile visionary of Anne Sexton & Her Kind is a tall, deep-voiced man now on the cusp of eighty named Bob Clawson. Clawson’s duties to Her Kind in its heyday were more managerial than musical, though he sometimes moonlighted as a kazoo player when needed. In the decades since the group split up, Clawson has been the sole caretaker of its musical catalogue, live recordings of the twelve performances Her Kind staged during the band’s four years together. Six months prior to our meeting, Clawson sent me a demo CD with six wildly different songs by the band combined into one long track. The rest of the material, he says, is somewhere in his cabinlike abode. Where exactly, he isn’t sure. When a sound engineer who owed him a favor transferred the material from tapes to compact discs, he neglected to label them, and Clawson lost track of the CDs many years ago. They are somewhere in his cluttered basement, he says. “Unless someone stole them.”

A former English teacher and published poet in his own right, Clawson is “wary of being the Anne Sexton guy,” which is exactly what I’m asking him to be, but unfortunately for him, his memory is nearly impeccable. We’re sitting in the small solarium in his Massachusetts home, a shelf of books above his head revealing his eclectic yet sophisticated tastes. Clawson met Sexton when he was a high school English teacher in Weston. One of his colleagues, a friend of Anne and Kayo’s, had glanced over his shoulder one lunch period to see him reading “Menstruation At Forty,” a poem in which Sexton connects her monthly bleeding to the loss of an unformed child and, characteristically, her urge to die (“All this without you–– / two days gone in blood.”) He offered to introduce the two, but Clawson wanted Anne to see the papers his students had written about her work first. She was thrilled with the products of such young, vibrant minds, and eventually Clawson paid an evening visit to Sexton’s home to meet the poet whose work he had come to admire greatly. “We met in the bedroom,” Clawson recalled. “Kayo had pneumonia. Anne was getting ready to go to a function––it might have been a reading. She had on a fuchsia satin dress. She has the black hair and she’s all made up and she really looked super sophisticated. She didn’t look to me like the poet I was reading. She looked like she was worldly.”

Soon the young English teacher was stopping by the poet’s house in the evenings on his way home from school. Sexton shared with gusto the pieces that were eventually to be collected in Live or Die and Love Poems. She encouraged Clawson to establish a poet-in-residence at the high school, and together they attended a weeklong seminar in June 1966 hosted by the Teachers and Writers Collaborative, a new nonprofit organization in East Hampton that arranged for professional writers to teach seminars in public schools. Through the collaborative, Sexton and Clawson secured funding to start an experimental English class at a high school just down the road from Weston. In a letter to Herbert Kohl, education advocate and founder of the TWC, Sexton described the duo’s loose, idealistic vision for their classroom: “The teacher (Bob) and the poet (me) will … encourage all student writing as a valuable communication and never give it a mark or hold it up to evaluation that would tend to kill, or block, or ‘clog.’” In September 1967, Clawson and Sexton faced a classroom of teenage students. They had no lesson plan, just an aspiration for a certain ambience. Throughout that academic year, the students wrote poetry and explored experimental forms of writing like graffiti and prayer.

The class standout was Steve Rizzo, a football player whose good looks and dexterity on the field belied a sensitive, artistic personality. He was fascinated by the creative life, personified by these two dashing figures so unlike the rest of the faculty at Wayland High School. “I still remember them strolling across campus,” Rizzo, now in his mid-sixties and a special education teacher at Wayland, tells me. One day, after the class discussed Simon and Garfunkel’s musical adaptation of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Richard Cory,” Rizzo, a self-taught guitar player, asked to borrow a copy of Sexton’s To Bedlam and Part Way Back. He then set three of Anne’s poems to music, including the poem “Music Swims Back to Me.” (“Music pours over the sense / and in a funny way / music sees more than I. / I mean it remembers better.”)

Rizzo played the pieces for his teachers one day in class, and that afternoon Clawson and Sexton skipped their usual post-work drinks at the Red Coat Grill (Anne favored Wild Turkey bourbon) to assess Rizzo’s performance at the Sexton home. “The airs struck us right off as right on,” Clawson says. Innovation junkies, they were both giddy with excitement. Though neither admitted dreams of music glory, there was an inkling that something unique could grow from Rizzo’s compositions. One thing was for sure: If they put Anne’s poetry to music, they could make her work known to people who wouldn’t ordinarily read poetry. For his part, Clawson says he knew right away that these songs could be the foundation for an official enterprise, so he suggested they play the melodies for a musician friend of his, a classically trained pianist named Bill Davies. He was impressed. Rizzo, Davies, and Clawson reached a consensus without so much as a discussion: they would form a band, with Anne as their front-woman. Sexton, always game for a challenge, was gung ho. Rizzo was excited to be a part of the venture. “It was an education in a different kind of way,” he told me, “even unrelated to just the poetry and the music itself—being a part of creative people’s lives.”

Rounded out by flautist Teddy Casher, a working musician today, even in his mid-seventies, and a rotating cast of drummers and bass players, the band riffed on Sexton’s poems with bebop and post-bop jazz and spiritual hymns, along with styles from the aural landscape of the late Sixties––psychedelia, protest folk music, Eastern strings. The end of “The Addict” incorporated a lullaby-esque tune; for “The Sun,” they went with what Rizzo calls a “spacey” tune. They were rigorous about the music being as well realized as the poems, not just improvisational “noodling,” as Clawson puts it. Anne didn’t sing but read the selected poem over the music. Because of the accompaniment, she couldn’t fall back on the routine cadence she used in her readings; instead, she learned to time her throaty utterances to the beat of the music, aided by Clawson’s helpful coaching.

With each new composition, the group actively sought to incorporate genres of music they hadn’t used before. “We didn’t have country music,” Clawson recalled. “It occurred to me that the poem ‘Cripples and Other Stories’ had the right beat for country, and we started doing it, and we were rolling on the floor laughing. We knew we were going to knock an audience sideways.” They rejigged the poem to make an early quatrain into a refrain: “Each time I give lectures / or gather in the grants / you send me off to boarding school / in training pants.” The honky-tonk song pleased the guys to no end, but they were unsure that Sexton would like it––the poem, after all, was a rather serious meditation on deformity, both physical and emotional. (“The surgeons shook their heads. / They really didn’t know –– / Would the cripple inside of me / be a cripple that would show?”) There was a fine line between lighthearted jesting and mean-spirited mockery.

“We brought it out at a Sunday rehearsal and said we wanted to try something,” Clawson remembers, “and Anne said, ‘Over my dead body! No. No way.’” Clawson convinced Sexton by playing her “Alabama Song” from Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. “It’s got these dark, dark lyrics but the melody is so schmaltzy. And she said, ‘Alright, we’ll give it a try.’ She was still very cautious. We did it at the close of the first half at the next concert we had, and Anne began the reading, just the reading, with nothing, no music. And as she read, the music begins to pick up behind it just a piece at a time. And then it starts to become slightly integrated, and then a little more integrated. And then you start to think, ‘She might burst into song or something!’ But she calls me out of the audience, and says, ‘Bobby!’ and I rush up on the stage, and there’s Teddy coming over to the microphone, and I’ve got a kazoo and Teddy’s got a saxophone and we take off singing it and doing the bridges with the saxophone and the kazoo. And the audience went bananas.”


From 1967 until their disbanding in 1971, the group wrote and performed. They played at a fundraiser for Eugene McCarthy, at bars where the air was thick with marijuana smoke, in college quads, on radio shows, and at the New England Conservatory of Music’s Jordan Hall, in front of a thousand rapt listeners. The men wore turtlenecks and jackets. (“We weren’t Kiss,” Clawson says.) Anne wore long dresses: she had two favorites, a red one and a black-and-white one. “She moved discreetly,” Clawson says. “She had those long arms and long fingers. Her movement was lovely . . . it wasn’t frenzied . . . she might wink at the audience. She was really engaging.”

Anne Sexton the performer stands in some contrast to Anne Sexton the poet. Though both Linda Sexton and Bob Clawson claim she had no sense of rhythm and often fell into a kind predetermined modulation better suited for readings than musical performances, her voice on the recordings is lilting and measured, rising and softening in accordance with the band. Listening to a performance of “Protestant Easter,” a hilarious poem that digs at New England Calvinism from the point of view of a child (“After that they pounded nails into his hands / After that, well, after that / everyone wore hats”), I begin to envision her covered in sweat, down on her knees in front of a congregation, shouting “Praise Jesus!” as the organ trills away behind her. It becomes clear to me that I cannot separate the less comfortable aspects of Sexton and her work from the parts that are more easily accessible and more widely lauded. It was her unusual daring––can you imagine Plath doing a doo-wop version of “Ariel?”––that fueled Sexton’s work. I couldn’t take only the fine formal verse and discard the later, sloppier, more desperate writings. I couldn’t discard her failed experiments with prose and cling to only what was deemed Pulitzer-worthy.

Sexton’s flair for performance wasn’t universally appreciated, another reason why music was in some ways a friendlier environment for her than the stuffy world of academia. In the poetry world, in fact, many found her style off-putting––gauche, sloppy, unrefined. She famously drew ire when she blew the crowd a kiss following her time at the Poetry International Festival in London in 1967. Those close to her attribute her theatrical overcompensation to her intense stage fright and the drinking she did to calm her nerves.

“She did drink before performances. I could not force her not to,” said Clawson. “I think it’s really detrimental. In performance, you really have to have all your antennae attuned. But she said she couldn’t do it without it. I’d be furious after a concert because it was so good live, and then you’d listen to the tapes and you’d think, ‘Ah, she blew that one.’” The recording equipment would pick up things like slurred speech and missteps in timing, which were easy to ignore amidst the heady atmosphere of the show. The products, therefore, were useless. Casher and Clawson both single out recording as the hurdle that ultimately couldn’t be jumped. It started to feel like making an effort might not be worth it if Anne was always going to be sloshed. Clawson didn’t even bother to record what would be their last show, at Emmanuel and Wheaton Colleges outside Boston, because he assumed she’d stumble through it. As it turned out, she vomited up her cocktails and whiskey, and as a result gave a more sober, seamless performance than she had in months.

After that things further deteriorated, both for Sexton personally and the group. The band was offered a slot at the Newport Jazz Festival, which would have certainly put them on the map, but Sexton refused because they couldn’t pay enough. Then she reneged on a gig at Holy Cross, saying there was a priest affiliated with the school who had disparaged her work. Perhaps, as many critics have suggested, her hunger for validation––in the form of applause, accolades, and other hallmarks of fame––began to grow deeper the more she tried to satiate it, and, dispirited, she unconsciously turned her back on poetry and performance, the only things that had ever made her happy.

“The gift that she had,” Clawson muses, “I think it sustained her as long as she lived. The performance she knew was necessary to achieve what she wanted, stardom in poetry … I think if there had been records of Anne Sexton & Her Kind playing at the time she was alive, she would have lived longer.” But it wasn’t to be––Sexton committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning at 45. “She needed again and again, stuff like that,” said Clawson. “She needed it for self-affirmation, so she put herself through that. She didn’t lead a life that any of us would envy. I mean, you might envy it from the point of view of her profession, and say, ‘Wow, she was quite a poet,’ but it was not an enviable life.”

But then Clawson brightens for a moment, remembering one particularly joyful moment during a performance. “Anne always said, ‘I cannot sing. I can only sing one song, “Cigarettes and Whisky and Wild, Wild Women.”’ Except—” Clawson hesitates, looking for the right word. “A little epiphany or a miracle, whatever you want to call it. About the third or the fourth time we’re doing this in concert, I realize Anne has come up right behind me and she’s singing! She’s singing. And you can hear that in the tape. If you listen carefully, you can hear Anne singing, and she’s having such a good time.”

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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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