Conversation — January 26, 2015, 8:00 am

Absent Victims

Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of The Act of Killing, discusses his follow-up documentary, The Look of Silence, about those who survived the Indonesian genocide of 1965

Adi tests the vision of a death squad leader who helped kill his brother. Photograph by Lars Skree © Final Cut for Real

When a new documentary by an unknown director appeared on the program of the 2012 Telluride Film Festival, few knew what was in store. The fact that two celebrated auteurs—Werner Herzog and Errol Morris—had attached their names to the project as executive producers hinted at its distinction. But even by their standards, and those of a film festival renowned for premiering the finest films of the year, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing was astonishing work. Its subject was one the least-known genocides of the twentieth century, the awful months in Suharto’s Indonesia, between the fall of 1965 and the spring of 1966, when at least half a million suspected Communists and sympathizers—along with artists, intellectuals, and residents of the wrong village—were slain by a regime with ties to a Cold War-era CIA. But unlike most historical documentaries, Oppenheimer’s film wasn’t concerned so much with exposition, with establishing the hard facts of the atrocities. The young American director instead took a radical tack: he turned his camera on the perpetrators. He asked a charismatic crew of aging killers, none of whom have ever had to answer for their roles in the genocide, to reenact their crimes on film. In doing so, they employ film noir tropes, footage of majestic waterfalls, and music-video kitsch involving giant plastic fish. The result offers us a rare glimpse at the tales mass murderers tell themselves to cope with their ruthless pasts.

Since its launch, The Act of Killing’s bevy of prizes and plaudits has grown to include a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination for best documentary. More remarkably, it has “opened a space for conversation,” Oppenheimer says, in a country that has yet to collectively reckon with this dark chapter of its history. The conversation continues in his new film, The Look of Silence, which considers the genocide from a different perspective. Whereas The Act of Killing examines the lasting impacts of violence through the narratives of its perpetrators, Oppenheimer’s follow-up focuses on victims. Less radical and more intimate than its predecessor, The Look of Silence, which will be released in June, tells the story of a village optometrist, Adi Rukun, who lost his brother to the genocide. We follow Rukun into the home of his aging parents, and then into the lush yards and houses of similarly aged killers nearby, where he questions the transgressors with gentle force—often while giving them eye exams—about not-forgotten crimes.

In Telluride, where The Look of Silence was screened, public radio journalist Mirissa Neff and I interviewed Oppenheimer about his craft and his decade-long, two-film project which, a couple of weeks after we spoke, earned him a MacArthur fellowship.

It seems fair to say that The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing aren’t so much two discrete pieces as they are two parts of a single project. How did this larger project come about?

There’s a key moment in The Look of Silence when you see two perpetrators take me down to a clearing by a river, the Snake River, and then show me how, in that very spot in 1965, they helped kill ten thousand people. These men take turns playing victim and perpetrator, showing how they brutalized people, how they kicked them in the river. And then they produce a camera when they’re done, and pose for photographs—snapshots as souvenirs from a happy day out.

For me, that day was a really terrible afternoon of filming. I had this awful sense that the boasting signaled something political, a kind of political nightmare on a national scale, which was allegorical for impunity everywhere. And the thing that drove home that allegory of impunity was how they finished that scene, in the spot where they’d killed so many, posing for snapshots, giving the thumbs up and the V for victory. After I shot that footage, in January 2004, I returned home to London, where I was living at the time, pretty upset, even traumatized a little, by that day. And then in the spring of 2004, the Abu Ghraib photos came out: American soldiers were posing and giving the thumbs up while humiliating people, while torture was happening. Those terrible tableaus. And I think the Abu Ghraib photos somehow helped me understand what was so upsetting about those perpetrators taking snapshots by the Snake River. I had this feeling that the real horror was neither the killings in 1965 nor the torture taking place in Abu Ghraib, although both are horrible. What made both sets of photos so unsettling was the moral vacuum in which they must have been taken, the moral vacuum in which such photos could be seen by anybody as a memento, as a souvenir, as something to be remembered with relish. I’d had this feeling of wandering into Germany forty years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power. And I had this sense from the Abu Ghraib photos that this was not the exception but somehow the rule. That these stories of violence and impunity are everywhere—that they’re everywhere, especially, in the Global South, and in places like Indonesia, where the United States was clearly involved in supporting and encouraging these massacres. And I had the sense immediately that there were two basic thematic areas that needed exploration.

And those two themes, then, became these two films.

Right. The first theme was: What happens when killers win? What stories do they tell? What victors’ history do they write to justify what they’ve done? What are the genres of that story? How do the perpetrators themselves use the story to cope with trauma and guilt? What does their clinging to these justifications do to this whole society, built upon terror and lies, wherein a kind of moral vacuum becomes inevitable? That became The Act of Killing. Which is a film about escapism and storytelling, really.

But then there was another theme, another film, that I also felt needed to be fully explored. And that one centered, again, around the question of what happens when perpetrators win—but focused on what that’s like for the survivors, who have to continue to live in the shadow of men who killed their loved ones. What does it mean for them to have to build a life, to survive, in the rubble that’s left by atrocity? I felt that such a film should somehow force one to look not forward to something hopeful, but back into the silence and the devastation caused not only by the killings but by the ongoing impunity—to force one to think about how lives are destroyed by the silence and the fear that echoes for decades after the events, so long as the perpetrators are in power. And that became The Look of Silence.

So The Act of Killing came out first, but you were in a sense working on both films concurrently, from the start?

Yes, because in a way I started with what has become The Look of Silence when I began working with survivors, exploring what it’s like for them to live alongside the perpetrators. That was in 2003. At that time, the army threatened the survivors I was working with; they told them not to participate in the film. But many of those people, like Adi [Rukun], urged me not to give up. “Don’t go home,” he said. “Don’t quit, Joshua. Try to film the perpetrators, and try to see if they’ll tell you how our relatives were killed.” So I started that process really at the encouragement of people like Adi. It was Adi, and other survivors, who pointed out the homes of the first perpetrators I interviewed in 2003, 2004. I was afraid to approach them, but then I did, and I soon found, to my horror, how boastful they all were. It was early in that process that I met the two men who took me down to the river—and through whom I later met Anwar [Congo], who became the main character in The Act of Killing. Adi asked to see everything I was filming. He watched this footage of the perpetrators with a mixture of devastation and rapt attention, and he always encouraged me to keep going. He’d say: “Keep going because what you’re finding is so important, because anyone who sees this anywhere in the world will finally be forced to acknowledge what’s wrong here.”

Adi saw that so clearly, I think, because he was trying to understand his own family. No one in his family except his mother was able to talk about it at all. They were all too afraid—you’re born after the genocide, you live in a family that’s devastated by these events, and you find that everybody around you is frightened and traumatized. But you don’t know why. They’re so traumatized, but they can’t even tell you why—that was Adi’s situation. And there’s this need to know—so you can understand the people you love, so you can understand what’s happening in your home, so you can understand the present. And I think Adi saw the filmmaking process that I initiated a decade ago as a way of getting those answers, so he watched everything I filmed. And then in 2010 when I finished filming The Act of Killing, I edited it and realized that I wanted the second film, The Look of Silence, to immerse the viewer into these long silent tableaus that punctuate The Act of Killing, that embody the perspective of those absent victims who are not in The Act of Killing, but who haunt every frame of it, I hope. So in 2012 after we finished editing that film, but before it premiered—I knew I wouldn’t be able to safely return to Indonesia once it did—I went back to Sumatra to start working with Adi. And Adi said, “Let’s not just gather the survivors as we did a decade ago. Let’s try and meet these perpetrators that I’ve been watching for all these years.” And then he took me on the journey that became The Look of Silence.

Since The Act of Killing’s release, it has had a huge impact in Indonesia. How exactly did you release it there, and what has that reception been like?

Well, we didn’t release The Act of Killing in cinemas in the normal way, because to do so you have to submit the film to the censorship board, which could provoke a ban—and we knew that if a film’s banned, it becomes a crime to watch it at all. Which in turn becomes an excuse for the paramilitaries, and indeed the military itself, to attack screenings with impunity. So to avoid that, we started with closed screenings for Indonesia’s leading journalists, intellectuals, artists. And many of those people, who were very moved by the film, said everyone in Indonesia should see it; they went ahead and held their own screenings, some public, some private. Because of the high-profile support they provided for the film, it became politically costly for the government to ban it. And by now there have been thousands of screenings. We’ve also made it available for free download on the Internet—it’s been downloaded millions of times.

But one of the most moving things that happened at one of those early screenings in Jakarta, for press and human rights groups, occurred when the editor of Tempo magazine [one of Indonesia’s largest] called me afterwards. He said that he’d been censoring stories about the genocide for as long as he could remember, but that he wasn’t going to do that anymore. The Act of Killing, he said, had shown him he didn’t want to grow old as a perpetrator. He told me: “We’re going to break our silence about the killings. We’re going to send journalists around the country to look for men like Anwar, to show that this is a systemic problem that your film has exposed.”And he did. They sent sixty journalists all over the country, they gathered a thousand pages of boastful testimony from killers, they published seventy-five, and another twenty-five pages about the movie in a double edition of Tempo, in the autumn of 2012, and in one fell swoop the silence in the media about the genocide was broken. Everybody else started making their own reports.

And The Look of Silence, certainly, comes into this space where all these things can be discussed; hopefully it provides an urgent call for how important reconciliation is, a model for how these things need to be addressed, a model for how reconciliation can come about, for how important it is to heal this torn social fabric. There’s a scene in The Look of Silence when a daughter of a killer actually finds the dignity and the courage to apologize to Adi. Adi forgives her and then, on her behalf, her father. And I think she provides this model for people who are even related to the perpetrators—that this can be done: you can actually acknowledge what happened and acknowledge that it was wrong, that it need not lead to violence or vengeance, that it can lead to healing. Because the ideal here certainly isn’t justice as revenge, or, at this point, even throwing everyone in jail—it’s about justice as a ritual that society has to go through, to return certain kinds of behavior formally and forever to the realm of the forbidden. Because until you do that, you have impunity. And that, certainly, is what we still have in Indonesia—the perpetrators still hold enough power that we can’t demand justice. My whole crew on these films remains anonymous, for safety reasons. Adi and his family left North Sumatra and moved across the country, before we release The Look of Silence, to be safe.

Both of these films contain astonishing images. One way in which you gained those images, with The Act of Killing, was by giving the killers cameras, in a sense, and letting them make these wild scenes. The Look of Silence has a different visual language; it focuses on interior spaces, in a way, more than on public events. How did you find the distinct imagery that moves each film along?

Well, with The Act of Killing, I don’t think I gave cameras to people, really—they make their own scenes, but except for the few moments where you see them filming, and then a little bit of what they’re filming, almost all of the images were shot by me. Anwar would create a scene, and then, to make those images as strong as possible, we would serve as his crew and try to figure out exactly what we wanted. Certainly in the unabridged version of The Act of Killing [the two-hour-and-forty-minute version released in the U.S.], I think there’s a similar immersive, hypnotic quality… But The Act of Killing is a film in which we’re exploring escapist fantasy and we get lost in Anwar’s fantasies and nightmares. It becomes a kind of fever dream.

With The Look of Silence, the method felt in some ways similar, in that the core of my work is always about building very strong, productive relationships with the characters I’m filming, so that together we can create safe spaces that take them and me on a journey. And I find the visual language organically in terms of what metaphors, what images, what stories those relationships are generating.

I think one of the things that I realized very early on, with The Look of Silence, was that the best way to make the viewer feel what it means to have to build a life in a place that feels wrecked by endless fear, is to feel that in the most intimate way. Because those are very subtle personal things. And to understand something of what that’s really like, I thought, I would need to be incredibly microscopic. You’re entering a space where people are not putting words to what they experienced, where they’re too afraid to talk about it. I felt that I should try to create a kind of poem to a silence borne of fear, a poem to the necessity and trauma that comes with breaking that silence. The idea was to home in on the smallest details—the wrinkles in the ancient skin of Adi’s father, a crease in the brow of Adi’s mother—and to really focus on the silence, listen to that silence, and hear what it has to say.

One of the leitmotifs of the film is the perpetrators’ repeated refrain, when they’re confronted with what they’ve done, “Why can’t you let the past be the past?” One thinks of Faulkner’s line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And certainly The Look of Silence, in all kinds of ways, is a meditation on that. But it’s also a film—don’t you think?—about the nature of memory. About what happens when the past is hyperpresent but not accessible, when memories are there but not articulated.

Yes, right. Because you know if the past were in the past, it would be absent. We only live in a present, but the present would have no meaning, and no intelligibility, if our pasts weren’t kind of swarmingly present. In the film, there are these confrontations between Adi and the perpetrators that provide a kind of narrative spine; there are some little scenes that are narrated with the family. But the real flesh of the film are these quotidian moments when nothing seems to be happening but everything is happening, because the silence is not just a counterpoint to a horrific past that’s no longer present. The silence is constituted by the past. The surface in which nothing appears to be happening is actually swarming, because what makes these people who they are in the present is all the violence that they can’t speak about, the jumping beans you see that have the larvae in them, struggling to get out.

I was thinking recently that maybe this is a magical-realist nonfiction film; maybe The Act of Killing is, too. Maybe magical realism is the genre for addressing atrocity in the context of total impunity. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, you only hear about the massacre in Macondo quite late in the book, but it’s the black hole around which everything circles—there’s a real parallel with The Look of Silence. In the same way, maybe, The Act of Killing aligns with my favorite of García Márquez’s books, The Autumn of the Patriarch, which is a kind of about being lost in the dreams of the perpetrator. But in The Look of Silence, the present is memory: it’s either memory being explicitly remembered or memory as it makes us what we are, this swarming force that’s sort of bursting through. And I think there are many images of that in the film, whether it’s the bats flying that you see at dusk, or the shot of Adi’s house at night with the light streaming through the gaps between the planks of the wall, or the jumping beans.There’s this sense of something just under the surface. No! It’s the surface as pressure, not something under the surface. It’s the surface itself as pressure.

Your mention of magical realism, and genre, makes me think of what Junot Díaz has said about how he’s tried—in his novels set in the Dominican Republic, another tropical island haunted by violence—to render dark histories visible by engaging idioms of fantasy and science fiction. But for you, as someone driven to delve into what happened in Indonesia, and to see it addressed, there are lots of things you could do—write reports, collect testimonies, make fiction films. But you make documentaries. What is it about nonfiction filmmaking in particular that you’re invested in as a medium for telling stories?

I think the nonfiction film camera, if used properly, can make visible things that are invisible, in a way that testimonies, reports, and journalism cannot easily do. Perhaps literature can, but in a different way. Because when you point a camera at someone, they start acting—always. You can hide that fact, but if you dont hide it, then you have a chance to see how they want to be seen, and how they really see themselves. The Act of Killing really explores that. And The Look of Silence, similarly, is about using the camera to make visible what is normally invisible: those swarming memories that make up the present, the motion of activity that is invisible unless you pause to see it. And the reactions: the reaction of Adi to the old footage of mine with the perpetrators, the reaction of the people in the confrontations. We’re always focusing on the listener, not the speaker. The pain that is etched in the tiniest details of a face, the doubt, the worry, the love—these things which show what cannot be said in words. They are, I think, the core of cinematic art. Cinema is a terrible medium for words; I’m not a fan of films that are just dominated by dialogue. One reason I love Errol Morris’s interview films is that he’s actually focusing on the pauses and doubts and inconsistencies of expression between the words, which very few interview films do. But in nonfiction film, something particularly interesting happens on top of that when people are playing themselves, because the stakes are really high—sometimes, the stakes for the whole society are high. And if the camera and the filmmaker and the participants are taking a journey together, it’s a journey that transforms both of them, and that has the potential—if the stakes are high enough—to transform the audience,or a whole society, too.

I think audiences of good nonfiction films feel that. In The Look of Silence, we see an optometrist who probes the silence that his family has lived under, and then confronts the killers. If we made that a fiction story, it wouldn’t have at all the same interest. In fact the metaphor of the optometrist would be all too neat. Similarly, a death squad that makes a musical about their killings would be ridiculous as a fiction. But when it’s real, what we’re watching is the transformative effect of the process on the people. And I think that’s why I make film. It’s why I make nonfiction film. And it’s also why, in all of my films, I don’t hide the apparatus of filmmaking by pretending to be a fly on the wall, or by being a transparent interviewer eliciting testimony from the subject. Because I believe that if one is honest, then the genesis of the drama, and the genesis of the transformation, is also the filmmaking process itself. Which means that both of these films, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, become movies also about cinema—and then, through the audience’s identification with the characters, I hope, films about ourselves.

Single Page

More from Joshua Jelly-Schapiro:

From the January 2018 issue

Walk the Line

The unlikely origins of the US-Mexico border

Postcard August 27, 2015, 5:37 pm

Jack’s Trinidad

In Trinidad, the rise of Jack Warner—and his putative fall—has become something of a parable for the larger foibles of the “nation building” project it’s been engaged in

Postcard March 4, 2014, 12:55 pm

Carnival in Jacmel

Despite lingering effects from a 2010 earthquake, Haiti still throws a good party

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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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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

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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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