Supplemental Reading — October 6, 2016, 1:15 pm

Complicated Situation

Fighting Zika in San Salvador

For the October issue of Harper’s Magazine, Rachel Nolan traveled to El Salvador, the only country in the world that systematically finds and punishes women suspected of having abortions. In January, after the number of registered Zika cases there climbed over 4,000, the Health Ministry recommended that women avoid pregnancy for two years. As she writes in her piece, “Innocents,” this response seemed particularly absurd for El Salvador, a country of 6.3 million where at least five women are raped a day, gangs use rape as an initiation rite, and a third of those pregnant are under the age of nineteen. To stop Zika from spreading, health officials have also been going out on eradication rounds. One day this spring, Nolan tagged along.

In El Salvador, people are less afraid of Zika than of what everyone seems to call “the situation.” As in, we can’t go there because of “the situation.” Doubling down on euphemism, “the situation” is “complicated” in that part of town. “Complicated” means that gangs are busy killing each other there—you’d better take the long way around.

When I joined a group of Health Ministry officers on their eradication rounds in San Salvador, the capital, we were assigned to the neighborhood of Colonia Iberia, where, they explained, the situation was certainly complicated. The crew seemed nervous, and not at all happy to have me with them. “It’s a community,” a health officer said, and another translated that this meant that gang members prowl openly. If you call the police, they won’t come—they might not be allowed in. That day, the “community leaders” (the gang hierarchy), had given us permission to enter.

Sanitation workers fumigate houses, streets, sewers, and schools to kill mosquitoes, San Salvador. Photographs © Nadia Shira Cohen

Sanitation workers fumigate houses, streets, sewers, and schools to kill mosquitoes, San Salvador. Photographs © Nadia Shira Cohen

It was nice of them to be concerned about Zika. José Antonio Leiva, a sixty-something, ruddy-faced entomologist wearing a “Safe T First” baseball cap, told me that gang members usually cooperate with fumigations. “We work directly with them,” he said. In some parts of the country, however, there had been trouble. “They let you enter if they aren’t drunk,” Leiva explained. “If they are drunk or high they assault you. Sometimes they say you better leave now, because if not we are going to kill you.” If the palabrero (the gang spokesman) says health officers can’t come in, they don’t. The day before, I’d learned of a health worker who had been warned not to go into Ciudad del Gabo, territory of a gang that was warring with the one in charge where he lived. He went anyway, and once he arrived, he was separated from his group and shot. Two other health workers, a couple, had been shot in their home by one gang for providing services in an area run by another gang. Traitors.

Our Health Ministry truck turned down one of those roads that your stomach tells you not to follow. We parked at the bottom of a hill and off-loaded pink canisters containing packets of a sharp-smelling larvicide called Abate. For the past four years, the country has endured a serious drought, and most Salvadorans store extra water in their houses, which incubates mosquito larvae. In April, Zika eradication became even more difficult when government officials declared a water-shortage emergency. By the time I arrived, two weeks later, many parts of San Salvador had gone two or three days without water, and in the poorest areas, taps were running dry for as long as two weeks. Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were multiplying.

The crew walked up Colonia Iberia’s main street, past a few stores and outdoor grill joints. The place was all right angles, with concrete and dirt alleys, and row houses with their grate doors closed. We were to work the alleys in a zigzag pattern from the grill at the top of the road to the houses at the bottom, handing out Abate packets. (The government is also distributing baby fish, alevines, that are known to eat mosquito larvae in standing water, but my group didn’t have those—Abate kills the fish.)

I set off with Gerardo Criollo, a shy young health official with wire-framed transition lenses. He knocked on each door and called out, “Good morning, sir, Ministry of Health. May we enter?” It occurred to me that this effort was a strange combination of thoroughness and lunacy. Even if the Health Ministry eradicated all the Zika in this area, wouldn’t it just return from the gang neighborhood next door, where we weren’t allowed to go?

RNCohen2The first house belonged to an old couple. The wife, in a blue-and-white lace apron with coiffed white hair, led us to the back and showed us to the pila, a large sink filled with water. Criollo took a mini flashlight out of his pocket, and shined it into the pila. The water moved—it was full of larvae. The woman was mildly embarrassed, saying it had been fifteen days since someone last brought Abate. She hadn’t cleaned the pila since then.                                           

“It would be best if you threw out the water,” Criollo said. “It has larvae.”

“Throw it out, then,” the woman answered.

Neither of them pulled the plug to empty the water. Both knew that if they did, she might not be able to refill the pila for days, and then she and her husband wouldn’t be able to bathe. Criollo threw a packet of Abate into the pila and said he would be back. “Thanks for your visit,” the woman said.

As we left, Criollo pointed out that all the houses had a little hole in front, through which water flowed from the pila inside to the street. The alleyways collected fetid water. “This worries me,” he said, “but if I ask, they are going to tell me it isn’t their problem.”

Most people let us into their homes. The Health Ministry had gone through the same routine for dengue decades ago and for chikungunya, in 2014. The first person to refuse us entry was a teenage boy, who said only, “We are busy cleaning.”

About half an hour into our rounds, we heard reggaeton coming from one of the grills, where the gang guys were starting to gather. They wore sports jerseys and flat-billed caps, and ate a late breakfast of pupusas in a bath of red sauce. One guy was smoking a big joint. There were no visible guns. They ignored the health workers. Passing them on the street, I said “permiso,” and they politely answered, “pase.

RNCohen3One of the last houses we visited was full of women. A bored teenager sat on the couch watching a Mexican soap opera. The pila was clean, with an old packet of Abate floating inside. Criollo threw in a new one. Two women stood chatting at the back door; one wore a T-shirt printed with a green apple, and the second, in a blue tank top and red shorts, was hugely pregnant. Green Apple was saying, “I couldn’t swallow my breakfast, it got stuck here.” She pointed to her throat. “I told them to deliver the message right. But now they are going to kill me.” Evidently, someone had screwed up.

The pregnant woman stepped away from her friend to greet us. Some of her neighbors had been diagnosed with Zika. “And thank God, He saved me from that,” she told me. “Thank God I didn’t get it. Now the moment has passed, because it affects the baby most in the first three months. Everything looked good on the ultrasound. I imagine that there they would have told me.” Her friend Green Apple had come down with Zika and chikungunya, she said, but now she was doing just fine—except for the fact that she was likely about to be murdered. I was reminded of what a feminist activist told me about Zika, compared to all the other dangers women face in El Salvador: “It’s not a matter of concern.”

Read Rachel Nolan’s story for the October issue here.

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

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Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

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.

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Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

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