Postcard — December 27, 2016, 8:00 am

Ghost Stories

Idi Amin’s torture chambers

Photograph by the author

The exterior of the chambers of Mengo Palace. Photograph by the author.

It took ten years before the stench disappeared. Human bones kept showing up. Hand prints, names and notes—written in blood or dirt—speckled the concrete walls: “Obote, you have killed me, but what about my children!” “I never forgot my husband was killed;” “IDI AMIN;” “Respect to Tanzania who saved Buganda;” “Cry Far Help Me The Dead.” It wasn’t always clear which ones had been written by visitors, and which by those who had perished inside.

The sliding steel gate, which trapped thousands of prisoners underground, was gone, and the ceiling had tumbled in chunks to the floor. The only way in was by boat; a dark line, covered in fuzzy mold, still marked where a deadly river, electrified by the flick of a switch, once ran. Not everyone died the first or even the second time they were shocked. Some chose to jump into the water.

These days the one-way trail of prisoners had been replaced by a steady flow of foreigners squeezing in a morbid history lesson between safaris and gorilla hikes. “You’re here for the torture chambers?” Nakamanya Lynett, the tour guide, asked rhetorically: mzungus didn’t come to Mengo Palace for its pastel-painted colonial mansion. With the king long gone, and no tours inside the royal home for years, it wasn’t included in the 10,000-shilling ($3) admission.

Nakamanya, who was dressed in a crisp white blouse, her hair in a bun, volunteered for university credit. She detailed the evils of Idi Amin: Uganda’s playboy dictator, who never hid his sadism and boasted that he kept heads of political enemies in his freezer—though he said human flesh was generally “too salty” for his taste.

The site was forgotten for decades before it was, as Nakamanya put it, “returned to the people.” Where others saw ghost stories, the royals sensed business opportunity: hadn’t Chernobyl’s nuclear ground zero, or Cambodia’s killing fields, attracted hordes of dark tourism enthusiasts? Hadn’t Amin been immortalized by Hollywood’s Academy-awarded The Last King of Scotland?

Red dust swirled around Nakamanya’s ballerina flats as she pointed out relics to some fifty visitors a day: a mutuba tree, source of Uganda’s once-abundant bark-cloth crafts; the burnt-out carcass of a Rolls-Royce; and a blue-white ceremonial cannon, resting among grazing goats.

The prison was hidden inside a lush hillside, overgrown by banana trees and papayas. Loose wires, without lamps, hung between exposed iron bars, so Nakamanya used a torch to illuminate the cells. Each had once held several hundred opponents of the regime: rich, poor, foreign, Ugandan, real and imagined, rounded up across the country by secret police. Every night, a truck came by to collect dead bodies from the cells and dump in a nearby private lake. “We estimate over 200,000 people were killed here,” said Nakamanya, matter-of-factly. “No one we know of ever escaped.”

The smell was that of an old cellar—and not unpleasant. There were no plaques or monuments.

A brick wall insulated the dungeon from the capital sprawling below—the noises of its 1.5 million inhabitants, prayer calls from the Uganda National Mosque (financed by Muammar Qaddafi), and the ring road’s traffic jams virtually inaudible.

“Whenever they sent someone, they would blindfold them and drive them around for three, four hours. So by the time they bring you here you don’t realize even at that point that . . . Most people didn’t know they were still in Kampala.” Nakamanya gesticulated to shrubs of large heart -shaped elephant’s ear. “This kind of vegetation made them think they were very far away.”

Idi Amin had often reminisced about the Battle of Mengo Hill in 1966, where he, an uneducated strongman of a northwestern warrior tribe turned chief of the presidential army, conquered Buganda—the vastest of Uganda’s traditional kingdoms, stretching from Lake Victoria to the Nile—destroying its palace and exiling the king to London, where he died under mysterious circumstances.

Moses Mukasa, a local man who would later work as a servant in Amin’s palace, never forgot it either. Then twenty-five, his first glimpse of the future tyrant was forever etched into memory: Amin was a heavyweight boxing champion and rugby player, almost six-and-a-half feet tall, who insisted throughout his career that he was “a soldier, not a politician.” During the battle, Mukasa hid next to a royal bodyguard, behind a screen of leaves, and watched Amin stride toward them with determination, pausing only a few feet away. Their hunting rifles futile against the presidential army, they watched, breathless, as Amin nonchalantly unzipped his signature khaki uniform, urinated, and marched off. Mukasa was spellbound.

Amin—who five years after the victory at Mengo Hill appointed himself His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea —often had that effect. Reporters devoured stories of the leader, who collected race cars but banned miniskirts and hippies; had five official wives taking turns as “first ladies;” and who reportedly fed several ministers to crocodiles. With defiant flamboyance, magnetic charisma, and bloodthirsty paranoia, Amin mesmerized, and terrified, Uganda and a world beyond.

The real horrors came after Amin launched a political coup against President Milton Obote in 1971, and announced, amid short-lived international enthusiasm and a slightly longer period of financial and military support, that he—a “pure son of Africa”—was the third ruler of a newly independent Uganda. Amin, who had escaped village life as a cook for the King’s African Rifles, a British colonial regiment, descended on the nation itself as a kind of military conquest; he renamed the government “Command Post;” placed military tribunals above the rule of law; and erected underground prisons across the country. His rule became so synonymous with killing that when the capital’s lights went dark, the outages were rumored to be the result of corpses discarded in its waterways blocking the hydropower plant.

Mengo’s strategically elevated outpost became Kampala’s army headquarters. Mukasa stayed in the servant quarters amid the barracks, even as the royal arms supply, initially an Israeli gift, was repurposed for crimes against humanity. “The rumor was, if you’re taken in there, the only way to escape that was by death,” he remembered.

The actions in Uganda “disgusted the entire civilized world,” said President Jimmy Carter during Amin’ s reign, without mentioning that the CIA had reportedly been showering Amin in aid and weapons throughout the 1970s, as Cold War blocs scrambled to control the Third World.

To the foreign press, Amin became a cartoon villain. A caricature of African dictatorship who laid claim to the throne of Scotland while tirelessly mocking Queen Elizabeth, requesting her knickers, and offering a cargo ship of bananas in gratitude for the “good days of colonial administration.” He facilitated a Palestinian terrorist hijacking and, inspired by a dream vision, abruptly deported the nation’s entire Asian-descended minority—a group numbering about 60,000, who were mostly absorbed by Britain—to “make the ordinary Ugandan master of his own destiny.”

When London finally severed diplomatic ties in 1976, Amin added “Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular” to his title, which he kept long after he went into exile in 1979.

These days, Mukasa’s grandchildren play in blossoming sweet-potato fields a stone’s throw from the torture chambers, and he worries more about bandits stealing his money than he does about restless spirits—and kept a gun, just in case. In his seventies now, in a time when Uganda’s economy has stagnated, Mukasa had become nostalgic, or perhaps amnesiac, recalling the modest development Amin had brought: a few roads, some jobs, and the nation’s first cancer radiotherapy machine. “He did so many good things and so many bad things,” said Mukasa. “Idi Amin is dead. We should treat him fairly.”

His wife, who said she still hears the cries and screams from inside, wasn’t so sure. She never walks past the palace at night.

Today, Uganda, the so-called “pearl of Africa,” was still being outperformed by the tourism industries of neighboring countries. It began to flirt with the idea of adding more destinations to the torture trail to attract more visitors. “Idi Amin is the most popular Ugandan ever, but no one is making use of him,” said Stephen Asiimwe, chief executive of the Uganda Tourism Board. But not all of Amin’s ghost stories were exploited. There would be no pilgrimages to the Nile Mansions, which had “interrogation” centers, where the dictator sometimes claimed he was born (he wasn’t), and where megalomania veered into performance art, with Amin once being carried in on a sedan chair by four foreign “volunteers” for an installation he called The White Man’s Burden.

The Nile’s Suite 211 was eerily anonymous, only a “Do Not Disturb” sign distinguishing it from dozens of identical doors. A uniformed lobby boy, too young to remember the atrocities committed inside, hurried past silently on crimson carpet. In the basement conference room, a national television channel frantically covered the fraudulent 2016 presidential elections. A $30 million renovation had turned national trauma into “an inspirational blend of five-star polish” and “pan-African panache”: Kampala’s stunning seventeen-acre flagship resort, inspired by the Nile, advertised palm-fringed pools, an explorer-themed Italian bistro, a Moorish spa, and much more, but never its bloodied past.

Serena Hotel was by far the best Ugandan hotel that “tuktukcanuck,” a TripAdvisor user from Toronto, Canada, had stayed in, with only one problem: the structure should have been torn down and rebuilt from scratch. “Too many ghosts,” the user headlined his review. “Needless to say, no amount of renovation can ever erase the horrors hidden in its history,” he wrote after having stayed in the “now lovely” Serena in February 2011, “in honor of those who perished there.”

An afterthought, a “Room Tip”: “Do not stay on the bottom 2 floors.”

Some blamed schizophrenia, possibly syphilis-induced, for Amin’s eclectic tyranny and fiercely nationalist Messiah complex. Others blamed the Western eye.

“Idi Amin represented what Africans were able to do,” explained professor Katono Nzarwa, head of Makerere University’s history department, who specialized in Anglo-American media representations of Amin. “And newspapers make rulers and kings.”

In all his mad, hypersexualized, cannibalistic glory, Amin was the monster the West—recently and reluctantly stripped of empires—had dreamed of, reinforcing centuries-old dark continent clichés, and suggesting, perhaps, that Africa was not ready for independence.

“In Western Europe you have more than 200–300 years of democratic experiments, right?” said Nzarwa. “And in Africa, we have fifty years. But you expect those with fifty years of experience to behave like we have 300 years. Is it really fair?” He was amazed: Even then, fractions of Europe admired, and longed for, its neo-Nazi past. And, as far as he knew, America had not closed its own torture chambers at Guantánamo Bay.

There had been attempts to resurrect the reputation of Amin, who fell from power like he came to it, toppled by his own predecessor Obote in 1979 after invading Tanzania and challenging the country’s president, Julius Nyerere, to a boxing match (with one hand tied to his back, to give Nyerere a “sporting chance”).

What role had “racism, colonialism, neocolonialism, classism, religion, tribalism, and greed” played in “creating” Idi Amin, wondered Jaffar Amin, one of more than forty children sired by the dictator (who insisted on being called “Big Daddy”), in his recent biography, Idi Amin: Hero or Villain? He’d laced it with fun facts: Did you know that Amin “tussle[d] with a crocodile in Somalia [while] on a King’s Rifles Army Tour of Duty”? That he “gave a Black American cleaning lady a 10,000 dollar tip to ease her suffering from racism” while in New York City? Or that some thought Amin was “set up” and “slandered” because he couldn’t be controlled by superpowers?

“He was more Stalin than Hitler in my opinion,” he added, in one of many Facebook posts calling for a more nuanced retrospective his of father’s legacy: “Someone who Transform the country for the better or for the worse, but Transform he did.”

These days, Uganda had the world’s youngest population and sky-high unemployment rates. At least three of Amin’s sons had repatriated, keeping their last names, and at least one worked for the government.

Nzarwa, the historian, was torn between Uganda’s future aspirations and a past slipping into oblivion. Business tended to suffer once skeletons, literal and figurative, tumbled out of closets. Even Westerners preferred visiting haunted houses, he hypothesized; not sleeping in them. “What would sell better: to preserve a room for posterity, to come and see where the torture used to take place?” he said. “Or to earn the extra dollars that come from that room? In your culture, bread and butter are taken for granted. You are looking at info for the sake of it. Here, we don’t.”

Nzarwa had never heard of Mengo’s torture chambers, which had never been marketed to locals, but was uncertain about the educational value of voyeurism. “The world has had their own Idi Amins,” said Nzarwa, shaking his head. “That’s the most unfortunate reality of humankind. That we never learn from our mistakes.”

At Mengo too, history had a tendency of repeating itself, and Nakamanya, the tour guide, was a “Museveni baby.” After overthrowing Tito Okello, who had overthrown Obote, who had overthrown Amin (and continued to use his torture chambers), Yoweri Museveni had governed Uganda since 1986, before Nakamanya was born. No stranger to torture and totalitarian tendencies himself, he had barred Amin from returning to Uganda from exile in Saudi Arabia, threatening that Amin would face charges for human rights violations.

To Nakamanya, the world’s fetishization of Amin had more to do with marketing—sometimes exaggerated by media—than the relative magnitude of his evils. “I think it’s a tourist attraction because the Amin story sold more in foreign countries. His cruel actions were not so unveiled to the people who are in Uganda. Most people who committed these crimes have not been prosecuted.”

She contrasted it with Rwanda, where perpetrators of mass killings had faced tribunals, and where she had visited the monuments commemorating the estimated 800,000 victims of the 1994 genocide. That was different: “it was more people killing people,” she stressed. “Here, it was the army, the government, killing the people.”

Amin became a chapter brushed over in Nakamanya’s own history classes. “They tell us he’s not a very good leader: that he used fascist suppression; that many people died during his rule. But that’s as far as it goes. To compile all he did during his rule could be a 500-page book, but we only learn about four, five pages.”

Amin passed away peacefully, at roughly seventy-eight, surrounded by world-class doctors and loved ones, having spent his last years by the Red Sea, sponsored by a Saudi allowance, in exchange for staying out of politics. His native village mourned a fallen hero, and international media rejoiced at his return to headlines. “The Butcher of Uganda” was buried in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2003, by his own account without regrets.

Even today, no one knows how many had been murdered—the International Court of Justice, which never tried Amin, estimated the toll at as many as 300,000; human rights organizations put it closer to half a million. Almost four decades after his departure, his spirits haunts the nation; presidential candidates made campaign pledges to repatriate his remains. But shouldn’t his thousands of victims still strewn on the bottom of Lake Victoria find justice first? countered those who still remembered.

In Ugandan folklore, Nakamanya explained, souls of the deceased were trapped where they had died. For now, families without graves to visit came to Mengo’s royal gardens for peace.

Everyone’s reaction was different: some broke down crying, others were silent, trying to take it all in. Some stayed an hour or two to feel the presence of loved ones. Most were very old—80 percent of Ugandans alive today were born after Amin’s era—and there were now only one or two survivors who came to visit each month.

This afternoon, there were no other visitors in sight. “Most people don’t want to come down here,” said Nakamanya apologetically. “It scares them.” She acted as a therapist of sorts. “If they come, we do talk to them.”

Nakamanya ended her tour in a dusty souvenir shop, finishing her shift at 5:30 p.m. sharp. She didn’t know what to think about the strange nightly commotion coming from the crypts—maybe superstition, maybe echoes?—but never stayed past sunset to find out.

Besides, she had a feeling Mengo’s ghost stories wouldn’t be Uganda’s last. “Today maybe it still goes on but in a more systematic and calculated way,” she shrugged. “Today you just disappear and no one knows.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation‘s African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.

 

Share
Single Page

More from Kim Wall:

From the July 2017 issue

The Weekly Package

How Cubans deliver culture without internet

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2018

The End of Eden

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How to Start a Nuclear War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Combustion Engines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

There Will Always Be Fires

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

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
Article
There Will Always Be Fires·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

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
Article
The End of Eden·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

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
Article
How to Start a Nuclear War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

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

Price of a potted four-leaf clover, from 1-800-BIG-LUCK:

$22.95

A 2,000-year-old brain was found in the mud in York, England.

Flooding in Japan, Scott Pruitt resigns, and Weibo users cheer on a shipment of soybeans

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

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.”

Subscribe Today