Coda — December 29, 2016, 12:09 pm

Light on the Horizon

Lessons from the BP oil disaster

One month before the end of President Barack Obama’s term, he banned all future offshore oil and gas drilling from nearly 120 million acres of land in the Arctic and Atlantic Ocean. The bans, which are indefinite, include most of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, as well as a large swath of the Atlantic from Massachusetts to Virginia. In a joint announcement with the White House, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also designated all Canadian waters in the Arctic as indefinitely off limits to drilling, a ban which will be reviewed every five years. These actions are intended to be permanent, and impervious to the machinations of the incoming Trump Administration, which has pledged to open more federal lands—onshore and offshore—for oil and gas production. But Trump’s Administration is mounting a resistance.

“Americans just rejected the ‘keep it in the ground’ extremism espoused by those whose only operating focus is their view that CO2 is a pollutant and climate change is real,” wrote Doug Domenech, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Fueling Freedom Project, a week after Trump was elected president. Four days later, Domenech took the helm of the transition team for the Department of Interior, the federal agency tasked with overseeing the nation’s federal lands and oceans, including the leasing, regulation, and oversight of fossil fuel development. This month, the Texas Public Policy Foundation hosted an Energy and Climate Policy Summit in Washington, D.C., at which Texas Republican Congressman Pete Olson, Chairman of the House Energy & Power Subcommittee, asked, “why is Alaska or the Atlantic or Pacific or federal lands untouchable” for fossil fuel development?

There are few people better qualified to answer that question than the survivors of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

As I reported in my June 2015 feature, “Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea,” the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which killed eleven people, was just the beginning of the disaster. In the months that followed, millions of gallons of crude oil poured into the Gulf, killing wild life, sickening local residents, and crippling the region’s once-thriving fishing industry. Six years after the spill, I caught up with lawyers, locals, fishers, scientists, environmentalists, and the wife of a Deepwater Horizon rig survivor, to find out how the region, and those most harmed by the disaster, are recovering.

At 9:40 p.m., April 20, 2010, an explosion erupted on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The sound jolted roustabout Stephen Lane Stone awake where he slept in his cabin, two floors below the surface deck. A second explosion quickly followed, the force of which, he would later testify at a Congressional hearing, felt as though it was ripping through his entire body. Stone grabbed his life jacket, shoes, and wedding ring and ran out into the hallway. There he joined more than one hundred of his fellow shipmates racing through darkness—past fires, screams, smoke, and maimed crew members—before finally reaching a lifeboat. Thirty-one hours later, Stone was reunited with his wife, Sara, at a hotel in New Orleans. Eleven men never made it off of the rig.

For Stephen, Sara, and countless other oil workers and their families, as well as for fisher folk, Gulf residents, environmentalists, doctors, lawyers, scientists, politicians, and many others, this night marked the beginning, not the end, of an unfolding disaster.

In October, Sara told me that Stephen still suffers from what she gently describes as “temperament” issues. He is ever on edge, ready to prevent the next tragedy. “Stephen sleeps in the living room at night. He’s afraid to fall asleep,” she said. He worries that he won’t wake up if someone breaks in. Sara, who for the last six months has begun to see a therapist, suffers from “hyper vigilance,” always seeking to protect her husband. The couple have both been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, born not only from one night of terror, but also of the realizations that came next: the oil industry they both trusted had wantonly put both lives and safety at risk, the government had failed to provide even remotely adequate supervision, and the legal system had done little to help them put their lives back together—or hold industry and government to account.

The Stones spent five long years battling BP in court. Their cases finally settled on April 20, 2015, after having been delayed both by BP’s refusal to negotiate and the U.S. District Court’s litigation process, which required that virtually every case—from that brought by the U.S. Department of Justice to those brought by individual fishers—to pass through a single judge, resulting in a massive backlog. The Stones’ lawyer, Brent Coon, wanted to go before a jury. Instead, not a single one of his 10,000 spill-related cases saw public light. Tired from years of fighting, the Stones agreed to a settlement, which was reached with BP under strict confidentiality agreements. “At some point it comes down to a choice of getting healthy again or continuing to fight what is pretty much is a losing battle,” Sara told me. Coon agreed: “When the sins of the company exceed its ability to pay them, everyone has to sit down and cut a crappy deal.”

Under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, BP is essentially required to pay to put everything back to where it was before the spill, including people, places, the economy, the environment, and wildlife. Doing so has involved what Coon described as the “ largest litigation in U.S. jurisprudence,” taking years to resolve. The Court first prioritized two massive class action settlements with BP to compensate those who suffered direct medical and economic damages. The results have been mixed. Out of a coastal population of 21 million and 140,000 oil spill cleanup workers, only 37,281 people have filed claims for the Medical Benefits Settlement as of November 1. Nearly half of the claims are still pending, 20 percent have been rejected, and just 12,881, or a mere 35 percent, are approved. Cleanup workers and residents were eligible for as much as $60,700 and $36,950 in benefits, respectively, plus an additional $60,000 or more for hospitalization expenses, yet the payments average to about $3,100 per claim, with a total of $40.2 million allocated thus far. Of the 386,622 claims submitted in the Economic and Property Damages Settlement, only about 40 percent have been deemed eligible for payments. Businesses are the largest single category of recipients; subsistence earners are next. Approximately $10 billion has been paid, averaging to about $63,000 per claim (though payments are not consistent across claims). About $2.3 billion of this was set aside for those in the seafood industry; payments to whom are expected to conclude this month.

Many of the most desperate and often smallest-scale fishers were excluded from this settlement because they accepted a one-time $5,000 payment offered by BP in the first months of the spill. “They’re basically ruined,” Byron Encalade, President of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, told me. Byron, like his family for generations before him, is an oysterman in the small, mostly African-American community of Point a la Hache, Louisiana. “We’re doing bad,” Byron told me. “We keep saying it can’t get any worse, and it keeps getting worse. There’s no oysters on the east bank of the river. None.” Byron argues that “oyster plantations,” or the larger businesses, got most of BP’s money, while many smaller companies and individuals simply couldn’t make ends meet. In his community, these former oystermen are now supported by parents and grandparents; their hopes of sending their own children to college have been dashed. “So, it’s a domino effect,” Byron said. “In simple words: we still haven’t begun to recover.”

The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration finds that Gulf-wide catches of oysters declined by nearly 5 million pounds between 2009 and 2014, while Gulf shrimp catches declined by 35 million pounds during the same period. Over the same time period,the percentage of U.S. oysters from the Gulf fell from 61 percent to less than 50 percent, while Gulf shrimp declined from 81 percent of the U.S. total to 66 percent today.

In February, five years of comprehensive study of the damage done by BP to natural resources conducted by multiple federal and state agencies concluded with the release of the more than 1,600-page Final Programmatic Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan and Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. It reports that as many as 8.3 billion oysters in the Gulf were lost as a result of the oil spill, and that the subsequent “dramatic decreases in oyster densities and the associated reproductive injury imperils the sustainability of oysters in the northern Gulf of Mexico.”

The National Wildlife Federation highlighted some of the report’s most critical findings, revealing a catastrophic toll. The oil spill killed as many as five trillion larval fish. Up to twenty percent of the Kemp’s ridley adult female turtles in the Gulf were also killed. According to the report, at least 93 species of birds were exposed to BP oil, with brown and white pelicans, laughing gulls, black skimmers, white ibis, double-crested cormorants, common loons, and several species of terns particularly hard hit. “Nearly all of the populations of dolphins and whales in affected areas have ‘demonstrable, quantifiable injuries.’… In the five years after the disaster, more than three-quarters of pregnant bottlenose dolphins in the oiled areas failed to give birth to a viable calf,” the report found. Their populations “could ultimately decline by more than half before they recover,” which could take as long as fifty years. The most affected species of marine mammal living in deeper waters were Bryde’s whales; nearly half were exposed to oil, and nearly a quarter died, jeopardizing the possible survival of the species in the Gulf. The list goes on. To this day, the Gulf remains under constant assault by the oil industry. Jonathan Henderson of Vanishing Earth spent six years tracking BP’s oil, now he tries to physically track the other oil spills here, as no one else is doing it. But it’s a tall order. He directed me to a map, created by SkyTruth.org using data from the U.S. Coast Guard, depicting the nearly 10,000 oil and hazardous material spills reported in the offshore Gulf of Mexico from July 2010 to April 2015. Also using Coast Guard data, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade found that in just the three weeks from September 15 to October 6, nearly 100 spills from offshore and inland facilities, pipelines, platforms, tanks and vessels, occurred in Louisiana alone. Little preparation for future disasters, large or small, is being done.

Yet, for all the work still to be done, there was cause for optimism. Virtually everyone I spoke with, many of whom I have known since I began covering the disaster more than six years ago, and whose lives are measured on a timeline of before and after “the spill,” are more hopeful than I have ever known them to be. When we talked in October, Encalade just returned from the White House, where he received a “Champions of Change” award in recognition for his years of service fighting for sustainable fisheries. “For so long, folks have been focused on ‘who’s to blame?’… Now we just gotta recover,” he told me. “Mother nature is not going to be able to overcome all of this on her own. We have to help.” In April, a federal judge approved a $20 billion settlement for all remaining civil claims against BP brought by the federal government, the five gulf states, and some 400 local governments. The monies, to be disbursed over sixteen years, include $5.5 billion in Clean Water Act fines, $7.1 billion for ecological and wildlife harms and restoration, and $5.9 billion for state and local government economic damages. It is the largest settlement of its kind (though, as I have argued previously, falling well-short of what was required) and accomplished many goals, most importantly, initiating perhaps the largest program of environmental restoration and recovery in history.

Take, for example, the project to restore the shores of Louisiana’s West Grand Terre Island. West Grand Terre is part of an inverted arc of barrier islands that were (and remain) battered by BP’s oil. According to Scott Eustis of the Gulf Restoration Network, on a warm day, BP’s oil can be seen bubbling up through the light brown sand. The islands provide critical protection for inland areas from hurricanes and floods, habitat to migrating and nesting birds, fishing grounds, and human recreation. They are also beautiful, but they are disappearing into the rising sea—an already bad situation made far worse by BP’s oil, which eats away at marsh and plant roots, opening new passages for saltwater to further erode the islands.

1As the Executive Director of Alabama’s Mobile Baykeeper, Casi Callaway’s frustration rises to a sort of infuriated bewilderment when she discusses that project. “If you’re building new parking lots and roads…you’re promoting continued dependence on oil. But oil caused the disaster in the first place!”

Because of the islands’ disappearing coastlines, they were already the focus of a restoration project drawn up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This put Louisiana far ahead of the other Gulf states in knowing how to spend its billions of BP dollars, ensuring against fiascos, such as Alabama’s allocation of $58.5 million in BP funds for a 350-room hotel and conference center.And the prospect for future projects looks bright. The terms of the $20 billion settlement and the 2012 Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act (RESTORE Act) established eight new decision-making bodies to ensure that funds are spent properly. They are composed of representatives of more than a dozen federal and state agencies, with the active input of nongovernmental organizations and concerned Gulf residents. Local and national groups alike are optimistic about the process, which is setting the stage for the next fifteen years of restoration. “It’s an incredible opportunity and responsibility,” explained the National Wildlife Federation’s Jessie Ritter. They’ve established “an integrated compressive ecosystem approach with the focus on large holistic projects, which can truly restore the Gulf.”

In the last year, a local protest movement demanding a halt to new offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico has grown dramatically.Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, has worked for nearly two decades to reign in the oil industry here. She spoke with me last March at the New Orleans Superdome, at the largest such protest I’ve ever witnessed. Prior to the BP Deepwater Horizon, making this sort of demand was“almost a dangerous thing to call for­­, as if you would be driven out of the state or be exposed to some sort of violence,” she said. Six years later,“people are cleaving to that call.” And even in conservative Alabama, Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, was effusive when describing how locals have come to treasure their environment in ways not seen prior to April 20, 2010, and to appreciate how deeply intertwined the health of their state’s economy is to a healthy environment.“Thinking you could lose it shook people to the core. That’s the good part,” she told me. “The bad part is that they don’t connect an oil disaster with driving their car.”

Sara Stone choked back tears as she discussed the anger both she and Stephen continue to direct at themselves for not pushing harder to bring about changes in the oil industry. When she reflected on the likelihood of another similar disaster, she broke down. “People need to know that this is happening and we’re all allowing this to happen,” she said. Even by driving our cars, we’re contributing to the problem. She hoped Deepwater Horizon, a film about the disaster released this fall by Summit Entertainment, would “let people know the gravity of what happened. Something we just couldn’t explain.” She hoped also that it would encourage more people to identify the role they can play in bringing about change.

“We’re all a part of it!” she said. “As much as you may want to disconnect it from it, you’re just simply lying to yourself.”

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More from Antonia Juhasz:

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

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

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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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