Thursday, September 06, 2007

How I Learned to Start Worrying...

With the Prezdint invoking images of nuclear holocaust and B-52s with nuclear warheads flying overhead, this might be the week to dig up Dr. Strangelove (full title: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) and watch it, especially if you've never seen it, and maybe even if you have.

The dark humor of this film was at least partly derived from the possibility that the plot's bizarre scenario could actually play out in reality. For anyone who hasn't seen it, a B-52 with a nuclear warhead is sent on its mission, when the zany (but plausible) sequence of events brings the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to the brink, and can't be called back. The context back then was that Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D., doncha love it?) was the policy of the time. Except for the fictitious "Doomsday Machine", everything referenced in the film, from the B-52s to the "red phone" and the drunken, bellicose Soviet Premier, was part of our Cold War reality.

I was not just a Cold War kid by virtue of age; we lived in Dayton, Ohio, when nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was a major operations and R&D center for the Strategic Air Command. It seemed like there were always military aircraft overhead, and the occasional sonic boom, far from being an annoyance, was an exciting reminder that we were only fifteen years into the supersonic age. Although the evidence suggests that some of those planes overhead had nuclear weapons aboard, if anything, it was supposed to make us feel safer; the normalization of insane concepts like MAD was a primary feature of Cold War living, just like the acceptance today that the risk of a terrorist attack far outweighs any other concern.

From the AP:
According to the officials, the weapons are designed with multiple safety features that ensure the warheads don't accidentally detonate. Arming the weapons requires a number of stringent protocols and authentication codes that must be followed for detonation.
From the cockpit of the rogue B-52, you see the frozen Arctic landscape screaming by at 500 mph, only 50 feet below (to avoid Soviet radar), as the crew goes through the checklist of decoding their orders, going through it again when they realize it's an order to drop The Big One on a Russian city.

Major T.J. "King" Kong, pilot/mission commander (played by Slim Pickens): "Well, I've been to one world fair, a picnic, and a rodeo, and that's the stupidest thing I ever heard come over a set of earphones. You sure you got today's codes?"

From the AP:
"Nothing like this has ever been reported before and we have been assured for decades that it was impossible," said [Ed] Markey, D-Mass., co-chair of the House task force on nonproliferation.
From the film:

President Merkin Muffley: "General Turgidson! When you instituted the human reliability tests, you *assured* me there was *no* possibility of such a thing *ever* occurring!"

General "Buck" Turgidson: "Well, I, uh, don't think it's quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir."

Meanwhile, back in the cockpit...

Slim Pickens as Major "King" Kong again: "Well, boys, I reckon this is it - nuclear combat toe to toe with the Roosskies."

Of course, by the time the situation in Moscow and D.C. is defused, the equipment on which they would have received their callback order has been rendered inoperable by anti-aircraft missiles...

Nowadays there would be some interesting parallels between the characters in our own American tragicomedy of the last few years and the film's characters -- several of whom were played by Peter Sellers, including Dr. Strangelove (who will remind many of Donald Rumsfeld) and the president (who, because he is the voice of reason in the film, should not remind anyone of someone, if you know what I mean).

And to piggyback on Tom's post from earlier today, the plot pits the NARL's against the RL's in a way that should send chills of recognition up any thinking American's spine.

Rent Dr. Strangelove and see it before you wake up one of these mornings to find we're living it. The propaganda runup to war with Iran starts this week.