Seeing ‘Through Post-Atomic Eyes’

All the videos from Through Post-Atomic Eyes last October are now available on YouTube here, including my “Little Boys and Blue Skies: drones through post-atomic eyes. My slide deck is available under the DOWNLOADS tab.

This is the sawn-off 30-minute version; I’ll be giving an extended version when I’m at Dartmouth later this month – and I’m really looking forward to that.

Planetary bombing

NORAD's Santa

You’ve probably read the tinsel-and-glitter story about NORAD tracking Santa Claus on Christmas Eve – like Santa’s sleigh, it goes the rounds every year – but Matt Novak provides an appropriately explosive rendition of it here.

It was a smart move for the military. When American kids asked their parents what NORAD was, the U.S. parents would be able to respond “those are the people who help Santa” rather than “those are the people who are ensuring our second strike capabilities after you and everyone in your play group are turned to dust by a nuclear attack.”

Among other plums in the pudding, Matt pulls out a syndicated story from AP in December 1955, in which the military promised that it would ‘continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh on his trip to and from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas‘ (emphasis added).

Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959 JPEG

Just before Christmas this year, while NORAD was busy preparing to track Santa’s sleigh again, the National Security Archive at George Washington University released US Strategic Air Command’s Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959, produced the year after that AP story.  The study

‘provides the most comprehensive and detailed list of nuclear targets and target systems that has ever been declassified. As far as can be told, no comparable document has ever been declassified for any period of Cold War history.’

Based on the Bombing Encyclopedia of the World, the Air Force planners proposed

the “systematic destruction” of Soviet bloc urban-industrial targets that specifically and explicitly targeted “population” in all cities, including Beijing, Moscow, Leningrad, East Berlin, and Warsaw. Purposefully targeting civilian populations as such directly conflicted with the international norms of the day, which prohibited attacks on people per se (as opposed to military installations with civilians nearby).

The study ‘listed over 1200 cities in the Soviet bloc, from East Germany to China, also with priorities established. Moscow and Leningrad were priority one and two respectively. Moscow included 179 Designated Ground Zeros (DGZs) while Leningrad had 145, including “population” targets.’  Every target was preceded by an eight-digit code from the Bombing Encyclopedia.

Selected SAC targets 1959 JPEG

William Burr provides an excellent, detailed commentary to accompany the Study here; you can also find more from Joseph Trevithick on this ‘catalog of nuclear death over at War is Boring here.

But all of this is prelude to the real plum in my Christmas pudding, the best paper I’ve read all year: Joseph Masco‘s ‘The Age of Fallout’ in the latest issue of History of the Present [5 (2) (2015) 137-168].

Being able to assume a planetary, as opposed to a global, imaginary is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. Although depictions of an earthly sphere are longstanding and multiple, I would argue that the specific attributes of being able to see the entire planet as a single unit or system is a Cold War creation. This mode of thinking is therefore deeply imbricated not only in nuclear age militarism, but also in specific forms of twentieth-century knowledge production and a related proliferation of visualization technologies.  A planetary imaginary includes globalities of every kind (finance, technology, international relations) – along with geology, atmosphere, glaciers, oceans, and the biosphere – as one totality.

What is increasingly powerful about this point of view is that it both relies on the national security state for the technologies, finances, and interests that create the possibility of seeing in this fashion, but also, in a single gesture, exceeds the nation-state as the political form that matters. A planetary optic is thus a national security creation (in its scientific infrastructures, visualization technologies, and governing ambitions) that transcends these structures to offer an alternative ground for politics and future making. Proliferating forms of globality – including the specific visualizations of science, finance, politics, and environment – each achieve ultimate scale and are unified at the level of the planetary. This achievement ultimately raises an important set of questions about how collective security problems can, and should, be imagined.

It’s a tour de force which, as these opening paragraphs show, is beautifully written too.  Joe begins with a richly suggestive discussion of the idea of ‘fallout’:

‘Fallout comes after the event; it is the unacknowledged-until-lived crisis that is built into the infrastructure of a system, program, or process. Fallout is therefore understood primarily retrospectively, but it is lived in the future anterior becoming a form of history made visible in negative outcomes.’

Its horizons are as much spatial as they are temporal – though Joe makes the sharp point that radioactive fallout was initially conceived as ‘the bomb’s lesser form’ and that it was the ‘explosive power of the bomb that was fetishized by the US military’ – and that fallout involves ‘individual actions and lived consequences, a post-sociality lived in isolation from the collective action of society or the war machine’ that mutates into what he sees as ‘an increasingly post-Foucaudian kind of governmentality’.


When he elaborates the multiple registers in which radioactive fallout appears as an atmospheric toxicity Joe moves far beyond the nostrums of Peter Sloterdijk and others – which, to me anyway, seem to be based on almost wilfully superficial research – and connects it, both substantively and imaginatively, to contemporary critical discussions around global climate change and the Anthropocene.

In a cascade of maps and images, Joe shows how

Space and time are radically reconfigured in these fallout studies, constituting a vision of a collective future that is incrementally changing in unknown ways through cumulative industrial effects. The logics of a national security state (with its linkage of a discrete territory to a specific population) becomes paradoxical in the face of mounting evidence of ecological damage on a collective scale, not from nuclear war itself but rather from nuclear research and development programs. It is important to recognize that while cast as “experiments,” U.S. atmospheric nuclear tests were in reality planetary-scale environmental events.

In short, ‘since 1945 human beings have become post-nuclear creatures, marked with the signatures of nuclear weapons science.’

Towards the end of his essay, Joe says this:

In applying the lessons of the twentieth-century nuclear complex to contemporary geoengineering schemes to manage climate change, we might question 1) the claim to both newness and absolute crisis that installs a state of emergency and suspends normal forms of law and regulation; 2) a process that rhetorically reproduces the split between the event and its fallout so completely; and 3) the suggestion that geoengineering is a novel activity, that it is not an ancient practice with many antecedent examples to think with in assessing our current moment. We might also interrogate how the past fifty years of multidisciplinary work to create detailed visualizations of the planet has installed a dangerous confidence in globality itself, as increasingly high resolution visualizations come to stand in for both objectivity and sovereignty, and thus enable psychosocial feelings of control over vastly complex earth systems that remain, at best, only partially understood.

It’s an immensely provocative, perceptive paragraph; it not only makes me retrace my own wanderings through the nuclear wastelands (see here, here and here) but it also obliges me to rethink what I once called ‘the everywhere war’, to map its contours much more carefully  (the original impulse was simply to provide a counterpoint to those commentators who emphasised war time – ‘the forever war’, ‘permanent war’, ‘never-ending war’ – and who never noticed its spaces), and – particularly with that remark about ‘high resolution visualizations com[ing] to stand in for both objectivity and sovereignty’ in mind – perhaps even to see it as another dimension of Joe’s ‘Age of Fallout’.

“What is that sound high in the air?”

Coming from MIT in April next year, a new book by the ever-creative anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, Drone: remote control warfare.

GUSTERSON DroneDrones are changing the conduct of war. Deployed at presidential discretion, they can be used in regular war zones or to kill people in such countries as Yemen and Somalia, where the United States is not officially at war. Advocates say that drones are more precise than conventional bombers, allowing warfare with minimal civilian deaths while keeping American pilots out of harm’s way. Critics say that drones are cowardly and that they often kill innocent civilians while terrorizing entire villages on the ground. In this book, Hugh Gusterson explores the significance of drone warfare from multiple perspectives, drawing on accounts by drone operators, victims of drone attacks, anti-drone activists, human rights activists, international lawyers, journalists, military thinkers, and academic experts.

Gusterson examines the way drone warfare has created commuter warriors and redefined the space of the battlefield. He looks at the paradoxical mix of closeness and distance involved in remote killing: is it easier than killing someone on the physical battlefield if you have to watch onscreen? He suggests a new way of understanding the debate over civilian casualties of drone attacks. He maps “ethical slippage” over time in the Obama administration’s targeting practices. And he contrasts Obama administration officials’ legal justification of drone attacks with arguments by international lawyers and NGOs.

People of the bombI met Hugh at a conference on Orientalism and War in Oxford several years ago, and I’ve recently been reading his Nuclear Rites: a weapons laboratory and the end of the Cold War and People of the Bomb: Portraits of America’s Nuclear Complex as I continue my wanderings through the nuclear wastelands.

The coincidence between Hugh’s previous projects and his new one intersects with my presentation on “Little Boys and Blue Skies” in Toronto last week – see here and here – which sketched out a series of entanglements between drones and the nuclear wastelands (hence the Eliot quotation which serves as my title for this post).

Doomsday Books

DOOMSDAYStill wandering through the nuclear wastelands… (see also here, here and here).  Not surprisingly, there is a considerable literature on the United States and nuclear war, but much less on the UK.  I still have my tattered copy of Doomsday:  Britain after nuclear attack by Stan Openshaw, Philip Steadman and Owen Greene, published more than thirty years ago.  Those were heady days: the authors were members of Scientists Against Nuclear Arms, and the book was put together soon after the European Nuclear Disarmament Appeal launched by E. P. Thompson (who famously announced he had “left his desk” to further the campaign), Mary Kaldor, Dan Smith and Ken Coates.

Next to Doomsday is my equally battered and well-thumbed copy of a book of essays edited by two other British geographers, David Pepper and Alan Jenkins, The geography of peace and war, which appeared in 1985.  It was in three Parts, ‘The geography of the Cold War and the arms race’, ‘The geography of nuclear war’ (which included an update from Stan and Philip) and ‘The geography of peace’ (with an essay on nuclear weapon free zones).

Fast forward twenty years, and these emphases are in stark contrast to Colin Flint‘s edited collection, Geography of war and peace, in which nuclear war receives just passing mention(s).  The same is true of Audrey Kobayashi‘s still more recent Geography of peace and armed conflict – apart from one brief chapter concerned with Iran.

HOGG British Nuclear CultureAll of this will explain why I am looking forward to the publication of Jonathan Hogg‘s British Nuclear Culture: official and unofficial narratives in the long 20th century, coming from Bloomsbury in January:

The advent of the atomic bomb, the social and cultural impact of nuclear science, and the history of the British nuclear state after 1945 is a complex and contested story. British Nuclear Culture is an important survey that offers a new interpretation of the nuclear century by tracing the tensions between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ nuclear narratives in British culture.

In this book, Jonathan Hogg argues that nuclear culture was a pervasive and persistent aspect of British life, particularly in the years following 1945. This idea is illustrated through detailed analysis of various primary source materials, such as newspaper articles, government files, fictional texts, film, music and oral testimonies. The book introduces unfamiliar sources to students of nuclear and cold war history, and offers in-depth and critical reflections on the expanding historiography in this area of research.

Chronologically arranged, British Nuclear Culture reflects upon, and returns to, a number of key themes throughout, including nuclear anxiety, government policy, civil defence, ‘nukespeak’ and nuclear subjectivity, individual experience, protest and resistance, and the influence of the British nuclear state on everyday life. The book contains illustrations, individual case studies, a select bibliography, a timeline, and a list of helpful online resources for students of nuclear history.

Joseph Masco – author of The nuclear borderlands: The Manhattan Project in post-Cold War New Mexico and The theater of operations: National security affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror  – likes it, which is more than enough for me:

We know the atomic bomb fundamentally transformed modern life, but Jonathan Hogg shows us that it did not do so in the same way everywhere. This is a important contribution to nuclear studies as it takes both nation and region seriously in the production of a nuclear culture. Hogg does not just follow expert concerns or defense policy debates, he also attends to the vernacular forms of local activisms across British cities and generations. British Nuclear Culture leads the way to a new comparative nuclear studies, and with it, a deeper understanding of the nuclear revolution.

Here is the Contents List:

1. Early Nuclear Culture
2. The Manhattan Project
3. 1945 – 1950: Early Responses to the Bomb
4. 1950 – 1958: Maturing Responses
5. 1958 – 1979: Radicalised and Realist Responses
6. 1979 – 1989: Extreme Realism
7. 1989 – 2011: The Persistence of Nuclear Culture
8. Conclusion

For those who don’t think it surprising that – apart from people like Michael Curry, Matt FarishScott Kirsch and Fraser MacDonald– human geographers should have turned away from a critical scrutiny of atomic geographies so speedily with the presumptive waning of the Cold War, notice the title of Chapter 7…

Scarry thoughts

SCARRY Thermonuclear monarchyI imagine most readers will know Elaine Scarry‘s vital account of The Body in Pain.  She has produced several important books since then, of course, but Scarry explains that her latest book, Thermonuclear monarchy: choosing between democracy and doom, published last month by Norton, emerged directly from her first:

It directly emerged from “The Body in Pain,” which has a first chapter on torture and a second on war. I was trying to address the question why when people prohibit torture they make it an absolute prohibition, but when they make a prohibition on war, they always make exceptions.

I realized that nuclear weapons much more approximate the condition of torture than of war. Torture involves zero consent on the part of the injured, whereas conventional war allows many levels of consent. With nuclear weapons, there’s zero consent.

There is an excellent, wide-ranging conversation between Scarry and Sarah Gerard at The American Reader here that goes back as far as Hobbes (who turns out to be crucial for Scarry’s argument) and spools forward to today’s drone wars.  If you read just one thing this week, read that.