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  • Excellent Book, So-So Movie

    Posted by David Foster on July 6th, 2011 (All posts by )

    Several days ago, Michael Kennedy mentioned Nevil Shute’s end-of-the-world novel On the Beach. There were, of course, a considerable number of nuclear-war-related novels published during the Cold War era…one of the last representatives of this genre is Trinity’s Child, written by William Prochnau and published in 1983.

    The central character, Moreau, is a B-52 copilot. Her decision to pursue a career in the Strategic Air Command was greatly influenced by her love and admiration for her father, a SAC general known as “the coldest of the cold warriors.” When Moreau was 10, her father took her to the Trinity atomic test site. She told him that all her friends expected to die in a nuclear war, and he explained to her the logic of nuclear deterrence:

    “I’m sorry your friends are afraid…I don’t know if you can understand this yet, but fear is my job. It’s my job to keep everyone so afraid no one will ever use these bombs again.”

    “How long do you have to do it, Dad?” she asked, eyes down, her small, fine hand picking at the old bomb crate.

    “Forever, honey. Eternal vigilance, President Kennedy said. After me, someone else and then someone else and then someone else. Forever, into infinity.”

    To which Moreau responded:

    “After you…I’ll do it, Dad.”


    In her B-52, Moreau is paired with a pilot named Kazaklis, and the two absolutely cannot stand each other. Kazaklis doesn’t think women belong in SAC and is further irritated by the failure of his attempt to get Moreau into bed; Moreau in turn is irritated by just about every aspect of the pilot’s personality, especially his obsession with playing video games.

    The Soviets launch a limited nuclear attack, intended to kill “only” a few million Americans. The President’s helicopter is knocked down when a Soviet missile lands closer to the White House than was intended, and control of the nation’s nuclear forces temporarily devolves upon the general in command of the Looking Glass airplane, who is appropriately codenamed ALICE. Another airplane is dispatched to pick up the only Presidential successor who can be located in the post-attack chaos: the Secretary of the Interior, codenamed CONDOR.

    (Alice) turned back to his map, briefly wondering what perversely wry and lost soul had come up with the code names for the event they never expected to happen. Looking Glass, Alice, Icarus, Trinity, Jericho. And Condor, powerful, ominous, lord of all it surveyed. Last of a long and proud line, almost extinct now.

    Condor falls under the influenced of a military intellectual mockingly nicknamed The Librarian, who seeks to persuade him not to limit his response to Soviet military facilities and cities, but rather to launch a counterstrike aimed at destroying all of the Soviet leadership bunkers. Alice and his naval counterpart, Harpoon, are horrified, recognizing that if the Soviet leaders are all killed, there will nobody to turn the war off, and it will continue until both countries are totally destroyed.

    In their B-52, Moreau and Kazaklis have received the message they never really expected to get–two code sequences indicating the beginning of a real nuclear war.

    “Voice confirmation,” Kazaklis said into the direct channel to the tower. Sequence one, go. Sequence two, go. Code: Trinity. Confirm.”

    “Confirm Trinity,” a solemn voice, touched with a Bronx accent, replied. “Confirm go.”

    This is an excellent book. You don’t necessarily have to agree with the author’s political views–he was pretty clearly opposed to the Reagan arms buildup, believing it would likely result in a scenario like the one portrayed in the book–to appreciate the excellence of the writing and character development.

    In 1990, this book was turned into a movie, “By Dawn’s Early Light.” Rebecca DeMornay was an excellent choice to play Moreau; however, the script does not really develop her character and her motivations for being in SAC in the first place–and, unaccountably, Moreau and Kazaklis are shown as lovers in the first 5 minutes of the film, which completely undercuts the conflict between them that was so important to the story in the book. (The only explanation I can think of for this bizarre change is that film was originally made for TV and the producers were afraid of viewers changing the channel if they didn’t work some sex in pretty quickly.) The film is worth seeing–James Earl Jones is excellent as ALICE, and Jeffrey DeMunn is good as HARPOON–but could have been much better.

    Again, the book is highly recommended. The fact that a nuclear exchange with the Soviets didn’t happen during the Cold War era does NOT necessarily prove that such an exchange was highly improbable. We might have just been lucky.

     

    15 Responses to “Excellent Book, So-So Movie”

    1. Jonathan Says:

      I remember seeing part of Dawn’s Early Light on TV. Not a good movie, and coming out when it did it was an obvious dig at Reagan, who not only didn’t deserve it but deserved a great deal of credit for making the terrible scenario depicted in the movie less likely.

      I think we were lucky during the Cold War. There is at least one publicized instance in which accidental war was forestalled by one individual who happened to have good judgment; events could easily have gone the other way. There may have been other, similar episodes that aren’t publicly known yet, and there were cases such as Cuba where we could have had war based on a cascade of policy errors by either side. That such close calls happened at all suggests that our strategy, to the extent that strategy really was Mutual Assured Destruction, was flawed. If you walk through a mine field and don’t get blown up it doesn’t mean walking through mine fields is a good idea.

      The problem with MAD is similar to the problem with “portfolio insurance” and other financial hedging strategies that require participants to double down on risk until just before the point where they run out of money, and then to change their behavior suddenly. It is an emotional and intellectual high-wire act and humans don’t do such things well. MAD requires defenders who are unwilling to use nuclear weapons until a point where they launch an all-out attack or counterattack. Such a strategy may not deter as well as a tit-for-tat incremental strategy, because the threshold for nuclear response is too high.

      It may be that we won the Cold War because our missiles were accurate enough to use against Soviet forces without also killing more civilians than we would tolerate, because the USSR’s weak economy couldn’t support a competitive military without bankrupting the country, because of SDI, and so forth. The important thing is to understand what happened, so that we can credit the right policies rather than the wrong ones and avoid repeating mistakes in the future.

    2. David Foster Says:

      “If you walk through a mine field and don’t get blown up it doesn’t mean walking through mine fields is a good idea”…Taleb makes this point in his Black Swan writings, although he uses the analogy of Russian Roulette. His point–applied to finance but also applicable to other fields–is that it is dangerous to judge a strategy only by its results; you also have to look inside the black box and get some idea how the results were obtained.

    3. Jonathan Says:

      I got the mine field metaphor from the Larry Hite interview in the first Market Wizards book. This metaphor is applicable in many areas of life.

    4. John Wolfsberger, Jr. Says:

      My $.02: the best of this genre was “Alas, Babylon” by Pat Frank.

    5. Michael Kennedy Says:

      When I was in college, there was an alert that I only learned of later when I was around some former Air Force folks. It seems that we were overflying the Soviet Union with B 47s and they didn’t, for some reason having to do with their air defense radar, know it. Then, they put in a major upgrade and the day they turned it on, they saw US bombers over their territory for the first time. I was told that there was a major alert and there could have been a war. This was about 1957.

      A few years later, when I was working at Douglas Aircraft, I met some of the guys who had worked with the U2. The maximum altitudes were much higher than was ever acknowledged. Around this time, I met my first wife and spent a lot of enjoyable hours BSing with her father, who was in the aircraft industry. This was a year before the U2 was shot down by a new generation Soviet missile and an engine malfunction in Gary Powers’ plane.

      Even the B 36, a propeller driven bomber, was able to fly at very high altitude, much higher than any other prop driven plane, and constituted a serious threat to the Soviets even at its slow speed. Wikipedia lists a cruising altitude of 50,000 feet. That is extreme for a prop driven plane.

      Anyway, there are things that are still secret, or unknown, from many years ago. For example, it was only a couple of years ago that we got confirmation that the Soviets had tactical nukes in Cuba in 1962. Invasion would have been a very chancy thing.

    6. Paul Milenkovic Says:

      Dr. Kennedy:

      A doctor or surgeon’s most precious personal possession is one’s reputation. The same thing holds true for people taking seriously a person’s political predictions and general world view.

      I have been on Engineering campuses and around military and war geeks ever since age 17, and I have heard many a tale that is both fascinating and entertaining, but that doesn’t make these tales true. Such tellers of yarns are fun to have around but sometimes a challenge to take seriously.

      We (the U.S., mainly) had been overflying the USSR for some time in recce versions of B-57 Canberra bombers, known for their high altitude capability, and some of them with modified wings of greatly increased size. That some of these and other planes “went missing” along with their crews over Soviet territory had been going on for some times and was the impetus for the development of the U-2, and these men who paid with their lives or with their freedom are unheralded national heroes. Even if the Protivo Vozdushnaya Oborona Strany weren’t tracking every flight on radar, they must have been aware of overflights but afraid to protest given the weaknesses such protests may reveal.

      Ben Rich in his book on the Skunk Works suggested that a high-altitude plane could evade radar. If I follow the explanation and if the explanation is not disinformation, if a plane is flying high enough, it makes a high enough angle in the sky by the time it is in range of the radar, and that the early post WW-II Russsians may not have been using sets where the beam was angled to “see” such planes.

      But the Soviets must have known about overflights as they were downing recce aircraft throughout the Cold War — that was the urgency behind the U-2, and not long into U-2 operations they were tracking U-2 planes on radar, the fix is making some minor adjustment to the beam pattern as getting returns from high-altitude objects is not that big a deal, providing the impetus for a crude stealth aircraft known as the Dirty Bird, a U-2 that traded off altitude capability for carrying some heavy and draggy radar absorbent materials.

      As to the downing of Power’s plane, the missile had been reported as an SA-2. I suppose a missile developed in the 1950’s, deployed and unveiled at a May Day parade in 1957 and that had downed a Nationalist Chinese RB-57 in 1959 was still “new generation” as of 1960, when a salvo of 14 missiles was required to down Power’s jet, taking out a Russian MiG in the bargain.

      As to Power’s putative “engine malfunction” or “flameout”: I might be first-generation American born of immigrants from that same Near Eastern culture that revels in conspiracy theories as the Ruskies, but that “flameout” that made Powers “vulnerable to interception” was in all likelihood a cover story given out by Powers in response to interrogation to disguise or perhaps embellish the altitude capabilities of the plane.

      As to the chancy nature of the tactical situation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a lot of the embellishment of the danger comes from Kennedy retainers, polishing the legend of President Kennedy standing firm against hawkish generals who wanted to invade Cuba.

      The most dangerous time from the standpoint of atomic war had to have been in October, 1973, with the number two danger point when, according to recent Chinese sources, Nixon threatened the Russians (secretly) to back down from preemptive war against China in the late 1960s. More and more sources (especially in documenting the early Soviet space program) are revealing that the nuclear threat in the early 1960’s from the Soviets was mainly bluff.

    7. Shannon Love Says:

      Michael Kennedy,

      So much of the history of the 20th century is still hidden either by intent, accident or technical complexity that I don’t think we really know what happened or can draw lessons from it. I am fascinated by the fact that WWII was the most documented event in human history and that all the major participants who survived wrote memoirs and the like and yet for 30+ years none of the public histories revealed the Ultra secret.

      Ultra had an enormous influence on the allied conduct of the war and none of the decisions made can be truly evaluated without taking Ultra into account. That means that all the thousands of histories and analysis of WWII were, for 30+ years utterly flawed.

      One can only imagine what we don’t know about the Cold War. Heck, given the military and technical illiteracy of our academics, we probably know a lot less about the Cold War than we did about WWII prior to the revelation of Ultra.

    8. Shannon Love Says:

      IIRC, something like 150 US servicemen were lost to unknown fates flying surveillance in the late 1940s and 1950. They are little discussed or remembered, probably owing to the secrecy at the time but also because to the WWII generation, such losses seemed just part of the job. They didn’t have the micromanaging body count mentality we do today.

      I imagine most were lost in the vast waist that comprised most of the Soviet Union but the Soviets were also know to kidnap and disappears people from all over the world so it is likely they secretly captured some of the missing. It would be nice if we could ask the Russians to clear things up for us.

    9. Shannon Love Says:

      Jonathan,

      I think we were lucky during the Cold War. There is at least one publicized instance in which accidental war was forestalled by one individual who happened to have good judgment; events could easily have gone the other way. There may have been other, similar episodes that aren’t publicly known yet, and there were cases such as Cuba where we could have had war based on a cascade of policy errors by either side. That such close calls happened at all suggests that our strategy, to the extent that strategy really was Mutual Assured Destruction, was flawed. If you walk through a mine field and don’t get blown up it doesn’t mean walking through mine fields is a good idea.

      A design doesn’t have to be perfect to be best possible design. The best airplane design ever can still crash. Likewise, MAD might have been risky but it was the best possible strategy given the real-world circumstances.

      And let us not forget that in every case in which we came very close to nuclear war, it was the awareness of MAD that stopped the escalation at some point. Everyone on the planet knew that starting a nuclear war would always result in a worse outcome than backing down. That MAD reality reliably influenced those with nuclear launch authority time and again to deescalate.

      All other strategies had fatal flaws in that they each allowed the opportunity for someone to delude themselves that it was possible to start a nuclear war and suffer only minor damage while wiping out the enemy completely. We can argue endless whether that opportunity actually existed for any particular strategy but as long as they provided the least basis for rationalization, they were very, very dangerous.

      MAD had the simple and brutal virtue of leaving no doubt that initiating a nuclear war was tantamount to suicide. No on could delude themselves otherwise. Certainly, the large group of people necessary to launch a nuclear weapon would not all fall under such a delusion.

      So, I don’t think it “luck” no more than it is “luck” that someone who drives carefully and maintains their vehicle seldom has accidents.

    10. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Paul, I don’t think anything you wrote contradicts what I wrote. Some of what I wrote was rumor but from people who were intimately involved in some of the surveillance missions. At the time, I was working on the Nike Zeus missile system. There were lots of peripheral surveillance flights around the Soviet Union and much of it was done by B 29s and B 50s. The story I was told was about another program that was a big surprise to the Russians and almost precipitated hostilities.

      As to Powers engine failure story, that may have been invented to excuse his vulnerability or not. My information at the time (1959) was that the plane could fly at 100,000 feet under the right conditions. The U2 was not thought vulnerable to the SA 2.

      We are continually learning new information, such as the Venona transcripts that confirm much of the Soviet infiltration that the HUAC was trying to expose in the early 50s.

    11. corset Says:

      [spam deleted by Jonathan]

    12. Argus Niemuth Says:

      Not me – my impression of MAD comes from a gentlemen I met in an airport wine bar – DC I think it was. The owner of Bender RBT Inc, which is “software quality and assurance”. He claimed to have helped with the automatic nuclear response program – and the number of bugs and false alarms and almost disasterous occasions, simply due to faulty software was not comforting. Imagine if McCain had been in office, how much would MAD be worth?

    13. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Imagine if McCain had been in office, how much would MAD be worth?

      If McCain were in office, everything would be worth more.

    14. Shannon Love Says:

      Argus Neimuth,

      He claimed to have helped with the automatic nuclear response program – and the number of bugs and false alarms and almost disasterous occasions, simply due to faulty software was not comforting.

      I doubt that is really true. Firstly, all our nuclear control systems a mix of digital and analog systems based on still running on hardware and software from late 1960s. Secondly, all nuclear systems have several human cutouts. At some point in the system, two or three people have to all agree to launch the weapon they control.

      Look at the track record, over 70 years of hundreds of thousands of deployed nuclear weapons in dozens of countries and not a single launch intentional or otherwise. That’s an impressive track record no matter how you look at.

    15. Mr. X Says:

      “I am fascinated by the fact that WWII was the most documented event in human history and that all the major participants who survived wrote memoirs and the like and yet for 30+ years none of the public histories revealed the Ultra secret.” Yes. And the most recent book I read on the Eastern Front, Absolute War, points out how much a possible U.S. entry into WWII played into both Hitler and Stalin’s calculations. Simply put, Stalin was not as naive or incredulous of Hitler’s plans as Kruschev seeking to discredit the monster portrayed him in the 1950s.

      Rather Uncle Joe simply though Hitler would give him an ultimatum giving him time to pull Soviet forces back from the border and keep in reserve, or recall to Western Russia the Siberians who broke through German lines in Dec. 1941. Hitler didn’t. But you’re still left wondering how good Uncle Joe’s intel of FDR’s intentions to enter the war on the UK’s side really was, on top of what he knew from public sources. The Sovs did not get caught off guard on June 22, 1941 due to poorly performing security services — their intel was way better than the Nazis’. They simply had ideological blinders and had already shot most of their senior to mid-level commanders, creating a serious leadership and logistics void at the worst possible time.