“We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.” Marshall McLuhan
Twenty miles south of Tucson, buried beneath the desert hardpan, lies the most impressive of museums. The Titan II Missile Museum, the only ICBM missile silo open to the public, where groups of guided tours led by former U.S. Air Force crew members descend down into the underground structures and explore the facility comprising of the launch control center, the missile silo and the blast lock portal where you’re greeted with the 3-ton, 12-inch-thick blast doors. Inside is the Titan II Missile, 110-feet of riveted steel and technological precision. The absolute limit of technology, a nuclear-tipped missile created with the means to end not just war, but all existence, the world itself, at the push of a button. The most impressive thing about it is that the missile remains peacefully chambered in the silo, the launch orders were never received, and the missile never needed to fly. Peace through deterrence.
The oft-spoken mantra – “peace through deterrence” – occurs with such frequency throughout the retro-introductory video and the subsequent guided-tour, that one gets the distinct impression that the intonation references not just the geopolitical stalemate condition that was mistakenly labeled as “peace,” but also some kind of internal meditative state – an inner-peace – in the crew. No doubt a certain imperturbable composure is required for the type of person that volunteers for a job that requires a no-questions-asked-yessir approach to the command to destroy not just a far-off city but most likely civilization itself. After all, regardless of the technological brilliance in advanced airspace detection warnings and missile guidance technology, it all comes down to two guys, standing across from each other in an underground room agreeing to simultaneously turn their “fail-safe” keys, press a button, and launch an H-bomb-tipped ICBM. I asked our tour guide, who, by all accounts, seemed like an utterly reasonable, friendly human-being with a wry sense of humor, if he had undergone any especially rigorous psychological exams or maybe if he even had to undergo any false-positive drills by the military to test his mettle and ensure an unflinchingly appropriate response if the launch codes ever arrived. He responded that they were soldiers, drilled to take orders, but no extenuating psychological tests were necessary, because the overall “peace through deterrence”-ness of the mission guaranteed a clear conscious.
Granted, I didn’t grow up with the duck and cover films, the under the desk school drills, or the stockpiling of supplies in my backyard bomb shelter, so I feel so far removed from the general insanity of mutual assured destruction that the chasm of time renders the whole situation even more unreal and makes me feel even more skeptical than some of the older patrons on our Titan Missile Tour. And as futile as it probably is to try to find logic in strategic defense planning when nuclear weapons come into play, the whole “peace through deterrence” thing he’s clinging to screams of inconsistencies if you really think about it. Simply put, if the Soviets (or Chinese) launched a first strike, our deterrent capabilities were unsuccessful, so any second strike is simply retaliatory, launched in spite. The whole strategic defense mechanism was built around game theory – that a rational opponent wouldn’t call an ever-escalating series of bluffs. It gets interesting because deterrence doesn’t really require that anything actually functionally work – the missiles could just be a feint – but it’s the perception, the illusion that becomes reality, the truly frightening notion that the other side believes we’re crazy enough that we’ve got it in our collective disposition to throw down with World War III if the shit came down to it. That’s what makes “peace through deterrence” so reassuring. Not because of its paradoxical ridiculousness as a viable Cold War nuclear strategy (well, I guess it worked), but that it acknowledges that there is an inherent consciousness in our nation’s psyche. We needed it and this guy who worked the three-day shifts down in the silo needed it because, otherwise, you have to confront the reality that the whole thing is a deranged facade. Instead of looking into the terrifying abyss of nuclear weapons and seeing the end of the world, we managed to avert that by convincing ourselves that it was all for “peace,” a technological deterrent that let us off the hook, free to believe that a preemptive strike was antithetical to our very beings. Self-deception is generally assumed to be a bad quality. Here at the frontline of the Cold War it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing at all. In fact, I wonder if here it leads to a deeper understanding or revelation. That we’re the only nation to use atomic weapons against a civilian population makes it all the more heart-breakingly ambiguous.
Or, as the nuclear engineer states at the beginning of the Titan introductory film, “This is what it took to wage a nuclear war. And this is what it took to wage nuclear peace.”
It turns out that when Dr. Strangelove said that the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret, he could also have also been referring to obsolete, decommissioned doomsday machines. In accord with the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, the Titan’s blast doors have to always remain open, visible to Russian satellites. And in a testament to the resolution of orbiting Russian satellite imagery, the small yellow cutout in the missile head is large enough to reveal that the enclosure is devoid of any nuclear warhead. Of course, when the Titan II was equipped with a 9-megaton (the exact explosive tonnage is still classified) warhead from 1963 to 1984, it wasn’t really much of a secret then either. It was one of 18 other missile silos based around Davis Monthan Air Force Base that were visible to satellites. The more impressive-looking they were, the greater their deterrent value, and the more tempting a target they became. This also had the effect of turning the adjacent, sleepy town of Tucson into a strategic nuclear target, and the people that lived there knew it. The majority of visitors to the Titan Museum are locals. Having lived a good portion of their lives in the shadow of an ICBM, they now take advantage of being able to walk around the formerly classified, off-limits site and take as many photos as they can of Missile Site 571-7. This site has been reappropriated as an educational museum, where visitors can see and touch the surface and underground features of the complex. The rest of the decommissioned silos are another story, many of which are now hot real-estate investment opportunities.
There were a total of 54 Titan II missile silos, and, in addition to those around Tucson, there were others near Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas and McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas. The last of the Titan II missiles were decommissioned in 1987, the aging technological relics were updated with the more advanced Minuteman and MX Peacekeeper ICBMs. The new missiles required new silos, and the end of the Cold War was no impetus to the creation of even more complex underground ICBM silos that are now scattered across the Great Plains. But that left the outdated Titan II silos to slowly rot away while the military had to incur outrageous maintenance costs for obsolete installations. The thing about ICBM silos is that they were designed to survive a direct nuclear attack. So the walls are thick, like six-feet-of-solid-concrete thick. And all the floors are on a dampening suspension system, detached from the walls, so that in the event of any seismic activity, everything can flex and adjust itself independently. They’re an ageless, elemental example of security through entombment and they’re going to last forever. Built to survive an Armageddon that never came, the question now arises: what do we do with them?
They’ll outlive us by thousands of years as a monument to our own ingenuity, paranoia, and military superiority. These sinister void spaces in the desert landscape that comprise a vast network of underground ruins on par with the catacombs of Paris or the aqueducts of Rome – examples of other amazing feats of life-sustaining infrastructure. As told in Richard Rhodes thoroughly engrossing The Making of the Atomic Bomb, in 1939 when Danish Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr was asked whether he believed the United States could split the atom and create a nuclear explosion, he immediately expressed skepticism that the country had the will and determination to ever successfully undertake such a monumental task. He believed it could never be done “without turning the United States into one huge factory.” By 1944 Bohr was proven right. While touring the massive Site X at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and seeing the thousands upon thousands of workers toiling away in an instant city on projects that they didn’t have security clearance to understand, Bohr remarked to Edward Teller, “I told you it couldn’t be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that.” Even now, what was built then has not been surpassed. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill provided the layout for the town and the designs for the individual, prefabricated, modular homes, a town for 75,000 people that went up in less than two years. The K-25 Building, which was built to enrich uranium during the Manhattan Project, was the largest building under one roof in the world – still the largest in the United States – over a mile in length and sheltering 1.6 million square feet. It’s currently in the midst of demolition, in a time consuming process that is both more expensive and longer lasting than the cost and time it took to build it up. Which brings us back to decommissioned missile silos.
There’s probably a certain type of person that would want to live inside a former nuclear missile complex, and those types of people had their chance when the military, in an attempt to squeeze some profit out of the dormant underground bunkers and the adjacent land, put the silos up at public auction. In an ironically twisted rehabilitation program, end-of-times survivalists can now make their homes and wait out Armageddon in the former weaponized tools that were designed to bring about said end in the first place. The archetypal genesis of their paranoid fears turned out to be the only acceptably safe refuge. Other silos ended up as “swanky bachelor pads,” (“secret nerd lair” doesn’t have the same ring to it), which inevitably leads to questions regarding the success rate of taking women home, when home is a desolate, windowless, underground former missile silo. Walking through the underground chambers of the Titan Museum, a space so charged where the layers of history were so strong a presence and the air had a stillness that was broken up by unexpected drafts while the lighting system induced a claustrophobic sense of broken-time disorientation, I’m skeptical that any number of lava lamps and fruit bowls could dispel that haunted house vibe. Luckily, the housing market crash hasn’t seemed to affect the silo market, the awesomely named 20th Century Castles, will still sell you a Titan I missile silo for $2.8 million, and their website proudly shows images of happy middle-aged, normal-looking couples posing in front of their cableway, decked out with family portraits, house plants, and garishly patterned rocking chairs in place of decontamination suits, launch control consoles, and blast locks.
But none of that can match the excitement of the climax to the Titan II Missile Museum tour, what we’ve all been waiting for: the mock launch. Chuck, our guide, asks for a volunteer. A young kid, born after 1989, jumps up and hops into the commander’s chair. A siren goes off as Chuck, standing to the side, reads and validates the launch code orders. Target 2 is selected. Chuck holds his key and the kid does the same. On his mark, turn. Now the kid, sitting at the launch console, his hand on the key, waits for Chuck to give him the signal to synchronously turn his key. Suddenly he seems to feel it. There’s a hesitation in his movements, no longer the eager volunteer, uncertain if this is really what he wants to do. Chuck gives the signal, the kid limply turns his key. The button is pushed. The lights in the kiva-like command center change to red. A piercing air-raid siren starts up. “Ready to launch” becomes “launch enabled.” The missile batteries engage, liquid oxygen floods the missile chamber and activates the launching mechanisms, “lift-off” goes green, and 58 seconds after order received the missile is in the air. Thirty-five minutes after that, target strike. We’ll meet again someday. No one breathes, a certain calmness washes over the group. Peace through deterrence, peace through deterrence….