A bit of an odd one for you this time: it’s the end of semester here and so the mind wanders somewhat.
Not so long ago, I was re-reading Eric Schlosser’s Command and control, an excellent account of nuclear weapons incidents in the US. This had been off the back of a lunchtime discussion with colleagues about how there’s a nuclear device buried in the Thames, not so far from where I write, which had been jettisoned back in the 1950s by an ailing RAF bomber.
Yes, we do know have to have fun.
Any way, the book’s brilliant and I totally recommend it to you and students for opening up classroom debate about nuclear ethics beyond MAD. However, if you weren’t sure about nukes and their safety, then I’d maybe give it a pass, otherwise you’ll not sleep very much.
But this is a – slight – aside. The book in turn reminded me of a film I’d watched back when I was much younger, which I recalled was a thoughtful dramatisation of a B-52 crew’s ethic anguish over their mission: shades of Dr Strangelove but without the LOLs.
As a function of being left unsupervised on various evenings of late, I thought I’d revisit that film. And Dr Strangelove too. If nothing else, I felt it was good to actual re-consume these reference points to see if my memory matches up with what it’s really like.
And it doesn’t.
Dr Strangelove is a very particular film, and I think we always knew it was: the fine line into parody was always evident. But to watch it now, and especially after refreshing my memory of Schlosser’s book, really highlights the gaps in the storyline. Ironically, Schlosser notes that as a portrayal of nuclear protocol, it’s actually pretty realistic: once you press the ‘go’ button, there’s not really anything to be done to stop matters.
Which takes us to this forgotten film on my youth: By Dawn’s Early Light.
I’d invite you to watch it yourself – copies can be found on YouTube – but perhaps not for the purpose I originally had. Instead of that searing insight into the mind of a bomber crew, I instead got a made-for-TV pile of nonsense, that variously involves a President who doesn’t quite die in a helicopter crash; nuclear bombs used to blow up a chasing interceptor; the timing torpedoing of a US carrier; and a bizarre incident with an ejector seat.
Measured, it ain’t.
(On the plus side, it’s got lots of famous actors, so that’s something. Beneath them, mainly)
As an exposition of military doctrine and civil-military relations, it’s rubbish. And I could only recommend it to you as a document for stimulating discussion about why it’s rubbish and how things would have really played out in real life (ironically, much worse).
So why share my failing memory with you?
Because in our different ways, we all do this kind of thing. We find materials and we use them: they work in that moment. But then after that moment, we keep it tucked away, to be re-purposed as we develop and change.
Think of the first really impressive piece of academic writing you read, back when you started out. Assuming you’ve not read it recently, if you went back now then I’m certain you’d find a lot of stuff that you’d missed, or even mis-remembered.
So the message here is that it’s good to revisit old grounds, if only to check that things are how you remember them. But maybe start with the literature, rather than the films.