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Leaving Cheyenne Mountain | The Nation

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Leaving Cheyenne Mountain

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Copyright © 2008 William Astore. A version of this article also appears on Tomdispatch.com.

Mountain Men

About the Author

William J. Astore
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), has taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate...

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Cheyenne Mountain was something more than a bastion to seal in our nuclear fears. It was also a repository of our technological dreams and a response (however feeble) to our technological nightmares. In this high-tech, man-made cave, we could for a moment forget how hydrogen bombs had reduced the bravest of warriors to inconsequential matter. To this end, we cultivated a quiet professionalism--a studied detachment from our surroundings as well as the implications of cold war deterrence theory.

That said, working within the mountain was decidedly unglamorous. Obviously, there were no windows, so no natural light. Air circulated artificially (and noisily). As big as that cavern sometimes seemed, space was often at a premium in a complex manned 24/7--with at least a brigadier general always on duty in case the "nuclear balloon" went up. (I recall one quiet midshift when I read several chapters of Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising. The irony was not lost on me.) Crew members sat in the Missile Warning Center in front of consoles, processing data from satellites and other sensors. The most vital of these were the supersecret DSP satellites used to detect Soviet missile launches. I worked mostly in the Space Surveillance Center, which kept track of the objects orbiting Earth, including lost wrenches and shattered satellites--tedious but necessary work that involved weekly software "crashes."

The men and women who served in the complex were anything but Strangelovean. The US strategy of that time, known as mutually assured destruction (which boiled down to the distinctly Strangelovean acronym of MAD), may have been comical in an obscenely dark way, but the crew members did their duty with little fanfare. Like them, I was caught up in "the mission," in making everything work, even if everything included a potentially world-ending event. We all, each in his or her own mundane way, became servants of the early-warning machinery of nuclear war. We were, as technology critic Lewis Mumford might have put it then, "encapsulated men" serving the Pentagonal megamachine.

"Manly" military glory was still an ever-present ideal in those years; but, as we all were well aware, it lay somewhere beyond the mountain and missile silos in the so-called air-breathing element of the Strategic Air Command. It was the property of the air jockeys in the long-range bombers. Today, it's not the brilliant but intentionally deviant Dr. Strangelove that really catches the ethos of that SAC moment: a certain cocksure insouciance toward what bombing actually meant when your planes were nuclear-armed. For that, check out the 1963 movie A Gathering of Eagles, starring Rock Hudson and Rod Taylor. Watch for the scene in which Taylor resolutely reacts to the news of a no-notice, make-or-break "Operational Readiness Inspection"--the dreaded ORI. He rips off his tie, Clark Kent-style, exposing an impressive thatch of chest hair. It's a classic embodiment of testosterone-driven, hard-charging command, whose endpoint is redemption for him as well as the wing--not the extinction of life as we know it.

Certainly, though, Dr. Strangelove did a better job of capturing the surreal world of nuclear theory outside Cheyenne Mountain, rather than the humdrum one inside the complex. Serving in SAC in the early 1970s, for instance, my brother routinely appended to its official motto, "Peace is Our Profession," the unofficial but popular "War is our hobby." That, after all, was more consistent with the mailed fist that dominated SAC's emblem. While it clearly existed to deter nuclear wars, SAC also stood ready to fight and "win" them. As late as 1999, one B-1 bomber pilot assured me, straight-faced, "Don't tell me we can't win a nuclear war--that's what I train for." Buck Turgidson, eat your heart out.

In 1986, the year Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev teetered on the brink of eliminating superpower nuclear weapons at their summit meeting in Reykjavik, I participated in a computerized war game inside Cheyenne Mountain. It ended in a simulated nuclear attack against the United States. By today's standards, our computers were primitive leviathans: IBM mainframes with old-fashioned tape drives--roughly the size of jumbo subzero refrigerators in today's McMansions; they had disk drives, or "packs," roughly the size of dishwashers. Our computer screens were a monochromatic green. From a Hollywood special-effects perspective, they were poorly lit and relentlessly boring--not at all like the glitzy nuclear war room in the 1983 film WarGames, which starred a fresh-faced Matthew Broderick.

As those monochromatic missile tracks crossed the Arctic Circle and began to terminate at various US cities, the mood among the battle staff grew reflective. Yes, it was only a game, but everyone knew that nuclear Armageddon with the Soviet Union was possible, and that it would kill tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of people in both countries. That day in that command center we were virtual witnesses to our worst nightmare: a nuclear holocaust that might not only destroy our country and the Soviet Union but civilization as we knew it.

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