Dan Zak’s Almighty: Courage, Resistance and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age is a must read for everyone in this country who has forgotten about nuclear weapons. And that is most of us, isn’t it?
Engineers, physicists, military planners, arms control wonks, diplomats, and some politicians—they all get paid to remember that the United States has an almost unique capacity for nation destruction. The three people profiled in Almighty are among the handful who haven’t forgotten. But they aren’t professionals of any kind. In fact, Dan Zak refers to them as “the sister,” “the veteran,” and “the house painter.”
They call themselves Transform Now Plowshares, and on July 28, 2012, the nonviolent peace activists penetrated Y-12, a heavily guarded nuclear facility tucked within the hills and valleys of Tennessee. After cutting through fences and hiking miles in the dark, they reached the outer walls of the complex’s highly enriched uranium materials facility. The HEUMF—which sounds like a noise Winnie the Pooh would make falling out of a honey tree—is the Fort Knox of fissile material, designed to store 400 metric tons of highly enriched uranium. Once there, the activists painted religious, anti-nuclear slogans on the walls of a building, laid banners on fences, and poured their own blood across the facility’s walls. They then prayed and sang until being apprehended by security. This author knows all three of the activists: Sister Megan Rice, a Catholic nun, was 82 years old then. Her companions, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed, were younger: 63 and 57.
Walking through the plant, they were acting in line with a Plowshares tradition that spanned back further than 30 years. The first was in 1980, when eight people, inspired by a passage from the book of Isaiah that envisions transformation—“they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore”—broke into a General Electric plant in Pennsylvania that manufactured reentry systems for the Minuteman Missile. They hammered on nose cones, poured their blood onto the plant, and waited for security to arrest them.
Afterwards, the Plowshares Eight’s statement read: “We wish also to challenge the lethal lie spun by G.E. through its motto, ‘We bring good things to life.’” As manufacturers of the Mark 12A reentry vehicle, G.E. actually prepares to bring good things to death.” My father and uncle—Phil Berrigan and Dan Berrigan—were part of that first action, and Phil went on to plan or participate in (or both) many more similar actions until his death in 2002.