10 July 2009

At the Titan Missile Site

rehearsing the end

Joseph Masco

‘We don’t strike first; we strike fast’ says our guide, a former cold war Titan missile commander now taking us through a simulated launch of a thermonuclear missile. We are standing in the control room of a Titan II missile silo, 30 miles south of Tucson, in Sahuarita, Arizona. We are buried deep underground, facing a wall of lime green computer terminals that look much too archaic and quaint to produce any real degree of violence. We play out the authorising of failsafe launch codes, the countdown and launch sequences, and imaginary nuclear war – an act that happens daily in this room just as it did for the two decades of the Cold War (1962-1982) in which this Titan silo was a central part of the US nuclear deterrent. Now presented to us as ‘history’, the nuclear war logics that support mutual assured destruction and the necessity of the Titan missile system are visible today only as relics, seemingly disconnected from the nuclear militarism of the contemporary United States.

The Titan Missile Museum is the only place in the world where you can see an intercontinental missile system on public display, joining a number of new US history museums devoted to the cold war security state. It stands as both a museum and an archive of cold war technology, presenting an all too rare chance to walk through the infrastructure of the nuclear ‘balance of terror’ and interact with the former Titan missileers that now staff the museum. A museum visit consists of viewing a small display of artefacts and cold war history, a film presentation which gives background on the Titan system (hosted by Chuck, a pony-tailed narrator who looks more like a forest ranger than a cold war veteran) and in my case, a tour of the missile silo by a former Titan commander. The Titan Missile was part of a global system for nuclear war, linking the US and the USSR in a shared technological apocalypticism. We learn, for example, that the Titan Missile bases were located as close to the US - Mexican border as possible to maximise the time for radar to pick up Soviet missiles coming over the north pole, giving the missile crews time to launch their retaliatory strikes.

The Titan Missile itself is over 100 feet tall and protected by eight-foot thick steel blast doors hardened against nuclear attack. The entire facility sits on giant springs to absorb the impact of nearby nuclear detonations; even the electrical and plumbing systems were designed with enough slack to allow 18-inches of bounce.

Massive silo doors (now bolted open to allow satellite reconnaissance of the decommissioned missile) are the only visible aspect of the silo from ground level. However, an above ground museum site is now populated with outdoor displays of the multiply-redundant communication and security systems, plus an exhibit on rocket engines and fuel management systems. [overleaf, top] Much of the tour however is spent underground rehearsing the security of the site (working through multiple code words, safes, telephone checkpoints and procedures for crews entering the facility and various failsafe mechanisms for preventing infiltration or an unintentional launch) and playing nuclear war.

We learn early on that crew members carried a pistol at all times while on duty, marked as necessary for site security but also to ensure that a reluctant crewman ‘did his job properly in case of a launch order’. They needn’t have bothered with this implied threat. The crew was pre-selected and trained precisely for their ability to launch a thermonuclear missile on command. Our guide tells us, for example, about daily life in the missile silo – the four person teams (two on duty, two off) that would work 24 hour shifts, and spend each minute on alert checking and double-checking the equipment. This constant rehearsal of maintenance and launch sequences served also to make the crews robotic in action and thought regarding the facility.

Our guide states repeatedly that the US would never launch first – even though Air Force policy suggested otherwise throughout much of the Cold War – underscoring the strange moral authority required to be a cog in a larger nuclear war system. The one-shot Titan missile was, of course, pre-targeted by military planners. The silo crew (which rotated shifts between multiple silos) never knew where any of the missiles they controlled would land: their job was simply to maintain the facility and to push the launch button without hesitation on order of the President. Crew members simply knew that ‘58 seconds after the launch keys are turned the engines will ignite’ and ‘thirty minutes later a target on the other side of the planet will be destroyed’ — where, when and why was someone else’s responsibility.

Today the technology looks so archaic as to be incapable of being truly violent. The computer controlling missile guidance – ‘state-of-the-art 1963 technology’ we are told – has a total of 1 kilobyte of memory. ‘That 1K is less than the ring tone on your phone’, says our guide in the best laugh line of the tour. But consider what this 1K system could unleash: lifting off via a two-stage liquid fuel rocket, the Titan II ballistic missile could reach near space orbit and then send its heavy payload, in this case a 9-megaton thermonuclear warhead, back to earth with enough precision to destroy an entire city. Withstanding radical acceleration and vibration as well as extremes of heat and cold, the Titan missile system was designed to launch within sixty seconds and deliver absolute destruction from over the horizon to anywhere on the planet in under 30 minutes. Never has the potential for mass death been rendered as automated, anonymous or immediate as in the Titan system.

The Titan II missile system was a central part of the technological and psychological infrastructure of the nuclear age. Built in terrified reaction to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite in 1957, the Titan missile was a response to the perceptions of a ‘missile gap’. Top-secret reports at the time imagined a Soviet Union deploying hundreds and soon thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles. John Kennedy was elected President in 1960 in part to solve this so-called missile gap through a massive arms build up. Soon after his election the new top secret Corona reconnaissance satellite provided proof that the Soviets had deployed less than 10 missiles, not the hundreds imagined by US planners. The phantom Soviet missiles of the 1950s that produced the Titan Missile complex were very much like the phantom Iraqi WMDs in 2003 that ‘enabled’ the invasion of Iraq. As fantasy they say much about the power of fear and militarism in American culture. At the Titan Missile Museum there are only hints of this history and its over-determined form, for example, in the exhibit on nuclear overkill. Overkill is a theory of nuclear targetting that accounts for imagined future failures in the system by exponentially multiplying the number of nuclear weapons used. In its ultimate form, this produced a US nuclear arsenal of over 36,000 weapons by 1968 and a target list designed to enable a simultaneous global nuclear strike on all communist states. It is difficult today, despite all our current rhetoric of terror, to imagine the social conditions capable of producing a technological system of such total destruction or a national culture that could accommodate the apocalypse so completely within everyday life that it was soon rendered all but invisible.

The Titan Missile Museum is today largely devoted to veterans, who make up the vast majority of visitors. It is run by veterans, caters to military tourism and is designed to enable Cold Warriors to have a public site of recognition and remembrance for their service. However, this call to memory is complicated, supported as much by amnesia and repression as by recognition and commemoration. This is because the national security state fundamentally relies on, and strives to produce, an absence of public memory. The ability to shift public fear from one ‘enemy’ to the next relies on a combination of perception management and state secrecy enabling, in the case of the U S, the constant roll-out of new threats and new technologies to meet them. Just as declassification can change our understanding of past national security policy and conflicts, public memory is always at odds with a national security apparatus that relies on such a highly flexible approach to the production and management of danger.

Put differently, the fears supporting the Cold War ‘balance of terror’ can morph into the ‘war on terror’ today not because it makes any real sense but because the images of threat can be presented to American citizens as both coherent and eternal. Efforts to unpack the detailed history of the Cold War, or to address the specific claims of current counter-terrorism, inevitably challenge the rationale of the national security state. For this very reason, the public history museums and archives that address aspects of American security are both essential and highly politicised. Thus, when Chuck, the narrator of the Titan Missile Museum film, tells us that ‘peace is never fully won, it is only kept from moment to moment’ and then thanks the Titan missile crews for a ‘job well done’, he merely underscores survival. However, walking through the technological infrastructure of a cold war nuclear complex also forces us to think about the constant nuclear war rehearsal that took place in Titan Missile silos (and in other places, then and now) and to consider the production, not only of a nuclear deterrent, but also of a highly militarised, nuclear culture. Cold war ‘defence’ produced a minute-to-minute ability to destroy human civilisation and a militarised national culture that continues to naturalise such a possibility as simply an aspect of the world system. The Titan Missile Silo Museum provides access to the origins of this project while occluding the continuing power of these ideas in the US by presenting them as archaic technology.

The ultimate question provoked by the Titan Missile Museum is, then, what would it take to imagine, let alone engineer, a world that does not rely on such mechanised terrors and a society that will not naturalise such apocalyptic potentials?

Masco, Joseph. 'Rehearsing the End' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Joseph Masco and On Site review

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