Monday, June 04, 2012

Is a war best served cold?

now finished listening: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman
next up (audio): The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral--and How It Changed the American West by Jeff Guinn

Speaking of not starting the fire (which I did in my last post on this blog), after several months of listening during walks and hikes, I completed my latest audio book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy.

This is a perfect example of the non-fiction subtitles I used to make so much fun of back when I first started working at Borders. It's like, people! You get ONE chance to title the book, OK? Why should you get to title it one thing and then go ahead and put all the things you were trying but failing to convey in your title in a second, sub-title? That bugs me for some reason.

Anyway, I realize that people do not necessarily know what The Dead Hand is, so I am here to tell you that it refers to the Soviet plan to build a facility way below the earth with automated systems that could launch nuclear retaliation in the event that the U.S. wiped out the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. That is, instead of a hand on "the button" launching a nuclear weapon to attack the U.S., all the Soviets would actually be dead but it is like a dead hand holding down the button, launching the Soviet missiles as revenge to the U.S. I am fairly certain that the author is appalled at this very notion, based on the way he talked about it and chose to use it for the title of the book. However, I think that's unfair. This is something that specifically would happen IF and ONLY IF the United States first wiped out the Soviet Union and there are no leaders left alive. I mean, if you're going to be all wtf?!! about it, you might want to at least consider that the U.S. is the truly dastardly one in that scenario.

This book isn't biased in a Fox News way, but it has a hint of that assumption of U.S. rightness that bothers me because I feel it caters to people who accuse anyone who criticizes the U.S. of being a commie or terrorist or whatever. I do give major kudos to David E. Hoffman for pointing out that Mikhail Gorbachev is truly awesome, a smart, even brilliant, leader who deserved major accolades for all he did in history. I love my boy Gorbie! This book also offers a bit of a glimpse at Ronald Reagan's fretting that bordered on paranoia and the fact that Reagan's use of phrases like "evil empire" didn't help matters any.  (Reagan himself reconsidered and later regretted using this phrase, especially once he got to know more and more Russian people.)

Alas, like so much of our public discourse in the U.S. among squawking heads and on the interwebs and whatnot, no one ever considers that the U.S. could actually just be a bad guy, or, even, an average guy who is equally responsible for the stupid-ass nonsense that is war and/or cold war. And that pretty much seems to be David E. Hoffman's position in this book: that the Soviet Union was horribly sinister, secretly making biological weapons and plotting to destroy the world.  He seems to pretty much miss his own (well documented) point that the people who were working in those factories and labs were completely and totally under the impression that the U.S. was also manufacturing biological weapons in violation of international conventions. (Convention as in "signed treaty," not as in "mannerly custom.")  Hoffman spells out how many of the scientists and other workers were decent people and hard workers who were often uninformed and at worst misguided, and even points out how Gorbachev was in the dark on some of this. So why can't Hoffman acknowledge that the U.S., too, occasionally does horrible things because of a few power hungry people who force, cajole, or brainwash others into doing their bidding?  (Exhibit A: Guantanamo. Exhibit B: Iraq. Exhibit C: Taxi to the Dark Side.  Exhibit D: Vietnam.  I could go on...)

And then there's the possibility that the U.S. in fact was also secretly testing and experimenting with various sorts of weapons over the last few decades.... Who, us?! Never, right?  Give me a break.

That said, you can totally learn a lot from this book and it is really, really interesting!  It might be particularly useful for children of the 80s such as myself who came of age as "communism" "fell" and whose introduction to the world of news, government and power was filtered through now-iconic images of Reagan and Gorbachev doing their thing.  Many of the individual Soviets' stories are also fascinating, as are the bits about the "mysterious" anthrax outbreak in the Soviet Union, the off-course Korean passenger airliner shot down because Soviets thought it was a U.S. spy plane (why? because a few months earlier there HAD BEEN an incident there with a U.S. spy plane going over the line, even though we are all innocence and goodness and light of course), the defectors, the flock of geese mistaken for a missile, the George Bush (I) administration that threatened to undo all the good of Reagan/Gorbie, and the tours of the U.S. in the early 1990s in which Soviet verifiers would insist on stopping on some random highway in, like, Kansas or Alabama to check a water tower that they were sure must be holding some biological weapons....but nope, just a water tower.

The Dead Hand is a fascinating book and it won the Pulitzer in 2010 for General Nonfiction. I highly recommend reading it, but I can't highly recommend listening to the audio. I know I am finicky about my audio listening (I have only recently started being able to listen to audio books, while I walk or exercise, and even now I can't listen to fiction -- I hate being read to) but I really didn't care for this narration and it made the book less compelling of an experience for me. I couldn't wait to get back to my favorite narrator (yes, I do have one, and I am pretty much choosing all my audio books right now by only getting ones that he narrates, which unfortunately did not include The Dead Hand.)

Hey, how about we all give peace a chance and stuff?

No comments: