From 2012 to 2017, I worked as a US air force nuclear missile operator. I was 22 when I started. Each time I descended into the missile silo, I had to be ready to launch, at a moment’s notice, a nuclear weapon that could wipe a city the size of New York off the face of the earth.
On the massive blast door of the launch control center, someone had painted a mural of a Domino’s pizza logo with the macabre caption, “World-wide delivery in 30 minutes or less or your next one is free.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, I’ve heard more discussions of nuclear war than I did in the entire nine years that I wore an air force uniform. I’m glad that people are finally discussing the existential dangers of nuclear weapons. There have been more near-misses than the world knows.
Greg Devlin was an airman assigned to an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) team in Arkansas in 1980. One night he responded to a leak in the missile’s fuel tank. A young airman working in an ICBM launch tube had accidentally dropped a socket from his toolkit; the socket fell down the silo, ricocheted, and pierced a hole in the stage-one fuel tank. The missile’s liquid fuel exploded. Devlin was thrown 60ft down an asphalt road and watched as a massive fireball rose overhead.
The ICBMhad a nine-megaton warhead – the most powerful single nuclear weapon in American history – on top. When the missile exploded, the warhead was thrown into the woods, disappearing into the night.
“I was stunned and in pain but I knew the nuke hadn’t gone off,” Devlin told me, “because I remembered those stories from Hiroshima where people had been turned into little charcoal briquettes. I was alive. That’s how I knew the nuke didn’t detonate.” Although the nuclear warhead didn’t explode, the accident still claimed the life of one airman and injured 21 others, including Devlin.
When I was training as a nuclear missile operator, my instructor told me the story of what happened in Arkansas that night in 1980. It’s a famous story within the missile community. Stories like these were a way of impressing upon young officers the integrity required to be a good steward of these weapons and a warning of how quickly things can go wrong. That warning was very much on my mind as I began my first “alert” down in the claustrophobic underground missile silo that housed the launch control center.
But somewhere along my way to nearly 300 nuclear “alerts” – 24-hour shifts in command of a launch crew – I began to brush the story off as a scare tactic for rookies. Similarly, I think that after the end of the cold war, the general public allowed the threat of nuclear warfare to recede into the background. The threat simply didn’t feel real to new generations like it did to those who grew up huddling under their desks during nuclear attack drills in elementary school.
And the young crews who steward this nuclear arsenal today aren’t immune from the post-cold war malaise. In 2013, during my first year on crew, 11 ICBM officers were implicated in a drug scandal. The following year, 34 ICBM launch officers were implicated in a cheating scandal on their monthly proficiency exams.
Deborah Lee James, the secretary of the air force at the time, said, “This was a failure of integrity on the part of some of our airmen. It was not a failure of our nuclear mission.”
In this attempt to save face, Secretary James revealed a state of dissonance that every nuclear missile operator lives with. We are told, day in and day out, that our integrity is crucial to the deterrent value of nuclear weapons and helps make the world a safer place. But what man or woman of integrity could possibly launch a nuclear weapon?
As the war in Ukraine is reminding us, life with nuclear weapons is not safer or more peaceful. If you study nuclear warfare, you’ll learn about “megatons” and nuclear yields, stockpiles and budget expenditures. These numbers quantify the enormous danger of nuclear weapons but also, in rendering that danger abstract, obfuscate it.
Greg Devlin has a different set of numbers from his experience with missiles. “Since that explosion I’ve had 13 spine surgeries and two spinal stimulators. I lived the last decade of my life on morphine,” said Devlin.
Nuclear weapons turn the most important parts of life into nothing more than numbers – which is exactly the thought process needed for a society that believes that launching a nuclear missile is a viable solution to conflict. Because in the wake of a nuclear attack there will be no individuals, only numbers.
- Cole Smith is a writer and director who received an MFA in screenwriting at Columbia University after serving in the air force as a nuclear missile operator
- courtesy guardian