A Mathematician’s Apology (Modern Library Nonfiction #87)

(This is the fourteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Six Easy Pieces.)

mlnf87Clocking in at a mere ninety pages in very large type, G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology is that rare canapé plucked from a small salver between all the other three-course meals and marathon banquets in the Modern Library series. It is a book so modest that you could probably read it in its entirety while waiting for the latest Windows 10 update to install. And what a bleak and despondent volume it turned out to be! I read the book twice and, each time I finished the book, I wanted to seek out some chalk-scrawling magician and offer a hug.

G.H. Hardy was a robust mathematician just over the age of sixty who had made some serious contributions to number theory and population genetics. He was a cricket-loving man who had brought the Indian autodidact Srinivasa Ramanujan to academic prominence by personally vouching for and mentoring him. You would think that a highly accomplished dude who went about the world with such bountiful and generous energies would be able to ride out his eccentric enthusiasm into his autumn years. But in 1939, Hardy survived a heart attack and felt that he was as useless as an ashtray on a motorcycle, possessing nothing much in the way of nimble acumen or originality. So he decided to memorialize his depressing thoughts about “useful” contributions to knowledge in A Mathematician’s Apology (in one of the book’s most stupendous understatements, Hardy observed that “my apology is bound to be to some extent egotistical”), and asked whether mathematics, the field that he had entered into because he “wanted to beat other boys, and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most decisively,” was worthwhile.

You can probably guess how it all turned out:

It is indeed rather astonishing how little practical value scientific knowledge has for ordinary man, how dull and commonplace such of it as has value is, and how its value seems almost to vary inversely to reputed utility….We live either by rule of thumb or other people’s professional knowledge.

If only Hardy could have lived about sixty more years to discover the 21st century thinker’s parasitic relationship to Google and Wikipedia! The question is whether Hardy is right to be this cynical. While snidely observing “It is quite true that most people can do nothing well,” he isn’t a total sourpuss. He writes, “A man’s first duty, a young man’s at any rate, is to be ambitious,” and points out that ambition has been “the driving force behind nearly all the best work of the world.” What he fails to see, however, is that youthful ambition, whether in a writer or a scientist, often morphs into a set of routines that become second-nature. At a certain point, a person becomes comfortable enough with himself to simply go on with his work, quietly evolving, where the ambition becomes more covert and subconscious and mysterious.

Hardy never quite confronts what it is about youth that frightens him, but he is driven by a need to justify his work and his existence, pointing to two reasons for why people do what they do: (1) they work at something because they know they can do it well and (2) they work at something because a particular vocation or specialty came their way. But this seems too pat and Gladwellian to be a persuasive dichotomy. It doesn’t really account for the journey we all must face over why one does something, which generally includes the vital people you meet at certain places in your life who point you down certain directions. Either they recognize some talent in you and give you a leg up or they are smart and generous enough to recognize that one essential part of human duty is to help others find their way, to seek out your people — ideally a group of eclectic and vastly differing perspectives — and to work with each other to do the best damn work and live the best damn lives you can. Because what’s the point of geeking out about Fermat’s “two squares” theorem, which really is, as Hardy observes, a nifty mathematical axiom of pure beauty, if you can’t share it with others?

But let’s return to Hardy’s fixation on youth. Hardy makes the claim that “mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man’s game,” yet this staggering statement is easily debunked by such late bloomers as prime number ninja Zhang Yitang and Andrew Wiles solving Fermat’s Last Theorem at the age of 41. Even in Hardy’s own time, Henri Poincaré was making innovations to topology and Lorentz transformations well into middle age. (And Hardy explicitly references Poincaré in § 26 of his Apology. So it’s not like he didn’t know!) Perhaps some of the more recent late life contributions have much to do with forty now being the new thirty (or even the new twenty among a certain Jaguar-buying midlife crisis type) and many men in Hardy’s time believing themselves to be superannuated in body and soul around the age of thirty-five, but it does point to the likelihood that Hardy’s sentiments were less the result of serious thinking and more the result of crippling depression.

Where Richard Feynman saw chess as a happy metaphor for the universe, “a great game played by the gods” in which we humans are mere observers who “do not know what the rules of the game are,” merely allowed to watch the playing (and yet find marvel in this all the same), Hardy believed that any chess problem was “simply an exercise in pure mathematics…and everyone who calls a problem ‘beautiful’ is applauding mathematical beauty, even if is a beauty of a comparatively lowly kind.” Hardy was so sour that he compared a chess problem to a newspaper puzzle, claiming that it merely offered an “intellectual kick” for the clueless educated rabble. As someone who enjoys solving the Sunday New York Times crossword in full and a good chess game (it’s the street players I have learned the most from; for they often have the boldest and most original moves), I can’t really argue against Hardy’s claim that such pastimes are “trivial” or “unimportant” in the grand scheme of things. But Hardy seems unable to remember the possibly apocryphal tale of Archimedes discovering gradual displacement while in the bathtub or the more reliable story of Otto Loewi’s dream leading the great Nobel-winning physiologist to discover that nervous impulses arose from electrical transmissions. Great minds often need to be restfully thinking or active on other fronts in order to come up with significant innovations. And while Hardy may claim that “no chess problem has ever affected the development of scientific thought,” I feel compelled to note Pythagoras played the lyre (and even inspired a form of tuning), Newton had his meandering apple moment, and Einstein enjoyed hiking and sailing. These were undoubtedly “trivial” practices by Hardy’s austere standards, but would these great men have given us their contributions if they hadn’t had such downtime?

It’s a bit gobsmacking that Hardy never mentions how Loewi was fired up by his dreams. He seems only to see value in Morpheus’s prophecies if they are dark and melancholic:

I can remember Bertrand Russell telling me of a horrible dream. He was in the top floor of the University Library, about A.D. 2100. A library assistant was going round the shelves carrying an enormous bucket, taking down book after book, glancing at them, restoring them to the shelves or dumping them into the bucket. At last he came to three large volumes which Russell could recognize as the last surviving copy of Principia mathematica. He took down one of the volumes, turned over a few pages, seemed puzzled for a moment by the curious symbolism, closed the volume, balanced it in his hand and hesitated….

One of an author’s worst nightmares is to have his work rendered instantly obsolescent not long after his death, even though there is a very strong likelihood that, in about 150 years, few people will care about the majority of books published today. (Hell, few people care about anything I have to write today, much less this insane Modern Library project. There is a high probability that I will be dead in five decades and that nobody will read the many millions of words or listen to the countless hours of radio I have put out into the universe. It may seem pessimistic to consider this salient truth, but, if anything, it motivates me to make as much as I can in the time I have, which I suppose is an egotistical and foolishly optimistic approach. But what else can one do? Deposit one’s head in the sand, smoke endless bowls of pot, wolf down giant bags of Cheetos, and binge-watch insipid television that will also not be remembered?) You can either accept this reality and reach the few people you can and find happiness and gratitude in doing so. Or you can deny the clear fact that your ego is getting in the way of your achievements, embracing supererogatory anxieties and forcing you to spend too much time feeling needlessly morose.

I suppose that in articulating this common neurosis, Hardy is performing a service. He seems to relish “mathematical fame,” which he calls “one of the soundest and steadiest of investments.” Yet fame is a piss-poor reason to go about making art or formulating theorems. Most of the contributions to human advancement are rendered invisible. These are often small yet subtly influential rivulets that unknowingly pass into the great river that future generations will wade in. We fight for virtues and rigor and intelligence and truth and justice and fairness and equality because this will be the legacy that our children and grandchildren will latch onto. And we often make unknowing waves. Would we, for example, be enjoying Hamilton today if Lin-Manuel Miranda’s school bus driver had not drilled him with Geto Boys lyrics? And if we capitulate those standards, if we gainsay the “trivial” inspirations that cause others to offer their greatness, then we say to the next generation, who are probably not going to be listening to us, that fat, drunk, and stupid is the absolute way to go through life, son.

A chair may be a collection of whirling electrons, or an idea in the mind of God: each of these accounts of it may have its merits, but neither conforms at all closely to the suggestions of common sense.

This is Hardy suggesting some church and state-like separation between pure and applied mathematics. He sees physics as fitting into some idealistic philosophy while identifying pure mathematics as “a rock on which all idealism flounders.” But might not one fully inhabit common sense if the chair exists in some continuum beyond this either-or proposition? Is not the chair’s perceptive totality worth pursuing?

It is at this point in the book where Hardy’s argument really heads south and he makes an astonishingly wrongheaded claim, one that he could not have entirely foreseen, noting that “Real mathematics has no effects on war.” This was only a few years before Los Alamos was to prove him wrong. And that’s not all:

It can be maintained that modern warfare is less horrible than the warfare of pre-scientific times; that bombs are probably more merciful than bayonets; that lachrymatory gas and mustard gas are perhaps the most humane weapons yet devised by military science; and that the orthodox view rests solely on loose-thinking sentimentalism.

Oh Hardy! Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Agent Orange, Nick Ut’s famous napalm girl photo from Vietnam, Saddam Hussein’s chemical gas massacre in Halabja, the use of Sarin-spreading rockets in Syria. Not merciful. Not humane. And nothing to be sentimental about!

Nevertheless, I was grateful to argue with this book on my second read, which occurred a little more than two weeks after the shocking 2016 presidential election. I had thought myself largely divested of hope and optimism, with the barrage of headlines and frightening appointments (and even Trump’s most recent Taiwan call) doing nothing to summon my natural spirits. But Hardy did force me to engage with his points. And his book, while possessing many flawed arguments, is nevertheless a fascinating insight into a man who gave up: a worthwhile and emotionally true Rorschach test you may wish to try if you need to remind yourself why you’re still doing what you’re doing.

Next Up: Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life!

Amanda Vaill (The Bat Segundo Show #549)

Amanda Vaill is most recently the author of Hotel Florida.

Author: Amanda Vaill


Subjects Discussed: Household accidents, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” and various claims attesting to its authenticity, staged photography, Capa’s origins, Ernest Hemingway’s bluster, his journalistic weaknesses, Virginia Cowles’s bravery, the dubious qualities of To Have and Have Not, John Dos Passos, journalistic skepticism, Hemingway’s disillusionment with the Spanish Civil War, Martha Gellhorn, Gellhorn’s 1983 interview with John Pilger, Gellhorn’s condemnation of government, Gellhorn’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, Gellhorn making up the facts (fabricating a Mississippi lynching) for her news story, “Justice at Night,” Henry Luce’s attention to Robert Capa, what coverage of the Spanish Civil War was real, Spain as the front line against Hitler, constraints of journalists on the Nationalist side, whether or not any amount of art and journalism could have averted the fate of Spain, the Non-Internvention Agreement, American isolationism, the civil war within the Civil War, left-wing factions squabbling against each other, Arturo Barea’s The Forging of a Rebel, Barea as a late bloomer, Barea’s stint as the Unknown Voice, confidence and post-traumatic stress, how to determine the precise words that floated through someone’s head or mouth from seven decades ago, Hemingway’s The Fifth Column, The Spanish Earth and the current print status of Spain in Flames, Archibald MacLeish and Contemporary Historians, Inc., orphan business entities, the brawl between Orson Welles and Hemingway during voiceover recording sessions, the fight between Hemingway and Max Eastman, what women thought of all the needless male fighting, George Seldes’s reception in the Spanish Civil War, Henry Buckley’s The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, the legend of the luggage that Martha Gellhorn took to Spain, Joan Didion in El Salvador, Love Goes to Press, the American matador Sid Franklin, Ilsa Kulcsar, Gellhorn’s bravery and influence upon Hemingway, the recent Russia press gag on bloggers, comparisons between the Spanish Civil War and Syria, photographs as Instagram in slow time, whether there’s any Hemingway again, and contemplating J.K. Rowling going to the Crimea to write a novel.


Correspondent: You’re doing okay, I take it.

Vaill: Except for my broken finger.

Correspondent: Oh, you broke your finger?

Vaill: Yes, I did. I had one of those household accidents. I tripped over my shoes.

Correspondent: And, of course, it’s the right hand as opposed to the left hand.

Vaill: Of course it is. So I cannot write and I cannot shake hands and I cannot sign my name. Except that it is getting better so I can now do that.

Correspondent: Although you have a good shot at taking over Spain.

Vaill: I hope so.


Correspondent: The Spanish Civil War. We have many characters and many figures and I’ll do my best to get to all of them. But let’s start with good old Robert Capa. One of the fascinating and oft argued issues in photography is, of course, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” — the picture of the militiaman on the Andalusian hill falling to his death in battle. Some have contended that it is fake. Some have contended that it is real. Some have, as you have, tried tracking down interviews. You tried to find an NBC Radio interview with Alex Kershaw on October 20, 1947 in which Capa claimed to have killed the miliciano. But the purported truth of the story behind the photo is almost as murky as the purported truth of the photo, which in turn has us contending with the purported truth of the War. So how do even begin to come to terms with the photo — in terms of scholarship, in terms of authenticity? And how does the struggle affect our ability to wrestle with the complexities and the ideological involutions of the Spanish Civil War? Just to start off here.

Vaill: Well, that I could write a whole dissertation on. And people have. But let’s start first of all with the word “fake,” which is a…

Correspondent: Staged.

Vaill: Yes. There is a big difference. Something that is faked is in some way manipulated so that something that is not true can be made to be true. Something that is staged is something that is perhaps not quite as extreme as something that is faked. And you have to bear in mind that in 1936, when this photograph was taken, there was no history of war photography at all. No one had taken live action photographs on a battlefield. Matthew Brady took pictures of corpses, which he manipulated and moved around so that they would be in a pose that he liked. In World War I, you couldn’t go on the battlefield. You were not allowed. And furthermore there was no equipment that you could take on there. You have big cumbersome cameras and slow film. And it was only in the 1930s, when you had 35mm film and cameras that could accommodate it, that you could take your camera onto the battlefield. So there was no rulebook for how you handled photography in wartime and no one was used to allowing photographers to be where there was combat. So when Capa and Gerda Taro, his lover and cohort in photography, came to Spain, they at first were not even allowed to go onto the battlefield. They were only given access to troops behind the lines and they tried to make them look good. But this was just not happening. They couldn’t get anything that looked like real battle. And finally, when they were near the area of Córdoba, on the Córdoba front. They had this chance to take photographs of a group of soldiers and Capa has told many stories about what happened and how he got this shot. He was an inveterate tale-teller. He was a real entertainer, Capa. He loved to charm and entertain people.

Correspondent: He felt compelled to create his own legend.

Vaill: He totally did. And he did. He created his name. He was born Andrei Friedmann in Budapest. So he created a whole persona of Robert Capa, the famous photographer, and he created not just that, but this legend of himself that he felt perhaps compelled to live up to. In 1936 though, remember, he’s 22 years old. He’s just a kid. He doesn’t know what he’s doing really. And it is my belief, based on interviews — they aren’t even interviews; conversations that he had with those close to him at times when he, in fact, was not on. The conversation that I base most of my reconstruction on this incident on is one that was with a friend. He wasn’t trying to entertain this person. He wasn’t showing off for an interviewer. He was confessing something. And what he confessed was that a real man had been killed by something that he had done and he was conscious-stricken about it, which is the kind of thing that really squares with the portrait that I received of Capa. That Capa was a very kind, very generous, very loving person and easily hurt by things and didn’t want to give pain to others. And that this thing had happened, I think, was horrifying to him.

Correspondent: Since we are talking about various artists who came to Spain and essentially either set themselves up as legends or became legends later, let’s move naturally to Ernest Hemingway. For all of his bluster about being a “real man” and a “real journalist,” he didn’t actually cover Guernica in April 1937. And he didn’t mention this devastating battle in his dispatches from Spain. Virginia Cowles, on the other hand, she headed into the Nationalist zone and not only covered it, but did so when a Nationalist staff officer said, “You probably shouldn’t be writing about this.” So you write in the book that Hemingway may not have thought this important enough, but why do you think he ignored it? Was he just not that thorough of a reporter?

Vaill: Well, actually, I hate to say this, but he wasn’t that thorough of a reporter. For all that he had a great background as a gumshoe reporter back in the day, when he was at the Kansas City Star, when he was in Toronto, he was a newspaperman. He was on the city beat and he was the cub reporter sent out to cover fires and God knows what all else. But by the time he went to Spain, he had become a legend. And he was a legend, in part, in his own mind, as much as in the minds of others, and I think he got to the point where what he really wanted to do was to sit at the big table with the big boys and get the big story, and let somebody else worry about all the little details. And in this case, Guernica happened in the Basque Country. It was in a zone that it was almost impossible for him to get to without great difficulty.

Correspondent: But that didn’t stop Cowles.

Vaill: Well, it didn’t. Because, of course, she was still building her reputation. I think Hemingway felt he didn’t have to pry. I also feel that he didn’t think it was that important. And he didn’t think it was that important because the very contemporary news reports of it were very dismissive at first. It really wasn’t until people like Cowles found out what had gone on there that it became evident that there had been a horrific disaster. So Hemingway just basically thought, “I’m going to give this a bye. It’s too much trouble. I’ll risk my neck getting there. I don’t need it. I’m heading back. Screw it.”

Correspondent: I will confess that your book had me finally, after many years, reading To Have and Have Not.

Vaill: (laughs)

Correspondent: I had been avoiding this for a long time and, as it turns out, rightfully so. Brilliant in parts, terrible in others. I mean, was Hemingway just not up to snuff during this particular period?

Vaill: I think he was struggling. And I think that many writers do. They reach a period where they’re trying to break through to some other level and they’re not comfortable. The instrument isn’t sharp in the way that they want it to be sharp to do the work that they suddenly have decided they want to do. Hemingway after writing two extraordinarily well-received novels and an amazing bunch of short stories and maybe two of his, I think, finest works — “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” I think he was looking to do something different. The ’30s were a period of great relevance. The engagé writer was what you were supposed to be and he hadn’t been. And even though he scoffed at a lot of this stuff and said that he didn’t want to get that involved in politics and he didn’t want to hue to any -isms of one kind or another and all he really believed in was freedom, he couldn’t help noticing, particularly when his friend John Dos Passos ended up on the cover of Time Magazine in the summer of 1936, that writers who were writing about the big political themes were getting a lot of attention, the kind of attention he had always gotten, and I think he was looking for some way to do that and To Have and Have Not represented that kind of fiction for him. He wasn’t comfortable writing it, I think, and I think that was the problem of it.

Correspondent: Speaking of Dos Passos, I felt tremendous sympathy for this poor man. I mean, he comes to Spain. He’s looking into the mysterious disappearance of his friend, Jose Robles Pazos, and he’s spurned by Hemingway.

Vaill: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: Hemingway is well-connected with the Loyalists and he tells Dos Passos, “Don’t put your mouth to this Robles business. People disappear every day.” Which is an extraordinarily callous statement. Why did Hemingway have difficulties getting around his romantic vision of the Republicans? Why couldn’t he ask the difficult questions that Dos Passos had no problem in investigating?

Vaill: Well, I think it goes back to Hemingway’s wanting to be at the big boys table.

Correspondent: And he was.

Vaill: And he was. We’ve seen some of this same problem with journalists in our own day. The New York Times‘s Judith Miller, for example. And other writers writing about our involvement in the Iraq War, they wanted to just take the story that somebody wanted to hand out. Because that person was well-connected and high up in a tree.

Correspondent: And that trumps any journalistic integrity.

Vaill: Or any journalistic — I think it would be — doubt. Just the feeling that, oh wait.

Correspondent: Skepticism.

Vaill: Maybe I can take this story.

Correspodnent: Questioning.

Vaill: Your skepticism instrument is just not working when that happens. It’s lulled into some false quiescence by all this access that you suddenly have. And I think that’s what really happened to Hemingway here. He was so in love with the access he had and he was so taken up with his passionate identification with the cause of the Spanish Republic, which I can certainly understand. They were the democratically elected government of Spain and a bunch of right-wingers wanted to nullify an election and just take things back to the way they were before.

Correspondent: So in order to get over the crest to For Whom the Bell Tolls, an absolute masterpiece, he had to go through all these needless romance and this big review point and then he had to have his heart crushed.

Vaill: And then he had to be disillusioned. And I think the problem for him was — yes, exactly, he did have his heart broken in a way. And For Whom the Bell Tolls came out of that feeling of disillusionment. He called not just what had happened in the Republic, but also what happened at Munich — the whole thing and the dismissal of the international brigades from Spain. All that to him was what he called a carnival of treachery on both sides. And that’s pretty strong language.

The Bat Segundo Show #549: Amanda Vaill (Download MP3)

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Eric Schlosser (The Bat Segundo Show #515)

Eric Schlosser is most recently the author of Command and Control.


Author: Eric Schlosser

Subject Discussed: The 1980 nuclear missile accident in Damascus, Arkansas, drug use among the military after the Vietnam War, the Titan II’s continuous deployment even after it was unsafe, Fred Iklé, efforts to point out safety shortfalls in the military, the lack of locks on nuclear weapons, Permissive Action Links, Robert Peurifoy, Curtis LeMay, the real-life inspiration for Dr. Strangelove, Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay’s bellicose attitude, 1960s defense culture, alternative perceptions of LeMay, LeMay’s attention to detail, checklists and operating procedures, a giant nuclear arsenal intended as a deterrent, limited vs. total war, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, the influence of male attitude on deterrents, what we needed from LeMay during the Cold War, the risks taken by Strategic Air Command officers, recent safety mishaps with U.S. nuclear missile units, responding to speculation that LeMay wanted to start World War III, the history of the the Strategic Air Command, why the Command and Control system couldn’t factor in human exhaustion, how the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union caused unreasonable labor for servicemen, the difficulties of accounting for all nuclear weapons, Robert McNamara’s belief that mad decisions were logical at the time, the 1978 Titan II accident in Rock, Kansas, why there were so many mishaps with Titan II oxidizer, the RFHCO suits (and the astonishing wear-and-tear on this protection, which wasn’t replaced in many cases), blame directed at the workers, how systemic problems contributed to an unrealistic and bureaucratic view of Air Force servicemen, putting men into dangerous systems with defective gear, black electrical tape used to “secure” suits in missile silos, loose arming wires that permitted bombs to drop, an atomic bomb that nearly went off in North Carolina in 1961, the missing atomic bomb still entombed in Nahunta Swamp, the H-bomb accidentally dropped on Spain in 1966, why America’s military infrastructure still relies on aging B-52 bombers, the 1968 Thule Air Base B-52 crash, the importance of morale within workers who are tending to the most dangerous machines in the world, Kissinger’s efforts to get rid of the Titan II, the Single Integrated Operational Plan, Eisenhower’s deadly arbitration between the Air Force and the Navy, how the Strategic Air Command kept SIOP details away from Kissinger, bureaucratic rivalries, William Odom’s briefing on the SIOP, the interplay between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the lack of a direct line between the United States and the Soviet Union through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the effect of nuclear policy on diplomacy, miscommunication and unreliable back channels, the present nuclear risk in South Asia, the recent terrorist attack in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, the Peshawar church attack, Edward Snowden’s findings about the United States’s lack of information about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, conflict between India and Pakistan, why deterrence theory doesn’t apply to religious fanatics, how storage facilities are prime targets for adversaries and how this is a serious problem in Pakistan.


Correspondent: Much of the missile culture that you describe in this book is, to say the least, remarkably unsafe. You have this Arkansas Titan II mishap at Launch Complex 374-7 — the so-called Damascus accident — that forms the backbone of this book. It all hinges on a socket wrench that is dropped down a silo and pierces this fuel tank. And if that isn’t enough, you have oxidizer that permeates around the station, causes 22-year-old David Livingston to die and several men to be severely wounded. You have procedures that aren’t followed. You have the Propellant Transfer System team violating this careful two man policy, where you have two keys turning at the same time. We often see that in the movies, but this was, in fact, the policy during the mid-20th century and onward to activate the missile. So this leads me to ask. How did the Launch Complex adopt such a far from cautious approach to daily maintenance duties? How much of this was systematic? And how much of this was human error?

Schlosser: You know, our military was in pretty rough shape after the Vietnam War. And it’s a forgotten fact now because we have our precision-guided munitions and we go to war with one country after another. And we seem so completely dominant. But after the Vietnam War, there was major underinvestment in the military. There were terrible morale problems. Huge percentages of our troops in the Army came back addicted to heroin. And there were remarkably high levels of illegal drug use even in the Air Force. So in the book, I write about guys smoking pot on the missile site. Launch officers who have responsibility for launching intercontinental ballistic missiles smoking pot. In the book, I go into guys who are busted with LSD and cocaine who had nuclear weapons responsibilities. And that was part of the bigger culture of the ’70s. There was really poor morale. The Titan II missile that’s at the heart of this story was obsolete. It was supposed to be taken out of service in the late 1960s. In 1980, it was still on alert. It was leaking all the time. They didn’t have spare parts. So the accident I write about is precipitated by somebody dropping a socket in a missile silo and the socket pierces the skin of the missile. But in many ways, this weapons system was an accident waiting to happen. And in my criticism of some of the procedures in the 1970s and early 1980s, I really don’t imply a criticism of the ordinary servicemen who worked on these weapons systems. On the contrary. The book is about the incredible heroism of ordinary guys put in custody of nuclear weapons at a remarkably young age. I’m getting old enough now. So when I think of a nineteen, twenty, twenty-one year old person having custody of a thermonuclear weapon, it takes me aback. And those guys again and again in the Cold War had this responsibility. Maybe some of them were smoking pot. But most of them were quite serious about not wanting these weapons to go off and about making sure that we were safe from attack from the Soviet Union.

Correspondent: What’s fascinating is why so many young and inexperienced greenhorns would be given such responsibility for these missiles. I mean, that’s what boggles the mind. Especially since there were several other accidents. The B-52s that you have dropping bombs that thankfully didn’t have charged warheads. I mean, this is very serious. This isn’t asking regular people to go ahead and mop up the floor of a hangar. This is our system. And I’m wondering what conditions allowed this to perpetuate for so long, notwithstanding the heroism that you depict in your book.

Schlosser: The accident that is the central narrative of the book — the Titan II accident in Damascus, Arkansas — was unquestionably linked to understaffing, to poorly trained personnel, shortage of spare parts, an obsolete weapons system. But I write about many other accidents in the book. And in those accidents, they had extremely well-trained personnel. They had the most modern weapons imaginable. The best systems in place imaginable. But one of the big themes of the book is that we’re a lot better at creating complex technologies than we are at controlling them or managing them. And it’s hard to think of a machine that doesn’t mess up. From your toaster oven to your laptop to commercial airliners to commercial nuclear power plants, no matter how sophisticated the people and no matter how well-trained, it’s just beyond fallible, imperfect human beings to create something that’s infallible and perfect. And when you’re talking about nuclear weapons, you’re talking about the most dangerous machines ever invented. So it makes sense that those machines and the complex technological systems that manage them would mess up occasionally. But the consequences of one of those things screwing up is a lot more than if your toaster oven freezes up and catches on fire in the kitchen. And one of the reasons I wrote the book was, firstly, I thought the story of this missile accident was just unbelievable. And I thought the heroism of the guys who tried to save the missile was unbelievable. But I’m just trying to remind people that these things are out there. There are thousands of nuclear weapons right now that are ready to go. And people my age — I’m 54; I grew up in the Cold War — remember what it was like to live with this dread that there might be an all-out nuclear war any day. But half the people who live in the United States either weren’t born yet or were small children when the Soviet Union vanished. And there’s a historical amnesia. And most people just don’t realize these weapons are there. Now I’m not trying to create an existential dread in anybody. I’m not trying to create late night anxiety. But this is really important information. And people need to know it.

Correspondent: Well, even in the 1950s, you have this guy named Fred Iklé. He disseminates this RAND report on nuclear weapon safety and he outlines all the motivations that would cause someone to disobey orders and set off a nuclear weapon. His reports were disseminated, as you point out in the book, to the highest levels of the Air Force and the Department of Defense. You’ve got this guy Bob Peurifoy. He points to numerous safety problems as well. Your book, as we have established, documents several incidents in which safety is sacrificed for ease of intercontinental ballistic missile use in retaliation. Why was the top brass so recalcitrant against safety? Why were they so interested in taking shortcuts? I mean, it seems to me that it goes beyond a cultural problem or an institutional problem and into just pure recklessness.

Schlosser: Yeah. And that top secret report by Iklé was really cool to read. I mean, it was looking into the ways that not only mechanically these weapons could go wrong, but I think in one section of the report there’s a catalog of derangement, which is looking at what sort of psychological problems airmen might have that would lead them to deliberately set off a weapon, deliberately steal a weapon. And at the time that Iklé was writing, literally there were no locks on our nuclear weapons. There were no coded switches. So a pilot who wanted to take a weapon could just fly to the target in the Soviet Union, in the Eastern Bloc, or even in the United States and just drop it, if he or she wanted to do that. And Iklé’s report was important in one respect. It really encouraged what you’d think would be a no brainer, but nobody had thought of doing. Putting locks on the weapons. The locks that were eventually put on them — these coded switches called Permissive Action Links — they were effective. But to someone who really understood the innards of the weapon, in a few hours, they could just disable it. Robert Peurifoy is one of the heroes of the book. He’s a weapons designer at one of the weapons labs: the Sandia National Laboratories. He realized in the late 1960s that our nuclear weapons just weren’t safe enough and that during what is called an “abnormal environment” — I mean, you could argue that the whole history that I write about in the book is an abnormal environment. But at the weapons labs, they refer to abnormal environments as a fire, a subversion of a weapon, a plane crash, a lightning strike.

Correspondent: Amazingly, no acronym.

Schlosser: Right. He realized that our weapons were not safe enough in these abnormal environments. But it took him like a twenty year bureaucratic battle to get modern safety devices put in the weapons, which we now have today. But you would never build a nuclear weapon today in the United States without these sorts of safety devices. Ultimately, at the heart of the problem, firstly is a sort of bureaucratic mentality. Someone said recently to me, “If you want to understand how bureaucracies work, it’s better to be wrong than be alone.” So it takes somebody with some personal courage to stand up, willing to buck the bureaucracy, and be alienated from everyone else as a result. And there also has been since the very first nuclear weapon was deployed an internal contradiction, a tension between wanting the weapons to be as safe as possible and wanting them to be as reliable as possible and available for immediate use. If you wanted the weapons to be totally safe, you would never fully assemble them until you’re about to use them. But if you want to use them within 45 seconds or a minute, you need to have them fully assembled on top of the missile or inside the bomber and ready to go. So in the book, I talk about this internal tension between always wanting to be able to use the weapon and never wanting it to go out by accident. And again and again, throughout our nuclear history, the military preferred always to never. And some of it I can understand. These bomber pilots knew that if they got the order to go bomb the Soviet Union, they would be flying into an environment that no pilot had ever flown into before. Missiles would probably have already hit the Soviet Union. They would be flying into this atomic wasteland, in many ways, to drop their bombs and they were probably on one-way suicide missions to do so. And yet they were willing to do it. And it would be a bummer for them if they risked everything to take out a Soviet Union airfield and that weapon turned out to be a dud because there were too many safety devices on it. Having said that, I would have voted for greater safety. Robert Peurifoy, the Sandia engineer, felt like we could make the weapons reliable enough and still make them much safer. And eventually his view prevailed. But it took…

Correspondent: Decades.

Schlosser: Almost two decades. And I think it really hurt his career. He wound up being a vice president at this weapons lab. But he was ostracized. It hurt his career. And I think it was enormously stressful for him to live with this constant knowledge that one of our weapons might detonate and be trying to fight the system to make them safe. And he prevailed. But it was a pretty stressful job.

(Loops for this program provided by 40A, petitcrabe, Nebraskaboy12, chefboydee, danke, and mejiam, .)

The Bat Segundo Show #515: Eric Schlosser (Download MP3)

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While the Rest of You Dwell on the Olympics and John Edwards…

Times: “More than a thousand civilians were reported to have been killed and large parts of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, were reduced to ruins as a conflict with potentially global repercussions erupted after months of rising tension. Georgia announced last night that it was withdrawing half of its 2,000 troops from Iraq as it ordered an all-out military mobilisation.”