Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Atomic Times

I suppose I am bit leery of mentioning a memoir, especially one published this century about events in the 1950s. Given the peculiar subject matter, I think it is worth mentioning, even with the possibility that there an element of embellishment. The Atomic Times takes it name from the newspaper for the newspaper of the Army unit stationed on the thermonuclear test base on Eniwetok. The author, Michael Harris, served as an enlisted man on the island for one year and the book is a mix of Catch-22 and nuclear terror.

Despite the title, most of the book focuses on the absurdities of daily life in the conscript military. After writing negative film reviews in the paper, the author is ordered to write only positive ones. For morale of course. He focuses on the humor of the situation, but also the downside, where the misfits are picked on and abused, while those who might stop it look away. Those promoting the idea of national service should read stories like these to see how not to restart a service program.

You can't have a book about serving on a nuclear test site without nuclear explosions. The horror of the experience comes in the details. The bomber that dropped the bomb in the wrong place blinding soldiers. The assurances that no radioactive fallout would ever occur, although at times soldiers were not allowed to leave buildings "for health reasons." The explosions that are much bigger than anticipated. The dreadfully sick sailors who come to the bar with bleeding gums and glowing fingernails.

Some of that may be exaggerated, but the book serves as a reminder, that whatever the war-preventing benefits of nuclear weapons, the world does not need to return to the times of nuclear weapons development.

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