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nuclear war, not just a job, it's an adventure

2003-02-18 - 9:56 a.m.

When I was a senior in college, the Navy tried to recruit me for their nuclear submarine program. Don't laugh. Well, OK, laugh. Now you may well be wondering, as was I, what in heck they wanted a woman for in a nuclear submarine program since I would not be able to stay on the submarine. They said I would be helicoptered1 out to whatever submarine I was needed to inspect and then helicoptered off again. After some probing and taking of tests and listening of bullshit from the recruiter -- who among other things, promised the BF of the era that he could get him a job flying an F-16 which went totally over the top as far as believable was concerned because the Navy had multiply rejected him for health reasons due to the fact that he was substantially under the weight limit -- then I established that basically the Navy needed some women with the right degree and the right grades and the right test scores to be photographed at graduation ceremonies and shaking hands with Admiral Rickover and basically just performing your standard duties of a token decorative object who could be pointed to as proof that the Navy had moved into the twentieth century in re the feminism thing. In exchange for all this posing and shaking of hands and smiling and pretending that I was doing actual work even though I couldn't stay on the submarines I was supposed to be working on, the recruiter assured me that when I finished the four year program, then nuclear power plants would be lining up to pay me $55,000 a year which was like, oh, $150,000 or $200,000 a year today.

I noticed that the Navy itself wasn't going to suddenly up my pay in four years to that level, which is probably why they needed to keep recruiting so desperately. Unfortunately, since I was a physics major (duh), then I knew perfectly well that the nuclear power industry is unsafe and pretty much immoral for a civilian industry because there is no science providing even a hint of a way that the radioactive waste problem can ever be solved. And if I took that path, then pretty much the rest of my twenties if not the rest of my life, would be dedicated to earning money doing something that I knew would kill people without their consent or knowledge. Who wants to spend the rest of her life thinking, every time you hear of a kid with leukemia or Down's syndrome, "Did my contribution to the background radiation get that one?" So I politely told the guy that I needed to think about it and then kind of hid from him forever afterward.

My BF was only a little bitter and only occasionally brought up the "fact" that he could have been training to fly an F-16 instead of toiling in a lab as a graduate student.

What brought all this to mind was that the video store gave us a coupon for a free movie the other day, and BF picked out K-19: The Widowmaker, the "based on actual events" story of a cursed Soviet nuclear submarine.


It was set in 1961, when despite the cry of "missile gap," the Soviets had nothing much in the way of delivery systems, and so they thought they'd fix up this fancy submarine to hold up their end of MAD2 by patroling offshore the Atlantic Coast. Of course it never got there because of cheap Soviet glue-and-sticky-tape technology. In fact, it was so badly put together that the reactor tried to melt down -- twice. To add to their annoyance, an American destroyer kept hanging around offering "assistance," which the Soviet commander assumed was a code word for the Americans taking the men into custody and interrogating them and also taking apart their submarine bolt by bolt to figure out or else just laugh at the aforementioned glue-and-sticky-tape technology. Which while the movie hinted that the commander was a bit of a martinet was probably a pretty reasonable assumption.

Supposedly if the submarine core had melted down, it would have set off the nuclear bombs, blasting the pesky American destroyer out of the ocean, and igniting the destruction of Europe. The movie said "world," but since it was established early in the film that the K-19, which would have blown up, was the only Soviet submarine capable of delivering nuclear bombs to the United States, I think a more probable chain of events is: 1) U.S. would retaliate with an attack on the Soviet Union. Since a military target (a destroyer) was attacked, then perhaps we would do the decent thing and target a military target in return. 2) Then the Soviet Union would either surrender or sort of surrender while crying "accident," or escalate by bombing sites where American troops were based in Germany. 3) If the Soviets went with the escalation option, or the U.S. refused to accept their surrender and/or excuses, next would come total war in Europe and perhaps Asia, Middle East, and Africa, although not all areas would be affected by nuclear war. 4) Ultimate result: American hegemony.

The alternate scenario, which the movie makers believed that the Soviets believed would happen, is: 1) U.S. would retaliate by launching ICBMs against Moscow and Leningrad. 2) Soviet Union would retaliate by launching whatever they had wherever it could reach -- again, Germany seems highly likely to be reduced to radioactive dust under this scenario. 3 & 4) same as above.

Why, at times, do I have a sick feeling that today's "leadership" would have been perfectly happy with such an alternative history?

Of course, a third scenario would have placed the Soviet ICBMs already in Cuba at this date3, providing the Soviets with an alternate method of taking out the Atlantic coast and indeed pretty much leading to a classic Mutual Assured Destruction World War III Alas, Babylon event. Ultimate result: Brazilian hegemony. So, you see, there's a lot to take into account when you're war-gaming.

1I'm fairly sure that "helicoptered" is not the approved Navy term. Helicopter'd? Choppered? Zoomed? Beam me down, Scotty?
2Mutual Assured Destruction is a game generally understood to require at least two players in order to properly frighten the citizens out of their tax money.
3It has been claimed that one of the reasons the Soviets were so flabbergasted about the Cuban Missile Crisis is that the missiles had actually been in Cuba for some time, not the few weeks or so claimed by the Americans, and they couldn't figure out why the Americans suddenly wanted to make an issue of it. This isn't totally unbelievable to me, since the CIA of that era was no more "ept" than it is today, so it isn't completely unlikely that they would have missed some fairly large missiles sitting around 90 miles offshore Florida for a year or two. They didn't manage to blow off Castro's beard with that box of exploding cigars, either.

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