There are easy books to read and there are hard books to read.
Somehow, “Almighty” manages to be both.
The former is due to the skills of Buffalo’s own Dan Zak, a onetime Buffalo News intern who now labors for the Washington Post and who spent more than a year reporting and writing this, his first book.
The latter is due to the subject he chose: the omnipresent threat of nuclear war and the increasing danger of global annihilation that is never as far away as we would like to believe.
Hence the book’s subtitle “Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age.”
Worrying about The Bomb and writing about it seem like antiquated notions in an era of radicalized murderers, suicide bombers and a reignition of race wars, but maybe that’s exactly the point. Put all of those dangers together, multiply them by 100 million and it still pales in comparison to the destruction that can be wrought by one insane despot with one itchy trigger finger on one nuke.
Zak ticks off the reasons to worry: The nine nuclear-armed nations are modernizing their arsenals; Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to want a return to 1960s-style U.S.-Soviet relations; Iran’s leaders cannot be trusted; Israel’s arsenal is both a “guarantor of and impediment to peace”; Pakistan and India could use them on each other; North Korea is led by madmen.
“All this adds up to an intractable doctrine in modern Washington: The United States still needs nuclear weapons to guarantee its security, and the security of its allies.”
The book tracks the world’s nuclear history, from the physical discoveries and philosophical dilemmas of the early 20th century that were the underpinnings of the Manhattan Project to post-Cold War debates about test bans and deterrence strategy and the damage decades of testing left behind.
Not exactly a chuckle-fest, and yet for the density of the subject matter, “Almighty” is fast-paced and inviting.
The most disturbing portion of the book is also the most memorable, as Zak recounts the only two times atomic bombs were used as weapons of war: by the United States against Japan in 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The narrative that has been passed on for generations in this country is that the atomic bombs ended World War II and therefore potentially saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Dig deeper, as Zak has, and you may question for the first time whether that narrative is correct.
Historical events thread their way through “Almighty,” but the majority of the book is devoted to an incident that happened in Tennessee in July 2012 and its aftermath, when three people used wire cutters to get through chain-link fences and breached security at a nuclear weapons facility that had earned the nickname “Fort Knox of Uranium.”
If the three people had been associated with ISIS or al-Qaida, it would still be the biggest story in the world. But because the three were peace activists born and raised in the United States, one of them a nun, whose crime ultimately consisted of penny-ante vandalism, most readers will have never heard of it.
Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed never imagined that they would be able to inflict any serious harm on the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, and they didn’t. But they got what they did want: their arrest, prosecution and a jury trial during which they were able to make their case that nuclear weapons have no place in the world.
In testimony under cross-examination that Zak recounts, Rice explained why she committed the crime at the Y-12: “Every moment, as we sit here now – it is an imminent threat to the life of the planet, which is sacred. And I had to do it. My guilt is that I waited 70 years to be able to speak what I knew in my conscience.”
It wasn’t that long ago that popular culture was full of stories that played on our fears of nuclear holocaust. Zak reminds readers that the film “War Games,” about a teen who inadvertently almost causes World War III, and the television show “The Day After,” about the effect of nuclear war, both came out in 1983. It’s been almost that long since we were forced to think about it. I was on Twitter the other night wondering out loud why that is. Zak responded: “I think it’s because its consequences are abstract in their immensity, and because there’s nothing we ourselves can change.”
What we can do is learn and think and question. Zak’s book could go a long way toward achieving that goal.
Bruce Andriatch is the Assistant Managing Editor for Features at The Buffalo News.
Almighty: Courage, Resistance and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age
By Dan Zak
Blue Rider Press
391 pages, $27