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Book Review February 6, 2003
 
This One Goes to Eleven Megatons
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
 

The Kremlin's Nuclear Sword: The Rise and Fall of Russia's Strategic Nuclear Forces, 1945-2000

By Steven J. Zaloga, 2002, Smithsonian Institution Press The Kremlin

The space shuttle disintegrated as I was preparing this review, and something about the book I was reviewing made it hard to take the "tragedy" entirely seriously. I can't help it: rocket disasters are funny. The first shuttle explosion spawned about a million jokes, and this one probably will too, unless America has gone permanently pious and prim.

But even if Americans have become too timid to laugh at their own space disasters, they would have to laugh-anybody wouuld -- when reading about the Soviet missile program's many cataclysmic pratfalls.

Some of the boo-boos revealed in this book dwarf anything which has happened to NASA. And they're funnier, too. One of the most amazing is the accident that incinerated Soviet missile designer Mikhail Yangel's entire design team:

"In November 1960 Yangel's new R-16 ICBM was ready to begin tests....Safety procedures indicated that the missile should have its fuel removed before repairs were undertaken. But the toxicity of the nitric acid oxidant made this a time-consuming and dangerous operation. Nedelin [head of the Soviet missile corps] authorized the crew to continue to work on the missile [without removing the nitric acid], but it would have to be launched within the next day for fear that the oxidizer would begin to eat through seals and piping. In haste to complete repairs...safety procedures were ignored, and a large number of senior personnel, including Nedelin and many of Yangel's top aides, remained around the missile. Yangel and one of the range officers walked away for a few moments to smoke behind a bunker, several hundred yards from the missile. Safety checks of the electrical firing circuits were under way, and a flaw in the wiring accidentally triggered the second-stage engine. The exhaust blast from the engine smashed open the fuel tanks below it and detonated the fuel and oxidizer. The fireball incinerated Nedelin and seventy-three other engineers and officers, including Yangel's senior aide and the Soviet Union's top missile guidance designer."

I can't help wondering if this hecatomb inspired the equivalent of Shuttle-disaster jokes among Soviet weapons designers (the surviving ones, I mean). They couldn't do the famous Christy McAuliffe punchline, "You feed the cat, I'll feed the fish," because the Russians' disasters took place far inland. But there had to be great comic potential in Yangel's timely absence, particularly the fact that he absented himself in order to light up a cigarette. Did some Kinison-ovich among the survivors stumble out, half-roasted, and scream at Yangel, "Careful man, that could start a FIRE!"?

As this book reminds us, the Cold War was just naturally funny. Two huge powers circling each other, snarling, for nearly forty years-without touching each other! Even Don King would've apologized and handed the ticket-paying public their money back after a farce like that. Philip K. Dick got it right long ago in The Zap Gun, when he made his Cold-War weapons designers former fashion consultants whose martial innovations turned out to be channeled from the pages of a Nigerian comic strip.

This is not to say that The Kremlin's Nuclear Sword is a funny book. Not intentionally, anyway. But it's funny in spite off itself, right from the start. Just look at the title: "Nuclear Sword." It makes no sense. What would a nuclear sword look like? It's more absurd than "light-saber." I don't mean to offend the eXile's many weaponophiles, but these men (and they were all men) are just silly. Weapons that could have ended the world were invented and named by men whose imaginations stopped developing in junior high. They had a few simple obsessions, and they pushed them to comic extremes.


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dolan@exile.ru
 
 
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