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Reed, Thomas C. and Danny B. Stillman. The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation. Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2009.

Despite several serious problems, this book is a necessary read for anyone interested in issues of nuclear security, non-proliferation, and in international relations in general. The authors, both of whom have worked in the U.S. nuclear/national security establishment for decades, provide a refreshingly blunt and clear description of the history of nuclear weapons from the Manhattan Project to the nuclear follies of the last few years vis-a-vis North Korea and Iran. Among other notable revelations, they detail exactly who got Iran started on the path to nuclear energy, and possibly nuclear weapons (thanks, Benazir!), and they refreshingly take as fact Israel's de facto status as a nuclear power. I often find the sort of insider's name- and anecdote-dropping style to be more than grating (I'm looking at you, Charles DeLint and Charles Pellegrino), but Reed and Stillman aren't afraid to tell stories out of their personal experience to illustrate and to back up their claims, which are very convincing indeed.

I wasn't able to give the second half of the book my full attention, since its atrocious copy-editing and poor writing style of the authors, who have clearly never met a hackneyed metaphor they didn't love, put me off the book for weeks and then I had to return it to the library. But despite the authors' vast knowledge, impeccable research, personal involvement in their story, and clear moral conviction that nuclear proliferation is a clear and present danger to all of humanity, they don't even notice and have no interest in expunging their pro-U.S. biases, which mar the second half of the book, in which the story moves into more recent and controversial political developments, in particular. Essentially, Reed and Stillman are of the school of thought that Western interests in general and U.S. interests in general naturally take precedence over the interests and indeed the sovereignty of any other country, and they have little interest in moving beyond cringeworthy stereotypes of Muslim countries and people in general and of non-U.S. allies such as Libya and Iran in particular. For that matter, they're full of misogynistic asides as well as racist stereotypes about Asian and Muslim people, too. I recently read someone on the interwebz point out that this sort of "Team America: World Police" mentality is endemic to most Hollywood action films, and not just that horrible stop-motion animation movie of the same title, and it's ironic, to say the least, that this sort of military-national security complex mentality should find such fertile ground in purportedly liberal Hollywood.

But to cut this digression off at the knees, the authors' discussion of then-Captain Muammar Qaddafi's coup in Libya should suffice to make my point about their viewpoint. Apparently one Col. Daniel James was CO on the NATO base outside the capital of Libya during Qaddafi's coup, which went off with only 48 rounds of ammunition between the participants and basically consisted of taking over military HQ and the radio station. James figured that he could lead a sortying force into the capital, capture Qaddafi, and nip the coup in the bud, but asked Washington for permission first, which Nixon and Kissnger, who later said that military action would have been "interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state," declined to provide. According to the authors, Qaddafi went on to instigate the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and to order terrorist attacks against American allies and interests (the Lockerbie bombing springs forcefully to mind, to be sure). "Qaddafi," Reed and Stillman conclude, "became an important force for evil in the Cold War and in the power vacuum that followed, a role made possible by visionary oil men, a negligent king, and a timorous White House unwilling to intercede when Western interests were clearly at stake" (153). Unbeknownst to moral philosphers, the term "evil" apparently now means "anything that the United States doesn't like." Seriously? A "force for evil"? I mean, really; that Qaddafi has ordered evil things to be done is not in doubt (again, the Lockerbie bombing is what I'm thinking of), but to say that he's a "force for evil" is way, way over the line. I'm not sure I'd call any political leader a "force for evil;" regardless, opposing U.S. interests is not a crime or a moral failing--just as thinking the opposite to be true definitely is.

There are other problems. The authors assume a level of familiarity with the military-security complex that probably only national security fanboys, or people who've read at least a few Tom Clancy novels, can match, and the footnotes, which I suspect were put in by the editorial staff, don't quite make up the gap. The authors come close, as well, to espousing the sort of pro-Israeli anti-Semitism that's common in certain (usually conservative) members of the U.S. national security establishment, and frankly I was glad to bail before the book began discussing Iran, India, and Pakistan, since the authors are clearly in love with terms like "Islamofascist" and "petrodollars." Those are right up there on the "neologisms I hate" list along with "chillax," and they make me want to throw books that use them seriously across the room. While I don't really want to get into it, the term "Islamofascist" is a misnomer on several levels (to say nothing of the inherent Islamophobia, if not outright racism, behind the term's construction)--fascism is a paranoid reaction to modernity that is in itself modern and that is characterized, among other things, by overweening government control and (paranoid nationalist, often racialized) ideological penetration of most or all aspects of life. Moreover, it is usually instituted after a period of free, if fiercely fought, elections and civil discourse. The problem with applying this term to any of the West and Southeast Asian states to which it is usually blithely applied is that they are as likely to be suffering from a dearth of government control as from a preponderance, and that few if any of them have ever had free elections and civil discourse, let alone enjoy them currently. What discourse there is in these societies, to my knowledge, focuses on to what degree modernity should be adopted, rather than with how to undo its effects. So, for all these reasons and more, not "fascist." Al-Qaida? Theocratic. Iran? Totalitarian (and theocratic to boot). Pakistan and Afghanistan? Dangerously unstable, waffling between Islamist ideology as a cohesive agent. Libya, Syria, Saudia Arabia? Complex to say the least. But "fascist"? No. Also, money is money, dollars are dollars; one could say "oil money" as easily as "petrodollars," but the "petro-" prefix has clearly acquired a negative connotation, and why lose an opportunity to denigrate one's enemies, yes? No! It's problems like this, in short, that keep Reed and Stillman's work from being more than merely important, when their work could have been classic.

On a related note, check out this 3D reconstruction of the Urakami district of Nagasaki, the cathedral of which (the largest Christian church in Asia at the time) was the hypocenter of the Nagasaki atomic bombing (all that remained of the congregation were a few charred rosary beads; note that the link cites one of the lower casualty estimates) by current undergraduates at Choudai--Nagasaki University, I mean. You know what, that's another thing--the United States remains the only country to have deployed nuclear weapons in combat. Reed and Stillman would do well to acknowledge that, if only for that reason, countries wary of acquiescing to the current nuclear regime, which is spearheaded by the United States, have a legitimate concern.
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