Friday, July 8, 2011

Survive the Bomb A Strange Little Book Reviewed for the IRB


Duck and cover in Grandma's pantry

The Radioactive Citizen’s Guide to Survival
Edited by Eric G. Swedin
186 pp. Zenith Press

Reviewed by Gary Presley

If part of a reviewer’s responsibility is to analyze a book and then offer an opinion, it’s extraordinarily difficult to review Survive the Bomb.

First, it’s simply not a book, per se. It’s a book in form, of course, a trim little collection of pages between nifty, vibrantly colored hard covers. Survive the Bomb could be, in the minds of some critics, a post-modern commentary. It’s like knowing a Members Only jacket is out of style but wearing it anyway. It’s like cruising a second-hand shop looking for an antique wooden butter churn to use as an umbrella stand.

On the surface, Survive the Bomb seems to be, in fact, a compilation of Cold War material, much of it from Civil Defense, about the effect of nuclear war. The editor has divided the information into four self-explanatory parts. He begins with “The Fallout from Sputnik.” Part II is “The Rise of the Nukes.” Part III is “MAD as Hell.” And Part IV is “Ban the Bomb.” But it wouldn’t be a fair assessment without noting there are numerous sections of short but erudite commentary within the book. The editor and commentator, Eric Swedin, is an associate professor at Weber State University and the author of several books, including When Angels Wept: A What-if History of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Swedin writes in Survive the Bomb that he relates today’s “doomsday panic” (fill in the blank here for your own terrible scenario) to those of the 1950s and 1960s, which had “its share of paranoid insanity, and the craziness is on full display here” -- meaning the contents of his book. But then he hedges his bets by asking if the material could “be a practical guide for a future unthinkable event?”

No one who watched the terrorists fly two airliners into the towers of the World Trade Center can argue with that. There may be little national angst over an all-out nuclear exchange between super-powers, MAD -- “mutually assured destruction” -- but we shouldn’t have any doubt that assorted quasi-governmental think tanks, CIA, NSC, and the Pentagon are gaming how to prevent or respond to a terrorist group or rogue state sneaking a nuclear weapon onto American soil. Why not? It’s been done previously. Swedin’s Appendix is titled “Shall We Play a Game,” a real-world reference to the film 1983 film War Games.

Swedin is thorough, if nothing else. He includes old testimony before Congress and subsequent Congressional reports. There is information from Civil Defense authorities, a group who thought it might help people stock a two-week supply of food and water by labeling the effort “Grandma’s Pantry.” Swedin also comments on nuclear testing, nuclear power, the opposition to MAD by elements of the Catholic Church, and psychological studies about the emotional and social effect of long-term retreats to shelters following a nuclear exchange.

It’s difficult to make a decision about the book, especially when Swedin notes that the Cold War government did in fact produce some material that might be relevant today: how to build and stock a shelter, for example. But, perhaps exemplified as a failure of a reviewer’s point of view, much of the book comes across as a post-modern ironic take on those odd folks who fought the Cold War. Even the garish cover works against the book's gravitas, if any is intended.

But again, there is some bizarre about the mindset of that era. Swedin relates war planning and analysis undertaken during the USSR-USA standoff, portions of which talk optimistically of casualties being reduced (according to studies) from 155-165 million to 110 million or so by the population taking advantage of shelters. Anyone who lived through those decades might suspect those scenarios were the visions of those who had access to Project Greek Island, the massive government bunker in West Virginia.

Perhaps a person must be of that age to appreciate the hard irony of Survive the Bomb, perhaps old enough to have participated in one of the duck-and-cover exercises. And if those baby-boomers don’t care to buy a few copies for their families as history lessons -- or reminders that 9/11 may not be an isolated attack -- they should at least encourage them to watch Fail-Safe or Dr. Strangelove.

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