What is it like to design weap-ons of mass annihilation? How do the people who produce such weapons justify their work? MIT anthropology professor Hugh Gusterson spent two and a half years at the Lawrence Livermore Labs, where scientists have been creating atomic weapons since 1952, and his book Nuclear Rites addresses those questions. Gusterson began as a nuclear peace activist, then was struck by how much he personally liked a Livermore scientist he debated. Nuclear Rites works to view the researchers as complex human beings rather than as caricatured Dr. Strange-loves, and examines how they form their identities as bomb designers.
Central to Gusterson’s task is a look at Livermore’s ethos of secrecy. Security checks, which emphasize the scientists’ membership in a rarefied community, buttress their pride in their skill, knowledge, and patriotism. But at the same time, such measures frequently push them to monitor their actions and police themselves against suspect behavior, like attending the meetings of peace activists. Formal and informal rules also prevent Livermore scientists from discussing their work with outsiders, including their own spouses. One wife never found out about her husband’s project until she sat in on his interview for the book.
Gusterson goes on to point out that the nuclear tests the Livermore scientists supervise are critical rites of passage, strengthening community ties. The act of surmounting the massive technical obstacles these tests present reinforces participants’ shared assumption that atomic weapons, if handled competently, are controllable. And this sense of mastery carries over to the political and military context in which the bombs are to be used. For the scientists, in other words, nuclear tests supply a “symbolic simulation” of the “system of deterrence itself,” Gusterson writes. In fact, many Livermore scientists regard their bombs as such a powerful deterrent that they believe they will never be used, and thus differentiate their work from the production of conventional military technologies like napalm. Some even marched in 1960s antiwar protests or opposed Reagan-Bush environmental policies.
Yet whatever their beliefs, Livermore scientists focus less on political matters than on the satisfaction of meeting technical challenges. Designing nuclear weapons piques their scientific curiosity. They have the privilege of working with highly intelligent colleagues in what one described as “the ultimate toy shop” of state-of-the-art equipment. They avoid having to genuflect to academic or corporate bureaucracies. And they channel their passion for invention into what Gusterson calls “a source of binding energy”-something capable of holding them together even when outsiders question their mission.
Other studies of atomic weapons facilities-including New York Times science writer William Broad’s Star Warriors, novelist Grace Mojtabai’s Blessed Assurance, and my own Nuclear Culture-have described a similar mix of political silence and technical passion, and a similar sense of a world apart. But Gusterson raises some new issues. Most significantly, he reports that most of the scientists he talked to mentioned the potential human impact of their bombs only in passing. Perhaps because they have concentrated so intensely on demanding and ever-changing technical specifications, they seem to have converted the bodies onto which their weapons might land into what he calls “a set of components that undergo mechanical interactions with blast waves and glass fragments.”
Gusterson maintains that such a sense of abstraction is key to enabling people to develop bombs. To illustrate his point, he contrasts the responses of three scientists who witnessed aboveground nuclear blasts. The first embraced his work with unalloyed enthusiasm and described the bomb’s impact as “im-pressive” and “interesting … a very spectacular result.” The second des-cribed the blast as “just stunning,” but then acknowledged a “very heavy feeling,” a physical sense of foreboding that brought forth continuing misgivings about his work. The third scientist, though he witnessed a smaller blast from just as far away, described crouching over, terrified, and feeling his heart beat as he urinated in his pants. Although this man could talk the technical talk as well as any of the others, he felt physically frail when faced with an actual nuclear explosion. That sensation eventually led him to stop working on such weapons.
What makes Gusterson’s preoccupation with the scientists’ detachment especially interesting is that it allows him to arrive at a new understanding of their opponents. If those who carry out the mission of labs such as Livermore need to repress a gut feeling of vulnerability, those who question that mission are more or less required to embrace it, in his view. Otherwise the lab’s business becomes, to quote one scientist, “no stranger than making vacuum cleaners.” As Nuclear Rites perceptively notes, doctors helped spearhead the Reagan-era nuclear peace movements not only because particular individuals, like Helen Caldicott, were charismatic, but also because they offered a countervailing expertise to that of the weapons strategists. They provided credible, specific details about the horror of potential cataclysm, and helped us imagine the physical impact of a typical bomb on actual human beings. They helped shift public discussion of the arms race from technical abstractions to the potential of global annihilation.
Unfortunately, Gusterson fails to acknowledge that the peace movement is built on more than personal fear. Activists I interviewed for my book Hope in Hard Times consistently stressed that terror of their own death by atomic fire was not driving them: they knew they’d die one way or another at some point. Rather, what stirred their hearts was the unprecedented threat to the world they expected to leave behind. Although Caldicott and others may have brought many to the movement by taking them into the eye of the nuclear hurricane, grassroots activists say they persisted because of their sense that they are responsible for something larger than themselves.
But probably the most serious shortcoming of Nuclear Rites is that Gusterson does not distinguish between respecting people’s narratives and abdicating judgment on critical moral issues. He repeatedly undercuts his insights with academic theories that suggest it’s impossible to find clear right and wrong in the actions of either the weapons designers or their opponents, only “competing regimes of truth,” as French philosopher Michel Foucault says. One moment Gusterson dissects the ways that Livermore’s weapons designers silence any qualms in the face of their community’s cultural pressures. The next he cites theorists like Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard, who resist the very idea that there could be an absolute definition of morality or truth. Or he quotes the notion of anthropologists Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky that environmental activists respond less to real ecological threats than to socially conditioned trigger points based on their own background.
It’s a strength of the book that Gusterson likes the weapons designers. Without his empathy for his subjects, he could hardly have understood them as well as he does. Still, the actions undertaken at Livermore and other institutions in America’s atomic archipelago have had human consequences that go beyond ideology, conditioning, or cultural creation. Maybe the Livermore bomb designers are right, that America had-and has-no other course. Maybe they are wrong, as I strongly believe, and blinded by their investment in their work. But to imply that all we can do is observe how people create contending belief systems is simply to ignore the question.
We indeed live in a time of competing ethical frameworks. Nevertheless, shared bases for discussion do exist-like the duty to avoid causing human pain and to alleviate that pain whenever possible. Such ethical touchstones don’t furnish unequivocal prescriptions: Livermore’s scientists would argue that their weapons, far from causing pain, actually prevent it by maintaining the stability of deterrence. But the theories Gusterson seems to favor too often enshrine the uncertainties and ambiguities of our time, so that none of us need act on our convictions. This useful book would be still better if it had a clearer and stronger moral voice.