Gilbert Keith Goes Blind

Remnants of low-slung morning clouds uttered their dying gasps under the gaze of the triumphant sun. A miraculously well-preserved pressing of an antique Garbage album allowed Shirley Manson the luxury of hauling our weary minds across the decrepit-dead years to the summers of strong bones, before the great attrition had vexed our spirit and sapped the very breath in our lungs. A great expanse presented itself starboard. The wide Strait of San Juan de Fuca exposed the lurid vulgarity of the mother ocean. A wave of nausea curdled my gut.

“You’re looking a little green there, Sam.”

“I’ll be fine, Dave. We’re almost there. Besides, the channel is visible. Wind usually picks up around here after the clouds burn off.”

“That it does. Seems you’ve sailed these waters more than I’d have reckoned.”

“You know I used to be stationed near here, right?”

“I seem to recall you mentioned it, yes. Bremerton, right?”

I peered belowdecks to see if our precious cargo caught the same wave of sickness that had assailed me. My eyes refused to adjust to the darkness quickly enough. “Bangor, actually. The submarine base is on the Hood Canal.”

“Those are the nuclear submarines, right?”

“All the submarines in the US fleets were nuclear.” The two exceptions didn’t seem noteworthy enough to mention.

“All of them? I thought some of them just had torpedoes.” He pushed his wraparound sunglasses up the bridge of his nose. “I didn’t think torpedoes could have nuclear warheads.”

“Huh? No, the term applies to the propulsion system. The power plant is nuclear. The alternative is diesel-electric. But in this case, I was on one of the ones with the nuclear missiles.”

Without letting his smile slip for an instant, he remarked, “so you think your submarine did this?” He swept his arm in a great arc, subsuming as much horizon as he could fit in a single gesture.

“No, they retrofitted it to take the missiles off and replaced it with special ops gear a few years after I got out.” My vision took on a muted mulberry tone. “It could have launched a SEAL team, but not an ICBM.”

“You ever feel guilty?”

“Come again?”

“You ever feel guilty about having been a part of all that? Nuclear Armageddon kind of sucks.”

I have had ample opportunity to paw through my culpability in the intervening years. I signed on in a time before anyone had given much thought to catastrophic failures of powerful institutions, powerful behavioral norms. I joined in a time when the world seemed stable, predictable. I agreed to strategic deterrence under false pretenses, though in my paltry defense, I had no good way of knowing so at the time. “You might not realize it, but you’re asking more than one question.” I soaked a bandanna and pressed it to my brow. “After my second or third patrol, I got a special battlestations assignment. I took over the Contact Evaluation Plot in the control room. For conventional combat exercises, against surface ships or other submarines, it was a busy job. I had to keep track of everything that went on in the control room, as well as track the bearing of all sonar and visual contacts. It was actually kind of a pain in the ass. But that was for battlestations torpedo. Ballistic missile submarines aren’t intended to get into close range combat. Their mission is to run and hide from hostile contacts. If hostile contacts are detected, the appropriate response is to turn tail and flee. Therefore, if everything goes as intended, the only genuine battlestations the ship should have to call in wartime is battlestations missile. That’s when you spin up the gyroscopes in the missile battery and get ready to erase civilization.” I could feel my heart racing. “During battlestations missile, there are no sonar contacts. Or at least there shouldn’t be. There isn’t much for my plot to do other than note down the ship’s orders like when we turn on the hovering system.”

“The what? It turns into a hovercraft? What about the eels?”

I snickered as best as I was able. “The hovering system is what allows the boat to maintain a tight depth tolerance while stationary.” I didn’t want to bother explaining fluid flow mechanics and how the fairwater planes acted like the aquatic version of airplane wings to maintain depth while the vessel was moving. Neither did I want to explain why the ship had to be stationary and at a very precise depth in order to launch the missiles. All of this was perfectly self-explanatory, and had little to do with the moral questions at hand. “From my battlestations plot, the little console the skipper would insert his key into to end the world was roughly a roundhouse kick away. I probably could not have exactly stopped a launch, but I could have delayed one as long as it took to find a pair of pliers.” I smiled weakly. “I fancied that such a tiny rebellion should the worst come to pass might be my lone act of redemption. Multiply the tens of millions of lives by two minutes or so to figure out how many centuries of human life I could preserve with one sweep of the leg.”

“Wouldn’t they execute you for that? It sounds like treason.”

“Totally worth it.” I have to admit that I never did try to figure out what the criminal charges might be for something like that. “But at the time, I think I was a bit unreflective about the whole thing.”

“How so?”

“I was twenty years old when I got my first at-sea assignment. To me, the sweep of history, the role of the men and women who had shaped it, and the institutions that governed it were a collection of alien artifacts. I took it all for granted.”

“That makes sense. The world is as it is. Aren’t you obliged to grant that the world exists as-is?”

My legs had gone weak. I gripped the closest rail as tightly as I could. “It’s worse than that. I enlisted at seventeen. At that age, I still bought the Truman propaganda.”

“Propaganda?”

“After the Enola Gay run, that smarmy goiter had the nerve to parrot a wholly fabricated estimate of Allied casualties for a beach assault. James Byrnes pulled that 500,000 number out of his butt. He was the one who bullied 20th century America’s second most callow president into incinerating all those civilians.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“It wasn’t usually taught in schools.” I winced as another wave of dizziness overtook me. “My point is, I thought that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction was pretty good, conditional heavily upon the existence of nuclear weapons and the demonstrated willingness of at least one national sovereign to deploy them in wartime.”

“So as long as they exist, make sure no one wants to use them?”

“I was eight years old when War Games hit the theaters. It was formative.” I paused a moment. “Dr. Strangelove, too.”

“So something changed?”

“Yeah. Something changed. I remember learning about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1983 incident at Serpukhov-15. But I never realized just how close those calls were.”

“I know about the Cuban Missile Crisis. What’s the other one?”

“A Soviet monitoring station gave a false positive. It said the US launched 5 nukes out of Montana. The station commander figured it was a problem with the equipment, and reported it as an error. He was right, and we all got to live another quarter century in relative peace.”

“That was lucky.”

“Cuba was too. Kennedy was a drug-addled megalomaniac. He was supremely unfit to be commander-in-chief. But hey, in America, any asshole can be elected to the highest office in the land. The parties helped filter out the worst of the rubbish, but you know the problem with filters, don’t you Dave?”

“They clog, Sam.”

“They clog. They clogged with that Massachusetts goon, they got bypassed with that Ford bumpkin, and they just sort of gave up a bit there towards the end. Unserious people with no real appreciation for the horror of war got too close to the sun. And we ended up paying for it.”

“Yeah, but we chose them. So isn’t it our fault?”

“We merely chose the form of our demise. We chose the color of its neckerchief. The button wanted to be pushed from the moment it was created. The button doesn’t care what finger does the pushing. It’s our own vanity, our own urge to pretend we’re in charge of ourselves that insists it matters who does the pushing.”

“That’s awfully fatalistic for someone who walked from Florida to Alaska to find his old lady.”

I again peeked belowdecks. I again heard nothing, saw only darkness. “The fate of men is not the fate of nations. Surely you agree.”

“I do, Sam. And Sam?”

“Yes, Dave?”

“Don’t call me Shirley.”

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