In N. Dakota, Our Nuclear Past Eclipses Today's Harbingers of Doom

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2008

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. -- In a time of uncertainty, upheaval and catastrophic risk, there's nothing like a missile silo.

You may have no idea what your 401(k) will be worth, or your house, or whether your kids will be able to go to college. Eighty feet below the plains of North Dakota, however, these concerns magically evaporate.

Take a slow, loud elevator cage down into the depths of Oscar Zero, as it is called -- the launch control center for what used to be a bevy of Minuteman III nuclear missiles aimed at the late, great Soviet Union -- and return with us now to those days of the Cold War when, unlike today, even when things were bleak, they were at least clear.

"In the movie 'WarGames,' we were the first to go," Delore Zimmerman, a Grand Forks economic development specialist, recalls cheerfully.

When you're surrounded by 150 Minuteman III silos, with 400-plus warheads, spread out geometrically across eight very large counties from the Canadian border to Interstate 94, you have an extremely clear idea of what the end of the world looks like. Kind of consoling, actually, in its lack of ambiguity.

Today is harder.

Today is more like the situation described by Thomas Homer-Dixon -- "systems that are kind of stressed to the max already, where policymakers are trying to keep ten balls in the air simultaneously and keep all the various constituencies satisfied as best they can. And then there's some exogenous shock on an already highly stressed system that produces a kind of overload situation." Homer-Dixon is author of "The Upside Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization."

Oh, sure, the Cold War end-of-the-world scenarios had plenty of stress overload, especially in how they would start. What if the Israelis were to start losing a Middle East war, for example, or what if the North Koreans disappeared up their own corkscrew logic?

But the Cold War scenarios were by several orders of magnitude the most excruciatingly studied futures that never came to pass.

Visit the Fulda Gap in Germany, for example, about an hour east of Frankfurt. That was the location of the all-time No. 1 pawn-to-king-four scenario of the start of the end.

In that scenario, the endless tanks of endless Soviet divisions would come racing through this valley -- which looks not unlike the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia -- headed for Western Europe. The American 11th Armored "Blackhorse" Cavalry was there on hair-trigger alert to complicate their lives as thoroughly as they could.

If you visited this outfit in the early '90s -- after The Wall had fallen but before it had thoroughly entered people's brains that the Cold War threat was really gone -- you got an earful about their fast tanks, with sophisticated guns. "One shot, one kill" without stopping was the whole idea, they'd tell you.

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