Reasons to be fearful

The spectre of atomic weapons has been replaced in the popular imagination by that of climate change

A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry

Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger

Bloomsbury, 336pp, £12.99

It seems a law of modern life that there is no crucible of human suffering so horrific that it will not eventually have a heritage order slapped on it and a gift shop attached. Now that the struggles of the Second World War have been memorialised to death, it is the turn of the atomic age to attract its share of the tourist trade. In the US, nuclear weapons - once the terrible cancellers of life on earth - have been turned into a kitsch slice of 1950s Americana, to be treasured alongside Chuck Berry and cars with tail fins.

In A Nuclear Family Vacation, the husband-and-wife team of Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger, both defence analysts, eschew the charms of Disneyland to follow this new heritage trail across the research labs, missile silos and nuclear shelters of the United States, Russia and Kazakhstan. Here, tourists can queue up to turn the launch keys in decommissioned Cold War missile bunkers and visit the first plutonium plant in the US - now proudly trademarked as "the most contaminated place in North America".

On their road trip, Hodge and Weinberger encounter the Special Atomic Demolition Munition - a suitcase bomb, to be carried on suicide missions behind enemy lines, that seems cartoonish enough to belong in a Roger Moore Bond film. They visit a ravaged mock-up of a 1950s town, built in the desert outside Las Vegas, where cellars and picket fences were tested to see how they would survive a nuclear onslaught. And they see a mock-up of the nuclear family in the well-stocked nuclear shelter - with mannequin Fifties housewives cheerfully serving dinner to the kids. It's no surprise that the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque has become a popular venue to hire out for children's birthday parties.

But this trip is a much more conventional journey than the gonzo title suggests. We see little of the couple's travels on the open road and the nuclear family suggested by the punning title is nowhere to be seen. But we do get a fascinating series of vignettes about an under-reported, vastly expensive nuclear-industrial complex intact but still groping for a role 20 years after the end of the Cold War.

The sense that the west has forgotten how to fear nuclear weapons seeps through A Nuclear Family Vacation. Even the hallowed laboratory at Los Alamos that spawned the first atomic weapon can no longer attract talented graduates. Nuclear war seems irrelevant to the American Ivy-Leaguers who were still in diapers when the Berlin Wall fell. The exaggerations that accompanied the war in Iraq - particularly Dick Cheney's notorious claim that Saddam Hussein was developing a nuclear programme - have made the fear of the atom seem ridiculous for the generation. Nukes are now ridiculed as a convenient Aunt Sally, used by politicians to hide their real agenda.

The poet Robert Lowell wrote "Fall, 1961" at the height of the Berlin crisis, complaining that "we have talked our extinction to death". Now nuclear weapons are barely mentioned at all. When Hillary Clinton said during the Democratic Party primaries that, as commander-in-chief, she would "totally obliterate" Iran in retaliation for an attack on Israel, it was only a few pundits in the left-wing blogosphere who were fazed that a presidential candidate was threatening a first strike. And when we think of the foreign policy events of the past decade, how many people remember that India and Pakistan came perilously close to nuclear war in 2002?

The startling effect of this silence and amnesia is that, according to Hodge and Weinberger, 61 per cent of Americans believe that Ronald Reagan's fanciful Star Wars system actually exists - and that the US has a working system to protect them from nuclear attack.

No one now below their mid-thirties will be able to remember the terror that nuclear weapons evoked as late as the mid-1980s - the era of When the Wind Blows and Threads: a time when Martin Amis wrote short stories about after the inevitable nuclear holocaust. "They distort all life and they subvert all freedoms," he wrote - a sentiment that has been transferred wholesale to his latest enemy, Islamism - although, like the rest of the intelligentsia, he has gone silent on nukes. In the Armageddon league table, it is now global warming, with its biblical floods and hurricanes, that disturbs our sleep and fills the current affairs shelves at Borders, rather than the mushroom cloud. It is left to ancient Cold War hawks to remember. Robert McNamara flies around the world in a never-ending think-tank seminar warning how close we still are to annihilation. And even that atomic cheerleader, Margaret Thatcher, coolly predicted in her 2002 book Statecraft that battlefield nukes would be used in the "foreseeable future".

Hodge and Weinberger don't exactly provide many reasons to challenge their pessimism. They impart the sobering knowledge that, even though Russia no longer targets its arsenal at western cities, the programming of missile guidance systems means that they will automatically home in on their old targets if they are misfired.

The University of Chicago's doomsday clock was advanced by two minutes last year to stand at five to midnight. A combination of Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions, loose nuclear materials around the world and potential nuclear terrorism make this the most dangerous time since the Cold War. But it is unclear how the vast US nuclear-industrial complex can protect Americans against these threats.

This is where A Nuclear Family Vacation is best, in describing how the nuclear weapons industry staggers on in a kind of superannuated half-life. The US signed up to a ban on testing in the early 1990s and the last nuclear weapons designer with actual experience of designing a thermonuclear weapon is due to retire soon. But because of the industry's shrewd lobbying, it receives more public funds than it did at the height of the Cold War, largely for its "stockpile stewardship work".

The political price for the Clinton administration of getting warhead reductions through Congress was that the testing and manufacturing facilities would continue to be funded lavishly. The result of all this pointless activity, however, is an industry plunged into "despair and desperation" about its ill-defined role, with office politics replacing geopolitics. Disgruntled scientists, unable to engage in their passion for designing weapons, expend their energy writing blogs criticising management.

As in the tendentious recent debates about Trident in Britain, none of the PowerPoint warriors whom Hodge and Weinberger encounter in upper echelons of the military can articulate a purpose for their weapons. "We came away less convinced than ever that there was any strategy to speak of. The infrastructure exists because no one can come up with a compelling reason to shut it down," they conclude.

This mission fuzz reaches a comic climax when the couple visit the Global Innovation and Strategy Centre, a new, Pentagon-funded military think tank, run along the lines of a Silicon Valley dotcom - with bottles of peach-flavoured water, Scandinavian wood tables and a "storytelling room". Here, generals talk about "knowledge discovery", "the wired generation" and quote the globalisation proselytiser Thomas Friedman. The icy clarity of nuclear deterrence has been replaced by "military psychobabble", in which the think tank "looks at anything that can change an adversary's mind" - which can be anything from instant messaging to a nuclear weapon.

For all its insights and comic moments (including a safety announcement about turkey barbecues being piped to workers on the warhead production line), A Nuclear Vacation can be heavy going. Monochrome installations and perimeter fences, whether in windswept corners of Wyoming, Nevada or Kazakhstan, make for a dull backdrop. The writers are policy-wonks rather than raconteurs, and their descriptions-by-numbers betray the way this book has been stitched together from articles already published in the online magazine Slate. At least three people are described as having "salt and pepper hair". More importantly, it is a glaring omission in the writers' travel itinerary that they do not travel to India and Pakistan - which is surely the odds-on killing field for the world's third nuclear holocaust.

Yet the book should at least be required deck-chair reading for one man: Barack Obama. He has called for the US to further reduce its nuclear stockpile and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons from the world. The constant invo cation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by the US when dealing with the "axis of evil" lacks all legitimacy when neither the Americans nor the other declared nuclear powers have stuck to a commitment to make "tangible efforts" towards disarmament.

Hodge and Weinberger's chronicle of the trillions of wasted nuclear dollars might stiffen Obama's resolve to take the moral high ground - and put this expenditure to better use. Then again, its portrait of a powerful military-industrial complex, desperate to preserve its nukes at all costs, might, in time-honoured Cold War fashion, deter him from making a first strike.

Rob Blackhurst writes for the Financial Times

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games