Michael Harris' ATOMIC TIMES
Book review by Dennis McDonald
Once upon a time the US tested thermonuclear weapons in the atmosphere in the Pacific near a tiny island named Eniwetok. Nearby islanders were removed and test facilities installed along with meager accommodations for scientists, officers, and enlisted personnel.
When not working or directly monitoring the blasts enlisted personnel would walk around, play games, shoot the breeze, or drink in makeshift bars. This book tells of this experience from the perspective of a young drafted army soldier who, assigned to the island’s supply depot, observes and now reports on the inner workings of a bureaucracy that seems to have been installed purposely to record the reactions of service personnel who are repeatedly exposed to nuclear blasts and the subsequent radioactive fallout.
There’s little technical information in this book. It’s mostly a rough and tumble — and at times raw and shocking — account of how enlisted men reacted when thrown into a situation where ever present threat of radiation poisoning was a constant catalyst for interpersonal conflicts.
The craziness of military life emerges. Actions seemingly designed to expose the men to radiation poisoning are countered by the official word coming down that everything was safe. (Keep in mind that the U.S. had by now done thorough studies of survivors from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions and knew perfectly well about the dangers these men were being exposed to.)
It’s possible to read this book today, based on what we now know about radiation dangers and the difficulties of army life, as a “Catch-22” type condemnation of militarism and the growing pains of a country still trying to come to grips with the social and military implications of using nuclear weapons.
The author doesn’t delve into these types of political and moral issues. That is I think a good thing. Instead we get a view of a lowly draftee and his perspective on the goings on around him. For him the occasional local explosion and subsequent radiation exposure are important, but on a day-to-day basis he has to deal with crazy bunkmates, sadistic and sex-starved colleagues, clueless officers, and the personal demons of his own family relationships.
A lot of this book makes for unpleasant reading but it is an important record of the times, told by the author from an older and wiser perspective. He is lucky to have survived.
Review copyright (c) 2015 by Dennis D. McDonald