The bombs of August

For a supposedly lazy month of footprints in the sand, August has been fairly rattling with weaponry. First came the headline that neutron warheads are in full production. Then followed the debate about where the MX missiles should be deployed -- airborne in "Big Bird" transports, or on the ground, shuttling among 4,600 shelters in Utah and Nevada. No wonder the story of the nerve gas bombs got rather short shrift.

It all began in 1969 when the Navy ordered 888 bombs -- seven feet long, packed with 346 pounds of a clear, odorless liquid simply called GB. A sniff or two of GB or a pearl-like drop on the skin is said to kill within minutes.

The citizens of Denver became increasingly uncomfortable with the bombs, stored in an arsenal only three-and-a-half miles from the Stapleton International Airport. In 1978, when an order was issued to move them to Tooele Army Depot in Utah, 10 of the bombs were discovered to be leaking.

After debate about this further danger, the leaky GB was drained into three 1 ,600-pound steel cylinders, and in the middle of this vacation month, at last, the socalled "Rocky Mountain Transfer" began. The Starlifter transports flying the bombs from Colorado to Utah were monitored by helicopters with medics at four check points along the short route. The truck convys, to and from the airfields, were rehearsed against simulated terrorist attacks. All in all, a thousand military and civilian personnel participated in the maneuver.

The first Starlifter aborted its takeoff because of a faulty pressure gauge. despite leaking gas in 1979, despite faulty pressure gauges in 1981, the bombs of 1969 arrived safely at Tooele Army Depot, their new home . . . until when?

What does the Case of the Wandering Nerve Gas have to do with neutron warheads and MX missiles?

Approximately $1.5 trillion will be spent on the military in the next five years -- much of it for the latest devices in nuclear warfare. It is hoped, it is assumed that these advanced weapons -- the Trident II subs, the B-1 and Stealth bombers, in addition to neutron warheads and MX missiles -- will exist only as "chips for the bargaining table," as the phrase goes. But, as that comparatively tiny stockpile of nerve gas bombs reminds us, even bargaining chips have to stack up somewhere, and they and the humans who tend them can become fallible nuisances in ways that computers in war-game rooms dare not imagine.

Modern warfare is notoriously abstract. With long-distance weapons, one never sees the face of the enemy, as Achilles saw Hector (and Hector's wife and children) on the plains of Troy. Now one doesn't even see the weapons. They exist on paper as secret designs, with only the price tags clear -- like the estimated $50 billion for the MX missile system. But in order to be bargaining chips, in order to be "deterrents," these weapons, like the nerve gas bombs, will have to materialize, in all their random riskiness.

About the time the nerve gas began its Odyssey, an essay by the late novelist and scientist C. P. Snow appeared in the New York Times. If nuclear proliferation continued, he wrote in 1980, "within, at the most, 10 years, some of the bombs are going off. That is the certainty."

Perhaps he exaggerated, perhaps he spoke for effect, but it does no disservice to remind ourselves that preparations for war -- and war themselves -- do not take place in data banks or as colored pins on a map. A particular MX missile will have to hide in a particular silo not too far from a particular farm where a particular 10-year-old girl with four freckles on her nose walks across a particular pasture toward her favorite brindled cow.

In August 1981, the 36th anniversary of Hiroshima, we should need no further cautioning that history quite literally takes place.

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