An ironclad ship sails into the Nuclear Age

The flukes of anchors, upside down, have a fleur-de-lis look. Crusted with 121 years of salt, sand, and shellfish, the anchor of the Civil War ship, the Monitor, rose out of the waters off Cape Hatteras last week, certainly looking like one or another of the symbols the sea seems to specialize in.

Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad would have known what to make of this 1,300 -pound object - as sharp as a three-barbed arrow, and at the same time, the one piece of equipment that connects any ship to the solid safety of land, if only in the form of the ocean bottom.

On Dec. 30, 1862, the anchor of the Monitor was cast into the stormy waters of the Atlantic out of desperation. The ironclad - a symbol in itself - was being towed like a ''pet monster'' (as one Navy officer put it) from Hampton Roads, Va., to Beaufort, N.C. Her presence - her passive presence - was required to intimidate Confederate forces. The ironclad warship in a world of wooden warships was a new superweapon - a bargaining chip that floated. Only, once the ocean tore a gap between the hull and the deck on that December day, the new superweapon went helpless and sank to the bottom over 200 feet down, becoming its own anchor less than a year after it had been launched.

What did this 19th-century relic symbolize last week as it suddenly broke the surface into the late-20th-century air? That depends, of course, on the vision behind the eyes watching. To an advocate of nuclear freeze, for instance, the hoary anchor might symbolize ancient hubris - the overweening pride which, according to the Greeks, drives men to reach out for power to exalt themselves as gods, and finally sends them to their self-destruction.

On the other hand, military minds do not tend to think like Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides. To a military historian, that anchor must symbolize one of those monumental breakthroughs in ''modern'' warfare - like the crossbow or gunpowder. He cannot help recalling, with a measure of romantic excitement, the legendary four-hour battle between the first of the ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimac, on March 9, 1862, a Sunday, and the day when the wooden warship became obsolete.

Whatever the perspective from which we view that anchor, we symbol-readers of 121 years later live in a time when one B-1 bomber costs $410 million, or about 1,500 times as much as the Monitor.

A modest conventional weapon - to say nothing of a nuclear missile - would tear the Monitor apart as casually as a crumpled tin can.

And still, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The search for the ultimate superweapon goes on, as it has, presumably, since the first Neanderthal warrior enhanced, as they say, his club by strapping a stone to the end of it.

The professional peacemakers keep pursuing their trade too. But here the invention is slightly less spectacular. Nobody has spent billions of dollars at Los Alamos, or any place else, to come up with a mega-peace innovation, and the perfecting of the protest march can hardly compare with the H-bomb.

Perhaps the final opinion on the symbolism of the anchor should be left to the designer of the Monitor, a remarkable man named John Ericsson. He understood , as clearly as Albert Einstein with the atomic bomb, that he was involved in a quantum leap of the power to build, and the power to destroy. Ericsson wrote: ''The art of war, as I have always contended, is positively in its infancy. When perfected, man will be forced to live in peace with man.''

The tentative plan is to raise the 140-ton gun turret of the Monitor in a year or two. Our oceans are so full of old gun turrets! Our earth is so full of old arrowheads! Ought we to balance the power just a bit in the direction of the peacemakers? Maybe we should raise from deep oblivion John Ericsson's other design - his fervent dream that the ocean be respected by all nations as ''a sacred neutral ground,'' the ''highway of mankind.''

If Ericsson is implying that hope for peace is an anchor cast even when nobody is sure where the bottom is, we would endorse his symbolism.

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