The Ides of March were last week, a date that stands in my mind as the birthday of an old friend. I haven’t heard from John in years, but I remember him because of his birthday, and because he was a suicide bomber. John wasn’t crazy (well yes, by some standards he was). John had served in the United States Army, and while posted in what was called West Germany he was the human link in the chain nuclear deterrence. John controlled access to tactical nuclear weapons.
You may not be familiar with tactical nukes. Unlike the big, city leveling nuclear weapons most people had the sense to avoid, tactical nukes were smaller (in the sense they are only a few times as powerful as the weapons we used in Japan), and were intended for use within the theater of combat. Beyond artillery, tactical nuclear weapons were used in short-range missiles, land mines, depth charges, and torpedoes for anti-submarine warfare. In several applications, the distance to the target was less than the radius of lethal effects, thus John’s term “suicide bomb”.
There are a variety of factors in the effects of nuclear weapons. First there is the explosive blast, the shock wave that destroys buildings and less stable structures such as human beings. You can see the effects by using this application. Enter your address, and the explosive yield of the weapon in question. Tactical nukes ranged from 0.04 Kt (rifle fired projectile) to 40 Kt (155mm shells). Tank projectiles were in the 15 Kt range (similar to the Hiroshima weapon), as were several anti submarine weapons. The various radii represent the different component effects of a detonation, and while one might survive inside the area affected due to precautionary sheltering, going on the assumption more than one weapon would be used creates multiple zones, overlapping in both area and time of effects.
Also in the category of tactical nukes are low (less than one megaton, or one thousand Kt) missiles and bombs, and “atomic demolition munitions”, bombs designed for the purpose of destroying structures or geography like bunkers, mountain passes, or tunnels, preventing enemy supply, escape, or evasion.
The experience of contemplating mortality, for not only himself but also his friends and possibly the world, left a mark on John. It is one thing for people to sit in an office one hundred feet below Omaha Nebraska and plan nuclear wars based on reconnaissance imagery and written reports from assets they’ll rarely meet face to face, and quite another to spend your tour living in your target zone, looking at faces that will cease to exist if you ever have to do your job. Sanity lurks in a forest of rationalizations, the belief that the threat prevented the reality. It alters the way you interact with people, the way you respond to authority, the elements of life you choose to value.
John was a loving and caring man, who felt a need to care for the weak, and a need for primal screams. He would be gentle with his wife when she was sick, doing all he could to protect her from the dangers of her disease (diabetes) which she would or could not monitor on her own. We would meet in biker bars, because he felt safe there knowing we wouldn’t run into anyone from “the real world” of work. Neither of us weighed more than 140 lbs, he was maybe 5’6″, and we were obviously out of place, but somehow we fit right in.
It takes all kinds to make a world. Just because someone seems a little odd doesn’t mean your way of life hasn’t depended on them. More goes on under the surface than you might ever suspect.