Entombed in a Mountain
Childhood (and Adulthood) in the Cold War Years
Imagine a secret government facility buried deep in the bowels of a mountain; a deluxe bomb shelter -- encased within dense, almost fissure-less rock -- for top government officials to ride out doomsday.
I did. A lot.
I spent an inordinate amount of time as a child reading everything I could find about a top secret complex -- a White-House-in-waiting, hospital, television studio, government offices, subterranean reservoirs, and who knows what else -- all entombed in a Virginia mountain. It was difficult for a youngster to locate much on it in those pre-Internet days, but what I did find out about Mount Weather fascinated me.
Looking back, I realize that I was captivated, and perhaps subconsciously unnerved, by the prospect of World War III. That future conflict was seemingly omnipresent, looming large in the pop cultural broth in which my brain was regularly bathed. Red Dawn and The Day After offered two possible scenarios for how such a war might be fought -- Vietnam-style in the U.S.A. or as a full-scale nuclear exchange between America and the Soviet Union. The president of that moment suggested that we might be spared the atomic devastation of The Day After through mammoth spending on a space-based missile defense system that, in the cinematic spirit of the moment, critics dubbed "Star Wars." WarGames, on the other hand, indicated that some combination of dumb luck, a smart computer, and an impossibly young Matthew Broderick would -- at the very last moment -- save the day. (Thanks, Ferris Bueller!) And what child of the 1980s can forget that moment when your last city was destroyed in Atari's "Missile Command"?
A survey of 1,000 grammar and high-school students conducted by an American Psychiatric Association task force from 1978 to 1980 found "the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation has penetrated deeply into their consciousness." Their answers to questionnaires "showed that these adolescents are deeply disturbed by the threat of nuclear war, have doubt about the future, and about their own survival," wrote John Mack, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a member of the task force. I don't recall being distressed by the prospect myself, but it certainly caught my attention.
While I was reading and re-reading John Bradley's lavishly illustrated coffee-table book, World War III: Strategies, Tactics, and Weapons, and playing with my G.I. Joes, TomDispatch regular William Astore was heading deep into another secret government facility buried within a mountain, another ground zero designed to withstand (but by then likely to be incinerated in) a nuclear holocaust. Today, in "We Are the Empire," Astore takes us from his younger days at shadowy Cheyenne Mountain to the darkened recesses of the cinema, where a steady diet of "space operas" and "alien disaster movies," from the iconic Star Wars to the recent U.S. box-office bomb Independence Day: Resurgence, provide a window on the twenty-first-century American experience and a funhouse mirror offering unflattering reflections of ourselves and our foundering, floundering wars.