Preparing for the End of Civilization: An Air Force Veteran’s Reflections on Nuclear Warfare

By Mark Hackler

On July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 a.m., the Manhattan Project ended explosively when the first atom bomb flashed in the darkness near Alamogordo, New Mexico.

This is a difficult day for me, the first of three each summer. Today, and the anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, have been difficult for many years.

I spent 9.5 of my 11.5 years in the Air Force working as a missile systems analyst on nuclear armed Minuteman III, Peacekeeper, and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM).

I had periodic nightmares about nuclear war then, of seeing contrails in the sky and watching them arc down toward the ground. I knew several other airmen who also had nightmares, although we couldn’t talk about them outside of a small group of friends, because if we did we would lose our ability to work.

It’s a complicated story, but it’s due to something called PRP, the Personnel Reliability Program. Having nightmares about nuclear weapons means you have a mental health issue and therefore you aren’t reliable enough to work with nuclear weapons. I would think the opposite would be true, but the Air Force did not.

I still have nightmares occasionally, but my fascination with the technology kept me at it back then, year after year. It was, after all, rocket science. Rocket science that eventually became routine. Absurd, but driving 100 miles across the prairies of Nebraska, armed with .38 revolvers, with a guard holding an M-16 rifle in the backseat of the truck, to load launch codes into a Minuteman III missile topped with three nuclear warheads (10 warheads on a Peacekeeper missile), became routine.

The difficulty was staying awake. Once we were set up and the data was being uploaded into the Missile Guidance Set, we had little to do but wait. It was easy to fall asleep, because we had been up since 3:00 a.m. But sleeping was forbidden, since two people had to remain alert and in sight of each other anytime a team went below ground into the silo. The Two Man Rule. Nuclear surety. Sleeping was forbidden.

I’m now a peace activist in part because of my experience with nuclear weapons.

On Monday, I listened to a hibakusha, a Japanese survivor of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, speak via Zoom at a peace conference. He was five years old when the bomb was dropped, standing beside his mother outside of their home, about two kilometers (a little over a mile) from ground zero. They were blown off their feet by the explosion, landing in rubble several meters away. Both received serious burns.

What he saw as a five year-old child no one should ever see.

I was an instructor for much of my career, training new members of the 90th Strategic Missile Wing in Wyoming (and later at the 303rd Tactical Missile Wing in England) on how to safely work with and around nuclear-tipped missiles. We did a lot of electronics and electrical work, and we loaded half of the launch codes into the Missile Guidance Set (the other half was loaded by a remote launch crew if a launch order was received).

I saw a lot of footage of what happens during a nuclear explosion—we used it to impress students on the hazards of nuclear weapons, although an accidental nuclear detonation during maintenance, even if a warhead was dropped, was all but impossible. Nonetheless, the films of the destruction caused by a nuclear blast were sobering.

If you’re interested, there is archival footage available of Japanese atomic bomb survivors, naked, burned, and shivering in the rubble. If you’re interested.

I don’t recommend viewing it, though.

I observed a Minuteman III missile test launch from Vandenburg AFB in California, and I imagined a hundred of them, or three hundred, thrusting into the sky. Later, I hid in the English countryside during exercises with a camouflaged GLCM battery (four missiles. The missiles would likely be targeted for Germany, around or just beyond the Fulda Gap, in case (a likelihood back then) NATO forces were overrun by Soviet tanks and our A-10 attack aircraft never returned to base for a hot refueling.

In other words, we spent our days preparing not for the end of human civilization, but to be the cause of the end of human civilization. I still think about that.

“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb said, quoting the Bhagavad-Gita as he watched the first atomic explosion.

The U.S. is the only nation to have used a nuclear weapon in anger. Twice. I think about that. As of 2019, we had an inventory of 6,185 warheads. Of those, 2,385 were retired and awaiting dismantlement, and 3,800 were part of the active stockpile—in other words, deployed or deployable on launch systems: aircraft (missiles and bombs) and ground- and sea-based missiles.

Other men and women are on duty as you read this, preparing to end civilization. I think about that, too.

Photo credit: “Black and white photographic print, 6th of 8, showing the July 1945 New Mexico atomic bomb explosion test (black-and-white print – photograph)” is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 .

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