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William Langewiesche on The Atomic Bazaar and Facing our Worst Fear

(Photo by Greg Martin)

“Chevron apparently wrote an extremely pissed-off letter,” says William Langewiesche, thumbing through the June issue of Vanity Fair, where the month before he published a story about the oil industry’s ecological decimation of the Ecuadorian Amazon. We’re at a newsstand on a warm evening in Portland, and when he realizes the letter is not in the issue, he buys a pack of cigars and continues his walk up Broadway.

I am walking with him, and he is, as he is each time we’ve met, wearing a white dress shirt and navy sport jacket. Practical. Packable, a necessity for a journalist who says he spends “not much” time at home, in Northern California and Paris. This week thus far, he’s been in New York, Chicago, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco, reading from The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor. The book, his sixth, follows some of the known players in the underground nuclear-weapons trade, explaining which groups might be able to get their hands on one, who’s likely to use it and how survivable an atomic strike will be.

“The book tour continues in London,” he says, as we settle in a cool, dim bar for drinks. After London, he will go to Iceland, at some point to China, but first back to Iraq, where he has intermittently worked and lived, outside of the Green Zone, since 2003. His article, “Rules of Engagement,” about the killing of 24 Iraqi men, women and children by U.S. Marines in Haditha, won a 2007 National Magazine Award. Still. “I would like it to be my last. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of war,” he says. “I don’t hate it or anything like that, but it’s unpleasant.”

Unpleasant is a word some might apply to the places Langewiesche, a commercial pilot before becoming, in 1993, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, has taken the reader. Trapped in the stairwell of a ferry sinking in the Baltic Sea; into the cockpit of a Boeing 767 the pilot has decided to smash, along with its passengers, into the Atlantic Ocean; sitting in the cabin crew with the astronauts of the Columbia, clueless that they are about to be spun free from the shuttle and free-fall to Earth.

It was after the publication of American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center that Langewiesche found himself flying through an editorial shitstorm, launched in part by New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who accused him in print of being “coldblooded” and the book “quite at odds with the solemn reasons that led to the cleanup efforts.” It was evidently of no consequence that he was the only journalist granted full access during the removal of the 1.5 million tons of rubble and remains, or that he was on the ground with engineers and excavators, and also watching, from a pier in Newark Bay, as the Trade Center’s structural steel beams were torched into 3-foot sections and shipped off to China, where they would be smelted and used to build other structures.

I suggest that at the time, hope was perhaps too forward a response.

“She didn’t like my emotional distance from the tragedy,” he says.

As if there weren’t enough emotionalism going around.

“It wasn’t enough, obviously, for her,” he says, and does not need to explain that being maudlin (a word he applies to the Times’ “Portraits of Grief”; also, “abysmal” and “illegitimate”) is always an impediment to getting done the work that needs to be done.

But what exactly is that work? If you were an excavator, it was clearing the debris. If you are a writer, how do you make sense of what so terrifies most people they freeze or propagandize or sit in their closets and cry? How do you organize that which is constantly threatening to fly into pieces? If you are Langewiesche, you part it out, lay the pieces on the ground, walk around them, and say, okay, this is how this works. In each of his books, he takes what seems too vast to grasp — the ocean (The Outlaw Sea), the air (Inside the Sky), the U.S.-Mexico border (Cutting for Sign) and, now, nuclear weapons — and puts it in the reader’s hands and holds it there, as if to say, calm down, yes, it’s tough, but this is what you must deal with.

It’s utilitarian, a quarry man’s job, except for the prose. In Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert, he writes of the Belgian husband and wife and their 5-year-old son who decide to make an adventure of crossing the desert in an old Peugeot, in which they make a wrong turn, and then, break down.

The Belgians hoped a truck would come along. For a week they waited, scanning the horizon for a dust-tail or the glint of a windshield. This was in a place, more or less, where the maps still insist on showing a road. The woman felt upwellings of panic. She began to write more frantically, filling pages in single sessions. The water ran low, then dry, and the family grew horribly thirsty. After filtering it through a cloth, they drank the car’s radiator fluid. They had arrived at the danger stage . . .

 

After the coolant was gone, the Belgians started sipping gasoline. You would too. Call it petroposia. Saharans have recommended it to me as a way of staying off the battery acid. The woman wrote that it seemed to help . . .

The boy was weakest, and was suffering terribly. In desperation, they burned their car, hoping someone would see the smoke. No one did. The boy could no longer swallow. His name was Maurice. His parents killed him to stop the pain. Later, the husband cut himself open and allowed his wife to drink his blood. At his request, she broke his neck with a rock. Alone now, she no longer wanted to live. Still, the Sahara was fabulous, she wrote, and she was glad to have come. She would do it again.

Langewiesche tells the Belgians’ story, and also his own, a 1,200-mile crossing of a place utterly indifferent to whether you live or die. This desert, he lets you know, is a categorically unromantic place, and I tell him, this is why I read him. He tells me when I should be afraid, and as often, when I shouldn’t, and I wonder if, in his work, he’s taking a stand against irrational fear.

“Yeah, if I’m taking a stand at all,” he says. “I mean, I don’t like the fearful side of American culture that’s very much promoted by the media, by the movies, by right-thinking people. But it’s not my agenda. My only agenda is to serve as the reader’s eyes, and trusted eyes, and then to express it so that it doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence.”

Is he, I wonder, attracted to chaos?

“I think that places with chaos, perceived chaos, on a global scale, are very interesting places to be. And I find, of course, that they’re not so chaotic, as seen from the inside, as they appear to be on the outside.”

The Atomic Bazaar includes a 50-page primer on how one would go about gathering the highly enriched uranium and other components needed to build a nuclear bomb, an odyssey a great deal more risky and problematic than it appears on TV shows like 24. Langewiesche has no idea what 24 is. I explain, adding that it’s no small shake he managed to make a nuclear bomb seem manageable.

“I did that on purpose,” he says. “The point is, look at your worst fears, and examine them. What, exactly, when we talk about ‘nuking,’ what does it physically mean?”

So, a bomb is dropped on Portland, or Paris; what are we talking about, in terms of damage?

“It’s not the apocalypse,” he says. “An actual nuclear explosion is not all that large, in the kiloton range, in the Hiroshima range. We can handle that level of casualties, in history, you know, and move on beyond it, with all sympathy and caring and loving to those who were killed. But move on. And is it dangerous to think of it? Doesn’t it make the use of this ‘unimaginable thing’ more likely? And the answer to that is, I don’t think so. It’s not an unimaginable thing to other people. It’s only unimaginable to Americans who want to drink latte. But other people are perfectly willing to imagine using it, and we might as well wake up to the realities of it, and face our vague fears and make them unvague.”

I suggest that not looking at eventualities might be the problem.

“Understand, the limitations on current government and bureaucratic responses to this particular threat leaves you two choices. One is, oh well, let’s have a better government response. The other one is to say, there is no possibility of guaranteed defense; learn to live with it individually and in your political decisions. Don’t be a sheep, and go baa baa baa and go running around. And if voting matters” — and here, he rolls his eyes — “then vote on the basis of that. Vote on the basis of political leaders who are honest enough and frank enough and intelligent enough to operate in a world of disorder and risk and danger.”

The next day, when Langewiesche calls me from a plane to make sure I have what I need, I do not tell him to have a safe flight.

THE ATOMIC BAZAAR: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor | By WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 192 pages | $22 hardcover


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