The Madison County Journal
August 13, 2003
My past and current news
While there are many things about getting older that I do not particularly like, having a small stake in big historical stories keeps life interesting.
A news report last weekend falls into that category.
On my right arm, just above the wrist, is a small, faded scar. I received that scar at Ft. McClellan in Anniston, Ala., during training in chemical, biological and radiological warfare. The scar was created by exposure to a dangerous war chemical. The purpose was to show students the effect of mustard gas, and the effectiveness of a protective compound. Three pinpoints of the chemical were placed on my arm. One site was protected by the salve. The second was cleaned with the salve. The third was left untreated. The untreated spot produced a one-half inch blister that persisted for two weeks.
I tell you this to point out that these dangerous weapons were stored at Ft. McClellan when I was there in 1960. The bunkers there contain hundreds of thousands of rockets, mortars and artillery shells loaded with mustard gas, nerve gas and other dangerous chemicals. They are now between 40 and 50 years old. They have become highly unstable and the casings are corroded. These munitions are beyond use and increasingly dangerous.
In addition, the United States has signed a treaty agreeing to destroy all chemical weapons. Weapons stored in other Cold War nations are also being destroyed.
The Army is beginning a program to destroy these munitions in an incinerator with the first several being destroyed last weekend. The effort to eliminate these devices has produced an uproar of protest in the area from people who are afraid that dangerous chemicals will be released into the atmosphere.
The army has already begun destroying chemical munitions at other sites using the same technique. They have proven successful at eliminating the hazard without endangering nearby residents. Opponents of the Ft. McClellan facility argue that the other sites are in sparsely populated areas while Anniston has a far larger population.
Army spokesmen say they have no other choice. The incinerators are the only way to totally eliminate the chemicals. They are far too unstable to transport them to other sites. And they are far too dangerous to leave in indefinite storage.
I do not blame the people of Alabama and western Georgia for being concerned. I know first hand what these chemicals can do. Clearly, the Army will have to take great care to safely destroy these weapons.
The project to eliminate these weapons should have begun many years ago, before they became so dangerous. Because of their unstable condition, the rate at which they can be destroyed has been greatly reduced. It will take years for them to be totally eliminated. But every rocket they destroy will make the world a bit less dangerous.
I have always believed that chemical weapons were far more dangerous than the largest nukes. The big bombs are so obviously destructive that no sane leader would ever use one. Chemicals are far more likely to be used in combat or by terrorists. They have been used numerous times beginning in World War I.
Eliminating nuclear weapons is a worthy goal. Eliminating chemical weapons is essential.
Frank Gillispie is founder of The Madison County Journal. His web page can be accessed at www.mcga.net. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Zach Mitcham
The Madison County Journal
August 13, 2003
In the Meantime
The Cold War and my remote
My remote control shoots a signal to an orbiting satellite and back 22,400 miles away. The command travels 44,800 miles in less time than it takes to raise the Dorito with bean dip on it to my mouth.
Yeah, thats an everyday thing now not the bean dip, mind you, at least not yet but the lightning quick interaction between our devices on the ground and the ones in space.
I flipped our satellite TV at home to CSPAN recently and watched a forum on the development of aerial surveillance from spy planes to satellites during the Cold War.
Of course, today's young Joe Cool replies, "CSPAN is way boring. And dude, the Cold War is like over, way over. We had the miracle on ice and then Ronald Reagan took that huge hammer to that big Chinese wall, right?"
Well, sure, something like that.
No doubt, most all of us look at the Cold War as a closed chapter in our nations history, but if you think about it, the offshoots of that half-a-century stare-down still have a profound effect on our lives.
Of course, many have memories of haunting Cold War things the actual wars with Communist backed forces, the nuclear standoff, the days of McCarthy and the Red Scare. (Frank, on the other side of the page, talks about his Cold War military memory: the scar of a mustard gas test on his skin).
Those remembrances will last. If you're at least in your late 20s, you can probably recall a coolness of feeling too. I remember the distinct east-west divide between us and them. The "iron curtain" was figurative only to a certain extent, because the secrecy between the two superpowers always persisted. And the Soviets seemed like alien beings of sorts.
With all of our divides culturally, militarily, ideologically the realm of intelligence was the true arena of the Cold War. Apparently, in the man-to-man intelligence front, the U.S.S.R. had us whipped.
Eugene Poteat, president of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, told those at the forum shown on CSPAN that Soviet intelligence officers were so entrenched in the U.S. that Stalin knew about our bomb before Truman.
On the flip side, the U.S. didn't have a contingent of James Bond sorts in Moscow.
So America went to the air, developing the U2 to peek over the iron curtain. (No, Joe Cool, Bono wasn't flying it.)
The U2 was hard to detect, but Poteat said intelligence officials knew the day would come when Soviet missile technology would catch up with the plane.
That day was May 1, 1960, and the pilot was Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down over Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg). He barely escaped the plane after being knocked out of his spy route over 70,000 feet above the ground. Powers parachuted to safety, where he was questioned by frightened Russian-speaking farmers, at least one with a pitchfork. Powers Jr., who recently started The Cold War Museum, told the forum audience that his dad wrote "U.S.A." in the dirt to explain who he was, perhaps knowing that this might not stave off the pitchfork from a scared Sverdlovsk farmer. Powers stood trial in Russia and was convicted as a spy but later exchanged for a Soviet spy caught in the U.S.
Poteat explained that after the U2, the U.S. developed a more advanced, but more expensive spy plane.
But the biggest step up in aerial surveillance was the development of the satellite, which orbited out of the range of missiles and showed us everything that the birds could see above Russia.
Poteat said conveniences of today, such as digital photography and satellite TV, are products of this technology.
But much more importantly than that, he suggested that satellites, ultimately, may have saved us from a nuclear confrontation, since we could call a bluff for what it was and know when we were truly being threatened.
All that's a lot to think about as I sit with one hand on my satellite remote and one hand in the Dorito bag.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.