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Sarah Kanouse, Minuteman missile launch facility on Pawnee National Grassland, 18 December 2013, Flickr

Essay

Challenging the Decaying Nuclear Imagination: Nuclear Resistance at N-8 and Beyond

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war any more.”
– Isaiah 2:4

“I believe that the strategies used by Plowshares protesters remain as relevant—and perhaps as misunderstood—today as they were when the movement began 35 years ago. In nuclear weapons, humankind confronts an existential threat not just to our survival but also to our humanity. Plowshares actions do nothing more, and nothing less, than to affirm our essential nature as loving, caring human beings—not only for ourselves but also for generations to come.”
Paul Magno, “The Plowshares Anti-nuclear Movement at 35: A Next Generation?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 72 no. 2 (2016): 85, DOI: 10.1080/00963402.2016.1145904.– Paul Magno

With the end of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear weapons in the United States largely faded from public view. The iconic images and rituals of the atomic age—fallout shelter symbols, duck and cover drills, ballooning mushroom clouds—appear to many Americans as relics of the past. Even U.S. nuclear infrastructure itself reflects the marks of a bygone era: U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), “Information Technology: Federal Agencies Need to Address Aging Legacy Systems,” May 2016, https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-16-468.pdf.according to a 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the system that controls the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombers runs on a Merrit Kennedy, “Report: U.S. Nuclear System Relies on Outdated Technology such as Floppy Disks,” National Public Radio, May 26, 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/05/26/479588478/report-u-s-nuclear-system-relies-on-outdated-technology-such-as-floppy-disks.1970s-era IBM computer with data stored on 8-inch floppy disks. However, nuclear weapons remain deeply embedded in the U.S. landscape and its international military posture, and committed anti-nuclear activists continue to challenge both the existence of nuclear weapons and the militaristic ideologies to which their existence is bound. This essay focuses particularly on the U.S. Plowshares Movement, an anti-war, anti-nuclear movement that takes inspiration from the biblical injunction to turn weapons of war into instruments of peace and sustenance. Due to its distinctive position in the “nuclear West,” Colorado has been a focal point for critical actions and anti-nuclear activism from the 1960s onward, at sites ranging from the Rocky Flats nuclear plant northwest of Denver to military bases and command centers in Colorado Springs. For Plowshares activists, the N-8 nuclear missile silo in northeastern Colorado, where three Catholic nuns were arrested in 2002, has particular significance, and it is a site to which they repeatedly return. 

In Colorado, active nuclear missile silos dot the northeastern corner of the state, all on 24-hour alert. These sites, located in rural, sparsely populated areas, draw little public or media attention: they are inconspicuous, yet salient features of the nuclear landscape. The forty-nine Minuteman III missile silos in Weld County still mark Colorado as part of America’s Tom Collina, “Welcome to America’s ‘Nuclear Sponge’,” Defense One, February 3, 2017, https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2017/02/welcome-americas-nuclear-sponge/135135/.“nuclear sponge”—a dispersed array of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) designed to absorb a rain of enemy fire. In January 2017, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis affirmed the logic of the nuclear sponge, defending the U.S. fleet of ICBMs in his Senate confirmation hearing: CNN, “Newsroom: General Mattis Answers Senate Questions in Confirmation Hearing,” January 12, 2017, http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1701/12/cnr.04.html.“It's clear that [these missiles] are so buried out in the central U.S., that any enemy that wants to take us on is going to have to commit, two, three, four weapons to make certain they take each one out. In other words, the ICBM force provides a cost imposing strategy on an adversary.” The Cold War is over, but the nuclear sponge strategy persists, part of a calculating logic of deterrence and nuclear sacrifice zones. The ICBMs deter through their threat of counterattack, and at the same time, they implicitly designate the U.S. northern Plains as a sacrificial target, intended to attract and absorb others’ bombs.

Sixty miles east of Fort Collins, Colorado, the N-8 missile site has been a focal point for anti-nuclear activism, particularly by Catholic Plowshares activists working to abolish nuclear weapons worldwide. The Plowshares movement, which grew out of Catholic pacifist activism during the Vietnam War, began to coalesce in 1980 when a group of eight activists Sharon Erickson Nepstad, “Persistent Resistance: Commitment and Community in the Plowshares Movement,” Social Problems 51 no. 1 (2004): 43.“hammered on the missiles, poured blood on security documents, and shredded blueprints” at a General Electric plant in Pennsylvania that produced nose cones for U.S. nuclear missiles. Plowshares activists are known for their bold, nonviolent acts of protest at missile silos and other military installations, and in 2002, they turned their attention to N-8. In October of that year, three Dominican Catholic sisters, Jackie Hudson, Ardeth Platte, and Carol Gilbert, cut the chain-link fence surrounding N-8 and entered the site. They used small hammers to pound on the silo in a symbolic show of disarmament and used their own bottled blood to draw a cross. Plowshares activist Paul Magno explains that these tactics aim Paul Magno, “The Plowshares Anti-nuclear Movement at 35: A Next Generation?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 72 no. 2 (2016): 85, DOI: 10.1080/00963402.2016.1145904.“to rouse comatose consciences” by evoking Isaiah 2:4, with its image of “[beating]…swords into plowshares, and…spears into pruning hooks.” After “disarming” the missile, the nuns prayed and patiently waited for Air Force personnel to arrive and surround them. They were arrested, charged with sabotage, and later sentenced to more than two years in prison. In an interview following their release, Quoted in Sarah McFarland Taylor, Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 56.Sister Ardeth explained the grounds for their action and why the trio dubbed themselves “Sacred Earth and Space Plowshares II”:

“All violences to the Earth and creation are connected . . . Our peace activism is deeply connected with environment in every dimension. The injury to Mother Earth is universal. And now we are doing the same thing to outer space. We are now dominators of land, water, air, and space. That’s how far our greed has taken us . . . We see these things as all connected and so we named ourselves based upon this.”

The activism of Jackie Hudson, Carol Gilbert, and Ardeth Platte at N-8 focused on nuclear resistance and disarmament, but their project was much bigger, and their work extends well beyond the 2002 action.Jackie Hudson died in 2011, and Ardeth Platte died in September 2020, leaving Carol Gilbert as the only surviving member of the trio. In 2006, the three sisters returned to N-8 for another protest, and Gilbert and Platte have since visited the site multiple times, along with peace activists from around the state. During a 2017 trip to Colorado, the pair traveled to military bases throughout the state to present the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons to the highest ranking officers they could reach at each base. The U.S. has neither signed nor ratified this 2017 treaty, though it went into force in January 2021, after ratification by fifty other nations. Gilbert and Platte described their U.S. efforts as creating a “burden of knowledge” among military officers—akin to the burden of knowledge that they themselves bear: an understanding of the violence and carnage of nuclear war that compels them to act for peace and disarmament.

In a fall 2017 discussion at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Sister Carol and Sister Ardeth described the interconnections between nuclear weapons, armed conflict, environmental damage, poverty, and inequity, arguing for a shift from “Strategic Air Command” to “Saving All Creation.” Although N-8 served as a symbolic focal point for their activism, Gilbert and Platte worked for decades to resist militarism more broadly, along with a set of interconnected social and environmental problems, arguing that “racism, sexism, capitalism, and militarism are all linked.” Long-time Colorado Springs activist and former priest Quotes from and discussion of Bill Sulzman’s views are based on an interview with the author on July 4, 2018.Bill Sulzman, who collaborated for many years with the Dominican sisters, concurs, but notes that for many Americans, nuclear and military issues have moved into the background, despite the Pentagon’s control of more than half of the U.S. discretionary budget.

Low-angle image showing five elderly white-presenting people reading from a sheet of paper in a semi-circle before a chain link fence in a flat, arid landscape.
Ardeth Platte, Carol Gilbert, Bill Sulzman, and others pray during a Plowhares protest at the N-8 Minuteman site in Northeastern Colorado, 2014, The Nation Report

Although nuclear weapons production and war planning have long been shrouded in secrecy, both the literal and metaphorical visibility of nuclear weapons diminished after the Cold War, as generations raised in the era of duck and cover drills and the specter of mutually assured destruction were replaced by millenials for whom the USSR is tied to an era before they were born. Sulzman, who founded Citizens for Peace in Space in Colorado Springs in 1987, reports that efforts to provoke conversation about the recent UN nuclear weapons treaty have left Colorado’s federal lawmakers unmoved. In February 2018, Sulzman’s group presented over 600 signatures supporting the nuclear weapons ban to Colorado Senators Cory Gardner (R) and Michael Bennet (D). They received little response. Quotes from and discussion of Bill Sulzman’s views are based on an interview with the author on July 4, 2018.“The nuclear arsenal is completely embedded in [U.S.] political culture,” Sulzman observes: it’s an unquestioned background condition, as is the U.S. war apparatus more broadly, largely accepted by legislators on both sides of the aisle. Sulzman notes that even in Colorado Springs, host to multiple major military installations—including Schriever Air Force Base, which controls military GPS satellites key to any nuclear plan, and the Air Force Academy, which trains not only flight pilots, but drone pilots and the next generation of nuclear missileers—neither nuclear issues nor the prioritization of the military in national spending and international relations are subject to serious political debate.

In the U.S., widespread passivity surrounding contemporary military infrastructure and actions poses distinct challenges for peace and anti-nuclear activists, and for citizens trying to understand the character and reach of the militarized landscapes we inhabit. In the post-Cold War era, the secrecy surrounding military operations remains in place, but the “enemy” is characterized as more diffuse and shifting. Whereas Cold War rhetoric identified a central villain—the Soviet Union—newer anti-terrorist rhetoric suggests a mobile and elusive threat, but nevertheless one that might strike at any place, at any time. Preemptive drone strikes and special forces secret missions are explained as a way to disrupt and neutralize emerging threats. The fear that animated the Cold War remains, but Joseph Masco, “‘Survival is Your Business’: Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America,” Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 2 (2008): 361-398.it has been redirected and redeployed to justify contemporary military campaigns even as the dangers of global nuclear war have faded into the background of Americans’ psyches. 

The irony, of course, is that nuclear weapons are still with us, and See Broad, William J. and David E. Sanger, “As U.S. Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, ‘Smaller’ Leaves Some Uneasy,” New York Times, January 11, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/12/science/as-us-modernizes-nuclear-weapons-smaller-leaves-some-uneasy.html; Scott Paltrow, “Special Report: In Modernizing Nuclear Arsenal, U.S. Stokes New Arms Race,” Reuters, November 21, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-nuclear-modernize-specialreport/special-report-in-modernizing-nuclear-arsenal-u-s-stokes-new-arms-race-idUSKBN1DL1AH; Ankit Panda, “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Modernization,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 7, 2018 [last update], https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/us-nuclear-weapons-modernization.the U.S. may modernize and miniaturize its nuclear missiles in ways that may make them more tempting to use. The logic of deterrence and “peacekeeping” remains a central justification for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but modernization has the potential to shift the nuclear logic toward “tactical” low-yield weapons. At the same time, although some Americans might think that the U.S. holds almost all of the nuclear cards, at least nine states possess nuclear weapons (the U.S., Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea). Like the U.S., Tom O’Connor, “U.S. and Russia Race to Build Nuclear Weapons They Can Actually Use Against Each Other,” Newsweek, January 10, 2018, http://www.newsweek.com/us-russia-race-build-nuclear-weapons-they-actually-against-one-another-777137.Russia is engaged in an effort to update their arsenal and to produce tactical nuclear missiles, and North Korea may have as many as 60 nuclear bombs. Nuclear weapons sites and command centers in Colorado are therefore not only a source of U.S. military power; they also make the state and its military installations a Bart Bedsole, “Colorado Springs Remains a Prime Nuclear Target,” KRDO News, January 18, 2018, https://www.krdo.com/news/colorado-springs/colorado-springs-remains-prime-nuclear-target/687467277.“prime nuclear target,” as a Colorado Springs television station described that city in January 2018. The nuclear age is far from over.

The work of activists such as Jackie Hudson, Carol Gilbert, Ardeth Platte, and Bill Sulzman thus remains relevant, and their sustained energies, along with that of others, may awaken a newly energized peace and anti-nuclear movement in the United States. Globally, anti-nuclear activism has been reinvigorated through the work of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of hundreds of NGOs, both large and small, founded in 2007. It was ICAN’s work that spurred the writing and adoption of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, earning the group the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. 

The energy that animates ICAN has not yet fully taken hold in the U.S., and Americans’ decaying nuclear imagination is a genuine obstacle to overcome. But in recent years, North Korean nuclear tests, the new U.S. Space Force, as well as questions about presidential power and nuclear decision-making within the executive branch have spurred greater attention to nuclear issues in the media and among citizens around the country. Because command centers and strategic war games remain abstract and inaccessible, N-8 and Colorado’s array of ICBMs, in all their grim presence, will likely remain focal points for activism in years to come. Plowshares activists are not naïve to the magnitude of their task, and they are willing to work toward seemingly impossible goals. But their message is a powerful one. As John Noonan, “In Nuclear Silos, Death Wears a Snuggie,” Wired, January 14, 2011, https://www.wired.com/2011/01/death-wears-a-snuggie/.one former Minuteman missileer reflected in 2011:

“We arrested a group of Catholic nuns staging a peaceful protest on one of our launch facilities a few years back. For a missileer who is a practicing Catholic, such a situation brings up questions: if women who have committed themselves to the Word of God feel so strongly about the immorality of nuclear weapons that they're willing to be confined for their convictions, what kind of Christian am I to sit at the launch switch?”

If the work of Plowshares and anti-nuclear activists can provoke this kind of questioning, not only among those who sit at the switch, but among all of us, then perhaps it will be possible to re-imagine the role of nuclear weapons and consider more seriously a world without them.

Sources

Broad, William J. and David E. Sanger. “As U.S. Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, ‘Smaller’ Leaves Some Uneasy.New York Times, January 11, 2016. Accessed July 30, 2020.

Bedsole, Bart. “Colorado Springs Remains a Prime Nuclear Target.KRDO News, January 18, 2018. Accessed July 30, 2020.

CNN. “Newsroom: General Mattis Answers Senate Questions in Confirmation Hearing.” January 12, 2017. Accessed July 30, 2020.

Collina, Tom. “Welcome to America’s ‘Nuclear Sponge’.Defense One, February 3, 2017. Accessed July 30, 2020.

Kennedy, Merrit. “Report: U.S. Nuclear System Relies on Outdated Technology such as Floppy Disks.” National Public Radio, May 26, 2106. Accessed July 30, 2020.

Magno, Paul. “The Plowshares Anti-nuclear Movement at 35: A Next Generation?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 72, no. 2 (2016): 85-88. DOI: 10.1080/00963402.2016.1145904.

Nepstad, Sharon Erickson. “Persistent Resistance: Commitment and Community in the Plowshares Movement.” Social Problems 51 no. 1 (2004): 43-60.

Noonan, John. “In Nuclear Silos, Death Wears a Snuggie.” Wired, January 14, 2011. Accessed July 30, 2020.

O’Connor, Tom. “U.S. and Russia Race to Build Nuclear Weapons They Can Actually Use Against Each Other.” Newsweek, Jan. 10, 2018. Accessed July 30, 2020.

Paltrow, Scott. “Special Report: In Modernizing Nuclear Arsenal, U.S. Stokes New Arms Race.” Reuters, November 21, 2017. Accessed July 30, 2020.

Panda, Ankit. “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Modernization.” Council on Foreign Relations, February 7, 2018 [last update]. Accessed July 30, 2020.

Taylor, Sarah McFarland. Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). “Information Technology: Federal Agencies Need to Address Aging Legacy Systems.” May 2016. Accessed April 3, 2021.

Wolf, Stephanie. “What Trump’s Proposed Defense Budget Could Mean for a Colorado Military Town.” Colorado Public Radio, March 20, 2017. Accessed July 30, 2020.
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