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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Dr. Strangelove

Many of us can recall the iconic movie, Dr. Stangelove, a legacy of the age of Atomic anxiety at the height of the Cold War in the 1960’s.  In the face of a Cuban missile crisis and daily shoe-pounding threats from the Soviets, the possibility of a nuclear war, intentional or accidental, seemed only too real then—as many feel it is today.


You may remember that the movie portrays the seat of-- one minute to the end of the world --decision making in typical Hollywood style. It is set in a cavernous room, dimly lit with a ring of overhead lights surrounding a circular conference table and a theatrically ominous atmosphere.   For generations, variations on that image of the so-called Strangelove room were conjured up in movies, a part of our collective zeitgeist.


In the mid-nineties, I had occasion to visit the Pentagon at the invitation of a colleague, an Air Force Captain who was responsible for the Joint Chief of Staff’s video services.  I got the full tour including the rooftop which sprouted a host of dishes and antennas as well as the JCS studio.  The final stop on the tour was the balcony overlooking the real Strangelove room.  I’ll cut to the chase—it was nothing like the movie.


It was a fairly large room, with desks for the various intelligence entities, NSA, CIA, and Military Intel officers each grouped around screens and communications consoles.  This is the room where threats are assessed—and if necessary, communicated to the President who will have all of about six minutes to decide on a course of action in response. Two large screen projection systems at either end of the room and--unlit during my tour--four displays indicate the DEFCON status from 5—business-as-usual, to level to 1—a state of readiness just prior to the initiation of a response.  I am told that the US has never reached DEFCON 1 and I hope that remains the case.


What struck me as I looked down on this room was how unprepossessing it really was.  The chairs and desks were standard government issue--aluminum with vinyl seats and desks of the same material all a drab gray in color.  The room itself, if memory serves, was equally drab.  As I stood there, I remember thinking to myself, “if the end of the world comes it is a lot more likely it will happen in a room like this than anything we might imagine.” In many ways the complete lack of drama about the place made it that much more chilling.


I’ve thought about that room often, not so much in the context of imagining the start of a nuclear meltdown but about the ordinary-ness the sheer everyday reality of it.  We are so conditioned by movies and television to imagine larger than life experiences even though we know on some level they are made up.  Reality isn’t always grim—it can be magnificent and breathtaking, dark and ominous, but more often than not it is simply mundane.

We make an extraordinary effort at set dressing and staging moments in our lives, adding rituals and ceremony to lend gravitas to what otherwise might feel just too ordinary, just too real. I wonder sometimes if all our efforts to elevate don’t leave us feeling hollow—the day after. We disguise reality with pomp and circumstance, but we know somewhere deep inside that no matter how well we pretend, we’re not that far from play acting.  When our narcissistic egos puff us up with pride, when we imagine ourselves as larger than life characters starring in our own reality show a healthy dose of reality is not only necessary but may be karmically overdue. 


The political arena is a stage too.  One in which politicians project heroic, larger than life images of themselves, and too often we buy into that seeing them in terms of good and evil struggling for our souls.  We should know better.  The noblest of our leaders over the years were just men and women –struggling, failing, and at best hoping they were getting things right.  At worst they were and are vainglorious, self-serving and ignoble.  That thought gets lost in the heightened drama of an election. 


We are best served by the reminder that the pursuit of power is a condemnation—our best leaders were those who rose to the occasion not those who avidly sought it.  What we want today is John Wayne, Charlton Heston and Jesus rolled into one person. We want heroes, but what we need are pragmatic servants of the public good. We don't need movie stars on movie sets, but real people wrestling with difficult and complex issues and doing the best they are able.  Doing what's real. 

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