No Lone Zone

At the height of the Cold War, the United States deployed over a thousand Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) in a network of underground complexes across the American landscape. These nuclear weapons made up one part of America’s vast deterrent force as it faced off against its ideological rival, the Soviet Union, until its collapse in 1992. Since the Cold War itself has faded from memory, so too have the lessons and fears these weapons once elicited in the general public. Yet the issue of unchecked nuclear proliferation has returned that fear to the forefront, especially as Cold War-era strategic thinking collides with an ever more chaotic post-Cold War world.

With much of America’s Cold War-era nuclear arsenal deactivated and dismantled today, there are a growing number of former missile sites whose mission is to preserve the history and memory of the period. These frozen time capsules are open to the public, catering to an array of nostalgic “nuclear tourists.” As “Shrines to an Armageddon,” they preserve the dramatic vestiges of a power that can destroy the world. The sites stand sentinel as potent reminders of American military might, but also serve as a cautionary tale for future generations.

Two such sites, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota and the Titan Missile Museum in Arizona, are the only remaining ICBM sites in the United States that not only allow visitors into the underground launch control center, but also to come face to face with a (nonfunctioning) intercontinental ballistic missile as well.

The project’s title refers to the Air Force’s mandatory two-person buddy system in place at all ICBM sites. This applied both to the on-duty officers on 24-hour alert in the launch control center and to the work crews tasked with maintaining the missiles. The policy was intended as a safety precaution and as a safeguard against potential sabotage. The images pair America’s most prolific ICBM (the Minuteman II) with its most powerful (the Titan II) and offer a calculated look at the nuts and bolts of Mutually Assured Destruction, the mad logic behind nuclear deterrence.

Throughout No Lone Zone the reader will encounter images that have been deliberately “glitched.” Broadly speaking, Glitch Art is the practice of using digital errors for aesthetic purposes by corrupting and/or manipulating an image’s file code. The glitches allude to the precarious nature of our nuclear command and control system and how the slightest alteration can lead to catastrophic results. For these glitches, a consistent baseline reference point is maintained across all of the images. To that end various iterations playing off of the Cold War-era “Permissive Action Link” (PAL) code of “00000000” are used.

Admittedly, the PAL code is a contested bit of urban legend. In 1962, the White House ordered codes to be installed despite objections from the United States Strategic Air Command, which worried the extra layer of security would delay the launch of missiles in the event of an emergency. Nonetheless, officials followed orders and began phasing in the locks… all the while supposedly setting the “secret unlock code” to eight zeroes. The veracity of this continues to be debated. To create the glitched images, the original digital image file is opened as raw text coding on a computer and through trial and error variations of eight zeros are integrated into the coding resulting in noticeable digital distortions when reopened as an image.

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