e n d n o t e s 


For all the good works, the money and the hospitals, the volunteer doctors, the aid projects, the dams and the schoolrooms, the truth is that it was an unequal war, and everyone knew it. There was no Viet Cong air force, let alone Viet Cong B-52 bombers, and no artillery fire bases (although in time the North Vietnamese would cause havoc with Russian-made mortars and rockets). I have no doubt that the Communists, if they had possessed the aircraft and bombs, would have used them far more ruthlessly than the Americans used them. As it was, they had tools that were much more effective in a people’s war. The basic and most useful question is not and never has been the effect of American firepower on the Vietnamese – it is the effect on the Americans, who bear responsibility for its use. It would somehow have seemed more reasonable if there were convincing evidence that the B-52 strikes and the artillery bombardments at night were helping the war effort, rather than hurting it. But there was no such evidence….

The population did not engage in the struggle. The Viet Cong did not regard American weaponry as decisive. And the inequality of the struggle, 500,000 men and their machines for so little advance, only increased American frustrations. It was unequal, and therefore unfair. It went against the American grain. When the guerrillas bombed a billet or assassinated a district chief, the Americans called it terrorism. They had to call it terrorism because guerrilla warfare did not fit the scheme of the war as they were fighting it….

But how could you change it? The war was not a tennis match., with seeds, or an auto grand prix with corrected times for the slower cars. You did what you had to do to win, or what you thought would bring victory closer…. How could millions of pounds of bombs over enemy targets conceivably be a failure? The logic was inescapable. In Vietnam a moderate was a man who thought that the only thing worse than winning the war was losing it, for what would come with defeat would be far worse than anything that would come with victory. So the war was fought, and a plausible and powerful case can be made that given the situation in 1965, all the combat troops should have been committed at once; once the interventionist course had been decided, the Americans then should have pressed ahead on a one hundred percent basis, with troop call-ups and rationing at home. But it happened piecemeal, and hindsight is an unfair tactic to use in talking about American policy in Vietnam. In prosecuting a conventional war against a skilled guerrilla army operating among, at best, an indifferent population, there was a heavy psychological price to pay. And the Americans were paying it.

Ward Just
          TO WHAT END

Number of Pop-Tarts dropped on Afghanistan as part of U.S. airborne food aid in the first month of bombing: 2,400,000 – “Harper’s Index,” Harper’s Magazine, January 2002 (Source: Defense Security Cooperation Agency, Arlington, Va.)




One December during the Eighties when I went back into Alaska, I spent several months in Fairbanks, living in an absent friend’s small house back on a ridge south of town. I had also been loaned a yellow truck, a rattletrap, that belonged to a hunting guide who was wintering in the mountains. The weather was very cold; but the highway was dry and easy to travel on, once the truck was running, and I was driving into town, wrapped in a mood that was sharp-eyed, solitary, and expectant.

Along the roadside the birches thinned into a small clearing. At the edge of this clearing I saw an apparition. Near the trees stood a remarkably tall, graceful young woman. Winter birds, redpolls and the tiny buntings, nestled in the crook of her arm.

I thought: Not Rilke’s angels, but animals, who watch their people and their tormenters from the forest’s edge.

Now I am at home in cities in ways no longer possible to me in the North. In those days I was young and resolutely innocent; my eyes were wide open; and I am convinced that what I saw was real. Afterward, I returned to the East Coast, to a reasonable, secular life, and I grew wary of the imminent unseen.

I noticed sharply the alteration in myself in Fairbanks last August, where, on a week’s visit, I felt as if I had stepped back into another era, faintly remembered. The disheartening surprise was that so much was familiar. Fairbanks will never be a city; it is still a frontier town, where the tensions between whites and Natives are still tightly wound. But where was the frontier, ideological homeland of so many Alaskans, now? Where was the boundary that, at times, can be crossed, though never freely, only on sufferance?

A book of mine, an account of a mythopoeic journey into the interior of Alaska, had been published, and I wanted to know if a certain woman, a major figure in it, approved of what I had written. For, though she had been my friend and my teacher, an uncertainty exists between writer and subject when they have been like mother and daughter, but live far apart in very different worlds. The great world had changed in 1989, as I had observed in the foreword, because (following the argument of the historian John Lukacs) our historical consciousness had changed. In 1989, proposed Lukacs, the twentieth century ended. And so, I had looked backward across a global dividing line.

Also, I was worried about her health. And also, I wanted to see if the Alaska I had once known was still visible, or whether life outside had altered my vision entirely. In what century, though, did Alaska live? I wanted to look beneath the fraught surface – the military-industrial complex that organized so much of the Alaskan economy was gearing up for enormous projects, promising new infusions of money into the populace – and see the connective tissue underneath. Long ago I had learned that everything in that country is connected to everything else; stories unfold and fold back, one into another. More directly, the old Koyukon Athabaskans talked of sinh’ talaa, a sort of spirit of energy running through the ground. “The land knows,” they would say. “Everything you do, the land knows.”


Beforehand, I had heard a good deal of talk about development. More oil drilling, possibly in ANWR (the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve; the House voted in favor of it while I was there); more coal mining (there are large beds of lignite, a sulfurous, inferior grade of coal found in the Interior), a gas pipeline proposed, to run part-way at least parallel to the oil line; and the first steps taken on the new administration’s favored project, the Missile Defense Shield. President Bush had announced that he intended to violate the ABM treaty (1972) the U.S. had signed with Russia unless Russia agreed to abrogation. Around the state there seemed, generally, to be enthusiasm for all of these possibilities, I was told. An old friend well-connected to business people who are enthusiasts of the outdoors explained why: because development meant money. Because during the Nineties, when the rest of America was getting rich on dot-com schemes and the bull market, Alaska was left behind, and people felt that now it was their turn to do well. That sounded familiar, the Jacksonian-democratic grudge against those who seemed to do better than oneself, for whatever reason.

My old friend, a retired professor, met me at the airport – the plane touched down at midnight; in early August the sky is all but dark – and we had a beer, late, at the Capt. Bartlett Inn. The Capt. Bartlett is a grubby-“authentic” little hotel/motel where for some reason I like to spend the first night when I go back. The rooms are small, ugly, and overheated, with cardboard-thin walls; it doesn’t matter, the staff is friendly. In the saloon – swinging doors, sawdust floor, mounted animal heads, cheerful, pretty young waitresses – I went directly to my subject: energy. I wanted to know what the real issues were, on the ground, so to speak. Over the phone, I had doubted his analysis. I thought that he had stayed too long in the North and lost his old intellectual acuity. Back East, I couldn’t see what he was talking about; having landed, I saw it already, although I could not explain what I saw; perhaps some sense of that it leaked through our conversation.

He said the energy issues didn’t seem so important here, in the larger sense. If the energy conglomerate wanted to build a gas pipeline many people, even environmentalists, sounded excited at the prospect. If the conglomerate thought there would be adequate return on investment, then they would build; meanwhile, they would sort of toy with people. Same with the coal barons: if they could make enough by digging more coal and sending it to Japan and Korea, then they would dig. Fort Greely and the missile defense shield: we didn’t talk about this. About ANWR I asked a question that he said had not been asked. I will come back to that question.

Larger than the energy issues, he said, is something else that he couldn’t quite put his hands on, but it looked like fear. Everyone was afraid. Of what? I asked. What, for instance, was the governor’s office afraid of? He had used that example. The governor was a Democrat; he reminded me that since statehood, the only Republican governor had been Walter Hickel, a land developer who had also been Nixon’s Secretary of the Interior. He said he couldn’t see much difference between the Democrats and the Republicans – they both seemed willing to fight to the death before compromising. He believed that people in groups ought to compromise, so that they could do business together. A compromise was when all sides gave up something and came to an agreement that made no one happy but all could live with. In Alaska, though, the fear was something like this, he said: that whatever people think of themselves as being – not in the rat race, at least; not working a job so they could mow the lawn on the weekend – was going away, or perhaps had already gone away; and you couldn’t say it was because of the reach of the transnational corporations. I replied that, after 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, I knew already what the great change in the world was going to mean, because I had seen it in Alaska: the big corporations governed in a way national governments did not, and we were all part of “the economy,” which had replaced what we had called society, our civic life. He observed that in the West, i.e., Western America, that had always been true, but that people didn’t see that as the important point. The important point was, they saw themselves as living a certain way, independently, with enough space around them in which to move without being directed in social lock-step. But in the last seven or eight years, that sense of independence had begun to change, he said, and white people were very afraid that whatever they thought their lives were, before, had already changed irrevocably.

I asked, what it would really mean if a few holes were punched in ANWR. He replied that he didn’t know, and didn’t know if anyone really knew. Would it affect the caribou? Don’t they adapt? I asked. He didn’t know, he said. He had a friend who was high up in the Park Service administration, who had “vast reservations” about the Bush administration’s energy plan. He said the administrator had told him grimly that he had witnessed how the caribou on the North Slope have been “interfered with” by the pipeline. But he doubted his friend would want to talk to me, because I was a writer. I asked who I should approach. Celia Hunter, he suggested, a founder of the Alaska Conservation Society. She had been around a long, long time and knew her way and wasn’t given to easy answers.

I said the question interested me because it seemed to me that, politically, ANWR is thought about in categories and analogies rather than as a living territory. The technology of drilling oil is vastly improved. Wildlife can be closely observed. Jobs are promised. Why, then, did the Gwich’in Athabaskans of Arctic Village, up there north of the Brooks Range, not want drilling to take place on the Coastal Plain along the Beaufort Sea? During the oil boom, their corporation had sunk some (dry) holes. They explained that they had drilled in areas not essential to the caribou, on which they lived. What did they want to keep – and what did they want to keep out? The Inupiat of the North Slope did want drilling, because they had benefited handsomely from it. The developers and the Teamsters wanted drilling; the environmentalists did not. Perhaps drilling in ANWR was like the death penalty, I said: as execution by the state became more “humane,” and people became more frightened by crime, had putting criminals to death not become more politically acceptable? Was that a useful analogy? What was the right analogy? Not the old canard “pristine wilderness” – it was stale, and what did it mean? Humans had always lived off the Alaskan land, centuries before it was called wilderness.

So, I had a question and it felt provocative. By then it was so late that the bar was actually closing. We had a final beer. As always, he wouldn’t let me pay. I left feeling disoriented.


Alaska is impossible to comprehend unless one understands that the fundamental social and political fight, not to put too fine a point on it, among the half-million inhabitants of the state is, Who controls the lands? That is, who sets hunting regulations and fishing quotas; who decides what areas are open to subsistence and commercial uses; who designates what classes of the population are eligible to use the land’s resources, the animals and fish, for family and personal consumption, and regulates where commercial ventures can operate? What stakes do the Alaska Native regional and village corporations have in the extraction and exploitation of surface and sub-surface non-renewable resources, such as gravel, gold, mercury, and oil? What powers does the Federal government have to set and enforce hunting and fishing regulations, as against the powers of the State? What is the limit of sovereignty – since aboriginal rights were extinguished by the Settlement Act – held by Native corporations over their lands? What is “subsistence,” and where is “rural” Alaska?

Before trying to answer any one of these questions – they cannot not be answered in this aide-mémoiré but they hover in the background – one must remember that in 1971, the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Nixon. The Act, known as ANCSA, settled forty-four million acres and nearly a hundred million dollars onto the Alaska Native peoples (the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Eyak, Athabaskan, Yup’ik, Inupiat, Aleut, et al.); but land and money were distributed among a new kind of governing structure, the for-profit corporation. Two tiers of these corporations were mandated by the law, and every person recognized as an Alaska Native received shares in two corporations: the regional corporation which in general covered traditional lands of his or her tribal/linguistic group (Athabaskan, Inupiat, etc.), and the village corporation representing the place from which he or she came. Urban Natives were covered by a special category.

The corporations were given twenty years in which to organize and grow profitable; during that time, shares were not alienable to non-Natives. At a blow, Alaska Native people had come face to face with the power of capital and were confronted by its engines, corporate finance and the market. They had had to comprehend what it meant to own their homeland by deed, and to become capitalists in order to keep and manage their remaining lands. They had to make sense of capitalism, as the Central and Eastern European nations have had to do, and in somewhat similar ways.

Nevertheless, in material terms the Settlement Act has meant success for many people. The thirteen regional corporations, at least, have become profitable, distributing often-handsome dividends to their shareholders. At least two of the Inupiat corporations, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, based in Barrow, and NANA, in Kotzebue, are beneficiaries of oil royalties as well. In effect, their non-profit arms are congruent with regional government. Their for-profit companies employ shareholders, that is, the villagers who are their own people. It was explained to me, for example, that NANA owns construction companies which follow an enlightened and traditional practice of rotating jobs among the available villagers seeking work, so that, where more people than jobs exist, the jobs are shared to everyone’s benefit. It seems to me that one of the important stories about Native people is the effect of wealth and home rule, particularly on the North Slope. The Inupiat of the North Slope corporations have an enormous advantage, as do the Canadian Native peoples, because they control their own lands, resources, schools, and access. This does not make them amenable, necessarily, to an outsider’s questions, but it does let them decide how to act for their mutual benefit.


The next day I drove down the Alaska Highway to a little town on the banks of the Tanana River, where Malfa Ivanov lives. She is a remarkable woman. In her late sixties, often nearly invalided by serious, chronic diseases, she is still called upon by Native corporations to conduct workshops in cross-cultural relations. (She has a masters degree in education from Harvard.) When I lived in the Interior she took me under her wing as if I were her daughter, in part to protect me – the country was not kind to women traveling alone, particularly if they were writers – in part because she felt I might be taught about Native ways and speak about them to the outside world. And, perhaps in part it was because I needed her. In those days her equally remarkable husband, Frederick, was alive. For thirty years they had owned and run the only Native-owned barge line serving villages on the rivers of the Interior. For all those summers they had traveled the Yukon, the Koyukuk, Porcupine, the Kuskokwim, the Tanana. In winter, she taught school in their home village, out on the Yukon, whose Athabaskan name meant In the Shelter of the Hill; while Frederick ran a trap line. It was work he loved, and she loved him for it. Frederick was Athabaskan, of Russian descent, and his family name was an influential one in the Interior. Malfa was the child of an Aleut mother, who died when Malfa was six, and a French-American father, a seaman from New Hampshire; but she had been brought up in the old mission orphanage in Shelter, and had married Frederick at sixteen. What a life of adventure they had lived. Their summer base was in this river town, where she had retired after his death.

I had not seen my friend in more than two years. Twice, she had nearly died. Even now she was so ill. She said, “I really feel fine, it’s just that my body isn’t doing too well.” While I was her guest, she had planned to invite a gathering of women who would, she hoped, remind me, who had been away so long, what Native life meant; but this was not possible.

Instead, she lay on her comfortable couch and we talked for hours. I wanted to know what she thought about the energy issues and laid out my questions. I said I was thinking of writing an article. She replied with a caution I remembered well, rooted in the old fear of writers that Native people feel, reflexively, I think. A gentle but long inquiry began. She asked, once more and despite our long friendship, why I had come there originally, and what I really wanted to learn. What did I mean when I wrote that the world had changed? The mixture of her fine, deep mind, at play when she spoke about the life she had known for so long, with a startling naivetÈ about the complexity of the world outside, was new. The end of the Soviet Union and the dominance of Western globalism were abstractions to people like her, with all her experience, who took as real that which they could see and verify. Despite the gloom of my friend the professor, they did still think, stubbornly, that they were individuals making their own lives, untouched by larger invisible forces. The outside would always look greedy and invasive, and the discussion would always begin as an opposition of Native and non-Native points of view. I let myself become quiet, until I could listen; but I felt how distant I had become from her.

That night the House of Representatives voted to open ANWR to drilling. She had a satellite dish and watched a lot of television, a diversion from her constant pain, I think. We watched the vote on C-SPAN. It wasn’t clear that the Senate would follow suit, though the Alaskan senators, Stevens and Murkowsky, warned that the coming fight would be bitter. (In early December, the Senate voted it down.) I thought that if drilling occurred, the disaster would be not simply ecological; and that that would be relatively minor compared to the damage done – all over again – to Alaskan society. In the News-Miner I had just read that a large Federal grant had been awarded for study and mitigation of domestic violence in the State. In 1976, the year I first arrived, Alaska was known to have the highest rate of domestic violence in the country. Had nothing changed, nothing been learned?

While the House debated, Malfa made a comment that made me sit up, as she meant it to do. Her son-in-law is a whaling captain from Point Hope – perhaps there is no higher achievement for an Inupiaq, and he was barely forty – and an executive in the regional corporation. She said he thought it would be a good idea if some young men from the North Slope went to talk to some young men from the Gwich’in about the benefits of making money. She added that it would take generations before people know how to use so much money. She noticed the materialism displayed in their homes and, remembering dire want, was disturbed by the wastefulness and extravagance of it: the big-screen TVs, game stations, computers, latest all-terrain vehicles, and so on. She thought their spiritual life was still sound, however, and believed that if there were a disaster and they lost their income from stock dividends, they could still survive on the old knowledge.

But one sentence was always off-set by another, opposite one, as she described the situation. The story I followed had taken a turn, while my friend strove to embrace these contradictions that disturbed and worried her.

One day, she had company: a woman about whom I had heard for years but never met dropped by. Twenty-five years ago she had been known as the fiery young mayor of her Koyukon Athabaskan village, speaking out for Native rights in an way uncommon for a woman of the Interior. Now she lived here, temporarily, she said, and worked as a cook at the local quick-stop. Malfa was polite. They talked about the deficiencies and implied racism of the local high school, and the woman was critical of the Native parents for their fear of political activism. This was the wrong thing to say to Malfa, who had for years spoken out on behalf of Native parents, and whose grandson, a Marine (I remembered him as a little boy running in and out of the house) was the only Native student to graduate in some years. The visit ended on a cool note. Malfa was displeased and, when we were alone, explained, as if having to teach me all over again, that the woman’s tongue was too bold for an Athabaskan. This, from my old friend, who during the War on Poverty in the Sixties had been trained by Yukon elders to speak publicly on behalf of her people; who had been known as a fighter. For now, at least, she had adopted the ideology of what makes an Athabaskan woman an “Athabaskan”: it depended on demeanor; she sounded an old, old dismay at fast-talking outsiders and their rude interruptions. But, for the first time, I wondered whether the demeanor she preferred, the deference, the dignified avoidance of confrontation, had not evolved from poverty, isolation, and domination by the priests and nuns who had reared so many children in the old mission. It is said of the Athabaskans that they are still unwilling to fight for themselves, to be confrontational. It was a grave weakness, I thought, because their opponents do not, in turn, become deferential, they fight to win! That is how all the social questions here are dealt with: as win/lose fights. If people refuse to fight for themselves, who shall fight for them? But Athabaskans do not control the Interior as the Inupiat do the North Slope, but always must gauge their weight against the white rednecks’ and liberals’ and that of the corporate men.

A bookstore in Fairbanks invited me to come in and sign copies of my book. For two hours I sat at a table and observed how people behave around an author who – maybe; they didn’t know – might be famous. Several people with whom I had long ago lost touch but was very glad to see stopped to say hello. Malfa fell into intense conversation with a professor from the university. Finally, as I was thinking of packing up, an older woman dressed in sporty sweat-gear bought a book. She was a retired teacher from Ohio about to leave for Unalakleet. She had just done a little tour of the Anchorage area, the glaciers, and Denali Park, and was about to head out to a village on the Bering Sea coast, with no idea of where she was going and whom she was going to be teaching. I explained that this book was about a journey among Athabaskans, not Inupiat, but that it might help her understand that when people acted in ways different than she expected – if the students did not make eye contact with her, for example, but kept their gaze politely down or aside – nonetheless, their acts were meaningful and followed the protocol of respect shown a teacher, the person who was responsible for their learning.

After all these years, teachers, those essential people, were still going out to the Native public schools without any preparation – none! – for the place where they would live and work, nor for the people whose children would be put into their care. And village life could be unbearably squalid; and her culture shock would be massive; and she would not know what afflicted her.

Malfa had said nothing about my book but, in a little aside, mentioned an Athabaskan author whose recounting of an old tale about two old women who sacrificed themselves for their people was what publishers call a phenomenon. It had sold well and widely; even my local bookstore carried it. The author was pleased to have earned enough to take care of all her debts and her family as well; but the story she told, said Malfa, “belonged” to everyone in the village, and many of the older people felt a deep sense of communal shame that it had been written and let out to the public. I suggested that readers would not condemn those old-time people for the hard choices they had once had to make, but would view them with sympathy as complex adults facing the unyielding exigencies of a hard life. She was unconvinced; and I was discouraged. Perhaps her comment was meant for me: that I had told too much. I said that when people have to live with secrets and shame, they get sick from them. And I did feel that much of village sickness – so many deaths, loss, a deep, unuttered sense of defeat – had to do with feeling pried open, spied upon by strangers; but this was never going to change.

Toward the end of the week, I telephoned Dan O’Neill, a writer and journalist I knew slightly in the mid-Eighties, who writes a generally progressive, always skeptical column for the daily paper. He is the author of THE FIRECRACKER BOYS, a history of Project Chariot, the plan devised in the late 1950s by Edward Teller, the “father” of the American hydrogen bomb, to set off an enormous thermonuclear explosion on the northwest coast near Point Hope. It is a sobering story and intimately connected to the history of the land claims movement, yet fantastic even in retrospect. In selling their idea to the public, Teller and his colleagues at Lawrence Livermore Research Laboratory found ingenious ways to justify their nuclear experiment. They claimed that it would demonstrate the “peaceful use” of atomic energy by excavating a natural harbor for commercial use (above the Arctic Circle, where there was little connecting transport); that the “shot” would only be made if it produced economically viable results (although they had no plans to develop the harbor, which would in any case have been ice-bound much of the year); that the radiation produced would be less than the amount already existing in the atmosphere (carefully dissembling the fact that background radiation to which ordinary people are normally exposed would be doubled, the effects of which doubling were unknown, though the possibilities alarmed geneticists); and that, in any case, the detonation would take place in the wilderness far from human habitation (in a hunting area used regularly by the Inupiat of Point Hope, near one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites on the North American continent). All of these reasons were implausible or false. Teller and his “firecracker boys” in fact wanted to see what would happen when a large thermonuclear device was detonated at a certain depth underground.

In his careful narrative, which he calls “historical investigative journalism, perhaps,” O’Neill steadily lays out evidence for our examination of how “the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and its successor agency, the Department of Energy, compiled a stunning record of willful manipulation of facts.” For, in fact, the proposed “shot” would also benefit the military’s weapons-testing, as Teller and his colleagues acknowledged secretly – even as President Eisenhower was negotiating with Premier Kruschev a limited moratorium on nuclear testing. He quotes the former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall on the true significance of the project: “There is nothing comparable in our history to the deceit and the lying that took place as a matter of official Government policy in order to protect [the nuclear arms] industry. Nothing was going to stop them and they were willing to kill our own people.”

In tone the book is measured and comprehensive, anchored by the weight and breadth of its evidence. In its view of its subject, it is a radical history, and a people’s history. In an afterward explaining his reasoning and intent, O’Neill argues that

[a]t issue is the capacity and tendency of a government agency to circumvent the lawful administration of pubic affairs in order to advance its own agenda. Behind such institutional corruption may be a desire to save the country from a threat that, it is claimed, the citizenry does not fully appreciate. The fallacy, of course, is that, in the process, the zealots trample the very institutions they rush to protect. Rationalizations that bypass the public in matters of public policy threaten democracy in the most basic way: they usurp what Jefferson called the “ultimate powers of society” from their only “safe repository…the people themselves.” It is not too exaggerated to say, as Stewart Udall has done, that “the atomic weapons race and the secrecy surrounding it crushed American democracy.”

Dan O’Neill’s righteous, appalled indignation is that of the citizen who believes that “[a] reverence for such ideals as justice and truth is understood to be among the philosophic underpinnings of democratic governments.” He ends with an admonition that rings particularly clear as I write this, as the president amasses enormous powers to his office while his attorney general discourages dissent: “The lesson Project Chariot offers is that a free society must be a skeptical one, that rigorous questioning and dissent protect, rather than subvert, our freedoms.”

When I spoke to him, however, it was early August, and I was trying to learn what Alaskans were thinking about an energy policy and the prospect of huge development projects that were going to come down on them. He drew my attention to a matter growing out of the nuclear-testing years, that had become immediate. We knew that President Bush had announced he was going to begin taking steps that would lead to the American violation of the ABM treaty. Nearly certain was the construction of a national missile defense test site, a continuation of the old “Star Wars,” at Fort Greely, an army base near the small communities of Delta Junction, Big Delta and Clearwater on the Alaska Highway. This would be the first concrete move in the sequence leading to abrogation of the treaty. He told me there was an active, knowledgeable citizen’s group, the Alaska and Circumpolar Coalition against Missile Defense and the Weaponization of Space, popularly called “No Nukes North,” whose members had for some time been collecting data and relevant information about the dangers of NMD, as the national missile defense shield scheme is abbreviated. He urged me to look at their website and, if possible, speak to one of the organizers. I asked if he would write a piece about this for Archipelago. He had already written what he intended to write, he said, three columns published in the late ‘90s in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner; I could find them posted on the No Nukes North website.

Dan O’Neill may be the Karl Krauss - Will Rogers of the North. Early on, he took a sardonic bead on the crafty looniness of the missile-shield enterprise. “Let’s imagine, for a moment,” he wrote in a column published in 1998, “that the military was interested in our ideas on the important questions, that it held a real town meeting, and that an absolutely truthful colonel took public comments and questions from the floor. Here’s how it might go:”

PUBLIC: Can you say a little about the history of the ABM idea?

COLONEL: Certainly. It was promoted in 1960 by Father of the H-bomb, Edward Teller. At the time, Teller was also proposing to excavate an instant harbor in Alaska by detonating a string of nuclear bombs. His ABM idea was to launch nuclear-tipped rockets that would explode in the vicinity of incoming missiles and knock them out. Scientists called the idea costly and ineffective. But we built one such ABM facility anyway. In North Dakota. It protected only a battery of our own ICBM’s. It was finished in 1975, at a cost of $7 billion, and scrapped the next year. Congress determined its upkeep was a waste of money.

PUBLIC: Didn’t the Star Wars program come next?

COLONEL: Exactly. The Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, was the most expensive military program in the history of the world. By far. Tens of billions were spent on little more than the hope of a laser missile defense system. Weapons scientists called it “a fraud” and “impossible to accomplish.” Defense contractors thought it was the next best thing to printing your own money. Needless to say, the system does not exist.

PUBLIC: So now you guys are back pushing a scaled-down version?

COLONEL: Correct.

PUBLIC: Will this one work?

COLONEL: Not really, no. You see, there are easier ways for an Iran or a Libya to attack the US than to try to build ICBM’s. They could smuggle a bomb across one of our borders. Or bring one into a city’s harbor onboard a ship. Or launch a short-range missile from a ship offshore. If they did build an ICBM, they could build ones that release multiple decoys, thereby reducing our chances of hitting the actual warhead (assuming that we figure out how to hit one at all-our last nine tests have failed). And remember, the missile defense system we are proposing would only build 20 interceptors. So, for $10 billion (our critics say much more) we would not be buying any real security.

PUBLIC: Tell me again why we should do this.

COLONEL: It will deliver mega-dollar hardware and construction contracts to the home states of some pretty influential senators.

PUBLIC: Like Alaska?

COLONEL: Affirmative. Sen. Ted Stevens says he doesn’t care where the ABM is based, just so long as it can defend all 50 states. Well, North Korea is just 2,000 miles from Attu Island at the end of the Aleutian Chain. North Dakota is nearly 4,000 miles from Attu. So even if North Dakota could launch an interceptor at the same instant that North Korea launched an ICBM toward Attu, the Korean missile would get there first. Sen. Stevens has got this figured.

PUBLIC: OK, I see what’s in it for the politicians and the recipients of pork. But what’s in it for you?

COLONEL: A $600,000 salary at one of the missile defense contractors after I retire from government service.

PUBLIC: Is there anything we can do about this?

COLONEL: Yes sir. You can insist on culverts.


If the people at No Nukes North are correct – and they back up their argument with seemingly accurate data, scientific papers, and Defense Department reports – the larger goal of NMD is the “weaponization” of space, which the United States would dominate. As construction of the test site continues, here are some facts to consider about Fort Greely, according to Dan O’Neill:

In 1962, the first “portable” nuclear power plant to be built in the field attained criticality at Fort Greely, Alaska…. The reactor operated for ten years as low-level radioactive waste was pumped into nearby Jarvis Creek and into a well drilled for that purpose.

When the U.S. military considered where in the world to test deadly nerve gas and germ-warfare agents, they chose Alaska. At the secret Gerstle River Test Site, part of the 1,200-square-mile Fort Greely Military Reserve in Interior Alaska, the army experimented with some of the most deadly chemical agents known to man. Mustard gas and the lethal nerve gases known as VX and GB were packed into rockets and artillery shells and either launched or fired from howitzers into the spruce forests and marshes of the Gerstle River area. Of course, not every piece of ordnance detonates as it is supposed to do, and “the test area remains a no-man’s- land,” according to a military historian.

Sixty miles east of the Gerstle River testing grounds, the army selected a site near Delta Creek as a place to test bacterial disease agents in the open air. It was one of only two locations in the United States where germ-warfare organisms are acknowledged to have been released into the environment. In 1966 and 1967 the army’s tests at Delta Creek sought to determine the effectiveness of the tularemia bacteria in subarctic conditions. Tularemia (after Tulare County, California, where it was first found) in insects, birds, fish, and water. It is an acute infectious disease related to bubonic plague. Onset symptoms occur suddenly and include extreme weakness, headache, recurring chills. and drenching sweats from high fever. Untreated, death occurs in about 6 percent of cases.

In one incident uncovered by the Alaskan scholar and investigative reporter Richard Fineberg, the army lost hundreds of rockets laden with an aggregate ton of lethal nerve gas. The rockets, which were slated to be destroyed, were stacked on a frozen lake in the winter of 1965. But, for some reason, the soldiers failed to retrieve the rockets before the spring thaw and they sank to the bottom of the lake, apparently forgotten. In a few years, with personnel turnover, the story of lethal nerve gas rockets lying at the bottom of one of the lakes in the military reserve slipped into local folklore. In 1969, a new commander at the test center followed on the rumors, however, and tracked the evidence to a lake about a mile from the Gerstle River facility. He ordered it pumped dry, and more 200 nerve-gas rockets—one leaking—were recovered. A small drop of stuff on the skin can kill a human being in minutes.

The military undertook a general “cleanup” of the Gerstle Test Site in 1970, though perhaps it is more accurate to say the contaminants were “consolidated.” The army simply heaped up 4 million pounds of chemical munitions, gas masks, contaminated clothing, and equipment into two mounds and covered them with dirt. An attempt to transfer the “restored” land to the Bureau of Land Management resulted in declining the offer. The army cannot certify that the land is decontaminated because, as one historian has written, “when the program terminated in the late 1960s, records of the testing inexplicably disappeared and remain missing, apparently destroyed. What files remain confirm sloppy record-keeping which failed to identify the type of weapons being tested or how and when they were disposed of.”

About Point Hope he made a sobering discovery that should be widely known and not forgotten:

In the fall of 1992 the people of Point Hope painfully revisited the Chariot controversy. In August of that year I passed on to an official of the Point Hope village corporation, and to the Alaska Military Network, documents uncovered while researching this book. The letters and memoranda showed that before abandoning the Chariot camp, government scientists had buried nuclear waste near the site. Shortly, banner headlines in the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska’s largest newspaper, proclaimed, NUCLEAR WASTE DUMP DISCOVERED: ARCHIVES REVEAL ‘60s CHUKCHI TEST SITE; OFFICIALS HUSTLE TO DETERMINE HAZARD. The thirty-year-old documents described how the Atomic Energy Commission had contracted with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to conduct experiments with radioactive tracers at the Chariot site. And they show that when the experiment was finished, the scientists illegally buried quantities of certain radioisotopes 1,000 times in excess of federal regulations. According to the documents, the AEC had asked the USGS to submit the funding proposal. And, the documents suggest, the experiment was not specifically related to Project Chariot, or even to Plowshare.

….The total amount of radioactivity, as reported in the documents, was twenty-six millicuries (twenty-six thousandths of one curie). However, there could have been as much as five curies of radiation transported to Ogotoruk Creek [a traditional hunting area of Point Hopers]; the USGS had asked the AEC for permission to transport that amount, and permission had been granted. Five curies would represent a third of the radiation that was said to have vented in the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history: the Three Mile Island mishap…..

At the stream site, the men put five and a half pounds of contaminated soil, 3.2 millicuries of radioactivity, directly into the creek. Then they collected samples of the water at twenty, forty, and sixty feet down-stream to show the dispersal of the suspended particles and to measure the “resulting wave of radioactivity that passed downstream.”

To decontaminate the plots after the experiment, the men excavated the soggy soil and vegetation down to a depth where only background levels of radiation were detectable. This amount of contaminated earth, which now totaled about 15,000 pounds, they loaded into fifty-five-gallon drums and hauled to a spot midway between two of the plots. They dumped the din out of the drums and threw the contaminated boards into the pile. This heap measured about 4 feet high and covered about 400 square feet. The material could not be buried in a pit because even by August the soil had only thawed to a depth of about two feet. Instead, one of the equipment operators brought up a bulldozer from the camp and pushed about four feet of clean dirt over top of the waste pile. And then the scientists left.

Of course, the 3.2 millicuries put into the stream was not recovered. Presumably the “wave of radioactivity” flowed down Snowbank Creek, into Ogotoruk Creek, and on down to the sea. Other scientists working at the Chariot camp were unaware of this fact, even though the camp’s water supply – for drinking, cooking, and washing – came not from a well, but from Ogotoruk Creek.

The radioactive material lay buried and forgotten for thirty years, almost exactly to the day. The site was not fenced or labeled or marked as off limits. No one monitored it over the years even though the porous nature of the uncompacted mound “could have allowed the radionuclides to leach out with rainfall,” according to a 1993 scientific review. No one had bothered to consult with the people of Point Hope about dumping nuclear waste on land they claimed. And no one told them of the dump’s existence after the fact.

The disposal contravened the Code of Federal Regulations, which limited the quantities of specific isotopes that may be buried in soil. Specifically, the cesium 137 and strontium 85 “exceeded one thousand times the amounts specified” in the law, according to federal regulators. Also contrary to the federal code, said regulators, was the fact that “no records were maintained of the byproduct materials disposed of by burial.” Finally, the disposal was in direct violation of the Department of the Interior permit that allowed the AEC to occupy the Cape Thompson region. That permit stated unequivocally that “nothing in this permit shall be construed to authorize the contamination of any portion of the lands....”

Not a “pristine wilderness,” Alaska, but a heartbreaking land that, after the wars, people are going to be cleaning up for a long, long time. Dan O’Neill writes of the great “contempt for the Arctic world” shown by American, and also Soviet, military and industrial adventurers. I would add that a twist of irony, an upending, a reversal of redemption to betrayal and back again, marks any true story of Alaska.

About four weeks after I left, Malfa and I talked by phone. In the course of the conversation she told me that a contract had just been signed for clearance and clean-up of Fort Greely to prepare it as a test site for the missile defense shield. Her son-in-law had been one of the negotiators. The construction firm of which he was part, a subsidiary of the NANA Regional Corporation, would begin work in late summer. She was suitably proud of him and pleased that a Native company had competed successfully for the job. But I remembered something else about him which I could not find a way to express, in view of what I had read about the contamination of Point Hope and Fort Greely. Her accomplished son-in-law was a grandson of the artist and journalist from Point Hope – his name is honored in Alaskan memory – who had organized statewide Native opposition to Project Chariot.

My friend the professor phoned to tell me Celia Hunter died on December 2. She was co-founder, former executive secretary, and principal spokesperson of the Alaska Conservation Society, opponent of Project Chariot, former national executive director of the Wilderness Society. According to one report, “The night before she died, Hunter was on the telephone compiling a list of senators who were on the fence regarding a scheduled vote Monday in the U.S. Senate about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

Malfa’s health continued to worry me and, with persistence, I finally talked to her in mid-month. She had been hospitalized for a week, she admitted, but then had come back to teach a workshop for Doyon, the huge Athabaskan corporation. Her class had been oil men: managers, whites, the first day; roustabouts, mostly Native, the second. Her topic: how they could work together despite their cultural differences. She laughed lightly and said she had enjoyed the roustabouts, because she knew how to get along with them. Since the price of crude was down, I asked why the oil companies were hiring. She said the men had told her they might not get hired right away but wanted the training, because the talk was, soon there were going to be lots of jobs in the Russian oilfields.




The year was 1983. A Haida lawyer who was the husband of a friend of mine came on business to Fairbanks, where I was living then, and we met for coffee. Subsistence rights – the word “subsistence” when used by Natives means “our way of life,” including hunting and fishing for family and communal use in long-used territories – were as controversial and bitterly-fought an issue then as they are now. For some years I had lived and traveled in the Interior and had been shown aspects of that life that I thought should be made known. He suggested that I write a long essay on the ceremony of the hunt, because, he thought, I could do it accurately and with good intentions, and he arranged for a little grant from the BIA, “so you can keep body and soul together.”

As a background to the essay, I was asked to attend a meeting in Anuktuvuk Pass, a Nunamiut (Inupiat) village in the Brooks Range. The village was enclosed by the Gates of the Arctic National Park, which was called the last great wilderness in our nation. The people there found suddenly that their widespread hunting lands had been placed under federal rule. Only part of their old territories remained open to them, and then only under close restrictions.

I had never gone so far north – into the fabled Brooks Range! With three agents from the BIA I caught the mail plane from Fairbanks to Bettles Field, where we met the connecting twin-engine mail plane to Anuktuvuk. Not long after takeoff, we entered the mountains.

The plane was nearly full. Along with the BIA staff and me there were two Park Service rangers, an Inupiaq translator, one or two local passengers, and the pilot and the copilot. All of them were old hands on the flight.

A long narrow pass opened between mountains that soared above us on both sides of the defile. From the window I could watch as crags and rocks, tones of color, shadows and light slipped behind us smoothly, at an easy pace. It had already been a long day, though it was just after lunch and still light. The other passengers dozed or looked lost in their own thoughts, and the translator buried his head in the Fairbanks paper.

The mountains were alive, sentient: eyes everywhere. One mountain was an enormous bear lying on is paws watching us. Its gaze was intelligent and slightly bemused. With a deep, slightly delayed, shock of acknowledgement, I looked at it and did a small double-take. It watched us. He was a bear. It was a mountain. He was a bear, mountain.

The plane pushed forward through the transparent air. I looked, then looked away, and back again. The bear looked at us. The plane flew steadily on into the depths of the mountains. They looked like mountains. I glanced at the translator, who had relatives in Anuktuvuk; he was still engrossed in his newspaper. The pilot never wavered on his course. In the cabin, no one moved in his seat. I had caught myself before crying out in surprise and felt calm and alert, but passive, as after a shock.

It occurred to me that it could have knocked us out of the sky with a flick of a paw. With an inward stutter, I thanked it for allowing the plane to pass, as it passed through every day. I wondered at, and was grateful for, the patience of the mountains.

I lost sight of it as the plane followed the curve of the pass. This was November; it was cold, about twenty-five degrees below zero. The village was set high in the mountains and surrounded by snow-covered peaks. The air was heady and bracing. That night, an aurora lit up the sky. People of the village and the visitors stood out and watched that gorgeous dance of colors over the mountains. On their summits there are coral deposits, it is reported, left by the Flood. The old stories of those people record the time when an ocean covered the land.

For some time I had no words for what I had seen, only astonishment at how normal the appearance of that mountain bear had been: mountain/bear: mountain, bear. What I saw was no illusion; nor was it a formal resemblance. My mind was as clear as the day. The mountain did not “look like” a bear, as a geological formation sometimes resembles an identifiable shape. Writing it calls for the exact play of poetic logic, but in what language? For, what I saw was both at once, mountain, bear. In our metaphorical language, the sense of it could easily be lost.

Years passed before I mentioned what I had seen. I told it to Malfa. Until then I had not known how to tell it to anyone without sounding fantastic. To her, I just said it.

“Well,” she said easily. “Maybe it was just letting you know who really owns that country.”



Malfa Ivanov: This is the name she has asked me to use; “In the Shelter of a Hill” is also a pseudonym. I have used pseudonyms in certain instances, to respect what privacy remains to people there.

[a]t issue is the capacity and tendency of a government agency to circumvent….: Dan O’Neill, THE FIRECRACKER BOYS, St. Martin’ Press, 1994, p. 294.

“Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the military was interested in our ideas….”: Dan O’Neill, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Dec. 15, 1998.

In 1962, the first “portable” nuclear power plant to be built in the field…: O’Neill, THE FIRECRACKER BOYS, op. cit., p. 270.

When the U.S. military considered where in the world to test deadly nerve gas…: O’Neill, ibid., pp. 274-5.

In the fall of 1992 the people of Point Hope painfully revisited the Chariot controversy….: O’Neill, ibid., pp. 277-80.

Not a “pristine wilderness,” Alaska….: Dan O’Neill describes the “unwilling” participation of Alaska natives in a radiation experiment: “Project Chariot was intended, as Livermore officials said, to be a ‘meaningful radioactivity experiment.’”

Furthermore, “it is known that Alaska native people, including people from Point Hope, had been subjects in radiation experiments carried out by the U.S. military in the same time period, the mid-1950s. More than 100 Eskimos and Indians from six villages in northern Alaska were given radioactive iodine as part of an experiment conducted by the Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory at Ladd Air Force Base in Fairbanks. Subjects were given single doses of up to sixty-five microcuries (sixty-five millionths of one curie) of iodine 131 in an attempt to evaluate the role of the thyroid inhuman acclimatization to cold. Many subjects were dosed more than once. By today’s medical standards, only about six to ten microcuries are administered for diagnosis of thyroid anomalies. Healthy people, of course, do not receive any doses at all.” O’Neill, ibid., p. 282.

He adds that in May 1993, Rep. George Miller (D-California)  “announced that the House Committee on Natural Resources would begin an investigation ‘into government actions that exposed Native Americans, Native Alaskans, Pacific Islanders, and others to often lethal doses of radiation.’” (p. 284).

More generally, Rep. Bob Filner (D-California) has introduced the Military Environmental Responsibility Act (MERA) to require the military to “uniformly comply with all environmental laws.”

lots of jobs in the Russian oilfields: See, for instance, this article in a recent issue of the Washington Post about an oligarch who wants to drill for oil in Siberia.


Katherine McNamara, NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH (San Francisco: Mercury House, 2001)

Dan O’Neill, THE FIRECRACKER BOYS. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994)

Selected references:

An enormous list of useful sites of information, analysis, and opinion relative to Alaska, NMD, ANWR, the Land Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), Native sovereignty, subsistence rights, and many other topics touched upon in this essay can be found on the web through Google searches. Listed below in no special order are a few sites I found useful or interesting. -KM

Norman Chance, “The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: A Special Report.”

Alaska and Circumpolar Coalition against Missile Defense and the Weaponization of Space (“No Nukes North”)
“Welcome, and thank you for visiting this site. This group is nascent and the site is under construction, but the news needs to get out. Alaska is slated to stage a missile defense system: testing at Kodiak and Ground-Based Interceptors and Battle Command and Control at Fort Greely.

“One of the most important things Alaskans and all northerners can do is learn about the military's past abuses of northern regions that they perceived to be remote and unpopulated. The proposed Missile Defense system is slated to be built at Fort Greely, Alaska, next to the communities of Delta Junction, Big Delta and Clearwater. The Alaska Community Action on Toxins produced an in-depth investigative report on the nuclear reactor at Fort Greely with astonishing revelations. Visit their website and read the report at http://www.akaction.net.

Arctic Slope Regional Corporation

NANA Regional Corporation

Delta Junction, Big Delta, Clearwater.

Native group wins defense contract for Fort Greely Anchorage Daily News, Aug. 20, 2001

Dan O’Neill’s columns on the missile defense shield  and in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Celia Hunter’s columns in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner should be archived in February 2002.

Previous Endnotes:

Sasha Choi Goes Home, Vol. 5, No. 3

Sasha Choi in America, Vol. 5, No. 1

A Local Habitation and A Name, Vol. 5, No. 1

The Blank Page, Vol. 4, No. 4

The Poem of the Grand Inquisitor, Vol. 4, No. 3

On the Marionette Theater, Vol. 4, Nos. 1/2

The Double, Vol. 3, No. 4

Folly, Love, St. Augustine, Vol. 3, No. 3

On Memory, Vol. 3, No. 2

Passion, Vol. 3, No. 1

A Flea, Vol. 2, No. 4

On Love, Vol. 2, No. 3

Fantastic Design, with Nooses, Vol. 2, No. 1

Kundera’s Music Teacher, Vol. 1, No. 4

The Devil’s Dictionary; Economics for Poets, Vol. 1, No. 3

Hecuba in New York; Déformation Professionnelle, Vol. 1, No. 2

Art, Capitalist Relations, and Publishing on the Web, Vol. 1, No. 1


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