What goes up can be dismantled
In a surprisingly cheerful stop-motion animation released today, two disembodied hands dismantle a model of a Minuteman III missile, a weapon that — if launched — could send a nuclear warhead across the world. The hands pull it apart, burn the fuel and explosives, and safely dispose of the nuclear warhead. “So now you know,” the narrator says. “We can do this.”
The video comes from the Outrider Foundation, the same educational nonprofit that created an uncomfortably beautiful blast simulator that lets you nuke your backyard. This time, the Outrider Foundation brings its design aesthetic to a less apocalyptic message about nuclear weapons: “They are built by humans. We know how to take them apart. We can make decisions about them that make our world safer,” says Tara Drozdenko, the Outrider Foundation’s managing director of nuclear policy and nonproliferation.
Those decisions she mentions include adopting what’s called a No First Use policy, which is a pledge to never fire nuclear weapons first. Right now, only China and India have No First Use policies, but India’s is less restrictive. The US doesn’t have one. This video by the Outrider Foundation is linked to a campaign to change that. “This is a machine that we’ve built, and our policies are just decisions that we’ve made. And we can decide to do something else if we want to,” Drozdenko says.
By shrinking down the Minuteman III missile and manually taking it apart, the video drives home the idea that nuclear disarmament rests in our hands. It’s a message that nuclear anthropologist Martin Pfeiffer appreciates. “It’s not this magical issue,” says Pfeiffer, who has accepted funding from the Outrider Foundation in the past but was not involved in this project. “It’s something that is indeed within our grasp. They’re not eternal, immortal, and all-powerful artifacts that we have lost control of.”
Nuclear weapons are often visualized as larger than life, according to Pfeiffer. “It’s cognitively dissonant, in a way, to have those expectations come up against a very banal reality,” he says. This video helps communicate that by talking through details such as removing and burning the high explosives and safely disposing of the ash. (Pfeiffer’s research has found that the reality of nuclear disarmament can be even more banal. For example, to pry cables out of the high explosives in a nuclear weapon without sparking or bending, workers have used tongue depressors and cuticle pushers.)
The spark for the video started when Drozdenko was looking for ways to expand the foundation’s online audience. She wanted to create a video that would make dismantling nuclear weapons more approachable. “In order to have a broad societal conversation about these issues, we need to involve more voices,” she says.
So she got in touch with Smriti Keshari, the film director and artist who co-created a multimedia art installation called The Bombwith author Eric Schlosser. Learning about nuclear weapons from Schlosser’s book, Command and Control, made Keshari feel sad and angry. “Sad because I couldn’t believe this nuclear reality that we live in, in a world with over 14,000 nuclear weapons,” Keshari says. “But I was angry that I knew nothing about it.” For people who didn’t live through the Cold War or Cuban Missile Crisis, there’s a cultural disconnect with nuclear weapons, according to Keshari, because they’re out of sight.
Keshari teamed up with animator Maxwell Sorensen to create the stop-motion video. The pieces of the weapon are handmade out of polystyrene plastic and wood, and the hands in the video are Keshari’s. Keshari says she spent a lot of time thinking about the video’s tone and colors, which are remarkably cheerful for a video about nukes. “These things that affect us and that pose a grave existential threat often feel completely beyond your control,” she says. “When you’re able to break it down into steps, it also allows one to see the responsibility that’s happening at every step of it.”
The cheerful tone is, in part, to avoid the apocalyptic fatalism that can tinge public perception of nuclear weapons. “If you talk to people about the inevitable end of the world, a lot of people just freeze up and don’t want to deal with the problem,” Drozdenko says. But the threat of nuclear annihilation is solvable: we know how to dismantle nukes, and we have done it before. “It’s important for us as citizens to engage on the issue, and not just throw up our hands and say, ‘This is too big of a problem.’”