I do not much care for the recent InterWebNet ‘meme’ that goes by the soubriquet ‘Fail’, or even (apparently in extremis) – ‘Epic fail’. This – frankly bizarre – fad would seem to comprise the sourcing of images or video clips of others’ misfortunes or mistakes, the attaching of a caption – in bold capitals – proclaiming this to represent some brand of failure and then the posting of the result onto the InterWebNet.
Being of advancing years I don’t imagine that I would be expected to ‘get the point’, but I do have to say that I find the whole notion baffling. The nearest analogue that I can think of would be the suggestion that the pratfalls and banana-skin-slips so beloved of enthusiasts of physical comedy might somehow be rendered more funny by the gratuitous presence of a small child pointing a finger and pronouncing – “Ha, ha!”…
It would seem that – in this case – less in no longer more.
I can only imagine that the subtext of this strange behaviour is the implication that the poster is – by some inverse association – superior to the object of the ridicule; an attempt – it would seem – at establishing elevated status in circumstances in which there would otherwise be no connection.
I was moved to this reverie (…and I know that the gentle reader will have been wondering to what exactly this particular rant might be attributed) by the recent disclosure of an incident that would truly have been a failure on an epic scale – and which was apparently avoided by the smallest possible margin and by sheer good fortune.
I refer – of course – to the incident which took place on 23rd January 1961 in which a USAF B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 39 nuclear bombs broke up in mid-air over Goldsboro, North Carolina – dropping its nuclear payload in the process. The arming sequence of one of the two devices was initiated as the bomb fell from the disintegrating aircraft and three out of four safety mechanisms were found subsequently to have failed. On impact the firing signal was sent to the nuclear core of the device and the sole reason that a detonation did not occur was that the single remaining safety system – a simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch – remained uncompromised.
Some sceptics claim that a nuclear explosion was never actually a possibility; others that the safety mechanisms as a whole clearly operated as they should have done. All I know is that the incident was just too close for comfort and that the disaster that was so narrowly averted would have changed the course of world history – not to mention the contours of the North Carolina coast.
Some rudimentary reading on the InterWebNet suggests (though it must be borne in mind that when it comes to national security none of the sources are entirely to be trusted!) that in early sixties there was indeed a brief window during which several incidents took place by which the world came within a whisker of calamity – the Goldsboro event simply being the closest call. For much of the first decade of the nuclear age bomber-carried nuclear devices were kept safe by the simple expedient of carrying some of the components separately until the last possible moment – final assembly of the devices being effected at the point of arming. By the early sixties this practice had changed – in response to the increasing complexities of the systems concerned and the time constraints imposed by the escalation of the Cold War – and the devices were fully sealed and armed electronically.
At the height of the Cold War the Strategic Air Command (SAC) kept a number of B-52s in the air at all times to counter the possibility of a Russian first strike catching the fleet on the ground. The dangers inherent in maintaining such an airborne presence with nuclear-armed craft became all too clear as a result of the chain of incidents to which I have already alluded. The Goldsboro mishap took place less than a month after the inauguration of John F Kennedy as president of the US and inquiries subsequently initiated by that administration lead ultimately to the extensive enhancement of nuclear safety procedures – including the implementation of launch codes to verify arming and firing sequences.
The advent of the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile should thus – somewhat paradoxically – have made the world a safer place, though the later admission that the coded locks demanded for all Minutemen missiles by the then US Secretary of Defence – Robert McNamara – were subsequently set by the SAC to all zeros (00000000) so as not to hold up any prospective launch hardly inspires confidence. Those too young to have lived through this perilous era are encouraged – if they have not already done so – to grab a copy of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr Strangelove‘ – which biting satire still surely goes a long way towards ensuring that the defensive strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction will ultimately be regarded as the lunatic gamble that it undoubtedly was.
With the ending of the Cold War the immediate threat has – of course – somewhat diminished, though this should not blind us to the fact that there yet exist in the world in excess of 17,000 nuclear warheads of various types.
Given mankind’s propensity for hubris perhaps this fact alone might legitimately be accorded the tag – ‘Epic fail’!