One of the strangest filming trips I ever made was to Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. It’s one of three places where the US Air Force houses intercontinental ballistic missiles, ready to launch the moment they receive presidential authorisation. It’s a place that leaves a mark on anyone who visits.
Security is tight for obvious reasons. The silos themselves are spread across 8500 miles of empty country, an area roughly the size of Massachusetts, with minimal road access. If you want to visit a crew on duty, you fly in by chopper. This isn’t just because of the distance – they don’t want people learning routes to the silos, and they don’t want ground vehicles leaving tire tracks that could give away the location to anyone looking at satellite photos.
The distances, and the security need to minimise travel to and from the silos, mean the crews have to stay underground for weeks at a time with nothing to do. They spend every minute knowing that if they’re called into action, it will be to launch a missile that could kill millions of people.
This takes a massive toll on their mental health. It’s a huge issue for the base. Everywhere you go, you see signs for counselling services, helpline numbers. Next to the main gate there’s a sign that reads ‘Days since last DUI’. When we arrived, the number on the sign was five. The next day, the five had been wiped out and replaced with a zero.
The missile crews stick to unspoken rules for self-care to make the job survivable. The way they govern language is remarkable. They never talk about the destructive power of their weapons, even when asked directly in an interview context. A lot of the terminology is based around ‘space’ and ‘rockets’ and ‘re-entry vehicles’. Technically, this is all valid. The Minuteman III is a fully functioning space vehicle – it exits the atmosphere, and the nuclear warheads re-enter just like an Apollo or Soyuz capsule. In the early years of space travel, all spacecraft were launched into orbit on ICBM’s, because it wasn’t worth developing separate rockets for civilian use.
This choice of vocabulary sends a very clear message about what the missile crews don’t want to think about. Conspicuously absent from conversation, signs and documents are words like ‘warhead’, ‘explosive’ or ‘radioactivity’. These are intelligent people. They're not fooling themselves. They just consciously avoid facing the darkness day to day. It's evasive, but who am I to judge?
I still have the unit patch they gave me. 'Custodes Pacis' - 'Guards of peace'. I'm not going to speculate about the validity of nuclear deterrence – you could write an entire book about it, but the badge tells you about how these guys have to see themselves, or the job would be impossible.
In fact, the only reason my visit was permitted was because it fitted into the unit’s coping strategies. They were pretty open about this. Having journalists poking around creates a HUGE amount of work for them as they have to brainstorm every possible security risk and work out how to show me stuff without compromising anything important. They welcomed the work because it gave them a project much more tangible and immediate than their endless vigil, waiting for war. Consequently, they laid on far more than we could possibly shoot in the two days we spent on the base. We had to turn down the opportunity to film the special ops troops responding to a simulated attempt to break in and steal nukes, and other cool stuff. They were happy to fly us anywhere because the end result was a film that reinforced their positive self-image, which is what they need more than anything.
To add to the stress of holding the keys to the apocalypse, Minot is a hard place to live. In the Air Force there’s a saying “Why not Minot? Freezin’s the reason.” North Dakota does get fearsomely cold in winter, but it’s also empty and boring, with not much to do as an antidote to the stress. The town near the base is small, and an expensive place to hang out because it’s one of the centres for the ‘black goldrush’ created by the fracking boom.
Fracking has created prosperity and jobs for hoteliers and bar-owners in the area, but it’s also created a worrying problem for the Air Force. Seismic disturbances from the drilling and fluid injection have caused cracking in missile silo walls. It’s seven years since I visited now, and I don’t know how this problem was resolved. It tells you something about the economic power of the fracking industry that there was no governmental backlash for doing this kind of damage, or at least none I could see.
When we were done filming, every frame of our footage was inspected by four Air Force officers, including the base commander himself, to check for anything that could reveal secrets relating to the nukes. We were clean, and allowed to go on our way. I left with mixed feelings. I’m against nuclear weapons, but I acknowledge the reality that the US is never going to get rid of them. So, someone has to maintain and operate the missiles. These are the people who do it. It is a hard job that never ends.
My cameraman for the trip was my long-time collaborator Rich Ashdown. We wanted to go back to shoot a different kind of documentary (we were making a show about weapons tech), but getting good interviews would have required unpicking the crews' coping mechanisms. I couldn't do it, so we left the idea alone. Perhaps a better, ballsier film-maker could have made it work – I’d be interested to see someone try, but it wasn’t for me.