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    The Wonders of White Sands

    Nick Sowers
    Jun 14, '09 9:30 PM EST

    image source

    Two days ago I drove through the country's largest military installation, the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) in New Mexico. The site of the Trinity detonation--the world's first atomic explosion--is there, but can only be visited twice a year. Unfortunately I had not timed my visit so perfectly.

    This massive tract of google-map-grey-space measures one hundred miles north to south and forty miles wide. This is the ultimate war games playground. The land was seized in 1942 from ranchers and turned into a proving ground. After WWII, the military began an intensive period of testing rockets. The German V-2 was reproduced and tested here. Many of those fancy Desert Storm weapons and surveillance technologies were tested and developed here.

    Among the toys I learned about and found most amusing was a three-mile long kevlar cable, advertised in this army magazine:

    Another unique White Sands asset is the aerial cable test range, which has a three-mile long kevlar cable strung between two mountain ranges. Large targets can be suspended and rocket-propelled down the cable. In addition, drop tests can be conducted from the cable. In 2002, tests of the Air Force’s large aircraft infrared countermeasure system and electronic verification and demonstration system were performed, consisting of development and testing of various sensors.

    A shooting gallery fit for the scale of the American Southwest.

    image source

    But there are more wonders in store. Take, for example, the above image from a company leading hunts of the exotic African Oryx Gazelle. What is this animal doing in the Chihuahuan Desert of southern New Mexico? We put them there, of course, as part of the New Mexico Dept. of Game and Fish's "exotic animal introduction program" in 1969. Since then, though, the little beasts have been getting it on, and outside the Missile Range's borders too. So they've been hunted down outside the fence to minimize damage to local land owner's property. The population inside the Missile Range needs to decrease, and they are issuing "once in a lifetime" permits to hunt them.

    What I find funny is this repeating theme of military bases pairing up with some kind of demented nature conservancy. Earlier this year I visited Camp Pendleton in Southern California and was told by a marine that the beautiful hills which harbored endangered species were in fact active firing ranges. And yet the military considers they are protecting the species. This gives them leverage when they go to bat against outside interests on their land. "No, we can't close this base because we're a wildlife refuge."

    It's the perfect buffer, though, for the military. And why not, these army guys need something to hunt. If it's not devising the latest missile to strike down those pesky terrorists, how about an exotic African beast?

    You should be creeped out by now. Yes, it's true, you can even visit a "missile museum" on the Range complete with a missile park. On the one hand, it may be worth admiring the ingenuity of American scientists and engineers. Look at all the different forms, the imagination that had to go into producing things on such a grand scale. The cost…

    I think a 1920's Le Corbusier, when he praises the military apparatus for its evolution of machines in Vers Une Architecture would have delighted in the park.

    And there it is, little fat boy, sitting so benignly on a towing trailer. It's a relic. It's our national fetish, as Joseph Masco writes brilliantly in Nuclear Borderlands. The nuclear bomb ushered in a new era of experience, where we experience the "uncanny" on a daily basis. Haven't we all become numb to the presence of nukes, to our dependence on them to maintain the so-called world peace?

    One last interesting note. Inside the museum, a video boasts of the Range's ability to recreate 90% of the world's environments, even nuclear radiation. I mean, it makes sense right? Our anti-nukes need to keep working if the world is enveloped in a nuclear haze. Our nukes also better be performing. I wonder how the simulated nuclear radiation affects those gazelles running around? It is fascinating to me the reproduction of exotic cultures and atmospheres on military bases.

    I recommend a visit to White Sands Missile Range, where you can live the uncanny, and see for yourself the real grandeur of our nation amidst a truly grand landscape. You almost want to kneel down and weep.

    P.S., this billboard made me laugh out loud:


    • george

      Haha, Great post. It reminds me a bit of the documentary Why We Fight which is about the history of the military-industrial complex. The last image was priceless.

      Jun 15, 09 12:30 pm  · 

      thanks for the link george!

      Jun 15, 09 4:29 pm  · 

      Just found this on "boingboing" and thought of you. Is it the same place?

      Jun 16, 09 1:51 am  · 
      vado retro

      keep on rockin' in the free world.

      Jun 16, 09 2:43 pm  · 
      vado retro

      also, when you get back to Berzerkely you may want to check into how much money the uni gets from the Institute for Defense Analyses. This Pentagon think tank has huge contracts with universities to develop strategies and weaponry and domestic counterinsurgency and you name it. So even though the absurdity of the imagery of missiles glistening in New Mexico sun may make you uneasy, much of the research is being done on the other side of your campus.

      Jun 17, 09 12:22 pm  · 

      vado you are right, what's in the backyard is even creepier. trevor paglen knows something about that stuff...

      Jun 19, 09 7:18 pm  · 

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