/ Published September 14, 2016
If you know what to look for, you can still see the bleached and rusting bones of Victor Alert areas scattered across Europe. The double fences and 40-foot towers are long gone, but somewhere within a quick taxi to the runways remain handfuls of hardened aircraft shelters on Christmas tree ramps and low-slung buildings with the distinctive NATO-hardened look. Walking around on a quiet day, perhaps you close your eyes and imagine you hear the sounds and voices and wonder what it was like to work here, day in and day out, waiting for the call to go to war and inflict nuclear violence against the Warsaw Pact. Victor Alert: 15 Minutes to Armageddon answers that question.
Maj Gen Lee Downer’s personal memoir relates his experiences as a nuclear-certified pilot sitting Victor Alert during the Cold War. The primary arc of the story, written in a first-person conversational style, describes a singularly eventful night spent on alert with the surprise of an early morning scramble and subsequent hours of tension waiting in the cockpit for a launch order. As indicated by the title of the book, that order would have had the crew dropping a nuclear weapon within 15 minutes. Throughout this narrative, the author uses flashbacks to reflect on the training and preparation needed to pull nuclear alert, the activities and culture of the times, and the impact of the lifestyle on the aircrew’s families.
That story of waiting is one of the book’s best features; even knowing the ultimate outcome—that nuclear war never happened—the reader remains engaged, thanks to the narrative device. That engagement, coupled with the easy conversational style and length of only 159 pages, makes for a two-to-three-hour read. Unlike struggling through a dry academic work, reading Victor Alert is more like swapping war stories over drinks in a smoke-filled legion hall. This style makes the book suitable for anyone trying to capture the flavor of the era, but researchers trying to harvest technical details may be disappointed.
As a pilot with 4,000 hours and 14 of his 33 years in the Air Force served in Europe, Downer has firsthand knowledge of both the details and culture of the times that allows him to tell those stories. This perspective as a pilot, however, drives an aircrew-centric description of what, in fairness, was an aircrew-centric activity. Although several times he does acknowledge the contributions of the thousands of men and women at each base that made the mission possible, the author does not provide much detail on their perspectives. Interactions with maintenance and security personnel are described only from the surface level of a pilot’s viewpoint even though they are equally essential to the weapons system.
A short vignette at the end about the perennial peace camp at Royal Air Force Upper Heyford seems disconnected at first. Upon reflection, however, one concludes that the empty stub of a road, now scoured of any evidence of the hundreds of protesters who cycled through over the years, is symbolic of the end of the era. As the author notes, there was no party, no celebration when Victor Alert stood down—just a few sighs of relief. While not exactly missed, its absence may have left a void among those like Downer who devoted their passion, dedicated their careers, and made family sacrifices.
At the end of the book, the author offers a few reflections and editorial comments about the current state of the nuclear enterprise, but he does not establish a clear thesis at the beginning and return to it with support as the narrative progresses. The stories are more of a pure ethnography, describing the nuclear-alert way of life. The book, however, does have an overriding theme: Victor Alert was all-consuming. Academic preparation was intense, mistakes were not tolerated, and the alert cycle was the pulse of the wing, setting the tempo for other activity. Perhaps, as Major General Downer briefly alludes, lapses in nuclear surety over the last two decades can be attributed in part to the loss of broad experience with nuclear weapons, learned as a lieutenant or captain sitting Victor Alert.
Col Brian E. Wish, USAFR
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."