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For Want of a Nail

For Want of a Nail by Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine. No place press, 2019, 141 pp.

Typically, books reviewed in military scholarly journals tend to be academic in nature with dense writing backed by copious amounts of cited material. Reviewers can offer their own creative spins on these scholarly works, but they usually fall within an accepted, perceived category. However, there will be times when a book for review does not fit that mode. Such is the case with For Want of a Nail, a compilation work from the two main artists associated with Futurefarmers, a San Francisco–based group of design artists.

To say that For Want of a Nail is not the usual academic treatise is an understatement. The reader must literally cut open the pages of the book to read it. This is by design as the authors hope to spur reflection in your reading of their work. Once a reader cuts open the pages and reviews the book (in this case, a combination of fingers and index cards to slice open attached pages), the theme of the book is revealed. This is Futurefarmers' take on the creation and testing of the first atomic weapons at Los Alamos, New Mexico. From there, the reader is met with a conglomeration of various essays, plays/scripts, poems, and visual plates that all tie back to the history and evolution of nuclear weapon development and testing.

The genesis of the title For Want of a Nail comes from a letter that the authors/artists uncovered from J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead civilian scientist for the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. In the letter, dated October 1943, he asks his administrative assistant to call someone to hammer in a nail so he could have a place to hang his hat when in the office. From there, the artists made their first three creations: three nails. One was made from the remnants of a meteor that struck the earth at the Barringer Crater 50,000 years ago. Another was made from melted pennies from 1943 (the year of the request). A third nail was made from Trinitite, the rock found near the site of the first atomic bomb test, composed of melted sand and other components fused together in the aftermath of the detonation. The theme of the nails and what those nails represent permeate the work.

When most people think of an art book, they are apt to consider a coffee table book filled with lithographs and plates of famous works of visual art. Yet art can come in many forms, and For Want of a Nail is a unique form. Artists throughout the years have used the written word to convey their artistic visions, looking to impart direct and indirect meaning for their work. This work is no different. Futurefarmers looks to create physical art and design as an expression of an event and its implications. For this work, looking back at the detonation on 16 July 1945, the artists endeavored to describe not only the history of that day but the subsequent consequences of that test. As with a lot of art, the creators have their own meanings, but they also leave much to the reader/viewer to decide—for instance, reflecting on the purpose of a nail made from Trinitite or reading a faux letter from Oppenheimer discussing with a Hollywood figure who should be considered to play him in a movie about his life.

The picture of this work is through the eyes of the beholder. For this reviewer, this work does not take an especially positive view of the atomic bomb test and its effects. In using the opening line from the famous proverb "for want a nail" the authors/artists express their sentiments, for that famous proverb ends with the line "the kingdom was lost." The efforts of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project are seen as the "want of a nail" but with nuclear weapons seen as a possible key to "the kingdom was lost." It is remarkable that the artists were able to get near the test site, collecting the Trinitite and managing to create their work of a forged nail. Yet much of the writing focuses on some of the absurdities and contradictions of nuclear weapons. In one faux interview, a physicist notes that after Hiroshima, when others celebrated, he felt sick. Even Oppenheimer, the physicist Futurefarmers lambasts for his seeming inability to take a mere hammer and strike a nail into a wall for his hat, eventually soured on the idea of nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer became a significant critic of the more advanced weapons tests of the 1950s, which would have ultimately fit into the tenor of this work.

Overall, this work is one a military professional might read just for something completely different. There are some interesting facts to be gleaned from this work, but learned facts and details are not a central theme. It is the idea of memory and emotions that this art book desires, and agree or disagree, it does have the potential to make one think. In addition, professional reading can take on many forms. In recent years, professional reading lists look to incorporate not only books that you might expect to find on a chief of staff reading list but also blogs, movies, recordings, and painting. While this reviewer does not advocate placing this particular work on a reading list, the idea of artistic books should not be dismissed out of hand. A reader does not always need many words to get a lot out of a book.

Lt Col Scott C. Martin, USAF

"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."

Strategic Studies Quarterly (SSQ) and the Air & Space Power Journal (ASPJ) publish book reviews to inform readers and enhance the content of articles in the journals.