[Image: Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy, via the New York Times].
At one point in college I worked at the school’s student radio station, where everyone would write mini-reviews onto white stickers placed on the front covers of CDs – but there was one album I remember that sounded, someone wrote, “like the dream of a submarine’s machinist passing under the polar ice cap,” a description which has stuck with me to this day.
So I was interested to see an article this morning in the New York Times about a “brotherhood of submariners” during the Cold War who had their own “doomsday preparations,” weaving in and out of the polar ice.
In 1970, for instance:
In great secrecy, moving as quietly as possible below treacherous ice, the Queenfish, under the command of Captain Alfred S. McLaren, mapped thousands of miles of previously uncharted seabed in search of safe submarine routes. It often had to maneuver between shallow bottoms and ice keels extending down from the surface more than 100 feet, threatening the sub and the crew of 117 men with ruin.
Another danger was that the sub might simply be frozen in place with no way out and no way to call for help as food and other supplies dwindled.
Of course, this suggests an image of abandoned submarines embedded in the Arctic ice, becoming architectural – well-machined pieces of landscape, officially unacknowledged and governmentally unclaimed.
After this mission, in particular, we read, “the Arctic became a theater of military operations” – and a place to play polar hide and seek.
The navigational challenges presented by ice are apparently quite daunting, on the other hand: “ice dangling from the surface in endless shapes and sizes made the sub’s main eyes – sonar beams that bounce sound off the bottom and surrounding objects – work poorly.” That is, you’d detect whole ghost geographies out there, made of misdirected pings and echoes, passing through transparent landforms of sound that don’t exist.
But moving into these sorts of ethereal terrains was all part of the larger strategy of modern statecraft: if the Cold War was anything, it was the exhibition of sovereign intent upon landscapes outside of national borders – whether that’s Vietnam, Afghanistan, or the self-transforming mobile echo chambers of ice that drifted in and out of polar darkness, with strange machines whirring by in the waters below.