I am more than a bit obsessed with Swedish melodic death metal.
This is actually a relatively new development in my life, though not entirely unforeseen, I suppose. I’m autistic, and hypersensitive to sound. The downside to this: One form of personal torment for me is sunny days, where the lawnmowers and airplanes (we live near an “Airpark”) are out and about, buzzing endlessly and without obvious productive purpose.
The more fortunate flip side of this hypersensitivity is that I have always gained extreme enjoyment from listening to music. In fact, I actually suspect autism is somehow related to synesthesia, because I’m not only sensitive to music in terms of rhythm and tone, but I can – provided I am in the right frame of mind – actually see the story the music tells.
For an author, this is a damned handy thing. It not only tends to eliminate writer’s block the moment the music begins, but it also helps me dream up some of (what I think are) my best scenes. Truth be told, there are entire chapters in Bringing Ragnarok specifically structured to give life to a musically-induced vision, and I'm totally cool with that.
But what I think is kind of funny, is how far I’ve come from my musical roots. As I mentioned, I didn’t always like Swedish melodeath – I didn’t know my absolute favorite band, Amon Amarth (Arch Enemy is a close second), even existed, until about 2015. I grew up in the rural US West, in a deeply Christian household, and both parents liked old-school Country music. It wasn’t exactly a rock n’ roll household, by any stretch, and to this day I don’t even know any Beatles or Rolling Stones songs when I hear them.
Even worse, the radio stations where I grew up - a little slice of the old Confederacy transplanted to Northern California - were mostly country, christian, or classic rock. A veritable auditory desert.
Thankfully, about age fourteen (about the same time I abandoned the whole Christianity thing), I discovered that my new stereo system could – just barely, and only with much manipulation of antennae – pick up a radio station broadcasting from the nearest college town, Chico. This was – before the death of non-corporate radio – 106.7 Z-Rock, and through it I discovered the broader world of rock and metal.
Being an angsty teenager, I of course gravitated towards the most aggressive-sounding music typically played. Which in the late ‘90s, was (in the USA) the start of the Nu-metal trend. Limp Bizkit (oh gods, why?!), Papa Roach (the first CD was alright), and Korn (actually good in their early years) offered a different sound than the then-dominant grunge rock of Nirvana (which I like, but it was played a LOT in the ‘90s).
And then, I discovered contemporary American heavy metal. Slipknot, Mudvayne, Spineshank, System of a Down. I was listening to the last when I heard about the September 11 attacks – (appropriate, in retrospect) and Slipknot in particular (Spineshank’s Height Of Callousness was spectacular, and underrated) kept me going through college and into my Army days. I’d have been happy to have been called a maggot in the 2000’s, and I still pull out their early albums every so often even now that I’ve pretty fully converted to European melodeath.
In Flames’ Soundtrack to Your Escape was my first introduction to the genre (I'll always remember walking to my Medieval English History course at Berkeley with that screaming in my headphones), but I could never predicted how much of a gateway drug that would turn out to be! Sometimes I wonder how different my life would be if I had encountered Amon Amarth’s work then, when they had just published Fate of Norns. But, maybe, those aforementioned goddesses knew that it was not yet my time.
Regardless, it was another ten years before I would re-encounter Swedish melodeath – in fact, I didn’t really do much to develop my personal aesthetic tastes on any front for a decade. Too busy trying (failing) to figure out the whole career thing, getting graduate degrees, building a household, and all that good jazz.
In late 2015 I was working on a statistical analysis project (published!) with Pandora active, set to play some In Flames, because I had listened to the CD again for the first time in a few years and remembered how much I really liked it. Naturally, other Swedish bands out of Gothenborg seen as similar to In Flames started coming up on the Pandora playlist. So I heard Dark Tranquility for the first time, and started buying their CDs. And I heard Amon Amarth.
To be absolutely honest, I had heard of Amon Amarth before – I’m a massive Tolkien-nerd, and in my various deep dives into Wikipedia and Tvtropes I’d run across the random factoid that a Swedish death metal band used Tolkien’s Sindarin name for Mount Doom (the place you throw the Ring of Fire, gentle Hobbits). Something I wholeheartedly approved of, but never had the motivation to track down the band’s work.
So when I heard a song come on that was, well, fucking awesome, and realized who it was by, I was hooked. “Valhall Awaits Me”, from With Oden on Our Side, is about a warrior in the heat of combat, slaying one foe after another – until being slain in turn. Sound grimdark? Yeah, well, that’s life, when you boil it right down to its bare essence.
Amon Amarth, for me, represents the perfect fusion of sonic complexity and lyrical storytelling. Death metal, even Swedish melodeath (as the name implies, it is death metal with an emphasis on melody), is difficult music, to play or to hear. The entire point of the genre is to explore that most terrifying and fundamental inevitability of human existence: the End. Because once you have explored that, the greatest of terrors, in all its aspects – only then, can you conquer it, and truly understand what it means to live.
Death is a difficult concept for Americans, accustomed as the culture is to avoiding hard material realities of life. The American music that does go down this road (Rap, Folk, and some Hip-Hop come to mind) traditionally comes from communities that have been trampled on throughout US history – and as a result, if it enters mainstream consciousness at all, it is usually stripped of all its subversive passion. I suspect that death metal too is appreciated mostly by marginalized populations in the United States – the people who have actually lived the nightmare that is the American Dream, for anyone outside the mainstream.
Another thing I positively adore about Amon Amarth is the way they elicit, in sonic form, the spirit of the old Norse – and really, thereby, the broader Germanic and ultimately Indo-European – history and way of life. Western “Civilization” has largely been a long process of Greco-Roman cultural imperialism and cultural homogenization. The old ways were mostly lost as a result of switching from oral to written history at a time when those in control of writing actively worked to bury or re-interpret the past to suit their political goals.
One of the most fundamental factors enabling the virus of white supremacy is this loss of heritage. The many European peoples have been falsely taught to believe that they are united as a distinct race with a shared and unique history. This is bullshit, but the obliteration of our true past – as a tapestry of tribal groups not that different from those in any other part of the world – has enabled generations of “scholars” to claim otherwise. And so billions of other humans became our victims – and our leaders justify these atrocities as the price of “progress.”
To counter white supremacy, to destroy the false story it tells, “white” people must rediscover their true heritage, their actual deeper origins. And not just going back to Europe, but to Central Asia and before that, Africa. We must all reconnect with what makes us just like everyone else on this planet (and others?), the true day-to-day struggles and cares that define life in this mad, mad world.
Amon Amarth does a gorgeous job of carrying on the old traditions of Germanic storytelling, passed down in truncated form in the Eddas and Sagas. Something to keep in mind about this world: metaphor is essential. Pre-Christian Europeans were apparently particularly fond of word-play, of connecting concepts that seem unrelated in novel ways. Kennings are a classic example: If you want to be poetic in how you say “ship” you can call it a “sea-steed” – which makes sense, if you think of a ship and a horse as both being things a person can ride, with the environmental context determining what is ridden.
This works in death metal, and especially in Amon Amarth’s style, both because of the poetic flexibility needed for songwriting but also because once you make death a metaphor, you reduce its terror and allow for more deeper investigation of its structural nature. Which – and this is important – directly reflects the nature of the real world.
“Valhall Awaits Me” is a song about a warrior fighting to the death, but it is also a song about heedlessly throwing yourself into whatever challenge you face, saying to hell with the consequences. A scary thing to do, so most don’t. Which means that anyone who does, has a tremendous advantage. Whether you are writing a book, managing a project, or just getting through your 9-5, there are moments when single-minded devotion to surmounting challenges is the best possible response. And yeah, so in the end, you may lose – but so what? Sometimes, the experience is the point of endeavor. And fortunately, most challenges aren’t fatal. So knowing that even when they are, the same basic behavior is the best option? Helps you see that whatever you’re facing now, is probably less bad than it could be.
Something I learned in the military, doing things that terrified me: Motivation to courage comes from strange places.
Amon Amarth’s music is (to my ears) inventive, exploring, and thoughtful – even when it is also physically difficult to listen to. Death metal requires active listening, if you want to truly experience it. And there’s a lot going on, with a lot of volume, and tone changes. Drums roar like thunder, and death metal guitarists can do things with strings and tension that you wouldn’t believe possible. It is worth listening to just to appreciate the skill required.
And as for the growling vocals – hey, not everybody in this world can sing pretty. Weather-worn vikings (raiding is a very good metaphor for how to survive in the modern economy) get to sing in whatever voice all the sea air and shouting challenges at foes leaves after a few years.
And just for fun, here’s the part of the essay you probably just skimmed to: Where I list and rank all ten (it will be eleven SO VERY SOON!!!) Amon Amarth albums, with some Bringing Ragnarok relevant details.
Note: As I mentioned before, I listen to Amon Amarth, and I see things. The initial inspiration for sitting down and starting Bringing Ragnarok in 2016 was my attempt to make a playlist of all the Ragnarok-themed songs on their discography. Some scenes are derived directly from particular songs, and the major supporting character Sandra Chavez acts as a vehicle for my Amon Amarth fan-ness in the 2041 Thread. And the overall aesthetic is buried in the work.
Also: This is not intended to be a critical review. I like all the albums, some slightly more than others. On a scale of 0-100, I’d give each and every one a 92 or better. Better is a relative thing in aesthetics, and I don’t much see the value in musical criticism that isn't intended to help a band achieve what it wants to do with the music.
So without further yammering, to the rankings (inverse order), with my favorite three songs from each (woe that I can only pick three - but this can't go much longer than 4,000 words or nobody will read it)
Again, I REALLY like this album! The sound has evolved slightly from albums 8-9, and not in my absolute favorite direction, yet. When Berserker comes out I feel like it will tell me more about the direction they’re heading (a female lead singer if Johan Hegg ever decides to retire from raiding the distant shores? I hope!)
“Back on Northern Shores”
Epic ending track. Actually based on an attested battle, and one of those where I’m sailing right there in the prow of a Dragon Ship as the Berserks launch their desperate, doomed attack...
I don’t think there’s a better way to start an album than roaring “The first man I killed, was the Earl’s right-hand man, when he came to take her away!”
“One Thousand Burning Arrows”
The song that always makes me think about anyone I’ve ever lost. And rpretty much what I'd want for my own funeral sendoff!
The Avenger (92/100)
The only criticism I have with this album is that it isn’t long enough. I’ve seen it referred to in reviews as a simple extension of the first album, Once Sent from the Golden Hall, which are probably fair, but who cares? They’re great. “Metalwrath” is an exception, it isn’t a bad song, just a bid of a parody and so kind of a one-off I listen to on its own, not part of the album.
“The Last With Pagan Blood”
The song describing the afterlife I sincerely hope exists. An endless party in Valhalla with all your friends, family, and pets healed and happy. So yeah, this describes Val-hall and the Einherjar in Bringing Ragnarok quite well.
“Legend of a Banished Man”
Quintessential song about someone forced from their home by Christians, who returns for vengeance.
“Bleed for Ancient Gods”
Just an all-out, aggressive statement of what ancestor veneration is really all about. Living according to their ethic to honor their memory and sacrifice.
Once Sent from the Golden Hall (93/100)
First album, and still an excellent album. I sincerely wish I had been exposed to this in high school. Apparently it was intended to be a concept album with a linked storyline (achieved in Jomsviking), and a number of the tracks fit that description well. Starts off with a song about someone losing their child, and swearing vengeance. Can’t think of a better motivation.
“The Dragons’ Flight Across the Waves”
With “Ride for Vengeance” basically a 9-minute track about one warrior swearing vengeance, then a companion bidding his family farewell as he goes along on the quest for retribution. I listen to it whenever I have to take a long trip away from home.
A song I like to listen to after a triumph of reasonable magnitude. About taking due vengeance against the perpetrators of a heinous act – another topic where the metaphor is key. Oddly enough, I kind of prefer the German language version of the track, “Siegreicher Marsch”
The track named the same as the band has got to be a statement. This one is about a grimdark battle between vikings and a great army on the slopes of a dark mountain. So, what you listen to before you do battle with Orcs.
The Crusher (94/100)
This is hands-down the angriest Amon Amarth album, and properly so, as it hits on topics of censorship and enforced faith. This is the album that is most clearly inspired by the forced Christianization of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Also appears to be the album that was the hardest on Johan Hegg’s voicebox.
“The Sound of Eight Hooves”
This song is how I’d like to see Mike Pence meet his fate. Preacher hung by pagans, discovers Odin (Odin = Icelandic spelling, Oden = Swedish) is more interested in him than the Christian god...
“As Long as the Raven Flies”
Sandra Chavez’ favorite song, and life ethic. About the inevitability of war (struggle), and a statement of commitment to the basic human struggle to build a better life while we’ve got the opportunity. Only through this struggle can we build a better world in this life or any that may come after.
“Releasing Surtur’s Fire”
To be written ;)
Note: “Risen From the Sea” is one of the few only ok Amon Amarth songs. I sometimes listen to it, but not with any album, same with “Metalwrath” and “Eyes of Horror” and a couple other one-offs.
Fate of Norns (94/100)
Every few albums Amon Amarth gets a little experimental, and this one came after what the band sees as its first era, albums 1-4. It gets a bit slower, and even a bit heavier than those before (already extremely heavy). This one is atmospheric for me, one I listen to when I want to think strange thoughts.
“The Pursuit of Vikings”
A long, epic-like song about a group of vikings preparing to launch on a raid. There’s a live version that I think is absolutely effing cool just for Johan Hegg’s joking on stage about how nobody can understand the lyrics. “Odin, guide our ships, our axes spears and swords!” will get written into an upcoming scene with reference to that video.
“The Beheading of a King”
Shorter than the usual Amon Amarth track, I love how they lyrically tell the story of a battle between two kings, that goes terribly wrong (for one side). I wish I could pay them to do this for like, half the battles in history.
“The Fate of Norns”
A song I can’t be objective about because it reminds me of the animals we’ve lost and who I still miss. The song itself is about a man mourning the death of his child. ‘Nuff said.
Deceiver of the Gods (95/100)
This is just one of those all-around good albums that I listen to again and again and again, from start to finish and in the proper order. I do that with most, but some of the earlier albums (that I like to listen to later in the day, for some reason) I leave a song off or my spouse often comes home in the middle, so I’m less rigoros. DotG, however – nope. Full listen, every time, if possible. It’s just that good, though there is a slight tone shift on this album that leaves it feeling distinctly more up-tempo than, say, Fate of Norns.
“As Loke Falls”
About the last moments of the Last Battle, Ragnarok, just before Loke loses his head. Naturally, this is baked in to Bringing Ragnarok at a particular point (ok, maybe more than one – we’re dealing with parallel Threads here, y’know). Glorious description of Heimdall and Loke’s mutual battle to the death.
How I so desperately want Donald Trump to meet his fate. ‘Nuff said.
“Warriors of the North”
A song about being true to your vows, even when betrayed, then rising up after years in exile to defend those you vowed to protect, despite their betrayal. Very much a scene that ought to be in a movie set in Middle Earth (oh, how I wish Tolkien had the time to write more)
Twilight of the Thunder God (96/100)
This is just one long stretch of loud, fast, fun songs. This is one of the easiest Amon Amarth albums to listen to, I think, it simply thunders along from one great track to another. I would say this is the best produced of the Amon Amarth albums, in terms of the overall structure. It also always makes me want to listen to another album, given the tragic way it ends!
“Tattered Banners and Bloody Flags”
Yeah, this one shows up in Bringing Ragnarok, because it’s about the march of the risen Dead to Vegris – an essential component of the mythos, as I’m re-telling it. The imagery here is stunning, and drawn straight from the Eddas.
“Varyags of Miklagaard”
Another of their history-themed songs, and one of their absolute best tracks. A song about the Northern European warriors who for centuries traveled from Scandinavia to Constantinople to fight as mercenaries in the armies of the Emperor. As a reward, they traditionally got to raid the palace treasury at the end of their contract period, carrying off whatever they could back home.
“Free Will Sacrifice”
Directly quoted by Sandra Chavez in the Battle of the Teton River Valley, September 2041, as the Missoula Regiment counterattack begins against the attacking Deseret Army. Just that damn epic a song about battle.
Surtur Rising (96/100)
I feel like this is a more melancholy version of Twilight of the Thunder God, even more focused on history and the Norse ethic. As a result, it has an even more epic quality to it, and explores more of the arcana of Norse mythology, like Fenris-Wolf, Surtur, and the Loke-Baldur conflict (all touched on in Bringing Ragnarok). Just another well done album that I listen to from start to finish, then again in a few days or a week.
“The Last Stand of Frej”
Frej, which I English-ize to Freyr, is Freyja’s twin brother and a fellow Vanir god into love and nature and fertility and getting really drunk. This song is about his final stand against his nemesis: Surtur, the destroyer, whose flames will consume Midgard after Freyr’s suicidal final charge. Beautiful, melancholy track.
“Slaves of Fear”
This one is unusual for Amon Amarth in that it addresses contemporary world issues, though through the lens of the Norse mythos and its particular ethic. This song is simply about how Greco-Roman Christianity and Capitalists preach to us, scare us, do whatever they can to make us give them our money.
“Doom Over Dead Man”
A slow, mournful track, about a man on his deathbed, who realizes he has accomplished nothing in his life that will matter after he is gone. According to the most ancient Indo-European ethic known (and a similar ethic holds in most cultures), “one’s name” – in other words, the things they accomplish or build that impact the world enough that people bother to remember them – is all of any of us that will ever last in this world.
Versus the World (97/100)
This was almost Amon Amarth’s last album. That’s why the whole thing is about Ragnarok, in one way or another, from the Dead rising at Loke’s call, to the Einherjar preparing for war, to Odin’s last ride on Sleipnir to face the Fenris-Wolf at the End of Days. Thank the gods things didn’t turn out like they feared – but also, thank the gods that they were motivated to make what remains one of their best albums. This was actually the album that convinced me I had to get all of Amon Amarth’s albums.
“For the Stabwounds in Our Backs”
This song directly inspires a scene in Book 2 of Bringing Ragnarok. It’s about the Dead rising at Loke’s call to fight the gods at the Last Battle, dealing with their motivations and rage. It also (perhaps inadvertently) touches on one of the oldest and most famous rhetorical tactics in politics, the “Stab in the Back” myth. I combine these two ideas to explain why the Dead fight for Loke – and it isn’t about good vs evil.
“Death in Fire”
This one is essentially about the Einherjar, the gods’ counterpart to the Dead, slain warriors taken by the gods to fight for them, and their motivations. I quote it at the start of Part 1, and certain of these themes will come up again and again in the course of the full Saga.
“Thousand Years of Oppression”
Johan Hegg gets extra points in my book for using a poem written by his sister as part of this song, about Odin’s sacrifice of himself to himself in search of wisdom, and the hypocrisy of Christianity as it destroyed the old Norse culture in Europe, pretending to be about peace, but in truth about dominance. I love the call for returning to our roots inherent in the piece, and certain aspects of this story will become very important as Bringing Ragnarok proceeds.
With Oden on Our Side (98/100)
Not much more I can say than you could already glean from the above. This album is as close to perfection as any I've ever heard. Each track flows to the next, there are glorious highs and melancholy lows, with each track its own special bit of awesome. I only wish there were more! This album, along with Versus the World, are what got me writing fiction again after a long break. Basically, narmy as it sounds, they got me pursuing my dream. And I want to return the favor by amplifying their message, and incorporating their aesthetic and Tolkiens into the heart of Bringing Ragnarok.
“Gods of War Arise”
Rexburg, Idaho, 2041. If the gods grant me success, I will make this chapter into the most anti-war film sequence, ever. Saving Private Ryan for the War on Terror.
“Cry of the Black Birds”
Every time I listen to this track, I have a vision of the riders of Rohan charging to Gondor’s defense at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Which is probably my all-time favorite moment in fiction, ever. Yes, this one will make it into Bringing Ragnarok, at a similar point in the narrative. Only, with tanks.
“Valhall Awaits Me”
Given what I wrote above, need I say more? This exemplifies my approach to, well, everything. Win, lose, or draw, I believe in the struggle.
So there you have it! All ten Amon Amarth albums published as of April, 2019. I can’t effing wait for Berserker to drop, and what visions it will bring to me. If you are a fan of this kind of music, or are willing to try something new, check them out, like, yesterday.
UPDATE May 2019:
I have finally had the time to sit down and listen to Berserker.
It is awesome. Buy it now.
That is all.
Thank you Amon Amarth!
I am sitting in the corridor outside the surgery waiting room, waiting for a team to drill into my spouse's skull and intentionally damage a nerve.
So, if this is a bit of a scattered, random post - eh, no apologies.
Really, I'm just killing time until hunger sets in long enough to drive me to the cafe, which will kill some more time, before it is back to the waiting room to wait/kill time some more.
The odd thing is that I actually hate this less than i thought I would. The OHSU staff so far have been considerate and professional, which alleviates much of my natural tendency to anxiety (the Tanner nerves, my grandmother used to say). I hate being out of control, always have, but It has gotten especially strong since my year of enlisted military service. I also don't trust easily, whether individuals or institutions. So all in all, I anticipated feeling much worse through all this than I do now.
Not that I have cause to complain, I'm not the one who has been suffering from horrific pain for a year, only controllable with heavy-duty anticonvulsant medication that can't fix the problem. Trigeminal Neuralgia is a vicious condition - so much so that I made an allusion to it in my most recent book as a form of torture used in/by Hel (the Norse version of Hades, named for the daughter of Loke who runs the place).
And all in all, despite the poor luck in being struck by such a rare condition, she has been fortunate overall. We happen to live an hour's drive away from one of the world leaders in treating the condition, and even better - the sub-type of TN she appears to have (it actually isn't formally split out definition-wise, but specialists are on the cusp of showing a genetic cause and, fortunately, have developed a procedure to treat it that boasts very high success rates, especially for patients like her - younger than average, and almost exclusively female.
We're also counting our luck/blessings/random number gods that this is the diagnosis she ended up with (and received sooner than most do). Most women in her situation get mis-diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and she quite nearly did. While MS isn't life-ending, it isn't kidding around.
TN is its own form of nightmare, and the usual procedure for fixing it doesn't work for the sub-type she has. Worse, there's no cure yet - the interim solution is either physically moving blood vessels that are compressing the nerve (more typical in older patients) or doing permanent damage with ionizing radiation when that fails. Unless, of course, you want to spend your life on high doses of a pretty debilitating medication.
What they're doing to her as I type this is actually derived from a procedure used to treat nerve issues like carpaltunnel syndrome. It would be an outpatient operation, except the nerve they need to comb (yeah, that's the actual term they use) is located just at the point the trigeminal nerve bundle exits the brain. So to get at it, they've got to cut into her skull, in what is technically brain surgery.
That's what makes it a major and frightening operation, because who wants someone mucking around in their brain, no matter how skilled? Cutting the skull open isn't something the body was meant to endure, so the recovery period (mostly from the neck muscles that are in the way and get cut up) will be weeks in length - fortunately, all but the first 2-4 days are at home. So after a night in ICU (awake, but monitored to be extra safe) and a couple days in the hospital, we'll be home.
It is moments like these you can't help but be grateful for being in a reasonably stable financial situation, despite my recently abandoning (ok, puting on hiatus, but until I'm making a solid income from writing I have no intention of putting a lot of time into scholarly work) my PhD ambitions (unless I can somehow get a degree in Europe, where all the researchers who do what I'm interested in live.). She, fortunately, is hyper-competent and has already become pretty much invaluable at her work (local university, one that actually cares about education, so not Oregon State University (hell) or University of Oregon (discount purgatory), so through her work we've got solid health insurance and disability benefits for when she's unable to work.
Not that I couldn't provide these things - i have in the past, we kind of switch off who gets to be the breadwinner and who gets to be entrepreneur - but the peace of mind granted by having them is absolutely priceless.
Which is why everyone, everywhere, should have guaranteed healthcare and a sustainable livelihood. Too bad the United States is dead determined to prevent anyone who isn't white or wealthy from having this.
But hey - that will change, at least for those who live in the states that are committed to providing these basic, fundamental services, when DC collapses entirely and they're left to fend for themselves.
And we happen to live in a region that is richer than the rest of the "United" States, and where 2/3 of the population wants these benefits for all citizens. Better times will come, in a decade or so - for us.
Until then, I'm just glad that what turned out to be a career-killing move to Oregon (for me) has turned out so well for her, in every way. I can be an author anywhere, but access to quality healthcare is bound to a healthy economy, and not every place will have that in the coming years.
Also (addendum), At least half of the doctors and surgeons who have saved the lives of members of my family are either recent immigrants themselves or children of recent immigrants. I literally have no honorable reason to oppose immigration, ever, period-point-blank.
Edit/Update (2 hours later) - operation went great, and now to the recovery. Always nice when things work out as planned! To all the people sening messages, thoughts, prayers, and the like - thank you!
Executive Summary of the Draft New Congress Report on the State of the Union Attacks
[Draft, version 3.62]
UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS TO THIS DOCUMENT PROHIBITED BY LAW
Section A - Reconstruction of Events
At 9:12 PM, Eastern Standard Time, the President of the United States began the annual State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress. In attendance were ninety-three members of the United States Senate, four hundred and seventeen members of the House of Representatives, all but three members of the Cabinet, twelve members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, six justices of the Supreme Court, and several hundred spectators and members of the press.
At approximately 9:13 PM EST, six "Klub"-type cruise missiles broke the surface of the waters above Delaware Bay. As a tightly clustered group, they ascended to a height of approximately 50 meters/200 feet, moving toward Dover Air Force Base.
After thirty seconds, the missiles turned west. They then descended to an altitude of approximately 10 meters/40 feet above ground level and rapidly accelerated.
At 9:15 PM EST, NORAD was informed that one or several unidentified aircraft had crossed the Delaware-Maryland border, at speeds that would put them over the center of the District of Columbia in three minutes.
Radar operators at Dover Air Force Base and on board an E-3 Sentry AWACS platform patrolling south of Andrews Air Force Base immediately established a radar track upon launch, however in the crowded airspace along the United States Eastern Seaboard such signals are sufficiently common that this in and of itself was not suspicious. Operators report having immediately noted the new radar track veer away from the approaches to Dover AFB and accelerate, but the missiles' maneuvers caused between fifteen and twenty-five seconds of delay in re-acquiring a firm radar track amidst the ground clutter. It took a further thirty to forty-five seconds for operators to notify their superiors of a clear and immediate threat to the national capitol and to send a message via FLASH protocols to NORAD.
Sixty seconds later, at 9:16 EST, the six missiles passed over the Chesapeake Bay south of Annapolis, Maryland, traveling at a speed of 2400 kilometers per hour - two miles every three seconds. At this moment, several events occur almost simultaneously.
- NORAD passes a FLASH warning to the District of Columbia air defense system along with an authorization to intercept what is presumed to be a hostile target or targets.
- NORAD notifies the Secret Service of an immediate threat to the life of the President
- Air defense tracking radars activate, and begin targeting the inbound cruise missiles.
- Three of the Klub missiles ascend to an altitude of approximately fifty meters/two hundred feet, activate electronic countermeasures, and alter their flight trajectories to simulate impending strikes on the Pentagon and White House in addition to the Capitol building.
These decoys generated sufficient electronic noise that electronic counter-countermeasures required between twenty and thirty seconds to re-establish active radar tracking and targeting. The moment after their ECM systems began to transmit, four “SLAMRAAM” surface to air missiles were launched from sites near District of Columbia and Andrews Air Force Base. They are fired in anti-radar mode, allowing them to home in on and eliminate the source of the jamming.
As the ECCM "burn through" the hostile jamming, additional SLAMRAAM missiles were launched and begin receiving mid-course targeting updates in order to home in on identified targets.
However, because of the uncertainty surrounding the total number of hostile inbound objects, the three decoy missiles are able to prevent the detection of their companions for more than thirty critical seconds, successfully attracting all intercepting fire until all are shot down. In the confusion caused by the competing ECM and ECCM systems and destruction of these decoys, an additional fifteen to twenty seconds pass before it is realized that additional hostile targets remain.
At 9:17 EST, the three surviving Klub-type cruise missiles reach the outskirts of the District of Columbia, passing less than twenty feet over rooftops. One of the three repeats the decoying maneuver, and at the moment air defense officers establish tracks on the remaining hostiles and launch another volley of interceptors at the incoming missiles, this new decoy's ECM systems activate, attracting the attention of the half-dozen interceptor missiles now airborne.
While this new decoy is shot down within fifteen seconds, the two surviving hostiles all but disappear in the radar clutter caused by the District of Columbia's complex urban infrastructure. Neither the SLAMRAAM air defense systems nor the portable “Stinger” missiles deployed on the Capitol itself are capable of successfully reacting to a supersonic threat in time.
Immediately before 9:18 EST, the last Secret Service transmission from the Capitol reports that the President has been removed from the publicly-accessible areas, and is in the hallway leading to the emergency bunker underneath the building, with the vice president close behind.
Subsequent analysis confirmed that one warhead detonated to the southwest of the building, possibly thrown off course by a partially successful intercept. The other detonated directly adjacent to the Capitol rotunda.
Destruction of the structure was total: ground-penetrating radar surveys show complete collapse of the subsurface structure, leaving no possibility of survival. Mortality reached 100% within the Capitol as well as the adjacent grounds, with the first technical survivors appearing approximately 1000 feet from ground zero. However, mortality eventually reached 100% for virtually all those within 1/4 mile from ground zero due to the combined effects of prompt radiation, thermal pulse, and structural collapse from atmospheric overpressure. Mortality rates range from 50%-100% between 1/4 and 1/2 of one mile from ground zero.
FEMA estimates a total of 15,000-20,000 fatalities, with more than 100,000 severe injuries. In the subsequent evacuations, several million Americans became homeless, as uncertainty regarding the direction and intensity of the fallout plume spreading over the District of Columbia necessitated mandatory evacuation of the area.
Section B: Responsibility and Response
As members of the committee will be aware, the State of the Union attacks were unprecedented in American history in scale and effect. Most of the federal leadership of the United States of America was destroyed. The senior surviving Cabinet member was ineligible to ascend the Presidency, as she was not a natural born citizen. The “Designated Survivor”, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, was sent aloft in the Airborne National Command Center, and surviving members of Congress were secured in an undisclosed location.
For several hours, the acting President stood ready to authorize a massive nuclear counter-strike in the event that the attack was the first shot in a general war. However, no attack came, and the military and intelligence communities reported no evidence of any nation mobilizing strategic forces to launch a follow-on attack. While a decapitating first strike has long been considered a risk in the event of uncontrolled military escalation with Russia or China, they would almost certainly follow immediately with a wave of strikes against America's nuclear arsenal and military bases worldwide.
But no attack came. No national or credible non-state actor claimed or claims responsibility. In a separate, access-restricted addendum to this report, a Central Intelligence Agency analysis confirms that while carrying out such an attack would require access to nation-state level capabilities, no nation state appeared to have planned for the event or been prepared to take advantage of the aftermath.
Evidence pointing to the responsible party has not been forthcoming. While the cruise missiles themselves are certainly derived from Russian technology, Russian military equipment is widely exported and used by America's adversaries and partners alike. In particular, quiet diesel-electric submarines and sea-skimming cruise missiles have proliferated throughout much of the world since the early 2000s. Russia, China, India all use Russian-derived equipment and technology, and retain the capability to produce domestic versions, perhaps covertly. Algeria, Iran, Indonesia, Venezuela, and Vietnam are all Russian military customers. It is impossible to rule out the transfer of a submarine and cruise missiles from the inventories of any of these nations to rogue actors.
Aside from the fragments of the Klub-type missiles, the navigation and electronic systems that survived the decoys' destruction, and the radiological signature left by the nuclear warheads themselves, no unambiguous evidence of culpability has yet been recovered. Twelve hours after it presumably fired the six cruise missiles responsible for the attack, a submarine identified by U.S. Navy sonar as belonging to the Kilo-type was destroyed thirty miles east of the Continental Shelf, in several thousand feet of water, after unsuccessfully firing torpedoes at a pursuing U.S. Navy destroyer. While recovery of the wreckage is technically feasible in six months to one year, it is probable that any useful evidence was destroyed by the pressure of the Atlantic.
Investigation of the nuclear warheads and their likely provenance has been no more successful. Their explosive power, at 5 kilotons, is within the capabilities of several small nuclear powers such as North Korea and Pakistan, and it is likely that Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Japan among many others possess the technical capability to produce warheads of this size that are also compact enough to fit on a cruise missile. Israel, despite its official ambiguity with respect to possession of nuclear weapons, is also presumed capable of warhead construction. Russia, China, and India are, like the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, mature nuclear powers with the ability to deploy 'dial-a-yield' warheads can produce 5 kiloton-sized explosions from warheads capable of larger detonations.
As a result of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, supersonic cruise missiles, and quiet submarines since the start of the 21st century, it is not possible to identify beyond a reasonable doubt the culprit for the State of the Union attacks. While remnants of Al Qaeda and ISIS have attempted to claim responsibility, it is highly unlikely either has the capability to carry out such a devastating attack. More likely as a culprit is a rogue branch within an intelligence agency, however it must be re-affirmed that no hard evidence has yet been found linking any group with this atrocity.
Because of this ambiguity, no military response is likely to either harm the perpetrators or protect against further such attacks, barring discovery of significant additional evidence.
The authors of this report wish to make clear to the committee that despite their failure to prevent these attacks, none of the personnel involved in the response between 9:12 and 9:18 are in any way at fault for what transpired. In the highly complex airspace and radar ecosystem along the Eastern Seaboard, it was simply not possible for personnel to react with any more speed without posing undue risk to civilian activities. Their equipment was simply not capable of handling the threat posed by high-speed, low-altitude missiles.
Nor can the United States Navy be faulted for failing to detect the inbound threat. While at least two USN submarines reported detecting a faint acoustic signature consistent with a Kilo-type diesel-electric submarine, this is not particularly unusual, given that there are dozens of such vessels in service around the world, and training patrols even in the mid-Atlantic are not uncommon. In addition, such a submarine can effectively hide its acoustic signature by moving into the wake of passing commercial vessels, while also remaining virtually invisible to radar. While anti-submarine defenses could theoretically be deployed in places like Delaware Bay to prevent such an attack from happening again, there are in fact several ways to bring nuclear-tipped cruise missiles within miles of the US coastline without detection. Such weapons can be hid in shipping containers, undetectable until launch. A cruise missile launched from a container ship heading to Baltimore could have traveled the distance to D.C. in under three minutes, further reducing feasible response time.
Finally, the Secret Service reacted both bravely and according to their training, and had the missiles not carried nuclear warheads it is likely that their evacuation of the President would have been successful.