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Reviewed by:
  • Stages of Emergency: Cold War Nuclear Civil Defense
  • Joshua Abrams (bio)
Stages of Emergency: Cold War Nuclear Civil Defense. By Tracy C. Davis. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007; 432 pp. $89.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

"Duck and Cover!" The practices and premises of civil defense drills within the West today seem at first a largely archaic and quaint memory. Tracy Davis's book on such civil defense "rehearsals" presents a fascinating compilation of archival research, drawing on a plethora of recently declassified documents detailing practices of civil defense during the cold war. Focusing primarily on the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, Davis uses the lenses of performance and theatre studies to examine these developments within the frame of what Jon McKenzie has termed the "performance stratum" of the second half of the 20th century (2001:19). By focusing on process and the idea of rehearsal rather than performance, Davis suggests that through many of these situations, it was not the actual events that were being war-gamed and tested, but that the framers were attempting to make "civil defense appear reasonable, [End Page 188] feasible, and efficacious" (330), despite the limited scope of such practices. She suggests that these practices are a structure of governmental control, reappearing, albeit modified, in the current moment.

Davis spends much of the introductory section of the book establishing the basic paradigms of civil defense (CD) planning and practices, as well as outlining the rationales for using rehearsal as a mode of exploring these activities. She explores their relationship to "typical" theatrical performance, as well as to Happenings and other non-matrixed performances (including the performance art practices of artists such as Tehching Hsieh and Marina Abramovi´c), presenting a convincing case for the usefulness of reading such exercises through these notions, due to both the similarities in structure in relation to the former and the multiplicity of scripts and perspectives in the latter. Her focus on rehearsal is predicated on its distinct epistemology: "nuclear war is not brought into being, but neither is its possibility excluded, and something about it might become known" (87). Davis offers the distinction between methexis and mimesis to frame this crucial distinction. She also produces a very useful etymology of "rehearsal," linking it to the agricultural harrow and ideas of burial and ghosting, triangulating herself between the "theater scholar's claim that there is a threshold between rehearsal and performance, […] the performance scholar's part in asserting that rehearsals are events in their own right, […and arguing with the historian that] rehearsal is a viable category for explaining an empirical testing out" (88). By establishing these parameters, Davis is able to productively focus her analysis on the differing types of CD rehearsals, particularly their participants, audiences, and intent.

This book is strongest in terms of its scope of coverage and detailed descriptions of a broad variety of CD events. It is structured in sections that focus on individual types of rehearsals, first looking at those rehearsals that relied upon citizen-participants and then turning to governmental "play." Chapters in the first section focus on the construction and inhabitation of shelters, evacuation and the resultant need for "hosting," the communication of relevant information, and the literal "play-acting" of injuries and trauma care. The second section, "Covert Stages: The 'Public Sector' Rehearses in Private," focuses on the post-1960 shift to managerial simulations. It begins with an exploration of the stages of crisis, and goes on to examine international cooperation, the need for continuity of key services throughout a disaster, issues with maintaining governmental control and continuity, and finally turns to the change of all of these "gamed" situations to the online, computerized simulation.

Davis presents meticulous discussions throughout the book, with extremely well-endnoted references, helping her to paint clear and in-depth pictures of these various exercises. These stories are surprisingly amusing to read, despite the seriousness of their underlying logic. Part of this disjunction is due to the distance between the rehearsals and the assumptions about the potential situations; the streamlining of such exercises often overlooks the likely circumstances of the "real." A plethora of archival images accompany stories such as that...


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pp. 188-190
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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