In the 1980s, the small city of El Paso in Texas was the centre of the largest group of missile-firing ranges in the western world. The Observer Magazine sent its defence correspondent, Ian Mather, along to report on this unusual landscape of 6,000 square miles of desert and mountains (26 February 1984, ‘Missile Metropolis’).
‘Even the chapel spire is a missile cone topped by a cross,’ observed Mather, whose impression was that ‘a modern sculptor had been allowed to give vent to an obsession with vertical tapered shapes’. Many were indeed old models that had been repurposed. ‘Sections of missiles serve as rubbish bins, ash trays, plant pots and bases for volley-ball posts.’ He concluded: ‘It is not a soothing place to live.’
New weapons, including cruise missiles, were being tested at the White Sands range, 40 miles north, and just before Mather arrived there was a mistake with a Pershing II that showed the need for all that space. ‘We’ve got population round here,’ said a ‘semi-official source’ with either his tongue in his cheek, or shrapnel. ‘People get very upset when a missile lands in their yard.’
But spare a thought for Mexico, who – whoops! – the US had been accidentally firing at. ‘From time to time the inhabitants of [neighbouring] Juárez have had reason to wonder whose side the US is on,’ wrote Mather. Once, the Americans decided to simulate a mushroom cloud, but forgot to inform their neighbours, who understandably thought World War Three was in the offing. It was also a Mexican national holiday so bonus points for thoughtlessness.
Mather was allowed to watch several launches, but not that of the Patriot, their latest ‘wonder weapon’. But, as one soldier joked, that was no bad thing: ‘The Patriot is pretty unreliable. So the Mexicans had better watch out!’ If only Mexico could have erected a really high wall to protect itself.