Atlas Shrugged: The Fires of Kuwait

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter X

While Dagny has been criscrossing the country seeking the inventor of the motor, she learns from Eddie Willers that the looters are once again making absurd demands, this time clamoring for new laws that would kill the John Galt Line and strangle the industry of Colorado:

The Union of Locomotive Engineers was demanding that the maximum speed of all trains on the John Galt Line be reduced to sixty miles an hour. The Union of Railway Conductors and Brakemen was demanding that the length of all freight trains on the John Galt Line be reduced to sixty cars.

The states of Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona were demanding that the number of trains run in Colorado not exceed the number of trains run in each of these neighboring states.

A group headed by Orren Boyle was demanding the passage of a Preservation of Livelihood Law, which would limit the production of Rearden Metal to an amount equal to the output of any other steel mill of equal plant capacity. A group headed by Mr. Mowen was demanding the passage of a Fair Share Law to give every customer who wanted it an equal supply of Rearden Metal.

A group headed by Bertram Scudder was demanding the passage of a Public Stability Law, forbidding Eastern business firms to move out of their states. [p.279]

But she’s still too consumed by her quest for the inventor of the magic motor to worry. Following Ivy Starnes’ directions, she arrives at the house belonging to William Hastings, the former chief engineer of the Twentieth Century Motor Company, only to find that he died five years ago. His widow knows about the motor, which her husband told her was invented by a young man on his staff, but other than that she knows nothing about his work or his coworkers. She’s able to give Dagny just one more clue, which is that she once saw her husband meeting with a man who works at a roadside diner in the Rocky Mountains. Dagny heads promptly to the diner and finds the man:

She studied the man behind the counter. He was slender and tall; he had an air of distinction that belonged in an ancient castle or in the inner office of a bank; but his peculiar quality came from the fact that he made the distinction seem appropriate here, behind the counter of a diner. He wore a cook’s white jacket as if it were a full-dress suit. There was an expert competence in his manner of working; his movements were easy, intelligently economical. He had a lean face and gray hair that blended in tone with the cold blue of his eyes… [p.306]

Dagny strikes up a conversation with the cook and finds out, to her astonishment, that he’s Hugh Akston, the philosopher who was Robert Stadler’s frenemy at Patrick Henry University. She offers him a job, but he declines, which Dagny finds inexplicable:

“Dr. Akston, I… it’s inconceivable, it’s… You’re… you’re a philosopher… the greatest philosopher living… an immortal name… why would you do this?”

“Because I am a philosopher, Miss Taggart.” [p.309]

She leaned forward, both forearms braced firmly against the counter, feeling calm and in tight control again, sensing a dangerous adversary. “Did you know, about ten years ago, a young engineer who worked for the Twentieth Century Motor Company?”

…He had listened without moving, looking straight at her; the attentiveness of his eyes seemed to take hold of every word and store it carefully away, giving her no clue to his purpose. He did not move for a long time. Then he said, “Give it up, Miss Taggart. You won’t find him.” [p.307]

Akston flatly refuses to tell her anything, and she leaves, though not before vowing she won’t give up the search. But on the way back, she glances at a newspaper, and learns to her horror that the socialist government has issued all the directives Eddie told her about, the ones that will spell doom for Colorado.

The only consciousness the pictures left her was the feeling of the approach of some unthinkable disaster, and the feeling that she had to outrun it. She had to reach Ellis Wyatt and stop him. She did not know what it was that she had to prevent. She knew only that she had to stop him. [p.312]

In a panic, she commandeers a train and races to Wyatt’s refinery, but she’s not in time:

The sudden jolt of brakes on wheels threw her upright. It was an unscheduled stop, and the platform of the small station was crowded with people, all looking off in the same direction. The passengers around her were pressing to the windows, staring. She leaped to her feet, she ran down the aisle, down the steps, into the cold wind sweeping the platform.

In the instant before she saw it and her scream cut the voices of the crowd, she knew that she had known that which she was to see. In a break between mountains, lighting the sky, throwing a glow that swayed on the roofs and walls of the station, the hill of Wyatt Oil was a solid sheet of flame.

Later, when they told her that Ellis Wyatt had vanished, leaving nothing behind but a board he had nailed to a post at the foot of the hill, when she looked at his handwriting on the board, she felt as if she had almost known that these would be the words: “I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It’s yours.”

I doubt that Colorado’s oil wells were on fire when Ellis Wyatt found them, but never mind that. Rand sees this as a grand gesture of defiance, a metaphorical middle finger extended to the looters. But what would happen if someone did this in real life?

During the 1991 Gulf war, Saddam Hussein’s retreating military set hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells on fire, in a Wyatt-like act of spite toward the alliance that expelled them. The wells burned for months before they could be extinguished and caused havoc throughout the Middle East, in the form of choking clouds of smoke, toxic black rain that poisoned water and killed animals, a vast slick of crude in the Persian Gulf, and oily fog that seeped into people’s lungs. As a contemporary report stated:

Thick soot from the endless plumes of black smoke choking the skies over Kuwait is making breathing difficult and fouling water sources. The sun is so heavily obscured by the smoke that motorists must use headlights at noon.

Time magazine ranks the Kuwaiti oil fires the third worst environmental disaster in history, behind Chernobyl and the Bhopal chemical spill:

[T]he fires — literally towering infernos — burned for seven months. The Gulf was awash in poisonous smoke, soot and ash. Black rain fell. Lakes of oil were created. As NASA wrote, “The sand and gravel on the land’s surface combined with oil and soot to form a layer of hardened ‘tarcrete’ over almost 5 percent of the country’s area.” Scores of livestock and other animals died from the oily mist, their lungs blackened…

In 2003, more than ten years later, Kuwait was still suffering from the aftermath, with increased incidence of cancer and respiratory illness.

But in Rand’s mind, this kind of environmental mass destruction is heroic. She treats Wyatt’s act as a valid and proportional response to laws that decrease his access to rail shipping. Even if he blankets Colorado in toxic fog and poisons its air and water, we’re meant to conclude, that’s no more than the looters deserve.

This supervillain-esque act is an assault on innocent people by any reasonable definition, and if any further proof was needed, it puts the lie to Rand’s claim that she’s against initiation of force. Her real position is clearly that, if you make it harder for an Objectivist to make money, they’re justified in causing indiscriminate destruction as payback.

We’ve come to the end of Part I. Stay tuned for my review of the first Atlas Shrugged movie, starting next week!

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Other posts in this series:

Weekend Coffee: July 5
How the Cross Is Like the Confederate Flag
The Pope's Laudato: So Close And Yet So Far
Atlas Shrugged: The Hippocratic Oath
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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