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Free Study Guide: Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank - Free BookNotes

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Chapter 4 is primarily concerned with the military actions, both Soviet and American, that lead to war. The departure of Mark Bragg’s family from Omaha and their arrival in Fort Repose is set against this backdrop.

The chapter opens with Helen Bragg and the children leaving Omaha. Immediately afterward, the scene shifts to Randy Bragg in Fort Repose. He wakes up to go to Orlando to pick up Helen and the children. As he gets ready to go to the airport, he considers many of the things he has yet to do (stock up on gas and oil, fill Dr. Gunn’s prescriptions, etc.), as well as considering things he had not yet thought of (candles, flashlights, batteries, etc.). As he leaves the house, he stops by the McGovern’s. In the scene at the McGovern house, we learn more about the somewhat unfriendly relations between Randy and the McGovern’s. Randy tells them of the coming war. Lavinia, Lib’s mother, does not want to even think about the possibility of war - she remembers the previous war and its privations, and that is just too disruptive to her comfortable middle-class lifestyle.

Meanwhile, events in the Eastern Mediterranean go from bad to worse. Ensign James “Peewee” Cobb defies standing orders and chases a Soviet fighter jet into Syrian airspace. He launches an air-to-air missile to bring it down, but the missile goes astray and strikes Soviet naval facilities in the port city of Latakia. The missile sets off a chain reaction of explosions and destroys much of the port.

On the way home from Orlando, Randy and Helen hear the news from the Middle East. They realize its importance and that the die is now cast.

The scene switches to SAC headquarters. Mark is reading the latest intelligence reports and is worried that the Soviets have said nothing - not a word about the destruction of their facilities in Syria. To his trained ear, the silence is deafening and more disturbing than any Soviet propaganda on the radio. When General Harken arrives at the command center, Mark fills him in on events. Dawn has not arrived yet on the American eastern coast; the general realizes it is “the witching hour” - the most dangerous time.

Mark recommends that the general have the nuclear weapons released to SAC - a necessary first step before the weapons can be used. The general agrees, calls Washington, and obtains the necessary permission. This exercise saves them 95 seconds. More airborne tankers are scrambled at SAC bases throughout North America. As the orders to scramble are issued, word comes from NORAD that they are tracking what appears to be an incoming missile launched from the Soviet Union. Other reports come in of missiles being launched from submarines off the American East Coast. NORAD skips yellow alert and immediately goes to red alert. The war is on.


It is now the early morning hours of Sunday. The novel opens on a Friday morning. Randy received Mark’s “Alas, Babylon” message on Friday, met him for lunch on Saturday, and picked up Mark’s family in the early morning hours of Sunday. Just as dawn is breaking that Sunday, Mark’s predictions come true.

Peewee Cobb is flying north, up the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. He is under strict orders not to violate anyone’s borders or airspace. Those orders were particularly applicable to Syria, a Soviet ally. Interestingly, Pat Frank, in describing the sights visible to Ensign Cobb, mentions “the hills of Megiddo, also called Armageddon.”

The author’s knowledge of military affairs, protocols, and hardware are especially seen in this chapter. His depiction of the aircraft and how it responds to the pilot’s control, as well as the chain of command and protocols for the American use of nuclear weapons by SAC, are entirely accurate.

On the way back to Randy’s house, Helen makes a profound observation - the children of the time have “...lived under the shadow of war - atomic war. For them, the abnormal has become normal. All their lives they have heard nothing else, and they expect it.”

NORAD, the North American Air Defense Command, is located deep inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. NORAD is responsible for monitoring air and space approaches to the U.S. for possible military strikes against the U.S. During the Cold War, NORAD was responsible for detecting, verifying, and tracking intercontinental ballistic missiles launched toward the U.S.

Readers old enough to remember the 1950s, 1960s, and the early 1970s fully understand Helen’s statement. We grew up with “Duck and Cover” films and instructions on what to do if the Soviets dropped a nuclear bomb nearby (nothing we could do would really matter, but it would keep us busy for the few minutes until we were vaporized). We expected a nuclear World War III from which there would be few survivors, one in which the living would envy the dead. This threat changed our thinking and colored our worldview. For us, the collapse of the USSR in 1989 was something that we never expected to see - the USSR was just as permanent a fixture on the world scene as was the U.S. Younger readers never experienced the fear of the Cold War and the feeling of dread that it produced. However, in the post-9/11 world, new fears may replace the old fears of nuclear annihilation. In some ways, readers growing up in the 1990s had it lucky - the old Cold War days were over but the new post-9/11 life had not yet come to be. This was a time of peace for America’s youth.

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