New Times,
New Thinking.

Slave to the Bomb

We don’t need to imagine a world ravaged by nuclear war – we’re already living in it.

By Erik Baker

“If you take a look right now, the ‘nuclear’ word is being mentioned all the time,” Donald Trump observed last year. The former (and perhaps future) US president blamed his weak-willed successor, rather dubiously, for the proliferation of what he described as one of two “N-words” better left unsaid by political leaders. But he was on to something nevertheless. After decades of relative dormancy, nuclear concern has emerged again. Trump himself was perhaps the original cause, as the most conspicuously unstable quarterback ever to handle the American nuclear “football”. But in the last eight years, the reasons for anxiety have multiplied: escalating tensions between the US and China; North Korea’s first successful thermonuclear test; an increasingly militarist posture in India; and devastating demonstrations of the atrocities that military decision-makers in Russia and Israel are willing to perpetrate.

Culture has kept pace. Novelists in the years after the 2016 US election imagined Trump pressing the button – Hanna Jameson in The Last, Mark Doten in Trump Sky Alpha, and more abstractly, Rumaan Alam in Leave the World Behind, now a major motion picture made by the Obamas’ production company. HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries reminded us of the danger of the vast Soviet nuclear infrastructure that is largely in Vladimir Putin’s hands. And then there was Oppenheimer. Analysts have tended to attribute the staggering commercial success of Christopher Nolan’s three-hour biographical epic to the hunger of an audience starved of serious mainstream cinematic fare by Marvel hegemony, which is surely part of the story. But I suspect that its triumph also has to do with worries about nuclear weapons. The New York Times, astutely, has responded to Oppie-mania by launching a new essay series on the risk of nuclear catastrophe entitled “At the Brink”.

So far, however, almost a decade of renewed nuclear scrutiny has little to show for itself. Regardless of where one thinks we stand vis-à-vis the brink, it is difficult to argue that we have moved further away of late. The headline for the national security columnist WJ Hennigan’s inaugural essay for the Times series asserts that nuclear war is “not imagined enough”. Maybe that was true in 2016. But it was not true during the Cold War, when, despite its other accomplishments, a nuclear disarmament movement far more robust than anything we’ve seen since failed to obtain its chief objective. And I don’t think it’s true any more today – especially not after the publication of Annie Jacobsen’s new book Nuclear War: A Scenario, one of the most exhaustive imaginings of the commencement of nuclear war ever written.

Jacobsen, whose books on the secrets of the American military-industrial complex have made her a Pulitzer Prize finalist and an occasional writer for the Amazon thriller series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, clearly intends this latest salvo as a contribution to the disarmament struggle. After the advent of nuclear war, she writes in the book’s closing pages, we will learn too late that “nuclear weapons… were the enemy of us all”, instead of “North Korea, Russia, America, China, Iran, or anyone else vilified as a nation or a group”. But Nuclear War illustrates what goes wrong when we try to separate the threat posed by nuclear weapons as a technology from the political structures of militarism and imperialism in which they exist. By envisioning the badness of a hypothetical nuclear war in excruciating detail, Jacobsen loses sight of the all-too-actual carnage that nuclear states, not least the US, have already unleashed.

Despite Jacobsen’s concluding protestations that nuclear weapons themselves are the enemy, the apocalyptic scenario that Nuclear War elaborates has a clear villain: North Korea. The road to Armageddon begins with an inter-continental ballistic missile launched from a field near Pyongyang, destined for Washington DC. Jacobsen spills an enormous amount of ink justifying the plausibility of each link in the minute-by-minute chain of events she lays out in the rest of the book – culminating in the demise of most of humanity – but she never bothers to rationalise this fateful first step. North Korea “recklessly and foolishly… started nuclear World War III”, Jacobsen reminds us later, “and why, we simply don’t know”. The closest we get to an explanation is a stray suggestion that Kim Jong Un, like the Joker in The Dark Knight, just wants to watch the world burn. “All it takes is one nihilistic madman with a nuclear arsenal to start a nuclear war no one can win,” Jacobsen writes.

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In fact, it takes much less than that, at least according to the US federal government. Since the first mushroom cloud ascended over Trinity, it has been official American policy, never altered, that in theory there are circumstances in which a so-called first use of nuclear weapons by the US would be acceptable. Jacobsen never even considers the possibility that the button might be pushed first in Washington, rather than Pyongyang or Moscow, despite the Biden administration’s recent reaffirmation that the US reserves the right to initiate the use of nuclear weapons in “extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners”.

Even a partial list of situations in which American leaders have seriously contemplated a nuclear first strike is more frightening, in my view, than anything in the scenario Jacobsen has concocted. Harry Truman considered using atomic weapons in Korea; Dwight Eisenhower directed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to prepare for nuclear use in response to hypothetical acts of aggression by both the People’s Republic of China and, more implicitly, Iraq; Richard Nixon proposed nuclear bombing in Vietnam; Jimmy Carter seriously considered using tactical nuclear weapons in case of a Soviet invasion of Iran in 1980. The number of cases in which the US has communicated a threat of first use to an adversary, whether or not officials were actually prepared to go through with it, is far greater. As the Pentagon Papers whistleblower and former Rand Corporation nuclear war planner Daniel Ellsberg wrote in 2017 near the end of his life, “US presidents have used our nuclear weapons dozens of times in ‘crises’… in the precise way that a gun is used when it is pointed at someone in a confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled.”

The reality is that properly assessing the risk of US nuclear first use is extremely challenging for a civilian, even one as intrepid as Jacobsen – for reasons that she obscures in her narrative. Channelling Tom Clancy here as well as she does for Amazon, Jacobsen spins a suspenseful yarn about US military surveillance systems detecting the imminent North Korean strike and relaying the intelligence up the chain of command to the president, who agonises over the proper response as the missile speeds inexorably towards the Pentagon. She sketches the scenario with novelistic detail and the techno-thriller genre’s characteristic affection for jargon and acronyms: “When the CAT Element arrives, the SAC is on his phone calling for a status update on KNEECAP, Secret Service code for a Doomsday Plane when carrying POTUS, which is the acronym for president of the United States.”

All this attention to military hierarchy, proper channels, and presidential decision-making skirts the fact that crucial aspects of US nuclear launch protocols remain shrouded in secrecy. Jacobsen avers, dutifully, that “the US president… has sole authority to launch America’s nuclear weapons”. Every administration since Harry Truman consolidated presidential authority over nuclear weapons after the Second World War has said as much. And it is true that if the president were to order a nuclear attack – even if he had been drinking, as Richard Nixon was once, allegedly, when he contemplated a strike during the Vietnam War, or if he were Donald Trump – it is not obvious anyone could stop the missiles from flying.

That is alarming enough, but we also know with certainty that the Cold War White House was dissembling in implying that no one besides the president had the ability to launch nuclear weapons, beginning with Eisenhower’s decision in 1957 to “pre-delegate” authority to launch nuclear weapons in certain circumstances if the designated commanders were not able to contact him. During a Rand survey of American nuclear infrastructure in the Pacific in 1959, Ellsberg discovered that at least one of these designees, Admiral Harry D Felt, had further pre-delegated this authority in case his sub-commanders couldn’t reach him. The nuclear security expert Bruce Blair reports that his sources inform him the pre-delegation policy persisted in one form or another until Bill Clinton rolled it back in around 1993, five years before Eisenhower’s original instructions were declassified. Other sources suggest that some aspects of the practice may have survived Clinton’s roll-back, and Blair acknowledges that what President Trump has done about pre-delegation is anyone’s guess.

There are probably only a handful of human beings who really have full knowledge of the structure of US nuclear decision-making, a club that does not include me and which I am confident does not include Annie Jacobsen. Given her earlier work examining secrecy and deception in the American military, it is frankly bizarre how much credence Jacobsen gives to official descriptions of protocol in Nuclear War. The consequence is a preposterous scene where, as Washington DC is engulfed in flame and the president and other elected leaders go missing, top security officials debate who, if anyone, should be sworn in as acting president, so that further nuclear counter-strikes can be authorised. In reality, if Washington were ever hit with a hydrogen bomb, it seems likely that military commanders elsewhere would swiftly decide that they were empowered to make decisions about nuclear use themselves. If that were not possible, in fact, there would be a rather gaping flaw in American “deterrence” policy.

The truly terrifying possibility is that someone might come to this conclusion even if a nuclear war was not already under way. That possibility is, to be sure, vanishingly remote, and less likely today than at the height of the Cold War. But the uncertainty itself is, for once in these debates, no hypothetical. It is metonymic of the broader insulation of American nuclear policy – and military decision-making writ large – from democratic scrutiny and popular accountability. There is much we know that we don’t know, and even more we don’t know that we don’t know (to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld). But Jacobsen’s pretensions to omniscience occlude these gaps.

The subtitle of Nuclear War is accurate; the book contains exactly one scenario, and Jacobsen does not deviate from it, maintaining relentless focus on the question of whether US military bureaucrats can do anything to avert the worst-case scenario. Spoiler alert: everyone dies. That’s not exactly a surprise. “Up to now, no one outside of official circles has known exactly what would happen if a rogue state launched a nuclear missile at the Pentagon,” the jacket copy brags. It’s true that I didn’t know exactly how such a scenario would unfold before reading Nuclear War, but I did know that it wouldn’t be good. I suppose that’s the point. The only winning move is not to play, as the sci-fi film WarGames taught us many years ago. But the format of the book, as a non-fiction thriller, cuts against this lesson, relying as suspense must on the possibility that things could turn out otherwise. “Every fraction of a second matters,” Jacobsen writes early in the book. “Every byte of information counts.” But the rest of her story amounts to one long falsification of these initial assertions. Once the first warhead is aloft, nothing matters and nothing counts, except the cockroaches.

In January, the government media office in Gaza estimated that Israeli forces had dropped 45,000 bombs weighing 65,000 tonnes on the enclave since 7 October. The combined yield of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for comparison, was about 35,000 tonnes of dynamite. The fact that Israel has not yet deployed any of its nuclear weapons – despite public encouragement from one since-suspended Netanyahu cabinet member in November – is not much consolation to the tens of thousands of Gazan civilians killed by conventional munitions, or to the millions presently at risk of starvation due to Israel’s systematic demolition of civilian infrastructure and restrictions on humanitarian aid. It would come as news to victims in Gaza that nuclear weapons, rather than any particular nation, are their real enemies.

One might say the same of the thousands of civilian casualties of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, despite Vladimir Putin’s failure thus far to make good on any of his nuclear blustering, or the millions of innocent people around the world who have perished as a result of the manifold military operations the US has prosecuted in the name of combating communism and terrorism. Yet as Ellsberg argued, it would not exactly be accurate to describe these conflicts as “non-nuclear”, because the mushroom-shaped spectre of nuclear annihilation has stalked every military conflict since the fallout settled on Japan in 1945. The American empire, like the countervailing imperial might that Putin and Xi Jinping would like someday to amass, is not some neutral scaffolding on which the nuclear apparatus happens to rest, such that enlightened policymakers may choose to remove it if they were so inclined. American imperialism is thoroughly nuclear: what the historian Garry Wills has called Bomb Power. And nuclear power – the warp and weft of these weapons’ influence on world events and the fate of human beings – is, to precisely the same extent, thoroughly imperial.

Jacobsen understands this, I think. Nuclear War takes the reader on a tour of the US’s truly globe-spanning nuclear infrastructure. We visit bunkers and bases on multiple continents; we peer inside nuclear submarines and airborne nuclear command centres; we meet some of the thousands upon thousands of individuals who toil day and night to maintain American nuclear readiness. But despite her professions of horror at the hypothetical body counts to which US nuclear planners have accommodated themselves, Jacobsen renders their activity on the precipice of doomsday with something that often feels like love. “The duty of the STRATCOM commander comes with a responsibility unlike any other in the world,” she writes at one point. At another: “The function of NATO is to further democratic values and peacefully resolve disputes.” Nuclear War is saturated with awe at the momentousness of the decisions being made and a gee-whiz amazement at the technical achievement of the whole system. One senses Jacobsen’s frustration that, in her scenario, all this ingenuity and heroism is basically pointless, an impotent shield against the inevitable.

But the vast American military network that Jacobsen traverses is not merely twiddling its collective thumbs in anticipation of an inexplicable ICBM launch by a rogue state. It is ceaselessly projecting power. Despite making a suite of authentically apocalyptic outcomes marginally more likely, nuclear weapons really do promote the stability of the global order – or at least the stability of global hierarchy. They have forced the rest of humanity to worry that any serious threat to the American empire might lead to the end of the world, and it is not very surprising that for nearly 80 years everyone else has blinked first. The tragedy of nuclear weapons is that they work.

Near the end of the eighth episode of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s 2017 series Twin Peaks: The Return, a monstrous creature, somewhere between a frog and an insect, emerges from an egg in the year 1956 on the site of the Trinity nuclear test, depicted earlier in the hour. It crawls across the desert into a small New Mexico town, and while a young girl sleeps it enters her bedroom through an open window and insinuates itself into her throat. Here, Lynch and Frost make visceral the way that nuclear violence has taken up residence in the most intimate cavities of everyday life. It will continue to fester in the belly of the American imperium even if there is never another nuclear explosion on this planet. And if we persist in dwelling on our fantasies of what would happen if the Bomb were to go off, we will never be able to confront the consequences of the fact that it already has. The day after is today.

Nuclear War: A Scenario
Annie Jacobsen
Torva, 400pp, £20

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[See also: How Iraq was lost]

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