Oh, My Goodness, It Could Never Happen, Could It?

Annie Jacobsen’s new book on the possibility of a nuclear armageddon, Nuclear War: A Scenario, is causing quite a stir. But who thinks much about nuclear war anymore? (When I was growing up in Nashville in the early 1950s, I remember atomic bomb war drills in grammar school when we kids crawled under our desks. In the 1960s, my younger brother brought home from the navy a sign that read, “In the event of nuclear war, extinguish all cigarettes.”) Afterall, atomic bombs and nuclear weapons have been around for almost 80 years and “only” used twice. In fact, while we know that large arsenals of these weapons still exist, the theory of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) has worked well so far, so why worry? Besides, what can anyone do about it?  Don’t we have enough to worry about already as many in our country alarmingly are supporting a candidate for president, who is sounding more and more like a fascist?

I have not read the book yet but have listened to a three-hour-long interview on the Lex Fridman podcast and viewed a YouTube video interview with Jacobsen of about the same length. Go to the internet and view or listen to these interviews. However, be forewarned: It will scare the bejesus out of you.

Jacobsen is an investigative reporter for The New York Times who has covered military and national security issues for many years. For this book she interviewed hundreds of experts and uncovered formerly classified material. She says that the reason that she wrote the book is that she believes the world at large has accepted the fact that thousands of nuclear warheads exist, albeit with a shrug and ho-hum attitude that MAD seems to be working just fine. She raises the question, “But what if it doesn’t?”

If it doesn’t, according to Jacobsen, and if a full scale nuclear war happened, it could mean the end of human and animal life on the planet. She describes in her book a scenario where we are attacked by North Korea, a rogue nation which now has an estimated 50 nuclear weapons. We counterattack sending dozens of nukes toward them. Because of the way our nuclear silos are set up, aiming toward the east, not the west, to hit North Korea the nukes must fly over Russia. When the Russians pick up the signal of missiles headed toward them, they think we are hitting them and retaliate with even more missiles unleashed toward the U.S. Then we respond with missiles headed to Russia. And all this happens in less than an hour. Then other nuclear nations join the fray. The planet Earth is forever changed.

Since the main target for the nukes from Russia is the Pentagon, this would mean that every building within a 20-mile radius would be instantly destroyed, and all the inhabitants instantly killed. But we in Washington would be the lucky ones. Our demise would be swift. What would follow would be even worse for those who survived as governments collapsed around the world and lawlessness prevailed. Food supplies would vanish and within hours the soot and debris would begin to block the sun resulting in a twilight lasting for years, decades, or longer. Temperatures would drop  20 or more degrees and without light plants would die and agriculture would cease.  Nuclear winter would set in, and the Planet Earth would join the other desolate planets in our solar system. Game over.

What struck me most about this doomsday scenario is that it tracks with the five mass extinctions that have already occurred on our planet, roughly every 130-150 million years. Each mass extinction wiped out between 85-95 percent of all plant and animal life. The last mass extinction happened about 130 million years ago when the dinosaurs got wiped out when a huge asteroid hit the Yucatan in Mexico. It turns out that according to scientists who keep track of this sort of thing, that technically the Earth is already entering the Sixth Mass Extinction due mainly to the destruction of animal habitats by us humans.  Should the unthinkable happen, this would complete the Sixth Mass Extinction.

Good heavens!  Nothing like this could happen—not to us—could it? Jacobsen is scaring the living daylights out of us for no reason since there is nothing we can do about it. But I suppose that is her point. We must figure out a way to assure that it won’t happen. That would mean getting rid of the thousands of nuclear weapons now stockpiled in nine countries and to make them illegal forever. But what are the chances that will happen? She would argue that it must happen if life on the planet is to survive. The nuclear holocaust may not happen in our lifetime, or our children’s or our grandchildren’s, but odds makers say that the chances are close to 100 percent that if we humans have these weapons, eventually we will use them again. It is only a matter of time.



2 thoughts on “Oh, My Goodness, It Could Never Happen, Could It?

  1. Yes, it’s a scenario that doesn’t bear thinking about, but my guess is that it will, one day, occur. And the real tragedy, surely, is that, if it isn’t brought about by a ‘natural’ mass extinction event, it will be by human arrogance. Putin, Xi Jinping, Trump, immediately come to mind, but there are dozens of others who’s ego stops them working (ruling) for the common good.
    Any suggestions – other than a gun?!

  2. Thanks Dad for sharing this summary and asking this tough question. I have read the book and can say that it has deeply affected me. I was a member of an anti nuclear club in high school (STAND- students against nuclear destruction), but nothing like that exists at my children’s high school. I find it remarkable that nuclear war risk is barely discussed in the national discourse, although surely this is the most important and fundamentally threatening risk that we face, exceeding AI, climate change, the erosion of democracy and other risks that are talked about everyday. And surely this risk is higher now than ever before, given ongoing proliferation pressure, several active military conflicts and Cold War levels of distrust among nuclear armed powers. The points Jacobsen makes about how ill informed most presidents are about the nuclear protocols and the very short amount of time (6 minutes!) they might have to make a decision that could affect the future of humanity seems too fantastical to believe. And yet it is, so it seems, true.

    Very hard to know what to do about this as an individual. Pacifism and the disarmament movement seems dormant for the foreseeable future…films like Don’t Look Up and Dr. Strangelove feel like they are on to something. Hopefully somehow we make it through, but feels like a lot of luck will be needed.

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