Nuclear War: A Scenario by Annie Jacobsen Reviews

Not since Graham T. Allison, in his 1961 classic, Freedom Lobbed Defiantly, reviewed here in April, has a reader had such a graphic glimpse into the nightmares of nuclear war as in Annie Jacobsen's Nuclear War: A Scenario. In an Author's Note, Jacobsen, an investigative journalist, writes, "This is a work of fiction presented as a scenario of how an unintended nuclear war could begin tomorrow and escalate. Every detail about the weapons and systems in this book is accurate."

Indeed, in interviews on YouTube and elsewhere, Jacobsen allays fears that what she has written is a primer for nuclear war. Rather, she has assembled an array of facts with an elucidating style that makes the book difficult to put down. One YouTube comment reads, "Well, that was both incredibly interesting and utterly terrifying at the same time."

In a Prologue titled "Hell on Earth," Jacobsen describes a 1-megaton thermonuclear weapon exploding with a blast wave of 180 million degrees Fahrenheit, four or five times hotter than the temperature at the center of the Earth's sun. A megaton blast would ignite everything flammable extending out several miles. It would create a massive fireball that would expand at millions of miles per hour. Within a few seconds, this fireball would increase to a diameter of little more than a mile (5,700 feet across). Concrete surfaces would explode, metal objects would melt or evaporate, stones would shatter, and humans would instantaneously convert into combusting carbon. The blast would generate wind up to 300 mph. An electromagnetic pulse would "obliterate all radio, internet, TV [and] cars' electric ignition systems in a several-mile ring outside the blast."

This would be followed by a seven-to-ten-year-long nuclear winter where temperatures would stay 40 degrees lower than normal. This scenario, compounded by a second missile fired from a North Korean submarine against Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, is both gut-wrenching and hair-raising to read.

In an interview with the Commonwealth Club of California, Quentin Harvey, former Deputy Tech Editor at the New York Times and Head of Editorial at Google Cloud, talks with Annie Jacobsen, laying out the author's reasoning and research behind the book. Jacobsen explains that a nuclear war would happen within seconds and be largely over in just 72 minutes.

In a Note to the Reader at the conclusion of the book, Jacobsen writes, "Every detail about the weapons and systems in this book is accurate. The scenario is fictional."

In between the unfolding 72-minute nuclear war scenario, Jacobsen offers the reader nine short history lessons, such as "ICBM Launch Systems," "The President's Football," "Nuclear-Armed Submarines," "Deterrence," "The ICBM," "Launch on Warning," "Radiation Sickness," "The Proud Prophet War Game," and "Apes on a Treadmill."

History Lesson no. 9, "Apes on a Treadmill," quoted a Foreign Policy article by Paul Warnke in 1975, where he criticized "how insanely dangerous nuclear weapons are and how wasteful the entire nuclear arms race is and always has been." Warnke calls it "a 'monkey see, monkey do' phenomenon, with all participants copying one another's moves, and getting absolutely nowhere, like unintelligent beasts."

In the book's conclusion, Jacobsen comes back to the warnings of a nuclear winter that would extinguish all living forms on earth. "A single war between the United States and Russia, using only less than 1 percent of existing nuclear weapons, would produce smoke clouds that would circle the earth for years, cutting off sunlight and causing a massive extinction event."

One can only hope that Nuclear War: A Scenario is read by the political and military leaders of the nine nations that possess nuclear weapons (United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea) so they will understand the utter catastrophic destruction of human civilization that would result.

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