Friday, October 13, 2006

Dr. Strangelove, please keep an eye on your toys. Your grandchildren are getting forgetful.

Every Wednesday night there's a spike in Google searches involving Jericho, some of the searchers end up at my post about the show of a few weeks ago, and some of them stop to comment. I've been surprised by how blasé many of the commenters are about the idea of nuclear weapons and their use. There's been a spirited debate about whether a single nuke could really "take out" a good sized city like New York, with the consensus being that it could not. I marvel at how so many people could forget what once was so obvious. I think of them as Dr. Strangelove's grandchildren.

And then I realize that most of the commenters were not even born yet when the U.S. successfully detonated the first hydrogen bomb in the Ivy Mike test on Halloween Day of 1952 -- Halloween afternoon in the U.S., Nov. 1 at the Pacific test site. That test, and others like it, haunted people's dreams like a nightmare for years afterward, but gradually a mass amnesia set in.

This was not the little mushroom cloud blossoming on the horizon in Jericho. This was the "Super," as Edward Teller called it. You could say Harry Truman kept the commitment he made in January of 1950.
It is part of my responsibility as Commander in Chief of the Armed forces to see to it that our country is able to defend itself against any possible aggressor. Accordingly, I have directed the AEC to continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or Super bomb.
It was super, alright. The 10.4-megaton blast -- about 500 times the force of the Nagasaki bomb -- looked like the end of the world, vaporized the island of Elugelab and left a crater more than a mile wide. Even bigger bombs would be tested, before settling on today's more compact modern thermonuclear missile warheads. Each Trident II D-5 on a ballistic missile submarine carries up to 8 independently targetable warheads, each with a yield of up to half a megaton (if you're counting that would be about 30 Hiroshimas -- each).

Most of my commenters are not thinking of Ivy Mike or even the Trident, not by several orders of magnitude. They're thinking of the Hiroshima (15 kilotons) or Nagasaki (21 kilotons) size atomic weapons that might be employed by a terrorist or a rogue state if they get lucky. And, yes, much of New York would, technically speaking, survive, though it wouldn't be a picnic.

But what they're forgetting is a whole way of thinking about nuclear weapons that arose in the fifties and early sixties when the monsters were still stalking the earth out in the open and then gradually receded into the background of our national consciousness after the beastly things withdrew to their underground lairs. Partly it's an "out of sight, out of mind" thing. Underground testing drove the nuclear tests below ground and out of the news. The end of the Cold War, and the news that the U.S. and Russia had detargeted each other further added to the illusion of safety (as if the nukes couldn't be reprogrammed within seconds).

But I think the forgetfulness goes beyond this. There seems to be a deeply ingrained social dynamic that makes many of us determined to forget the hard-earned lessons of our grandparents' experience. Maybe it's due to Kondratieff Long Wave Cycles. More likely it's just human nature. The acquired knowledge of previous generations gets turned into clichés through constant repetition and endless repackaging. The young become bored, and move on.

That's what happened with the Great Depression. It was reduced to a series of worn-out images from Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and the movie version of "The Grapes of Wrath." Consequently, as a nation we forgot most of what we learned about the social safety nets that were created during the years of the New Deal -- paving the way for the excesses of Reagan and the Bushes.

It's the same with thinking about nuclear war. Hydrogen bombs have not been tested above ground in the lifetime of most people living today. Nor have atomic bombs been used in war. All we have is a lot of stories about how awful the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were and how dangerous the Cold War was. But Japan survived, didn't it? And the world didn't blow up, did it? Big whoop. We survived 9/11. We can certainly survive a nuke or two from a rogue nation or a terrorist state. I exaggerate, but not much.

Here's what has been forgotten: The thermonuclear arsenals of the major powers are very big and very nasty. The U.S. and Russia each have about 6,000 active warheads. Human life as we know it is not compatible with a significant proportion of them being detonated.

When the U.S. used nuclear weapons against Japan, we were the only nation that had the bomb. Today, the first bomb would most likely lead to another -- and another, in an uncontrollable pattern of escalation, through countless unpredictable scenarios. Sean comments on this in Cosmic Variance.
What are the chances, with all those weapons out there, that someone will use one, say in the next fifty years? Extremely high, I would guess. None has been used in the last fifty years, it’s true, but for most of that time we lived in a bipolar world with clearly defined lines of engagement and relatively symmetrical capabilities and liabilities. (The above list doesn’t even mention non-state groups, of course.) A more fragmented situation exponentially increases the number of events that could lead to a nuclear strike, including the possibility of accidents. And the number of nuclear-capable states shows little signs of decreasing in the near future.
Once any country strikes another using nuclear weapons, the presumption against further use will be considerably lowered. The consequences are hard to imagine, simply for being so terrifying.
And that's why the question of a single small nuke exploding in New York is so absurd. It would be very unlikely to stop with one. There are more than enough nukes to go around. We used to know that. But Dr. Strangelove's grandchildren are getting forgetful.


qrswave said...

Absolutely TERRIFYING.

Interested in re-posting it in the main body of my blog?

Not that I don't do a good job of terrifying my readers, but this would really scare the wits out of them.

Madison Guy said...

grswave -- Sure. Email me how to proceed at email in profile.


Anonymous said...

I am currently under the impression that several small nukes DID explode in New York. If not several, there were surely enough to go around, as you say. Absurd? Why not ask Dr. Strangelove?

Anonymous said...

For a lot of reasons, from the media to the market place, Americans continue to develop shorter attention spans. The "never ending" fear of nuclear war kept the capabilities of those weapons in our minds eye, until the probable use of them went away. (remember, we "only had them to keep the nasty communists from using theirs") With short attention spans, and a greater number of demands on it, Americans have quickly forgotten what was (but hasn't gone away). For many of us, it is easy to remember the multi-megaton-multiple-overkill warheads that are out there. But, our children? Or grandchildren? Well...think of the Holocaust...or better yet, ask what people remember about the Serbian-Bosnian-Croatian conflict of the 90's. But, then again, we've had a society and culture that teaches our children how to feel good about themselves, and go after whatever you want--as long as it makes you happy. So why should they worry about all that old history stuff? Well, maybe that's a rant for another day...

George said...

I've posted a related article on Sentient Developments:

Cpl. JJ Jetty, USMC said...

I definitely fall into the category of Dr. Strangelove's "grandchildren". The end of the Cold War is a distant, almost dreamlike image for me. However being in the military, I like to think I have some understanding of the true threat posed by nuclear weapons. In artillery school we learned about "Atomic Annie" and her Russian sister. We were also told that officially the US doesn't have any nuclear 155mm rounds, but in the even we ever had to fire one we should expect to recieve lethal doses of radiation. I've always been facinated with nuclear weapons and the science behind them so I think that class had a more profound impact on me than my fellow Marines, still I can't imagine what it must have been like living in the shadow of the Mushroom cloud.
I earnestly hope my generation wakes up before we are forced to relearn the lessons of the atomic age the hard way