Jacobsen's Nuclear War

April 1, 2024

There are a lot of complex systems in the world, and learning about them is not always fun. You know what is fun? Thriller novels. After Tom Clancy’s early The Hunt for Red October came out, he was questioned by the FBIThis story is probably apocraphyl. because the book contained really detailed, true information about classified nuclear operations. It turns out that reading Clancy was a good way to learn about submarine warefare, without being too teach-y.

Anne Jacobsen’s new book — Nuclear War: A Scenario — is in the style of I’m-gonna-teach-you-stuff — she interrupts her narrative with numbered History Lesson boxes. That doesn’t mean it’s the best way to learn this stuff. If you want something less didactic which will more efficiently get you to the “now I know how the US wages nuclear war” level, I would recommend the last 100 pages of Clancy’s Sum of All Fears. Because that’s more than 30 years out of date,Surprisingly and terrifyingly not much of a problem. supplement it with The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States by Jeffrey Lewis — this will bring you up to date, and give you the details on North Korean capabilities. Lewis’ fictional scenario is both more realistic and easier to map to other potential conflicts than Jacobsen’s.Jacobsen goes far out of her way to create a general nuclear war scenario where STRATCOM can’t contact any of the first 7 people in the line of succession for the president — to the point where the head of the president’s Secret Service detail delays the departure of the presidential helicopter from a nuclear blast zone to prepare a parachute for the president in case the helicopter can’t escape in time (80-year-olds don’t survive parachute jumps). This would be a fun plot point in a thriller, but remember Jacobsen’s book is the only of these three books meant for realism.

Jacobsen is also, and I mean this as a compliment for most of her bibliography, one of our greatest conspiracy theorists. Her view of power and those who exercise it is actually quite pessimistic; her view of their competence can be contradictory. Her first popular book, a history of Area 51, was generally quite well regarded, but loses the plot when she gets to Roswell:

In July of 1947, Army intelligence spearheaded the efforts to retrieve the remains of the flying disc that crashed at Roswell. And as with other stories that have become the legends of Area 51, part of the conspiracy theory about Roswell has its origins in truth. The crash did reveal a disc, not a weather balloon, as has subsequently been alleged by the Air Force. And responders from the Roswell Army Air Field found not only a crashed craft, but also two crash sites, and they found bodies alongside the crashed craft. These were not aliens. Nor were they consenting airmen. They were human guinea pigs. Unusually petite for pilots, they appeared to be children. Each was under five feet tall. Physically, the bodies of the aviators revealed anatomical conundrums. They were grotesquely deformed, but each in the same manner as the others. They had unusually large heads and abnormally shaped oversize eyes. One fact was clear: these children, if that’s what they were, were not healthy humans. A second fact was shocking. Two of the child-size aviators were comatose but still alive.

Jacobsen’s singular source relates that the Roswell craft was Soviet; that Stalin had smuggled Josef Mengele out of collapsing Nazi Germany; that Mengele went on to “create a crew of grotesque, child-size aviators for Stalin;” that these aviators had crashed in New Mexico; and that the US government had covered it all up because:

“Because we were doing the same thing,” he said. “They wanted to push science. They wanted to see how far they could go.”

This attitude of competence-when-evil, incompetence-when-good pervades Nuclear War. Consider Hiroshima, where 100,000 civilians were killed on 6 August, 1945. Jacobsen writes:

Little Boy detonated over Hiroshima at an altitude of 1,900 feet—an airburst, as it’s known. This was the first nuclear weapon used in battle. Its burst height was based on a figure that had been precisely calculated by the American defense scientist John von Neumann, whose assigned task was to figure out a way to kill the most people possible on the ground below with this single atomic bomb.

Richard Rhodes, the author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, offers a different scenario: the Los Alamos scientists were curious how nuclear bombs differ from firebombing.

They did everything they could think of to make the bomb as much like ordinary bombing as they could. And for example, it was exploded high enough above ground, roughly 1,800 yards, so that the fireball that would form from this really very small nuclear weapon — by modern standards — 15 kilotons of TNT equivalent, wouldn’t touch the ground and stir up dirt and irradiate it and cause massive radioactive fallout.

Of course, as a side effect of this choice, the bomb was less efficient at killing peopleTho more efficient in energy. than it would have been if it had been a groundburst. Two things can be true at once — but these two are contradictory, and Jacobsen’s lesart is the more complicated.There is an alternative — von Neumann chose this altitude thinking it would kill more people, but was wrong. The Manhattan project scientists had only witnessed one nuclear explosion prior to Hiroshima, and had very little time to understand the data from that test.

In her scenario, Jacobsen’s characters resemble this maximally. The fictional commander of STRATCOM, the military arm responsible for waging nuclear war, spends pages conniving to get the president to give him the universal unlock code — a launch code which transfers launch decisions for all nuclear weapons from the president to STRATCOM.The last head of STRATCOM to confirm such a code existed did so more than a decade ago. Jacobsen doesn’t have anything more recent. Who knows. Doctrine says that this should only be used when the president can’t be found. Jacobsen’s central view of the world says differently: if STRATCOM has to decide between listening to a newly-promoted cabinet secretary who just watched everyone above them die in a nuclear blast, and launching everything he can, Jacobsen’s STRATCOM would irradiate the northern hemisphere.

I’m not sure she’s wrong. I’m not sure fictional STRATCOM is wrong either. The US has a launch-on-warningThis means that STRATCOM aims to launch retaliatory strikes as soon as they detect a launch against the United States. policy, and the only thing worse than an aggressive nuclear policy is an ambiguous nuclear policy. In deterrence-land, you need the opposition to think you’re going to be aggressive, and that means that the soldier, sailor, or airman who is pushing the button has to seem aggressive.Here I’ll list my favorite names of US nuclear commanders: General Power, General Habinger, General Starbird, and General Grisly. I made up one of those, and only kinda. If deterrence is a mindgame, then maybe we should always have the head of STRATCOM change their name to General Does-not-hesitate, or General Really-likes-big-red-buttons.

My critique of Jacobsen is this: she focuses far too much on people and circumstances and not enough on systems. The US system for nuclear war could be a lot worse; we know this because it was, from a low in the late 1950s to a not-much-higher in the 1980s. The way the US system interacts with the Russian system is terrifying.Jacobsen rightly discusses Tundra, the Russian missile warning system. The ‘Western world’s top expert on Russian nuclear forces’ calls Tundra ‘not great’. More importantly, people change, circumstances change, systems remain. If we change a system, it’s going to stay changed for a lot longer than changing the head of STRATCOM.

Last year, Daniel Ellsberg died at the age of 92. A few months before he died, he wrote about his cancer diagnosis, a self-obituary I sent to dozens of people.Ellsberg’s last book, The Doomsday Machine, is the best book on the history and practice of nuclear war. Ellsberg thought in systems; he designed those systems as a nuclear war planner in the 50s and 60s.

Jacobsen's Nuclear War - April 1, 2024 - Joseph Levine