Blog post

The Doomsday Machine

A new book asks us to imagine a world ravaged by nuclear war. But is the persistent dread of extermination enough to guide a new movement for abolition?

James Robins17 May 2024

The Doomsday Machine

Blessed be those who see only light and feel nothing. When a one-megaton nuclear warhead detonates, every molecule of air within a one-mile radius instantly superheats to one hundred and eighty million degrees Fahrenheit. The first to die are the most enviable of victims, vanished in scouring wave so blistering the term ‘inferno’ seems almost soft and comfortable. Behind the flash lumbers the blast wave, heaving along at the speed of sound. Lungs combust, eyes melt, skin flays, and shrapnel cleaves limbs. Survival estimates for those within twenty miles might, at best, reach one hour. Our real pity should be reserved for those on the outer fringe of this radius, for their end will be the slowest of all; they must go to their dying in full knowledge of their fate. “When you put your head right under the guillotine like that,” Dostoevsky wrote from experience in The Idiot, “and hear it sliding above your head, it’s that quarter of a second that’s most terrible of all.”

To even whisper of the small mercies and minor salves of nuclear weapons makes moral perverts of us all. To enter that grotesque zone of imagination where humankind can be scored and graded on how long its suffering will last – the instant end preferred over the slower decay – is a base and profane act. Yet by their existence alone, nuclear weapons make us think like this; no other instrument of humanity’s devising implies, by its nature, a weighted scale of this kind. As well as ranking us, briefly, nuclear weapons are a great leveller: they are vaporisers, chewing through splendour and squalor alike at a million miles per hour; to suffer such fury in several thousand megaton, megadeath events would at last be the singular common experience of our species, a universal feeling, the final feeling. At the same time, there is no excuse for not thinking about them, no duty which does not involve grasping the upper limits of their anger. Herein lies the inhuman irony: ignorance of their use, for the first time since 1945, would be the best way to go.    

Such an ignition begins Nuclear War: A Scenario, a hybrid blend of reportage and fictional speculation by the Pulitzer-winning journalist Annie Jacobsen. Jacobson’s point zero, the target of a North Korean missile, is The Pentagon, though much of Washington DC between St Augustine’s and Buzzard Point Park would be a wasteland in seconds. Watching the missile’s arcing course over the Pacific in Jacobsen’s present-day narrative are the elite of America’s military establishment – its nuclear planners and operators. They know about it as soon as its rockets start burning, but they do not expect it: a “Bolt from the Blue” attack in official parlance. The scale of Jacobsen’s hypothetical scenario is as small as a microsecond – the time it takes for a US launch-detection satellite to spit its warning to a data centre in Colorado – and as wide as a continent.

Though we never learn why the Outstanding Leader of the Juche Revolution decides to blitz the United States, Jacobsen’s story tracks the American response in tight detail, pausing often to hear from past and present officials (Leon Panetta, FEMA-chief Craig Fugate, etc.), interrupted occasionally by condescending “History Lessons” (No.1: “Deterrence”, No.2: “The ICBM” etc). Jacobsen pings rapidly between the monoliths of military might: Cheyenne Mountain, a remote long-range radar site in Alaska, Strategic Command in Nebraska; the Oval Office; Missile Defense HQ in Virginia. There isn’t really a defence: for the small sum of $40billion, the US stocks 44 mid-range interceptor missiles, which work only about half the time. And anyway, the North Korean attack has a follow-up, a submarine-launched warhead aimed close at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in central California. For all its horror, it’s a redundant strike. By then, twenty or so minutes after the first launch, American bombers are already on their way obliterate Pyongyang.

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Jacobsen’s president has no name and no discernible character; he and his staff are cyphers for a process that tends in a solitary direction. “A scenario,” in Jacobsen’s title, implies “multiple scenarios” – a matrix of many branching possibilities. Really, past a certain point, there is only one scenario. An American “response” implies a Russian “response”, implying in turn a European “response”, and then a Chinese one, and on it goes down the fiery chain. The Proud Prophet wargame, a vast American military exercise run in real time in 1983, revealed a single possible conclusion: release one nuke, and it’s all over. There is no doubling-back, no de-escalation, no relief, no U-turn, no reprieve. All scenarios converge on an annihilatory end. “No policies in human history have more deserved to be recognized as immoral,” the late Daniel Ellsberg once said, than those which keep the missiles shuddering in their silos. “Or insane.”

******

When it comes, the end of the world will arrive quickly. Speed was designed into the system sixty years ago, when the first ballistic missiles debuted. Only the speed in launching your own nuclear weaponry can outdo the speed of a rival’s. And speed defeats reason, common sense, moral feeling. Jacobsen’s story takes place over just 72 minutes; the president receives word of a nuclear launch about ten minutes after it occurs; they have, in total, six minutes to decide what happens next.

“Six minutes is roughly the amount of time it takes to brew a ten-cup pot of coffee,” Jacobsen notes. Which might be a better use of everyone’s final moments. “How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?” Ronald Reagan once asked. A fair question, from him, for it raises the delicate subject of compos mentis. In 1984, Reagan was well on his way to senility when he told the world that American ICBMs could be recalled when already in flight. They cannot: not then, not now. Much is made, especially during election years, of the Commander in Chief’s suitability to toss the football. The president’s call is more oblique than a simple murder-equation: they are asked to make the last decision anyone will ever make. Can they be trusted to unleash the arsenal? we wonder. Such a question implies the need for sanity. But of what use is sanity in committing the ultimate insanity?

And it’s the wrong question. It ought to be, do you trust them not to launch a pre-emptive strike? Can they keep their wits long enough to close the briefcase? Jacobsen reassures us (if that’s the right term) that “a critical component of nuclear command and control…guarantees the president, and only the president, can ever authorize nuclear use.” Except when they don’t. The president, Jacobsen also notes, may authorise a “universal unlock code” allowing the head of Strategic Command to take charge of the warheads and use them at will. And as Daniel Ellsberg revealed in The Doomsday Machine, Eisenhower delegated Bomb control down to theatre commanders – as low as three-star generals in the field – to use on their own initiative. Perhaps such a delegation exists today; the carapace of Bomb secrecy prevents us from ever knowing whether the one person we invest singly with world-ending authority actually still holds that authority. Meanwhile, the two presidential candidates this year both betray the wincing symptoms of serious mental decline.

The details Jacobsen has unearthed may seem impressive as she hops swiftly from remote radar site to orbiting satellite and on to midwestern missile base. That is until you to wonder whether the public release of intimate details of nuclear command isn’t really on the virtuous grounds of democracy or transparency, but part of the rationale of deterrence. Awe and wonder at the microsecond capabilities of American launch detection, it suggests, the dutiful rigour of all these contingency plans, their speed. For such a book to exist, the planners must accede to its release, and it becomes just another fragment in the security state’s obscene calculus.

******

Meaning, like life, flounders and garbles in the security state’s mouth. “Retaliate to decapitate,” “deceptive basing modes,” “escalate to de-escalate,” “resolve to restrain,” “tailored deterrence,” “flexible retaliation,” “baseline terminal defence.” This is the unhuman lexicon of the atomic age – our age, still – a conlang like Nadsat, strange on the tongue and impenetrable to anyone but the elect. A total, disarming, pre-emptive nuclear attack based on the threat of someone else launching is called “striking second first.” On its merry way to murdering us all, the Bomb has murdered language. Even now we lack a good enough to term for what augurs End Times. “Nuclear exchange” is much too euphemistic; it fosters a false belief in survivability. “Nuclear holocaust” is better, with its evocation of scorch and flame, its built-in condemnation. “Nuclear war” however, as in Jacobsen’s title, is a non-starter, a crutch halfway hobbling to the unnameable.

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“War” supposes a conflict we might recognise: of men, tanks, rifles, manoeuvre, trenches, conquest, victory, surrender. But a superpower showdown is never limited; in the 1960s the reflex of American commanders was not to order forward the armoured divisions, but to reach immediately for the Button and empty every silo, every submarine, every airplane. Loose the missiles and we find the uniforms are already in the bunkers behind blast doors, at their consoles in hazmat suits, while we civilians, protected by those flimsiest of things, law and humanity, are forbidden entry to the catacombs. The volunteers shelter; we the conscripted shall perish by fire. Those who flicked the trigger will be the ones to rule whatever’s left, an underground junta of bunker-rats and tunnel-moles, kings of the dark.

It will not be a regime “crippled,” as Wild Bill Donovan, spiritual father of the CIA had it, “by civilized inhibitions.” William Perry, Clinton’s secretary of defense and now a devoted nuclear abolitionist, delivers the unhappy prognosis: “In this case, if it was a [nuclear] bomb in Washington DC, the cabinet would likely be decapitated and an emergency government [would have] to be brought into play,” says Perry. “An immediate consequence of a nuclear strike [would be] that democracy would be completely gone and military rule would take place…[It] would be almost impossible to undo military rule.”

It would be impossible to do anything, actually. But if the only possible form of government after the Bomb drops is instant fascism, the authority derived from the Bomb, by its nature, tends things in that direction. Bomb Power is what Gary Wills called it in his book of the same name: an ulcerous logic, a bureaucratized lunacy built to protect the official secret of nuclear weapons and defend the possibility of their use. Bomb Power casts the presidency in an eternal military role, “a lone eminence,” as Wills puts it, “above constitutional scrutiny.” In an epoch of permanent emergency, America’s dominion is not only that of trade, tribute, and extraction but a pockmarked topography of missile bases, island airstrips, and radar installations – an empire built to unfurl the black umbrella of atomic supremacy. “Obtaining and securely maintaining our bases,” Wills wrote, “was considered more important than the moral legitimacy of the regimes granting us such access.”

The “peculiar sovereignty” of Los Alamos, as Dean Acheson once put it, with its “thousands of secrets,” gushed into the American state, filled its darkest corners, and gruffly shut the exits. The infection took hold fast. Within two weeks of Japan’s surrender in 1945, the army requested 466 weapons for stockpile. Within six years of Trinity, the US possessed twice the number of warheads the military had been told could “depopulate vast areas of the Erath’s surface leaving only vestigial remnants of man’s material works.” Two years after Edward Teller’s demonic invention of the hydrogen-bomb in 1952 (the “Super,” or as Teller called it, his “baby”) there were 841 nuclear weapons. (By the late 1980s, there were some 60,000 Bombs; 12,000 still stain our existence). To a tiny cadre fell the task of putting them to use. Nuclear planners today, like those of the 1950s, are engaged in a perpetual Wannsee Conference, an endless conclave of omnicide. John Rubel, one of the few civilians ever allowed to see the inner room of the inner room of the nuclear state, felt himself to be in “a twilight underworld governed by disciplined, meticulous and energetically mindless groupthink aimed at wiping out half the people living…” Bomb Power is, among many other things, a sickness neither potassium iodide nor Prussian Blue can cure. 

******

Jacobsen’s real-world spur, no doubt, is persistent North Korean testing of both warheads and missiles, as well as the bloody bluster of Vladimir Putin’s regime since it began its invasion of Ukraine. Yet, short of a few edits to alter the technology from ICBMs to goliath bombers, her book might have been published in any year since July of 1945. The Doomsday Clock operated by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is greeted with a huff of reticence when revised every January, but that it has stayed mostly unchanged since its invention is a marker of how persistent the menace remains. Not even the end of Cold War upset the stasis; these weapons can change the global strategic picture, but they are immune to being changed by it.

Indeed, the deeper Jacobsen travels into the chambers of the nuclear world, the more its textures seem stuck in midcentury G.I. Joe-kitsch. At US Strategic Command HQ in Nebraska, the epicentre of nuclear response is called the “Battle Deck.” Above its massive screens a clock measuring time to detonation is labelled “RED IMPACT.” Should they wish to avoid being overheard by non-cleared underlings, even at this moment of imminent apocalypse, commanders can retreat to the back of the auditorium where a soundproof divider will descend from above like the Cone of Silence in Get Smart. Noted psychopath Curtis LeMay (whose half-chomped cigar hid a mouth flagging from Bell’s Palsy) was succeeded as chief of the agency in 1957 by one General Power. Should they prefer endlessly circling the ruins, the current STRATCOM chief can decamp to a retrofitted airliner called the “Doomsday Plane.” One former military aide to Bill Clinton describes the “Black Book” inside the “Football”, with its degustation of prime targets and death tolls, as a “Denny’s breakfast menu.”

Should the president escape the White House, Jacobsen writes, they would be hustled to Raven Rock, also called Site R, in Pennsylvania. This mountain stronghold was designed by Georg Rickhey, the same Nazi engineer who built Hitler’s Berlin bunker and who was later Paperclipped to the US alongside the Nazi rocket-builder Wernher von Braun. The men who built the delivery method and the shield were both goosesteppers; what is this if not blackly funny? After all, both Dr Strangelove and Slim Pickens in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece went to the world’s end cacklin’. The profoundly evil and the darkly comic join hands, under the Bomb. Laughter certainly seems like a better way of greeting Armageddon than with the hammy archness of the potboiling novel. Jacobsen has co-written a few episodes of the supercool-operator TV show Jack Ryan. It shows. She has the same grace, tact, and gifts for sensitivity which made Tom Clancy such a beloved writer, the same pungent blend of the cheaply excitable and the densely technical. Jacobsen’s idea of profoundness – this is the end of the world, after all – is to unleash an acid hail of acronyms (SBIRS, DEFSMAC, PEOC, PEAD, SIOP) and drive it all home with the. Blunt jackhammering. Of extremely. Short. Sentences.

Though Jacobsen does not clock it, the idea of nuclear civil defence is a joke, too. BE PREPARED FOR A NUCLEAR EXPLOSION, instructs a FEMA help-chart, dated 2018. To which we might respond: emotionally? “Nuclear explosions can cause significant damage,” it tells us. “Prevent significant radiation exposure by following these simple steps.” A tiny icon of a figure on a couch listening to the radio, like pop-pop dozing to the Sunday baseball, bears the direction “Stay Tuned.” But the only sound will be screams and the howl of radioactive wind, then silence. No one worth listening to can speak, no advice will be worth taking. Jacobsen quotes ex-FEMA director Craig Fugate suggesting the public, post-detonation, should try “self-survive.” He might as well say, “Good luck.” Or better yet: “Take your own life.”

In her sinew-straining effort to freight her prose with magnitude, Jacobsen clearly wishes she were reviving the tradition of Jonathan Schell’s classic The Fate of the Earth, or EP Thompson’s Protest and Survive – to do for the modern anti-nuclear movement what David Wallace-Wells achieved for environmentalism in The Uninhabitable Earth. But in its airport novel guise, Jacobsen’s book is too limited in its range and stentorian in its manner to be anything other than an object of fright: terror and fear are its purposes, and if her dream was to gird and guide a new movement for abolition she should know that terror and fear are paralysing agents, not mobilising ones. And don’t we all feel, anyway, somewhere in our ganglia, in our own inner room of the inner room, the mental corset of nuclear dread? “The man with the cocked gun in his mouth may boast that he never thinks about the cocked gun,” Martin Amis wrote in his introduction to Einstein’s Monsters. “But he tastes it, all the time.”

James Robins is an award-winning writer and critic. His work has appeared in the New Republic, the TLS, and the New Humanist, and he writes the newsletter The Dreadnought. He lives in London. 

 

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