If you want to know what the next nuclear war will be like, read Jeffrey Lewis’s The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States.
Nuclear weapons have been used only once in war, by the United States against Japan at the end of World War II. Nuclear war was imagined many times, however, through the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. As the two countries’ nuclear arsenals grew, the common understanding became that in a nuclear war, hundreds of multi-megaton nuclear weapons would be exploded, and the direct damage would destroy the countries involved. Most of us would die immediately, more in the aftermath. It looked like the end of civilization.
We don’t know exactly how many nuclear weapons North Korea has, but it’s in the tens, rather than the thousands of the Cold War. That changes the leaders’ calculations. If they face a war in which using those weapons is a serious possibility, they must use them before they are destroyed. So they must be alert to signals from their enemies that an attack might be coming.
Unless the United States responded with nuclear weapons and somehow Russia and China also sent their missiles flying, the result would look more like what Lewis describes than the Cold War imaginings.
The 2020 Commission Report reads not quite convincingly as a government report. It too many emotional words. But the format allows a view into how decisions are likely to be made in such a war.
When people write serious articles in serious journals about deterrence or nuclear war, they assume rational, fully-informed decision-making. After a war starts, emotions come into play. Communications are broken. Erroneous impressions or understandings of what the other side may do have been there all along.
A current misunderstanding is the continuing contrast in the way North Korea uses the word “denuclearize” and the way President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo use it. North Korea uses it as to describe a far-off ideal situation in which all the nations of the world have given up nuclear weapons. Trump and Pompeo seem to believe that North Korea will unilaterally disarm in the next year or two.
Additional misunderstandings between the United States and North Korea could lead to or exacerbate a crisis. Trump’s habit of tweeting adds another way to make things worse. In Bob Woodward’s book Fear, he says that President Trump was prevented from tweeting that dependents of US diplomatic and military personnel were being evacuated from South Korea. That would be just the sort of signal that Kim Jong Un would be looking for, and, indeed, a presidential tweet figures in the action in The 2020 Commission Report.
Lewis persuasively weaves together misunderstandings, overreactions, and the predictable, all based on events that have actually occurred. He even provides endnotes to support many of them. The footnotes are good for additional reading, too, if you want to follow up on a subject.
Many of the situations in the book have been kicked around on Nuclear Twitter, Lewis occasionally contributing. Would the military aide holding the football – the briefcase containing communication equipment for a nuclear strike – struggle with a President who wanted to use it?
We need to consider the questions Lewis raises. The writing in the book is easy to read, the action suspenseful within the understanding that we know how it ends. Some may find the subject matter difficult to read. We don’t know how the current world situation ends, though. Read the book and then let’s do something about that.
Disclaimer: Jeffrey Lewis is a friend. I have known him through the internet for a decade and a half and have met him in real life a number of times. I was not involved in the writing of the book in any way.
Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.
Villago Delenda Est
There can be no “rational, fully formed decision making” when Donald is involved.
@Villago Delenda Est:
Nor where the use of nuclear weapons is involved.
It is, believe it or not, a page turner. Well worth the $9.99 for a Kindle edition. Left me feeling more than a little queasy.
Not at all sure I could get through that in my current state. Maybe after the midterms.
OMG, Cheryl, you read my mind …I read this just two weeks ago and I have been meaning to post a review of some kind I read this just two weeks ago and I have been meaning to post a review some kind in the very near future .
People should indeed read this it is indeed terrifying . The fact that the nuclear attack is “limited” to just a few American sites makes it that much more plausible and also terrifying.
(Thanks for no editing!)
Topically related is a recommended documentary on Amazon Prime, Victims of the French Atomic Bomb. Includes a treasure trove of color home movies taken by a senior technician present for many of the tests. Also blunt about the absolute and appalling dismissal of and indifference to damage inflicted upon humans and other living things (and yes, the French were hardly alone when it came to that)
Pompeo is a horrible human being, but he is far too smart to really believe North Korea will abandon nuclear weapons in the next year or two. I think he is going along with Trump’s delusions because the alternative would be impusively apocalyptic.
Interesting I was just reading a post by a bright Seattle writer about the effects of a nuke in Seattle. It was an old post from Trump’s saber rattling with N. Korea. The Korean’s first ICBMs could have reached Seattle but all the media was about San Francisco, which would have been a stretch at the time. Besides feeling belittled by big media we were shouting about our big Amazon, Mictosoft, and Boeing, but also the sheer number of nukes in the Puget Sound region.
What I noticed was the lack of inclusion of firestorms in the analysis. The dense conifer forests and preponderance of wood frame construction could produce a massive conflagration. There also wasn’t a discussion of the potential for widespread collapse of the electrical grid, water, food, and medical care.
I trust that this book covers those.
@Dan B: Not so much, as it addresses hypothetical attacks on several specific targets including New York City (spoiler alert: Melania is at Trump Tower) and the D.C. area (vividly describing how the Northern Virginia suburbs are affected, using real words from Hiroshima survivors in the mouths of Virginia suburbanites). Horrifying read.
ETA: Are you old enough to remember when “The Day After” aired? This made me feel sick like watching that did.
@Steeplejack (tablet): Yeah. Any use of nuclear weapons is unimaginable. It’s horrifying that mad men like Trump and Kim have their fingers on the red button.
Read this about a month ago and while it’s imperfect in some ways, I agree that it’s a plausible scenario in terms of how a series of events, where the total breakdown in faith and rationality of the US Government leads to a tragedy of horrific proportions.
How does one inset a tab to hide spoilers?
Hell, not even when there’s chocolate cake in the room!
@Dan B: We have a book, Whole World on Fire, by Lynn Eden at CISAC at Stanford. My take-away is that we grossly estimate fire damage. Dr. Eden’s position seemed to be that US planners learned their craft in the precision bombing campaigns of WWII, rather than from the UK firebombings, like Hamburg. The damage from firestorms of cities and forests could greatly exceed the damage from blast effects.
Major Major Major Major
Thanks for the long-awaited review :)
@Tim C.: I would say that it’s a combination of hasty decisions, Trump’s foolishness, and sheer accident rather than a breakdown in faith and rationality of the US government. North and South Korea make bad decisions as well. I don’t know how to do that thing of hiding a post to avoid spoilers. Maybe another front-pager can help.
@Wapiti: The author covers that in the book too… as well as the strategy of following on after the nuclear attacks with conventional attacks .
Twice. Truman had the opportunity not to bomb Nagasaki after he saw the damage visited on Hiroshima, and he still made the conscious choice to do it all over again. The two bombings should not be combined into one.
@debbie: I’ll agree that we can consider Hiroshima and Nagasaki two uses, but Truman did not make the direct decision. Those two bombs and the decisions on targets and when to drop them were primarily military. Truman believed that the targets were primarily military, and when he learned how many civilians had been killed, he said “No more,” even though another bomb could have been prepared in a matter of weeks. I looked into this in some detail a couple of years ago in preparing a short course. Alex Wellerstein has gone into more detail in this post and two that are linked there.
Toward the end of World War II, the atomic bombs were seen as primarily military, and that was how decisions were made.
Well, unless the commander was General Buck Turgidson, the military ought to have noticed that the bomb on Hiroshima made no impact on Japan’s military. They should have moved to Plan B.
@debbie: Plan B did exist, it was the invasion of the Japanese home islands.
@debbie: I think the history is more mixed than “no impact on Japan’s military.” Things were coming apart in Japan at that point anyway, and it would take some time for the government to process what happened. The two bombs were only three days apart, and Japan had no precedents to compare them to. They had sustained more damage from firebombing raids. It also took the US some time to process what they learned.
I’d say that the decisions were somewhat separate, but part of one operation.
A few months ago I heard a nuclear-strategist honcho on some NPR show explaining the importance of clear communication during a crisis — because, he said, “You wouldn’t the world to be destroyed for no … ” His voice kind of trailed off: ” … good reason.” There was an embarrassed silence: one beat, two beats. Then on to the next question. I damn near drove off the road.
@Hungry Joe: There are problems with maintaining clear communication when the bombs start flying, as is illustrated in The 2020 Commission Report. Heck, we have trouble communicating with North Korea now. Something I probably should have added to the review is a compilation of quotes from people who were on Air Force 1 on September 11, 2001. In a war, decisions are made on inadequate information. They can go badly wrong when you are dealing with nuclear weapons.
@Cheryl Rofer: I was being too glib there, agreed. I’ll try to go about this without being too specific, but…
* The North Korean response to a communications breakdown was frighteningly plausible and the lack of trust in Trump and the US to act in a rational manner is simply put, the most dangerous feature of geo-politics at the current time.
* The complete uselessness of U.S. Missle defenses is something that very few people in the media seem to understand.
* The panic rush to Air Force One was one of the most powerful points for me.
* The book has some parts I question. I don’t think I’m qualified at all to judge a lot of things, but there are some aspects that I don’t quite understand.
* Would the US really not go immediately to a nuclear counter-strike following a nuclear attack on US forces and an attack on our allies in Korea and Japan? Not in a strategic defense way, but in a balance of terror kind of way?
* I don’t agree with the assumption that there would be no effective political response in the post war environment described. Trump and the Republicans are at 40% with a strong economy and no new conflicts around the globe. The loss of millions of lives as described in the novel wouldn’t be so easily papered over and Pence elected president. I understand that those events are more of an epilogue and not the main point of the work though.
@Wapiti: In The War Game, the 1965 faux-documentary about a nuclear bombing of the UK, the filmmakers worked around their limited budget by using news footage of urban firestorms from WW2. The narrator then clarified what you were looking at and explained that a nuclear attack would of course be even worse than that.
What Lewis did well was to spell out the real problem. You’re right that our news media don’t understand that missile defense is a joke, but what’s more relevant is that our current POTUS doesn’t understand that it’s a joke. Based on his Tweets & reported exchanges with his staff, he really thinks we have a way to a) know with 100% certainty that NK has fired a missile and b) can do something about it (‘missile defense’). In the novel both sides’ surveillance and defense tactics worked like they actually do in reality, and a nuclear exchange results from it.
The Trump WH still hasn’t hit a speed bump they didn’t install. We haven’t had an externally generated crisis yet.
Sleep well, y’all!
@Tim C.: People have found various parts of the book more or less plausible. I had a discussion just yesterday about how things would go with the football. I maintain that for some circumstances, the officer’s abhorrence of destroying the world would overcome their training to accept orders. My two discussants totally disagreed.
I’m glad you mentioned missile defense. I feel the book is quite accurate on that. Missile defense has always been a make-work program for defense contractors, and that’s all it is. But too many high governmental officials think it actually would work.
The US military has war plans for pretty much all eventualities. Recently there was a flurry of concern that apparently this includes war with Canada. I would expect that they have both nuclear and conventional options for war against North Korea. The book doesn’t much go into what happens as our government confers with the other governments in the region. That may be realistic in the age of Trump. Missiles aimed at North Korea would tend to look to China and Russia like they were aimed at them. That would be a good reason to choose against immediate nuclear retaliation.
I think you can argue for and against Pence’s election. For: Pence manages to rise to the occasion and say some godly words to a frightened nation. Against: He’s the heir and enabler of the fool who caused the war, or made it worse. It’s hard to imagine how Americans would respond to a nuclear attack, but they would probably want someone who looked strong.
@Hungry Joe: Oh, for the Cold War, when we knew the Earth would be destroyed for a good reason!
@Cheryl Rofer: Those Wellerstein posts are (morbidly) fascinating – thanks.
J R in WV
That’s fucking amazing — so glad I didn’t hear that, I would have been off the road and down into the gully 300 feet down. From a communication over the radio!
Seriously, this has been my biggest fear in the age of Trump, not the internal politics, the fascist behavior of the immigration enforcers, but the ability to strike against any location on the planet, at the behest of the president, no matter how crazed.
That’s dangerous at any time, but now that president is a deranged, dememted, ignorant monster. So dangerous.
That’s why I have insomnia now…. thinking about that shit. And drinking to escape.
@Villago Delenda Est: Our experience in Vietnam should teach us that when ignorant people are making foreign policy their reasoning will probably not conform to reality. For example, there was a major breakup between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China about 1953, The Soviets recalled the hundreds of technical advisers they had sent to help the Chinese upgrade their industries and cut off all aid. After that there were armed clashes along the very long border between the two countries, and newspapers even speculated war between them might break out. In spite of that, John Foster Dulles, and later all JFK’s “best and brightest,” were certain there was a “monolithic international communist conspiracy,” which we had to combat in Vietnam. Mattis and Bolton’s view of Iran are about as well informed.
I’m glad to see somebody writing about what a nuclear war might entail. I think people born since about 1985 have not had the early education in the effects of nuclear weapons we older folks had. How many of them, I wonder, know what a “nuclear winter” is and how few warheads it would take to create one?
@Wapiti: I think you have a point that U.S. planners have not learned from the WWII experience, but I find that very strange because we certainly were involved in the attack on Dresden and we specifically intentionally used incendiaries to create firestorms in Tokyo and other Japanese cities. My biggest concern is that the neocons don’t seem to believe or maybe have forgotten those lessons. Certainly Trump obviously does not know anything about them. The elites seem to think they will somehow be immune. Reminds me of an old puzzle — who cooked John Galt’s dinner for him? Who washed his underwear?