A veteran author and Slate columnist raises troubling questions about the persistent threat of nuclear war.
How is it that with the end of the Cold War we lost our dread of living in a world with nuclear weapons? We’d do well, argues Rosenbaum (The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups, 2006, etc.), to recover that feeling and act on it, because the possibilities for a catastrophic exchange have actually heightened in this second nuclear age. Whether “by calculated preemption, a regional war going global, accident, misperception, inadequate command and control, suicidal martyrdom, or [a] madman’s hubris,” we risk touching off, from a number of predictable flashpoints, a nuclear World War III. The author examines these contingencies, providing especially solid insight on the flaws in the command and control systems of Russia and America, the historical memory that makes Israel more likely to unleash nuclear weapons and the frightening details surrounding the under-reported 2007 Israeli raid on a Syrian reactor. However, Rosenbaum’s chief merit is his willingness to confront the morality of nuclear retaliation. He crystallizes the dilemma by reviving a question raised almost 40 years ago by Maj. Harold I. Hering, a crewman in training: “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?” For his impertinence, Hering lost his career. Nevertheless, his question lingers. As Rosenbaum discovers from interviews with military figures, statesmen, nuclear scientists and strategists, statistical mavens, law professors and others, few are prepared to answer it. There remains a powerful nuclear establishment confident the Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction worked, that the taboo against employing these singularly destructive weapons remains in place. The author’s review of several nuclear close calls suggests we’ve only been lucky. Although pessimistic about our chances for turning back the atomic clock—his own plan calls for reviving Adm. Arleigh Burke’s submarine-based deterrence strategy, destroying land-based missiles and removing the hair-trigger from any remaining arsenal—he insists we must try, or we face a certain cataclysm.
A tenaciously reported, passionately argued warning.