During the mid-eighties, in a fit of paranoia, I purchased a mail-order book called Nuclear War Survival Skills, by Cresson H. Kearny, published by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States. I gave copies to family and friends and, following the book's directions, hoarded wheat, water-purification kits and other survivalist gear. This was the Reagan era, at the height of Cold War, when tensions between the former Soviet Union and the United States were acute. Each side had thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at the other on hair-trigger alert, a madness that was called, fittingly, MAD - mutually assured destruction.
When the Cold War ended and the nuclear threat seemed to fade, many of us returned thankfully to a state of sanity. From a distance of just a few years, our fears seemed like apocalyptic absurdity. Even our cartoons said as much. One in particular had a dazed husband holding an End is Nigh sign and being asked by his wife if she should bother making supper.
Well, guess what? The end is still nigh and, according to Ron Rosenbaum, author of the very disturbing How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, that was only the First Nuclear Age. We are now horrifyingly in the second, and it's even more dangerous than the first. For the past 20-plus years, he writes, we've been having a "holiday from history." Doing what? Oh, the usual things: withstanding economic crashes, localized wars, climate change, species extinction. That and believing the world will pretty much go on as before.
Ron Rosenbaum is a highly respected writer ( Explaining Hitler, The Shakespeare Wars), an astute journalist, a tireless researcher. Not a crackpot, sign-waving hysteric, but a writer you can trust. So when he says, "Pay attention!" that is just what you do.
The Second Nuclear Age, he tells us, is a multipolar one. That is, it is no longer a world defined by the "stability" of a balance of terror between two countries, as before, but has "degenerated into a chaotic state of multipolar nuclear powers with less control and less restraint and a greater chance of touching off a regional nuclear war that could escalate to a global scale." Besides the United States and Russia, France, China, Britain, India, Pakistan, North Korea and an undeclared Israel now possess nuclear weapons, while Iran is actively seeking to do so.
One likely scenario for "how the end begins," he says, concerns Pakistan and, in particular, the nightmare notion that Osama bin Laden's real goal - beyond sporadic terrorism - is "taking over the Pakistani government and its 60 new nukes ready to fire by an 'authorized' command."
If that isn't bad enough, there's Iran's drive to inflict a "second Holocaust" on Israel, North Korea's mad dictator with his sights set on South Korea and beyond, and China's cyber warfare capability, all flashpoints that could "at any moment go from potential nuclear nightmare to horrific reality."
Cyber warfare, Rosenbaum notes, is especially troubling. "We are so dependent now on computers and the security of computers," he writes, "that they can cause war to break out by cyber attack or cyber failure."
What does all this say about our sanity as a species? Rosenbaum asks. Do we have a self-destructive gene? Are we determined to fulfill all those biblical prophecies of doom? Was Dr. Strangelove closer to the truth about ourselves than we like to admit?
Two large questions frame Rosenbaum's book, both of them ethical. The first was asked by U.S. Minuteman missile crewman Major Harold Hering, in 1973: "How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles comes from a sane president?" For asking this question, he was promptly discharged. The other question concerns retaliatory genocide: Is retaliation justified when it results in the genocide of millions of innocents?
Rosenbaum goes a long way in attempting to answer these questions, and, further, in listing the steps we might take in making the "dream of Zero," a world without nuclear arms, a reality. It's come down to a choice, he says: "global life or global death."
After reading his book, this much is clear: We are very close to achieving hell on earth. Can we handle this truth?
M.A.C. Farrant's new book, The Strange Truth About Us, a novel of absence, will appear in the fall.