Saturday, May 12, 2007

Post-Apocalyptic Nightmare

Read This Book

I've been volunteered to be the Fire Warden for my office's floor, which means I'm theoretically responsible for the safety and lives of all the people on my floor. So I have had to take some safety training; of course it was dull, but I was glad to learn about earthquake safety (as we were sleeping in Okinawa last month, an earthquake woke us up).

The training was in part online and it had this "links" section. Among the links was information about saefty in the event of nuclear war. I was curious and have spent the last 15 minutes skimming through the first chapter.

Now, the book is supposed to calm the reader's nerves and to address some of the poorly-conceived "myths" about the survivability of the human race were the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to use their nuclear weapons against one another. Iinitially one might say that this presents a minimal risk for x-number of reasons, but I'd like to clarify what I believe to be the underlying concern:

Nuclear weapons will destroy us all, not because of the primary phenomenon of nuclear attack (you know, a bomb going off in downtown Atlanta, say); rather the greatest minds of our civilization came up with the nuclear bomb and these minds do not live in isolation from everyone else. These are people just as much involved in our society's daily affairs - they, too, want to buy groceries at Trader Joe's, pump gas into their hybrids, raise a family of four, save their money to best ensure a relaxing retirement.

These greatest minds are in many ways the greatest people - they've demonstrated that they can compete better than their peers, they've been trusted with our nation's security which means they've made public oaths to protect us (like a fireman or a cop or a county commissioner), they've been rewarded by our economy by receiving livable wages and social capital (the respect for the title "Doctor" or "Grad Student") and so on. What I am trying to point-out here is that the nuclear weapons are not independent of human beings interacting with one another. They are managed by average Joes, they are utilized by average Joes that have been annointed by "the public."

Plainly we should fear the explosion of the nuclear bomb, but we should be more scared of the underlying mechanisms which have lead to their development and all the byzantine rationalizations that our society has made so that the possible use of nuclear weapons is something that is always present in our foreign policy. We can't even properly call our foreign policy diplomacy because of the always present threat of nuclear retaliation. In effect, we can look across the diplomat's table and say, "You don't like it? Tell it to the people of Nagasaki - and remember, we made those bombs with vaccuum tubes. Imagine what we've come up with in the last 60 years." Our foreign policy can always trump any complaints because always present in the minds of those we are talking to is the very real threat of nuclear annihilation.

Here's where the book comes back in. I'd like to consider just a couple of the "re-assuring" messages from the author:

° Myth: A Russian nuclear attack on the United States would completely destroy all American cities.

° Facts: As long as Soviet leaders are rational they will continue to give first priority to knocking out our weapons and other military assets that can damage Russia and kill Russians. To explode enough nuclear weapons of any size to completely destroy American cities would be an irrational waste of warheads. The Soviets can make much better use of most of the warheads that would be required to completely destroy American cities; the majority of those warheads probably already are targeted to knock out our retaliatory missiles by being surface burst or near-surface burst on their hardened silos, located far from most cities and densely populated areas.

Unfortunately, many militarily significant targets - including naval vessels in port and port facilities, bombers and fighters on the ground, air base and airport facilities that can be used by bombers, Army installations, and key defense factories - are in or close to American cities. In the event of an all-out Soviet attack, most of these '"soft" targets would be destroyed by air bursts. Air bursting (see Fig. 1.4) a given weapon subjects about twice as large an area to blast effects severe enough to destroy "soft" targets as does surface bursting (see Fig. 1.1) the same weapon. Fortunately for Americans living outside blast and fire areas, air bursts produce only very tiny particles. Most of these extremely small radioactive particles remain airborne for so long that their radioactive decay and wide dispersal before reaching the ground make them much less life- endangering than the promptly deposited larger fallout particles from surface and near-surface bursts. However, if you are a survival minded American you should prepare to survive heavy fallout wherever you are. Unpredictable winds may bring fallout from unexpected directions. Or your area may be in a "hot spot" of life-endangering fallout caused by a rain-out or snow-out of both small and tiny particles from distant explosions. Or the enemy may use surface or near-surface bursts in your part of the country to crater long runways or otherwise disrupt U.S. retaliatory actions by producing heavy local fallout.

Today few if any of Russia's largest intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are armed with a 20-megaton warhead. A huge Russian ICBM, the SS-18, typically carries 10 warheads each having a yield of 500 kilotons, each programmed to hit a separate target. See "Jane's Weapon Systems. 1987-1988." However, in March 1990 CIA Director William Webster told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that ".... The USSR's strategic modernization program continues unabated," and that the SS-18 Mod 5 can carry 14 to 20 nuclear warheads. The warheads are generally assumed to be smaller than those of the older SS-18s.

That's right, faithful readership, the nukes were able to carry more 17 years ago. That's right, also, that most of our military targets are near large populations. But don't worry about that.

° Myth: Overkill would result if all the U.S. and U.S.S.R, nuclear weapons were used meaning not only that the two superpowers have more than enough weapons to kill all of each other's people, but also that they have enough weapons to exterminate the human race.

° Facts: Statements that the U.S. and the Soviet Union have the power to kill the world's population several times over are based on misleading calculations. One such calculation is to multiply the deaths produced per kiloton exploded over Hiroshima or Nagasaki by an estimate of the number of kilotons in either side's arsenal. (A kiloton explosion is one that produces the same amount of energy as does 1000 tons of TNT.) The unstated assumption is that somehow the world's population could be gathered into circular crowds, each a few miles in diameter with a population density equal to downtown Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and then a small (Hiroshima-sized) weapon would be exploded over the center of each crowd. Other misleading calculations are based on exaggerations of the dangers from long-lasting radiation and other harmful effects of a nuclear war.

How is this reassuring? Nevermind that the great majority of the world's population is found in cities, everyone in the Dakota's and Montana is goign to be okay. This assumption that being in the middle of nowhere is the ideal place seems to betray an awful lot about America. I think my thinking becomes more clear when we consider that only 14% of Americans have a passport. So not only are we from the middle of nowhere, but we aren't going anywhere.

Then you look around and you realize that the new city morgue looks just like a new bank; the Starbucks coffee served in Kansas City is the same coffee in Osaka, Japan; the suburbs of Shanghai look exactly like the suburbs of San Francisco; the chair on the airplane is the same as the chair in your car, as the chair at your office, as the chair that you can buy at Brookstone or Sharper Image at the mall that looks just like the mall in Marietta, as the mall in Okinawa....we are in the middle of nowhere.

The author of this book writes that he wants to minimize the nihilism present in the popular American mind when considering the survivability of a nuclear attack:

° Myth: Fallout radiation from a nuclear war would poison the air and all parts of the environment. It would kill everyone. (This is the demoralizing message of On the Beach and many similar pseudoscientific books and articles.)

and then just before this myth the author betrays exactly what I am describing (the unlivability of America in the Nuclear Age):

While working with hundreds of Americans building expedient shelters and life-support equipment, I have found that many people at first see no sense in talking about details of survival skills. Those who hold exaggerated beliefs about the dangers from nuclear weapons must first be convinced that nuclear war would not inevitably be the end of them and everything worthwhile. Only after they have begun to question the truth of these myths do they become interested, under normal peacetime conditions, in acquiring nuclear war survival skills. Therefore, before giving detailed instructions for making and using survival equipment, we will examine the most harmful of the myths about nuclear war dangers, along with some of the grim facts. (Emphasis added)

Two questions, then:
What are we living for after the centers of social order are annihilated?
In creating these apocalypse machines, have we not simply made the best tool for analysis and critique and execution of our societies?

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