Sunday, January 20, 2013


Publishers’ Weekly is one of my better sources of book reviews.  This review spoke directly to something I mentioned just a day or so ago:  that lifelong I’ve been braced for a nuclear war to start any time.  This book responds to that syndrome:  “5 Myths About Nuclear Weapons” by Ward Wilson.I find Wilson’s myths persuasive.  Here they are.

Myth No. 1: The most important misperception came about because we were actively misled. Japan’s leaders insisted that they surrendered because of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even though it was clear that they surrendered because the Soviets renounced their neutrality and joined the war. They told us (and perhaps more importantly their own people) they surrendered because of the Bomb because it made the perfect explanation for having lost the war. . . .
Everyone agrees on the facts of the physical destructiveness of nuclear weapons. It was their psychological power--the dominating position that they were said to occupy in people’s minds--that got so exaggerated.
Myth No. 2: The four other myths about nuclear weapons grew out of the first one. Because hydrogen bombs were supposedly “thousands of times bigger” than the original uranium bombs, it was assumed that any nuclear attack with hydrogen bombs would be decisive. But destruction--even vast general destruction--doesn’t win wars. Killing enemy soldiers wins wars. This accounts for the fact that no war has ever been won by killing civilians.
Myth No. 3: Because nuclear weapons had such powerful psychological effects, it was assumed that nuclear deterrence could never fail. But nuclear deterrence failed to restrain leaders from aggression in any number of nuclear crises. President Kennedy, for example, knew that if he blockaded Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, that there was a pretty strong risk of nuclear war. And subsequent careful research by historians shows that we came within a hairsbreadth of real fighting with nuclear weapons. Yet despite the risks, Kennedy chose to go ahead.. . . We have come to think of nuclear deterrence as almost magical, despite the fact that ‘ordinary’ deterrence often fails, even when consequences are severe.

Myth No. 4: Once people believed in the awe inspiring nature of nuclear weapons, it was easy to “notice” the impact of that awe inspiring power on events. People noticed that the United States and Russia hadn’t fought a war since 1945 and they presumed that nuclear weapons must have kept the peace. Of course, proof by absence is the sort of evidence we never accept in any circumstances where real risk is involved.  . . .
Myth No. 5: Finally, people have come to believe that nuclear weapons are absolutely necessary. They are so much in the grip of their ideas about nuclear weapons that they cannot even imagine a world without them. They say things like, “Well, you can’t disinvent nuclear weapons” which is absolutely true. It’s also absolutely irrelevant. No technology is ever disinvented. Weapons go out of existence because they’re not very good weapons or better weapons come along. In the case of nuclear weapons, it seems pretty likely that nuclear weapons aren’t very good weapons, since no one has found a situation where their use seemed called for in the last sixty-eight years. The whole trend in weapons is toward smaller, more accurate, precision weapons and away from blundering, clumsy weapons like nuclear weapons.
It is difficult to re-imagine familiar ideas that have become hardened into verities. But by hewing close to the facts, it’s remarkable what can happen if you set aside what “everybody knows” and re-examine (presumably) immutable ideas.
I would argue with the following unless Ward could supply more detail.  It seems to me that, for instance, the American prairie clearances of indigenous peoples were accomplished by killing civilians -- maybe not with weapons.  And just how does one define “enemy soldiers” when they ARE resistance civilians?  We call them terrorists, but they are civilians -- no nation, no uniform, no payroll.
“Killing enemy soldiers wins wars. This accounts for the fact that no war has ever been won by killing civilians.”
I would argue that most wars are motivated by economics and most wars are won by economics, taken broadly to include productivity, embargoes, distribution.  It was the extermination of the buffalo that CONSCIOUSLY and deliberately eliminated the tribes of the prairie.  The motive was to settle the land with "productive citizens" who paid taxes and fed the railroads.  The Civil War, at heart, was economic.  In the end, it just didn’t pay to fight anymore.  That’s what will settle the Middle East as well.
But there’s another assumption under the nuclear war assumption that Ward doesn’t address: the Christian belief in the Apocalypse, the End Time, which they assume will eliminate both enemies and worries about where the next meal will come from.  Christianity evolved for poor people, a promise of justice at least and possibly retribution.  All that is still buried down in under all the Jesus Saves talk.  And what is under the Judgement Day is the strange desire to be immortal, unchanging, and just the way you like it.  There’s also a kind of unseemly hunger for a big event, the kind that used to be mostly “an act of God,” like earthquake, tsunami, volcano, avalanche, Tornado. War.  Explosions.  We like them to have names.  "Big Boy."
But atomic bombs will not destroy the planet or even all the life on it.  There’s a good chance climate change could.  We are so quick to claim we are like destroying Gods.  But all the time we were practicing with our air raid sirens and stockpiling groceries in shelters, back at the Hanford Nuclear Plant there were little bits of radioactivity leaking out.  In fact, secretly there was a venting of radioactive material into the air.  I knew a woman who was growing up near the Columbia River about that time who died of sinus cancer.  I’ve always suspected she inhaled a little fleck of plutonium.  It takes very little.  You’d never be able to prove anything.
The Hanford Reach National Monument is an area along the Columbia River created because of the possibility of contamination by radioactivity -- a security zone in several senses. I’ll quote“Plutonium production is a very dirty business. Hanford was the place where the US government first learned how to produce plutonium, making enormous environmental mistakes along the way.  The reactors, reprocessing plants, and reactor fuel fabrication areas all created huge amounts of radioactive and toxic byproducts.  Today, Hanford stores nearly two-thirds of the US inventory of high-level waste by volume, 374 million curies of radioactivity, and several hundred thousand tons of radioactive waste.  Short-sighted methods of disposal are the root cause of contamination in Hanford’s soil, groundwater, and of the Columbia River.”   
The idea of placing Hanford here was that there would be plenty of water for cooling and that the land was mostly desert around there -- thin population.  No one thought about all those little radioactive bits traveling down the river to Portland.  No one will tell you how far the underground “plumes” have “reached” so far, but they ARE there.  Once again, we are not endangered by some big bad foreign enemy exploding us, we are endangered by our own minute, unforeseen, slow-moving, secret contaminations -- justified by economic reasons.  
The woman who died of sinus cancer was not poor and she had insurance but funding her fight to survive cost a LOT -- finally, her life.  She was a woman of faith, in fact, an ordained UU minister who died gracefully.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That the psychological effect of weapons may be out of proportion to the practical effects does not mean that psychological effects are not real and do not affect policy. It affects not only political decision makers, but the military itself. For example, although it has maintained a chemical weapons capability, it is said that regular military combat officers look down on chemical weapons as beneath their dignity as soldiers, and a career in the Chemical Corps is an unlikely route to advancement. In truth, chemical weapons are somewhat unpredictable, and have been used since WWI against natives in Ethiopia, Yemen, and perhaps Tibet.
There turned out to be a practical limit to the radius of destruction of thermonuclear weapons, a limit the Soviets exceed in an arctic test: above a certain size they just blow out the top of the atmosphere! I don't know the power function for blast radius versus yield.
While the trend for the US is to use smaller, more precision weapons, that is a strategy good only for a wealthy superpower which overfunds is military and is oversqueamish about casualties. The European Union ran out of their precision ordnance bombing Libya! Nuclear or chemical weapons would remain the choice of countries like Iran or North Korea. Nuclear weapons are probably an excellent deterent against large, squeamish countries like the US.
It is vanishingly unlikely that plutonium would cause a sinus cancer, since it would require the plutonium both to access the sinus and to remain in place for a long time. In the lung plutonium can become fixed, largely in lymphatic tissue. Radiation-induced sinus cancer does occur, but results from the continuous production in the body of radioactive gases (radon, thoron) from deposits of radium. Even with very high doses over much of a lifetime, risk is small, and cases numbered 3 dozen among all known radium workers. Sinus cancers are rare and rarely have an identifiable cause.
Although presumably not as important as at Oak Ridge, located where the TVA produced huge quantities of electricity needed for uranium enrichment, I suspect the large quantities of electricity from hydropower in central Washington were equally important in determining its location.