That Lunatic Risk
by Peter Mitchell
In the photographic record of the Trinity test – the first man-made nuclear explosion – the frames that show the explosion in its first tenth of a second are damaged: the intensity of the bomb’s first light burned right through the photographic film, so that what appears at the centre of the hemispheric fireball is not light, but pure darkness. Trying to think about nuclear weapons can lead to much the same result. Bone up all you like on the endless details, the technology, the politics, the numbers and strategy and ethics; what’s at the centre of the thing, what it really refers to, is a violence so excessive and so annihilating that to look at it directly shorts out all the mind’s circuits and renders representation dumb.
It’s also impossible to look at anything else. For those of us who had the dubious privilege of being children during the last years of the Cold War, it feels rather as if the rest of the world’s just caught up with the thing that, for us, has always been there at the edges of vision. It feels improbable to us that there are people now alive whose childhood bedtimes weren’t rendered terrible by the Bomb, by the dread it gave shape to in the long waking hours before you’d see your parents again, by the way it colonised your dreams.
Last month, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists pushed the hands of their clock to two minutes to midnight, the closest it’s been since the Fifties. All three nuclear superpowers are modernising their arsenal, amending their postures in careful counterpoint to each other, and laying the strategy basis for ever more ways in which things can go very, very wrong. The President of the United States is, well, what he is. Three weeks ago the wrong click of a drop-down menu in a civil defence computer had thousands of people in Hawaii inhabiting, for a full 38 minutes, the world we all hope never to inhabit, the world on the other side of full commitment, the world in which the missiles are in the air and there’s nothing to be done. Suddenly, questions of throw-weight, circular error probabilities and fusion ignition are part of the discourse again. An enterprising film distributor has assembled a new blu-ray of Barry Hines and Mick Jackson’s uniquely traumatising film Threads, and if the sight of the milk-bottles on a 1980s Sheffield doorstep melting in the radiant heat of a megaton-range airburst arouses a perverse nostalgia for the textures of British life thirty years ago, it might also alert you to how long it is since anyone thought this much about what it means to share the planet with the Bomb.
Daniel Ellsberg’s book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, is a curious book to bring out at such a time. Ellsberg is better known as the first great leaker of the secret state, a defence establishment defector who released the Pentagon Papers and found a long second life as a remarkably courageous and persistent activist against the military-industrial complex and the blind, futile violence of American foreign policy since the fifties. As he explains in The Doomsday Machine, though, he didn’t initially intend the Pentagon Papers to be his big gesture: he wanted to publish all the secrets he’d been accumulating about the US nuclear war apparatus and the grave danger he believed it posed to the world.
But he didn’t, of course. Vietnam seemed more pressing at the time; he entrusted the nuclear papers to his brother to be buried inside an iron stove on his farm, where they seem to have escaped the FBI’s remarkably thorough searches only to fall victim to a tropical storm. Most of the secrets they contained are no longer secrets, so The Doomsday Machine is not so much a revelation of anything particularly shocking as an act of witness to a time of madness that still hasn’t ended or a letter of warning written from that time to our own, sitting uneasily between memoir, historical essay and polemic. The 'confessions' of the subtitle is right, though: Ellsberg wants to make a clean breast of the work he did in his first life as a RAND Corporation analyst, to lay bare the nature of what he found in the black heart of the military-industrial complex, and to give an account of his conversion and a credo of his faith.
As with most conversion narratives, the most compelling bit is the enumeration of sins. Ellsberg was one of the original military-academic clean-shirts: a Harvard grad and liberal Cold Warrior, he spent his twenties between the Marine Corps and a series of Ivy League fellowships, specialising (of course) in decision theory. Poached by RAND in its late-fifties heyday, he found himself, still in his twenties, enlisted as one of the wizards of the apocalypse: a hired brain and free-ranging systems analyst working on the technics of the balance of terror.
From here on in the story is one of innocence – of a kind of faith in the Bomb as a guarantor against totalitarian aggression – chipped away by encounters with the hair-raising instability of command-and-control systems, with the wild incoherence of war-fighting policy, and with the balls-out psychopathy of the military elite. His first big project is on command and control links, the nervous system of the nuclear organism: whose fingers are on the button, he wants to know, when it comes down to the minute-by-minute pressures of a nuclear crisis? The answer, it turns out, is pretty much everyone’s. Travelling around the Pacific theatre, he finds that the delegation of authority to spark a global conflagration effectively goes to the very bottom of the command chain. Eisenhower has, it seems, outflanked the likelihood of a decapitating strike against military and political leadership, and the nigh certainty of a drastically compromised communications system, by giving letters of delegation to his high-ranking commanders in theatre; they have given similar notes to their regional officers. Ellsberg reaches the bottom of the chain in a minor fighter-bomber base just south of the Korean Line of Control, where the base commander muses idly that any of his pilots might reasonably be expected to drop the 1.1 megaton bomb strapped beneath their plane onto its assigned target if they felt, on whatever basis, that the time had come. Here, the relentless suck of the Bomb isn’t merely a matter of psychology, but of simple logistical realities and likelihoods of survival: once it’s on, it’s on, and you might as well commit.
Back in Washington things aren’t much better. Ellsberg works on general war plans: targeting plans, strategy postures, casualty estimates. He finds out how nuclear war is planned and envisaged, and what everyone expects to happen. In a document called the JSCAP (Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan, pronoucned “J-Scap”), Appendix C lays out the plans for what, by 1960, is called the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). Amongst the details are the following: every conurbation of more than 25,000 is assigned at least one warhead. Between 80 and 180 bombs are expected to fall on Moscow alone. There is no meaningful way to recall bombers and none at all to recall missiles. There are no options short of full-scale, total commitment, and even after the Sino-Soviet split the plan does not allow for the non-obliteration of China. Fallout can be expected to annihilate Finland, Japan, Central Asia, and anything that’s left of Western Europe; planners breezily adjust mortality estimates by the hundreds of millions based on which way the wind is blowing at the time of attack. Bickering between different service arms means that even these numbers, already beyond the most energetically genocidal imagination, don’t include estimates for blast and fire. No-one knows about nuclear winter yet: decades later, when they do, they will understand that this plan – pretty much any plan, in fact, for general nuclear war – isn’t only genocidal, but omnicidal. There would be no hope for anyone, anywhere.
Ellsberg understands his job as being to make this outcome less likely. His shock at the appalling dumbness of America’s nuclear war plans is entertaining: he’s a boffin, with a boffin’s fastidious horror before a badly-planned decision tree. To his eyes, the plans are simply designed all wrong: there’s no way to turn the machine off once it starts, no latitude for a negotiated end to the conflict, and no process of escalation that leaves any room for the major players to call a halt. He spends months trying to move pieces of paper from one office to another, trying to get his own questions about nuclear strategy to cross certain desks, trying to get the attention of the President (JFK, by this point) who he thinks might, if he only knows the true stakes, be willing to take on the Joint Chiefs and plan for less genocidal ways of fighting a war. He stays up all night working, forgets his own birthday, and makes enemies. He encounters genuinely satanic figures like General Curtis LeMay, still urging JFK to go all-in even after the Cuban crisis ends. At RAND he works with Herman Kahn, author of On Thermonuclear War, and remarks on his almost unique ability to calmly approach planetary suicide as an interesting academic problem. In some ways, these are the most fascinating parts of the book: without bothering with period colouring or any particularly personal details, Ellsberg renders an account of himself as a young man, in a particular time, working at the centre of the nuclear complex at a pivotal moment in its history. Without him ever laying it out, we get a sense of the improbable psychic stress this must have entailed, and we can intuit his coming to certain realisations: that deterrence is at best a myth; that the country he serves is very likely to blow up the world; and that what he comes to call the ‘Doomsday Machine’ – the nuclear complex, with its weapons systems always on high alert, its generals gung-ho for annihilation, its contractors and lobbyists turning out city-destroying weapons with unseemly gusto – has become the tail that wags the dog of state and threatens to devour the whole world at a gulp.
In trying to understand how this came about, Ellsberg’s book veers into an exploration of nuclear history. There are a couple of chapters on the genealogy of area bombing and how air power’s threat of industrialised and indiscriminate slaughter came to define the international order. There are chapters on the development of nuclear weapons technology, from the pre-war experiments that laid the ground for the Manhattan Project through to the mounting of hydrogen bombs on ICBMs on hair-trigger alert, that convincingly trouble the sense of inevitability usually built into such narratives and demonstrate just how many opportunities there were to escape the fatal logic of the arms race. There are accounts of the Berlin and Cuban crises of 1961-2, and the policy manoeuvres around the illusory missile gap, that emphasise how much closer the world came to catastrophe even than most current histories appreciate. Nuclear diplomacy emerges, in Ellsberg’s reminiscences, as a febrile, vertiginous brinksmanship in which the wrong signal at the wrong time, a bluff given or called, or the poor wording of a speech can throw the game to everybody’s loss. Hindsight renders this gut-clenching ballet as a disastrous farce, in which no-one knows their own hand and everyone’s assessment of their opponent’s always turns out to have been wildly wrong. After all the furious calculations of the two superpowers’ governments, and their politicians’ almost heroic willingness to allow each other room in the face of the military establishments urging them to get started on the main event, the fact that the world survived beyond October 1962 still, in Ellsberg’s account, comes down to blind luck.
The same could be said, of course, of every day since then, and that’s what makes The Doomsday Machine an important intervention. Ellsberg is cutting on the American state’s love affair with its bomb: the way that ‘presidentiality’ is construed as a willingness to use it, and the sorry history of how explicit threats to do so – usually against the poor and non-white – have undergirded US foreign policy for the last fifty years. He recognises, as everyone should, that the West, having won the Cold War, lost the peace: in failing to rise to the opportunity to negotiate a general disarmament, in its reckless eastward expansion of NATO, and in its failure to show the moral courage and leadership that might have given force to international efforts at limiting proliferation, the victors of 1989 condemned further generations – assuming there are any – to live under the daily threat, the daily insult that their parents did. The Trump presidency adds an extra frisson of jeopardy, but in this light it simply reanimates as terrifying burlesque what’s been the case all along: that we continue to live at the whim of hugely complex engines of destruction whose control systems are fraying, whose inherent biases run toward disaster, whose irreversible operations might be tripped by any number of unforeseen momentary accidents or miscommunications, and whose masters are all, to the last man, criminally insane.
One can’t help feeling that there’s something awry in Ellsberg’s history, though, some way in which this chronicle of innocence lost doesn’t go the whole hog. His account of the Manhattan Project ends up fixated on Enrico Fermi’s famous sweepstake, just before the Trinity test, on whether the explosion reaction would destroy the whole of New Mexico or ignite all the hydrogen in the Earth’s atmosphere and ocean: ‘[t]he Earth would blaze for less than a second in the heavens,’ Ellsberg writes in one of the few Miltonic moments he allows himself, ‘and then forever continue its rounds as a barren rock.’ Fermi’s bet has long been taken to be apocryphal, or a joke: Ellsberg finds that, actually, the probability of the test causing instant global extinction was generally accepted to be more than zero. That lunatic risk seems to stand, in ways the book never quite acknowledges, for what Ellsberg, an expert on risk, finds most unconscionable in our nuclear predicament: the willingness on all sides to gamble with existential stakes.
Essentially, Ellsberg remains too innocent or too good to admit to himself that, for many people, this kind of gamble might be fun. A man who trained and specialised in violence, who spent years in Vietnam, and who finished the drafting for US nuclear war planning policy on his thirtieth birthday (one of the book’s most queerly chilling moments), might be expected to show more understanding of the thanatic glamour of annihilating violence. He might, you’d think, have abandoned his liberal cold-warrior patriotism sufficiently to have a clearer sense of the Bomb not as an aberration visited upon a world that would otherwise tend towards order, but as a natural expression of an urge as old as the human mind.
So, for example, his account of how civilised norms of warfare were abandoned through the mutual escalation of city bombing in the Second World War is an effective fable about how apparently rational states can goad each other into a spiral of savagery, with military-industrial complexes waiting to pounce on the opportunity on both sides; but in dating the first area bombing to Guernica he omits the tactic’s longer history in colonial contexts – in Honduras, Iraq and Abyssinia. He’s rightly appalled at the callousness of US public opinion towards the slaughter inflicted on Tokyo and Yokohama by LeMay’s innovations in incendiary bombing, but doesn’t seem to take the hint when Time magazine refers to Japanese civilian victims as ‘rats’.
The innocence that he never quite gives any sign of having lost – not here, at least – is about violence, the Other, and the core matter of the exterminism whose practices, in his own country, he was willing to risk a lifetime in jail to expose. In his faith in a reasoned, humane liberal order, in a vaguely whiggish progress, in responsible citizenhood and truth-telling as a prophylactic against power, he never quite gets to the central question of why those scientists so blithely risked igniting the whole earth, why LeMay liked to pilot the lead plane of his own formations without ever deviating to avoid flak (Iron Ass, his men called him), or why the top brass of Strategic Air Command had such contempt for the mere politicians who’d mess up their plans for incinerating half the world’s cities. The answer’s there in the spots that Trinity’s first light burned in the film: LeMay seems to have understood it, and it’s a reasonable bet that Donald Trump understands it too.
You can’t fault Ellsberg for his lack of imagination, since it’s the same lack of imagination that has us all convinced that a technology for murdering everyone on earth if you feel nervous is a perfectly sensible thing for states to have. Nonetheless, we’re sunk unless we realise how much we love these things: their absolutism, their unmatchable hunger, the poison they inject into the day. Ellsberg’s final diagnosis is right; either the nuclear weapons complex goes or at some point, sooner rather than later, we do. Until then, living in the world is, at every moment, like the childhood fever dream, familiar in its various forms to children of the Cold War, and probably visiting children in their sickbeds again now: you’re in a small room, stuffy and windowless, too hot and getting hotter. Outside, in the dark, there is something enormous and absolutely beyond any appeal to pity. Lying still, you hear it pad and breathe. You know that it wants in and you do not know how long the walls will hold.