NUCLEAR WAR: A Scenario, by Annie Jacobsen

COUNTDOWN: The Blinding Future of Nuclear Weapons, by Sarah Scoles

When it comes to nuclear catastrophe, there is a large and ever-expanding body of books and films.

Movies have an obvious visual advantage (what is more photogenic than a mushroom cloud?), but books like Annie Jacobsen’s gripping “Nuclear War: A Scenario” are essential if you want to understand the complex and disturbing details that go into a civilization-destroying decision to drop the Bomb on an enemy.

Jacobsen, the author of “The Pentagon’s Brain,” has done her homework. She has spent more than a decade interviewing dozens of experts while mastering the voluminous literature on the subject, some of it declassified only in recent years. “Nuclear war is insane,” she writes. “Every person I interviewed for this book knows this.” Yet the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads remains unsheathed.

Numbers tell the terrifying story by themselves. A one-megaton bomb dropped on the Pentagon would kill about a million people in the first two minutes, and the subsequent war would be a march toward Armageddon. She estimates that, by its end, at least two billion individuals would lose their lives.

Jacobsen calls this genocide, but then goes further, describing a mass extinction event from the postwar impact of nuclear winter and the degradation of the ozone layer. “As long as nuclear war exists as a possibility,” she says, “the survival of the human species hangs in the balance.”

Jacobsen lays out an imaginary narrative that begins with North Korea launching a missile against the United States. The “why” — Kim Jong-un is paranoid? resentful? a “mad king”? — is less important than the “how” of procedure, because nine governments possess nuclear weapons, and for many of them the decision to kill millions of people in an instant rests with one man, whether Kim, Vladimir Putin or the president of the United States. (During the Watergate crisis, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, worried that a drunken and brooding Richard Nixon might decide to launch a nuclear strike, reportedly told the Pentagon’s leaders to check with him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before following a directive from the White House.)

In Jacobsen’s telling, Washington fires interceptors to take down the missile but these fail because, as she explains, tests of America’s interceptor system have produced dismal results. “With 44 interceptor missiles in its entire inventory, the U.S. interceptor program is mostly for show.”

Now the doomsday clock begins ticking. Jacobsen proceeds minute by minute, even second by second. After the detection of the North Korean missile, the president has just six minutes to decide whether to fire America’s own missiles in a counterattack, turning much of North Korea into dust and inviting involvement by the Russians and Chinese.

One of Jacobsen’s major themes is that apocalyptic choices have to be made in a frighteningly short amount of time. In her scenario, it takes 72 minutes for the world as we know it to come to an end. (During the 1960s, the political satirist Tom Lehrer sang about World War III lasting an hour and a half — not much has changed since then.)

Jacobsen has a second theme designed to keep her readers awake at night. Traditionally, in the “fog of war,” high-level strategies are inevitably disrupted, meticulously designed plans go awry, numerous mistakes and miscalculations are made — and nuclear conflict is the foggiest of wars. There has never been a nuclear exchange, so no one really knows what would happen, and all the carefully calibrated, algorithmically determined projections of the Pentagon and its think tanks may not be worth the computer paper they are printed on.

How can one foresee the impact of widespread panic, the breakdown of public services, the collapse of the military’s command and control networks, the anarchic violence and every-man-for-himself ethos bound to follow? In Jacobsen’s plot, North Korea also launches other missiles, including a high-altitude explosive that knocks out America’s power grid in what a former senior C.I.A. official calls “electric Armageddon.”

Jacobsen says more than once that “nuclear war has no rules,” but that’s not quite true. There is one prediction we can safely make: Apart from the countless deaths, the result of a nuclear war would be total chaos for those who survived. Nikita Khrushchev, of all people, said that in the aftermath, the living would envy the dead.

Can anything be done to save us from ourselves? Jacobsen points an accusing finger at the doctrine of deterrence, which has been America’s governing policy for decades. Since the nation’s enemies know that any nuclear attack would be met with an overwhelming response, they are deterred from starting a war they know ahead of time they cannot control.

But Jacobsen notes that deterrence, which has a spotless record so far, works only until it doesn’t. Should a nuclear conflict break out, either by accident, a misunderstanding or the decision of a crazed leader, Jacobsen’s end-of-the-world scenario becomes much more plausible. There is no Plan B if deterrence fails.

So far, so good (or bad), but it is at this point that the questions begin. What is her Plan B? If she favors abolishing nuclear weapons altogether, she owes it to her readers to say so, and then explain how it could be done. How do we get from here to there?

Deterrence theory was devised following Hiroshima and Nagasaki by farseeing thinkers like Bernard Brodie, who grasped that the development of nuclear weapons had irrevocably changed the entire nature of warfare, and that the threat of aggression by a rival power had to be met defensively, and peacefully, by deterrence. There was no alternative.

Entire schools of thought have grown up around the proposition that the Cold War never turned hot because of the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. And there is a legitimate argument to be made that the only reason we are not at war right now with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine is the existence of nuclear weapons. (See also: Taiwan.)

Among the people who appreciate the importance of deterrence are the individuals who populate “Countdown,” by Sarah Scoles, a journalist and contributing editor at Scientific American. The subjects of this rather discursive book include former hippies and competitive speedskaters, but most seem to be born physicists who at an early age aspired to be astronauts or wanted to explore what makes the universe tick.

Now they “toil in obscurity” at facilities like the Los Alamos National Laboratory. They are charged with the responsibility of securing and modernizing America’s deterrence system, and their jobs include testing the components of nuclear weapons, checking that missiles function the way they are supposed to and tracking plutonium to ensure that none of it is diverted. Some spend their time trying to pick up clues of any advances other countries are making in nuclear technology.

This is incredibly important work, costing hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps trillions, and the people who got into it seem to have done so because they wanted to do something meaningful with the scientific expertise they had acquired at school. “I honestly feel that I’m serving my country working here at the lab,” one says. In the 19th century, Baudelaire observed that the heroes of modern life were individuals who wore frock coats. Today, we might say they wear lab jackets.

Not everyone would agree. Scoles portrays scientists who often feel misunderstood and under siege by those convinced that the fastest way to end the nuclear threat is simply to abolish the weapons themselves. Tell your friends that your job is modernizing America’s missile system and count how many of them you lose. Protesters regularly demonstrate outside the labs. “Evil” is a word routinely hurled at the researchers. They are even drilled in how to argue with those who accuse them of being warmongers.

Significantly, the labs are having trouble recruiting talented young replacements because of the anti-nuke and antiwar beliefs that are common on American campuses. Who wants to work on projects that could kill millions of people when you can have the personal satisfaction of marching outside a nuclear lab as your contribution to “world peace”? Meanwhile, the population of scientists experienced in nuclear affairs is graying and shrinking, producing a “worker gap.” Scoles reports that as much as 40 percent of the current work force at the National Nuclear Security Administration will be eligible for retirement over the next few years.

Yet she also demonstrates that many, if not most, of the scientists doing nuclear work have attitudes not all that different from those of the marching students. They too believe in abolishing nuclear weapons. They just don’t think it will happen simply by holding up a sign and wishing for it. Convinced that the United States has no choice but to keep its deterrence system safe, secure and operational, they live inside a paradox difficult for outsiders to understand.

They are embodiments of an antique maxim of international relations: If you want to prevent war, you have to prepare for war. “These things can’t just be put away,” one scientist tells Scoles. In his youth, he favored abolition. Now he asks, “How do you then manage policy that makes sure that they never get used in anger again?” Another, her exasperation showing, was blunter. “You know what? Nuclear weapons exist.” One might add that they are not about to go away anytime soon.

NUCLEAR WAR: A Scenario | By Annie Jacobsen | Dutton | 373 pp. | $27

COUNTDOWN: The Blinding Future of Nuclear Weapons | By Sarah Scoles | Bold Type | 264 pp. | $30

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