Talkin' World War III

Scrutinizing culture.
Nov. 29 2007 6:07 PM

Talkin' World War III

The return of the repressed.

Could we have a little talk about World War III? It's back again, that phrase, and it doesn't look like it's going to go away soon.

This past month may be remembered as the one when World War III broke out. Not the thing itself, obviously, but the concept, the memory, the nightmare, which had been buried in the basement of our cultural consciousness since the end of the Cold War. The beast suddenly broke out of the basement and it's in our face again. The return of the repressed.

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There was George Bush's Oct. 17 warning that "if you're interested in avoiding World War III," you ought to worry about the prospect of Iranian nukes. Many found the phrase jolting, coming out of the blue. First, because it had not been in widespread use, certainly not from a White House podium, and second because "World War III" generally connotes a global nuclear war, while Bush was speaking about regional scenarios involving Iran and Israel. Why the sudden rhetorical escalation?

Especially coming from the man who has the "nuclear football," the black briefcase with the Emergency War Orders, always by his side, and enough megatonnage at his disposal to threaten the existence of the entire human race.

Then, a few days after Bush's Oct. 17 shocker, I came upon a less widely noticed, perhaps even more ominous quote, originally published two weeks earlier in London's usually reliable Spectator, in a story about the Sept. 6 Israeli raid on that alleged Syrian nuclear facility. A quote from a "very senior British ministerial source" contending, "[I]f people had known how close we came to world war three that day there'd have been mass panic." Here, it wasn't Bush theorizing about the future; it was a responsible official saying we'd already come close to Armageddon.

And then there was the "mistake" that came to light about the same time as the Israeli raid, the mistake in nuclear weapons handling, which allowed—for the first time in 40 years—six nuclear warheads to be flown over U.S. airspace, suspended from the wing of a long-range B-52 bomber en route from Minot, N.D., to Barksdale, La., a staging point for Mideast missions. And though the incident appears to have been an accident, it set off seething blogospheric speculation about its connection to the Israeli raid, and a prospective U.S. raid on Iran. Could it have been a signal of sorts? Even if it was a simple error, the unauthorized flight of the exposed nukes betrayed profound flaws in our control of our nuclear arsenal. Suddenly, the bombs that we knew, on some level, were there somewhere, were out in the open, waving: Hey, we're still here!

And now we have the crisis in Pakistan, one that portends a nightmare scenario in which Pakistan's so-called "Islamic bomb" falls into the hands of al-Qaida sympathizers. Such an outcome would put us on a fast-track route to World War III, because logic would dictate an immediate attack on those Pakistani nukes before they could be dispersed or launched, and logic on the other side would dictate that their new possessors launch or disperse them as soon as possible under a "use it or lose it" threat.

Finally, there was the almost unprecedented declassification of an element of the U.S. nuclear war plan formerly known as the Strategic Integrated Operating Plan, now called OPLAN 8044. The heavily redacted document, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Hans M. Kristensen, a nuke specialist at the Federation of American Scientists, is almost completely blanked out, save for a few headings suggesting that we have off-the-shelf plans for nuking "regional" states, a phrase Kristensen believes applies to states that have weapons of mass destruction programs, such as North Korea and Iran. Soon, if not already, one can be sure, there will be "robust contingency plans" for Pakistan, as Martin Walker put it recently in the New YorkTimes.

And—as if demonstrating a kind of synchronicity in the collective unconscious—the cultural realm has begun to break out with World War III talk. We've had publication of two new books, Richard Rhodes' history of the Cold War nuclear arms race, Arsenals of Folly, which takes us up to 1986 and the failure of the superpowers to ban the bomb, and Jonathan Schell's utopian revival of the cause of nuclear abolitionism in The Seventh Decade.

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