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.

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.

In somewhat less serious but no less noteworthy instances, this month has also seen the release of a deranged but somehow appealing film, Southland Tales, which envisions World War III beginning with a nuclear attack on Abilene, Texas. Add to that the prerelease announcement of Tom Clancy's EndWar, a World War III video game ("for advanced systems only"). And, oh, yes, the folk singer at the Atlantic magazine's anniversary party and his World War III ballad. (I'll get to that.)

World War III hasn't broken out, but an apprehensive foreboding about it certainly has. Of course, World War III has never gone away, in the sense that there are some 500 Minuteman missiles alone, lurking out there in underground silos below the northern great plains; all of them, according to Kristensen, "on high alert"—meaning ready to fire on command in 15 minutes or less—and many more on submarines and ready to load on bombers. They're no longer targeted on the former Soviet Union but are easily re-targetable.

As the saying goes, nuclear war has until recently been "forgotten but not gone," the ghost at the feast. First, there was the decade-long "holiday from history," from the fall of the Wall to the fall of the Twin Towers. And then a different kind of nightmare supplanted nuclear war, the one that went by the name "the next 9/11."

Let's pause here for a bit of comparative nightmare-ology. Not to diminish the horror of a "next 9/11," but 3,000 died that day. At the height of the Cold War, the estimate for the number of killed in a U.S.-USSR nuclear war ranged from a low of 200 million to a high of everyone, the death of the human species from an Earth made uninhabitable by nuclear winter. Or, as one nuclear strategist once memorably put it, "the death of consciousness."

It didn't happen back then, in part, we now know, because of blind luck (misleading radar warnings on both sides that could have been, but weren't, taken as signals for launch). And because back then, despite the madness of Mutually Assured Destruction deterrence doctrine, there were only two main players, both semirational monoliths with an interest in their own survival.

Now, there are at least eight nuclear nations and who knows how many "nonstate actors," as the euphemism for terrorist groups goes. And some of these nonstate actors have adopted an ideology of suicidal martyrdom, even when it comes to nukes, and thus can't be deterred by the reciprocal threat of death.

That's what's so sad about Jonathan Schell's admirable, idealistic book. He wants to believe that the genie can be put back in the bottle, that we can unring the bell, and, if not "disinvent" nuclear weapons, then make them disappear with well-meaning treaties. And yet, in the beginning of his book, he makes what seems like an irrefutable case that the end of his book—a plea for total abolition of nuclear weapons—seems to ignore.

At the beginning of the book he notes that, yes, nuclear weapons can be destroyed, disabled, and decommissioned, but never disinvented. Ballistic-missile disarmament is relatively easy to monitor because missiles are so large. But bombs are different. Once information on how to make them gets out there, no matter what efforts good people employ to make them go away, bad people will keep building them. There is no foolproof inspection regime that wouldn't involve panopticonlike total surveillance of every human being on the planet to prevent what's known in the arms control trade as the "break-out" scenario, in which a group or nation takes advantage of a nuclear-disarmed world by assembling bombs clandestinely, and then putting their nuclear superiority to use.

In other words, I hate to say it this way, but if nuclear arms are outlawed, only outlaws will have nuclear arms. Even gun-control advocates, and I am one, don't believe that the abolition of all guns is possible or necessarily desirable. An outlaw with a gun can rob a gas station. If nukes are outlawed, an outlaw with nukes can rule or destroy the world, or blackmail it at the very least. Do we want a world where the only nondisarmed nuclear power is al-Qaida? What's to prevent such an outcome in the abolitionist scheme?

I don't want to be alarmist (actually I do, or rather I'd like you to share my sense of alarm), but I'm surprised there isn't a greater sense of concern about those Pakistani nukes. Forget Iran and Israel (Bush's hypothetical route to World War III). Pakistani nukes now represent the quickest shortcut to a regional nuclear war that could escalate to a global nuclear war.

The instability of the Musharraf regime and uncertainty about its control of its "Islamic bomb"—actually an arsenal of nukes, including, reportedly, the long-range missiles they can be mounted on—has been a particular concern since 9/11. The key "unknown unknown" in the decision to invade Afghanistan was whether the considerable bloc of radical Islamist Taliban (if not al-Qaida) sympathizers within the Pakistani military and its notorious intelligence service, the ISI (which in fact helped create al-Qaida), would destabilize the Musharraf government.

We dodged a bullet then. But now the once-shaky Musharraf regime is on the brink of collapse. Musharraf has survived assassination attempts before, and there is little likelihood that the forces behind those attempts have a diminished appetite for his demise, literal or political.

And consider this: In recent years entire regions of Pakistan have become safe havens for al-Qaida and (quite likely) Osama. Is it not possible that instead of pursuing elaborate schemes to buy nukes on the black market or smuggle an improvised radioactive "dirty bomb" into the United States, al-Qaida has been biding its time, burrowing its way into Pakistan, waiting for the Islamic bomb to drop into Bin Laden's lap? (I know: not a great choice of metaphor.) Because he thinks long term, he doesn't have to try to scrounge up some "loose nuke" from the former Soviet "stans"; he can just wait. He's one coup—or one bullet—away from being handed the keys to an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Those keys: Throughout the years since 9/11, when Pakistan was supposedly our valiant ally against terrorism, various leaks and hints have offered false reassurances that the United States had in some way "secured" the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. That we were virtually in the control rooms with a hand on the switch.

But then, in the wake of the new threats to Musharraf's precarious regime, came the New York Times front-pager on Nov. 18 (one month after Bush's "World War III" pronouncement in the White House) on the nature of U.S. "control" over Pakistani nukes. The Times had held this story for more than three years at the behest of the Bush administration. This time, when discussion of the issue in Pakistan became more public in the midst of the crisis and the Times told the administration it wanted to publish, the White House withdrew its request for a hold. If people in the administration withdrew their request because they thought the story would be in any way reassuring, they are, to put it mildly, out of their minds.

The rumors circulating that the United States was somehow in Pakistani launch control rooms, presumably exercising some control, turn out to be—the Times story revealed—wishful thinking. In fact, the American efforts appear to have been aimed at preventing an "unauthorized" launch, a scenario in which al-Qaida or some terrorist group steals a weapon and tries to use it.

But the real danger is not "unauthorized" launches but unwelcome "authorized" ones. The real worry is what happens when Musharraf falls, which seems at least a good possibility. What happens if the authority to authorize alaunch falls into the hands of either al-Qaida-sympathizer elements in the military and intelligence service or, worst case, al-Qaida itself? After all, polls in Pakistan have consistently shown Bin Laden to be more popular than Musharraf. From a cave to a nuclear control room is not an utterly unforeseeable nightmare.  

I think this is the urgent debate question that should be posed to both parties' candidates. What happens if Pakistan falls into the hands of al-Qaida-inclined elements? What happens if Musharraf hands over the launch authorization codes before he's beheaded?

Don't kid yourself: At this very moment, there's a high probability that this scenario is being wargamed incessantly in the defense and intelligence ministries of every nuclear nation, most particularly the United States, Russia, and Israel.

War is just a shot away, a well-aimed shot at Musharraf. But World War III? Not inevitably. Still, in any conflict involving nukes, the steps from regional to global can take place in a flash. The new "authorized" users of the Islamic bomb fire one or more at Israel, which could very well retaliate against Islamic capitals and perhaps bring retaliation upon itself from Russia, which may have undeclared agreements with Iran, for instance, that calls for such action if the Iranians are attacked.

If Pakistan is the most immediate threat, U.S., Israeli, and Iranian hostilities over Iranian bomb-making may be the most likely to go global. That may have been what the "very senior" British official was talking about when he said the Israeli raid on Syria brought us "close ... to a third world war." Iranian radar could easily have interpreted the Israeli planes as having its nuclear facilities as their target. On Nov. 21, Aviation Week reported online that the United States participated in some way in the Israeli raid by providing Israel information about Syrian air defenses. And Yossi Melman, the intelligence correspondent with Haaretz, reported a few days later that—according to an Israeli defense specialist—the raid wasn't about a nuclear reactor but something more "nasty and vicious," a plutonium assembly plant where plutonium, presumably from North Korea, was being processed into Syrian bombs.

Hans Kristensen, a highly knowledgeable and low-key observer of these matters, told me the whole thing still seems "murky" to him, which is not a good sign.

I don't want to spoil your day, but all of this has spoiled mine, so I want to share, if you know what I mean. Since the "holiday from history," we have never been in greater danger of a nuclear breakout.

Which brings me to the folk singer at the Atlantic's anniversary party. The party has become somewhat famous or infamous, but the high point for me was not the attractive contortionist writhing around at the lip of the stage; for me, it was hearing—in the midst of all my World War III maunderings—the folk singer they hired bust out with a World War III ballad.

Only, he didn't call it "World War III." He called it "World War Ay Ay Ay" (as in I I I, get it?). It lacked the black humor of Dylan's Cuban Missile Crisis-era ode, "Talkin' World War III Blues," but it was pretty dead-on: perhaps a bit maudlin, but sadly all too appropriate.

Ay, ay, ay, indeed.

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