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Annie Jacobsen: Nuclear War: A Scenario review - on the inconceivable | reviews, news & interviews

Annie Jacobsen: Nuclear War: A Scenario review - on the inconceivable

Annie Jacobsen: Nuclear War: A Scenario review - on the inconceivable

Brimming with terrifying facts and figures, but struggling with an immeasurable subject

Author Annie Jacobsen writes the end of it all(c) Hilary Jones

"[A]n unimaginably beautiful day": this was how Kikue Shiota described the morning of the 6th of August, 1945, in Hiroshima. The day was soon to change, unimaginably, as the city was blitzed by the airburst of the first atomic bomb, nicknamed Little Boy. Shiota’s perfect weather was instantly and irrevocably translated into a brightness totally beyond the imaginative powers of the humans that brought it into being.

It is a brightness that blinds, burns your clothes away, and flays the skin beneath – as Shiota discovered, when she stumbled across her brother. It illuminates your very skeleton; it destroys the limits of description; it is only the beginning.

We have since created far more powerful means of atomic destruction – in far greater numbers. By 1986 – a mere 40 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were incinerated – the USA and Russia had stockpiled 70,000 nuclear weapons between them. They number fewer now, but this offers little relief:  if we were to use just one, even the inconceivable lethality of a bomb like Little Boy would be dwarfed in comparison. Now, following explorations of Area-51 and Nazi scientists, Annie Jacobsen describes the worst case scenario – that every nuclear-armed country more or less simultaneously empties their arsenal – in her latest book, Nuclear War: A Scenario. I don’t think it would spoil too much to say: it wouldn’t be good.

The book is very clearly precipitated – if not necessitated – by the returning sense of nuclear threat (indeed, Jacobsen's imagined apocalypse occurs at the end of March, to coincide with the book’s release date). This is to be expected. We recently saw Christopher Nolan’s highly stylised version of nuclear power’s weaponisation in Oppenheimer (2023), and during the Cold War television thrummed with nuclear disaster media: there was Q. E. D.’s "A Guide to Armageddon" (1982), which relayed – in perfect BBC Received Pronunciation – the horrifying facts of precisely what would happen if a warhead were deployed above St Paul’s Cathedral; then there was Threads (1984), which dramatised the nuclear destruction of Sheffield; and the Americans had The Day After (1983), featuring John Lithgow.

Nuclear War: A Scenario is strikingly similar in content and tone to that kind of programming – only perhaps this time things are even worse. It simultaneously attempts an outline of nuclear history and a dramatised, minute-by-minute narrative of what would happen in the (apparently very possible) event that a rogue nation, in this case North Korea, bombed the U. S. Like the war she describes, Jacobsen goes for maximum effect: there are ceaseless descriptions of nuclear horror, fraught exchanges between countries, spies, secret bunkers, and bizarre codenames like Starfish Prime, Woodpecker, Trinity, and The Football – there is even a presidential parachute-jump.

Unfortunately, such a style frequently strays into the schlocky, inflected with a tone more suited to – or adapted from – the televisual or filmic, as though our attention-spans are now so permanently truncated that the simple – and utterly terrifying – facts of nuclear armageddon are insufficient in and of themselves. Instead we need ridiculously short paragraphs and sentence fragments for maximum interest, and to gather an ill-defined portentousness around the dramatic grammar. This technique reaches its thrilling nadir with a whole paragraph that simply says ‘If.’

The intense solemnity demanded by the size and seriousness of its subject is married to this sensationalising tone, which occasionally borders on the comic. Take "Chapter 1: The Top Secret Plan for Nuclear War", for example; or "To err is human; but machines also make mistakes"; or else the use of onomatopoeia to mimic the U. S. miltary's blaring alarm systems: "Eeeeeeettt! Eeeeeeettt! Eeeeeeettt!" Such bathetic textualisations continue: "BAAM..." goes the bomb, as it cremates Washington D.C. in the blink of an eye. I confess: I laughed.

The trouble is that the book clearly wants to be entertaining, and to some degree it is; but it also seems wrong to use nuclear war – in many ways the ultimate subject – for the purposes of entertainment. The opening sentence reads: "A 1-megaton thermonuclear weapon detonation begins with a flash of light and heat so tremendous it is impossible for the mind to comprehend." How do we possibly go on from there?

Nuclear War: A ScenarioAny attempt to describe the weird, boundless sublimity of nuclear power so directly, and with so much obvious drama, is fraught with problems, both conceptual and stylistic. Other media have been more successful, most often coming in the form of animation: Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (2013) tells the complex story of personal guilt in the face of absurd escalations in warfare; and Adventure Time (2010–2018) provides a post-apocalyptic vision of surprising playfulness cut with profound melancholy, set 1000 years after ‘the Mushroom Wars’. These, for the most part, respond obliquely but sensitively to the non plus ultra of terror, approaching the subject askance, which is perhaps the only possible approach. Jacobsen, in comparison, has made being on the nose her M. O., and the rare moments of moralising in Nuclear War ultimately feel unearned: looking directly at an atomic blast causes instant blindness.

This is only made clearer when we see her at her best: either relaying, with admirable relentlessness, the stats of nuclear history via recently declassified documents and extensive interviews with various insiders; or else when she is writing at a smaller, more intimate scale. This latter success involves, first, the way in which human psychology dictates our current stalemate, and shows, as she says, "the madness of MAD" (Mutually Assured Destruction). Nuclear holocaust has never really been far away: the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fukushima, and, perhaps least known and most disquieting, during Jimmy Carter's administration, when an attack simulation was mistaken for the real thing: Carter very nearly fired back at a ghost. To varying degrees, these were all near-misses, and the incessant precariousness of the situation – the POTUS carries everywhere a "Black Book" containing a "Denny’s menu" of nuclear strike options – is well-researched and doggedly presented.

Elsewhere, some of the most affecting moments come where Jacobsen describes the loss of things easily overlooked in the event of so much death; namely: our culture. As she notes, the destruction of Washington D. C. would also see the incineration of countless works of art and historical artefacts, not to mention sites of previously happy communal gathering. Human history, from Guernica to the personal letters one might cherish, would be yet another casualty. 

These are the moments that may move a reader (and move them to action), much more so than imagined descriptions of the commander in chief wetting himself in a forest (this actually happens). And there is no doubt that Jacobsen has chosen a pertinent topic: only in the last few days the UK announced a huge investment into and update of its ‘deterrence’ system, Trident. But perhaps an unavoidable problem is that Jacobsen is trying to marshal a subject that is simply too catastrophic to comprehend: a nuclear present tense impossible to maintain. Nuclear war would cause billions of deaths by the most horrific means (the description of radiation-sickness is truly unnerving), but Nuclear War lacks any true moral engagement beyond shock and awe, any other response than to gawp, any sensitive and sustained thought on the unthinkable. It was always the case: there are no real winners, here.

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