Western naval intelligence sources report that three Israeli submarines are prowling off the coast of Iran. The same sources disclose that the German-made Dolphin-class subs have been heavily modified by Israel: their torpedo tubes enlarged to accommodate larger missiles, new electronics systems installed and fuel capacity expanded to keep the vessel at sea for weeks without refueling. Our informants report that Israel has also equipped the advanced subs with domestically produced 1,500-km range cruise missiles carrying 200-kiloton nuclear warheads and 135-kilometer range US-made Harpoon missiles also fitted with nuclear payloads. These atomic missiles, fired through the newly enlarged 650mm (26-inch) tubes, can reach Iranian targets, including capital city Tehran as well as suspected nuclear sites and Revolutionary Guards facilities. The Dolphins’ expanded fuel tanks enable them to cover distances of up to 10,000 kilometers from their Mediterranean home port (instead of 8,000 kilometers heretofore) and spend more time – up to 50 days – stationed off the Iranian coast. Military observers explain that the submarines’ provocative Persian Gulf presence endows Israel with guaranteed second-strike nuclear capabilities.
It could begin with a full-bore missile attack or with a conventional strike that metastasizes. But let us imagine that the nuclear war humanity has been courting for 60 years begins with a scenario proposed by national security essayist Peter Berkowitz. He tells journalist Ron Rosenbaum in the book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III to imagine not a strike on Tel Aviv that microwaves a million human beings and essentially erases the state of Israel. Instead: “What about if someone offshore from Haifa lobs a watermelon-sized nuke that hits the city and kills 19,000 people.”
Berkowitz’s example scrambles the careful calculus of nuclear brinksmanship. And nuclear has always meant brinksmanship.
So say it happens. This could follow: Israel determines the culprit is sponsored by Iran, which it now considers not just a mortal enemy but an existential threat. Under cover of dark, Israeli jets scramble, cover 1,000 miles at Mach 2 and set upon Tehran’s government infrastructure, strafing and bombing everything in the Islamic Republic, but reserving the use of nukes.
By daybreak, Russia has rushed to stand shoulder to shoulder with Iran ... and threatens retaliation. The United States stands with Israel. Nuclear-equipped bombers are on notice. The Cold War didn’t end when the Berlin Wall fell; rather, it just downshifted. The Americans have been probing Russian radar capability for years, determining the seams to follow, undetected, to Moscow. And it was in 2007 that Vladimir Putin announced Russia would resume “strategic” (i.e., “nuclear-capable”) flights. On both sides, nuclear attendants, those jailers of doomsday, are on alert. If a head of state gives the word, missiles will fly inside of 20 minutes.
As sabers rattle, the calmer players on either side of that rivalry, those who have defused every nuclear standoff to date, work to soothe the monster. But within the week, a lunatic sees his window and puts another match to the smoking tinder. Maybe it’s North Korea, heaving a crude nuke at Seoul. Or a cyber-attack merely simulates a credible false attack somewhere, thus instigating reprisal. Or, let us say, it is an atomic bolt from Pakistan aimed at Mumbai – or at Tel Aviv. Israel, Rosenbaum notes, has been dubbed “a one-bomb state” because a blast of a single megaton would render it a desert of death; and Pakistan, with its sandcastle of a government, has referred to its nukes, which may number 100 and which may or may not be under adult supervision at any given moment, as an “Islamic bomb.” With this second strike, Israel and perhaps the United States would be virtually compelled to retaliate in kind. A threat to Pakistan pulls in its ally China. Thus a regional conflagration ensnares superpowers, already twitching. Around the world, in all those charming cities you always meant to visit, people and buildings are flash-incinerated. And in a century or two, the historians of the post-nuclear world ask why this civilization was so hellbent on suicide.
(Incidentally, a one-megaton bomb, approximately 70 times as powerful as those the United States inflicted upon Japan in 1945, would do this; here is Vietnam-era US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, writing in 2005: “At ground zero, the explosion creates a crater 300 feet deep and 1,200 feet in diameter. Within one second, the atmosphere itself ignites into a fireball more than a half-mile in diameter. The surface of the fireball radiates nearly three times the light and heat of a comparable area of the surface of the sun, extinguishing in seconds all life below and radiating outward at the speed of light …”)
The world has courted this fate before. President Kennedy resisted the urging of his advisers to strike first against the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Flocks of geese, a weather satellite and misinterpreted training tapes have given the Americans and Russians false-positive “attacks” over the years. A Russian colonel named Petrov watched in 1983 as Kremlin radar showed a massive American nuclear strike arriving over the North Pole. He hesitated to wake the Soviet premier to authorize a counterstrike, sparing the world for long enough for someone to realize it was a technical glitch. Such momentary delays may continue to preserve life on this planet. At the point of launch, men have been known to quail, even in drills. That’s why, Rosenbaum reports, Cold War subs carried tommy guns at the entrance to the engine room, to ensure compliance. Faced with the prospect of simply pretending to exterminate tens of millions of people, even trained soldiers and sailors revert to their humanity.
But whereas those near misses were played on a chessboard with only two nuclear actors, today’s game is populated by at least nine players in various states of desperation. The world now has fewer nukes but in more hands. Rosenbaum counts three likely points of origin for nuclear war. The first is the standby that we blithely forgot since the fall of the Soviet Union. Despite (watered-down) arms-reduction treaties such as the 2010 New START, the United States and Russia remain poised to order and deliver death for several hundred million humans in the time it takes to watch a sitcom. Those two nations, with military establishments still vested in maintaining their arsenals, hold 90 percent of the world’s 23,000-odd nukes in underground silos, in aging but active bombers and in submarines still lurking in the deep. The second flashpoint is the Middle East, which has greater will but less capability for Armageddon. (“There are a few people on the planet who sincerely don’t believe Iran is seeking the ability to produce nuclear weapons,” Rosenbaum writes. “The stone age tribesmen of Papua New Guinea, for instance, are perhaps blessedly unaware of the possibility.”) The third is Pakistan, with its blend of martyr-ready fundamentalism and perpetual nuclear yard sale.
The old bipolar equations that by dint of continued luck and blips of conscience kept the Cold War cold are now a cat’s cradle of strategic concerns. Consider, as Rosenbaum does at length, a nighttime aerial strike in the summer of 2007 that saw Israeli jets destroy a Syrian site that was, by the determination of Israeli and American intelligence, a nuclear reactor of North Korean design able to render radioactive material fissile. Israel viewed it as enough of a threat to snuff it, damn the torpedoes. Russia must have been aware of the raid; had Israel gone any further than to target the single facility, matters could have become grave. Instead, both Israel and Syria, perhaps even by explicit agreement, quashed any escalation by shutting up. A Spectator report a month after the incident quoted a senior British ministry official: “If people had known how close we came to World War III that day there’d have been mass panic.”
The devil remains in the return fire. Rosenbaum canvases some of the most influential nuclear thinkers in the United States and finds blessedly scant moral justification for a retaliatory nuclear strike. The reluctance of Israel or the United States to follow a first attack with nuclear force may be all that prevents genocide if Syria or Iran succeeds in striking Tel Aviv. Yet the paradox of deterrence holds that even if you, as a nation, as humanity, oppose the incineration of millions of innocent citizens of an aggressor state, you cannot publicly rule out the use of responding in kind, lest you invite that cataclysmic first strike. Israel has conspicuously leaked, in pornographic detail, the specs of its German-built submarines that, if the reports are to be believed, hover in the Persian Gulf to ensure that if the Iranian regime ever decides to initiate a second Holocaust, Israel will be able to strike from beyond the grave, notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s assurance that the United States would also burn down Iran if it nuked Israel. Rosenbaum surmises that the Holocaust denialism by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others is an attempt to bleach history, to make a first strike somehow less politically and morally repugnant. The “secondness” of a second Holocaust renders such an attack all the more wicked. Israel is so poignantly aware of this possibility that it keeps the Isaiah scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in a case that retracts deep into the ground and which can supposedly withstand a nuclear blast.
The moral abhorrence against nuclear retaliation could be all that spares us from World War III in the event that a security breach or a cyber-attack or a madman at the trigger or a misplaced flock of geese provides apparent just cause to launch. The philosopher Moshe Halbertal tells Rosenbaum: “You cannot save your life at the expense of actual targeting of innocent people.” Nuclear strikes necessarily smear the distinction between combatants and civilians, burying their true human cost in the anesthetized euphemism of bureaucracy: attacks on “countervalue” targets or “economic infrastructure” – what you and I would call “cities” – or talk of “damage limitation” for what amounts to a preemptive nuclear attack.
But make no mistake, a nuclear strike, even one that is ostensibly provoked, will incinerate millions of people, poison millions more, starve millions more, and possibly deprive the remainder of a functional civilization. A nuclear exchange, Rosenbaum estimates soberly, might directly kill one billion people. It would erase any distinction between combatants and noncombatants. It therefore follows the guiding principle of terrorism, which conscripts innocents at the point of their maiming or murder. It is the indiscriminate dispensation of horror, and it is the stated policy of the world’s most heavily armed nations.