Book review: nuclear war would end us, but Annie Jacobsen’s scenario is unrealistic

In her new book, Annie Jacobsen envisions a mad scenario of how an all-ending nuclear war would unfold. The details of what happens when an atomic bomb hits are horrifying, but the whole plot is a bit of a fantasy.

Fallout, a TV series adapted from the cult post-apocalyptic video game, is now out on Amazon Prime Video. In the show, a nuclear war is devastating, of course, but humanity doesn’t end – even on the planet’s surface.

In her new book called Nuclear War: A Scenario, Jacobsen has worse news from real life – the true fallout would be even worse, and the so-called vaults would definitely not help. A long, nightmarish nuclear winter would follow.

And yet, somehow, even though Jacobsen has clearly meticulously researched the topic, the way a true war to end all wars (and humanity) is portrayed seems even more fictional than Fallout.

Sure, the scenario is terrifying – but it contains quite a few confusing jumps and fails to convince us that this is precisely how we’d reach the deadly finish line.

It wouldn’t look pretty

I’m not going to argue about the impact, of course. Other than an asteroid strike, a nuclear war is surely the only other scenario that could end the world as we know it in a matter of hours.

I was almost one year old when a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded in Ukraine. My parents told me later that they simply stayed inside – we were (and are) living in Lithuania, which is quite some distance away from the accident site.

Besides, information about what actually happened wasn’t released for days – the censorship-loving Soviets tried to hide the scale of the disaster from their people and the world. So it would have been too late anyway.

Lithuania is now a land where information flows freely. Yet if a nuclear war happens, even the greatest transparency will only give us a few hours to say our goodbyes – that’s how long it would take for the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD for a reason) to be realized.

Again, the result of an all-out atomic conflict between nuclear-capable nations would not be the almost pretty, retro-apocalyptic vision put forth by Fallout.

There’s no music, there are no romantic wastelands – there’s a flash, a bang, and a carbonization of your body. If you’re not dead, you soon will be because a voracious hell-storm of radioactive particles is spreading.

An nuclear bomb test in 1952. Image by Getty Images,

“It’s a story where 12,000 years of civilization in the making gets reduced to rubble in mere minutes and hours,” writes Jacobsen, a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

It would take ages to recover. First, global fires would block out the sun, and we’d plunge into nuclear winter – the weather would change overnight.

And because the sun equals life, plants soon die. We, along with other animals, soon die too because there’s nothing to eat – or drink as most water is contaminated.

Sure, after some time, the cold and the dark subsides, and sunlight reappears – but the sun’s rays are now killer ultraviolet rays because the ozone layer is ruined. Millions of corpses are now thawing out and spreading pathogens and plague.

The few gangs of humans left are now, once again, hunter-gatherers. Albert Einstein once said when asked about the possibility of a nuclear war: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

Illogical cascade of events

We could go on and on. And yet, Jacobsen’s book is a thriller. It’s a scenario, it’s fiction. Sure, if your goal is to enlighten those of us who think of the threat of nuclear war as an abstract concept – job well done, indeed.

But there’s a reason, If I may, why Jacobsen has been helping out Amazon Studios to write episodes of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, a political action thriller. Fascinating storylines and shocking twists are what she seems to be good at.

Nuclear War: A Scenario should be read like a fantastical contemplation first and foremost. In the book, it all starts with North Korea launching a preemptive “decapitation strike” on Washington and following it with a hit on California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

America undoubtedly returns the favor but then is unsuccessful in trying to tell the paranoid Kremlin on the phone that its missiles are targeting Pyongyang rather than Russian cities and installations. Moscow retaliates as well and seals the fate of the human race.

Jacobsen coldly details the cascade of events step-by-step and scares the hell out of most readers. The end of the world doesn’t take too long – just a few hours.

Annie Jacobsen. Image by Getty Images.

The problem, though, is the few and yet important illogical reasonings. First of all, even North Korea’s young dictator, Kim Jong Un, is not that mad to start a nuclear confrontation. Despots such as Kim are actually very narcissistic and want to live forever.

Then, of course, North Korea does whatever China tells it to do – and China, a new superpower, does not want a nuclear war, whatever the justifications for it from its supposed allies.

There’s actual evidence. When Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, began indirectly threatening Ukraine and the West with nukes in 2022, the US privately engaged China to intervene. And it did.

Do we really think that Russia, or indeed any nuclear country, would hit the MAD button before being absolutely sure what is really going on and why?

After Xi Jinping met with Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, in November 2022, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported that the two leaders had agreed to “oppose the use of or the threat to use nuclear weapons.” This was a clear signal to Russia.

The real world is different

With regards to Moscow determining that American missiles are about to hit targets in Russia just because it’s not the US president that’s calling and immediately retaliating – well, that’s just ungrounded speculation.

Do we really think that Russia, or indeed any nuclear country, would hit the MAD button before being absolutely sure what is really going on and why?

Even the starting point – that North Korea is the instigator of all this – is quite hypocritical. The US remains the only country that has ever used nuclear weapons, exploding them over Hiroshima and Nagasaki – why would a nuclear conflict be started by someone else?

Finally, we can talk all we want about thermonuclear bombs, hundreds or thousands of times more powerful than atomic bombs, but actually, tactical nuclear weapons – used for specific tactical gains on the battlefield rather than, say, destroying large cities – are all the rage now.

Smaller nuclear warheads are more difficult to spot because most modern delivery systems are dual-use, and Russia has an agreement with neighboring Belarus to station the weapons there.

The fear, again, is Moscow could use tactical nuclear weapons in its war on Ukraine. But, most importantly, as Jim Sciutto, CNN’s chief national security analyst, reports in his new book The Return of Great Powers, it’s “highly unlikely” that the US would respond to a Russian nuclear strike with a nuclear attack of its own.

In other words, as of right now, America would choose to cancel or at least postpone Armageddon. Thrillers such as Jacobsen’s book are like that – they need drama and powerful finales. In the real world, more sober heads take over – well, here’s hoping.

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