The Power of What Might Be in Annie Jacobsen’s Nuclear War: A Scenario

It has been years since a book kept me turning the page, with my stomach clenched in suspense, needing to know what happened next. Annie Jacobsen’s Nuclear War: A Scenario was initially something I had on my bookshelf but hesitated to read. It clearly explains the consequences of nuclear war. At times I was reading so voraciously that I felt like I was watching a movie, more than I was reading a book. Given Canada’s role as a middle power on the global stage, little was said of what might be our fate in this end game. Nonetheless, it captures the essence of political war games where leaders try their hand at outdoing one another’s demonstrations of machismo.

I would not recommend reading it without time to let the feeling of its final pages fade slightly. They will sit with you, and what’s important about this isn’t the very real way Jacobsen describes what could be. What’s important is that suddenly, with the description of each passing minute, you realize how intricately connected we all are. In the book, political leaders make decisions about retaliatory strikes (a process which is as fascinating as it is alarming), the world carries on unaware of what’s to come. In one chapter, Jacobsen details the President looking out of Marine One as it leaves Washington, D.C., and watching the people at the park playing in an area that will become a nuclear ground zero (i.e.: not survivable).

There are harrowing details of nuclear effects, including the impact of a strike on a Pacific Coast nuclear power plant which were nothing short of heartbreaking to read. What stuck with me the most, however, were the ways that even political leaders playing verbal chess with these horrific outcomes, repeatedly asked the question, “What kind of monster would unleash nuclear war knowing what would happen to humanity as a result?”

It did not read like a thriller, and less A Scenario than a warning of what might be. There are important measures to take that could mitigate accidental nuclear warfare, which I had never considered before. Jacobsen writes for example, about how since George W. Bush Jr., there has been a “Launch on Warning” policy which launches nuclear weapons simply based on a warning of impending attack. Whether the warning is based on any existing threat, the Launch on Warning policy persists despite the hundreds of millions (if not billions) of lives potentially impacted by it. I never thought I would read the words “accidental” and “nuclear war” together, but former President Obama was quoted as saying that the policy needed to be removed because of its increased risk of “accidents or miscalculation”. Throughout the book, despite its bleak subject matter and harrowingly well-written twenty-six-minute timeline from first launch to retaliatory strikes, policies like these are the standout advocacy routes that can be trodden now, to prevent catastrophic outcomes later. Knowledge is power and prevention.

Even more alarming is that U.S. military leaders are at this moment, prepared for nuclear war. At the time of the author writing the book, there are 1,770 weapons in “ready-for-launch” status in the United States, and 1,674 similar weapons ready in Russia. Both have thousands more in reserves. Jacobsen writes that thankfully only nine countries have nuclear weapons, though those that do, have many. There were more compelling statistics and processes that highlighted exactly why it is crucial to have someone with access to these “codes” who is determined not to use them (or ever need them).

Throughout the book are various “History Lessons” that serve as important preventative measures, as much as educational necessities. I am not a fan of military reading, but I would recommend Nuclear War: A Scenario if only because it prioritizes peace. The genius of writing a scenario so real is that we see what could be from the safety of foresight. Upon entry to office, I think every national political leader ought to read it. They likely know the risks, and the nightmarish outcomes, but seldom has it been told in such vivid detail for the public. Jacobsen makes the important point that in war, especially nuclear war, everyone loses. Now more than ever, it is vital to be reminded that the future contains events we can’t imagine but that we will meet it there with what peace we choose today. I hope that in the future Jacobsen suggests is plausible, we might choose peace, denuclearization, and subsequently one another on this planet.

Charlie C.
Programmer & Library Assistant, Main Library

Charlie loves to read across genres. His favourite part of working at the library is connecting people with resources to help better their lives and experiences; knowledge is a path to empowerment. Accordingly, he is interested in reading and borrowing adult non-fiction books related to almost everything. He enjoys reading about business, self-improvement, environmental sciences and spirituality/esotericism. Books that help ask big questions and invoke equally big wonder are among his favourites. Charlie’s other hobbies include writing, hiking, photography and cooking.