There is an irreconcilable conflict between instructing the public how to survive an atomic bomb attack and driving home the reality that the impact of such an event would be so horrendous as to be unthinkable.
Nonetheless, a rationale exists for both messages. Determination to survive is important so that our enemies don’t get the idea we lack the will to resist aggression.
On the other hand, we must never let “unthinkable” disappear from the public psyche as the operative conceptual adjective for any military action involving a nuclear weapon. Ultimately, this message must take precedence. The insanity of a nuclear attack should never be diluted by the prospect of surviving in the sanctuary of one’s basement. At the very least, detonation of an atomic weapon would be a catastrophic event that would drastically change life as we know it, even if the bomb were a single primitive “dirty” weapon that incinerated only a relatively small area in the middle of a city. The lethal radioactive fallout and psychological effects would spread far beyond the physical damage of the explosion, leading to devastating consequences. Those in the vicinity who outlived the explosion would likely still have to contend with an environment permeated by cancer-causing bomb residues such as cesium-137 and strontium -90. Experts estimate radiation hazards would pose a health threat to survivors anywhere from one to five years after the blast.
And yet some so-called foreign policy experts blithely talk of using small tactical nuclear weapons in a preemptive first strike against Iran’s suspected nuclear bomb factories. Small and tactical our bombs might be, but their use would still claim numerous casualties as well as emit radioactive fallout to keep the act of lunacy fresh in the minds (and bodies) of survivors, not to mention the rest of the world.
Universal moral condemnation and possible international isolation seem of little concern to the saber rattlers. They defend their reckless game plan by warning that Iran and North Korea would not be deterred by our nuclear arsenal if they were to obtain their own atomic weapons.
This is the use of fear to incite insanity, not discourage it as the mutually assured destruction understanding we have had with the Russians has served to do.
Among the dangers of detonating limited tactical weapons is the risk of triggering the outbreak of a small-scale regional nuclear conflict–or worse. One computerized study by University of Colorado researchers produced the following nightmarish scenario. In addition to as many fatal casualties as in World War Two, a small-scale regional nuclear exchange would damage the earth’s ozone shield, altering the global climate for at least a decade and causing severe agricultural losses with ensuing widespread famine.
Selling the idea of survivability from a nuclear attack is an excruciating challenge. You have got to put up a good front to fend off nihilistic defeatism. But it is crucial to preserve the reality that no outcome can be considered anything less than “unthinkable”. Otherwise, madness stands a chance to reign supreme.