If you want to know what the next nuclear war will be like, read Jeffrey Lewis’s The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States.
Nuclear weapons have been used only once in war, by the United States against Japan at the end of World War II. Nuclear war was imagined many times, however, through the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. As the two countries’ nuclear arsenals grew, the common understanding became that in a nuclear war, hundreds of multi-megaton nuclear weapons would be exploded, and the direct damage would destroy the countries involved. Most of us would die immediately, more in the aftermath. It looked like the end of civilization.
We don’t know exactly how many nuclear weapons North Korea has, but it’s in the tens, rather than the thousands of the Cold War. That changes the leaders’ calculations. If they face a war in which using those weapons is a serious possibility, they must use them before they are destroyed. So they must be alert to signals from their enemies that an attack might be coming.
Unless the United States responded with nuclear weapons and somehow Russia and China also sent their missiles flying, the result would look more like what Lewis describes than the Cold War imaginings.
The 2020 Commission Report reads not quite convincingly as a government report. It too many emotional words. But the format allows a view into how decisions are likely to be made in such a war.
When people write serious articles in serious journals about deterrence or nuclear war, they assume rational, fully-informed decision-making. After a war starts, emotions come into play. Communications are broken. Erroneous impressions or understandings of what the other side may do have been there all along.
A current misunderstanding is the continuing contrast in the way North Korea uses the word “denuclearize” and the way President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo use it. North Korea uses it as to describe a far-off ideal situation in which all the nations of the world have given up nuclear weapons. Trump and Pompeo seem to believe that North Korea will unilaterally disarm in the next year or two.
Additional misunderstandings between the United States and North Korea could lead to or exacerbate a crisis. Trump’s habit of tweeting adds another way to make things worse. In Bob Woodward’s book Fear, he says that President Trump was prevented from tweeting that dependents of US diplomatic and military personnel were being evacuated from South Korea. That would be just the sort of signal that Kim Jong Un would be looking for, and, indeed, a presidential tweet figures in the action in The 2020 Commission Report.
Lewis persuasively weaves together misunderstandings, overreactions, and the predictable, all based on events that have actually occurred. He even provides endnotes to support many of them. The footnotes are good for additional reading, too, if you want to follow up on a subject.
Many of the situations in the book have been kicked around on Nuclear Twitter, Lewis occasionally contributing. Would the military aide holding the football – the briefcase containing communication equipment for a nuclear strike – struggle with a President who wanted to use it?
We need to consider the questions Lewis raises. The writing in the book is easy to read, the action suspenseful within the understanding that we know how it ends. Some may find the subject matter difficult to read. We don’t know how the current world situation ends, though. Read the book and then let’s do something about that.
Disclaimer: Jeffrey Lewis is a friend. I have known him through the internet for a decade and a half and have met him in real life a number of times. I was not involved in the writing of the book in any way.
Cross-posted at Balloon Juice.