What Doomsday Looks Like in Annie Jacobsen’s ‘Nuclear War’

Lee Polevoi


Nuclear War: A Scenario

By Annie Jacobsen


400 pages


How do you imagine the unimaginable? How do you write about it? That’s the task investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen sets for herself in Nuclear War: A Scenario, her hypothetical account of nuclear warfare and the end of the world as we know it.


Jacobsen’s scenario—growing out of interviews with many ex-officials of U.S. Nuclear Command and Control—is frighteningly plausible.



One day, without warning, North Korea launches an intercontinental ballistic missile, armed with a nuclear warhead, at the East Coast of the United States. This sets in motion a terrifying march to apocalypse. The first ICBM will strike its target within 33 minutes.


And as Jacobsen reminds us, “Once launched, an ICBM cannot be recalled.”


From there, we get a minute-by-minute, even second-by-second description of the chain of events that occurs after a space satellite’s infra-red system detects what nuclear experts call a “Bolt Out of the Blue.” With no time to spare, U.S. government officials must scramble to answer urgent questions. Where is the North Korean missile headed? Are there more to come? What constitutes the proper retaliatory response?



For answers, a wide array of U.S. Defense Department network programs must make rapid-fire decisions and execute precisely on those decisions. This presumes that all involved can be contacted and rounded up immediately and that no mistakes are made in the stomach-wrenching heat of the moment.


As if this isn’t bad enough, in Jacobsen’s scenario, overhead satellites capture the “heat signature” of a second North Korean missile launch. According to near-instantaneous computer projections, the target this time is the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in Southern California—setting in motion what energy experts deem (theoretically, up till now) the “Devil’s Scenario.”


“Directly attacking a nuclear reactor with a nuclear-armed missile is a worst-case scenario beyond measure,” Jacobsen writes, adding that a strike of this magnitude “all but guarantees a core reactor meltdown that in turn results in a thousands-of-years-long nuclear catastrophe.”


The language of the nuclear weapons industry is heavily laden with acronyms (SIOP, NORAD, DEFSMAC, STRATCOM, NRO, SBX, etc.). At times in her account, Jacobsen can’t avoid an overload of acronyms, a challenge to readers trying to keep track of all the players and government positions involved.  



Still, her breathless prose and occasional clunky sentences—which might be distracting in some other, less frantic narrative—seem oddly apropos here, given the doomsday tale unfolding before our eyes.


When 33 minutes expire and the enemy ICBM detonates over Washington, D.C., the results are cataclysmic:


“In the first fraction of a millisecond, a flash of light superheats the air to 180 million degrees Fahrenheit, incinerating people, places, and things, and absorbing a once bright, once powerful, once vibrant city center in a holocaust of fire and death … The air around the fireball’s edges compresses into a steeply fronted blast wave. This dense wall of air pushes forward, mowing down everything and everyone in its path for three miles out, in every direction.”



The U.S. military dispatches its own nuclear arsenal (air, sea, and land) just moments before this disaster. Since these ICBMs headed for North Korea must fly over Russian airspace, Moscow assumes that it too is under assault and launches a pre-emptive nuclear strike against NATO countries. For every attack, there is a counterattack. Within an appallingly short timeframe, the rest of the world goes up in mushroom clouds of devastation. 


“How tragic and ironic it is that human beings developed slow and steady over hundreds of thousands of years,” Jacobsen writes, “culminating in the creation of vast and complex civilizations, only to get zeroed out in a war that takes less than a few hours from beginning to end.”


To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from portraying Armageddon and all its horrifying repercussions. It takes a strong stomach to work your way through Nuclear War: A Scenario, but readers will come away with a keener sense of why nightmarish events like this must never be allowed to happen.


Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, chief book critic for Highbrow Magazine, is the author of a recently published novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.


For Highbrow Magazine


Photo Credits: Depositphotos.com; Mike Baird (Wikimedia Commons).


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