Book Review: Sleepwalking to Armageddon

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“Groundhog Day” is an annual U.S. event, derived from an earlier German folk tradition. It is said that, if a groundhog (woodchuck) emerges from his burrow on February 2 and sees its own shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. Every year, on that day, a fat furry rodent dubbed Phil is rudely awakened from its sleep in the Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney, to offer its prognostication.

Identified since 1993 with the classic screen comedy Groundhog Day, in which an insensitive weatherman, played by veteran actor Bill Murray, is forced to relive the same miserable winter day, over-and over-and-over again until he learns to be kind to others in his community and in his life. Thus, Groundhog Day has also become the idiom to describe a maddening repetition of unhelpful events without progress.

Appropriately enough, this year, I spent Groundhog Day reading about “nuclear winter” and mentally reliving the fear and helplessness I felt as a child during the Cuban Missile crisis.

Sleepwalking to Armageddon is a compilation of essays on the mechanics, the likelihood and the potential consequences of nuclear war, should bellicosity become reality. Contributors include esteemed thinkers and scientists representing a wide range of relevant experience.

Edited by Nobel Prize Nominee and pediatrician Dr. Helen Caldicott, this slim volume is a particularly timely book during this second year of an American administration that has openly flirted with nuclear war with North Korea. The current American administration has brought us closer to that un-winnable scenario than we have ever been since those terrifying days in 1962.

The book begins with a lesson in risk assessment, from which we learn the frightening calculus that must be applied to the number of nuclear warheads in existence. Sleepwalking to Armageddon explains why every one of those weapons has the hair-trigger potential to wipe out millions of lives in a single brilliant flash, and we are reminded that nuclear nations have been courting disaster for decades, oftentimes logging many close-calls.

Despite a relatively brief interval at the close of the Cold War, during which, through international cooperation, the number of nuclear warheads in existence actually declined, we have never been so near to nuclear annihilation. Since the turn of the 21st Century, a radically different political reality has transformed global tensions, forcing the lethal potential of nuclear powers to grow exponentially. In this new global environment, dominant nuclear nations hurry to “modernize” their arsenals and smaller renegades seek nuclear capabilities in order to address what they see as existential threats from the nuclear giants.

It’s a scenario all too familiar to us right now.

What Dr. Caldicott’s colleagues bring to the discussion is an awareness that the debate about atomic weapons is incomplete without a clear understanding of the collateral threats that are often over-looked in political circles. Impacts from fallout and the “Nuclear Winter” that will result from even a “limited” nuclear war (and that is an oxymoron if there ever was one!) will multiply death and destruction exponentially.

Of course, you may not realize it, but there is the vital relationship between atomic weapons and the production of electricity via nuclear energy. For, nuclear power began purely as a byproduct of the production of nuclear bombs, and Dr. Caldicott is an expert in that arena.

Published in mid-November 2017, Sleepwalking to Armageddon actually is a read during this bleak political winter. Dr. Caldicott has arranged the book so that it concludes with some relatively optimistic observations about the rise of anti-nuclear sentiment around the world. It is a timely reminder of just how much rational ground has been lost in the year since America’s 2016 election.

The chapter on how artificial intelligence (AI) could accelerate human error in the hair-trigger environment of international tensions is particularly relevant in the aftermath of Russian cyber interference during the 2016 American elections.

I believe it is unthinkably ignorant and there is an appalling lack of logic to the opinion recently expressed by the current American administration that if a nation has nuclear weapons it should be prepared to use them.

Returning to the book’s early chapters on nuclear weapon risk assessment, for me, the real question is whether or not we are already too late to prevent what may be statistically inevitable.

Sleepwalking to Armageddon is essential reading for anyone who desires the big picture on atomic weapons and an understanding tightly focused discussion on the plutonium nuclear chain that unequivocally connects the generation of electricity by using atomic power to the production of nuclear weapons. 

 

You can find Sleepwalking to Armageddon on Amazon Here