Tuesday Book: Best place for bombs: oblivion

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The Independent Culture


THE AIR and Space Museum is the most popular tourist attraction in Washington DC. Here, visitors can experience a frisson of dread before Pershing II and SS-20 intermediate range nuclear missiles. Their labels do not need to explain what these weapons can do.

Schell's book is a sustained polemic on why the 5 per cent of countries with nuclear weapons should consign them, if not to museums, then to "virtual arsenals". This would be a first step towards universal prohibition, under a regime of perpetual international verification, involving citizen whistle- blowers. His best argument against potential "breakout" by a pariah state such as Iraq, is that if nuclear superpowers could not defeat Vietnam or Afghanistan, then a small nuclear power is unlikely to intimidate major powers with vast arsenals of conventional weapons. Little can prevent nuclear or biological terrorism in a world awash with the raw materials and the necessary science.

Schell's passionately-argued case relies upon a series of interviews with military men, scientists, and former politicians. The retired military men are the most cogent and imaginative. Many have had to overcome inter- service rivalries, which lent their own dynamic to why the airforce, rather than the navy, had to have the most expensive technology to obliterate "time-urgent targets" such as enemy missile silos.

US General Charles Homer, who commanded allied airforces in the Gulf, sees no advantage in retaining nuclear weapons. His response to the prospect of Saddam using weapons of mass destruction is "we wouldn't have nuked him, we would just have taken his country apart a brick at a time". Horner favours Ronald Reagan's much-derided vision to combine an extendable extra- terrestrial shield with abolition of terrestrial nuclear weapons. Reagan's bold concept was not pursued by either the Bush or Clinton administrations, who, judging by the Russian contributions to this book, managed to squander the enormous fund of Russian goodwill towards the West after the collapse of Soviet totalitarianism.

Military men also provide the most cogent answers to the problem of current nuclear stockpiles, although Schell neglects the radioactive hulks at Murmansk or Sevastopol. Bruce Blair developed serious reservations about US nuclear strategy while serving as a missile launch control officer in a Montana silo. Since Soviet ballistic missiles would take 10 to 30 minutes to strike US targets, the president's response time was three minutes, which made any calibrated response impossible, assuming the command structure had not been "decapitated", as the jargon has it.

Blair is a leading exponent of horizontal disarmament. This makes much sense. Rather than vertically diminishing the stockpiles of existing weapons, Blair stresses horizontal "de-alerting". This means disabling rockets and warheads, by removing nose cones or inserting pins, while using Stone Age techniques such as piling boulders over the silo lids. These "virtual arsenals" would make a hair-trigger catastrophe unlikely, while teams of construction workers and engineers would buy diplomatic time, in the event that use of a bomb became imperative for national survival. Virtual arsenals would gradually slip into desuetude, although one wonders about that last, carefully secreted, live bomb.

Schell's gallery of politicians is disappointing. They are mostly American or Russian, for the focus is almost exclusively bi-polar, despite admiring references to the nations of Africa, Latin America and the Pacific, who inhabit nuclear-free zones. Gorbachev is an intriguing figure, but it would have been more interesting to know why General Lebed is so opposed to nuclear weapons, as he might be Russia's next president. Why was there no attempt to interview Jacques Chirac, whose recent tests in the Pacific did so much to promote global sales of French produce? There are no interviews with serving Chinese, Indian, Israeli or Pakistani politicians, not to speak of Iranians or Iraqis.

Schell's achievement is to explain complex issues in lay terms, contributing to an on-going debate, although his proposals are unconvincing. Obligatory whistle-blowing might work in Sweden but the fate of such persons and their families in Iraq or Iran is not difficult to envisage. International inspection regimes require massive commitment, in the Iraqi case, over a seven-year period against a regime which does not care about sanctions harming its people. The problem lies less in the deviousness of the inspected, who can also play upon nationalist resentments, than in the will to enforce compliance. This means American preparedness to fight anywhere in the world.

The idea that the US should be prepared to invade and occupy any piratical country venturing nuclear breakout is unlikely to appeal to the elected representatives of a nation whose soldiers were savagely slaughtered bringing hope to an imploded Somalia. Moreover, there is a public dimension to this, which goes beyond activists in the peace movement. Massive conventional retaliation against violators of a nuclear-free world sounds straightforward, but how long would it take before a relentless diet of horror from the BBC or CNN turned the public off B52s pulverising Baghdad or Tikrit? The usual, congenitally anti-American chorus, Left or Right, would be on its feet before the first bomb landed. But these are random observations on a book whose good intentions are not in doubt. Better to think than not think at all about consigning the bomb, if not to museums, then to oblivion.