The Word

Books | Nuclear reacting

Books | Nuclear reacting

Posting in Cities

A review of Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons, by Ward Wilson.

The top Google search result for Ward Wilson, author of Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22, January 15), links to a funeral home in Alabama. It's a cruel cyberspace cackle.

Wilson is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, part of the graduate school for international studies at Middlebury College. Crystalline in thought and prose, in a world of lethal missiles, he remains optimistic about our collective fate.

"[Nuclear weapons] are tools, and like any other tool, they are controlled by us," Wilson writes. "It seems particular to have to say it, but the weapons themselves lack volition."

He argues that the scariest part of our nuclear era isn't the capacity for global devastation: it's psychological. This same immobilizing fear causes some to build bomb shelters and prevents others from having children. Even a daisy can signify cataclysm.

"Some of the most important work we face regarding nuclear weapons is emotional," Wilson writes.

I'm a nonproliferation newbie. Whenever an anchor mentions "warheads," "Iran" or "warheads obtained by Iran," I change the channel. I've cocooned myself in a blur of infotainment and paper cuts (I subscribe to 13 magazines). Growing up, "nuke" was slang for "microwave." Thus Five Myths was my stand-in for The Complete Idiot's Guide to Nuclear Weapons.

Wilson's compact text molded me into a better-informed citizen on a labyrinthine subject. Nine countries have nuclear weapons. Nine! We know exactly how many? Was it so long ago that we declared war over a burrowing bad guy's invisible WMD stash?

Maybe my cocoon was too twined. I didn't even know that there were "proponents" of nuclear weapons. I thought there were a dozen cranky Dr. Evils out to ruin Earth for the rest of us. The only people I ever heard say "nuke 'em" were man-boys who I assumed were either joking or quoting video games.

Wrong!

Many Americans support nuclear weapons for our national defense and superpower status. Among this group are power plant employees, scientists, politicians, sociologists, soldiers, scholars and perhaps your parents. Sure, I was ignorant. The feeling of seeing this fact in writing could be likened to the jolt a pro-choice feminist experienced the first time she saw her ilk described as "pro-abortion."

Wilson dispels four myths, plus one resulting from The Telephone Game of those previous misnomers. The myths are organized around four themes - the shock, the leap, the crisis, and the peace - and every paragraph seems to begin with, "...for these three reasons."

Basically, there are lots of numbers, and the author could have benefitted from bullet points, charts or lists.

In Myth No. 1, the Wilson provides compelling evidence that Japan's WWII surrender in August 1945 was caused by the Soviet Union's entry into the war, not the bombs America dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki earlier that week.

This chapter clarifies generations of oversights. For example, in May of that year, Tokyo was actually the source of "the single highest death toll of any bombing attack on any city;" we killed more people that time than with atomic bombs.

Measuring a nuclear weapon's potential wreckage is baffling. "A one-megaton bomb is 66.7 times bigger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which might lead you to expect it would be 66.7 times more destructive," Wilson writes. In truth, the radius is 5.5 times greater.

A sentence I never thought I'd read in a book about nuclear weapons: "Pessimism is unnecessary." Five Myths is a tire swing lurching you back-and-forth from euphoric relief to trembling white knuckles. "The fact is that the essential conversation, the one that will make a difference, is a conversation we have not yet had...we have never examined...the usefulness of nuclear weapons."

Which is Wilson's plea: commence with the valid discussions. He even tells world leaders progress they can initiate today.

The one vulgar aberration (which may be corrected by the book's publication date) is the first line on the back jacket: "An explosive re-thinking of the power and purpose of nuclear weapons..." I doubt Wilson wrote this, but still, save "explosive" for a Michael Bay trailer. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in Japan during WWII, leaving blood on American hands (and the dubious distinction - as the only nation to employ such weapons - on our conscience).

Wilson closes with an excerpt from President Kennedy's 1963 commencement address at American University. "Our problems are man-made - therefore, they can be solved by man," Kennedy said.

To which Wilson adds an astounding coda. "Kennedy, of course, was expressing optimism about a much harder problem than the issue of nuclear weapons. He was talking about world peace. Taking concrete steps toward a world without war is far more formidable than coming up with sensible policies for nuclear weapons."

Share this

Jenna Marotta

Columnist (Books)

Jenna Marotta is a party reporter for New York magazine and has written for their five blogs plus The Daily Beast, The A.V. Club, Jezebel, Nerve, Time Out New York, Time Out Chicago, and Chicago magazine. She is the books editor at SmartPlanet. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure