Bunker Mentality

A nuclear holocaust? The collapse of civilization? People may prefer not to think about the unthinkable, but here and abroad, private individuals and government officials are preparing for a catastrophe.

Human civilization has collapsed. The planet has become a junkyard of mute buildings and motionless cars, with billions of bodies scattered between them. The screens of televisions and computers, of the stock exchange and arrivals/departures board at the airport - all are black. But not everyone is dead. A few people who took refuge in an underground shelter discover that they are alone in the world, like Noah and his family after the Flood. What do they do now?

Atomic explosion Getty Images/Time Life Pictures
Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

A manual published on the Web, "Rebuilding Civilization from Scratch," provides a clear-cut answer: "Even if you have a fairly small group of people (say, less than 10 ), you may need a form of official government," it says.

The authors, a group of American experts in survival, recommend the most suitable form of government for the new society that will arise from the ashes. "The 'leader' doesn't have to have dictatorial powers," they write, adding, though "leadership is absolutely essential for survival shortterm and longterm, and without it there won't be any rebuilding of civilization as much as there will be [going] back to scratch ... Indeed more importantly the system you begin now may stand for the next hundred years, think of your responsibility to the future and the precedence [sic] you set for it."

The authors also point out that existing political systems, such as democracy and dictatorship, landed humanity in its present plight, so it's worth trying alternatives. This is far from the only guidebook of its kind. Decades of life in the specter of nuclear terror have made Americans obsessive about "post-catastrophe" life. Every year brings with it a rash of new publications describing how to survive, stay warm, manage a household, and even how to cook a gourmet meal in what remains of the world after its collapse. For example, a book of recipes for a world in which there is no crude oil suggests that this prospect need not be so frightening and advises readers how to make do.

Blueprints for restoring civilization after a disaster are also published by official bodies. In October 1988, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency issued an extensive report entitled "Recovery from Nuclear War."

"There is no doubt whatsoever that if a large-scale nuclear exchange should ever occur, the result would be a massive disaster for the societies involved," it states. However, it adds, "This is not the same as saying that recovery would be 'impossible.' In years of research, no insuperable barrier to recovery has been found."

The report notes that the nation's elected leadership and emergency services can continue to function effectively, if nuclear bomb-proof facilities have been constructed. The authors add that the grain reserves stored in the Midwest might be sufficient to feed the surviving population, even if one result of a nuclear blast is months of cold weather. According to their calculations at the time, even if the Soviets were to fire all of their nuclear warheads at the United States, they would not have been able to destroy all the country's population centers and strategic sites. Not only will the American population survive, the report predicts, there is good reason to think that the American nation will also recover well.

First will come the flash. Those who understand what's happening will rush to find shelter. Then there will be a tremendous thunder-like crashing noise and a shock wave. Within minutes, a firestorm will rage and consume every existing structure. Poisonous radiation will spread in all directions, with radioactive fallout contaminating the soil and water. As the fires burn out, an eerie quiet will descend. According to studies, the smoke emanating from these vast fires will block out the sun and cause a lengthy period of dark and cold: a "nuclear winter."

Yes, it will be the end of civilization in its present form. But contrary to the gloomy predictions, the insects and germs will not inherit the planet - at least not right away. After a few days or weeks, the survivors will start to emerge. They will look for one another, search for food and together plan the post-world world.

Last year, Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, stated that "an Iranian bomb can wipe Israel off the map in a matter of seconds." Others are less pessimistic.

"People tend to be fatalistic about a nuclear attack. They say, 'There's no way to cope with a nuclear bomb.' But that's not true," says Oren Skurnik, who sells private nuclear shelters in Israel. "It's perfectly clear that if an event like that occurs in a built-up area, many people will be hurt. But that is not necessarily true for less populated areas. It doesn't mean a state won't remain - that those people who remain will not be able to survive. People think it's a matter of a doomsday scenario, but that's not necessarily the case."

The local nuclear-shelter market is still in its infancy and is considered the privilege of the rich or obsessed.

"A nuclear strike is a situation that invites plenty of repression," Skurnik explains. "Normal people don't get up in the morning and start thinking about such things. It's a subject that is naturally not very pleasant to consider."

Most of Skurnik's business involves selling ventilation and filtering systems for use in the event of biological and chemical warfare, under the trade name "Noah's Ark." Requests for full-scale nuclear shelters are relatively rare - only a handful a month.

What turns a protected space into a nuclear shelter?

Skurnik: "To begin with, a nuclear shelter has to be underground, with metal parts that can withstand high levels of shock waves. In addition, the planning of a nuclear shelter has to take into account a long stay of a week at least. That requires water and sewerage infrastructures, storage space, support systems. So when you sit with someone and plan a nuclear shelter, it starts with questions like: What type of kitchen would you like? What food will you have? How big a bed will you have? What size is the generator and what fuel reserves will there be? There are elements here that have to sustain people who will be cut off for a relatively long time [from life outside]. A basic shelter like this costs about NIS 100,000. People think it is a luxury reserved for the very rich, but not everyone who contacts me is wealthy. It's a personal thing. Some people are really scared."

In 2002, the Israeli National Security Council, a unit in the Prime Minister's Office, announced the construction of a protected space, described as "a national center for crisis management." The underground site, built inside a hill on the outskirts of the capital, and apparently intended to be linked by tunnel to the Kirya, the government compound in central Jerusalem, is meant to allow the government to continue functioning during chemical, biological or nuclear attacks. The facility's estimated cost is hundreds of millions of shekels, and its maintenance is the responsibility of the committee for security facilities (part of the Interior Ministry) and of the Defense Ministry. The tunnel contains conference rooms, offices and halls, along with computerized control systems that can relay information on events above-ground.

When work on the huge shelter began, environmental groups protested that the construction of "the prime minister's escape tunnel" was wreaking destruction in what is called the Valley of the Cedars, one of the few green lungs left in the Jerusalem area. Others were critical of the idea that the country's leaders would save themselves during a disaster by means of an underground shelter.

"The bunker is a project that is shrouded in great mystery, but on the other hand it's an open secret, because a great many Jerusalem residents are familiar with it and know where it is," says Dr. Oded Lowenheim, a lecturer in the international relations department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who has researched bunkers in Israel.

"It is meant to hold a few hundred people from all kinds of agencies who are supposed to oversee life during a situation of collapse," he says. "It's intended for a variety of situations, from the firing of Qassam rockets and Katyushas to the most extreme scenario. I think many of those who are meant to be in the bunker don't even know it."

Let's say the government survives - what then?

Lowenheim: "I ask that, too. I am not sure that rational thought preceded the construction of this structure. It sounds more like it's being built simply because, in the planners' minds, every country needs such a bunker. It seems to me that what underlies the project in part is a psychological need to feel protected even in the case of nuclear war, which from Israel's point of view will amount to an absolute holocaust. The bunker reflects the state's inability to recognize that there are situations in which it will no longer exist. That feeling underlies the construction of a structure like this, just as the pharaohs built themselves pyramids and other burial edifices: They thought they [the structures] would ensure their future in the next world, or maybe they could not come to terms with the idea that there is no life after death. After all, those in the bunker will have nothing 'to command and control' after a nuclear holocaust in Israel. Hence it is a response to a psychological need."

Still, Lowenheim notes, there is a rationale involved. "On the face of it, the bunker serves as a deterrent: If the enemy knows that our leadership has a place to hide in the event of a nuclear attack and will be able to order a counterstrike - that reinforces what's known as 'second-strike capability.' It is a concept of deterrence that emerged when the Americans and Soviets were involved in the Cold War, but no one is promising that the same logic will work with us and our enemies."

For its part, at the end of the 1950s, the U.S. government started building a secret facility to house members of Congress and other leaders, so that the institutions of government would continue to function during a nuclear holocaust. That bunker, dubbed "Project Greek Island," was built at the Greenbrier - a West Virginia hotel. It remained secret until exposed in 1992 by The Washington Post. The government then decommissioned the project and it is now a tourist site.

"The Americans wanted to ensure that some sort of core of leadership will remain, to manage things afterward," says Dr. Avner Cohen, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and author of the forthcoming "The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb."

Cohen: "The effects of nuclear weapons have been known since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. From the advent of the nuclear era, tools existed to calculate accurately the effects of a nuclear bomb in terms of shock waves, fires and fallout. But there was far less understanding of the long-term consequences - social, medical, governmental - in other words, what would actually happen to a country that suffered a nuclear strike. The subject was almost taboo in the West, including in the United States, for deep psychological reasons. It's not easy to think about the unthinkable. It's hard to grasp such a massive collapse of systems, in a situation involving not one bomb, but dozens or hundreds of nuclear strikes by both sides, which was the scenario in the Cold War. It's difficult to see how a country could recover from that situation. The whole idea of deterrence, which was intended to prevent a nuclear war, was based on the assumption that both sides are highly vulnerable and would sustain tens of millions of victims; that both countries - the United States and the Soviet Union - would lose their governmental structure and enter a post-apocalyptic era."

As the threat of a nuclear or ecological apocalypse becomes more concrete, it also stretches the imaginations of fiction writers. The most striking recent example of this is Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel "The Road" - one of the most astonishing such works in the past decade. It describes a father and his son walking toward the hot southern reaches of a country that has been reduced to ashes in a nuclear holocaust. In McCarthy's bleak vision, the majority of the survivors have fallen into cannibalism and unrestrained brutality.

Even before "The Road," numberless books, films and computer games conjured up a post-apocalyptic world. A recurrent image is that of refugees wandering stupefied amid the remains of the Statue of Liberty or the White House, scrounging for food and other basic needs between the blasted monuments of a devastated civilization.

The 1977 science-fiction work "Lucifer's Hammer," by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, describes a Darwinist society of a few hardened people who have survived a global disaster. Here the cause of the destruction is a meteor that strikes Earth and triggers earthquakes, tsunamis, fires and finally a flood of biblical proportions. A group of survivors, led by a senator, an astronaut and a postman, entrench themselves in a ranch near Los Angeles and establish new rules. They need manual workers, technicians and physicians, but ruthlessly chase off lawyers, who are useless in the new world. The society within the fortress is almost utopian as compared with the anarchy outside: gangs of murderous soldiers who eat people to stay alive. Cannibalism is a recurring motif in the world after the apocalypse.

One of the most influential post-apocalyptic works written since World War II is Walter Miller's 1959 novel "A Canticle for Leibowitz" (also published in Hebrew translation ). The plot is set in the period after a "flame deluge" - a worldwide nuclear catastrophe. Life afterward is depicted in terms of a new medieval age: The survivors angrily rebuff science and the sophisticated culture that brought about the global annihilation. As in medieval Europe, the treasures of human knowledge are kept in a monastery run by a Catholic order named for a beatified electrical engineer, Isaac Edward Leibowitz. Leibowitz was a Jew who survived the nuclear attack, and decided in its wake to convert to Christianity and establish an order dedicated to saving human knowledge.

The future described in the feminist novel "Woman on the Edge of Time," by Marge Piercy (1976 ), is one in which women have overcome male dominance, racism, environmental destruction and consumerism. The only ills remaining from the past are the death penalty and wars.

In Bernard Malamud's 1982 novel "God's Grace," the last person on earth is a Jew named Calvin Cohn, who survived because at the time of the catastrophic event, he was in a research vessel on the ocean floor. Because no other humans remain, he mates with a chimpanzee and establishes a republic of educated chimps who on his instructions mark Yom Kippur, hold the Passover seder and recite the mourner's kaddish. At an assembly of the chimpanzees, Cohn reads out seven "Admonitions." The last is: "Chimpanzees may someday be better living beings than men were. There's no hurry but keep it in mind."