What It Means if the Button Is Pushed

Following in the footsteps of U.S. neocons, some Israeli policymakers seem to think the country could survive an Iranian nuclear attack. But what would really happen if a 20-kiloton bomb was dropped on Jaffa Port?

He suggested feeding the elderly with food contaminated by radiation, since in any case most of them would die from other causes long before they developed cancer. In discussing the connection between nuclear fallout and an increase in serious birth defects, he wrote that in four percent of infants born in the United States have genetic defects anyway. "It might well turn out," he wrote, "that U.S. decision makers would be willing, among other things, to accept the high risk of an additional one percent of our children being born deformed if that meant not giving up Europe to Soviet Russia."

"War is a terrible thing; but so is peace," he concluded.

This was the opinion of Herman Kahn, as expressed in "On Thermonuclear War," which generated tremendous controversy when it was published in the U.S. in 1961. Kahn is undoubtedly one of the most colorful, fascinating Cold War figures as well as one of the most important and influential. He was the main source of inspiration for the character of Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick's well-known eponymous 1964 film.

The main thesis of Kahn's book is that a nuclear war is winnable. Even if hundreds of millions were killed and even if "only" a few large cities were erased, Kahn claimed, life would continue, just as it did after the Black Plague in Europe in the 14th century, or in Japan after the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Kahn wrote that, in contrast to conventional wisdom, objective studies demonstrated that although human suffering would greatly increase after a nuclear war, it would not prevent most of the survivors and their descendants from having normal, happy lives. Kahn claimed that deterrence could only work if the U.S. believed it was possible to survive a nuclear war - it is meaningless to declare your willingness to exchange nuclear attacks if you are unwilling to accept the results, he said. If your enemy believes that you are unwilling to endure the deaths of 20 million of your citizens, it will expose the deception and understand that your deterrence is not credible.

Immediately after the publication of his book, Kahn became the avowed enemy of opponents of nuclear weapons. He claimed that he was only attempting to ensure the highest possible level of survival after a nuclear war through the use of his models, but many of his colleagues argued that if his theories were to guide U.S. policy, it would only increase the likelihood of nuclear war.

In 1962, about a year after "On Thermonuclear War" was issued, Kahn published "Thinking About the Unthinkable," in which he argued that since nuclear war is possible, it is a legitimate subject for discussion. The problem was that Kahn's discussion lacked not only the moral element, but were disconnected from reality itself. The reason why the scenarios he described are so absurd is that they totally ignore all the elements of human behavior and thinking in the name of which people go to war, and according to which wars are waged: beliefs, ideologies, customs and norms. Through his writing, Kahn enabled policymakers to ignore the ethical aspects of the nuclear dilemma by adhering to rational models in which human beings become machines, and human life becomes statistical data.

Kahn relied heavily on the game theory developed in 1944 by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. It became the central component of the strategic thinking of the RAND Corporation, where Kahn worked. However, the prisoner's dilemma and the zero-sum game, both basic models of game theory, cannot take into account the enemy's ethics as a component of its decisions. It appears that the most damaging effect of RAND's game theory was the introduction of a paranoid bias into the model of the enemy's way of thinking. The institution's scholars formulated a computerized model of Soviet military thinking that purported to predict the behavior of the U.S.S.R. leadership. Needless to say it was a failure in most cases.

McNamara's dissent

Robert McNamara, John F. Kennedy's secretary of defense, who entered the Pentagon around the time that "On Thermonuclear War" was published, embraced Kahn's theories at first. But the more he studied the nuclear issue the more he concluded that Kahn's approach was fundamentally mistaken. McNamara grew to believe that it was impossible to win a nuclear war, and that a nuclear confrontation would inevitably lead to the annihilation of both great powers and, almost certainly, all modern civilization.

McNamara rejected Kahn's assertion, which Kennedy had also adopted enthusiastically at the start of his term, that atomic bomb shelters should be constructed for the entire population. Kahn wrote that if the U.S. had more atomic shelters than the Soviets, it was like having more missiles, advocating a huge investment in shelters. In the end, McNamara's view was accepted, and strategic stability during the Cold War was based neither on scenarios predicting victory in a nuclear war nor on nuclear war games, but on the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).

Kahn's views have been resuscitated in the nuclear policy of the administration of President George W. Bush. Bush's neocon security advisers have revived scenarios of a nuclear war that the U.S. would win. Kahn's spirit, like that of Dr. Strangelove, once again hovers above the halls of the Pentagon.

And what does Herman Kahn have to do with us in Israel? Quite a lot, it turns out. Apparently in Israel too, some of those involved in formulating policy in the face of the anticipated Iranian nuclear threat are convinced, like Kahn, that a nuclear war can be won, a nuclear strike is survivable, and an active and optimistic society can be rebuilt. Such claims are generally based on game theory and war games that would result in a severe blow to the Israeli population, but one that we could live with.

Blast over Jaffa

Anyone wishing to adopt these optimistic scenarios should look at the estimates of the damage that a nuclear strike in the heart of Greater Tel Aviv would wreak. Our calculations refer to a nuclear explosion above Jaffa Port. They are based on a study by U.S. nuclear scientists, who used data collected during nuclear testing in the U.S., and can be viewed at: www.fas.org/main/

An analysis of the effect of a nuclear explosion must take into consideration three consequences, each of which has an effect within a certain radius from ground zero: 1. Heat and fires. In the area of the explosion the temperature reaches millions of degrees, as on the face of the sun, and everything in this area will be burned. Anyone who does not simply evaporate from the heat will sustain serious burns. Flammable materials will ignite.

2. Aftershock and destruction. Most homes will be completely destroyed by aftershocks and stronger commercial buildings will be badly damaged. 3. Heavy casualties. Burns and flying debris will cause deaths and injuries. The number of people injured will be at least double the number killed. Existing first-aid facilities will be inadequate to the extent of the casualties.

The fatality estimates are based on figures prepared by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, for the U.S. Senate. They posit nuclear strikes on Detroit, Michigan, and on Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Assuming that each city has a population of about 4.5 million, a hydrogen bomb would kill approximately 2.5 million. Before analyzing the effect of a nuclear explosion in the Tel Aviv area, the results of the two incidents in which nuclear bombs of about 20 kiloton were dropped should be recalled. In Hiroshima, 140,000 people out of a total population of 265,000 were killed. In Nagasaki, with a population of 240,000, the bomb killed 80,000 people.

And these are the hair-raising calculations: A 20-kiloton bomb (like those dropped on Japan, which are today considered very small) exploding over the Jaffa port would cause heat and fires in the area encompassing Petah Tikva, Lod and Holon. The aftershock and destruction would affect the area including Tel Baruch, Beit Dagan and Palmahim. Heavy casualties would be sustained as far as Ra'anana in the north and Rishon Letzion to the south. In all, out of a population of about 1.5 million, 250,000 would be killed. The number of injured, most of them seriously, would reach half a million.

A 100-kiloton bomb would cause heat and fires up to Ra'anana, Modi'in and Yavne, aftershock and destruction would reach Netanya, Ariel and Ashdod, and there would be heavy casualties as far as Ramle and Ashkelon. Out of 2.5 million residents, about 500,000 would be killed by the nuclear explosion and 1 million would be injured.

A hydrogen bomb exploding over Jaffa would cause heat and fires in a region as widespread as Hadera, Jerusalem and Ashkelon, aftershock and destruction to a range of Kfar Sava, Elkana and Rehovot and heavy casualties as far as Herzliya and Modi'in. Out of 3.2 million residents in this area, 700,000 would be killed immediately. About 1.5 million more would be injured.

It should be noted that these calculations are based on a strike by only a single bomb. It is easy to guess what would happen here if several nuclear bombs were dropped. To the effects mentioned above should be added radioactive dust, the effects of which could not only double and triple the number of fatalities, but also render the affected areas uninhabitable for years. The affected areas would be covered with radioactive dust that would be carried thousands of kilometers by winds. Anyone exposed to these radioactive particles will be harmed in various and strange ways and could die an agonizing death.

What should concern us when discussing Iran's potential nuclearization is a mistaken decision-making process, leading to the adoption of an erroneous policy vis-a-vis Iran. Unfortunately, in too many cases in recent years, when it comes to national security issues, the decision-making system and the decision-makers have been exposed as flawed. Evidence of that is the process that led to the decision to embark on the Second Lebanon War.

In late 1966, when Levi Eshkol was prime minister, the implications of activity at the nuclear reactor in Dimona on long-term relations with Egypt was discussed. Participating in the discussions were officials from the Mossad, the Foreign Ministry and Military Intelligence; MKs such as Yizhar Harari, Yaakov Riftin and Natan Feld; professors with no connection to the defense establishment, such as Shlomo Eisenstadt, and even journalists such as Shmuel Schnitzer. It was a varied think tank that was not tainted by the "thinking together" that today characterizes the defense establishment. It may be that now, as then, we have to think outside the box.

Yitzhak Yaakov is a retired brigadier general. He was the head of research and development in the Israel Defense Forces.