Weapons of Mass Deception
May 1, 2002
Repeated enough times, words have the power to replace the real world with illusion. They did so in Vietnam, where phrases like “the domino theory” turned a local civil war into a global confrontation between the U.S. and “godless communism.” Some three million Indo Chinese and 55,000 young Americans died in places like Cu Chi, An Loc, and Pleiku because the vocabulary of the Cold War hid the enmity, confusion, or cynicism of the men who planned that terrible war.
Words that kill are back in style. The Bush Administration, with its lexicon of “evil axis,” and the “war on terrorism” has resurrected the same simplistic locutions that turn complex grays into hard-edged blacks and whites. But of all these words, the three most dangerous just might be “Weapons of Mass Destruction”(WMD).
Behind those letters, the Administration has conjured up a myth that there is no difference between biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Hence, a rumor of chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, Syria or Iran justifies not only invasion but also the possible use of nuclear weapons. Paul Robinson, the director of the Sandia nuclear weapons lab, is openly pushing for the use of so-called “mini-nukes” in a conventional war, in spite of the fact that Congress banned such weapons in 1995 as blurring “the distinction between nuclear and conventional war.”
The White House’s Nuclear Posture Review talks openly about using nuclear weapons on non-nuclear powers, including Iran, Iraq, Syria, and North Korea, and U.S. Rep. Steven Buyer (R-In) wants to use nukes in Afghanistan “to send a message to the world.”
But there is a difference between these three types weapons, and if Americans don’t begin to understand that, we may end up breaching the nuclear firewall that has held since the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Keep in mind that virtually any weapon is capable of “mass destruction.” Rifles have slain far more people than any other weapon on earth, and the U.S. killed 100,000 Tokyo residents in 1945 using nothing more than incendiary bombs. Yet no one is suggesting we should invade countries because they have rifles and fire bombs.
So first, a few facts about non-nuclear WMD.
Chemical weapons are indisputably nasty, but they have never been weapons of mass destruction. Three years of gas warfare during World War I killed 100,000, some 30,000 fewer than the single fission bomb that flattened Hiroshima in a millisecond. Gas is certainly a terrifying weapon, but it is too hard to deliver to make it capable of killing large numbers of people. WWI generals considered it more an annoyance than a really dangerous weapon.
Biological weapons are the scariest of all, and probably the least effective at doing much but inducing panic. For all the uproar over the anthrax attack, it killed five people. Again, biological weapons are simply too difficult to deliver. If Saddam Hussein manages to send a fleet of anthrax-armed bombers over New York City, that might be a problem. But the scenario is silly because he doesn’t have a fleet of bombers, and could never get them to New York even if he did. Plus the stuff that killed the five Americans was made right here in the U.S., so he would probably have to borrow some from the Department of Defense.
The bio-weapon most talked about is smallpox, but smallpox is not as contagious as people think, nor as deadly–about 30% of those infected die– and would be almost impossible to spread widely. Epidemiologists refer to it as a “household” disease, because you need close and prolonged contact with the virus to catch it.
Nuclear weapons are another matter.
One millionth of a second after ignition, the Hiroshima fireball reached 18 million degrees Fahrenheit. Some 68% of the city was evaporated or damaged beyond repair, including buildings designed to absorb an 8.5 earthquake. It charred trees five miles from ground zero, and shattered windows 17 miles away. And the Hiroshima bomb—a mere 13 kilotons—is tiny by today’s standards. The average nuclear warhead these days is 250 kilotons. A one-megaton blast—everyone has lots of these— would turn you into charcoal eight miles from ground zero, and spread radiation for hundreds of miles. And there are warheads out there packing a 10-megaton punch. You don’t want to ask what that size blast does.
The Bush Administration talks about nuclear weapons as if they are equivalent to bad bugs and dangerous chemicals. But as fearful as chemical and bio-warfare is, the major threat to the planet is nuclear weapons, and any policy that breaks the nuclear taboo, or re-ignites a new round of testing and development, puts humanity at risk.
Memories of Hiroshima grow dim, and the ceaseless drumbeat about chemical weapons and bio-warfare drown out the realities of those appalling weapons that obliterated two cities 57 years ago. We forget at grave peril to us all.