Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, media coverage of the war hasn’t included even the slightest mention of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Yet the war has boosted the chances that ICBMs will set off a global holocaust. Four hundred of them – always on hair-trigger alert – are fully armed with nuclear warheads in underground silos scattered across Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming, while Russia deploys about 300 of its own. Former Defense Secretary William Perry has called ICBMs "some of the most dangerous weapons in the world," warning that "they could even trigger an accidental nuclear war."
Now, with sky-high tensions between the world’s two nuclear superpowers, the chances of ICBMs starting a nuclear conflagration have increased as American and Russian forces face off in close proximity. Mistaking a false alarm for a nuclear-missile attack becomes more likely amid the stresses, fatigue and paranoia that come with protracted warfare and maneuvers.
Because they’re uniquely vulnerable as land-based strategic weapons – with the military precept of "use them or lose them" – ICBMs are set to launch on warning. So, as Perry explained, "If our sensors indicate that enemy missiles are en route to the United States, the president would have to consider launching ICBMs before the enemy missiles could destroy them. Once they are launched, they cannot be recalled. The president would have less than 30 minutes to make that terrible decision."
But rather than openly discuss – and help to reduce – such dangers, U.S. mass media and officials downplay or deny them with silence. The best scientific research tells us that a nuclear war would result in "nuclear winter," causing the deaths of about 99 percent of the planet’s human population. While the Ukraine war is heightening the odds that such an unfathomable catastrophe will occur, laptop warriors and mainstream pundits keep voicing enthusiasm for continuing the war indefinitely, with a blank check for US weapons and other shipments to Ukraine that have already topped $110 billion.
Meanwhile, any message in favor of moving toward real diplomacy and de-escalation to end the horrendous conflict in Ukraine is apt to be attacked as capitulation, while realities of nuclear war and its consequences are papered over with denial. It was, at most, a one-day news story last month when – calling this "a time of unprecedented danger" and "the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been" – the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that its "Doomsday Clock" had moved even closer to apocalyptic Midnight – just 90 seconds away, compared to five minutes a decade ago.
A vital way to reduce the chances of nuclear annihilation would be for the United States to dismantle its entire ICBM force. Former ICBM launch officer Bruce G. Blair and Gen. James E. Cartwright, a former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote: "By scrapping the vulnerable land-based missile force, any need for launching on warning disappears." Objections to the United States shutting down ICBMs on its own (whether or not reciprocated by Russia or China) are akin to insisting that someone standing knee-deep in a pool of gasoline must not unilaterally stop lighting matches.
What is at stake? In an interview after publication of his landmark 2017 book "The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner," Daniel Ellsberg explained that nuclear war "would loft into the stratosphere many millions of tons of soot and black smoke from the burning cities. It wouldn’t be rained out in the stratosphere. It would go around the globe very quickly and reduce sunlight by as much as 70 percent, causing temperatures like that of the Little Ice Age, killing harvests worldwide and starving to death nearly everyone on Earth. It probably wouldn’t cause extinction. We’re so adaptable. Maybe 1 percent of our current population of 7.4 billion could survive, but 98 or 99 percent would not."
However, to Ukraine war enthusiasts proliferating in US media, such talk is notably unhelpful, if not perniciously helpful to Russia. They have no use for, and seem to prefer silence from, experts who can explain "how a nuclear war would kill you and almost everyone else." The frequent insinuation is that calls for reducing the chances of nuclear war, while pursuing vigorous diplomacy to end the Ukraine war, are coming from wimps and scaredy-cats who serve Vladimir Putin’s interests.
One corporate-media favorite, Timothy Snyder, churns out bellicose bravado under the guise of solidarity with the Ukrainian people, issuing declarations such as his recent claim that "the most important thing to say about nuclear war" is that "it’s not happening." Which just goes to show that a prominent Ivy League historian can be as dangerously blinkered as anyone else.
Cheering and bankrolling war from afar is easy enough – in the apt words of Andrew Bacevich, "our treasure, someone else’s blood." We can feel righteous about providing rhetorical and tangible support for the killing and dying.
Writing in the New York Times on Sunday, liberal columnist Nicholas Kristof called for NATO to further escalate the Ukraine war. Although he noted the existence of "legitimate concerns that if Putin is backed into a corner, he could lash out at NATO territory or use tactical nuclear weapons," Kristof quickly added reassurance: "But most analysts think it is unlikely that Putin would use tactical nuclear weapons."
Get it? "Most" analysts think it’s "unlikely" – so go ahead and roll the dice. Don’t be too concerned about pushing the planet into nuclear war. Don’t be one of the nervous nellies just because escalating warfare will increase the chances of a nuclear conflagration.
To be clear: There is no valid excuse for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its horrific ongoing war on that country. At the same time, continually pouring in vast quantities of higher and higher tech weaponry qualifies as what Martin Luther King Jr. called "the madness of militarism." During his Nobel Peace Prize speech, King declared: "I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction."
In the coming days, reaching a crescendo Friday on the first anniversary of the Ukraine invasion, media assessments of the war will intensify. Upcoming protests and other actions in dozens of US cities – many calling for genuine diplomacy to "stop the killing" and "avert nuclear war" – are unlikely to get much ink, pixels or airtime. But without real diplomacy, the future offers ongoing slaughter and escalating risks of nuclear annihilation.
Norman Solomon is the national director of RootsAction.org and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His next book, War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine, will be published in June 2023 by The New Press.