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REVIEW: Thinking About the Next War

Jon Spencer (reviewer) — May 1984

Thomas Powers. 1982, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. A Mentor Book, $~.50.

One of the most interesting things about being a newspaper editor is receiving usolicited submissions. Most of the unsolicited articles we receive for The Peace Calendar are easy to deal with news stories, for example, where one expects a clearly-written report, with attention to accuracy and a basic understanding of the context in which the facts are presented.

However, many of the submissions received by yer average editor are opinion articles which fail to address a specific issue. Editors generally don’t know what to make of these long, rambling ‘masterpieces’ in which the author outlines his or her position on every issue under the sun, but seems to have nothing ‘special’ to say.

When I read Thomas Powers’ books or magazine articles, I am always reminded of this ‘position paper’ style. I enjoy his writings, but I am always amazed that they were accepted for publication. Not because he is a bad writer, which is far from the case, but because I keep asking myself “Why are his observations more worthy of publication than anybody else’s?”

But that is always a temporary impression. When I stop to look back over what I’ve read, I find that Powers has communicated a great deal of hard information along with his observations, speculations and anecdotes. Nevertheless, it is not for “the facts” that one would read Thinking About the Next War. It is for Powers’ thought-provoking perspective on the most important issue of our time.

Thinking About the Next War is a very, aptly-titled book. That’s basically what Powers does — think about it. The book is not an attempt to grapple with some specialised area of the nuclear issue; it is a general explanation of why. Powers feels that disarmament is so important

General discussion

Originally published as a series of essays in Commonweal between 1976 and 1982, the chapters touch on many of the issues related to the nuclear arms race, but avoid focussing on a specific point. The result is a stream of seemingly random observations and impressions, whose organisational structure is evident only when one looks hard at what one is reading.

The book is a fascinating collection of opinions, together forming a general discussion of the situation in which the world has found itself since the dawn of the nuclear age. It is not an optimistic view.

“Imagine for a moment that a nuclear war has taken place. Don’t concern yourself with the details of when, or where, or between whom. There are plenty of possibililies. You have survived, as so many survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You have time to reflect, whatever may still be waiting in the wings. Ask yourself: did anything, in the years after 1945, ever suggest a different outcome?”

Powers firmly believes that there will be a nuclear war, and he is bewildered by the military-minded folks who, although very knowledgeable, believe that war can be indefinitely deterred by enormous nuclear arsenals. At one point, he recalls a discussion between himself and a young physicist who holds this view.

“He found such a war unthinkable, his imaginat ion could not carry him beyond the outbreak of hostilities. ‘My mind just stops there,’ he said. His sludy of the subject had convinced him that it just can’t happen. Not in the sense that, objects can’t fall up, spring can’t follow summer, two and two can’t equal five, a man can’t breathe underwater.

To summarise Powers’ book in a review would be impossible. It addresses dozens of issues, including, for example; the technological improvements in missile guidance systems, which permitted (and forced) the US military to change the targets of their missiles from population centres to military installations. It discusses, but does not resolve, the question of what parcnts should tell their children about nuclear war.

Collective denial

Perhaps the most prevalent theme of the book is individual and collective denial of the seriousness of the nuclear issue.

“Ordinary citizens often entertain foreboding of the darkest sort. In a quite matter-of-fact way they will say, ‘What else were they built for?’ Defense community people say that their confidence is sunny and unshakable. If we just stick to our guns and make sure we’ve got a weapon for every weapon they’ve got, then there’s nothing to worry about. There is a soothing quality to these reassurances, as if we were being told that airplanes really do work, and it’s safe to fly.”

There are many opinions in this book with which I disagree. I could list them, hut that would be beside the point. The point is not whether Powers is continually correct, or whether he has avoided, mentioning some factor in one of his arguments. The important fact is that he is thinking about. the next war, and by reading his clearly-written book, we can clarify our own beliefs in regard to this vital issue.

Many people refuse to think about nuclear war and it is always interesting -and valuable to hear from someone who has studied the issue despite the natural human inclination to deny its importance. I’m just amazed that so many editors have the good sense to publish Powers’ essays. Write on, MacDuff.