Wednesday, April 12, 2006

I think Billmon's "Mutually Assured Dementia" is a great essay -- he's a terrific writer and I appreciate the anger. But I don't think he's exactly right about the likely reaction to the use of bunker-busting nuclear weapons by Americans in Iran.

Billmon writes:

For most Americans, ... the initial impact of war with Iran could play out in the same theatre of the absurd as the first Gulf War and the opening phases of the Iraq invasion -- that is to say, on their living room TVs. And if there's one place where a nuclear first strike could be made to appear almost normal, or even a good thing, -- it's on the boob tube....

... we'd have the ...
frisson of nuclear weapons -- a plot twist that would allow blow-dried correspondents to pose in borrowed radiation suits, give Pentagon flacks the opportunity to try out new euphemisms for killing people, and encourage retired generals to spice up their on-air military patter with knowing references to blast effects, kilotons, roentgens and fallout patterns.

What I'm suggesting here is that it is probably naive to expect the American public to react with horror, remorse or even shock to a U.S. nuclear sneak attack on Iran, even though it would be one of the most heinous war crimes imaginable, short of mass genocide. Iran has been demonized too successfully....

I agree that there'd be a large effort to make it seem as if this was a measured and urgently necessary act -- but I don't think the media would wallow in the nuclear aspects of the use of bunker-busting nukes.

I think what would happen instead is that the government would either deny that nukes were used at all or tell us that the radioactive component of the bombs was utterly trivial -- and 100% certain to be contained in the underground blast. Anyone who suggested otherwise would be demonized and marginalized, treated as a Birkenstocked nutjob, like the people who talk about Diebold voting machines or depleted uranium.

Once again, I'll go back to that 2002 Popular Mechanics cover story on bunker-busting nukes I'm always citing. Here's part of an illustration from page 3 of that story:

Get it? That would be the selling point, or one of them at least: This is a teeny-tiny little weapon. It's less dangerous to people than a chest X-ray, or living in Denver.

Selling point #2 would be that every last bit of radiation stayed underground. As I noted a couple of days ago, that really might not be the case -- but there'd be tremendous pressure from the White House to downplay the risk, and to suggest that any complaints about radiation and fallout from Iranians are just disinformation straight out of the Al-Qaeda Terrorist Book of Lies the America-Hating Liberal Media Will Swallow.

Will it work? It might, for a while. The world might react with horror while America just sighs and moves on. It's quite possible that we'll buy the notion that this was completely safe -- and then years later, on page A-17, we'll learn that the crazies were right, that radiation leaked, that a fair number of Iranians died from radiation-related illnesses. It would be nice to think otherwise, especially given the unpopularity of this administration, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

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