Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Book Review: The 2020 Comission Report into the North Korean Nuclear Attacks...

Book review: The 2020 Commission Report into the North Korean Nuclear Attacks against the United States
By Dr. Jeffrey Lewis

This book is a speculative fiction story about the use of North Korean nuclear weapons in the near future- specifically early 2020. Speculative fiction is nothing new. But unlike Harry Turtledove or John Birmingham, Jeffrey Lewis is, in addition to being an author, a world expert in nuclear proliferation and arms control. The book’s format, closely paralleling the 9/11 report down to the opening paragraph, plays to this strength. However, despite the author’s academic and think tank background, this book is a gripping page-turner, make all the more compelling by its fact-based and thoroughly researched nature.

The book describes a possible scenario in which poor communications and saber rattling result in the DPRK shooting down a commercial airliner en route from the Republic of Korea to Mongolia, and the subsequent escalation and miscommunication that leads the North to launch a pre-emptive tactical nuclear strike, under the mistaken impression that it is under attack. This then escalates to an all-out war, with the DPRK’s long range missiles striking several US cities, with millions of casualties.

The book is a page turner. I read it in a single sitting the day after I got back from Korea. However, because Dr. Lewis is an arms control expert, and not a novelist, it also comes with 20 pages of references for the 270 page novel. As such, it is as much a report in narrative form (much like the actual 9/11 report) as a story in its own right. Except, of course, this book is a report on a disaster that has not (yet) happened.

Overall, it was a good read, both entertaining and educational. Dr. Lewis is obviously knowledgeable on nuclear weapons, their effects on human health, and the havoc they wreak on civilian infrastructure. And he uses his expertise to great effect. While reasonable people can argue about in what areas historical records are pertinent and in which areas technological change has made them obsolete, his well referenced arguments are an excellent place to start any discussion, whither you agree with his points or not.

I found a few things disappointing. The main thesis of the book is that the DPRK, if it believed it was under conventional, regime-changing attack, could use nuclear weapons tactically, (or at least locally) to give itself a chance. This hypothesis was never really investigated in any detail, however, which makes to difficult to judge how rational such a counter strike would be.

My main complaint, however, is that Dr’ Lewis cannot refrain from taking cheap shots at President Trump, when describing the American response. He does have some reasonable criticisms around issues like the President’s lack of appreciation for communications security and the difficulty in responding to a crisis from his various private properties. But he also takes generic liberal cheap shots, which don’t build his case and are distracting from his well researched work. More ominously, they risk politicizing nuclear war, an outcome which everyone should be trying to avoid. We all know what a debacle the polliticization of Global Warming has been; imagine how much worse things could be if the same thing happened with Nuclear War. In fact, while he doesn’t specifically mention this possibility, there are hints at how hyperpartisanship could risk nuclear stability. But that is another topic for another day.


Chris Phoenix said...

I agree that politicizing nuclear war would be a disaster. But there are no big moneyed interests that want nuclear war (that I know of, anyway) so no one is going to go out and buy a political party the way Big Fossil has vs. climate change.

I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on the distracting cheap shots - I don't know what they are. If they're references to his sexual assault or his support of kidnapping children*, then yes, they're probably not relevant. If they're references to his apparent support of strongmen and bullies at all levels, then they likely are relevant.

* Kidnapping is not my word. http://time.com/5356625/department-homeland-security-elizabeth-holtzman-family-separation/

C W Magee said...

Firstly, the book is worth reading. Everyone ought to at least try it.

As for the treatment of the President, he makes the important point that the President's extensive use of private resorts and erratic schedule is a genuine security concern- especially when secure communications are needed on short notice to defuse (or even understand) situations.

On the other hand, he wallows in his derogative description of the President's behviour more than is necessary to make his point.