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The Nightmare and the Dream
To employ a mathematical analogy, we can say that although the risk of extinction may be fractional, the stake is, humanly speaking, infinite ...
1. Scenario I: The Ultimate Fear
It was the death of Ayatollah Khomeini that led to the end of the world.
Deprived of their charismatic symbol of the Islamic Revolution, Iran's Revolutionary Council found themselves beset on all sides. The national economy, which had slowly been improving despite the downward trend in world oil prices, faltered badly. The Communists began demonstrating openly in the streets once again. The interminable war with Iraq had brought nothing but mounting casualties and increasing damage to Iran's oil production facilities. The people were restless and reaching the end of their patience with shortages, political uncertainty, and the grinding attrition of the war.
In Lebanon, meanwhile, Israel's policy teetered between a further withdrawal of its occupation troops back to the Lebanon-Israel border, or a full-scale war with Syria. For more than six years the Israelis had tried to find a way out of Lebanon. Crushing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a military force had merely brought Israel into a direct confrontation with Syria. The so-called "peacekeeping" forces sent to Beirut by the United States,Britain, France, and Italy had become little more than targets for terrorist bombs and snipers. Washington desperately sought a way to get the American Marines out of Lebanon without giving the appearance of capitulating to Soviet-backed Syria. The assassination of Yassir Arafat, after he was driven out of Tripoli, completed the Syrian domination of the PLO. Israeli leaders knew that a withdrawal of their troops to their own frontier would only mean that the war, when it began, would start on Israel's soil.
Elections in Israel had ushered in a new government, but not new policy decisions. It was obvious that the constant war of nerves and the attrition caused by guerrilla and terrorist attacks on Israeli troops in Lebanon could not be allowed to continue. World opinion was turning slowly but inexorably against a continued Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory, and Washington was putting constantly more pressure on the Israelis to withdraw.
It was never made clear just who made the first move to bring about the cease-fire between Iran and Iraq. On the scant evidence that was available before the holocaust destroyed everything, it appeared that the Syrians approached both governments in the name of Pan-Arabism, seeking their support for "the final attack" on Israel. Certainly the accord between Syria and Qaddafi's Libya, widely trumpeted in the world's media, started from a Syrian initiative.
Israel's intelligence service quickly perceived that Iran and Iraq had not merely agreed to a cease-fire, but had pledged their forces for the war against Israel. But no one in Jerusalem expected the war to begin in the Sahara, with an attack by Libya against Egypt's western frontier.
Egypt, the sole Islamic nation to have come to peace terms with Israel, uneasily swung its main military forces away from the Sinai Peninsula to meet the invasion of Russian-built T-72 tanks churning up the desert sands by the hundreds.
Jordan's wily King Hussein escaped an assassination attempt when a bomb wired to his limousine exploded prematurely, but Hussein realized the true meaning of the attempt on his life. He publicly condemned Israel's continued occupation of southern Lebanon and secretly guaranteed Syria that Jordan would allow Syrian forces to cross its territory in a flanking attack on Israel.
Seeing itself surrounded by hostile forces, all of them armed by the Soviet Union, the Israeli government, while publicly warning of the grave consequences of a new Middle East war, secretly sent a personal representative of the new prime minister to Damascus to discuss possible settlement terms with the ailing President Hassad. The discussion lasted less than one day. When Egypt's President Mubarak was abruptly overthrown by a coup of his own army officers, the prime minister's representative hurried back to Jerusalem for further instructions.
The new Egyptian government renounced the "Camp David" accord with Israel, while Egyptian and Libyan soldiers embraced each other in the western desert. The ring of steel around Israel was now complete.
While the Knesset was locked in bitter debate over Israel's choice of war or negotiation, fighting broke out in the Golan Heights. Who struck the first blow, it is impossible to say. The morning began with artillery bombardments. By noon, Syrian tanks and armored infantry were attacking entrenched Israeli positions on the Heights, while the sky above became an intricate lacework of jet contrails, blackened here and there by the burning plumes of warplanes making their final plunge to Earth.
Within less than twelve hours, Israeli troops in southern Lebanon were being pushed backward by the combined Syrian-Iraqi-Irani forces. Pressed hard, losing ground, and--more important to a nation of only four million people--suffering high casualties, Jerusalem warned that it woulduse nuclear weapons against its enemies if and when they crossed the borders of Israel.
Damascus countered immediately with a threat to "meet nuclear force with nuclear force." The rest of the world became frantic with dread. The hot line between Washington and Moscow blazed all through the night with urgent messages. Moscow insisted that the United States stop Israel from "taking the first step to a worldwide holocaust." The White House, in a sternly-worded message, warned Israel that if it used even a single nuclear weapon, all American aid to Israel would cease immediately, and Israel would be considered "an outlaw nation" by the entire world.
For half of the second day of the war, Israel withheld its nuclear hand. But when Syrian tanks and artillery finally battered the last Israeli defenders from the Golan Heights, and the new Egyptian government began moving its armored columns from the Libyan border to the Sinai, the prime minister told his people by radio and television from Jerusalem that he had no choice: the very existence of Israel was at stake.
Two small, low-yield nuclear weapons, carried by drone aircraft, obliterated the Syrian forces atop the Golan Heights. The twin mushroom clouds rose into the sky like symbols of Armageddon--which they truly were.
As the sun was setting over those blood-soaked heights, the city of Haifa was blasted off the face of the Earth by a nuclear explosion estimated to be in the 150-kiloton range: almost ten times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. American surveillance satellites tracked a missile launch from northwestern Iran, between the city of Tabriz and the Russian border. It had taken only five minutes for the missile to reach Haifa.
More than fifty thousand were killed immediately in the blast and fire that raged uncontrolled through Haifa. Twicethat number would eventually die of burns, injuries, or radiation poisoning.
The American government publicly blamed the Soviet Union for providing the nuclear weapon, the missile, and the crew that launched it from Iranian soil. But the United States refrained from any kind of retaliation against the U.S.S.R., calling instead for an international tribunal to investigate the matter and "punish appropriately" the nations responsible for the devastation of Haifa.
Seeing themselves alone and facing total defeat, in the dark hours just before dawn the Israelis annihilated Damascus with a one-megaton hydrogen bomb, delivered by a low-flying jet attack plane that was either destroyed in the explosion or shot down by Syrian defenses on its way back to its base.
As the first rays of sunlight touched the gilded turrets of the Kremlin, Moscow announced to the world that it would provide "all aid, of every kind" to its Arab friends. Jerusalem responded by declaring that the next nuclear weapon used against them would result in a retaliation "against the source of that weapon."
That was the first forty-eight hours of the war.
To forestall a combined Egyptian-Libyan attack through the Sinai, the desperate Israelis launched a barrage of six nuclear missiles against Egyptian positions in key mountain passes on the peninsula, both to forestall an attack on a second front and to make the critical passes through the region too radioactive to be used for several weeks.
Tel Aviv was the next victim of nuclear war, wiped out by a missile launched from a submarine operating in the western Mediterranean Sea. Israel retaliated by sending a suicidal air strike against Sevastapol and Odessa, the only major Russian cities that Israeli warplanes had any hope of reaching. Soviet air defenses wiped out the six-plane group heading for Odessa while the planes were still over the Black Sea. But two planes of the nine sent against Sevastapolgot through, and the city was virtually destroyed by a pair of 100-kiloton bombs. Nearly 70,000 Russians were killed immediately.
Moscow issued an ultimatum: if Israel did not surrender to Syria within six hours, Soviet missiles would destroy the nation. The Russians simultaneously warned the United States and Western Europe not to intervene.
The pressures and counterpressures in Washington were enormous. Faced with the possibility of Israel's destruction and total Soviet domination of the oil-rich Middle East, the White House sent a vaguely-worded message to Moscow, warning that nuclear escalation "could only lead to a wider circle of destruction."
The Russians responded to Washington's message by launching a preemptive first-wave nuclear attack at the United States two hours before the deadline for the Israeli surrender.
Seeing more than fifteen hundred nuclear warheads on their way to targets in America, the President collapsed. It fell to the Vice President to order a full retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union. It was his last official act, and the last act of his life.
The first Russian strike was aimed at "decapitating" the American government and destroying as much of the American strategic forces as possible. Washington was the only major city to be directly attacked. The other Soviet missiles were aimed at American missile bases, command centers, airfields, and submarine bases.
The American counterattack obliterated the Soviet Union as a modern nation. But not before the Russian second-wave attack destroyed every major city in the United States and devastated the whole continent with lethal levels of radiation.
Europe would have been spared, if NATO commanders (presumably the Americans among them) had not launched their nuclear missiles at prearranged targets in EasternEurope. Medium-range Soviet missiles rained out of the sky for half an hour, leaving the continent of Rome, Paris, Copenhagen, and London little more than a smoking radioactive pile of ashes.
Nearly a billion people were killed within little more than an hour by blast and fire. Billions more, particularly in China and Japan, were pelted with lethal radioactive fallout. A huge pall of smoke and ash blotted out the Sun. Radioactive debris from the ground bursts that had smashed fields of missile silos joined with the black smoke from burning oil refineries and the vast forest fires that swept Siberia and North America. For weeks there was no sunlight in the northern half of the globe. "Nuclear winter" began, and crops that had not been burned or blasted away wilted and died from lack of light and the deepening, numbing cold. The high-altitude nuclear explosions that had blanked out defensive radars and knocked out all sorts of electrical equipment with their continent-spanning electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) had also destroyed much of the Earth's ozone layer; unfiltered solar ultraviolet radiation burned crops, animals, and people in the regions of the globe not covered by the clouds of nuclear winter.
Temperatures plummeted everywhere. Gray radioactive snow fell in the ruins of Miami and Honolulu. The black clouds of death spread southward, covering the Earth with the hand of death. Fields of grain withered and froze. Herds of animals died of starvation, of cold, of radiation poisoning. The last pitiful survivors of the human race slowly succumbed as they huddled in terror in caves or mines deep underground.
The horrifying prediction of Jonathan Schell in his book, The Fate of the Earth, came true:
Bearing in mind that the possible consequences of the detonations of thousands of megatons of nuclear explosives include the blinding of insects, birds, andbeasts all over the world; the extinction of many ocean species, among them some at the base of the food chain; the temporary or permanent alteration of the climate of the globe, with the ... chance of "dramatic" and "major" alterations in the structure of the atmosphere; the pollution of the whole ecosphere with oxides of nitrogen; the incapacitation in ten minutes of unprotected people ... the blinding of people who go out into the sunlight; a significant decrease in photosynthesis in plants around the world; the scalding and killing of many crops; the increase in rates of cancer and mutation around the world, but especially in the targeted zones, and the attendant risk of global epidemics; the possible poisoning of all vertebrates ... as a result of increased ultraviolet light [from destruction of the ozone layer in the high atmosphere]; and the outright slaughter on all targeted continents of most human beings and other living things by the initial nuclear radiation, the fireballs, the thermal pulses, the blast waves, the mass fires, and the fallout from the explosions; and, considering that these consequences will all interact with one another in unguessable ways and, furthermore, are in all likelihood an incomplete list ... one must conclude that a full-scale nuclear holocaust could lead to the extinction of mankind.
Copyright © 1984, 1986 by Ben Bova