Analysis Foreign Policy

let’s bomb Iran!

The establishment media have been cheerleading for military action against Iran for some time now. In October, the Justice Department announced it was charging two men in connection with a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Despite the clear absurdities of this charge — that a clumsy used-car salesman from Texas met with undercover DEA agents posing as members of narcotics cartel to try to hire Mexican hit men to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., all under the direction of the Iranian government through an illegally travelling member of its Quds security force — the scaremongering was off to the races. The day the DOJ announced the charge and arrest of the car salesman at JFK airport, the Wall Street Journal published this op-ed, calling the affair “a sobering wake-up call” and instructing us that this “appalling news needs to be placed in the broader context of Iran’s behavior.”

Book Nonfiction Review

Book Review: “The Bomb” by Howard Zinn

The Bomb is a posthumously published essay by noted historian (or “master of agitprop”Howard Zinn. It features a short preface, written by indie publisher and activist Greg Ruggiero, in praise of Zinn’s work and advocacy of civil disobedience ahead of the main text divided in three parts.

Part the first: Introduction. Zinn describes his return to the US for a month’s furlough following the end of the Second World War in Europe. While in New York, he read about the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and recalls rejoicing with his wife over that fact, not knowing what it meant except that his furlough was about to become indefinite since the war was surely over.

Zinn describes some of his experience as a bombardier, far removed from the people and buildings who were his targets from an elevation of 30,000 feet. Indeed, he makes the claim that “to this day, the vicious reality of aerial bombing is lost to most people in the United States,” as it was to him during the war. Despite improvements in technology, Zinn points out that innocent casualties still persist today when the lives of “suspected terrorists” and Afghan wedding parties alike are ended by drone missiles.

But Zinn’s “shock of understanding” came after reading John Heresey’s interviews with Hiroshima survivors. The grisly details of the effects of fallout and radiation poisoning caused him to recall his own bombing missions, during which he “mindlessly dropped bombs on cities without thinking what humans on the ground were experiencing,” and in particular the horror of his last bombing mission three weeks before that furlough, in Royan, France.

Part the second: Hiroshima. In typical fashion in this, by far the longest part, Zinn deconstructs the standard narrative of the need to drop the bomb. Moving from horrific descriptions taken from first-hand accounts of people without hands and feet and eyebrows, moaning and screaming after the shockwave of the explosion had passed, Zinn tries to understand how it is that such a thing could have been done. A major theme throughout the book is the individual’s ability to rationalize away personal responsibility, throwing themselves into the anonymous collective of the nation-state or the military united in common purpose against an enemy, be it facism, communism, terrorism, or whatever other demon is sufficiently established in the public imagination.

There is also a focus on military and government actors. Zinn summarizes his finding, also articulated in his masterwork, A People’s History of the United States, that the war with Japan was more likely a trade expedient than it was an existential defense or a righteous war against teutonic fascism and genocide. Zinn cites the racism of the barring of blacks from the military and the Japanese internment to debunk that last idea that WWII was a righteous crusade to save the Jews. Instead, the thesis appears to be that much of the brutality of the war can be explained by a desire of military elites to exercise new weapons technology and a “euphemism — ‘undermining of the morale'” to justify excesses.

To the first point, Zinn begins by attacking a common justification of the bombings — that they prevented a casualty-heavy and otherwise necessary invasion of the Japanese mainland — as without merit:

There has been endless discussion about how many American lives would have been lost in an invasion of Japan. Truman said “half a million.” Churchill said “a million.” These figures were pulled out of the air. Historian Barton Bernstein’s research could not find any projection for invasion casualties higher than 46,000.

The whole discussion about casualty figures is pointless. It is based on the premise that there would have to be an American invasion of Japan in order to end the war. But the evidence is clear that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender, that a simple declaration on keeping the position of the Emperor would have brought the war to an end, and no invasion was necessary.

So what then necessitated the dropping of the bomb? Zinn posits a host of explanations: pressure from Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project managers to put to use the fruits of their years of toil; questions over whether plutonium fission or uranium fission would “work better” (hence the idea that “no one ever considered the options of delaying the second bomb drop” three days after Hiroshima, the better to test out the plutonium bomb); Truman’s desire to end the war before the Russians entered it and hence take all the glory; a sense that this glory should include the total decimation and humiliation of the Japanese before American firepower (Zinn describes — in what is one of the most memorable takeaways from the book — the final bombing of the war, five days after Nagaski, which included explosives as well as leaflets declaring that “the war has ended with the surrender of your government”); Truman’s desire for personal legacy (his immediate reaction was “this is the greatest thing in history”); and, in that same vein, the nationalistic desire to the show the rest of the world what the enterprising Americans had made.

Part the third: Royan. After reading about these horrors in 1966, Zinn went back to Royan, the site of his last mission during the war, to learn more about his impact there more than 20 years before. The bombing was not tactically or strategically useful, and it happened when the impending end of the European war was all but certain. There are allegations of violations of the chain of command in ordering the raid; to the contrary, that the chain of command was blindly and happily obeyed; the notion that morale necessitated the destruction of a town, any town (“One of the local commanders wrote later: ‘It would have been more logical to wait for the surrender of Germany and thus to avoid new human and material losses,’ but one could not ‘ignore important factors of morale.'”); ending-of-the-war ruthlessness and recklessness (“each one wanted a last moment to distinguish himself and get a bit of glory; moderation was scorned, prudence was seen as cowardice”); and even the idea that it was all just a horrible mix-up, that Royan was “destroyed by mistake!”

But the Royan bombing is famous for being “the first [use] in warfare” of napalm, and this fact is the reason Zinn suggests as the main reason that the bombing occurred. He recalls seeing the bombs “flaring like matches struck in a fog” and being “completely unaware of the human chaos below.” A local journalist summed up the bombing: “Thus was accomplished a deadly work of obvious uselessness, and thus was revealed to the world the powerful destructiveness of napalm.” A doctor and former mayor addressed the controlling general after the bombing: “The Germans had to feel our power! Permit me, my general, to tell you, once and for all, in the name of those who paid the cost: ‘La Victorie de Royan’ does not exist, except for you.” It seems that the desire to showcase a new destructive force trumped prudence, just as seemed to have happened weeks later in Japan.

The book is a quick read and an insightful one. It suffers slightly from being poorly organized: each part is a dozens-page single chapter of paragraphs. Additionally, many assertions are uncited, or at least difficult to reconcile to the book’s own endnotes. The Hiroshima section, fully half the book, cites only two sources in the endnotes, compared with Royan’s 14. This is especially egregious since Zinn’s claims about the war, and in particular the end of the war in the Pacific, are far from mainstream. On the other hand, Hiroshima has been researched a great deal more than Royan, and Zinn has personal history in the latter event, so it makes sense that he would rely more on fewer, well-established accounts in his discourse about the former. In any event, the prose is easily consumed and primary sources do appear with frequency alongside Zinn’s analysis. Given its length, coming in at under 100 pages, it is well worth the few hours to be exposed to a dissenting interpretation of a pivotal period in world history.

Always the master of agitprop, Zinn concludes powerfully by connecting the threads and emphasizing the need for individuals to stand up and resist the groupthink that leads to atrocities like these:

Everyone can point, rightly, to someone else as being responsible… no one is positively responsible for the horror that ensues. But every one is negatively responsible because anyone can throw a wrench into the machinery. Not quite, of course — because only a few people have wrenches. The rest have only their hands and feet… This may suggest that those of us who have a bit more than our bare hands, and at least a small interest in stopping the machine, that we might play a peculiar role in stopping the social stalemate.

Published 2010, 91 pages.

Analysis Science

Iran and nuclear physics

Shit’s heating up with Iran. There’s an intended pun here, since the news of the day is the IAEA (the ‘nuclear watchdog’ arm of the UN) claims it can confirm that Iran is enriching uranium at up to 20% at a heavily guarded underground bunker. According to the IAEA’s own report from last November (pdf here), this was all according to plan and was reported to the IAEA in June of 2011. So the fuss appears to be that it is actually happening, and predictably the fuss is a loud one from typical hypocritical whiners like the US about how “this means Iran’s building a bomb which will destabilize the region and oh mercy won’t somebody think of the children.”

(To make my point, it’s time for an aside for those unfamiliar or curious, as I was, about uranium enrichment and its role in making deadly weapons. If you are already an expert on these subjects, then please skip to the close parenthesis.

Recall from high school chemistry that all matter is composed of atoms, each of which in turn contains a nucleus at its center made up of electrically neutral neutrons and positively charged protons. These nuclei are stable against the incredibly repulsive force of those protons through a medium called the strong nuclear force [clever!], but for very heavy nuclei — those containing lots of protons and neutrons — the strong nuclear force could be subverted by the weak nuclear force [yay!] if only there were a little energy to get those protons ‘over the hump’ as it were. This would cause the nucleus to split into two [sometimes three] pieces, thereby releasing all that energy the strong force was keeping pent up, in a process called fission.

The famous Manhattan Project was commissioned during the second world war in order to kill unsuspecting Japanese civilians by finding a way to unleash this explosive force on command. The idea was to get a lot of these heavy nuclei together and hit them with something. More precisely, certain nuclei are unstable enough that if you hit them with a neutron, they will split apart into two smaller nuclei, some extra free neutrons, and a fair amount of energy. Those neutrons hit other unstable nuclei, and before you know it, you have an explosive chain reaction.

It turns out a good choice for the heavy nuclei are a particular isotope of uranium, U-235. You hit one with a neutron, it becomes U-236 just long enough to break apart in a shower of smaller nuclei, neutrons, heat, and light. The problem is that the vast majority of uranium on earth is a much less radioactive (and hence less unstable) isotope, U-238. Wikipedia says U-238 is about 140 times more abundant, and that’s saying something since there isn’t much of that lying around either. While radioactive, you just can’t get the chain reaction with this heavier stuff. To make matters worse, it’s pretty much all mixed together: there aren’t chunks of pure U-235 conveniently scattered about the New Mexico desert. So what did those clever Manhattan Project scientists do? Basically, they devised elaborate techniques to ‘enrich’ the uranium, or in other words to toss the U-238 and keep the U-235.)

But now let’s consider the hype. The same wiki article linked above and quoted below indicates that commercial nuclear reactors often use uranium enriched to between 3 and 5% U-235, while noting that ‘research reactors’ — so called for their use in producing radioisotopes for medical research and treatment, among other things — can use enrichments as high as 19.75%. Indeed, the 20% number bandied about so hysterically is a threshold between Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) and High Enriched Uranium (HEU). Apparently a ‘crude weapon’ could be fashioned with the best LEU, but ‘usually’ weapons-grade uranium is 85% HEU or better; Little Boy of Hiroshima fame was 80%, and that bomb was crude compared to today’s standards. The nuclear cores of atomic submarines usually contain ‘at least 50%.’ Perhaps most tellingly, modern US nuclear weapons are comprised of two stages: the first is a different nuclear fuel, Plutonium-239, to create an initial nuclear explosion, which then sets off a chain reaction in a 40-80% HEU  core. Even with bottomless pockets funding a half century of research and development to create a two-staged nuclear explosive, we still need to enrich that stuff so that the concentration of U-235 is at least 50 times higher than in nature. The best Iran is talking about now is only half that concentration.

Could Iran use this uranium they are enriching to create a nuclear bomb? Probably, but only a very crude one. But could uranium enriched to that purity also have legitimate non-WMD purposes, like what Iran has been saying all along? I believe so, based on a cursory investigation into the nature and uses of enrichment. And all this is a totally separate question to whether Iran would dare use a nuclear bomb even if they could make one. There is a lot more to say about the present situation with Iran, and I plan to say at least some of it soon, but the fuss about enrichment activities is clearly less about safety or stability and more about regional control and possibly even warmongering jingoism. Look out below?