Why aren't we hearing about the growing threat of nuclear war?

Air Force file photo of the first launch of a Trident missile on Jan. 18, 1977 at Cape Canaveral. Photo: Naval Historical Center/Wikimedia Commons

I'm as curious as the next person about the Mueller report, Donald Trump's tax returns and Jody Wilson-Raybould's inner thoughts, but is there really no room amidst all the media chatter for the news that the chances of nuclear war are "higher than they've been in generations"?

That was the frightening assessment the United Nations Security Council received last week from UN disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu, and it made barely a ripple in the media.

For that matter, Trump's decision in February to withdraw from a key nuclear treaty, signed amid great hope 32 years ago by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, was deemed worthy of about 24 hours of news coverage.

Even as climate change is finally penetrating the mainstream news cycle, the media has all but lost interest in nuclear war.

Commentators rarely find time to remind us that all-out war between the U.S. and Russia, the two most heavily armed nuclear combatants, would be 100,000 times more destructive than Hiroshima. Billions of people would die in raging fires and from radioactive fallout, with the rest of humanity freezing or starving to death in the ensuing nuclear winter.

Unlike the climate change battle, where a worldwide movement is managing to push the issue onto the political agenda, the fight to rid the world of nuclear weapons has become widely regarded as hopeless, a genie that can't be re-bottled.

This sense of hopelessness -- promoted by the arms industry -- is misplaced.

While it's true that there's no way to un-invent nuclear weapons, the most dangerous threat they pose could be eliminated. Indeed, such a goal is within reach.

That's the conclusion of a number of experts, including former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg. Best known for leaking the Pentagon papers in the 1970s, Ellsberg also worked as a nuclear war planner for the Kennedy administration.

In his recent book, The Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg argues that probably the greatest nuclear threat today is accidental nuclear war -- that is, a false electronic alarm triggering a pre-emptive strike by either the U.S. or Russia. Over the years, there've been a number of chillingly close calls.

This mind-bending concept -- the end of human civilization due to a computer error -- is made possible by the continuing presence in the two countries of hundreds of land-based missiles kept on hair-trigger alert, ready to launch on warning.

If warning data indicate a nuclear attack may be underway, a process kicks in with incomprehensibly-tight timelines. The U.S. Strategic Command's top officer would have time to provide only a 30-second briefing to the president, who would then have 12 minutes (or less) to weigh the options, according to Bruce Blair, a nuclear security expert at Princeton University.

These timelines render impossible a meaningful decision by even the most astute, high-functioning human being, let alone Donald Trump.

While disarmament experts agree the ultimate goal is eliminating all nuclear weapons, Ellsberg and others insist that a more immediate goal of removing this exceptionally dangerous, hair-trigger situation could be accomplished, bilaterally or even unilaterally -- while still maintaining nuclear deterrence against an enemy first strike.

Indeed, along with a number of high-ranking ex-generals, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama argued during their presidential bids for dramatically reducing hair-trigger status in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, although both men failed to follow through in office.

Trump is now heading in the opposite direction, embarking on a massive modernization of U.S. nuclear weapons, urged on by his ultrahawkish national security adviser John Bolton, a longtime proponent of nuclear buildup.

Yet there is stunningly little pushback as the Trump administration proposes to increase the vastly over-bloated U.S. military budget from $720 billion last year to $750 billion this year. The Democrats are largely acquiescent, agreeing to $736 billion.

All this leaves Americans -- and the rest of the world -- less safe.

As the popular science writer Carl Sagan once noted: "The nuclear arms race is like two sworn enemies standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five."

Taking away all the matches is the ultimate goal. Meanwhile, it would be gratifying to see a vigorous popular movement aimed at preventing a lit match from accidentally dropping into the gasoline.

Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author. Her book Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Myths was among the books selected by the Literary Review of Canada as the "25 most influential Canadian books of the past 25 years." This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Naval Historical Center/Wikimedia Commons

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