I sometimes fantasise about MRCs – Mandatory Reading Commitments– for a pre-designated category of “people of influence” here in the UK: politicians (including all would-be politicians), business leaders, the commentariat (in all shapes and sizes), NGO bosses, civil servants, community activists and so on. Let’s say somewhere between 150,000 and 250,000 people. As soon as they’re appointed to such a position of influence, they have to sign up to an MRC: to read 25 books a year (one a fortnight), selected by a group of wise, politically neutral trusted figures, selecting the 25 books from a shortlist of 250.

That’s an extremely long-winded preamble to what I really want to say: that every single person of influence here in the UK (and globally) absolutely ought to read Annie Jacobsen’s “Nuclear War: A Scenario”.

We somehow seem to have forgotten that we’re still living in a world which could be entirely destroyed (by design or by accident) by a nuclear war. At any point. Even Putin’s occasional flourish of his “big nuclear stick” seems to stir few fears – outside of a group of extraordinarily well-informed security and defence experts.

I suspect that may have been Annie Jacobson’s motivation in writing “Nuclear War: A Scenario”. How have we become so complacent? Why is nuclear disarmament the poor cousin of any international security gathering – a ghost at every G20/G7 Summit? Why will nuclear disarmament barely feature in the manifestos of the major parties in the UK General Election – and, so much more importantly, in the presidential campaigns of either Biden or Trump?

Annie Jacobson has done us all a brilliant service – interviewing nearly fifty of the world’s most experienced nuclear insiders to explain how we got to be in the nuclear fix we’re in today, and then unfolding just one (but one frighteningly plausible) scenario as to how we could go from today’s “nuclear normality” to total Armageddon. In less than 30 minutes.

I’m on holiday in Cornwall at the moment. Uncharacteristically wonderful weather for the last few days – during which I’ve been reading “Nuclear War: A Scenario” – no mandate required! As I write this, our daughters are cooking dinner, as the sun sets gloriously.  Yet in less than 30 minutes, our lives and the lives of more than two to 3 billion people could be over, in the most chillingly awful circumstances of which Annie Jacobson spares her readers not one ghastly detail.

The scenario she uses is no more and no less plausible than any other. Kim Jong Un, President of North Korea, decides this is the moment to teach the US a nuclear lesson that he’s been threatening for the last 20 years. Just three missiles (one Intercontinental Ballistic Missile taking out Washington, one (submarine launched) taking out the nuclear reactor at Diabolo Canyon on the Californian coast), and one which fails. The USA retaliates with massive firepower, but all their intercontinental missiles have to overfly Russia to get to North Korea. For a host of reasons, The US President and the Russian President failed to connect personally – Sod’s Law at a nuclear scale.  The Russian President believes that the USA is carrying out a pre-emptive strike on Russia – and the rest is (the end of modern) history.

If you’re not tempted, at this point, to brush this off as no more than a speculative curiosity, then you’re not normal. I desperately want to brush this off, rather than let it shroud my mind – and go and enjoy dinner with the family as the sun sets.


But I can’t. Nor should you.