Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation

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Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation

By Lynn Eden
Cornell University Press, 2003
384 pp. $32.50
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In most discussions of nuclear policy, it is enough to know that exploding weapons cause unimaginably horrific damage over an extended area. In this exhaustive study of a problem that the author herself calls "undeniably weird," however, Eden wants to know why damage assessments focus so much on the effects of blast that they underestimate the damage of the firestorms that result (and thus underestimate the total impact of a nuclear explosion). The standard answer is that the effects of the latter are much harder to calculate. But Eden, after finding analysts who can make such calculations, instead attributes it to the way the Pentagon has framed the issue -- focusing on the elimination of specific targets rather than on the totality of death and destruction. This investigation leads Eden into the more arcane and unsettling aspects of nuclear planning, and students of this area will find in her book much fascinating detail. More broadly, however, she seeks to demonstrate how institutional knowledge often leaves out critical facts -- leading to disaster when incomplete information becomes the basis for action.

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