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Last breakfast: Nuclear attack on Anchorage

(Pixabay)

Peter De Vries, a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, said "Reality is that which won't go away no matter how much you want it to go away."

Today, the world's most pressing reality is the danger of nuclear war between the United States and North Korea.

It's been difficult for some people to appreciate the threat because of the cartoonish behavior of the presidents of the two nations, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, and the asymmetry of their countries. The United States is one of the most vibrant countries on earth; North Korea is an impoverished backwater. The North Koreans rarely would receive international attention if they did not possess nuclear weapons.

Anchorage is one of several West Coast locations (plus Hawaii and Guam) that have been mentioned as potential North Korean targets. From a North Korean perspective, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland would be an upgrade over Anchorage, but Anchorage is nearer the Korean Peninsula and perhaps easier to reach by missile.

What would happen if a North Korean missile exploded over Anchorage? I have imagined an attack in personal terms.

It's Friday morning, a light rain falling. I am having breakfast with a group of old-timers — geezers — who meet once a week at Denny's (Bragaw and DeBarr) to lament their aging bones and debate political questions. Shanna, our regular waitress, has just asked Bill Parker "What are you having today?" and Bill has replied cheerily "The Pancake Slam" when the thermonuclear weapon detonates over the building.

Instantaneously, Denny's, Shanna, Bill, my other friends at the table, the ingredients for the Slam, and Michael Carey are vaporized.

Shut your eyes and say "vaporized."

You have now imagined yourself as immeasurable bits of radioactive material.

If you were at Denny's when the bomb arrived your immeasurable bits probably would mingle with other immeasurable bits from miles around to be blown on the wind. But first you would be part of the mushroom cloud forming over the crater where Denny's formerly stood. Experts estimate that a mushroom cloud from a nuclear weapon expands for 10 to 15 minutes, reaching a height of 20 to 25 miles.

There never has been a nuclear war. Through a mixture of determined statesmanship and luck the nuclear powers, especially the United States and Russia, the old Soviet Union, have avoided a nuclear conflict. Bernard Brodie, an influential Cold War intellectual, said in 1946, "Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them."

Since the first nuclear weapon was tested in New Mexico in 1944, nuclear weapons have been used in combat twice, by the United States at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. World War II was not a nuclear war; it was a conventional war in which one party used nuclear weapons near the end of hostilities.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki taught the world what to expect from a nuclear explosion over a city. Or some of what to expect. Steve Coll, writing in the New York Review of Books, says the first thermonuclear bomb tested in 1952 had 800 times the power of the bomb that reduced Hiroshima to radiating rubble.

Coll went on to say "Nuclear weapons can make a state more dangerous but they not yet have made any state smarter than its adversaries. Even the most rational leaders repeatedly make bad decisions because they possess poor information."

How many people would die in an attack on Anchorage? We don't know, mostly because we don't know the size of the warhead the North Koreans would put on a missile destined for Anchorage. For some perspective, think about Hiroshima. About 330,000 people were in Hiroshima when the famed Enola Gay dropped the bomb. There have been many estimates of the number of deaths, usually given in deaths between the day the bomb exploded and the end of 1945. A figure of 90,000 deaths seems credible. Something like 27 percent of the local population.

Twenty-seven percent of the current Anchorage population is about 78,000 men, women and children.

Fires would burn for days. The region would be enveloped in smoke. The stench of death would be everywhere.

Thousands would be wounded or otherwise incapacitated. Anchorage's infrastructure would be destroyed or in a shambles. Emergency responders from other communities would have difficulty reaching the community. Many community leaders would be dead. Political institutions would be dysfunctional.

The cleanup would take years. As cleanup began, thousands of survivors would leave rather than spend the winter in a nuclear wasteland.

Dylan Thomas famously wrote "And death shall have no dominion." Anchorage would be death's dominion — just as Hiroshima had been.

Anchorage would no longer be Air Crossroads of the World. It would be the American city a North Korean missile leveled. Memorials to the dead would proliferate. The eyes of the nation would be on the city every anniversary. Artists would pay their respects in many forms. (John Coltrane went far out of his way to perform for the people of Hiroshima.)

Anchorage would become a sister city to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Delegations would go back and forth between Alaska and Japan bearing witness.

And for the survivors who remained in Anchorage, the city would become a city of memory — and longing for what had been.

What would an American victory in a nuclear war with North Korea look like? The end of the Kim regime, millions of dead on the Korean Peninsula in exchange for … Anchorage?

Historical analogies can be misleading if not outright false. But at the moment, the best analogy for the American-North Korean standoff seems to be Europe on the eve of World War I. Nobody leading the nations that fought the war wanted a conflict that would last years, kill millions, ruin economies, topple empires, and produce a re-drawn map of the globe. But nobody could find an alternative to war the other parties would accept.

Bismarck, the great German statesman, did not predict a European war, but when asked what could produce a war he correctly said some "damned foolish thing in the Balkans." He said that in 1888. Some damned foolish thing came 26 years later when Serbian nationalists assassinated members of the Austro-Hungarian royal family while they visited Sarajevo.

Now we wonder: Will there be some damned foolish thing on the Korean Peninsula? And what would that damned foolish thing mean for Anchorage?

Michael Carey is an Alaska Dispatch News columnist. He can be reached at mcarey@alaskadispatch.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com. 

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