The Words None Dare Say: Nuclear War

Email Print


“The elimination
of Natanz would be a major setback for Iran’s nuclear ambitions,
but the conventional weapons in the American arsenal could not
insure the destruction of facilities under seventy-five feet of
earth and rock, especially if they are reinforced with concrete.”

Hersh, The
New Yorker, April 17, 2006

“The second
concern is that if an underground laboratory is deeply buried,
that can also confound conventional weapons. But the depth of
the Natanz facility – reports place the ceiling roughly 30
feet underground – is not prohibitive. The American GBU-28
weapon – the so-called bunker buster – can pierce about
23 feet of concrete and 100 feet of soil. Unless the cover over
the Natanz lab is almost entirely rock, bunker busters should
be able to reach it. That said, some chance remains that a single
strike would fail.”

Michael Levi, New
York Times, April 18, 2006

A familiar
means of denying a reality is to refuse to use the words that describe
that reality. A common form of propaganda is to keep reality from
being described.

In such circumstances,
silence and euphemism are forms of complicity both in propaganda
and in the denial of reality. And the media, as well as the major
presidential candidates, are now complicit.

The stories
in the major media suggest that an attack against Iran is a real
possibility and that the Natanz nuclear development site is the
number one target. As the above quotes from two of our best sources
note, military experts say that conventional “bunker-busters” like
the GBU-28 might be able to destroy the Natanz facility,
especially with repeated bombings. But on the other hand, they also
say such iterated use of conventional weapons might not work,
e.g., if the rock and earth above the facility becomes liquefied.
On that supposition, a “low yield” “tactical” nuclear weapon, say,
the B61-11, might be needed.

If the Bush
administration, for example, were to insist on a sure “success,”
then the “attack” would constitute nuclear war. The words
in boldface are nuclear war, that’s right, nuclear war
– a first strike nuclear war.

We don’t know
what exactly is being planned – conventional GBU-28’s or nuclear
B61-11’s. And that is the point. Discussion needs to be open. Nuclear
is not a minor matter.

The Euphemism

As early as
August 13, 2005, Bush, in Jerusalem, was asked what would happen
if diplomacy failed to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear program.
Bush replied, “All options are on the table.” On April 18, the day
after the appearance of Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker report
on the administration’s preparations for a nuclear war against
Iran, President Bush held a news conference. He was asked,

“Sir, when
you talk about Iran, and you talk about how you have diplomatic
efforts, you also say all options are on the table. Does that
include the possibility of a nuclear strike? Is that something
that your administration will plan for?”

He replied,

“All options
are on the table.”

The President
never actually said the forbidden words “nuclear war,” but he appeared
to tacitly acknowledge the preparations – without further discussion.

Dick Cheney, speaking in Australia last week, backed
up the President

“We worked
with the European community and the United Nations to put together
a set of policies to persuade the Iranians to give up their
aspirations and resolve the matter peacefully, and that is still
our preference. But I’ve also made the point, and the president
has made the point, that all options are on the table.”

Presidential Candidate John McCain, on FOX News August 14, 2005,
the same

“For us
to say that the Iranians can do whatever they want to do and
we won’t under any circumstances exercise a military option
would be for them to have a license to do whatever they want
to do … So I think the president’s comment that we won’t take
anything off the table was entirely appropriate.”

But it’s not
just Republicans. Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards,
in a speech in Herzliyah, Israel, echoed

“To ensure
that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep ALL options
on the table. Let me reiterate – ALL options must remain
on the table.”

Although, Edwards
has said, when asked about this statement, that he prefers peaceful
solutions and direct negotiations with Iran, he has nonetheless
repeated the “all options on the table” position – making clear
that he would consider starting a preventive nuclear war,
but without using the fateful words.

Hillary Clinton,
at an AIPAC dinner in NY, said,

“We cannot,
we should not, we must not, permit Iran to build or acquire
nuclear weapons, and in dealing with this threat, as I have
said for a very long time, no option can be taken off the table.”

Nuclear weapons can be used to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

Barack Obama,
asked on 60 Minutes about using military force to prevent
Iran from developing nuclear weapons, began a discussion of his
preference for diplomacy by responding,
“I think we should keep all options on the table.”

Bush, Cheney,
McCain, Edwards, Clinton, and Obama all say indirectly that they
seriously consider starting a preventive nuclear war, but
will not engage in a public discussion of what that would mean.
That contributes to a general denial, and the press is going along
with it by a corresponding refusal to use the words.

If the consequences
of nuclear war are not discussed openly, the war may happen without
an appreciation of the consequences and without the public having
a chance to stop it. Our job is to open that discussion.

Of course,
there is a rationale for the euphemism: To scare our adversaries
by making them think that we are crazy enough to do what we hint
at, while not raising a public outcry. That is what happened in
the lead-up to the Iraq War, and the disaster of that war tells
us why we must have such a discussion about Iran. Presidential candidates
go along, not wanting to be thought of as interfering in on-going
indirect diplomacy. That may be the conventional wisdom for candidates,
but an informed, concerned public must say what candidates
are advised not to say.

More Euphemisms

The euphemisms
used include “tactical,” “small,” “mini-,” and “low yield” nuclear
weapons. “Tactical” contrasts with “strategic”; it refers to tactics,
relatively low-level choices made in carrying out an overall strategy,
but which don’t affect the grand strategy. But the use of any nuclear
weapons at all would be anything but “tactical.” It would be a major
world event – in Vladimir Putin’s words, “lowering the threshold
for the use of nuclear weapons,” making the use of more powerful
nuclear weapons more likely and setting off a new arms race. The
use of the word “tactical” operates to lessen their importance,
to distract from the fact that their very use would constitute a
nuclear war.

What is “low
yield”? Perhaps the “smallest” tactical nuclear weapon we have is
the B61-11, which has a dial-a-yield feature: it can yield “only”
0.3 kilotons, but can be set to yield up to 170 kilotons. The power
of the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons. That is, a “small” bomb can
yield more than 10 times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb.
The B61-11 dropped from 40,000 feet would dig a hole 20 feet deep
and then explode, send shock waves downward, leave a huge crater,
and spread radiation widely. The idea that it would explode underground
and be harmless to those above ground is false – and, anyway,
an underground release of radiation would threaten ground water
and aquifers for a long time and over wide distance.

To use words
like “low yield” or “small” or “mini-” nuclear weapon is like speaking
of being a little bit pregnant. Nuclear war is nuclear war!
It crosses the moral line.

Any discussion
of roadside canister bombs made in Iran justifying an attack on
Iran should be put in perspective: Little canister bombs (EFP’s
– explosively formed projectiles) that shoot a small hot metal
ball at a humvee or tank versus nuclear war.

the administration may be focusing on the canister bombs because
it seeks to claim that the Authorization for Use of Military Force
Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 permits the use of military force
against Iran based on its interference in Iraq. In that case, no
further authorization by Congress would be needed for an attack
on Iran.

The journalistic
point is clear. Journalists and political leaders should not talk
about an “attack.” They should use the words that describe what
is really at stake: nuclear war – in boldface.

Then, there
is the scale of the proposed attack. Military reports leaking out
suggest a huge (mostly or entirely non-nuclear) airstrike on as
many as 10,000 targets – a “shock and awe” attack that would
destroy Iran’s infrastructure the way the US bombing destroyed Iraq’s.
The targets would not just be “military targets.” As Dan Plesch
in the New Statesman, February 19, 2007, such an attack would wipe
out Iran’s military, business, and political infrastructure. Not
just nuclear installations, missile launching sites, tanks, and
ammunition dumps, but also airports, rail lines, highways, bridges,
ports, communications centers, power grids, industrial centers,
hospitals, public buildings, and even the homes of political leaders.
That is what was attacked in Iraq: the “critical infrastructure.”
It is not just military in the traditional sense. It leaves a nation
in rubble, and leads to death, maiming, disease, joblessness, impoverishment,
starvation, mass refugees, lawlessness, rape, and incalculable pain
and suffering. That is what the options appear to be “on the table.”
Is nation destruction what the American people have in mind
when they acquiesce without discussion to an “attack”? Is nuclear
what the American people have in mind? An informed public
must ask and the media must ask. The words must be used.

Even if the
attack were limited to nuclear installations, starting a nuclear
with Iran would have terrible consequences – and not
just for Iranians. First, it would strengthen the hand of the Islamic
fundamentalists – exactly the opposite of the effect US planners
would want. It would be viewed as yet another major attack on Islam.
Fundamentalist Islam is a revenge culture. If you want to recruit
fundamentalist Islamists all over the world to become violent jihadists,
this is the best way to do it. America would become a world pariah.
Any idea of the US as a peaceful nation would be destroyed. Moreover,
you don’t work against the spread of nuclear weapons by using those
weapons. That will just make countries all over the world want nuclear
weaponry all the more. Trying to stop nuclear proliferation through
nuclear war is self-defeating.

As Einstein
said, “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.”

Why would the
Bush administration do it? Here is what conservative strategist
William Kristol wrote
last summer during Israel’s war with Hezbollah.

while Syria and Iran are enemies of Israel, they are also enemies
of the United States. We have done a poor job of standing up to
them and weakening them. They are now testing us more boldly than
one would have thought possible a few years ago. Weakness is provocative.
We have been too weak, and have allowed ourselves to be perceived
as weak.

right response is renewed strength – in supporting the governments
of Iraq and Afghanistan, in standing with Israel, and in pursuing
regime change in Syria and Iran. For that matter, we might consider
countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike
against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think
a nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will
negotiate in good faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather
than later. Yes, there would be repercussions – and they would
be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected
further appeasement.”

William Kristol, Weekly Standard 7/24/06

“Renewed strength”
is just the Bush strategy in Iraq. At a time when the Iraqi people
want us to leave, when our national elections show that most Americans
want our troops out, when 60% of Iraqis think it all right to kill
Americans, Bush wants to escalate. Why? Because he is weak in America.
Because he needs to show more “strength.” Because, if he knocks
out the Iranian nuclear facilities, he can claim at least one “victory.”
Starting a nuclear war with Iran would really put us in a
world-wide war with fundamentalist Islam. It would make real the
terrorist threat he has been claiming since 9/11. It would create
more fear – real fear – in America. And he believes, with
much reason, that fear tends to make Americans vote for saber-rattling

Kristol’s neoconservative
view that “weakness is provocative” is echoed in Iran, but by the
other side. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted
in the New York Times of February 24, 2007 as having “vowed anew
to continue enriching uranium, saying, ‘If we show weakness in front
of the enemies, they will increase their expectations.'” If both
sides refuse to back off for fear of showing weakness, then prospects
for conflict are real, despite the repeated analyses, like that
of The Economist
that the use of nuclear weapons against
Iran would be politically and morally impossible. As one unnamed
administration official has said
(New York Times, February 24, 2007), “No one has defined
where the red line is that we cannot let the Iranians step over.”

What we are
seeing now is the conservative message machine preparing the country
to accept the ideas of a nuclear war and nation destruction
against Iran. The technique used is the “slippery slope.” It is
done by degrees. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water –
if the heat is turned up slowly the frog gets used to the heat and
eventually boils to death – the American public is getting
gradually acclimated to the idea of war with Iran.

  • First, describe
    Iran as evil – part of the axis of evil. An inherently evil
    person will inevitably do evil things and can’t be negotiated
    with. An entire evil nation is a threat to other nations.

  • Second,
    describe Iran’s leader as a “Hitler” who is inherently “evil”
    and cannot be reasoned with. Refuse to negotiate with him.

  • Then repeat
    the lie that Iran is on the verge of having nuclear weapons –
    weapons of mass destruction. IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei
    says they are at best many years away.

  • Call nuclear
    development “an existential threat” – a threat to our very

  • Then suggest
    a single “surgical attack” on Natanz and make it seem acceptable.

  • Then find
    a reason to call the attack “self-defense” – or better protection
    for our troops from the EFP’s, or single-shot canister bombs.

  • Claim, without
    proof and without anyone even taking responsibility for the claim,
    that the Iranian government at its highest level is supplying
    deadly weapons to Shiite militias attacking our troops, while
    not mentioning the fact that Saudi Arabia is helping Sunni insurgents
    attacking our troops.

  • Give “protecting
    our troops” as a reason for attacking Iran without getting new
    authorization from Congress. Claim that the old authorization
    for attacking Iraq implied doing “whatever is necessary to protect
    our troops” from Iranian intervention in Iraq.

  • Argue that
    de-escalation in Iraq would “bleed” our troops, “weaken” America,
    and lead to defeat. This sets up escalation as a winning policy,
    if not in Iraq then in Iran.

  • Get the
    press to go along with each step.

  • Never mention
    the words “preventive nuclear war” or “national destruction.”
    When asked, say “All options are on the table.” Keep the issue
    of nuclear war and its consequences from being seriously
    discussed by the national media.

  • Intimidate
    Democratic presidential candidates into agreeing, without using
    the words, that nuclear war should be “on the table.” This makes
    nuclear war and nation destruction bipartisan and
    even more acceptable.

managed to blunt the “surge” idea by telling the truth about “escalation.”
Nuclear war against Iran and nation destruction constitute
the ultimate escalation.

The time has
come to stop the attempt to make a nuclear war against Iran
palatable to the American public. We do not believe that most Americans
want to start a nuclear war or to impose nation destruction
on the people of Iran. They might, though, be willing to support
a tit-for-tat “surgical” “attack” on Natanz in retaliation for small
canister bombs and to end Iran’s early nuclear capacity.

It is time
for America’s journalists and political leaders to put two and two
together, and ask the fateful question: Is the Bush administration
seriously preparing for nuclear war and nation destruction?
If the conventional GBU-28’s will do the job, then why not take
nuclear war off the table in the name of controlling the spread
of nuclear weapons? If GBU-28’s won’t do the job, then it is all
the more important to have that discussion.

This should
not be a distraction from Iraq. The general issue is escalation
as a policy, both in Iraq and in Iran. They are linked issues, not
separate issues. We have learned from Iraq what lack of public scrutiny

2, 2007

Lakoff [send him mail]
is the author of Thinking
(with the Rockridge Institute staff) and Whose
He is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor
of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California
at Berkeley, and a founding senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute.

Email Print