Start Worrying and Loathe the Bomb

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Review of 'The New Nuclear Danger', Helen Caldicott, The New Press £10.95

While the war on Iraq focused attention on conventional weapons, the US continues to develop its Star Wars programme. With the 'war on terror' replacing the Cold War, it might seem logical that nuclear weapons would lose some of their strategic importance. But George W Bush's recent hike in the US military budget did not neglect nuclear projects.

Helen Caldicott's book looks at the nature of the US nuclear arsenal and how the military has continued to design new nuclear weapons despite the agreement to extend the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Each of the agreements signed by Russia and the US on reducing the number of nuclear warheads left more than enough weapons in place to destroy the planet. Nevertheless the race to develop new bombs continues despite there being no other country chasing the US.

Caldicott puts the US nuclear programme in the broader context of the arms industry. The three largest arms corporations--Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon--won over $33 billion worth of Pentagon contracts in 2000. Each time a cruise missile is fired, Raytheon can bank $1 million for its replacement. The financial links with the ruling class run in the other direction too, through lobby firms and donations to political funds.

Caldicott argues at one point that these corporations can be more powerful than the US state, though this seems a bit overdone. She claims the expansion of Nato was driven not by politicians but by the arms companies, on the grounds that new member states would then have to buy US armaments. But US political leaders knew they could ignore any previous assurances that they would not expand Nato up to Russia's borders.

On the other hand, it is clear that the arms makers wield enormous power. During the 1990s a series of mergers between weapons makers were driven through by the US state machine in an effort to bring down costs. But by the end of the process, the overall cost to the Pentagon of these contracts had risen rather than fallen.

The book shows both the terrifying and surreally comic sides of nuclear weapons. On 25 January 1995, the world was only three minutes away from nuclear attack. The Russians had lost the record of being notified of a US satellite launch and assumed the launch to be the start of a nuclear attack. It was only when the US missile veered off course--as Boris Yeltsin sat at a computer, being advised about how to launch a nuclear war--that the Russians realised they were not under attack.

The targeting of US missiles could have been lifted from the script of the film 'Dr Strangelove'. As ever more warheads were manufactured, US military planners had to find new targets to aim their bombs at. Rather than admitting that any of the warheads were unnecessary, they simply fabricated new targets. By 1986, the list of targets included 16,000 Russian 'nuclear facilities'. Many of these facilities were invented.

Caldicott writes clearly and with passion. She shows how nuclear weapons have 'leaked' into the conventional arsenal. In both Kosovo and Iraq, Britain and the US have used depleted uranium shells, leaving a radioactive legacy that will remain long after the wars have ended. This book shows these links and can be a valuable resource in building the anti-war movement.