Thinking the Unthinkable Again in a Nuclear AgeIn his previous books the journalist Ron Rosenbaum has tackled big topics — Hitler’s evil, Shakespeare’s genius — with acuity and irreverence, believing, correctly, that some things are too important to leave to the experts. He’s proud of his gonzo amateur status, so much so that you half suspect he has a scarlet “A” tattooed across his chest, where Superman wore his “S.”

Mr. Rosenbaum’s books are both profound and excitable. They resemble grad school seminars that have been hijacked by the sardonic kid in the back, the one with the black sweater and nicotine-stained fingers. Mr. Rosenbaum sometimes writes as if he were pacing the seminar room floor, scanning for sharp new ideas. At other times, it’s as if he were passing around red wine and a hookah, seeking to conjure deep, mellow, cosmic thoughts. He’s pretty good in both modes.

His new book, “How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III,” gives us both Mr. Rosenbaums, for better and occasionally for worse. This book is a wide-angle and quite dire meditation on our nuclear present; Mr. Rosenbaum is convincingly fearful about where humanity stands.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” he declares, “but we will all have to think about the unthinkable again.” Our holiday from history is over.

Mr. Rosenbaum charts the likely origins of a nuclear war in the short term, probably in the Middle East (where Israelis fear a second Holocaust, this time a nuclear one) or Pakistan (where stray nukes may yet land in the hands of Islamists) or in the almost marital tensions and miscommunications between the United States and Russia. He pursues thorny moral questions, including this one about nuclear retaliation: “Would it be justice, vengeance or pure genocide to strike back” once our country had been comprehensively bombed?

“How the End Begins” is grim enough that, by its conclusion, you may feel like shopping for — depending on your temperament — either shotgun shells or the kind of suicide pills that spies were said to have sewn into their clothes when dropped behind enemy lines.

An unsuspecting reader who picks up this book expecting a buttoned-down, blue-blazered examination of our nuclear present, a Tom Clancy kind of nonfiction volume, is in for an intellectual drag race. Mr. Rosenbaum is pushy and emphatic on the page.

He asks funny, mordant questions: “Should there be a breathalyzer lock on the nuclear football? A brain scan?” He notes the “suggestive nuke porn name” given to certain mini-nukes: Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrators. He takes note of grim events that are “certain to put a smile on Hitler’s face in hell.”

Mr. Rosenbaum’s book-length seminars, all of them, are cross-disciplinary. Thus “How the End Begins” contains references to, and detours through, everything and everyone from Dante to Terry Southern, Grimm’s fairy tales to Philip Roth, and Faust to Cormac McCarthy. He writes about nuclear launch keys as if he were writing literary criticism. “They are,” he writes,” the objective correlative of Armageddon.”

Ron Rosenbaum

He wonders whether our scientific curiosity itself has poisoned us. And he wonders, powerfully, if “deep down, we really are a species obsessed with its own self-destruction — one that knows it deserves to be cleansed from the world, by fire this time.” We are, he writes, “close to hell.”

There are many moments in “How the End Begins,” however, when you want to hand Mr. Rosenbaum a warm blanket and a cup of decaf. He gets jittery. His sentences develop tics and spasms.

About a Russian command center in a rock quartz mountain, he writes: “A quartz nuclear war mountain! Something fantasmal about it, a satanic big rock candy mountain. A super-weapon Fortress of Solitude!” About the United States president’s nuclear football: “Televise his next black briefcase drill! Let the nation see the nuclear football up close! Challenge the Russians to do the same, simultaneously!”

About retaliating against a nuclear attack not with bombs but with moral condemnation, he says: “Right, sic Fox News on the attacker. That would show them! And Olberman: Worst Country in the World! That would hurt.” (Keith Olbermann has two n’s in his name.)

Mr. Rosenbaum’s robust ego often leaps into view and waves at you, like those little ads that pop up at the bottom of your television screen during programs. He refers constantly to his old works of journalism. He reminds you of his small moments of linguistic glory (“When I first coined the term ‘nuke porn’ ”), and praises his own feats of research.

Some of these moments are lightly comical. “I’ll never forget a spooky trip I took to an all-night copy shop through the deserted, wind-whipped streets of Hiroshima at about 4 in the morning to fax a story for a U.S. deadline,” he writes, sounding like a cub reporter who’s read too much James Jones. In the last section of his book, about the idea of reducing the world’s nuclear warheads to zero, he declares, “I think a discovery I made in the nuclear vault might play a role.”

Mr. Rosenbaum’s book is bracing and never dull. He sorts through the close calls during what he calls “the first nuclear era.” He says about the Cuban missile crisis and other events: “It turns out we weren’t scared enough.”

He writes with particular feeling about the threats Israel faces from Iran and other Middle Eastern states, noting that Iran needs only two bombs to erase Israel forever. He compares the anti-Semitic rhetoric coming out of the Middle East to Hitler’s.

Mr. Rosenbaum doesn’t engage at length with the body of literature of nuclear peril, but attaches this subject to his own obsessions, notably Hitler. He writes darkly about Israel’s own nukes and its possible temptation to use them: “For the first time in history, a people facing extermination while the world either cackles or looks away — unlike the Armenians, Tibetans, World War II European Jews or Rwandans — have the power to destroy the world,” he writes. “The ultimate justice?”

We’re in a new nuclear era, with new rules, new Strangeloves, new kinds of brinkmanship, new ghosts in new machines. Count Mr. Rosenbaum as a pessimist. “I think only luck has saved us,” he writes, “and our luck is bound to run out.”

That’s cosmic. And far from mellow.

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