If you had spoken in the year 1899 to a 20-year-old man and told him that the coming century would wreak more damage and take more human life than all the European wars until that time combined, he might have laughed at you. It would have seemed unthinkable to an enlightened mind at the end of the 19th Century that peaceful Europe could be convulsed by a mechanized horror on a level mankind had never before witnessed. How could he, or others, conceive of an international conflict which would consume the lives of 45 million people, eradicate hundreds of ancient villages and cities and sweep away some of the most powerful monarchies on earth? Perhaps in Africa or Asia. But surely not in civilized Europe.
Now, if you told a man in 1920 that twenty years later the world would be visited by a renewed horror, but this time on a far broader and more desperate scale, he might have taken you a little more seriously. That’s because the experiences of the First World War left a deep scar on the consciousness of the post war generation, awakening it to the perils of high technology and the devastation that human beings could now wreak upon one another. It strengthened its leaders’ resolve to prevent war of any such kind in the future.
Most of us living in the comfortable early years of the 21st Century have no real memory of true hardship or of cataclysmic conflicts which once gripped the world and transformed it forever. Our last great existential crisis, the Cold War, stretched for 43 years, but ironically had only a marginal impact on the pace and enjoyment of life in the West. Except for small intervals, the economic success of the post-war years has largely inoculated us against the kind of despair our forefathers experienced during the first half of the 20th Century. The Great Depression, with its searing images of bread lines, 15 % unemployment and dust bowl poverty, is now a very distant memory, fading into meaninglessness when viewed through the prism of modern life.
Memory in “live for the moment’ western society does not tend to stretch beyond a generation or two. Yet if there is one thing that the recent economic collapse has reminded us it is that good times do not and cannot go on forever. Wars, natural disasters and economic landslides are part of the natural progression of history and every generation should expect to be visited by them. Seen in this light, the major catastrophes which punctuated the Bush years – the attacks of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the economic crisis of 2008, were part of the historical continuum, not outliers. Our lack of physical and psychological preparedness for them and the panic they spread was far more a function of the absence of historical memory than a dearth of good intelligence, accurate weather forecasting or effective market regulation.
So if we cast our minds back to that Gilded Age man and think for a moment about his world view, we might find it fairly easy to identify with his skeptical outlook. While it may be true that the past eight years have produced events that have deeply shaken us, they have not been quite so cataclysmic as to strip us of hope for the future or faith in our political system and way of life. Yes, the United States mainland was attacked for the first time in 189 years and 3,000 innocents lost their lives. But there are very few, even in the highest echelons of government, who believe that another attack, even if it is a localized nuclear attack, would wipe out our civilization.
That is an enormous miscalculation.
Today the United States is completely unprepared for the event of an electromagnetic pulse attack. Such an attack, known to the United States military since 1963, occurs when an enemy vessel outside U.S. territorial waters launches a ballistic missile carrying a nuclear warhead which detonates some 100 miles in the atmosphere above the continental United States. If plotted correctly, the electro magnetic current from this explosion, while perhaps causing no fatalities on the ground , would generate such a voluminous shockwave that it would effectively short circuit the country’s electrical grid. The devastating impact can barely be imagined: No communications; no transportation; no refrigeration; no water supply; no heat nor air conditioning and no possibility of immediate repair.
Within a short time most families, who are provisioned with an average three days worth of food, would be reduced to desperate measures. Looting, riots, murder and destruction would grip most cities. Within a few a months, parts of the United States of America would to begin to resemble the landscape portrayed in Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic novel The Road – a devastated populace with mass starvation and roaming gangs who have no compunction about killing for food.
Who is capable of carrying out such an attack? According to a report presented to Congress in 2004, Russia and China already have the capacity for such a strike and North Korea could acquire the technology by 2015. Iranian technicians have apparently known for years that an EMP attack on the United States is by far the most effective means of eliminating a U.S. military threat to Iran.
Wouldn’t most of these countries fear U.S. retaliation? Well, yes. But the beauty of an EMP attack for the aggressor is that the victim never quite knows who has launched the strike. Terror sponsoring states could easily unload responsibility for it onto the backs of one of the many terrorist organizations salivating to deliver such a blow. The identity of the perpetrating group could remain hidden for years, leaving no real target for retaliation.
What can be done to prevent such an attack? An effective missile defense system, for one thing, designed specifically to interdict such ballistic weapons at launch phase. Another important measure is to mandate that all electrical generators throughout the country be sufficiently ‘hardened’ against such an attack – an operation that is relatively cost effective. According to the 2004 Congressional report, depending on the power level involved, points of entry into electrical generators can sometimes be protected from an electromagnetic pulse by using specially designed surge protectors, special wire termination procedures, screened isolated transformers, spark gaps, or other types of specially-designed electrical filters. Critical systems may also be protected by increasing the number of backup units, and by keeping these units dispersed and out of range of the electromagnetic pulse source.
So, then, what is being done to address EMP threats? In a word, nothing. Although the Congressional Report made clear that an EMP is the most lethal threat the United States currently faces, no one at the senior level of the Department of Defense seems to have read the report and top government leaders, including former President Bush, seem blissfully unaware of the magnitude of the threat.
A normal reaction to such a scenario as the one presented here is that it is too wild a prospect, too beyond believability. And that is indeed what our leaders probably think. But return now to the Gilded Age man. Think of his incredulity to the prospect of an absolute destruction of his civilization. Think about the risks of doing nothing in preparation. And consider that if it happens, there may not be many of us left to recall how arrogant we were, or how shallow was our memory, in accepting that it could never really happen to us.