Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Review: Nuclear War: A Scenario by Annie Jacobsen


Nuclear War: A Scenario by Annie Jacobsen
Publication Date: March 26th, 2024
Hardcover. 400 pages.

About Nuclear War:

"There is only one scenario other than an asteroid strike that could end the world as we know it in a matter of hours: nuclear war. And one of the triggers for that war would be a nuclear missile inbound toward the United States.

Every generation, a journalist has looked deep into the heart of the nuclear military establishment: the technologies, the safeguards, the plans, and the risks. These investigations are vital to how we understand the world we really live in—where one nuclear missile will beget one in return, and where the choreography of the world’s end requires massive decisions made on seconds’ notice with information that is only as good as the intelligence we have.

Pulitzer Prize finalist Annie Jacobsen’s Nuclear War: A Scenario explores this ticking-clock scenario, based on dozens of exclusive new interviews with military and civilian experts who have built the weapons, have been privy to the response plans, and have been responsible for those decisions should they have needed to be made. Nuclear War: A Scenario examines the handful of minutes after a nuclear missile launch. It is essential reading, and unlike any other book in its depth and urgency."

Nuclear War is a harrowing nonfiction book that walks readers through what a hypothetical nuclear war scenario could look like. As you might expect, it's not pretty. 

I was immediately drawn into Jacobsen's step by step, minute by minute detailing of what may happen immediately after an ICBM is launched from North Korea and targeted towards the United States. She goes in-depth into each person's role, but the president as Commander in Chief to the Secretary of Defense to those stationed at various military bases and nuclear power plants around the country. Because nuclear war is an international event, she also introduces us to the key players, namely Russia and North Korea, though others are also mentioned, and go in-depth into what we know of their own nuclear abilities, stockpiles, and diplomatic relations. She also goes into plenty of minute by minute detail of what exactly happens when a nuclear bomb is detonated and the science behind how the work, as well as how humans, infrastructure, and plant life in the initial radius are instantly destroyed, while longer term effects such as radiation poisoning continue to wreak havoc long after an initial explosion. 

This books is absolutely packed with information on every page, including an abundance of quotes and interviews with prominent figures involved in areas associated with defense, war, and diplomatic relations. Information is also presented in short chapters that discuss both the present hypothetical situation and also dive deeper into the history of nuclear weapons, the current big players involved in the development of nuclear weapons, and a huge variety of other minutiae associated with nuclear weapons including how ICBMs and SLBMs work. Within these chapters, Jacobsen even adds on small targeted history lessons on topics like the Presidential Football here and there to make sure every aspect is covered. Even if you already know a lot about nuclear weapons and war, I'm sure there's still plenty of extra information to come away with. 

The only real complaint I have for this book is Annie Jacobsen's somewhat melodramatic way of writing. I'll allow that this is a very dramatic topic so it was fitting and definitely helped hammer home the severity of what she's talking about, but it just felt overdone at times. It was almost to the point that it lost intensity though because I just wanted her to move on rather than continue to reiterate the point. An example (and this is even a smaller one): "Which leaves the boomers. The nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered submarines. The handmaidens of the apocalypse. The vessels of death. Unlocatable by Russian missiles and therefore unstoppable. Nuclear-armed to the teeth." (It reminded me a bit of why V.E. Schwab's writing starts to get a bit tiresome for me, as she does something very similar with the short sentences, though of course Nuclear War is nonfiction). There's a definitely a sense that Jacobsen is trying to scare people into understanding the reality of nuclear weapons, which isn't something that I have a problem with, but that may leave you–like me–feeling a bit helpless since there's not much that we can do (at least, as an average citizen, I'm not sure what I could do). 

Nuclear War is a terrifying read, and probably the most intense horror book you'll read all year–and it's all based in reality, which makes it even worse. Of course, Jacobsen's scenario is only that, a scenario, but the potential behind it is enough to make anyone feel a bit of a shiver to imagine how easy it would actually be for our world to be destroyed by nuclear weapons in less than 24 hours. This is an anxiety-inducing read, but also a fascinating one, and I guarantee you'll come out of it with a better sense of what's at stake. Overall, I've given Nuclear War four stars!

*I received a copy of Nuclear War in exchange for an honest review. This has no effect on my rating.*

Buy the book: Amazon | Bookshop.org


  1. This sounds equal parts fascinating and terrifying! I'm adding it to my TBR!

  2. I think I'll skip this! It does sound fascinating but I think it would give me nightmares.

  3. Why is this book being labeled as Non-fiction, when the entire premise is made up by the author? It is by definition fictional.

    1. Fair question! I'd say it's nonfiction due to the fact-based information that makes up the majority of the book. The scenario itself is fictional, but her movements and explanation of events that could occur in such a scenario are relaying information (for instance, when she talks about the presidential football in her scenario, which would almost certainly be used in a nuclear war scenario, she then goes on to explain what it is, it's history, how it works, etc.). I would say similar idea to reading a textbook about a certain topic that then provides an example of whatever the subject is–an experiment of sorts, if you will. It's not a straight fictional story, more of an example of how the facts she shares could progress. That's my thinking, at least! :)