Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation.
Lynn Eden's book examines the devastating firestorms that would follow the detonation of nuclear weapons, a topic largely ignored in the prodigious literature on nuclear policy and strategy. She begins her quest by raising an intriguing question: how and why did the US government ignore the possibility of catastrophic atomic firestorms as it developed plans for nuclear war fighting, especially in light of its World War II experience with firebombing and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
The author begins her search for an answer with an empirical inquiry into why the US government routinely underestimated the damage caused by nuclear weapons. Her methodology compares damage predictions of the combined effects of blast and fire with much lower levels of damage expected if only blast effects are measured. Eden discusses and critiques alternative explanations of organizational routines that have seen use in predicting only blast damage. Her research shows that frames used by organizations, particularly the Air Force, to define problems and seek solutions lead to the acquisition of certain types of expertise as well as the emergence of both specialized research programs and knowledge-laden routines. In sum, this process of organizational problem solving causes actors to make critical choices about predictions of blast damage but not fire damage--predictions divorced from attributes of the actual physical environment.
Eden's inquiry into this organizational phenomenon begins with US bombing doctrine shaped in the 1930s and applied during World War II. US Army Air Corps officers believed that bomb damage resulted primarily from blast effects. Although American planners did not entirely ignore the potential for fire damage, they paid far greater attention and applied more resources to predicting and optimizing blast damage.
The blast-damage frame, which carried over into the post-World War II era, strongly influenced the earliest attempts in 1947 and 1948 to predict damage from atomic bombing. Because of the historical association of blast damage with bombing and because analysts and planners believed it more predictable than fire damage, experts, research programs, and knowledge-laden routines focused exclusively on understanding blast damage. By the early 1950s, an extensive research program had arisen for the purpose of acquiring detailed knowledge about the effects of an atomic blast. Consultants hired to conduct this research helped shape the agenda, interpreted data, and developed analytical tools to better predict blast damage. However, no comparable activity sought to understand fire damage from atomic attacks.
US nuclear tests conducted in the early 1950s generated new data that verified and expanded the Vulnerability Number system, a blast-damage model developed in 1951. Although the Air Force commissioned a single study during this period to predict atomic fire damage, the effort did not yield compelling predictions. Other government organizations concerned with civil defense and the protection of equipment during war performed extensive experiments, but none studied or predicted damage from mass fires. Detonation of the first hydrogen bomb by the United States in 1952 created new problems for measuring blast effects due to the longer duration of the blast wave. Accordingly, by the mid-1950s analysts had devised a new method for calculating blast damage for higher-yield weapons. By the late 1950s, they had incorporated this method into a new knowledge-laden routine for predicting blast damage: the VNTK system (VN = vulnerability number, T = type of structure attacked, and K = sensitivity to the duration of the blast wave). Although fire damage increased dramatically compared to blast damage for higher-yield weapons, no one attempted to measure this effect.
From the mid-1950s through the 1970s, a small fire-research community funded by US government agencies interested in civil defense produced computer models of house fires, forest fires, and nuclear mass fires; however, their research failed to produce consistent, reliable predictions. Thus, this work effectively confirmed the organizational beliefs and knowledge-laden routines of individuals oriented toward asserting blast damage as the key metric for understanding the effects of nuclear weapons.
In the 1980s, the Defense Nuclear Agency undertook an effort to predict mass fires for use in nuclear war planning. This study was based on the work of Harold Brode, a scientist at the Pacific-Sierra Corporation, who used an approach which differed markedly from that of the fire-research community. By the early 1990s, Brode and his collaborators had developed a method for predicting both blast and fire damage, and the US government nearly adopted this model for its nuclear war plans. Despite Brode's conclusions, the fire-research community continued to claim that mass fire damage could not be predicted accurately. The group's view, which coincided with the end of the Cold War, proved influential in government circles. This confluence of organizational choice, bureaucratic influence, and historical change halted the US government's interest in developing models to incorporate both blast- and fire-damage models into its nuclear strategy.
As a study of the interplay among science, technology, organizations, and history, Lynn Eden's book makes a valuable contribution to the literature. Importantly, her study raises questions about whether the US nuclear arsenal during the Cold War exceeded actual requirements because it neglected a potentially important metric for measuring overall nuclear effects. Furthermore, it draws parallels to failures caused by misinformed experts and faulty knowledge-laden routines. For example, experts wrongly understood the brittleness of the steel plates used in the Titanic and did not fully understand the O-ring problem that caused the Challenger disaster. Nor did the designers of the World Trade Center grasp the critical difference between the effect of an impact from a Boeing 707 and that of thousands of gallons of jet fuel burning inside the buildings.
Whole World on Fire is thoroughly researched and well documented. Despite Eden's occasionally abstruse and sermonizing prose, her work reminds us of the importance of applying critical thinking to solving problems. Otherwise, we risk the danger of casually applying historically framed organizational routines as though every problem conforms nearly to the past and is amenable to the same set of solutions. Although the author acknowledges that "precaution can be mind-bogglingly expensive" and seems inclined to err in favor of having precaution influence policy and strategy, I suggest that excessive caution can lead to thinking and outcomes just as muddled and wrong as those shaped and influenced by dogmatically applied, knowledge-laden routines.
Lt Col Charles E. Costanzo, PhD, USAF, Retired
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
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|Author:||Costanzo, Charles E.|
|Publication:||Air & Space Power Journal|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2004|
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