A Cold War Idea Respawned

A government notice in a local newspaper makes a dire request — to protect themselves against the effects of a nuclear exchange.

At the height of the Cold War, Robert Scheer, a Los Angeles Times reporter, wrote a marvelous but deeply disturbing book, With Enough Shovels. The book's title had been drawn from an interview with a senior official from the first Reagan administration who had stated that "with enough shovels" to go around U.S. citizens would be able to dig earthen bomb shelters and survive a nuclear war. The book, quite understandably, attracted much attention and may have even contributed to the administration adopting a less bellicose stance on nuclear issues later in its tenure.

Decades later, the same sentiment is once again heard along the Line of Control (LoC), the highly militarized, de facto international border between India and Pakistan in the disputed states of Jammu and Kashmir. 

In the wake of a recent skirmish which had resulted in the deaths of both Indian and Pakistani soldiers and the beheading of an Indian soldier, tensions had flared between these two long-standing adversaries. Though some Indian commentators appealed for calm, significant segments of the Indian press adopted a particularly hostile stance toward Pakistan especially after word of the beheading spread. Pakistani spokesman, of course, denied that such an incident had taken place and suggested that shrapnel from artillery shells may have contributed to the tragedy.  This explanation did not find many takers in India but flag meetings between local commanders were held and the cease-fire was restored. 
However, last week a government notice in a local newspaper urged villagers along the LoC to both stockpile food and build earthen bunkers to protect themselves against the effects of a nuclear exchange. When questioned about this curious advertisement a senior civil defense official dismissed it as nothing more than a routine warning about appropriate preparedness. The official's response is, at the very least, profoundly disturbing. With the sheer body of evidence that is now available about the horrific effects of a limited nuclear exchange involving even the detonation of small nuclear weapons this advice must be considered feckless. Nuclear weapons, as is well known, are unlike other devices of mass destruction. They have unique properties and can wreak havoc through heat, blast and lingering radiation. No viable means of civil defense even in the most advanced industrial states have yet been devised to survive a nuclear attack.  Suggesting to poor villagers in a country where clean water, sanitation and basic health care are, at best, uneven, that they should prepare earthen shelters and store food for two weeks to survive a nuclear war is not merely irresponsible, but downright chimerical.

Sumit Ganguly is the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations and a Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is also a Diplomat Pulse blog contributor.