Lynn Eden's book offers hot lessons from Cold War

Eden book

Lynn Eden's award-winning book, Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge and Nuclear Weapons Devastation, focuses on the past but it offers broader lessons for the ongoing war on terror. The book asks how and why, for more than half a century, the U.S. government failed to predict fire damage as it drew up plans to fight a strategic nuclear war, even though a nuclear firestorm "would extend two to five times farther than blast damage," Eden wrote in the book. As a result, the U.S. government underestimated the real damage that would be caused by nuclear weapons and built far more warheads than it needed for war-planning purposes.

Eden, a senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, analyzed how this disconnect could develop and discovered that the answer lies in how organizations frame the problems they try to solve. Eden said the U.S. Air Force was able to develop very good predictions of a nuclear blast but failed to include fire damage because its goal was "to knock things down."

"It just didn't dawn on them" to include fire damage, Eden said. Furthermore, although U.S. atomic bombs caused massive fire damage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, analysts believed it was impossible to predict nuclear firestorms because they would be subject to weather. "The two reinforced each other -- they didn't want to burn things down and they thought they couldn't predict fire," Eden said. "A disparity of knowledge developed."

In her book, Eden turned to the research of nuclear engineer Theodore Postol and physicist Harold Brode to show that mass fire creates its own environment, which is rarely affected by weather conditions. In excerpts from a 1995 letter to Eden, Brode wrote: "Even with the most extremes of weather, target susceptibility and operational circumstances, fire damage is not appreciably less predictable than that due to blast."

Whole World on Fire explains how and why war planners failed to incorporate this knowledge. Even today, Eden said, fire damage is not part of the U.S. nuclear war plan. "Whole World on Fire shows how well-funded and highly professional organizations, by focusing on what they do well and systematically excluding what they don't do well, may build a poor representation of the world -- a self-reinforcing fallacy that can have serious consequences," she wrote.

Eden said the findings remain relevant today. "I think one lesson is that you can have very smart people, operating with the highest integrity, but because you focus one way instead of another way you just have these blind spots," she said. "Where you have secrecy, you lose the ability to light up those blind spots. This is an issue for intelligence, which, by nature, has to be secret. What can you do about it? You have to build in mechanisms of second-guessing."

The structure of an organization is also critical because pronouncements alone do not lead to change, Eden said. For example, in December 1998, then CIA Director George Tenet issued a directive on terrorism that stated: "We are at war. I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside CIA or the community." The memorandum had little effect on mobilizing the Central Intelligence Agency or the intelligence community. "It's never enough to say, as Tenet did, 'We're going to have a war on terror,'" Eden said. "To have organizational change, you have to implement all the way down to how things are done."

Whole World on Fire won this year's Robert K. Merton Professional Award, presented by the American Sociological Association. The award committee described the book as "a work of intellectual daring" because Eden chose "to take a stand on the truth claims of the science in question."

Although the book focuses on the Cold War, its legacy can help inform how defense experts plan for a possible nuclear attack today. "What happens when terrorists acquire fissile materials?" Eden asked. Such a bomb would be unlikely to have an explosive power of 300 kilotons -- the approximate yield of most modern strategic nuclear weapons -- but it could be as much as the 15-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima, she said. "Then we're into a firestorm," she added. "It could still happen. It's a real threat."