Outrage management in Israel-Palestine

Hamas’ 7 October 2023 attack on Israel and the subsequent Israeli military attack on Gaza generated enormous rage and despair throughout much of the world. To understand these reactions, it is helpful to examine the tactics commonly used by powerful perpetrators of actions perceived as unjust.

            In the long-standing conflict in Israel-Palestine, supporters on each side have perceived their opponents’ statements and actions as threatening and dangerous. Then came the 7 October attack by fighters from Hamas, the governing body in the Gaza Strip, and the Israeli military’s assault on Gaza. Much of the discussion about these events has been about the rights and wrongs of the two sides, including acts of violence, ways to stop the war, arguments for and against Zionism and Hamas, Israeli settler colonialism, Hamas’ terrorism, antisemitism and Islamophobia, two-state and other options for conflict resolution, and the history of the conflict.

            A different perspective on these events can be obtained by examining tactics used to reduce or increase public outrage. In a sense, in parallel with the fighting, there is a different sort of struggle, over people’s understanding of what is happening.

Outrage management

Most people are angry, distressed or upset when they witness an obvious injustice. For example, if someone shoots into a peaceful crowd, this can cause public alarm, anger and distress: this is unprovoked killing, which few people treat as acceptable. Perpetrators commonly take steps to reduce adverse responses to their actions. This can be called “outrage management,” namely influencing people’s feelings in response to a potentially upsetting action.

            A murderer can do this by concealing evidence, so no one knows what they did. If they are accused, they can claim it was an accident or that they were provoked. When a powerful group — for example a government or corporation — is responsible, it has more potential tools to reduce outrage. These tools or methods can be classified into five categories.

  • Cover-up: the actions are hidden from wider audiences
  • Devaluation: the target is denigrated and demonised
  • Reinterpretation: the meaning of the action is altered by lying, minimising consequences, blaming others and/or framing it as appropriate or justifiable
  • Official channels: formal processes are used to give an appearance of justice without much substance
  • Intimidation: participants and observers are threatened or harmed.

How these methods work is, in most cases, straightforward. When an action is hidden, people don’t know about it and so can’t be upset. When a target is devalued, what is done to them doesn’t seem so bad: murdering an esteemed brain surgeon is worse than murdering a serial killer. Reinterpretation techniques change the way people think about an action. Intimidation can affect whether someone decides to do something. The method of official channels, in contrast, can be counterintuitive. When an issue is referred to expert panels, appeal bodies or courts, many people think justice is being done. However, when perpetrators are powerful, official channels often are slow, procedural and target low-level agents with minimal consequences, with the result that public outrage dies down but little of substance happens.

            The same five types of methods are used by perpetrators and their allies in a wide variety of actions, including censorship, sexual harassment, industrial disasters, massacres, demonising of refugees, wartime bombing of civilians, torture and genocide. This is called the backfire model, because if the methods to reduce outrage fail, the perpetrator’s actions can become counterproductive. There is a body of writing applying this model to diverse issues.

            To complete the picture, it is useful to consider counter-tactics, used by targets and their supporters, to increase public outrage over injustice. These are reversals or counters to the five types of methods noted above.

  • Exposure of the action, countering cover-up
  • Validation of the target, countering devaluation
  • Interpretation of the event as an injustice, countering lying, minimising, blaming and framing
  • Avoiding or discrediting official channels; instead, mobilising support
  • Resisting intimidation.

            This framework — five methods that can reduce outrage from injustice, and five counter-methods that can increase it — can be applied to both sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict, going back decades. The events on and after 7 October have highlighted the use of these methods, some of which have gone into overdrive. Because the framework applies in a more obvious way to the Israeli military assault, I will cover it first, with examples of each of the methods. Then I’ll address the Hamas attack using the same framework, showing some distinctive differences in the methods used.

            This examination is far from comprehensive, for two main reasons. First, the volume of material about each of the two atrocities is so great that only a few examples can be given. Second, new information will be revealed in the future, in the coming years or decades. Although atrocities can be limited in time — Hamas’ 7 October attack was over in a day — disputes over what happened and its meaning can continue for a very long time. For example, the Turkish government continues to deny the Armenian genocide a century after it occurred.

Armenian genocide

The tactics of outrage management can be deployed before, during and after the events. Accordingly, the treatment here can be considered a preliminary assessment, one that will require revision and updating as new information becomes available. Furthermore, by the nature of cover-up, some relevant information may never be publicly known.

The Israeli military assault on Gaza. 1: Reducing outrage

Soon after Hamas’ 7 October attack, the Israeli government initiated a military response that targeted both Hamas and the wider Gazan population and infrastructure. Information about the consequences of this military response triggered anger and despair in many parts of the world, threatening to harm the reputation and operations of the Israeli government. Therefore, it is predictable that the government and its supporters would take measures to reduce adverse reactions to the military operation.

            Cover-up In many previous cases of mass killing, perpetrators have made serious efforts to hide their actions from wider publics, at least from ones that might be opposed to it. What is unusual about the Israeli assault on Gaza is that so much of the operation — bombings, targeted killings, destruction of hospitals, denial of food, and much else — has been revealed to a wide range of audiences. This is a prime reason why the level of international protest has been far greater than from many previous atrocities.

Although many of the consequences of the assault have been exposed, nevertheless some Israeli actions have received little or no attention. For example, compared to the huge publicity about the hostages taken by Hamas, there is almost no attention to what might be deemed Israeli de-facto hostage-taking, with thousands of Palestinians arrested and imprisoned without being charged or tried. There is little media attention to claims that Palestinian prisoners have been ill-treated, even tortured. There have been reports of Israeli shooters targeting civilians, military targeting of water infrastructure, and obstruction of humanitarian efforts, that have received little attention in mainstream media internationally. The Israeli military does not publicise these actions and targets some of the journalists who expose them (see below under the category intimidation). Some foreign media organisations do not report these sorts of actions.

Gaza water well

            When there are reports about Israeli military actions that challenge its official narrative, how can we say cover-up was involved? It is useful to think of secrecy as an onion, with many layers. Some information is known only to an inner core, some to a slightly larger group, and so on, with ultimately some information broadcast to large audiences. Some features of the Israeli military assault are known but given little attention. Cover-up is a process with many players. The Israeli military and government can try to hide or downplay some information; so can international media, especially those sympathetic to the Israeli cause.

            Devaluation For many Israelis, Palestinians are considered inferior, as people whose lives do not matter as much as the lives of Israelis, and some Israeli figures have attempted to dehumanise Palestinians. Dramatic examples of this sort of attitude were cited in the South African application for proceedings before the International Court of Justice, accusing the state of Israel of genocide, for example the Prime Minister referring to “monsters” and “barbarians” and the Minister of Defence referring to “human animals.” Law for Palestine provides a comprehensive list of Israeli incitement to genocide, in which devaluation plays a crucial role.

            Another aspect of devaluation is labelling Hamas as a terrorist organisation. “Terrorism” is a loaded term, normally only applied to non-state groups, although scholars argue that state terrorism is far more deadly than non-state terrorism. The Israeli government has killed far more Palestinians than vice versa, yet Israeli operations are seldom called terrorism. Some Israeli figures have talked of all Gazans as Hamas, thereby applying the stigma attached to Hamas to the entire population.

            Reinterpretation Powerful perpetrators commonly try to reduce outrage by explaining, or explaining away, their actions, by lying, minimising, blaming or framing. When the Israeli military targeted al-Shifa Hospital, it claimed its purpose was to destroy a Hamas command centre located underneath the hospital. However, evidence supporting Israeli claims was questioned, suggesting that the official rationale for the attack on the hospital was a lie.

            Israeli government spokespeople have repeatedly assigned responsibility for their assault on Hamas, specifically on the 7 October attack, which is the reinterpretation technique of blaming. They have called their actions a defence of Israel against aggression, which is the reinterpretation technique of framing.

            Official channels When other methods of reducing outrage work well, powerful perpetrators may feel no need to invoke official channels. This can change when calls for accountability become exceptionally strong. The Israeli military’s killing of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers on 1 April 2024 was publicised internationally and seen as especially egregious because those killed were White Westerners, not Gazans, and were involved in humanitarian efforts, which made them harder to devalue. As information came out that their WCK convey was well marked and the Israeli military had been notified about its route, the usual reinterpretation technique of claiming it was a mistake was insufficient.

            The response of Israeli authorities was to dismiss two military officers and reprimand two others. This followed the usual pattern of powerful perpetrators who are exposed: a few lower-level individuals are given relatively mild penalties, but policymakers are exempt from investigation or stricture. In the WCK case, the inquiry was in-house, run by members of the perpetrator group, and accordingly had less credibility than an independent inquiry. Either way, formal inquiries can serve to suggest that processes are operating to address the injustice, so continued protest is not necessary.

            Another sort of official channel is statements by leaders of other governments criticising the Israeli government over its assault on Gaza. US President Joe Biden has been widely reported in the media as expressing US government displeasure with Israeli actions. This seems to respond to protests demanding US government action. However, this public rhetoric gives only the appearance of addressing popular concerns, given that even as Biden spoke, the US government continued to supply weapons to the Israeli military.

            Intimidation Speaking out against the Israeli military assault is potentially risky, depending on the circumstances. Over a hundred journalists in Gaza have been killed, injured or arrested, suggesting that exposing the events poses a threat to the Israeli operation, and also indicating how dangerous it is to do this. In some countries whose leaders back Israel, in particular Germany and the United States, protesters against the assault on Gaza have been arrested.


This brief overview indicates how the Israeli military and government, and their backers internationally, have used five methods — cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels and intimidation — that can serve to reduce public outrage over the assault on Gaza. However, given the huge level of opposition, it can be said that these efforts have been only partially successful. The assault on Gaza led to a drastic decline in international support for the Israeli government.

Generating outrage over the Israeli military assault on Gaza. 2: Increasing outrage

To understand the limits of efforts to reduce public outrage, it is useful to look briefly at five counter-methods that increase outrage.

            Exposure As noted, what is distinctive about the Israeli assault, compared with many other atrocities, is the massive media exposure. This can be attributed to two factors. First, Israel-Palestine has long been high-profile in the Western media compared to other equally deadly conflicts elsewhere, which scholar Virgil Hawkins refers to as “stealth conflicts.”

Second, the widespread use of video devices, along with communication channels, has made it far easier to circulate vivid portrayals of killing and destruction to international audiences. The continuing flow of images and information has been crucial in generating public outrage outside Israel.

            Validation Although Palestinians are devalued within Israel, internationally this is not quite the same despite demonisation of Muslims in many places. Stories of personal loss and trauma, that feature in some news reports, make Palestinians seem as human as anyone else, and powerfully counter devaluation. References to children who have been killed or who are dying from starvation are especially influential because children are widely perceived as innocents.

Palestinian boy in Gaza refugee camp

            Interpretation The killing and destruction have been portrayed as extreme and disproportionate to anything done by Palestinians. Labelling the Israeli assault genocide is an interpretation of what is happening, especially controversial because Jews were the primary target of the Nazi genocide, and potent for the same reason, as it is tragically ironic to imagine descendants of genocide becoming agents of one. (See also “Genocide reflections“.)

            Official channels It is difficult to assess the role of official channels in dampening or promoting public outrage. Much of the international protest in support of Gazans has been to pressure governments to act, and as such is an appeal to official channels, seemingly with limited effectiveness. The South African submission to the International Court of Justice, alleging genocide, is also an official channel but, in the context of ongoing killing and destruction, seems to have contributed to public awareness and concern.

International Court of Justice

            Resistance Within Gaza, efforts to document killing and destruction, and to provide relief, have continued despite the dangers. This resistance to intimidation has been crucial to maintaining outrage internationally.

Hamas’ attack on 7 October. 1: Reducing outrage

Hamas’ 7 October 2023 attack on Israeli soldiers and civilians, and the taking of hundreds of hostages, can be analysed using the same categories. This is not an assessment of the morality or effectiveness of the attack, but rather of the methods used by Hamas to reduce outrage from its actions.

            Cover-up Hamas did little to hide its attack.

            Devaluation By its actions, Hamas treated Israeli lives as tools in a struggle. In the wider Palestinian population, there are examples of derogatory attitudes towards Israelis.

            Reinterpretation Hamas put out a statement presenting its motives for the attack, putting its attack in the context of the history of Israeli displacement and killing of Palestinians. This was an attempt at framing, at getting audiences to see its actions from its perspective. However, it did not deny killing many hundreds of Israelis and kidnapping hundreds more.

            Official channels Hamas had no capacity to use expert panels, inquiries or courts to give an appearance that justice was being done concerning its actions. There is no evidence that Hamas penalised any of its members for their actions on 7 October.

            Intimidation After 7 October, Hamas had little capacity to threaten or hurt those who exposed or condemned its actions. One possible source of leverage was its hostages, but there is little evidence of threats to hurt or kill them.

            In summary, Hamas had little capacity to reduce outrage over its actions on 7 October 2023, and seemed not to use even what small capacity it had, for example by devaluation or intimidation. It might be concluded that one purpose of the attack was to generate public anger. It can be argued that Hamas leaders knew their attack would lead to a massive Israeli military response, which in turn could generate support for the Palestinian cause, but at the expense of many Palestinian lives.

Hamas’ attack on 7 October. 2: Increasing outrage

In response to Hamas’ 7 October attack, the Israeli government and sympathisers worldwide undertook a major effort to generate public outrage, an effort that was highly successful, especially in terms of public opinion and support from governments internationally. Looking at the methods used to increase public outrage shows some unusual features.

            Exposure Given that Hamas had done little to hide its attack, it was straightforward for Israeli authorities to publicise it. The attack became a number-one news story in many parts of the world, with coverage continuing for weeks afterwards. The exposure was aided by the high profile of Israel-Palestine in international coverage of conflicts, and by the sympathies of many journalists and editors worldwide. This was a prime story for generating outrage: the killing and kidnapping of a large number of innocent civilians.

            However, there was a twist to this campaign to publicise Hamas’ atrocity: cover-up by Israeli authorities of some aspects of the events. According to some reports, which received little attention, many Israeli deaths during the attack were caused by the Israeli military as it sought to kill Hamas fighters. This was per the “Hannibal directive,” by which Israeli military priorities are to prevent the taking of hostages even at the expense of the lives of Israeli civilians. The implication is that publicity about Hamas’ attack was incomplete, leaving out the role of the Israeli military in causing hundreds of Israeli deaths.

            Validation Publicity about Hamas’ attack was effective in highlighting that the Israeli victims had moral worth, especially through stories about individuals, both the dead and the kidnapped. Giving personal details and photos of the Israeli victims made their humanity vivid, so audiences could empathise and feel sorrow. Little attention was given to the fact that many of the Israelis killed were military personnel; it is easier to see civilians as innocent.

Israeli hostages

            Interpretation It was straightforward to interpret Hamas’ attack as unjust, as an unscrupulous assault on innocent civilians. This was the frame that dominated most media coverage. Nevertheless, there were several unusual features of the pro-Israeli interpretation techniques.

            One of the claims about the attack was that Hamas had cut off the heads of babies, something even more horrible than killing adults. However, several investigative reports concluded that there was no good evidence for this claim. Another claim was that Hamas endorsed mass rape as a weapon of war. This also has come under question. These claims could be examples of lying or exaggerating to generate public outrage.

            In early 2024, the Israeli government made allegations against UNRWA — the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, which was playing a crucial role in providing humanitarian aid to Gazans — including that some of its members were involved with Hamas’ 7 October attack. In response to these allegations, many governments suspended funding of UNRWA. However, the Israeli government failed to provide solid documentation for its claims, which thus could be another example of lying to increase public outrage. It also involves the technique of devaluation, of guilt by association, namely of UNRWA by association with Hamas and its attack.

            Another reinterpretation technique was treating the 7 October attack as unrelated to previous history, in particular Israeli attacks on Palestinians and their livelihoods, notably the 1948 Nakba, in which thousands of Palestinians were killed and more than half a million were driven from their lands, to which they have been unable to return. This is a framing technique, seeing events from a perspective justifying a heightened Israeli military response.

            Avoiding official channels; mobilising support Because Hamas had no access to official channels that might dampen reactions to its 7 October attack, there was no need for Israeli authorities or campaigners to avoid or discredit official channels. Instead, their main approach was to mobilise support, which they did with remarkable effectiveness in the days after the attack, with the help of massive media coverage generating popular sympathy for Israelis and Israel. Mobilising support also extended to governments, with government leaders around the world condemning the attack. This might be thought of as a use of official channels not in the usual pattern by powerful perpetrators to reduce outrage through delay, technicalities and dependence on experts — the factors that commonly make formal procedures cause popular outrage to subside — but in a different pattern, by the targets of attack to give legitimacy and support for popular feelings of sympathy and support.

            Resistance In the aftermath of 7 October, the threat from Hamas to people in Israel and their supporters was minimal, except for one crucial group, the hostages. The Israeli government and its allies did not let this threat inhibit their condemnation and, soon after, its armed response.


In summary, after 7 October the Israeli government and its supporters domestically and internationally, in government, media and civil society, used the full range of methods to generate outrage over Hamas’ attack. What is different from the usual pattern is that in responding to the attack, the Israeli government and its supporters used some methods characteristic of perpetrators of injustice, including cover-up, reinterpretation techniques of lying and reframing, and launching a massive operation of reprisal.

            This difference from the usual pattern can be partly explained by the fact that Hamas is the weaker party in the conflict with the Israeli government. In the wider context, Hamas was not a “powerful perpetrator” in the sense of being able to deploy a full gamut of methods to reduce public outrage over its actions. Instead, its attack almost seemed designed to backfire, a pattern peculiar to non-state terrorism. In contrast, the Israeli military attack on Gaza was a clear case of a powerful group taking action against a weaker one, with the Israeli actions widely seen as disproportionate to anything Palestinian civilians had done, so the use by the Israeli government and its supporters of all the methods of reducing public outrage is not surprising.


In the vast volume of commentary on Gaza since 7 October 2023, there has been little attention given to the methods used by the Israeli government and its supporters on the one hand, and by Palestinians and their supporters on the other, to manage public emotions about and responses to the events. In this struggle over outrage, campaigners on each side support those they portray as the worthiest victims. This manifests in efforts to highlight despicable actions taken by those on the other side. Being seen as a victim becomes a claim for moral worth.

            This struggle over worthiness in part relies on current events, but it also has a strong historical dimension, as each side draws on its interpretation of the past to advance its current claims. Zionists repeatedly draw on the legacy of the Holocaust as making them worthy victims decades later, and for identifying antisemitism as an especially grievous form of hatred. Israelis also point to a history of Palestinian violence against Israelis, including terrorism by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and Hamas.


Palestinians, in contrast, draw on the legacy of the Nakba and a history of oppression by Israeli occupiers, including discrimination, displacement and killings.


            The outrage-management analysis here has focused on the events on and after 7 October in Israel-Palestine, but there is much more to the struggle. In several countries, there have been fierce disputes over responses to events relating to Gaza, for example concerning media coverage, arms exports to Israel, humanitarian relief for Gazans, government statements about Israel and Palestine, allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia, claims about genocide and responses to it, and protests on university campuses and responses to them. In many of these clashes that are inspired by events in Israel-Palestine, it is possible to analyse the role of outrage management, with the same patterns involving the methods of cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels and intimidation, and counter-methods.

            One serious limitation of any study of outrage management is incomplete information. Given that cover-up is an important tool, often it is only much later that a fuller analysis can be undertaken, after archives are opened, interviews undertaken in a different era, and pieces of evidence put together into a coherent picture.

            However, full information may never be available, or at least not uncontested. The struggle over outrage, over the memory and meaning of events, can continue for years or decades. The significance and implications of both the Holocaust and the Nakba, both more than 75 years ago, continue to be contested, as campaigners use interpretations of them in today’s struggles. For this reason, the analysis here is necessarily preliminary, subject to revision and updating. The struggle over outrage is never over, and impossible to escape.

Brian Martin, bmartin@uow.edu.au

My thanks to Jungmin Choi, Alex Christoyannopoulos, Jørgen Johansen, Anita Johnson, Janet Mayer, Alison Moore, Erin Twyford and Stellan Vinthagen for useful advice and comments.

Nuclear insanity

In the early 1980s, when the mass movement against nuclear war was at its height, a satirical poster offered light relief. Ostensibly from the US Office of Civil Defense, it listed instructions in case of nuclear attack. After five preliminary and sensible-sounding instructions, number 6 stated “Immediately upon seeing the brilliant flash of nuclear explosion, bend over and place your head firmly between your legs.” Finally, number 7: “Then kiss your ass goodbye.”

            The poster’s black humour drew on the assumption that no one would survive a nuclear strike, indeed that no one might survive a global nuclear war. That was my view too, until I started investigating more deeply, and concluded that nuclear war would not necessarily be the end, certainly not in Australia. But it would still mean catastrophic levels of death and destruction.

            By the end of the 1980s, the worldwide anti-nuclear movement had collapsed, in part due to exhaustion and loss of media interest, and in part due to the end of the Cold War and the immediate threat of nuclear annihilation. But there were still thousands of nuclear weapons, held by quite a few governments. The threat hadn’t gone away, but most people had simply lost interest.

            A new book by Annie Jacobsen, titled Nuclear War: A Scenario, is an attempt to reignite concern. It is engaging, in a morbid sort of way. More on the book shortly, but first a bit about my involvement with the issues decades ago.

Nuclear war: the end?

In the early 1980s, I was working as a research assistant in applied mathematics at the Australian National University, and active in the peace movement. Also working at ANU was Des Ball, in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Des was a sort of insider dissident. He had access to military intelligence, and used it to write exposés about US bases in Australia and their role in nuclear war-fighting.

            Des challenged my assumption that nuclear war was the end, leading me on a journey towards a different conclusion. Nuclear war would be an unprecedented disaster, but most likely a significant proportion of the world’s population would survive. I wrote about my change in viewpoint in Truth Tactics.

            Des and I talked about writing a book about the consequences of a nuclear attack on Australia. Des would write about targeting and I would calculate the likely death toll from blast, heat and fallout. Recently I was going through my old files and discovered folders with newspaper clippings about Australia as a nuclear target, booklets about civil defence (how to increase your odds of surviving an attack), and computer programs. To calculate the likely path of fallout from nuclear strikes, I needed figures for wind speeds and directions. I contacted the Bureau of Meteorology and obtained magnetic tapes with this data, and wrote a program to extract it.

            The prime targets in Australia were the US intelligence bases at Pine Gap, Nurrungar and North West Cape, and maybe some other installations. Canberra, where I then lived, is the national capital and a possible target. Back then, one of the main demands of the Australian peace movement was to get rid of the US bases, because they were a key part of the apparatus for fighting a nuclear war. Des’s writing gave substance to the movement’s concerns. (For up-to-date information about US bases in Australia, see publications by Richard Tanter and others at the Nautilus Institute.)

Pine Gap, in central Australia

            By writing about the consequences of a nuclear attack on Australia, Des and I hoped to raise people’s concerns. Well, our project never went very far, I think because it was becoming bigger than I anticipated, and I had other projects. But I did develop a keen interest in the effects of nuclear war. My 1982 article “The global health effects of nuclear war” was widely read. Around that time, new research showed that smoke and dust from nuclear strikes and firestorms, lofted into the upper atmosphere, would block sunlight, leading to cold and darkness, possibly for years. This effect, called nuclear winter, could cause mass starvation. Nuclear war wasn’t going to be a fun time. We knew that already. It was with this background that I read Annie Jacobsen’s book.

A scenario

Nuclear War: A Scenario is an attempt to raise the alarm. And it does so, quite effectively, though with some problems.

Jacobsen’s scenario starts with the firing of a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from North Korea.

North Korean ICBM

US satellites immediately pick up the heat signature from the missile launch and the information is sent to secure stations. Before long, it is apparent the missile is aimed at the US, at Washington DC: it’s a nuclear attack, though a rather unlikely one, with no obvious motivation. Still, it is an excellent choice for a fictional scenario.

            Jacobsen tells what happens next second by second, and then minute by minute, taking us into decision-making forums in the US and, to a lesser extent, Russia and elsewhere. In developing the scenario, Jacobsen interviewed dozens of nuclear experts, military commanders, civilian leaders and others, with the result that the sequence of events comes across as all too realistic in its technical and human detail.

Submarine-launched ballistic missile

        But even before the ICBM arrives, another target is hit. A North Korean submarine has snuck close to the California coast and launches a missile whose payload, a nuclear weapon, hits the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, causing a nuclear meltdown, releasing vast quantities of radioactivity into the environment, far more than produced by the nuclear weapon. A farmer, at a distance, uploads a video of the explosion, and panic ensues across the country.

Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant

            In telling the story of this imagined nuclear war, Jacobsen pauses along the way to provide “history lessons” and technical information, covering for example the development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, control systems, decision-making processes, radiation sickness, and the effects of explosions.

            The graphic horror of nuclear war comes after the one-megaton nuclear weapon in North Korea’s ICBM hits Washington DC. Jacobsen lists what is destroyed, for example the Pentagon and the Lincoln Memorial, and the human effects, with bodies liquefied, skin flayed and people fried alive. For example, for those not immediately incinerated, “The X-ray light of the nuclear flash burns skin off people’s bodies, leaving their extremities a shredded horror of bloody tendons and exposed bone. Wind rips the skin off people’s faces and tears away limbs. Survivors die of shock, heart attack, blood loss.” (p. 165).

            Most of the book covers the first 72 minutes. The US military launches a massive strike against North Korea, killing millions. Because US ICBMs, to reach North Korea, must travel over Russia, Russian leaders think they are under attack, and fear their missiles will be destroyed before they can be launched. To prevent being “decapitated,” they launch them in an all-out attack against the US, which returns fire.

            Meanwhile, the North Korean attack isn’t over. A nuclear bomb, contained in a satellite, explodes high over North America, generating a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that shorts out circuits over most of the continent, and electricity supplies all close down as a result. Only military communications, designed to survive EMP,  remain uninterrupted.

A few quibbles

Jacobsen’s scenario vividly shows the possibility of a nuclear attack that triggers an escalation into global nuclear war, and the horrific consequences of such a war. In giving technical and human detail — for example, the US president being whisked away from Washington DC, and heated arguments about who is in command of nuclear forces — the scenario comes across as completely credible in its specifics, as exactly what might happen.

            The scenario is mostly from the US point of view. Nearly all the experts and officials who Jacobsen interviewed are from the US (and nearly all male), so it’s not surprising that the scenario mainly gives a US point of view with the US being the target of an unprovoked attack. Yet, historically, US leaders have repeatedly considered using nuclear weapons, for example against China in the 1950s and Vietnam in the 1970s. Furthermore, the US has been the trailblazer in developing nuclear weapons, with the Soviet Union playing catch-up and others following suit. The scenario, in contrast, paints the US primarily as the victim rather than an instigator or provocateur.

            In Jacobsen’s scenario, technological systems work remarkably well. The initial North Korean ICBM unerringly hits Washington DC with devastating consequences. The reality is that no one knows how well these weapons systems will operate in wartime because they have never been tested in battle conditions. Some missiles may fizzle or explode on launch.

Many are likely to miss their targets, exploding in the countryside with relatively few casualties. It’s also possible that some individuals involved in a nuclear crisis may decide not to escalate, but Jacobsen has all the soldiers involved following orders, from the top commanders to those tasked with firing missiles from land, sea and air.

The end?

In the scenario, the focus is on the US, Russia and Europe, all of which are pulverised as they expend their entire nuclear arsenals in the fear of having them destroyed before they can be used. Jacobsen repeatedly states or implies that this means “the end.”

  • “the end of civilization as we know it” (p. xii)
  • “… this is how it ends. With Armageddon. With civilization being destroyed.” (p. 238)
  • “Only time will tell if we humans will survive.” (p. 289) 


Jacobsen writes, “The fundamental idea behind this book is to demonstrate, in appalling detail, just how horrifying nuclear war would be.” (p. 298). In this, she undoubtedly succeeds. However, highlighting the horrors of nuclear war has never been shown to be an effective way to induce governments to give up their arsenals.

            If a nuclear winter lasts years and causes most of those who survive nuclear attacks to die of starvation, then things will be grim indeed.

            In a few sentences, Jacobsen summarises what happens in the rest of the world. “In this scenario, in all but a small region of the Southern Hemisphere (including Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and parts of Paraguay), widespread famine grips the Earth.” (p. 288). She cites a study that concludes that five billion or more people might die in a nuclear-winter-induced famine. Horrific indeed, but this still leaves two or three billion alive, and they wouldn’t all be in the South Pacific and South America. Maybe India and sub-Saharan Africa?

            It so happens that this year, a study was published about post-nuclear-war survival in New Zealand. The author, Wren Green, was the leader of a team that, back in the 1980s, did an earlier study of the effects of nuclear war on New Zealand. The country isn’t likely to be attacked. It is buffered from nuclear winter effects by being in the southern hemisphere and surrounded by ocean. It has an agricultural surplus. Even so, life would be very difficult due to the major loss of imports, especially transport fuels, medicines, vehicles and electronics (including computers and phones). But a functioning society could potentially re-emerge and continue. Does New Zealand count as the survival of civilisation?

If societies were better prepared for major shocks, like economic collapse and pandemics, their capacity to recover from nuclear war would be greater.

Can you find New Zealand?

            Another quibble: Jacobsen assumes that after a nuclear attack, there will be “mayhem”: panic, chaos, a breakdown of social order.

  • “Democracy will be replaced by anarchy. Moral constructs will disappear. Murder, mayhem, and madness will prevail.” (p. 105)
  • “There is mayhem, everywhere.” (p. 171)
  • “Widespread chaos, violence, and anarchy have begun.” (p. 219)

Views about social breakdown may reflect fictional portrayals, such as the Mad Max movies and the dystopian novel and film “The Road”. However, since the 1950s, studies of actual disasters, including aerial bombing, have shown the contrary: most people behave rationally; they don’t panic, and many do what they can to help others.

Final remarks

Despite these limitations, there is much to learn from Jacobsen’s scenario. One important point is that governments have made extensive preparations for the survival of political and military leadership, but not the population: in the US, “there is no federal agency to help citizens survive a nuclear war per se.” (p. 100). In my slim collection of Australian material on civil defence, nothing is more recent than 1985.

Annie Jacobsen

            Jacobsen points to the shortcomings of the theory of deterrence, the idea that having nuclear weapons ready to use will deter attacks. She repeatedly highlights a problem: when deterrence fails, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down: the theory doesn’t work.

            Every figure Jacobsen interviewed said nuclear war would be horrific. The weird thing is that many of these figures were heavily involved in developing and maintaining nuclear arsenals. Is preparing for mass annihilation sane?

            Jacobsen doesn’t report interviewing any peace activists or peace researchers. She even says, in the scenario, that people realise “that no one did anything substantial to prevent nuclear World War III.” (p. 268). This is wrong. For decades, millions of citizens have campaigned against nuclear weapons and nuclear war. They are our best hope to prevent the sort of scenario that Jacobsen has so vividly portrayed.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford and Wren Green for valuable comments.

Postscript, 22 June 2024

As a courtesy, I tried to let Annie Jacobsen know about this commentary on her book. On her website, the only apparent way to make contact was through her comments page. I prepared this short comment:

Having studied the effects of nuclear war since the early 1980s, I was fascinated to read Nuclear War: A Scenario. It comes across as convincing in its details, but there are also some limitations as discussed in my blog post “Nuclear insanity” (https://comments.bmartin.cc/2024/06/12/nuclear-insanity/).

However, when I tried to post this comment, a message popped up:

This was the first time my IP address had been flagged this way. After more investigation, eventually I noticed that there had been no comments since 9 May, and guessed that no more comments were being accepted. It would have been nicer to receive a message saying comments were closed. And even nicer to be able to make contact.