I first read this book back in 1984 when the Cold War was still a legitimate threat–just before Gorbachev started the policy of Glasnost and Reagan was still joking about bombing the Russians. It left an indelible impression of how even a limited nuclear attack could have devastating, world-changing consequences that could stretch on for decades. Reading it now there is a certain sense of distance with the old U.S./USSR rivalry long dead, Putin’s efforts to turn back the clock notwithstanding, but the reality is most of these nuclear missiles still exist, with more than enough firepower to ruin your day and then some.
The book is written as a first person account of the effects of a limited nuclear war five years after the bombs fell. The authors, Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, place themselves into this fictional scenario set in the year 1993, starting a journey across America that takes them to both coasts before heading back to their adopted hometown of Dallas, where they work as reporters.
The story opens in October 1988 with Strieber’s recollection of being on a bus in downtown New York when the bombs fall. New York is one of three cities targeted in the first volley (the other volleys do not follow due to U.S. retaliation disabling the Soviets’ ability to counter-attack), the other two being Washington and San Antonio. He survives because the bombs miss New York proper, landing over Brooklyn and off the coast. He still gets dosed with enough radiation that he is later classified under the triage system as not treatable, as the radiation is expected to kill him within years and those with better survivability are given priority.
Bombs exploded in the upper atmosphere create an EMP effect that blankets the country, disabling nearly all electronics, ranging from computers to vehicle ignitions and most forms of communication. The final blow comes in the form of volleys aimed at missile silos in the Dakotas and other states. Winds sweep the radiation from these blasts across the bread basket of the U.S., devastating crops and leading to widespread famine.
Against this grim backdrop–the book suggest 7 million die on the day the bombs fall and up to 60 million die from the effect in the following five years–the authors find that some places have prospered, others have become uninhabitable, and assistance has been offered from other nations, albeit with a price.
The bulk of the story captures Strieber’s and Kunetka’s journey from state to state–mostly by rail, as air travel is still rare five years after the attack–conducting interviews with government officials and ordinary folks, supplementing these accounts with official documentation of the effects of the war. The level of detail in these mock documents is impressive and help paint a picture of a country that has been split apart, where deflation has reduced most items to cents, gold is the favored currency and the federal government, now in L.A., is a stunted shadow of its former self.
The narrative works because it presents its fiction so plainly, even when specific scenarios seem absurd when taken out of context. At one point the authors are escaping authorities in California–which was spared attack but has emerged as a near police-state, locking down its borders–dressed as priests. They make a daring escape from a prison bus to continue their journey through the devastated heartland before heading to New York and then back to Texas. It sounds ridiculous and yet the details that are drawn of California, at once prosperous, yet cold, allow these occasional dramatic embellishments to at least seem plausible.
The bulk of the story is in the interviews, where survivors talk about living through famine and flu, abandoning cities and entire regions killed by radiation, some drifting, others settling, with a general sense that the people are banding together and helping each other where they can. International aid comes from the British and Japanese primarily, but both seem willing to only do so much, with a strong suggestion that the other nations of the world are not exactly eager to see the U.S. re-assert itself as a global power again.
One especially chilling interview is with a British naval officer who works as part of a crew of sub poppers, so-called because their job is to find nuclear-armed submarines that are still at sea–and thus presenting a threat–and disabling or destroying them. He recounts taking out subs with enough firepower on board to cause devastation many times greater than what happened on Warday itself, a grim reminder of how terrible and terribly effective nuclear weapons are.
Although the specific scenario of Warday is no longer plausible–the Soviets launch a first strike due to the U.S. being on the verge of putting together a seemingly indestructible space-based defense system (how Reagan would have approved!)–the story remains as powerful now as it was over 30 years ago, simply because nothing at all has changed regarding the almost incomprehensible effects of nuclear bombs, and as mentioned, there are still an awful lot of them sitting silent in their silos, one launch code away from unleashing their destruction.