The Dead Hand. David E Hoffman.

Hoffman, David E. The Dead Hand. Anchor, New York, 2009. NF; 5/21.

This is a heavily researched study of the Cold War and analysis of the former Soviet Union’s covert development and maintenance not only of a huge nuclear arsenal but also of chemical and biological weapons. It’s reminiscent of Ellsberg’s 2019 The Doomsday Machine at least in that it got me thinking again about the unthinkable. Still in spite of his having won a Nobel Prize for a book with a similar topic, I didn’t warm much to Mr. Hoffman’s writing. But the wealth of information is impressive.

I was unaware that the Soviets and post-Soviet Russians have developed and probably continue to possess pretty terrifying nerve-gas and disease-producing weapons that can’t be defended against. And they produced these things while participating in a non-proliferation agreement and using very sophisticated cover-ups. Of course it’s impossible to know whether conspiracy theorists’ arguments that author Hoffman has had the wool pulled over his eyes by ultradevious countrymen are true, but I find it difficult to imagine successfully hiding secrets on a Russian scale in a society like the United States that tolerates (or certainly appears to tolerate) opposition. Who knows for sure of course.

Certainly still-existing weapons of mass destruction are enough to produce hundreds of millions or billions of human deaths, with a probable subsequent “nuclear winter” that would pretty well kill everything alive. The question of whether that kind of thing will ever, could ever happen is disturbing. The titular Dead Hand was a setup in place in the Soviet Union at one point which, given near-certainty of a massive nuclear attack, would launch a full-scale response automatically. This to counteract the threat of “decapitation” of ultimate decision-makers and presumably to further deter a first strike.

I’m getting old. It’s (I’ve said before) one of my regrets about mortality that I’m just not going to find out about a lot of fascinating things that lie in the future. But reading this kind of book, along with those by Ellsberg, Nick Bostrom, even Noah Harari tempts me, if death really is just a perfect and final turning out of the lights, to wonder solipsisticly if I’m better off getting out of here fairly soon while the getting is still good. Shame on me! 6.0/7.9

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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