Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation

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Whole World on Fire focuses on a technical riddle wrapped in an organizational mystery: How and why, for more than half a century, did the U.S. government fail to predict nuclear fire damage as it drew up plans to fight strategic nuclear war?U.S. bombing in World War II caused massive fire damage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but later war plans took account only of damage from blast; they completely ignored damage from atomic firestorms. Recently a small group of researchers has shown that for modern nuclear weapons the destructiveness and lethality of nuclear mass fire often—and predictably—greatly exceeds that of nuclear blast. This has major implications for defense policy: the U.S. government has underestimated the damage caused by nuclear weapons, Lynn Eden finds, and built far more warheads, and far more destructive warheads, than it needed for the Pentagon's war-planning purposes. How could this have happened? The answer lies in how organizations frame the problems they try to solve. In a narrative grounded in organization theory, science and technology studies, and primary historical sources (including declassified documents and interviews), Eden explains how the U.S. Air Force's doctrine of precision bombing led to the development of very good predictions of nuclear blast—a significant achievement—but for many years to no development of organizational knowledge about nuclear fire. Expert communities outside the military reinforced this disparity in organizational capability to predict blast damage but not fire damage. Yet some innovation occurred, and predictions of fire damage were nearly incorporated into nuclear war planning in the early 1990s. The author explains how such a dramatic change almost happened, and why it did not. 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. In a sweeping conclusion, Eden shows the implications of the analysis for understanding such things as the sinking of the Titanic, the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and the poor fireproofing in the World Trade Center.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Whole World on Fire is a whole book about how the U.S. government uses flawed methodology and inaccurate data to plan for nuclear war. . . . The analysis of the nuclear war planning sector in Whole World on Fire is interesting, controversial, and likely to provoke debate, but the book is about much more than the minutiae of nuclear targeting. Eden, a research scholar at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, transforms the arcane world of planning for nuclear war into a nuanced case study for understanding organizational behavior. . . . Whole World on Fire is a significant contribution and should be read by anyone who is concerned about the accountability and effectiveness of powerful American organizations."—Science, March 19, 2004

"This investigation leads Eden into the more arcane and unsettling aspects of nuclear planning, and students of this area will find in her book much fascinating detail. More broadly, however, she seeks to demonstrate how institutional knowledge often leaves out critical facts—leading to disaster when incomplete information becomes the basis for action."—Foreign Affairs 83:1, January/February 2004

"Whole World on Fire is thoroughly researched and well documented. . . . Eden . . . reminds us of the importance of applying critical thinking to solving problems."—Lt. Col. Charles E. Costanzo, Ph.D., USAF, Ret., Maxwell AFB, Alabama, Air and Space Power Journal,Summer 2004

"This book has been deeply researched and is written exceptionally well. Whole World on Fire will stand . . . among the best in-depth studies of how organizations interact with the physical world."—Spencer D. Bakich, Virginia Quarterly Review 80:3

"Scientists who study the physics of mass fire, popularly known as firestorms, predict that the fire generated by a nuclear explosion would be more devastating than the nuclear blast effect. . . . Over the past six decades, US warplanners have failed to incorporate these grim realities into their scenarios, focusing instead on the blast effects. They have underestimated the damage nuclear weapons would cause and build far more warheads than needed for national security. Eden. . .reviews historical episodes, science and technology studies, and organizational theory to explain these war-planning decisions."—Choice, September 2004

"A differential, path-dependent understanding of blast and fire is at the center of Lynn Eden's masterful analysis. . . . This book is remarkably helpful to organizational theorists. Eden manages to keep multiple levels of analysis in play. . . . and suggests a cognitive mechanism for inertia. . . . as an active accomplishment, not a passive default."—Karl E. Weick, Administrative Science Quarterly, March 2005

"Whole World on Fire is a thoughtful examination of the effect of organizations on the science and technology of determining nuclear devastation. Lynn Eden's book is thoroughly researched and well written."—Dr. William J. Perry, Nineteenth U.S. Secretary of Defense

"Canny, bold, subtle, lucid, surprising, and distressing, Whole World on Fire demonstrates brilliantly that complex organizational processes having disastrous consequences need not remain mysterious if an investigator who combines perceptiveness, determination, and finesse comes along to unravel them."—Charles Tilly, Columbia University

"Lynn Eden's book is terrific. It is well written, well argued, theoretically innovative, empirically rich, methodologically sound, politically important, and controversial. She argues that the nuclear weapons community has misinformed policy-makers and the public by neglecting to calculate the ferocious effects of mass fires on nuclear targets. The puzzle of how so many people could be so wrong about something so important makes this an intrinsically interesting story. The political implications of Eden's argument are profound: not only are nuclear weapons even more destructive than we had thought, but there is a direct bearing on current issues in nuclear strategy."—Jonathan Mercer, University of Washington

Foreign Affairs
In most discussions of nuclear policy, it is enough to know that exploding weapons cause unimaginably horrific damage over an extended area. In this exhaustive study of a problem that the author herself calls "undeniably weird," however, Eden wants to know why damage assessments focus so much on the effects of blast that they underestimate the damage of the firestorms that result (and thus underestimate the total impact of a nuclear explosion). The standard answer is that the effects of the latter are much harder to calculate. But Eden, after finding analysts who can make such calculations, instead attributes it to the way the Pentagon has framed the issue — focusing on the elimination of specific targets rather than on the totality of death and destruction. This investigation leads Eden into the more arcane and unsettling aspects of nuclear planning, and students of this area will find in her book much fascinating detail. More broadly, however, she seeks to demonstrate how institutional knowledge often leaves out critical facts — leading to disaster when incomplete information becomes the basis for action.
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Product Details

Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables
Introduction 1
Understanding Nuclear Weapons Effects
Ch. 1 Complete Ruin 15
Ch. 2 Organizational Frames 37
Constructing Destruction, 1940-1961
Ch. 3 Doctrine and Damage through World War II 63
Ch. 4 Early Postwar Atomic Planning 93
Ch. 5 New Inquiry about Blast 122
Ch. 6 Nuclear Weapons Tests 142
Ch. 7 The Hydrogen Bomb and Damage Codes 172
Predicting the Unpredictable? 1955-2003
Ch. 8 The Fire Research Community 191
Ch. 9 The Physics and Politics of Mass Fire 221
Ch. 10 Encore and After 253
Conclusion: Routine Surprises 283
Notes 305
Index 357
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