(...and while I'm at it, what can be done to protect against such an effect?)
An S&R exclusive interview
William Forstchen has a bad dream—a really bad dream—that goes something like this:
A cataclysmic attack throws the United States back to the dark ages, with no electricity, no communication or transportation networks, and no medicines. The most vulnerable members of society—the very young and the very old—begin to die off first, but soon hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people, begin dying. Rogue bands of lawless predators, living by rule of force rather than by rule of law, prey on weakened communities. The government, crippled, can’t come to anyone’s rescue.
And all it takes is a single bomb detonated high in the atmosphere, two hundred miles above the continent.
“Welcome to my nightmare,” Forstchen says with the kind of grim chuckle usually reserved for gallows humor.
But this is no joke. “It sounds like it’s science fiction, Mayan-prophecy, end-of-the-world stuff,” Forstchen admits, “but it’s dead-on real.”
Forstchen is a professor of history at Montreat College, a small liberal arts school in the Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina. He’s written some forty books, including a series of successful “alternative history” novels with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
His most recent novel, One Second After, outlines his nightmare in chilling detail.
At first thought, it might seem far-fetched to imagine a single bomb wiping out the entire country. But it wouldn’t be the power of the explosion, per se, that would cause the problem. Instead, the real problem would be the electro-magnetic pulse—the EMP—generated by the explosion.
Traveling at the speed of light, the EMP would act like an enormous ripple in the earth’s electromagnetic field. As that ripple hits electrical systems, it would get amplified way beyond anything a typical circuit breaker could handle.
“This energy surge will destroy all delicate electronics in your home, even as it destroys all the major components all the way back to the power company’s generators and the phone company’s main relays,” Forstchen writes. “In far less than a millisecond, the entire power grid of the United States, and all that it supports will be destroyed.”
And if the power goes, everything goes.
“Everyone remembers the aftermath of Katrina,” Forstchen says. “It covered fifty-thousand square miles, but it was basically a local event. An EMP would be a nation-wide Katrina-like event.”
Some experts predict the resulting casualty rate could be as high as ninety percent by the end of the first year.
“This will raise a lot of moral questions, too,” Forstchen says. “Are we going to let people out of maximum security prisons? Do we triage off the elderly?”
The scenarios Forstchen envisions in the book aren’t necessarily fictional, either. “I didn’t want to turn this into some kind of Mad Max thing,” he explains.
Forstchen drew on his background as a historian to look for scenarios of desolation and desperation that would fit his post-EMP world. The WWII sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad provided a terrible bounty of examples: tiered rationing, bread with sawdust baked into it to make it more filling, vicious bands of murderous thugs, communal graves.
His visit to the cemetery outside of Leningrad proved especially haunting. “There were six-hundred-thousand dead after the siege,” Forstchen says. “And the Russian have a tradition of putting laminated photos of the deceased on their tombstones. I will never be able to shake that.” That trauma, he says, is still on the Russian soul.
And, the novel argues, America would suffer trauma even worse if an EMP strike hit us.
“I imagined my daughter being in that (post-EMP) world,” says Forstchen, a single parent. “I imagined my daughter being ill in that world.”
As a result, he says, “it got really bad for me” writing novel. “I will never be able to shake that.” Other parents who’ve read the book have had similar reactions. “’I saw my kids in the middle of this,’ they’ve told me,” Forstchen says. “Any parent who reads this, it’s going to hit hard.”
But for most people, the threat of an EMP attack is so abstract and remote, it’s hard to get them to take an interest. “Some people look at it and think it’s too big: ‘I don’t want to think about it,’” Forstchen says. “Well, we have to think about it.”
Forstchen has worked with Reps. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) and Denny Thompson (D-Miss) to educate other lawmakers about the potential threat of EMPs, but he admits the going has been tough. Even the House Armed Services subcommittee that was studying EMPs was disbanded. “Unfortunately, this is an issue that doesn’t have a constituency,” Forstchen says.
One reason he wrote One Second After, he says, was to “put a voice” to the issue. So far, the strategy seems to be working. The book peaked at number eleven on the New York Times bestseller list and is being developed by Warner Brothers into a film.
“I’m more optimistic than I was six months or even a year ago, when I was working on the book,” Forstchen says. “Lawmakers are starting to get the word again.” In late June, Forstchen met with a group that included members of Congress and intellectuals from various political think tanks to again press his argument, which suddenly has new urgency because of missile testing in North Korea.
“Look at North Korea and Iran,” Forstchen says. “Why are they so interested in building small-scale nuclear missiles? Only one model fits.” It’s the fact that the U.S. is so vulnerable that our enemies are even contemplating such an attack, he adds.
But even beyond the national defense reasons, Forstchen points out that there are significant environmental reasons for protecting ourselves against EMPs. The biggest reason, he says, hangs high above us in the sky every day.
In late August of 1859, a series of solar flares erupted from the sun with such magnitude that they burned out telegraphy grids across Europe and North America. Similar solar storms have taken place in 1921 and 1960. According the Forstchen, research suggests that we’re heading into a period that could see another, similar upswing in solar activity.
“We built this delicate, elaborate infrastructure without thinking about how vulnerable it is,” Forstchen says. “We need to get off the stick and do something about our infrastructure.”
Just one percent of the money allocated in the recent bailout package could be enough to create a survival infrastructure, Forstchen says. “It wouldn’t save the entire system, but it could be used to create nodes of infrastructure that could be quickly built upon. Otherwise, what good is a bailout of there’s no country to bail out?”
Most importantly, Forstchen says, individuals should learn to prepare and protect themselves. “What’s the big lesson from Katrina: Don’t wait for the feds,” he says. His website offers a variety of simple, precautionary things people can do. It also offers tips on how to recognize an EMP should one occur.
“People need to think on three levels: on the level of citizens of America/citizens of the world, the personal level, and the community level,” Forstchen says. “Eight, ten, fifteen people thinking together can do a lot. We have to learn how to think together.”
Forstchen realizes he may sound like “a crazy old crank” for sounding alarmist. (During his first-ever radio interview on the book, the first caller rang it to accuse him of being a paranoid right-wing survivalist.) “I just want to see bipartisan action on this,” he says. “I don’t care who gets the credit. We’re all Americans. We need to get by the partisan bickering, at least on this. Otherwise, we’re all going to be on the same sinking boat the next day.”
Forstchen urges people to contact their congressmen about EMPs. “If enough people do, suddenly the issue has legs, and something can get done about it,” he says.
And that, Forstchen says, will definitely help him sleep easier.
S&R will feature a review of Forstchen’s book, One Second After, on Tuesday.