Nuclear War and Computer-Generated Nuclear Alerts

In the recent movie War Games, an ingenious teenager penetrates the Pentagon’s computer codes and touches off a nuclear alert at the headquarters of the U.S. missile detection and launch facilities. The computer-generated screens indicate that Soviet missiles—launched from offshore submarines—will arrive in five minutes. The teenager tells the military officer in charge that the alert is an accident, that the “attack” is not real but is computer generated, and that he should ignore all the computer data. Thus, the officer must decide within five minutes whether to believe the computer data so graphically displayed before his eyes or to believe that this multi-million dollar defense system upon which our security depends could accidentally trigger a nuclear alert. If the alert is real and the officer ignores it, the U.S. military offensive capacity could be destroyed, along with millions of citizens. If the alert is only a computer glitch and the officer acts as if it were real, he could accidentally launch World War III. At the last second, he rejects the computer system, trusts his own human judgment, and does not launch.

Published in BYU Studies Quarterly 25:1
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