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Sunday, March 24, 2002

 
--- Beautiful Minds and the Logic of a New Kind of War ---

No. Not the War on Terrorism ... but we'll get to that, and I'll briefly note some things that have probably already happened on that front.

[Many details below are drawn from William Poundstone's Prisoner's Dilemma ... an odd book, at once a biography of von Neumann, an intellectual history of the nuclear arms race, and a primer on game theory. In the latter role, it's as good an introduction as I've found for lay audiences, still absorbing for the better-versed, and an excellent companion to any background reading you might do in the context block of A Beautiful Mind.]

Set the wayback machine to 1945, and surf forward. In the closing crescendo of an old kind of war, writ larger than ever, the world's movers and shakers had been jolted by the implications of a new kind of war. When the first A-bomb test actually worked, even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, serious thinkers in a limited circle understood they had something new and deadly serioius to think about.

This circle of interest expanded abruptly when "the bomb" was first demonstrated in actual warfare ... though it took a death toll no greater than some conventional exercises in the same conflict.

Rethinking gained urgency a few years later, when the atomic club expanded. It didn't help that charter member #2 was our ideological nemesis, or that a series of bellicose gestures and maneuvers had already been exchanged, or that US defense intellectuals had comfortably assumed a 15-20 year lead in this technology. (A 1945 analysis by the farsighted Vannevar Bush -- grandfather of the World Wide Web -- also concluded ICBM's were too far-fetched to enter into our strategic thinking about strategic thinking.)

The very idea of the H-bomb -- even before a practical test -- put new imponderables on the table. Unlike its primitive fission cousins, a fusion weapon can be as big as you want it to be. The threat of such a weapon -- even as a bluff, even though nobody knew if it would actually work -- could be enough to upset the strategic chessboard.

Throughout the ages, breakthroughs in weapons materials, tactics and technology had marked turning points in history, changing not just the balance of power, but the structure and dynamics of power ... all the rules, constraints, tempo, doctrine, command structure, diplomacy, politics. But past breakthroughs in tools or tactics usually left the option of falling back or taking losses until you figured out what the foe was up to, or how to blunt their advantage, or until they ran out their supply lines. No longer.

Suddenly all the timing windows were closing at once, and it looked like "field generalship" might go out of style. You had to plot out all the options in advance, and so did the other guy. It may be instructive to review our best minds' first drafts of this new logic.

The large-scale options seemed few, and novel, and -- per the divergent insights of competing schools of thought -- inescapable. Most readers will be surprised who signed on to which doctrines, and argued them to the point of implacable divergence, and later forgot -- or even denied -- the "inescapable" conclusions they had reached earlier.

Among the most popular options:
(1) One-world government, immediately imposed by US and allies, under threat of nuclear attack.
(2) One-world government, with the US yielding sovereignty to the UN or other international body.
(3) Blowing up the planet -- resetting civilization's clock -- before the other side did it.
(4) Blowing up the planet early in the arms race, setting the clock back only to the middle ages, before both sides built enough bombs to send it back to the stone age.

Early strategic calculations were especially ticklish since inventories were small, uncertainties were large, the numbers changed rapidly -- and not always in the same direction. How many usable devices did we have on hand? The President did not know -- and may have been kept in the dark -- and may not have trusted what he was told. By virtue of secrecy, compartmentalization, separation of components, bluffing, true uncertainty, and scarce components with short shelf lives ... maybe nobody knew! "Second strike" capability was a long way off, and thus Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) didn't enter the magazine of intellectual options until later still.

Presented with this novel and important problem, who thought what, when, and why?

(1945) Einstein, Teller and Oppenheimer -- rarely aligned on any issue -- called for "supranational" governance. A World Constitution was drawn up at the U. of Chicago.

(1945) Harry Truman: "It will be as just as easy for nations to get along in a republic of the world as it is for us to get along in the Republic of the United States."

(1945) Senator Glen Taylor (D-Idaho) introduced a resolution calling for world government, reasoning that the overhanging threat of imminent destruction would necessarily incline most common folk to everyday drunkenness and debauchery.

(1945) Bertrand Russell -- philosopher, colossus of mathematical logic, archetype of 20th century pacifism, national security outsider -- made strikingly accurate predictions of progress in both fission and fusion weaponry. (All the insiders were wrong by large margins.)

(1945-48) Russell argued for morally justifiable preventive war and world conquest "during the next two years". "Even at such a price [recognizing the brunt of destruction would fall on Western Europe] I think war would be worth while".

(1947) The phrase "preventive war" entered the public dialog. By 1950, it was subject of widespread and heated public discussion. Many in the defense establishment argued that Stalin would not develop weapons without eventually using them ... therefore it was incumbent on us to act first.

(1949) Oppenheimer's AEC advisory committee recommended suspending development of the hydrogen "superbomb" as a good-faith signal to the USSR, with the intent of defusing the big arms race and avoiding destruction of the human race.

(1950) Russell forgot he ever suggested preventive war, even vehemently denied it, called such accusations "a Communist invention" ... and fessed up only when confronted with articles under his signature. Looking back (1959) he observed "I had, in fact, completely forgotten that I had ever thought a policy of threat involving possible war desirable".

(1950) John von Neumann -- father of the computer, father of game theory, mainstay of the Manhattan Project, mainstay of RAND, national security insider -- firmly expressed the unhedged necessity of preventive war. "If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today?"

(1950) Harold Urey -- first to isolate deuterium -- argued for rapid expansion of one-world government by any means necessary, starting with the Atlantic Union. He laid out the ironclad logic of preventive war, while predicting (correctly) that we would not follow the dictates of logic in this matter. He also predicted (erroneously) that strategic balance must prove inherently unstable.

(1950) President Truman received mass expressions of uncompromising public opinion for and against preventive war -- much of it from religious figures on both sides. For decades thereafter, the National Prayer Breakfast served as a syncpoint for blow-up-the-planet-to-save-it theology. Others were sure "preventive war" was the work of Satan (with possibly help from the Vatican).

(1950) The Archdiocese of Boston trial-ballooned the arguments for moral necessary of preventive war in the Pilot.

(1950) Gen. MacArthur argued it would send the wrong signal to "the Oriental mind" if we demonstrated weakness, i.e., by not blowing up the planet. He was forced to retract those remarks ... after they were published nationwide.

(1955) The USSR made substantive gestures of disarmament. President Eisenhower -- former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, Europe -- proposed open-sourcing all military secrets, down to detailed blueprints of every military establishment, and "open skies" recon overflight authority.

(1958) Wargamers at RAND Corporation -- in those days the premier all-DOD think tank -- analyzed the strategics of conditional versus unconditional surrender. Congress got wind of this out of context, and outlawed any analysis of defeat.

(1962) In mutual miscalculation surrounding the Cuban missile crisis, we almost blew up the planet. The full story may not be known for years, but Russell's uninvited meddling on both sides -- grounded in his earlier theoretics on the game of "Chicken" (which Hermann Kahn credits as an inspiration for MAD and other systemic thinking about unthinkables) -- may have been instrumental in preventing the cataclysm.

To make a long story short, we confronted new factors in the logic of war -- not just novel arrangements of familiar factors -- and we took a long time to work out the implications. In retrospect, the planet's foremost masters of logic, strategy and practical warfare couldn't agree with each other ... and none of them had it right. Inescapable consequences were accidentally muddled through, flawless webs of logic held nothing, and here we stand today ... still alive and confused as ever.

In re the logic of our new War on Terrorism, I'll merely suggest this retrospective case study holds lessons for those who wish to learn them, that humility is in order when confronting the unfamiliar, that miscalculation, groupthink and premature closure are among the evident possibilities, and that warbloggers and "War Liberals" might find themselves perplexed some years hence by things they have thought and written of late.