Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Monday, January 09, 2006

What We Needed Was a Little Herman Kahn In Our Policy Lives

[gary daily col. 36 October 6, 2002]“Going to war with Iraq would mean shouldering all the responsibilities of an occupying power the moment victory was achieved. . . . Are we ready for this long-term relationship?”
- James Fallows

The two wise men and one wise guy were having dinner together last week. Between us we’ve accumulated one hundred plus years of reading, teaching, researching and writing history. The Bush II War-possible, probable, preventable-was topic “A” of conversation. Being historians, naturally we sorted through our knowledge of past wars for insights.

We had a long list to work with. We couldn’t come up with a clear-cut example of the United States going to war (or, as it’s euphemistically called today, creating a “regime change”) on the basis of “pre-emptive” action on our part. Commander in Chief Ronald Reagan’s diverting and costly (given the diminutive size and meager armaments of the foe) foray into Grenada comes closest.

“Pre-emptive strike” became part of the jargon of military strategic planners back in the good old bad days of Evil Empire I. The Soviets, or “Russkies” as we fondly called them in films and in TV dramas, had The Bomb. And we had The Bomb. Everyone else in the gym class during those Cold War days was expected to join one team or the other, become part of pacts and blocs.

These fringe players were given little to say in regard to when or why the red button of destruction might be mashed into action. The ICBMs squirreled away in hardened sites in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. left little for others to do except pray that the big guys didn’t act accidentally or out of irrational pique. Doubtless many people in nations without red buttons remember those days with mixed feelings.

Thinking about all of this, I decided to take a look at books on these topics in ISU’s library. Looking for the origins and history of pre-emptive strikes, I found shelf after shelf of a long aisle was filled with works on nuclear strategy “games.” Theorizing these nuclear doomsday concerns in terms of “games” is telling. As with so many of the words of war, we like to hide and celebrate aggression and anxiety in the vocabulary of sports. It seems to raise the comfort level of our toleration for war. Watch for more of this when the Bush II War starts.

One title, Herman Kahn’s Thinking About the Unthinkable, jumped out at me. It brought to memory debates and emotions of the past. Open this thick book and you will be subjected to a bi-polar nuclear politics sleigh ride across dangerous glaciers laced with crevices. The individual driving the sleigh is cool and logical. No place or time for feelings here.

What I understood of Thinking About the Unthinkable never impressed me. It angered me. When this work was published in 1962, I much preferred to worry about the problems of over-population and the integration of Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi. But now, in light of the way we are staggering in darkness toward the Bush II War, my impressions of the man’s work have been elevated considerably.

Thinking About the Unthinkable is an “if this . . . then this” work, a well-researched and tidy spelling out of possible scenarios that might be “played out” should missile-bearing H-bombs start to scream toward targets. What passed for an up beat ending in Kahn’s sleigh ride scenarios is that not everyone falls off the sleigh into oblivion. Kahn was ready with a variety of statistical details on the number of hearty souls who would survive to carry on life and what’s left of civilization after a nuclear holocaust. Military leaders and strategists need only carefully pick and choose among the options available. Deterrence, stalemate and survival (through a long nuclear winter) are all possible outcomes of these “games.”

Herman Kahn must be angrily twitching in his grave at what passes for thinking about the unthinkable today. Frankly, listening to Rumsfeld justify a course of war is like listening to a fourth grade teacher who hates his job. Rummy's manner is imperious and he insists on patronizing his “pupils,” the public, with his vague, “connect the dots,” non-explanation for going to war.

Given this, you have to appreciate the challenge of Kahn’s title and the reasoned method he brought to his work. In Kahn’s equations for security, patriotism is best served by marshaling clear evidence and submitting that evidence to unemotional thought processes. On the eve of the Bush II War, there’s much heated rhetoric trumpeting patriotic purpose coming from the president and his handlers. What is not easy to find in all of this is fact-supported evidence and hard thinking about the unthinkable.

It appears we know how to begin a war, but do we have a clue as to what happens when that war comes and or when it ends?


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