Tag: <span>war</span>

Nukes and Stability

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Back when Russia first invaded Ukraine, I made the decision to not write a post about it. First off, everyone was writing about it, and it wasn’t clear that I had anything unique to say. Secondly, while I knew the invasion was going to be bad, I didn’t think it would be apocalyptic. Though I knew that if it started to head in an apocalyptic direction, I would have to write about it. That’s my whole beat. Me not writing about an apocalyptic war would be like The Bark (tagline: “Dog is my co-pilot”) not covering the Westminster Dog Show. 

Fortunately since I made that decision I have come up with an angle on things that I haven’t seen other people cover. Unfortunately the chances of the Ukrainian invasion turning into the start of World War III have also gone up. So I apologize to those of you who came here expecting a post on the drug crisis. I will be getting to that next time.

I- Why an Apocalyptic Outcome Is Becoming Increasingly Likely 

I didn’t spend any time or effort on predicting whether Putin would invade, nor did I spend any on predicting how things would go if he did invade. I certainly wasn’t surprised when it happened—expecting black and gray swans is another thing where my record is pretty clear. But beyond a lack of surprise, my opinions and reactions generally followed the conventional wisdom, which was that Russia was going to have a pretty easy time of it. Having read Kill Chain by Christian Brose, where he describes the superb effectiveness of the Russian “little green men” in the Crimean Annexation, I was, if anything, biased towards a high assessment of Russian competence. As a result, like most people, including Putin himself, I expected a relatively quick victory. That before we had time to debate arming Ukraine, or imposing a no-fly zone, things would be over. 

As horrible as this would be for the Ukrainians. If Putin was going to invade regardless, a quick victory was really the best outcome we could hope for. Low casualties, minimal economic disruption, and most of all only a very small window during which escalations could happen

Instead what we have kind of reminds me of the start of World War I. One of the first things you discover when you start studying WWI is how quick everyone thought it would be. Of course everyone was wrong and the war turned into a brutal slog which ground through 4 years and 20 million lives, 40 million if you add in the wounded. In making this comparison between Ukraine and WWI there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that there is almost no way it will last 4 years, the bad news is that’s because someone will use nukes long before it comes to that. 

The longer it takes for Russia to conquer Ukraine, the more likely it will end up being the start of World War III. This is because there will be more opportunities for it to escalate, more opportunities for mistakes to happen, and more opportunity for passions to become inflamed. And of course we’re not just talking about passions on the Russian side of things, passions in the West are being inflamed as well. Increasingly the public is agitating for the establishment of a no-fly zone. Of course the biggest advocates for a no fly zone are the Ukrainians, but the Estonians have also recently called for one as well. Initially all sober-minded people declared a no-fly zone to be a horrible idea, but my central point is that the longer things go, the less sober-minded people become, and we’re already seeing that trend play out as people look for ways to eat their cake and have it. We have gone from everyone recognizing that a no-fly zone is a horrible idea to the idea that we could impose a limited no-fly zone, and this is not just uninformed members of the public, recently 27 experts signing a letter urging just that. These are generals, senior fellows and ambassadors.

In other worrisome news I just saw a poll from Pew Research where 35% of people were in favor of taking military action even if it risks war with Russia. That still leaves 62% who were not in favor (3% did not answer) but if the Russians stay the course and grind their way into a bloody occupation of Kiev, do you think the number of people in favor will go down or up? I’m betting the longer it goes the more bellicose people will become, and damn the consequences.

Obviously this worry about escalation is not unique to me, and of all the takes I’ve read I thought Ross Douthat’s was the best. In particular I like the way he structured things, so I’m just going to steal it:

II- Drawing Clear Lines (Plus NATO Expansion)

Clear commitments — we will fight here, we won’t fight there — are the coin of the nuclear realm, since the goal is to give the enemy the responsibility for escalation, to make it feel its apocalyptic weight, while also feeling that it can always choose another path. Whereas unpredictable escalations and maximalist objectives, often useful in conventional warfare, are the enemy of nuclear peace, insofar as they threaten the enemy with the no-win scenario that Petrov almost found himself in that day in 1983.

These insights have several implications for our strategy right now. First, they suggest that even if you believe the United States should have extended security guarantees to Ukraine before the Russian invasion, now that war is begun we must stick by the lines we drew in advance. That means yes to defending any NATO ally, yes to supporting Ukraine with sanctions and weaponry, and absolutely no to a no-fly zone or any measure that might obligate us to fire the first shot against the Russians.

He covers a lot of territory in these paragraphs. For those who are curious Petrov was the Soviet officer in charge of the early warning system one night in 1983 when it showed 5 inbound American ICBMs. Petrov decided to wait for corroborating evidence rather than sound the alarm. He was a hero and more than that a good man, and a lot of the scenarios people are discussing assume that nearly all men are that good. Which I’m not sure is the case. But we’ll get to that.

Douthat also brings up the difference between conventional war and nuclear peace. While I see WWI in much of what’s happening I think many people have defaulted to using WWII as an analogy. A European bad guy with nationalist ambitions starts his aggressions by claiming that some territory is legitimately part of his country, and he is just uniting a group of people who should never have been separated. The first time this happened we appeased the guy which was a horrible mistake, so we should never do it again. In addition to this lesson of “never appease the bad guy”, WWII taught us that the way to beat bad guys is through uniting the entire world in opposition. And this was a great plan in 1941. The Allies won because Germany could never keep up with the industrial might of the United States. Most people forget the millions and millions of Russians who died as part of this process. But regardless, this was true in 1941. It is not true today. It doesn’t matter how much greater our industrial might is, we can still lose, that doesn’t mean Russia wins, it means we both lose. 

Douthat goes on to make the critical recommendation that we have to stick to “the lines we drew in advance”. He’s not the only one making this point, Scott Alexander also mentions it in his post on Ukraine. He starts with the point I’ve already harped on:

If you only get one thing from this essay, let it be: unless you know something I don’t, establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine might be the worst decision in history. It would be a good way to get everyone in the world killed.

I’ve already written a post on how it won’t kill everyone, but it would be very, very bad. Alexander moves on from this to discussing the lines, the international norms that keep nuclear war from breaking out:

…those arbitrary lines are what save us from global annihilation.

Any sane person wants to avoid nuclear war. But this makes it easy to exploit sane people. If Russia said “Please give us the Aleutian Islands, or we will nuke you”, what should the US do? They can threaten mutually assured destruction, but if Russia says “Yes, we have received your threat, we stick to our demand, give us the Aleutians or the nukes start flying”, then what?

No sane person thinks it’s worth risking nuclear war just to protect something as minor as the Aleutian Islands. But then the US gives Russia the Aleutians, and next year they ask for all of Alaska. And even Alaska isn’t really worth risking nuclear war over, so you give it to them, and then the next year…

So people who don’t want to be exploited occasionally set lines in the sand, where they refuse to make trivial concessions even to prevent global apocalypse. This is good, insofar as it prevents them from being exploited, but bad, insofar as sometimes it causes global apocalypse. So far the solution everyone has settled on are lots of very finicky rules about which lines you’re allowed to draw and which ones you aren’t…

If there was ever a point at which two nuclear powers disagreed about who was in the wrong, one of them could threaten nuclear war to get that wrong redressed, the other could say they had drawn a line in the sand there to prevent being exploited, and then they’d have to either back down (difficult, humiliating) or start a nuclear war (unpleasant, fatal). So there are a lot of diplomats who have put a lot of effort into establishing international norms on which things are wrong and which things aren’t, so that nobody crosses anyone else’s lines by accident.

I think this is the way to understand the whole NATO expansion idea. We’re so focused on our own side, that we imagine it’s us who’s drawing the lines, but Russia can also draw lines. NATO expansion was their line, and they are also worried about a cascade of exploitation. Now what they call exploitation we call self-determination, but if someone has hundreds of ICBMs we should allow them wide latitude with definitions.

And this isn’t some line that’s only being discussed now, as a pretext for invasion. When Alexander talks about diplomats defining these lines we have dozens of US diplomats pointing out that NATO expansion was just such a line. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the issue of NATO expansion, since it’s been discussed a lot elsewhere, but I have noticed that most of the discussion seems very facile, it rarely mentions how nuclear weapons might change the calculus of expansion and it definitely doesn’t mention the lingering national dread Russia has be experiencing from losing 20 million people in WW2. But as I already pointed out, we have a very US-centric view of that war. I was also amazed that Alexander, who’s an incredibly smart guy, didn’t make the connection between his Alaskan example and the way NATO expansion appears to the Russians. 

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that I think Putin is a good guy, or that he’s justified in the slightest, or that the Ukrainians aren’t both brave and righteous. No, my whole point is that when you’re dealing with a nuclear power the rules have to be different. And the Ukrainian invasion is proof that we haven’t quite absorbed that lesson, and maybe we won’t until it’s too late. 

One final scenario before moving on. I was listening to a podcast the other day, and someone mentioned that if Russia used a tactical nuke that we would have to respond militarily. Obviously we should all hope and pray that this does not happen, but if it does, then this person thinks we should initiate World War III? That we should be prepared to trade US cities for Ukrainian ones? This is the central problem. Yes, we should definitely draw lines, but unfortunately we can’t draw a line anywhere we feel like it. There are consequences to where we draw our line, consequences we may shortly experience.

III- Getting Rid of Putin

Second, [these insights] mean that it’s extremely dangerous for U.S. officials to talk about regime change in Moscow — in the style of the reckless Senator Lindsey Graham, for instance, who has called on a “Brutus” or “Stauffenberg” to rid the world of Vladimir Putin. If you make your nuclear-armed enemy believe your strategy requires the end of their regime (or very life), you are pushing them, again, toward the no-choice zone that almost trapped Colonel Petrov.

Speaking of podcasts, it’s not just Graham that is being reckless. Garry Kasparov was on Sam Harris’ podcast vociferously advocating the same thing, that the only solution was regime change, that Putin is a psychopath, and either we win or he does, that he will not stop at Ukraine. 

To begin with, as I have already pointed out, it’s not inevitable that one side will win, what’s more likely is that we both lose. In response, when Harris brought up the point that Douthat, and many others have made, that if we leave Putin no other option—if it’s a choice between his death and using nukes—then he’s going to use nukes. Kasparov makes the point that he’s going to try to use nukes, but that the actual people in charge of those nukes will refuse his order, particularly if we make it clear that we will immediately respond in kind, by taking them out with a retaliatory nuke. He appears to be advocating that we resurrect the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) but in a limited sense. Of course, there’s no guarantee that it will remain limited. Also extending MAD to include Ukraine, feels like both a dangerous extension of the doctrine, and a dangerous precedent. 

For all of this, Kasparov may be correct, perhaps if we make it clear that we will immediately retaliate in kind if nukes are used, then if Putin issues an order to use nukes the commanders will disobey that order. But those are a couple of very big ifs. I think I would like to have more certainty when you’re talking about potentially starting World War III. Are you really that sure that no one will follow Putin’s order? You can imagine a scenario like the one I mentioned where a single tactical nuke gets used, and we respond with one of our own nukes. Well at that point the world is a very different place. Is the US still viewed as the good guy or would using a nuke mark the end of US soft power? What does China do? Are they able to take advantage of things to draw more nations into their orbit? I don’t have the space to really delve into the China angle, but obviously they’re the huge wildcard in this conflict.

Even if we avoided responding with nukes of our own and just went all-in on a conventional war, that’s still an enormous escalation, and Russian commanders who initially refused Putin’s order when it was just about Ukraine, might suddenly feel differently when Russian soldiers are being killed by US soldiers.

Even if we’re going to temporarily set aside the question of nukes, we still have to come up with a method of removing Putin from power (or killing him outright). There would appear to be three:

First, we could invade, march all the way to Moscow, or wherever he ends up, and do it in a manner similar to how we removed Sadaam. I can’t even begin to imagine us doing this, certainly I can’t imagine that nukes wouldn’t get used long before we got anywhere close to Putin.

Second, we could assassinate him. I refer you to this opinion piece on Politico (interestingly the same outlet that published the limited no-fly zone letter) for a discussion of why that won’t work and why it has never worked (despite being tried a lot). If nothing else  it would definitely make things very weird with China.

Finally, the option seemingly favored by most people: we can hope that, as Senator Graham said, a Brutus or a Stauffenberg will remove Putin, or perhaps the Russian military could overthrow him in a coup. This is nice to imagine, though as Douthat mentions, dangerous to advocate (particularly if you’re a senator), but how realistic is it? My sense is that overthrowing an autocrat is far more difficult than people imagine. Yes, there have been protests. Yes, the current sanctions will hurt. Yes, there is enormous international pressure. Yes, Putin is hated by lots of Russian citizens. But look at Kim Jong-un and Nicholas Maduro, and before them, Fidel Castro, Augusto Pinochet, and Joseph Stalin. You don’t think all of them dealt with protests, sanctions, international pressure, and the hatred of their own people? 

But let’s say that it does happen, that some Brutus rises up and kills Putin. Well if you know your Roman history you know that Caesar’s assassination was not followed by a peaceful restoration of the Republic, rather it was followed by years and years of war. Perhaps we’ll get lucky, on this count and the assassination or coup will be immediately followed by Alexei Navalny taking power, the oligarchs all getting arrested and the flowering of western-style democracy, but I don’t think that’s the way to bet. 

IV- What Does Stability Look Like over the Long Term?

I’m hoping that the previous sections had bits here and there that you hadn’t encountered before in all of the ink that has been spilled on the Ukrainian situation, but this section is where we finally get to the point of the post. This is the part where I’m arrogant enough to think that I’m covering things from an angle lacking from all of the other articles written about the invasion. To kick things off let’s turn to Douthat’s final point:

Third, [these insights] imply that the odds of nuclear war might be higher today than in the Soviet era, because Russia is much weaker. The Soviet Union simply had more ground to give up in a conventional war before defeat appeared existential than does Putin’s smaller empire — which may be a reason why current Russian strategy increasingly prioritizes tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional-war retreat.

Everyone, even Douthat, is worried about the situation as it stands now. A weakening Russia being led by a psychopath (if you believe Kasparov). But of course this is an obvious thing to worry about, what’s not so obvious is where things are headed. Should we get past this crisis, what does the future hold? Is Russia likely to be weaker or stronger in 20 years? What about 50 years? Which Russia is less likely to use nukes? Is the leader at that point going to be more psychopathic or less? One hopes less, but there’s plenty of room for them to be even worse. Perhaps you’ve heard of Stalin? And remember we allied with him because he was better than Hitler.

Beyond just the state of Russia there are of course numerous other concerning trends. What direction is US power headed? In 20 years will we be weaker or stronger? What about China? How does culture and ideology play out during that time? What about trends in proliferation? If you’re the leader of a country without nukes, does this war make you more or less likely to try and acquire them? I’m guessing that for a lot of people in positions of power, the number one lesson of the invasion will be that Ukraine should have never relinquished its nukes, and that if they don’t want their country to suffer a similar fate they need to acquire some of their own as soon as possible. 

Lots of people are of the opinion that the invasion of Ukraine marks the end of the Long Peace. Less discussed at the moment is why we had the Long Peace in the first place. One popular theory is that we had peace because nukes made war too awful to contemplate. That more specifically the threat of MAD kept the US and USSR from turning the Cold War hot. An equilibrium prevailed, and while it wasn’t a perfect situation, it was an equilibrium in which nukes were not used. This was a bipolar world with two relatively equal sides. As such the game theory was pretty simple, and for a while at least, stability reigned.  

A different form of stability exists on the other side of things. A stability of complete, or nearly complete destruction. A stability where people don’t worry about whether their enemies are going to use nukes because all of them have already been used, and we no longer have the ability to make more of them. I am not an expert on game theory, so I’m not 100% sure that both of these points of stability qualify as true Schelling points, but I do know that Thomas Schelling was obsessed with trying to find points of stability where nukes would not be used. (Which is why it seems particularly dicey to call the use of all the nukes a Schelling point.) Perhaps it’s better to say that in the graph of nuclear weapon usage we know of two points where the graph is at zero: a bipolar world with sides of relatively equal strength, and a world where war has raged so completely and ferociously that there are no nukes left. And the core question, the one I’ve been building up to this whole time, is are there any others? 

The reason it took me so long to get to my core question is that I wanted to illustrate that whatever sort of Schelling point we occupied, Putin has pushed us out of it. And damn him to Hell for doing so, but unfortunately, as the world transitions to a multipolar one, with nuclear nations of varying strength, it was going to happen eventually. If not when Russia invaded Ukraine, it would have happened when China invaded Taiwan. The question which confronts us is can we find a new Schelling point, a new zero spot on the graph? I see a few options, but one last point before we get to them. Remember that we can’t uninvent nukes. Whatever “point” we come up with has to last basically forever. As you can imagine this is a daunting prospect.

The preferred option would be something along the lines of what Kasparov is hinting at, and before him, what Steven Pinker argued for in his book The Better Angels of our Nature. (See my review here.) That liberal and enlightenment ideology has spread to the point where using nukes is inconceivable. That even if you have a psychopath at the top desperately clinging to power who gives an order to use nukes that the individuals below him won’t follow that order. Of course Kasparov was advocating for some additional inducements in the form of threatening horrible retaliation, so I’m not sure that his view is truly pinker-esque. But in this scenario you can imagine that through a combination of using liberal values as the carrot and massive retaliation as the stick we might have collectively already reached a new Schelling point as a natural result of progress.

As you can imagine I have my doubts about this option. We’d have to be exceptionally good at avoiding escalation (which based on what I said in part I does not appear to be the case). This sort of progress would also have to be exceptionally comprehensive. It would have to include individuals in all nations regardless of the provocation. It has to assume that mentally unstable people, or fanatical terrorists will never have direct access to nukes, that even if nations naturally end up with megalomaniacs as leaders that this megalomania will never infect the people actually in charge of firing nukes. Which is not to say I don’t hope it’s true, merely that it seems unlikely to be so. 

A variation on this option which seems more likely is that we might have grown out of aggressive war. Of all the issues Russia has encountered in their invasion of Ukraine, the issue of Russian troop morale has to be near the top. Russian soldiers do not appear to be particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of invading another country, and even in a society as repressive as Russia’s it’s difficult for Putin to force them to be effective in the presence of poor morale. All of which is to say that it’s the reaction of the Russian people to the invasion that gives me the most hope. I still think that an assassination or a coup would be difficult to pull off, but I’m heartened by how “low-energy” the invasion has been. 

Of course the problem here is that if a leader can’t rely on a conventional invasion then that may make them more rather than less likely to go directly to nukes as a way of getting what they want. Aggressive conventional war may no longer be “fashionable” but this may only serve to put all of the focus on the ways in which nuclear weapons can be used to underpin aggression. 

Another possibility for achieving a stable point of zero usage is what might be called the historical option, the one liberal and enlightened people have largely rejected. This is the idea of allowing great powers to have spheres of influence, spheres where, by convention, other great powers do not intervene. To the extent that this option might offer a “zero nuke usage spot” on the graph I don’t think it’s a particularly stable one, but it does make the process of drawing lines (previously mentioned by Alexander and Douthat) easier. For example, in the current situation, Ukraine obviously falls in the Russian sphere of influence, Russia is a great power and accordingly we should stay out of things—no sanctions, no supply of missiles, no drones. Of course even when the doctrine of great power spheres prevailed those powers were always messing with each other in subtle ways, and not only that, the spheres were not fixed and immutable. The great powers were constantly trying to expand their spheres at the expense of someone else’s, and not only that, but lesser powers continually aspired to become great powers and great powers spent their existence in fear that the reverse would happen, thus the lack of long term stability.

Still, as chaotic as these situations could become, it worked out better than you might imagine. Take the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and the US involvement in Vietnam. The two superpowers were clearly messing with one another as much as they could get away with, but the idea that either might resort to nukes was pretty much off the table. But now that’s all anyone can talk about, because Putin has clearly put it on the table. Obviously a large part of the current dilemma is that other aspect of great power spheres: what happens to them when a great power is in decline? And I understand that for various reasons both good and bad that Ukraine is viewed differently than Afghanistan and Vietnam, but I think we may have cast aside the idea of spheres of influence prematurely. 

My personal prediction for how things will evolve going forward involves a lot more nukes. I don’t necessarily put this forward as a stable spot where nukes are never used, though it could nevertheless be more stable than the current situation. This prediction derives from the opinion I mentioned earlier, the idea that a lot of people in power view the invasion of Ukraine as primarily a lesson about not giving up nukes if you have them and attempting to acquire them if you don’t. This lesson derives not merely from the current invasion, and the fact that Ukraine had nukes and gave them up, but also North Korea’s continued existence, as well as the fate of Muammar Gaddafi after he foreswore his nuclear program. 

I don’t know if it will turn out that two nuclear nations will never end up going to war. I do know that it brought a significant degree of calm to the India-Pakistan conflict. As I said this is my prediction for where things are headed, and I would guess that it’s more stable than what we’re currently experiencing right at this moment, but I very much doubt such an arrangement would end up being perpetually stable. 

The final equilibrium point we could end up in is not particularly stable at all, but neither does it represent the end of the world as people commonly imagine. Nukes, particularly low-yield tactical ones, could just become a common feature of war. Obviously this would be a pretty bad outcome, but it’s also hard to imagine that at some point in the next 50 years that someone somewhere isn’t going to use nukes. At which point we should be praying that it’s a low yield tactical nuke and that it doesn’t cause an immediate escalation to a full on exchange of all the nukes—a true World War III. But even if we should be that lucky, the use of one tactical nuke without the world ending would surely encourage the use of additional nukes. As I said this might lead to a new, temporary point of stability where it’s understood that people are allowed to use low yield tactical nukes because it’s better than using all the ICBMs. But as I’ve said this is not a great outcome, it is however one of the many depressing possibilities.

V- Final Recommendations and Observations

In the midst of all the coverage of the invasion, you may have come across the famous quote from Thucydides, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. It’s a depressing statement, but it’s also a true one. A large part of everyone’s faith in progress has been tied up in the idea that as part of that progress strength was increasing connected to goodness. That yes, the strong are able to do whatever they want, but what they want happens to be good for people and the world. In a sense this was Francis Fukuyama’s central claim when he declared the End of History. Not that history had stopped, but that liberal democracy, a government which encourages good outcomes, also happened to be the strongest form of government as well. Of course the current climate is raising questions about both sides of that statement, and their long-term truth remains to be seen. 

Whether Fukuyama was correct or not, the central theme of this very long post is that nukes undermine traditional ways of testing national strength—they mess with the traditional conduct of war. While it appears true that liberal democracies are better at fighting conventional wars, as we saw in World War II, they don’t appear to have any particular advantage when it comes to acquiring nukes, as the example of North Korea makes clear, since they are essentially the exact opposite of a liberal democracy. Of course, once a country has nukes any war it might engage in has the potential to go from a conventional war to a nuclear war. And there doesn’t appear to be any great options for dealing with this eventuality. 

Just because there aren’t any great options doesn’t mean that there are no options. The obvious thing to hope for is that Pinker and Kasparov are right. While nations will still have nukes there will be no one who will actually follow the order to use them. That this is one of the dividends of progress. If that’s the case I think we should be careful about spending down the principal of progress. This sort of forbearance only comes into play if liberal democracies still have a credible claim of being the good guys. And while I think some of the anti-western sentiment that’s come up recently—the “whataboutism” that excuses Russia’s crimes by pointing out our many crimes—is overblown, it does exist, and there are a lot of people who support Putin because he stands up against “The West”. And we need to be careful not to come across as a monolithic, self-righteous, and uncaring force. That is any more than we already do, which is to say we should actually be trying to dial down our monolithic self-righteousness even now. This project is made more difficult by the fact that we live in the era of the informational echo chamber. Where people who hate the West are likely to encounter other people who hate the West, and it’s possible this hatred has already metastasized.  

I also think that we need to be particularly careful when we’re going through a transitional period. Which we certainly are, both with respect to Russia and China. I understand that the general admonition to “be careful” is not particularly actionable. But I do think that if we look back to the way we treated Russia immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union that we didn’t exactly cover ourselves in glory. And the assumption that by bringing China into the global market that they would automatically turn liberal, also appears to be horribly mistaken, and instead it just created a peer competitor.

Of course the whole theme of my blog is that transitions are happening with ever greater frequency. We’re not just going through a transition where Russia is weakening and China is strengthening, we’re also dealing with multiple overlapping transitions related to technology. For example the invasion of Ukraine would be very different if social media did not exist. On top of that cyberwarfare is obviously happening, and apparently drones are wreaking havoc as well.

It also seems to me that attitudes are weird. There’s a certain bifurcation. On the one hand I see people, particularly when the war first started, claiming that Putin was going kill millions of people. And to be fair he still might, but so far, particularly when you’re talking about wars happening in Eastern Europe, casualties have been surprisingly low. But in any case you have people who, when they think about war, imagine it at its most terrible. Millions dead, Putin marching across Europe spreading famine and disease. And then on the other hand you have people who seem excited by the idea of war, who want to go over to Ukraine and fight. Who love the idea of the scrappy underdog Ukrainians. 

In both cases I think we have gone too long without war. It seems both a solution to civilizational malaise and also potentially the worst thing that could possibly happen. The first case is somewhat borne out by perhaps the biggest surprise of the war: the firmness and determination of Western Europe! Many people predicted that Germany would tacitly go along with the invasion because Russia supplies more than half their fossil fuel. No one predicted they would double their defense budget. Clearly the international unity in support of Ukraine is something to celebrate, It would just be nice if it didn’t take a war to get us there. Though a couple of years ago I predicted this very phenomenon.

The invasion of Ukraine is changing a lot of things. A lot more will change before it’s all over, let us hope that we can keep those changes from being apocalyptic. And then keep doing it for the next hundred years, and unless something dramatic changes, additional hundreds of years beyond that.


First off am I the only one who is having a hard time breaking the habit of saying “The Ukraine”? Second, this post ended up being and taking a lot longer than I thought, and as I am leaving tomorrow for GaryCon to pour one out for the father of RPGs, I don’t think there’s going to be a second essay this month. My apologies. If you appreciated the post despite this revelation of the frivolousness of its author and his subsequent dereliction of duty, consider donating.


Eschatologist #14: The Fragility of Peace

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This newsletter is an exploration of how big things end, and just four days ago something very big came to an end. Depending on who you listen to, it was the end of “peace on the European continent for a long time to come”, or the end of the post cold-war era, and the reintroduction of force into foreign affairs, or the end of all hope that humans are capable of change. And it’s possible that the invasion of Ukraine may be the end of all three of those things. Only time will tell what this event ended, and what it began, but in my opinion people’s chief reaction has been an overreaction, and these quotes are great examples of that.

This is one of the reasons why I spent the last few newsletters talking about randomness, black swans, fragility and its opposite: antifragility. If you put it all together it’s a toolkit for knowing when things might break and then dealing with that breakage. This is not to say that it enabled me to know that Russia was going to invade Ukraine in February of 2022, but it does put one on the lookout for things that are fragile. And it’s been apparent for a while that the “Long Peace” was very fragile. I wish it wasn’t, but that and a dollar will get you a taco. 

Certainly, now that it’s broken, it’s easy to say that peace was fragile, that it would inevitably break and we shouldn’t lose our heads about it. But how do we identify fragile things before they break? And in particular how do we make them less fragile, even antifragile? In simple terms things that are fragile get weaker when subjected to shocks, with antifragility it’s the opposite, they get stronger, up to a point. A teacup is fragile: the more you jostle it, the more use it gets, the more likely it is to end up in pieces on the floor. The immune system is antifragile: when you expose it to a pathogen (or a vaccine) it gets stronger. 

So how does all of this help us deal with the invasion of Ukraine? That’s an excellent question. Unfortunately I don’t think the answer is either simple or straightforward. But, as evidenced by the initial quotes, I think that we’ve had peace between the great powers for so long that we become unhinged at the idea of war. We’ll do anything to prevent it. Unfortunately prevention can turn out to be just postponement.

I’ve written a couple of essays where I used the analogy of fighting forest fires. The forest needs periodic fires to clean out the deadwood, but when you fight every fire the deadwood accumulates and eventually you end up with a fire that has so much fuel that it ends up wiping out the entire forest. You take an antifragile system and turn it into a fragile one. 

Obviously coming up with a clever metaphor for the situation doesn’t get us very far. But it does illustrate what I’m most worried about, that we’ve become so unused to fires (which used to happen all the time) that when the first one comes around we’re going to mishandle it and turn it into an inferno.

I see lots of people saying that Putin won’t stop at Ukraine, that this is the beginning of WW III. First off, it’s only been four days. Acting too hastily almost certainly has far more downside than upside, because if we’re not careful then, yes, this could be the beginning of WW III. Immediately losing our heads and declaring it to be so on day one could turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

This is because of another topic I talk about a lot, and part of why it’s difficult to draw on what happened in the past: the modern world has changed all the rules. War is now very different. Hanging over any decision to intervene, in the background of every war room, haunting every discussion of force, is a fear of nuclear war. And Putin has already upped the ante, by putting his nuclear forces on high alert.

I hope the Ukrainians humiliate the Russians, and it’s nice to see that the war is already not going as smoothly as they expected. But in the end if this escalates into a full on nuclear war, it’s not going to matter who started it, or whose cause was just, because the inferno doesn’t care.


If peace is fragile, is war antifragile? That’s a scary assertion, though one I have toyed with in the past. Perhaps historically it was, but we’re at the end of history, and no one knows how it’s going to turn out. If that scares you as much as it scares me consider donating.


Shallow Seriousness Is Crowding Out Deep Seriousness

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I.

With the exception of my newsletters every one of my posts is thousands of words, and yet despite that length I am always left with the impression that I haven’t hit all the points I wanted to or explained things as well as could have. That in some sense I still haven’t quite gotten to the essence of a subject. Normally I just shrug this off as something that comes with the territory. A skill I’ll hopefully get better at, but also a feeling I’ll probably never get rid of because I will always have a certain amount of built in anxiety which is forever intractable. I will also remind myself that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and you have to hit publish at some point.

This was certainly the case with my posts on Afghanistan, and initially it just seemed like the standard second guessing that happens after every post. But it didn’t fade, and I found my mind continually drawn back to some of the ideas from those posts, in particular the idea that one of the reasons we failed in Afghanistan is that we are “no longer a serious people”.  

II.

As a brief reminder here’s where I left things:

In my first post on Afghanistan I borrowed an idea from Antonio García Martínez about the idea that we are no longer a serious people, and perhaps I need to amend that. “Digitizing the economy” is a serious topic. It’s the kind of thing serious people talk about. What it wasn’t, was relevant. When the Taliban have conquered most of the country in the space of a few days talking about anything other than how your guys are going to kill their guys is pointless. I’m confident that Najibullah [The president backed by Russia] was an expert in such conversations. Ghani [The president backed by the US] apparently avoided them. 

As you can see I was already hinting at the idea that people mean different things when they talk about being serious. And that perhaps if we’re going to say that we failed in Afghanistan for not being serious we need to unpack that word. What does it mean to be serious, particularly in this context?

As the word is used day to day it generally comes as an injunction to dispense with frivolity, to set aside extraneous matters and focus on what’s important. The word also carries a connotation of consequential, as in a serious heart attack vs. a mild attack. 

If we look around at what’s currently happening, on certain measures we are very serious. Biden’s infrastructure bill was passed over a week ago, and it would seem to meet all of the above criteria. We have set aside the extraneous concerns of politics and the back and forth accusations of one party vs. another to focus on something truly important. Additionally it’s consequential, even in an age where deficits don’t seem to matter, $1.2 trillion is, as Biden would say, a big f’ing deal. 

This would seem to be an example of serious people doing serious things, and yet on the other hand it’s exactly the thing I complained of when talking about Afghanistan. President Ghani was obsessed with digitizing the economy, which is essentially also an infrastructure initiative, albeit a virtual one. But if he really cared about the country as a whole (and there’s reason to suspect he didn’t) what he really should have been obsessed with was the defense of his country.

As I sat down to grapple with this issue again, I was reminded of one of my very earliest blog posts, as a matter of fact, it was only the sixth thing I’d posted. The post was titled Sports, the Sack of Baghdad and the Upcoming Election. In particular I was reminded of this passage:

As an example of this, I have a theory of history which I call “Whatever you do, don’t let Baghdad get sacked.” You may think this is in reference to one of the recent gulf wars, but actually I’m referring to the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 (Genghis had been dead for nearly 40 years at this point but the Mongols were still really scary.) This incident may have been one of the worst preventable disasters in history. Somewhere between 200,000 and 2 million people died. Anyone who loves books always shudders when you bring up the loss of the Library of Alexandria, but in the sack of Baghdad we have an equally great library being destroyed. Contemporary accounts said that “the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river and red from the blood of the scientists and philosophers killed.” Even though it happened centuries ago people will say that Baghdad still hasn’t recovered. I don’t know what dominated the thinking of the Abbasid Caliphate in the years before Baghdad was sacked. Perhaps, like us, they argued about taxes, or fought amongst themselves, or worried about foreigners. Perhaps there was even someone who said that they should do whatever it takes to appease the Mongols. If they did I see no evidence of it.

The sack of Baghdad was a black swan, a big one. And the whole course of history is different because it happened. Of all the things that the Abbasid Caliphate did, (or perhaps in this case didn’t do) this is what’s remembered 1000 years later.  Perhaps judging them by that standard is harsh, but what other standard should we judge them by? If the point of government is not to prevent your capital from being sacked, your rulers from being killed, your treasure from being carried away and your women from being raped, then what is its point?

As I said, whatever the Abbasid Caliphate did, it was the wrong thing. Now obviously I’m operating with perfect hindsight, but this takes us back to antifragility. It’s true that you can’t predict the future, but there are things that you can do to limit your exposure to these gigantic catastrophes, these major black swans. And that’s what governments are for.

I’m surprised I never thought to reference this in the previous posts on Afghanistan, because, more or less, Kabul ended up being a mirror of Baghdad. To be clear, we have to adjust things for modern sensibilities. But in both cases the most critical task was making sure the capital wasn’t conquered, and in both cases the rulers failed. The only reason the rulers weren’t killed this time is because of the existence of air travel. (Though I would also argue it was an issue of courage as well.) Also, and unfortunately for the Taliban, there wasn’t much treasure to be carried off. (Which I guess is one good reason to digitize the economy.) Apparently Ghani carried off quite a bit of the treasure before they got there. Finally I suspect that many women were raped when Kabul fell, and we know for sure that many were given to Taliban fighters in forced marriage

III.

From all of this we are left to consider our own situation: Are there any Mongols or Taliban fighters on the verge of sacking our capital?  I think it’s clear that we have neither steppe horseman nor Islamic fundamentalists outside our gates. But it’s a mistake to take things too literally, what we’re really looking for is patterns. Who are our enemies? Are we focused enough on the dangers they pose? Or have we perhaps been distracted by something else? All of which is to say, are we paying attention to the right thing?

The genesis of this post and the beginning of me revisiting things, came early last month when one of my loyal patreon subscribers pointed me at a story which had run in the New York Times.

Top American counterintelligence officials warned every C.I.A. station and base around the world last week about troubling numbers of informants…being captured or killed…

The message, in an unusual top secret cable…highlighted the struggle the spy agency is having as it works to recruit spies around the world in difficult operating environments. In recent years, adversarial intelligence services in countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan have been hunting down the C.I.A.’s sources and in some cases turning them into double agents.

Acknowledging that recruiting spies is a high-risk business, the cable raised issues that have plagued the agency in recent years, including poor tradecraft; being too trusting of sources; underestimating foreign intelligence agencies, and moving too quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks — a problem the cable called placing “mission over security.”

While we don’t have Mongols outside our walls we do have other countries who would like nothing more than to destroy us and carry away our treasures. Espionage is the field on which the battle is taking place, and if the NYT is to be believed, we’re not doing very well in this battle.

Perhaps our situation is not as dire as that of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258 or of the Afghan government in August. But when it becomes that dire it will probably already be too late. So is this an issue of seriousness? One requiring serious people? Are we failing because we lack such people?

There’s a lot to unpack in the Times article, and I obviously only quoted a portion. One of the explanations given for the problems the CIA has been encountering is technological: 

The large number of compromised informants in recent years also demonstrated the growing prowess of other countries in employing innovations like biometric scans, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and hacking tools to track the movements of C.I.A. officers in order to discover their sources. 

This part is certainly interesting, and it relates to themes I’ve touched on a lot in this space. But it’s not what I want to focus on right now. Rather my eye was drawn to point about the deterioration of the craft, particularly the drive to “quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks”.

Apparently:

Recruiting new informants, former officials said, is how the C.I.A.’s case officers — its frontline spies — earn promotions. Case officers are not typically promoted for running good counterintelligence operations, such as figuring out if an informant is really working for another country.

In other words the CIA has turned recruiting spies into a numbers game. And as you may recall from my last post, when I reviewed The Tyranny of Merit. There are a couple of adages about this, one of which asserts that: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” 

But how does all of this relate to whether or not we’re serious people? Do I mean to suggest that if we stopped tracking the number of new informants a case officer recruited that the whole situation would be reversed? Or, to draw on another concept from my last post, do we just need to implement a few nudges? Perhaps we can give the “Add New Informant” screen a red background to remind them of the blood that will be spilled if they don’t consider the quality of their informants in addition to the quantities? Or maybe we should conduct a follow-up survey, with questions like, “Did the informant turn out to be a double agent?”, followed by: “How many Americans did they end up getting killed?”

I assume that these suggestions seem ridiculous or flippant, but why? Certainly many governments are enamoured by the idea of nudges, perhaps the red background nudge wouldn’t work, but how do you know? Have you tried an A/B split test? And if in the past we based promotion on job performance metrics, why is it bad to refine those metrics and add additional ones to plug the gap? Are these not the sort of things which serious companies do? 

But it would seem once again that there is a level of seriousness beyond this when we consider matters of national security—matters of life and death. And that even things which are normally plenty serious, something which wouldn’t feel out of place in a boardroom of a Fortune 500 company, becomes downright frivolous when applied to things that are truly serious. 

This gets us quite a bit of the way to what we’re looking for when we describe the qualities of a nation of “serious people”. Those who are familiar with life and death situations and who also perform well in them. The reason we are no longer a serious people is that by and large we don’t deal with life or death situations—certainly not with the same frequency or intensity as our forebearers. And when we are called to do so, as in the case with CIA case officers, we bring in tools from our unserious existence, and wonder why they don’t work.

But why? What’s the difference? What differentiates  a serious tool from an unserious one? 

IV.

A little over a year ago I published what many have declared to be my best post. (Though one reader declared it to be the closest I’ve come to insanity.) It was an extended meditation on the book The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist, which itself is an extended look at the way modernity leans into a left-brained view of the world, resulting in the perpetuation of various damaging distortions. 

After I published that post I expected to reference it frequently, but mostly I haven’t returned to the subject. I think largely the reason can be boiled down to the idea that if you’re a fish it’s difficult to comment on water. That said, I think this is finally a subject where the connection seems obvious.

As I have pointed out there seem to be two levels of seriousness. The more shallow form of seriousness is the one that tracks the number of informants recruited, but overlooks the fact that most of them are killed or turned. The shallow form spawns leaders who are obsessed with digitizing the economy of their country, but have no desire to make any plans for the defense of that same country. And then there is a deeper level of seriousness which considers not only the quantity of the informants being recruited but their quality, and indeed the way in which this recruitment effort contributes to the struggle between nations in its entirety. A seriousness which empowers someone to hang on as the President of Afghanistan for years rather than days.

When considering these two levels, I would argue that the more shallow form corresponds to a predominantly left-brained way of thinking, while the deeper form is predominantly right-brained. 

It is not my intent, nor do I have the space to go into all of the attributes of right vs. left brained modalities. But whatever your preconceptions about the difference you should probably cast them aside as pop science oversimplifications. The difference of left vs. right is not a matter of logic vs. emotions or facts vs. imagination. It’s best described as a difference between trying to turn the whole into parts vs. binding parts into a whole. And yes, this is also another oversimplification. But I think it’s good enough to give us a basis for the point I want to make. Particularly if we include a couple of examples. 

Coincidentally, speaking of espionage and Afghanistan, at this moment, I’m reading The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, by Peter Hopkirk. This is the story of the British efforts to secure the northern approaches into India against the expanding influence of Russia. These efforts involved a lot of spying, and the story of these spies provides an interesting contrast to the NYT story. To give but one example, consider the story of Arthur Conolly. I don’t have the space to give a full account of his exploits and life, but here are some of the highlights:

  • Was the person who coined the term “The Great Game”
  • Went undercover into Muslim Central Asia for years at a time
  • Was eventually captured and later beheaded while on a daring solo mission trying to rescue another British officer.
  • One of six brothers, three of whom, himself included, suffered violent deaths while “playing” in the Great Game.
  • Finally, Conolly was motivated in all of these efforts by his Christian beliefs and his patriotism.

Now let us contrast this list with a list of presumed qualities possessed by one of the CIA officers mentioned in the NYT article:

  • Has very little concept of the struggle they’re engaged in right now. Not only have they not labeled it, no one has labeled it yet.
  • They expect to have a mostly normal life.
  • Would never set out on a solo mission to rescue a fellow agent, nor even need to.
  • Setting aside how weird it would be for one of these officers to even have five brothers, it’s inconceivable that half of them would die because they all passionately believed in the importance of American interests in Central Asia.
  • Primarily motivated in their efforts by what will get them promoted.

It’s the contrast between the last points of both lists where we really get to the heart of the matter. It’s impossible to imagine a modern CIA officer being motivated by Christianity. And really being motivated by any ideology, even patriotism, would get him funny looks. No, he’s motivated by considerations that are largely material, and individualistic. Calculations of what actions are required to get the numbers necessary for promotion. His perspective is essentially a left-brained one.

Now I’m probably overstating the individualism of our hypothetical CIA officer a little bit. I mean to begin with he’s in the CIA, he could probably have chosen a profession that was both safer and more lucrative. But I would argue that, at a minimum, there is a trendline and it’s pointing in a left-brained direction. In part this is illustrated by the fact that even if he wanted an overarching ideology on which to base his efforts there isn’t one available, certainly not one which would be shared by his fellow officers, not one that could animate the entire enterprise.

On the other hand Conolly understood the problem from a right-brained perspective. As evidence of this more holistic perspective, he was able to give the entire conflict a label which was so on point that we continue to use it down to the present day. Still just because he approached things from a different perspective doesn’t necessarily mean it was a better perspective. Most educated Westerners would be horrified if modern spies talked about the civilizing mission of Christianity and the benefits of British rule in the same fashion as Conolly.

It’s possible that the two different levels of seriousness are useful, but in different contexts. I’m happy to grant that the shallow form of seriousness is great if you’re in a mature and stable democracy. While the deep form of seriousness is useful if you’re in a desperate struggle for existence.

(This all reminds me of Scott Alexander’s Thrive/Survive Theory of politics, which I expanded on in a post of my own.) 

However, even if the shallow level of seriousness is more useful, most of the time, it should be clear that it’s less important than the deep level of seriousness, because as I have pointed out on numerous occasions: if you can’t survive you can’t do anything else either. This means it’s a problem if the shallow form of seriousness starts to crowd out the deep form, such that it can’t be called on even when needed, as appears to be the case with the CIA and Afghanistan. 

To close out I’d like to offer up a second example I came across recently, this one from the Vietnam War. From a left-brained perspective this was a war we should have easily won. We had the numbers. We had overwhelming might. The math was entirely in our favor. We even had computers which told us we were going to win. But as you may recall, we didn’t. Why? Well I would opine that one of the reasons was we had different levels of seriousness. We were mostly conducting the war from a shallow level while for the North Vietnamese it was deeply serious. 

I encountered the example in an episode of the Radiolab Podcast. This particular episode told how, at some point during the war, partially in response to fears of Communist brain-washing, the Army decided to look into psychological operations or what came to be known as psyops. As a first step, they decided that the best people to consult for such an operation were advertisers from Madison Ave. There’s even a quote from the episode along the lines of “Your Lucky Strike campaign was really effective, maybe you can teach us how to get someone to lay down their weapons.” If that isn’t an example of using shallow methods on a deep problem I don’t know what is.

In any case, the idea they came up with was to drop coupons on the North Vietnamese troops. (Perhaps you can see the advertising connection?) These coupons were good for safe passage across US lines, where they were promised a warm cup of coffee, safety, and an end to all their privations. Unfortunately for the military, these coupons ended up having very little effect. I imagine that most of my readers are probably not too surprised to discover this. But why not? Here you have a country that’s slightly smaller than the average US state, and we end up dropping twice as much ordnance on it as all of the ordnance dropped in all theaters during the entirety of WW2. Why wouldn’t you be grasping for any excuse to get out of there, no matter how flimsy. During the episode they play an interview with a North Vietnamese soldier and they ask him about this, and as I recall, after explaining how awful things were, and how impoverished he was, he still declares that the “coupons” never even tempted him. That he felt like he was participating in something larger than himself. That it was his country, and he didn’t care how bad it got; he wasn’t going to stop fighting until the invaders had been driven out. 

That’s someone who’s serious. 

V.

Perhaps when I talk about US seriousness with respect to the CIA, and Afghanistan and Vietnam, I have selected too narrow of a focus. Perhaps if our country was truly threatened we would discover that we’re a deeply serious people after all. Certainly there was something of that feeling after 9/11, but it’s been in short supply since then. Also it should be pointed out that I’ve focused entirely on the seriousness we’ve displayed when dealing with other nations. There’s a whole other discussion to be had about seriousness as it relates to the culture war. But here again many of the proposed solutions involve breaking things down into parts that we can understand and measure, when we should really be trying to unite the various parts into a larger whole.

Once upon a time we were “one nation”, perhaps that next phrase, “under God”, or at least under some unifying ideology, was more important than we realized.


My uncle was in the CIA. He generally doesn’t talk about it all that much. But at one point he said that the reason he left was that his next job was going to be in a foreign country, presumably recruiting informants. If you want to hear the rest of that story, consider donating. I’ll use it to buy him lunch and see if I can’t pull some details out of him.


Tribe by Sebastian Junger and the Strange Diseases of Progress

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The subject of unsolved mysteries is one of those topics which can be reliably counted on to spark people’s interest, making it ideal for clickbait lists, questionable cable programs, and, in our own case, blog introductions. Though the unsolved mystery I want to start with does not involve pyramids, or Atlantis, or the identity of Jack the Ripper, you’re probably not even aware that it is a mystery. But not only is it one of the most profound mysteries of our age, but unlike the pyramids, Atlantis, and Jack the Ripper this mystery has serious implications for the future of society.

I first encountered this mystery when I read a review of Empire of the Summer Moon. The review was written by Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex (though it appeared in his previous blog.) The review mentions a curious fact:

All of the white people who joined Indian tribes loved it and refused to go back to white civilization. All the Indians who joined white civilization hated it and did everything they could to go back to their previous tribal lives.

This is the mystery. If modern society is so awesome why did it hold no appeal for the American Indians? At the time, I just filed this fact in the bin, unsure at the moment of what to do about it. Then, a couple of months ago I read the book Tribe, by Sebastian Junger. And he also mentioned this same mystery. Of course Alexander and Junger are not the first people to notice this, and both of them end up quoting from Benjamin Franklin who witnessed this phenomenon first hand:

When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language, and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. But when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoner young by the Indians, and lived a while with them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

Junger also quotes from a french émigré named Hector de Crèvecoeur who was writing in 1782:

Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.

What made the American Indian tribes so appealing to the Europeans, and made the Europeans so unappealing to the Indians? And does this imbalance hold any lessons for us today? Junger’s book tries to answer that question, and it ends up being one of the few books where I wish it had been longer, but what he did write about was so great that I immediately knew it deserved a post.

Before I get into the book, however, I want create a framework for things first. I don’t think I’m being too controversial when I say that the vast majority of people feel like 2017 is a lot better than 1917 or 1817 and it’s certainly a lot better than 1017. I would probably count myself among those people. But how do we know that the past was worse? And what standard are we using to decide that it was worse? We can use things like deaths, or disease, or caloric intake, or maybe percentage of people in slavery to estimate what things were like, but when it really comes down to it we don’t know. Especially as we begin to consider more subtle topics like life satisfaction or the ideal way to build a community.

As an example of what I mean, let’s go back to a book I frequently reference, Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker. One of the big themes of the book is that deaths from warfare have declined dramatically over the last few centuries. And that consequently the world is a better place. In support of this Pinker provides lots of graphs, one of which looks at various archaeological digs, and extrapolates the percentage of violent deaths in different eras. If you look at this graph you’ll see that by far the highest percentage of violent deaths was found at an archeological dig in South Dakota dating to the 1300s. This event has come to be known as the Crow Creek Massacre. And it might be an outlier, but even if it is, everyone pretty much agrees, Pinker especially, that American Indians experienced violent death at easily 10 times the rate  present in any modern society. But yet these are the same American Indians Benjamin Franklin and Crèvecoeur were talking about, whose society was so attractive that no one ever voluntarily left it. If violent death is a one to one proxy for unhappiness then this would have never been the case. We all assume that a lower chance of death leads to greater unhappiness, and yet this is evidence that that’s not the case. That we might not understand the past as well as we thought.

If American Indians provided the only example of this counterintuitive result, it would still be a mystery, and it would still be interesting, but I wouldn’t be writing about it. But as Junger shows in his book, this is not the only example of things being the opposite of what we might expect. And consequently the topic deserves a closer look because something similar is happening even today.

For a look at more recent examples of this Junger turns to his experiences during the Siege of Sarajevo in the early 90’s. As you can surely imagine the conditions were terrible. Junger described it thusly:

Over the course of the three-year siege almost 70,000 people were killed or wounded by Serb forces shooting into the city–roughly 20 percent of the population. The United Nations estimated that half of the children in the city had seen someone killed in front of them.

Violence on that scale is scarcely imaginable for most people in a developed country. And the natural assumption is that all of the people who lived through the siege must have been scarred for life, particularly the children, and yet when Junger returned there 20 years later he found that people missed the war, that “they longed for those days. More precisely they longed for who they’d been back then.”

Junger interviews one Bosnian journalist who was seventeen at the start of the siege. After being severely wounded by shrapnel, she was eventually evacuated to Italy. But she missed the wartime camaraderie so much that she went back to Sarajevo, crossing the lines to do so. Twenty years later when Junger talks to her he asks her if people had ultimately been happier during the war. Her response was, “We were the happiest, and we laughed more.”

Sarajevo is by no means the only example of this. At the beginning of World War II when the United Kingdom was preparing for inevitable aerial bombardment by Germany, or what came to be called the Blitz, the government assumed that it would cause mass hysteria among the population. But nothing of the sort happened. As Junger describes it:

On and on the horror went, people dying in their homes or neighborhoods while doing the most mundane things. Not only did these experiences fail to produce mass hysteria, they didn’t even trigger much individual psychosis. Before the war, projections for psychiatric breakdown in England ran as high as four million people [roughly 10% of the population], but as the Blitz progressed, psychiatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down… Psychiatrists watched in puzzlement as long-standing patients saw their symptoms subside during the period of intense air raids.

That last bit is particularly interesting. It’s not just that normal people pulled together during the Blitz, but more interestingly, the number of people suffering from mental illness and the severity of those illnesses actually declined. And, lest you think this was a particularly English, stiff upper lip response, the same thing happened in Germany which suffered far worse aerial bombardment than England. The Allies expected that this massive bombing campaign would destroy German resolve, and in the end it did the opposite. Industrial production actually rose during the war, and the cities in Germany which hadn’t been bombed ended up being where morale was the lowest.

But of course, as I said in the beginning this sort of thing is the opposite of what we’re lead to expect. We expect war to be psychologically damaging in a way that nothing else is. This expectation certainly didn’t start with Vietnam, but it was arguably popularized by it. Everyone has seen movies depicting Vietnam vets as broken individuals, who were never quite the same after their experiences, and this trend has continued through to the present wars. But how do we reconcile this idea with the stories and examples I’ve already related?

You might not think that it needs to be squared, that everything I’ve said thus far can be dismissed as anecdotal evidence, but this is an issue that has been studied and the results are unequivocal: Large scale disasters improve mental health. The only question is why. For Junger the answer that it re-establishes the tribal societies of the past. This is the link between Sarajevo and the American Indian, between the English and the Germans, and this is where the title of the book comes from. But unlike Junger I’d like to focus more on the disease than on the cure.

If psychological damage due to war and disaster is part of the disease, then the most common symptom of that disease is PTSD, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.  And indeed the rates of PTSD among returning veterans has reached an historic high, and yet, combat deaths are as low as they’ve ever been. Junger compares the various wars:

This is not a new phenomenon: decade after decade and war after war, American combat deaths have generally dropped while disability claims have risen. Most disability claims are for medical issues and should decline with casualty rates and combat intensity, but they don’t. They are in an almost inverse relationship with one another. Soldiers in Vietnam suffered one-quarter the mortality rate of troops in World War II, for example, but filed for both physical and psychological disability compensation at a rate that was 50 percent higher… Today’s vets claim three times the number of disabilities that Vietnam vets did, despite…a casualty rate that, thank God is roughly one-third what it was in Vietnam.

If you parse this out, Vietnam vets had a disability per casualty rate that was six times higher than World War II vets and current vets have a disability per casualty rate 54 times as high as the World War II vets! You may or may not have noticed that I engaged in a subtle flip. We were talking about how warfare improves mental health and suddenly we’re talking about how modern wars appear to do the opposite. But of course these two things are just opposite sides of the same coin. All of things we talked about leading up to this involved intense bonding experiences, which affected an entire community all at once. Creating what one of the people who’s studied this issue called a “community of sufferers”. With that in mind the difference between World War II and Vietnam and the current wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan becomes obvious. At each step war become less of a community effort and more something that some people do in a far away place that has nothing to do with the rest of us.

In fact people who do more fighting end up with fewer psychological issues. As illustrated by the following statistics:

  • During the Yom Kippur War Israeli rear-base troops had psychological breakdowns at three times the rate of the frontline troops.
  • 80 percent of the psychiatric casualties in the US Army’s VII Corps came from support units which were never under fire.
  • During World War II, American airborne units, which saw the most intense fighting had some of the lowest psychiatric casualty rates.
  • Returning to the Yom Kippur War, Israeli commanders suffered four times the mortality rate but had only one-fifth the rate of psychological breakdown.

It appears that the more modern and safe the war experience is, the more likely someone is to develop some form of disability. As the final example, Junger reports that, roughly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for permanent PTSD disability, but only 10 percent experienced any actual combat. Obviously one possibility for explaining this is that people may be imagining, exaggerating or even faking their symptoms. Junger mentions that possibility, of course, but even after accounting for that the increases in psychological disability remain. Additionally there is another statistic which is also going up and is unlikely to be faked, and that’s veteran suicides.

If PTSD is the most common symptom of the disease then the worst symptom is suicide, and here again the situation is counterintuitive. Of course, as I mentioned in a previous post much of what we know about suicide runs contrary to expectations regardless of whether it’s the suicides of veterans or the suicides of teens. Though this observation does nothing to make it less tragic.

Suicide is another area where the comparison between modern society and tribal societies is illuminating. Among the American Indians depression based suicide was essentially unknown. And when the Piraha, a tribe that lives deep in the Amazon, were told about suicide they laughed because the idea was so hard to comprehend. Sometimes I don’t think we’re any closer than the Piraha to comprehending suicide, but despite that, no one is laughing.

When examining veteran suicides we see the same things that we saw with PTSD. Specifically that there is no relationship between suicide and combat. Veterans who were never under fire are just as likely to commit suicide as veterans who were under fire, and in fact among recent veterans, “deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan actually lowers the risk of suicide.” As I said at the start this is one of the great unsolved mysteries.

Having spent most of our time looking at the disease through the lens of war and the military it’s time to ask if it’s present in society at large. And the answer to that would have to be yes. In fact the evidence is all around us. If suicide and depression are its symptoms then there is no shortage of examples.

The question we then have to ask is whether these symptoms are getting worse or better, and this is where we come back to one of the subjects I started with. The idea that we can’t, or in any case don’t, know what the past was like. This is particularly true when it comes to a condition like PTSD, which wasn’t even added to the psychological lexicon until 1980 (though there were precursors as early as 1952). Thus, we don’t know if Roman centurions had PTSD, we don’t know if survivors of the Black Death, or of the Lisbon Earthquake had PTSD. And when it comes down to it, we don’t even know much about PTSD outside of richer countries. But as I pointed out what we do know seems to indicate that it might in fact be a modern phenomenon

If Junger is right and the disease stems from not having to struggle, and feeling isolated, then it makes sense that lots of people should be grappling with this disease, since the modern world abounds in both those qualities, in fact you would expect it to be getting worse. But is there any evidence for that?

You may have recently heard that recently there has been a big increase in deaths among the white working class. This was first pointed out by Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case when they published a paper showing that while every other group was experiencing a decrease in mortality, for white working class individuals the death rate was going up. It’s unclear why it took so long to notice this, but now that it’s been pointed out the trend is an obvious one and it meshes very well into the opiate epidemic which I wrote about previously. As more information has come out about the nature of these deaths and as the phenomenon get’s more attention it’s acquired a label: Deaths of Despair.

I’m going to go a little bit out on a limb here, and engage in some speculation, as well, by declaring that rising levels of PTSD and deaths of despair are just the tip of the iceberg. That we have a real and growing problem and that progress is making it worse. Most people are going to find that hard to believe, and it’s easy to talk about the benefits of progress and modernity if you’re not one of those that progress has left behind. And to be clear its beneficiaries get to do most of the talking, while it’s victims have been largely silent. Thus you end up in a situation where when the half of the country that hasn’t gotten quite as good deal elects someone which, at one point, was declared to have a better chance of playing in the NBA Finals than winning the presidency, it’s doubly shocking. First, that it happened at all, and second that no one saw it coming. But that’s the part of the iceberg that’s under water. We may notice the deaths (eventually) but they sit on top of a huge number of people who are experiencing all of the things that Junger was talking about: They don’t have anything left to struggle for, and they certainly don’t have a community to struggle with.

The drug overdoses, the alcoholism and the suicides all sit on top of a large group of people suffering from the disease, whose symptoms are largely invisible. These sufferers include males who don’t have a single close friend or spouse to say nothing of a community. It includes the millions of people who’ve given up looking for work. It includes some of the 1 in 3 millennials who live at home with their parents, 25% of whom are not working or going to school. And it probably includes the people who have decided that it’s easier to sit at home and play video games all day.

Normally it’s easy to dismiss stuff like this by saying that things are getting better, the world is getting richer, technology is getting cooler, everything is getting easier. But those arguments don’t work in this case, because all of those things are very probably making the situation worse. And if they are making it worse how much worse is it going to get?

Our world is full of assumptions. We assume that eliminating struggle is a worthwhile goal. We assume that an eventual life of leisure is what everyone needs. We assume the past was worse than the present. We assume we know what we’re doing. And we assume that peace is always good and war is always bad. And when we make an assumption with disastrous consequences, we correct it, but what about when we make assumptions that have subtle negative consequences, creating diseases of society that only turn up only years or decades later?  If this is what’s happening, will we be wise enough to examine all of these assumptions and admit that maybe we’re wrong?


If you’re one of those who’ve benefited from progress than surely you can spare a buck a month and donate to this blog. And if you’re one of those who’s been on the losing side, keep your money. You may need it.


Nukes

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The key theme of this blog is that progress has not saved us. It has not made us any less sinful, it has not improved our lives in any of the ways that really matter, but has rather introduced opportunities to sin that for someone living 200 years ago would beggar the imagination.

Of course it’s easy and maybe even forgivable to think this is not the case. We live longer, there’s less hunger and poverty, along with this comes more freedom and less violence. For now we’re going to focus on that last assertion, that things are less violent. And since we already broached the subject of nukes in our last post, we’re specifically going to continue to expand on that idea.

One of the best known arguments about a decrease in violence comes from someone who I actually admire quite a bit, Steven Pinker. He made the argument in his book The Better Angels of our Nature. Taleb, as you might imagine, disagrees with Pinker’s thesis and in what is becoming a common theme, asserts that Pinker is confusing the absence of volatility with an absence of fragility. If you want to read Taleb’s argument you can find it here. Needless to say, as much as I admire Pinker, on this issue I agree with Taleb.

As I have already said, this post is going to be an extension of my last post. In that last post I urged people to take a longer term outlook, and to eschew the immediate political fight in favor of a longer term historical outlook. In other words that post was about being wise, and this post is about what will happen if we aren’t wise. In particular what things look like as far as nukes.

As you can imagine if our survival hinges on our wisdom, then I’m not optimistic, and I personally predict that nukes are in our future. In this, I think, as with so many things, that I am contradicting conventional wisdom, or at least what most people believe about nuclear weapons, if they in fact believe anything at all.  If they do they might be thinking something along these lines: It’s been over 70 years since the last nuke was exploded in anger. (In fact I am writing these words on the 71st anniversary of Nagasaki, though they won’t be published until a few days later.) And they may further think: Yes, we have nukes, but we’re not going to use them. Sure some crazy terrorist may explode one, but the kind of all-out exchange we were worried about during the cold war is not going to happen. First don’t underestimate the impact of a loan terrorist nuke, and secondly don’t write off an all-out exchange either. Particularly if we’re going to poke the bear in the manner I described in my last post.

The first question to consider is why are we still worried about nukes even 70 years after their invention? Generally the development of a technology is quickly followed by the development of countermeasures. To take just one example, being able to drop bombs from the air was terrifying to people when that first became a possibility, but it didn’t take long to develop fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft guns and surface to air missiles. Then why, 71 years after Nagasaki and 50+ years after the development of the ICBM, can we still not defend ourselves? Can’t we shoot missiles down? Well first off even if we could a lot of people think building a missile defense system is the ultimate way of poking the bear. For what it’s worth I don’t fall into that camp despite my reluctance, in general, to poke the bear. But even if we decide that’s okay, right now it just isn’t technologically feasible to make a missile defense system that works against someone like Russia or China.

At this point I’d like to offer up data on the effectiveness of various anti missile systems and unfortunately there’s not a lot of it, and what there is isn’t good. If North Korea or Iran happened to launch a single missile at the United States we might be able to stop it, but when asked what he would do in that case one knowledgeable US official is reported to have said:

If a North Korean ICBM were launched in the direction of Seattle, …[I] would fire a bunch of GMD interceptors and cross [my] fingers.

Some clarification: GMD stands for Ground-based Midcourse Defense and is our current anti-ballistic missile platform, also North Korea currently doesn’t have a missile capable of reaching Seattle. But it’s interesting to note what they do have, given how impoverished the country is in all other respects.

As I said I’d like to offer up some data, but there isn’t much of it. Recent tests of our anti-missile systems have been marginally promising but they have mostly been conducted in a reasonably controlled environment, not on actual missiles being fired by surprise from a random location, at a time chosen by the aggressor for optimal effectiveness.

Tacked on at the end of the Wikipedia article on the US’s efforts at missile defense is a great summary of the difficulties of defending against a Russian or Chinese ICBM. In short:

  • Boost-stage defenses are the only layer that can successfully destroy a MIRV (an ICBM that has multiple warheads.)
  • Even so, boost stage interception is really difficult particularly against solid fuel ICBMs of the type that Russia and China use.
  • And even then the only current technology capable of doing it has to be within 40 km (~25 miles) of where the missile is launched. For those in Utah that means that if you had an anti missile defense system located at Hill Air Force Base it could shoot down missiles launched from no farther away than downtown Salt Lake City.

The Wikipedia article concludes by saying that, “There is no theoretical perspective for economically viable boost-phase defense against the latest solid-fueled ICBMs, no matter if it would be ground-based missiles, space-based missiles, or airborne laser (ABL).” (A reference from the following paper.)

In the end it’s not hard to see why nuclear missiles are so hard to defend against. Your defense can’t be porous at all. Letting even a single warhead get through can cause massive destruction. Add to that their speed and small size and you have the ultimate offensive weapon.

Thus far we’ve talked about the difficulties in defending against a Russian or Chinese ICBM. But of course we haven’t done anything to address why they might decide to nuke us. I did cover that at some length in my last post, but before we dive back into that, let’s look at people who we know want to nuke us, terrorists.

Obviously there are no shortage of terrorist groups who would love to nuke us if they could get their hands on one. Thus far we’ve been lucky and as far as we know there are no loose nukes. And I’m sure that preventing it is one of the top priorities of every intelligence agency out there, so perhaps it won’t happen. Still this is another situation where we’re in a race between singularity and catastrophe. On a long enough time horizon the chances that there will be some act of nuclear terrorism approach 100%. To argue otherwise would be to assert that eventually terrorism and nukes will go away. I will address the later point in a minute, but as to the first I don’t think anyone believes that terrorism will disappear. If anything, most sources of grievance have increased in the last few years. If you think I’m wrong on this point I’d be glad to hear your argument.

Of course, if we never have an incident of nuclear terrorism, then, as I frequently point out, that’s great. If I’m wrong nothing happens. But if I’m right

Perhaps you might argue that a single nuke going off in New York or Paris or London is not that bad. Certainly it would be one of the biggest new stories since the explosion of the first nuclear weapons and frankly it’s hard to see how it doesn’t end up radically reshaping the whole world, at least politically. Obviously a lot depends on who ultimately ended up being responsible for the act, but we invaded Iraq after 9/11 and they had nothing to do with it (incidentally this is more complicated than most people want to admit, but yeah, basically they didn’t have anything to do with it and we invaded them anyway.) Imagine who we might invade if an actual nuke went off.

And then of course there’s the damage to the American psyche. Look at how much things changed just following 9/11. I can only imagine what kind of police state we would end up with after a terrorist nuke exploded in a major city. In other words, I would argue that a terrorist nuke is inevitable and that when it does happen it’s going to have major repercussions.

But we still need to return to a discussion of a potential World War III, a major nuclear exchange between two large nation states. What are the odds of that? Since the end of the Cold War the conventional wisdom has been that the odds are quite low, but I can think of at least a half a dozen factors which might increase the odds.

The first factor is the one I covered in my last post, and that is that we seem determined to encircle and antagonize the two major countries that have a large quantity of nuclear weapons. I previously spoke mostly about Russia, but if you follow what’s happening in the South China Sea (that article was three hours old when I wrote this) or if you’ve heard about the recent ruling by the Hague we’re not exactly treating China with kid gloves either. I’ve already said a lot about this factor so we’ll move on to the others.

The next factor which I think increases the odds of World War III is the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I know that most recently Iran looks like a success story. Here’s a country who wanted nuclear weapons and we stopped them. Well of course that remains to be seen, but it does seem intuitive that the longer we go the more countries will have nukes. Perhaps it might be instructive to determine a rate at which this is happening. In 1945 there was one country. Today in 2016, everyone pretty much agrees that there are nine. Dividing 71 years by 8 we get a new nuclear nation every nine years. Which means that in 99 years we’ll have another 11 nations with nuclear weapons, assuming that the rate of acquisition doesn’t increase. But actually most technological innovation doesn’t follow a linear curve. Consequently we may see an explosion (no pun intended) in nations with nuclear weapons, or it may be gradual or it may not happen at all (again this would be great, but unexpected.)

But let’s assume the rate at which new countries are added to the nuclear club stays constant and it takes 9 years on average to add a nation to the club and that in 100 years we’ve only added 11 more countries. On the face of it that may seem fairly minor, but if we assume that any two belligerents could start World War III then we would have 55 potential starting points for World War III rather than the one starting point we had during the bipolar situation which existed during the Cold War.

In saying this I realize, of course, there were more than two nations with nukes during the Cold War, but everyone had basically lined up on one side or another, in 100 years who knows what kind of alliances there will be. Even France and the United States have had rocky patches in their relationship over the last several decades. (More about France later.)

The third factor which might increase the odds is the wildcard that is China. As I mentioned in my last point for a long time we had a bipolar world. The Soviet Union only had to worry about the United States and vice versa. Now we have an increasingly aggressive China whose intentions are unclear, but they’re certainly very ambitious. And, from the standpoint of nuclear weapons, they’re keeping their cards very close to their chest.

Most people have a tendency to dismiss China, because they are still quite far behind the US and Russia. But they’re catching up fast, and also since they weren’t really part of the Cold War there’s a lot of restrictions that apply to Russia and the US which don’t apply to China’s weapons, allowing them (from the article I just linked to)

…considerably more freedom to explore the technical frontiers of ballistic and cruise missiles than either the US or Russia.

The fourth factor involves a concept we’re going to borrow from Dan Carlin, of the podcast Hardcore History, it’s the concept of the Historical Arsonist. These are people like Hitler, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, etc. Who burn down the world, generally not caring how many people die or what else happens, in their quest to remake things in their image. You can see people like this going back as far as we have records up to as recently as World War II. While it’s certainly possible that we no longer have to worry about this archetype, they seem to be a fairly consistent feature of humanity. If they haven’t disappeared, then when the next one comes along he’s going to have access to nuclear weapons. What does that look like? During Hitler’s rise he was able to gain a significant amount of territory just by asking, how much more effective would he have been if he had threatened nuclear annihilation if he didn’t get his way?

This brings up another point, are we even sure we know all the ways someone could use nuclear weapons? In the past one of the defining features of these historical arsonists was they took military technology and used it in a way no one expected. Napoleon was the master of the artillery and was able to mobilize and field a much bigger army than had previously been possible. Hitler combined the newly developed tank and aircraft into an unstoppable blitzkrieg. Alexander the Great had the phalanx. Nuclear weapons, as I’ve mentioned, are hard enough to defend against in any case, but imagine the most deviously clever thing someone could do with that, and then imagine that it was even more devious than that. With something of that level, you might have historical arson on a scale never before imagined.

The fifth factor which makes the odds of World War III greater than commonly imagined is the potential change in the underlying geopolitics. By this I mean, nations can break up, they change governments, national attitudes mutate, etc. We’ve already seen the Soviet Union break up, and while that went fairly smoothly (at least so far, it actually hasn’t been that long when you think about it.) There’s no reason to assume that it will go that smoothly the next time. Particularly when you look at the lesson of the former Soviet Republics who did give up their weapons. When you look at what’s happening in Ukraine it seems probable that they might now regret giving up their nukes.

Of course the US isn’t going to last forever. I have no firm prediction what the end of the country looks like, and once again it’s possible that we’ll reach some sort of singularity long before that, but it may happen sooner than we imagine, particularly if the increased rancor of the current election represents any kind of trend. Thus if, but more likely when, something like that happens, what does that look like in terms of nukes? If Texas breaks off that’s one thing, but if you end up with seven nations who ends up with the nukes?

And then of course you could have the possibility of a radical change in government. Some people think that Trump would be catastrophic in this respect. On the other side of the aisle, many conservatives think that a country like France might get taken over by Muslims if demographic trends continue and immigration isn’t stopped. Certainly a book about the subject has proven very popular. Does a Muslim run France with nukes act exactly the same as the current nation? Maybe, maybe not.

The final factor to consider, at least for those who believe in revelation and scripture, are the various references to the last days which fit very well with what might be expected from nuclear warfare. We believe that war will be poured out upon all nations, and that the elements will melt with a  fervent heat and finally that the earth will be baptized by fire. Obviously saying I know what this prophecy means is a dangerous and prideful game, and that is not what I’m doing. What I am saying is that this is one more factor to be added to and weighed alongside the other factors which have already been mentioned.

The point of all this is not to convince you drop everything and start building a bomb shelter (though I think if you already have one you shouldn’t demolish it.) Along with everything I’ve said I still believe that no man knoweth the hour. I’m also not saying I know that some form of nuclear armageddon will accompany the second coming. My point as always is that we are not saved and cannot be saved through our own efforts. Only the Son of Man and Prince of Peace has the ability to bring true and lasting peace. Further, and perhaps even more importantly, thinking we have or even can achieve peace on our own, that we just need to keep pushing the spread science, or liberal democracy, or our “enlightened” western values, is more dangerous and more likely to hasten what we fear than reminding ourselves of the fallen nature of man and restricting ourselves to the preaching of gospel, while eschewing the preaching of progress.

In the end, attempting to eliminate World War III may paradoxically hasten its arrival…`