Monday, October 23, 2023

#296 / Climbing That Ladder

That is Herman Khan, pictured. Depending on how old you are, his name may, or may not, be familiar. Kahn is the real person upon whom Stanley Kubrick based his famous character, Dr. Strangelove. Kahn was a foreign policy theorist, who was most actively writing in the 1960's. He has recently been characterized by Phil Tinline, a producer at BBC Radio, as having "mad and dangerous ideas" about nuclear war. 

Tinline's article, which appeared in a recent edition of Prospect, is definitely worth reading. The headline includes that statement about Kahn's "mad and dangerous ideas." In a sub-heading, Tinline raises the question that is necessarily provoked by Kahn's writings: 

During the Cold War, an American strategist theorised that nuclear war need not be catastrophic. Now back in vogue, could the ideas of the ‘real Dr Strangelove’ help avoid annihilation—or usher it in?

I think I'm betting on the "usher it in" possibility as the most likely one - should we ever start thinking about nuclear war the way Kahn did. In the 1980's, Kahn was still wanting us to consider the consequences (and the possibilities) of using nuclear weapons to settle differences between nations. Kahn even wrote a book about this, titled, Thinking About The Unthinkable. Kahn appears to have believed that nuclear weapons should be treated as just one more "arrow" in our foreign policy "quiver." 

Actually, that is really my characterization, not Kahn's. As far as I know, Kahn doesn't actually use the "arrows and quiver" metaphor to discuss the idea that the use of nuclear weapons should always be considered as a possible option, when nations interact. In fact, Kahn uses a different metaphor, what Tinline identifies as a "ladder of escalation." 

In 1962, Kahn published a 16-step escalation ladder, but by 1965 he had developed that into a 44-step escalation ladder. Here it is. See if you can identify what step we are on, right now, as the War in Ukraine proceeds, and as tensions with both Russia China grow, and as war looms in the Middle East:

  1. Ostensible Crisis
  2. Political, Economic and Diplomatic Gestures
  3. Solemn and Formal Declarations
  4. Hardening of Positions – Confrontation of Wills
  5. Show of Force
  6. Significant Mobilization
  7. "Legal" Harassment – Retortions
  8. Harassing Acts of Violence
  9. Dramatic Military Confrontations
  10. Provocative Breaking off of Diplomatic Relations
  11. Super-Ready Status
  12. Large Conventional War (or Actions)
  13. Large Compound Escalation
  14. Declaration of Limited Conventional War
  15. Barely Nuclear War
  16. Nuclear "Ultimatums"
  17. Limited Evacuations (20%)
  18. Spectacular Show or Demonstration of Force
  19. "Justifiable" Counterforce Attack
  20. "Peaceful" World-Wide Embargo or Blockade
  21. Local Nuclear War – Exemplary
  22. Declaration of Limited Nuclear War
  23. Local Nuclear War – Military
  24. Unusual, Provocative and Significant Countermeasures
  25. Evacuation (70%)
  26. Demonstration Attack on Zone of Interior
  27. Exemplary Attack on Military
  28. Exemplary Attacks Against Property
  29. Exemplary Attacks on Population
  30. Complete Evacuation (95%)
  31. Reciprocal Reprisals
  32. Formal Declaration of "General" War
  33. Slow-Motion Counter-"Property" War
  34. Slow-Motion Counterforce War
  35. Constrained Force-Reduction Salvo
  36. Constrained Disarming Attack
  37. Counterforce-with-Avoidance Attack
  38. Unmodified Counterforce Attack
  39. Slow-Motion Countercity war
  40. Countervalue Salvo
  41. Augmented Disarming Attack
  42. Civilian Devastation Attack
  43. Controlled General War
  44. Spasm/Insensate War

Peggy Noonan, who was a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan - and who now writes an opinion column for The Wall Street Journal, commented, in one of her recent columns, on Oppenheimer, an acclaimed film about the development (and use by the United States) of the first atomic weapon. I read Noonan's commentary the same day I read Tinline's. I think both of them are trying to get us to repudiate the idea that there is any circumstance in which we should consider using nuclear weapons. Here is how Noonan puts it: 

I thought “Oppenheimer” would be more of a warning, and I wanted it to be because I think the world needs one. In fairness, the first two hours of the film signal a kind of warning, with a building sense of dread, but it dissipates in the last hour, which gets lost in a dense subplot. I wanted the director, Christopher Nolan, to be an artist picking up unseen vibrations in the air and sensing what most needed to be said.

The world needs to be more afraid of nuclear weapons. We’re too used to safety, to everything working. It’s been almost 80 years of no nuclear use, a triumph, and we just assume it will continue. Those who were healthily apprehensive 50 and 25 years ago aren’t so scared anymore; they think someone’s in charge, it’s OK. My sense is the world has grown less rigorously professional, the military of all countries included, and the leaders of the world aren’t as careful. I guess I wanted a movie that puts anxiety in the forefront of everyone’s mind.

It isn’t entirely fair to say “he didn’t make the movie I hoped would be made,” but yes, he didn’t make the movie I hoped would be made (emphasis added).

Are we, really, going to keep climbing that ladder? 

In fact (and I am with Noonan), it is time to dismantle that ladder, entirely. That's the "real life" movie we need to make.

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