Friday


Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

Since the end of the Cold War, the global political and economic order established at the end of the Second World War has been unraveling, sometimes slowly, sometimes with shocking rapidity, but unraveling steadily. After a quarter century of unraveling, the world has still not settled on a “new normal” of stability in international affairs, and, despite the complexity of the world situation, it is relatively easy to point out why the end of the Second World War brought about a relatively rapid settlement and a new normal, while today the world continues to drift: the Second World War ended with the victory of the Allied powers and the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers that left the Allies in a position to dictate the terms of the peace that followed. Because the war was global, the settlement also was global, and the peace, for what it was worth, was global. The Second World War consolidated the era of planetary history.

In a period of flux and instability, the world is rich in possibilities. When one set of possibilities is realized, the other sets of possibilities become counterfactuals, paths not taken — but at the moment of decision, these counterfactuals were as palpably real as the possibilities that were eventually realized in fact. I previously addressed some counterfactuals related to the Second World War in Counterfactual Weapons Systems, an exercise of sorts — a thought experiment, as it were — in the weapons systems that might have emerged from a longer war, given the tempo of technological development during the war. This was a rather narrow thought experiment, for the disruption in planetary history occasioned by the Second World War was unprecedented, and this unprecedented disruption meant unprecedented possibilities. These unprecedented possibilities, in turn, coagulated rather rapidly upon cessation of armed conflict, so that within a few years of the end of the war, the central facts of planetary history had been established. It is as though the unprecedented disruption led to unprecedented stability on an unprecedentedly short time scale.

The ground for the relatively rapid post-war settlement was prepared by several conferences organized by the Allies when it became apparent that they would eventually win the war, and that some plans must be made for the post-war settlement. There is, in particular, something poignant about the efforts of two dying men — Roosevelt presiding at Yalta and Keynes presiding over Bretton Woods — as both must have known that they would not live long enough to see the world whose foundations they laid.

Recently I have been listening to Yalta: The Price of Peace by S. M. Plokhy, which provides much food for thought both for counterfactuals as well as unlikely eventualities that were realized as the result of the Allied victory. One of the strangest outcomes of the Second World War was a zone of occupation for the French in Germany, despite the fact that the French military collapsed at the beginning of the Second World War and the French (i.e., the French government and military in exile, and the resistance within France) played only a very small and modest role in the eventual Allied victory. Thus in post-war Germany, French soldiers occupied German lands despite the fact that France had been defeated and occupied by Germany in the opening stages of the Second World War, and remained occupied throughout the war.

Plokhy’s book has some discussion of the Morgenthau Plan and other possibilities for dividing or otherwise managing Germany in the post-war period, and this material was of great interest to me. Previously in The Stalin Doctrine I discussed the Morgenthau Plan for post-war Germany, which would have involved not only the partition of Germany, but also its de-industrialization. Once Germany began to rebuild itself under the Marshall Plan, it no longer became possible to de-industrialize Germany along the lines of the Morgenthau Plan; this option, available at the end of the war, was foreclosed upon by subsequent events — the window of opportunity had closed. Instead of pastoralization there was Wirtschaftswunder. But, as we all know, Germany was partitioned, and this partition played a major role in the Cold War and European political conflicts in the second half of the twentieth century.

It is an interesting counterfactual to consider how the de-industrialization and pastorlization of Germany might have been enforced and administered in a post-war Germany of the Morgenthau Plan, i.e., if an explicit interpretation of the Morgenthau Plan had been put into effect. Part of the Morgenthau Plan was partition, and this partition would have included taking some of the most industrialized areas of Germany and either transferring them to France or Belgium, declaring them international zones, or making them small, independent states in their own right. With the most industrialized areas separated off, the remainder of Germany could have been systematically de-industrialized and kept in an enforced pastoral and agrarian condition. While the Morgenthau Plan was ultimately rejected, parts of it became de facto policy. The French Monnet Plan was partially adopted, with Saarland temporarily made a French protectorate, and the French also sought to detach the Ruhr from Germany. Under the justification of controlling coal and steel production, the International Authority for the Ruhr (IAR) presided over some limited dismantling of industry in the region. But when the US became concerned that the Germans might tilt toward the Russians, this policy ceased.

In speculating on a counterfactual history of Europe in which the Morgenthau Plan was put into effect, then, I don’t mean the half measures that were in fact pursued, and then abandoned. I mean, rather, a robust and ongoing enforcement of Germany as an agrarian preserve in the heart of Europe. We have one possible historical parallel, and that is the attempt by the Khmer Rouge to create a de-urbanized agrarian communist utopia in Cambodia — an adaptation and radicalization of Mao’s agrarian adaptation of Lenin’s industrial vision. This isn’t a very good parallel, because de-industrialization and de-urbanization administered by the victorious Allied powers would have been very different from the ideological vision of the Khmer Rouge. But radical questions are raised by the possibility. Would de-industrialization have also meant de-urbanization? Would schools and universities have been allowed to exist? What tools and resources would have been allowed for agricultural activities? How would limitations on industry have been policed and enforced?

Perhaps another historical parallel would be better: imagine the DMZ separating North Korea and South Korea, except that instead of being left in a wild state, a wide swath of territory was left semi-wild, but residents were allowed to farm within that territory. Now imagine a farmed DMZ as large as Germany. That gives a rather different idea of what a Morgenthau Plan Europe might have looked like. This vision of Europe is so radically different from what did in fact happen that it makes one wonder what consequences it would have entailed for the rest of Europe, and indeed for the Cold War. If de-industrialization had included de-urbanization, Berlin could have been depopulated and bulldozed, and it would then have never had the symbolic role that it did have as a divided city representing a world divided by Soviet and American power. There is an historical parallel for this, too, when the Romans triumphed over Carthage: the Romans not only destroyed the city, but plowed salt into the soil to ensure the sterility of the region. It was many centuries until Rome had another rival as powerful as Carthage.

One can even imagine this rural and agrarian Germany in the post-Cold War period, surviving under changed political and economic conditions. One can easily predict that the area would have become a major tourist draw because of its very different way of life, and once the restrictions on industrialization either became irrelevant or were gradually lifted, one could imagine many in the population wanting to keep the region rural and agricultural, partly because they had become familiar with the life, partly because of the tourist income from it, and partly because large industrial works are no longer the paradigm of economic development in the world at present. Whereas industries built on the scale of Stalinist gigantism were once the fetish of economic planners, this is no longer true. Cottage industries and craft traditions would have developed in a unique way in a Morgenthau Plan Germany, which might well have had a bright future in the 21st century.

All of this is now counterfactual speculation, but I think there is some value in considering the radically different paths that terrestrial history might have taken at this past juncture of historical disruption. The post-war situation in Europe was very fluid, but it congealed quickly due to historical circumstances at the moment. With the unraveling of the post-war world order, planetary history is again very fluid, and the circumstances of the moment have kept the situation fluid for almost thirty years. When some “new normal” eventually emerges and establishes itself, the wide range of possibilities we now face — possibilities both welcome and unwelcome — will then be narrowed to one preponderant actuality and a range of unrealized counterfactuals. But for us, now, in the moment, these future counterfactuals are all as palpably real as the future history that will become the central fact of planetary history.

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Friday


General Jodl signs the instrument for the unconditional surrender of Germany; Jodl would later hang at Nuremberg.

General Jodl signs the instrument for the unconditional surrender of Germany; Jodl would later hang at Nuremberg.

In Seventy Years, posted on 01 September 2009, I acknowledged the seventieth anniversary of the beginning of open armed conflict that began the Second World War. In that post I wrote:

During the middle of the twentieth century civilization experienced a convulsion of apocalyptic proportions. The sky was filled with airplanes, the sea was filled with ships above and below, great cities were destroyed in a single night, entire populations were displaced, and millions upon millions of people were killed.

Now, more than five years later, it is time to commemorate the termination of that apocalyptic conflict, in so far as the war came to an end in Europe on VE Day (Victory Europe), Tuesday, 08 May 1945. A week earlier Hitler had committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. Most German cities had been reduced to rubble long before. In the week between Hitler’s suicide and VE Day, Joseph Goebbels, appointed Reich Chancellor by Hitler just before his suicide, committed suicide with his wife after killing their six children, Tito had triumphed in what would become Yugoslavia, the Soviets took Berlin, Rangoon was liberated from the Japanese, and Mauthausen concentration camp was liberated.

Nazi Germany formally surrendered unconditionally at the Western Allied Headquarters in Rheims, France, on Monday 07 May 1945, but the ceasefire took effect one minute after midnight on Tuesday 08 May 1945. Reich President Karl Dönitz ordered the surrender, and General Alfred Jodl signed for Germany. Later at Nuremberg where both were tried as major war criminals, Jodl was sentenced to death; Dönitz spent ten years in Spandau prison.

As though a portent of what was to come, on the same day, Tuesday, 08 May 1945, the Sétif massacre occurred, when a victory parade turned ugly. French police attempted to seize anti-colonial banners held by the crowd of about 5,000 Muslim marchers in Sétif and the scuffle turned into a firefight. (Similar events occurred in Guelma and Kherrata.) In the ensuing days, both sides took reprisals on the other. Thousands died (how many thousands is still in dispute).

The French held out in Algeria and Indochina even has the British surrendered control of India, the Jewel in the Crown, in 1947. Colonial conflicts and the consequent de-colonialization struggles became a proxy battleground of the Cold War, played out in the lives of impoverished peoples in Africa, Asia, and South America. Struggles for national liberation were transmuted into ideological conflicts in which Russia and China supplied arms to those who would self-identify as communists, and the US and Europe supplied arms to those who would identify as anti-communists. It is arguable that the legacy of this struggle has shaped the contemporary world more profoundly that the apocalyptic proportions of the Second World War, which, considered only in terms of open armed conflict, endured for less than six years.

The end of a catastrophic conventional war, in which regular armies numbering in the millions of soldiers, airmen, and sailors met in pitched battle on the ground, in the air, and on the sea, ending in definitive defeat and unconditional surrender for the Axis powers, marked the beginning of protracted, seemingly interminable unconventional conflicts between small numbers of irregular combatants who rarely met in battle, and whose wars almost never ended in definitive defeat or surrender. Thus the end of the Second World War was as much of a turning point as the war itself.

It remains an open question at the present time if our planet will ever return to the WWII paradigm of armed conflict, in which the planet entire is convulsed by a short, sharp, and definitive war (and, if so, if anyone would survive), or if the development of civilization has permanently rendered such conflicts antiquated. War, like civilization, may not disappear, but it does evolve, and the existential viability of war (if one can speak of such) is predicated upon the possibility of the essential nature of warfare changing.

It is possible that we have witnessed such a change with the change in armed conflict that followed the end of the Second World War. However, a further change in the essential nature of the civilizations engaging in warfare would drive further changes in the essential nature of war. This could take the form of returning to an earlier paradigm of armed conflict, or issuing in unprecedented forms of armed conflict. As I pointed out some years ago, civilization and war are locked in a co-evolutionary relationship.

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Friday


In the film Apocalypse Now the protagonist, Captain Benjamin L. Willard, is sent up the Mekong to Cambodia to kill Colonel Kurtz, who has gone rogue and is leading a group of native combatants who follow him unquestioningly. There is a scene on the boat going upriver when Willard is reading Col. Kurtz’s dossier, including a report that Kurtz is supposed to have written to the Pentagon after an early tour in Vietnam. The report is called “Commitment and Counterinsurgency” and it includes the following:

“As long as our officers and troups (sic) perform tours of duty limited to one year, they will remain dilletantes in war and tourists in Vietnam. As long as cold beer, hot food, rock and roll and all the other amenities remain the expected norm, our conduct of the war will gain only impotence. The wholesale and indiscriminate use of firepower will only increase the effectiveness of the enemy and strengthen their resolve to prove the superiority of an agrarian culture against the world’s greatest technocracy… The central tragedy of our effort in this conflict has been the confusion of a sophisticated technology with human commitment. Our bombs may in time destroy the geography, but they will never win the war… We need fewer men, and better; if they were committed, this war could be won with a fourth of our present force…”

Everyone knows that Apocalypse now was loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I think it would probably be better to say that Apocalypse Now was inspired by Heart of Darkness — or we could use more contemporary terminology and say that Apocalypse Now is a re-imagining of Heart of Darkness.

Vietnam, Apocalypse Now, and counterinsurgency have all become eerily relevant again as the US seeks to disengage from Central Asia after a ground war that has stretched over more than a decade with no resolution consistent with original aims seeming to be in sight. I’ve written about counterinsurgency, or COIN, several times recently as a result of these all-too-familiar events.

Despite the firm intentions of both US military and civilian leadership that the US not be involved in another unwinnable counterinsurgency operation in a distant part of the world, this is exactly what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that history repeated itself in this way, despite the conscious efforts of military and civilian leaders to avoid such a repetition, says much more about the international system and the imperatives of contemporary political organization than it says about the US.

I would argue that any global hegemon at the present moment in history — whether that global hegemon happened to be the US, Russia, China, Brazil, or the British Empire — would find itself more or less forced by circumstances to engage in counterinsurgency operations in widely disparate parts of the globe. Such interventions are systemic rather than opportunistic and episodic.

In the past week US and NATO efforts in Afghanistan have come under scrutiny again after the death toll of US soldiers passed 2,000 as widely-reported “insider attacks,” also called “green on blue” attacks, continue to take the lives of US soldiers.

We quantify wars in terms of deaths, injuries, damage, and dollars. It is a dissatisfying measure to all involved — to the families of dead soldiers a single digit in a statistic scarcely captures the loss, to the families of dead civilians, and those whose lives have been disrupted beyond salvaging, similar considerations hold, while for the war planner the commitment in blood and treasure to the fight does not accurately represent the ultimate effort that was made under adverse circumstances.

Nevertheless, there must be some measure, and certainly blood and treasure constitute the fundamental calculus of commitment in war, apart from that intangible commitment that the fictional Col. Kurtz attempted to communicate to his superiors. It may well be that this intangible commitment of — what? — is precisely that unmeasurable element of the equation that results in victory or defeat, but until we have a theory to account for it, and a language in which we can formulate it, we cannot say anything coherent about it.

It is admittedly difficult even to speak coherently of quantifiable measures like blood and treasure because estimates of death in war are always contested, and because they are contested the numbers employed are almost always the result of a political decision. Some will argue for higher numbers and other will argue for lower numbers. In a war like the Second World War, when entire cities were destroyed and millions were buried under the rubble, estimates on casualties may be off by millions, and at very least off by hundreds of thousands.

In long-term counterinsurgencies like the US in Vietnam, the USSR in Afghanistan, or the US in Afghanistan, estimating civilian deaths is difficult not so much for the absolute numbers involved but because in such conflict it will be inherently controversial who is and who is not a civilian, as it will be controversial as to who is blame for atrocities carried out far beyond the reach of investigating authorities, and for which each side blames the other.

Casualty counts, then, are inherently controversial, but estimates are made; each estimate represents a particular methodology, and each methodology embodies certain assumptions. Despite all the hazards involved, I am going to give some numbers comparing three different wars — World War Two, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. In all cases I have picked the high estimates, even when these estimates have been contested. Dates, and rates derived from dates, are also numbers that can be contested. So what follows is very rough, but still indicative of a trend.

The Second World War — not in any sense a counterinsurgency — lasted about six (6) years and resulted in about 25 million military deaths and 52 million civilian deaths. This occurred in a total global population of 2,300 million, so that the war consumed about 3.3 percent of world population. This isn’t much compared to a demographic event like the Black Death when it first swept across Europe in 1348-1349, but it is still a very high number for deaths from war. The military casualties of more than four (4) million per year work out to about 475 per hour for each hour of the war, while civilian casualties of more than eight (8) million per year work out to about 988 per hour for every hour of the war.

The involvement of the US in the Vietnam War, a classic counterinsurgency, lasted about ten (10) years from 1965 to 1975, with 58,220 US military deaths and as many as 2,500,000 civilian deaths spread across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. This works out to 5,822 military deaths per year, or 0.055 US military deaths for every hour of the war, and 250,000 civilian deaths per year or 2.3766 civilian deaths every hour for the duration of the US involvement in Vietnam (I am here choosing not to include the ten years of French involvement from 1955-1965, although the civilian casualty numbers include at least part of this period — as I wrote above, I took high numbers, and the numbers themselves are inherently controversial).

The involvement of the US in Afghanistan, another counterinsurgency, has lasted almost eleven (11) years from 2001 to 2012 with 2,000 US military casualties. I found it rather difficult to come by estimates of civilian casualties, which varied widely, but, again, taking the high numbers, I found about 34,008 civilian casualties, or about 3,092 per year, which works out to 0.029 per hour for every hour of the war. US military deaths averaged 182 per year or 0.0017 per hour for every hour of the war.

It is interesting to note that during the Vietnam War global population increased by almost a billion persons from 3,345 million to 4,086 million, and during the Afghan War global population again grew by almost a billion, from roughly 6 billion to 7 billion. With these much higher total global population figures, and the far lower casualty totals, whether military or civilian or both, the war deaths from these protracted conflicts don’t even register as a demographic rounding error.

These “big picture” statistics of course hide a lot of details, but they are still the big picture and they tell us something. They tell us that both military and civilian casualties of war are at historic lows, which is something I wrote about in the early history of this blog in The Lethality Peak. Another way to look at the lethality peak is to understand it as societies investing far less in armed conflict than was the case even in the recent past, i.e., there is a lower level of commitment in terms of blood; a lot more statistical analysis would be required to reveal the relative expenditure of treasure.

Yet another way to interpret these numbers is that the great infringements upon human life and human society in our time do not come about from wars and from outright deaths caused by war, but from what I have called non-atrocites, that is to say, depredations upon human populations and human communities that are maintained below the threshold of atrocity.

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Friday


Kenneth Clark, in his Civilisation: A Personal View, concludes his multi-hour documentary with a reflection on moral psychology, although he does not call it that. He particularly mentions the rise of humanitarianism. This sort of thing would not go over well today, some forty years later, as it would be seen as rather too credulous, and smacking of progressivism (which, we are given to understand, is a terrible thing). But listening to Clark it is obvious that it is already in his time becoming dangerous to say such things — dangerous, because one is liable to be thought a simpleton. Clark himself calls himself a “stick-in-the-mud.”

I do not disagree with Clark, and I am not so dismissive of progress as has become common today, but this is a point I will not argue here. I simply tell you my prejudices so you know that I agree with Clark on this point. This is significant because, even if we recognize the emergence of a humanitarian consciousness in the nineteenth century, we must recognize at the same time the earlier wisdom of Hamlet, viz. that we often discover that we must be cruel to be kind.

One might consider it a kindness that the First World War was ended by agreement with an armistice, and that this spared lives and property by not necessitating an invasion of Germany itself, but the very fact that the defeat of Germany was not made absolutely manifest on the home front in an age of popular sovereignty meant that the armistice did not settle the war. As Foch said, and was proved right, “it is not peace, but an armistice for twenty years.”

Would it have been a “kindness” to push on an defeat the Germans on German soil, taking the lives of more soldiers and destroying the infrastructure of Germany in the teens? This would possibly have changed subsequent history, and it might not have been necessary to level Germany twenty years later with a strategic bombing campaign. And it would have been primarily soldiers who were put at risk of life and limb. During the First World War, more soldiers died than civilians. During the Second World War, more civilians died than soldiers. This is a portent that says something truly horrific about our time.

Such horrific choices have faced us repeatedly throughout our history, and still face us today. Because these choices are hideous, the way that each of us comes down on one side of the question or the other is often used against us, when the most unflattering construction is placed on our preference. This is disingenuous, because either side can smear the other side with the unsavory and unavoidable corollaries of a forced choice. And history forces us to make such forced choices — or forces us to avoid making a choice and, as we say today, kicking the can further down the road — time and again. We should not conceal this from ourselves.

Here is a semi-contemporary example. I have read interviews with one of the scientists who was involved in the design of the neutron bomb. He had served as a solder in Korea, and he had seen the devastation wrought in Korea by conventional weapons. Many cities were annihilated, not unlike the German cities subject to strategic bombing during the Second World War. This vision of destruction on an apocalyptic scale was an inspiration to this scientist, and was part of his experience that contributed to the design of the neutron bomb. For this man, the neutron bomb was a more humanitarian weapon — not unlike the guillotine, which when first invented by a doctor, was conceived as a humane form of execution.

After it become possible to build a neutron bomb, and some nation-states considered adding it to their arsenals, the very idea of the neutron bomb was held up as something ghastly and ghoulish, as though it had been designed with the intent to killing people while “saving” their property, which latter might be expropriated by others who would simply move in to a depopulated urban area. Anti-neutron bomb activists put the worst possible construction on the intention of the neutron bomb. For them, it was apparently more “humanitarian” to keep war so horrible that it would remain unthinkable. From this point of view, mutually assured destruction is a good thing. And I certainly understand this argument, but at the same time as I understand the argument, I know that, for some people, mutually assured destruction is one of the great moral obscenities of our time, and our civilization should be ashamed of itself for having made such a conception possible, not to mention the very foundation of the international order during the Cold War.

What is more “humanitarian”: the threat of a nuclear genocide of a significant proportion of our species, or the threat of a lesser degree of destruction that might settle a war at a lower cost? I think that if you are honest with yourself, you will acknowledge that each alternative is a moral horror. That does not mean that I regard the argument between the two as indifferent. On the contrary, I believe that rational arguments can be made on both sides of the question. All I am saying here is that the irrational thing is to believe that moral horror is exclusively on one side or the other.

This is certainly not the only paradox of humanitarianism, but it is certainly one of them.

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Tuesday


V-2 single stage ballistic missile

The seeds of all our advanced weapons systems today are to be found in the technology of the 1940s, rapidly brought to an early fruition by the Second World War. I have previously mentioned the litany of jet engines, ballistic missiles, computers, and atomic weapons in The Dialectic of Stalemate, all of which became operational during the Second World War.

The Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe ("Swallow") was the world's first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft. (from Wikipedia)

If we reflect upon this circumstance we are able to imagine, as a counter-factual thought experiment, how even the atrocities and mass death of the Second World War could have been worse if that contest had continued longer and the ongoing pressure had brought other weapons systems to a similarly early fruition.

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was a four-engine propeller-driven heavy bomber that was flown primarily by the United States in World War II and the Korean War. (from Wikipedia)

The B-29 was one of the great technological triumphs of the Second World War and represents a integrated weapons system. One of the key measures of its sophistication was the very integration of the weapons systems of the B-29, and this was achieved by way of an analog computer, the Central Fire Control Computer (CSFC). Thus the B-29 constituted a computerized weapons system, although the computers employed were rudimentary analog computers.

B-29 Central Fire Control Computer

However, at the same time that the B-29 was employing analog computers for the fire control system of its automated turrets, at Bletchley Park the first electronic digital computers were in operation, working on code breaking. The Colossus computers — there were ten of them operational by the end of the Second World War — were so secret that they remained secret after the war, so secret that those who developed these early digital computers were deprived of their proper credit in the early history books on computers. This information did not begin to be known to the public until the 1970s.

A Colossus Mark 2 computer. The operator on the left is Dorothy Duboisson. The slanted control panel on the left was used to set the pin patterns on the Lorenz. The "bedstead" paper tape transport is on the right. (from Wikipedia)

It would not have taken a war of a much longer duration to bring together these technologies, which, while rudimentary, were already sufficiently robust to be employed in functional, operating weapons systems. Something like the B-29, only more advanced and sophisticated, might have employed Colossus-like computers in its fire control systems. After all, many of the largest bombers of the Second World War mounted radar systems that employed vacuum tubes — again, rudimentary but sufficiently robust for combat — so that the early construction methods of digital computers cannot be used as a reason to dismiss this possibility.

Nuclear weapons technology was one among many new technologies employed in the Second World War.

Similarly, it would not have taken a much longer war for the Axis powers to have produced atomic weapons and to put them on V-2 missiles, and handful of which would have leveled London, after which the Germans might have turned their attention to other targets. We know that the Germans were considering the design of longer ranger missiles, and it would have simply been an extrapolation of existing technology to do so. Jet-powered bombers would also, at that time, have been an extrapolation of existing technology, as would a cruise missile made from a V-1 augmented with computerized control systems.

The of the most famous photographs of Dresden after its annihilation by firebombing. Most of Germany had already been destroyed in this way by the time the atomic bomb was available.

Since the US did in fact produce atomic weapons first, it could have decisively settled the war in Europe as it settled the war in Japan — except that most of Germany’s cities had already been destroyed by conventional bombing, and that fissile materials would have taken time to produce. In the time it would have taken to produce additional fissile materials and therefore additional atomic weapons, other developments could well have made their delivery by the conventional means available to the Allies problematic.

Not only did these counter-factual scenarios fail to occur, but some of these possibilities were nearly extirpated from history. Churchill ordered the Colossus computers to be destroyed, broken into “pieces no bigger than a man’s hand,” and the blueprints were burned. Churchill obviously believed that this was a place that would not be re-visited. In this way, Churchill revealed himself as belonging to another era, to an era of pre-industrial gentility in which scientific discoveries could be as easily suppressed as earlier eras could stop the progress of an idea by burning copies of the books that explained it.

In this, Churchill was like Sir Edmund Hillary, who was quoted by the National Geographic as saying, “Both Tenzing and I thought that once we’d climbed the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt.” Hillary went on to add, “We couldn’t have been more wrong.” It may sound like a stretch to compare these accomplishments, but I think it betrays a similar outlook about civilization. It is a conception of civilization in which an heroic feat — whether winning a war or climbing a mountain — once achieved loses interest, so that future heroes must look to other accomplishments. The unheroic character of our time, on the contrary, views accomplishments as a proof of concept, upon which an algorithm can be constructed and the achievement iterated for the benefit of the masses.

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The Atomic Age turns 65

6 August 2010

Friday


What we now usually call the Second World War was also the First Nuclear War. Today marks 65 years since the first atomic bomb was detonated as an airburst over Hiroshima, annihilating the city in one fell swoop and marking the advent of the Atomic Age. Three days later, on 09 August 1945, a second atomic bomb eliminated Nagasaki. We have not yet had a Second Nuclear War. This in itself is remarkable, and suggests the profundity of the impact of the use of atomic weapons to end the Second World War.

The principle behind the “Little Boy” bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was sufficiently straight-forward that the scientists didn’t even bother to test the design before its employment. This is quite remarkable in this history of munitions. With a technology so new and so difficult to master, those who designed it were so confident in the scientific principles of the design and its execution that they were willing to risk their careers that the “Little Boy” bomb would work. This demonstrates the degree to which even military technology came to be driven by pure scientific research.

The “Fat Man” bomb that destroyed Nagasaki three days later was more complex in execution, and the scientists wanted a test for this. The “gadget” device that was exploded as the “Trinity” test, the first ever atomic explosion on the earth, was essentially the same design as the Fat Man bomb. Again, technological sophistication was central to the design and execution. The Fat Man design became the basic design for nuclear weapons until the advent of the hydrogen bomb a few years later. This technology is still difficult to master. With the appropriate fissile materials, a Little Boy-type bomb is not terribly difficult to build, but even given the appropriate fissile materials (which are not easy to either produce or to steal), the precision needed to implode a plutonium sphere into a nearly perfect smaller sphere still remains a formidable engineering task that could not be managed by terrorists hidden in caves.

The technology is difficult, but has since been mastered by many industrialized nation-states; the moral issues posed are more difficult still, but we cannot simply adopt the nihilistic pose and say that these issues have not been mastered in the same way. The moral problems have not in fact been mastered, but they have not been neglected either. As noted above, there has been no Second Nuclear War — at least, not yet. As a species, we have made progress. We have had the means to destroy ourselves, and we did not do so. Given all the grim “might have beens” of the twentieth century, it ought to give us hope that the world remains largely intact.

The atomic bomb was, among other things, a philosophical problem. Not long after Hiroshima and then the first hydrogen bomb test in 1952, Karl Jaspers wrote an entire book about nuclear war, The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man (later published in English simply as The Future of Mankind). Jaspers struggled mightily — and honestly — with the new problem. Many more books have followed, few as good as Jasper’s tome. Philosophical thinking about nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare has actually suffered and become less sophisticated as it has become more ideologically driven. Philosophers have created categories of evil unique to nuclear weapons, as though in verbal escalation to demonstrate their disapproval of the very existence of nuclear weapons, but they have not explained why the sudden annihilation of Hiroshima or Nagasaki is ethically worse than the greater numbers who died in the firebombing of Tokyo or Dresden.

My fellow philosophers have failed in their analyses of nuclear war and nuclear weapons by allowing themselves to become politicized, and this failure will not be redeemed until a new generation of philosophers takes up the problem, however emotionally intense, in the spirit of pure theoretical interest. I think that this will happen as conventional munitions approach the yield of nuclear weapons, which is only now beginning to happen. Nuclear weapons, in this new technological context, will no longer be a terrifying exception; they will be one technology among many in a terrifying arsenal. If we allow ourselves to be terrified, we will end our days in panic; if we use our reason to illuminate a terrifying reality, we will take charge of our destiny and demonstrate our emotional maturity.

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Seventy Years

1 September 2009

Tuesday


Poles watch the first German planes over Warsaw.

Poles watch the first German planes over Warsaw.

During the middle of the twentieth century civilization experienced a convulsion of apocalyptic proportions. The sky was filled with airplanes, the sea was filled with ships above and below, great cities were destroyed in a single night, entire populations were displaced, and millions upon millions of people were killed.

Today marks seventy years since the spiraling tensions in Europe broke out into open war with the Nazi invasion of the Poland. Today marks seventy years since the outbreak of the most destructive and bloody war in human history. Today marks seventy years since the explicit and intentional use of Blitzkrieg as a tactic.

Western Europe fell with astonishing rapidity. Despite Churchill’s early confidence that the French would hold out, it should have surprised no one when they did not. While the French were on the winning side in World War One, the conflict essentially broke them. Near the end of the First World War, a mutiny in the French trenches left France open to attack; it was only the ignorance of the Germans on the other side of the line that did not turn the mutiny into a military debacle for France. After the mutiny was put down, the French put all their energies into simply surviving until the Americans would enter the war and take the burden from them. After this, the French had little fight left in them.

The British, on the other hand, had plenty of fight, and as an island nation saved time and again from the tumult of the continent by the English Channel, they were saved by the channel again, and miraculously evacuated an army across it. This war it was the turn of the British to wait and to hang on until the Americans entered the war against Hitler and the Nazis.

Once Hitler violated the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and moved his forces into the Soviet Union, the westernmost part of Russia fell with the same rapidity as western Europe. But Russia is vast. After Stalin recovered from the initial shock of betrayal, he presided over the reconstruction of the Soviet Union’s war machine in the Russian east. And as England has been saved through its history by the English channel, the Russians have been saved throughout their history by their vast steppe and the cruel Russian winter. The early German gains in Russia faltered as the Nazis moved east, and eventually came the rest, and came to grief, at Stalingrad.

The Second World War was epic in scope: larger than life in many senses. The suffering was epic as well. There were commemorations in Poland especially as the opening theatre of the war. Poland suffered much, from beginning to end, and still carries the scars of Nazi genocide: the most notorious extermination camps operated by the Nazis were located in Poland.

The world has changed much since those traumatic six years that began seventy years ago, but the war lives on in us, with us, and for us.

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Sunday


Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop

Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop

No one will be “celebrating” the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but it is an anniversary to be noted. It has also been called the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Both names deserve to be remembered in infamy. Nazism and the Soviet Union both represent the worst forms of totalitarian dictatorship to emerge in the twentieth century; that the two should form a pact was certainly a deal made in Hell. Soviet foreign minister Molotov and Nazi foreign minister Ribbentrop moreover represented what was worst in two criminal regimes, Molotov fanatically anti-Western and Ribbentrop a fanatical Nazi at times more radical than Hitler himself.

Ribbentrop signing the treaty while Molotov and Stalin watch.

Ribbentrop signing the treaty while Molotov and Stalin watch.

W. H. Auden, who is not generally thought of as a “political” poet, wrote a poem titled September 1, 1939, which he opened:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was certainly one of the low points in a low dishonest decade. It is easy to see, upon reflection, how those who lived through the 1930s could have seen it as a low dishonest decade, with the Great Depression, the failure of the League of Nations, Italian incursions in Africa, Japanese incursions in Manchuria, Neville Chamberlain at Munich, and the horrific systems of Soviet communism and German fascism brought to the “heights” of their development like Fleurs du mal.

Stalin and Ribbentrop shaking hands.

Stalin and Ribbentrop shaking hands.

Wikipedia has a good article on the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, with maps of the division of Soviet and Nazi spheres of influence as defined in the secret protocols of the treaty, and scans of the signature pages signed by Molotov and Ribbentrop. Lately the BBC has had a couple of good pieces commemorating the anniversary, Pact that set the scene for war and Viewpoint: The Nazi-Soviet Pact. While it won’t make headlines, the anniversary will not go unnoticed.

The so-called “secret protocols” of the treaty dividing up Europe between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, including the complete dismemberment and disappearance of Poland, is the most notorious part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It does not shock us so much today, partly because of 20/20 hindsight, but partly also because of our experience of the Cold War the divided Europe with the Iron Curtain for the second half of the twentieth century.

It is not unusual for ideological enemies or mere strategic rivals to divide the world between them. For many non-Westerners, the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 represented the height of Western imperialist hubris in dividing up the world according to the balance of power in Europe, creating nation-states by fiat and ignoring the interests of unrepresented nations and peoples. On even larger scale than this, the Inter caetera papal bull of 1493 granted to Spain all lands to the “west and south” of a pole-to-pole line 100 leagues west and south of any of the islands of the Azores or the Cape Verde Islands, with the understanding that what remained to be discovered on the other side of the line would go to Portugal. On a rather smaller scale, the Durand Line established a frontier between the British Empire in India and Amir Abdur Rahman Khan of Afghanistan, a line that now forms the border between contemporary Pakistan and Afghanistan.

At the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the growing power of Nazism and communism seemed to point to a future in which the two would have to coexist and agree to disagree on almost everything. Neither imperial dream proved to be sustainable, and what seemed to be in the case in 1939 seems outrageous in 2009. No doubt Molotov and Ribbentrop were as taken in by this triumphalism as Auden was in despair over it.

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