Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Funniest Thing Ever Said About Herman Kahn

From Louis Rene Beres's 1985 review of Kahn's last book, Thinking About the Unthinkable in the 1980s:
Substituting metaphors and scenarios for carefully constructed theories, he spawned a generation of strategic mythmakers who now stand exultantly in the ruins of thought.
When I read this, I fell off my chair laughing because I had a vision of Kahn literally spawning a generation of strategic mythmakers.

I'll file this one under "criminal use of metaphor in a peer-reviewed journal."

8 comments:

DV8 2XL said...

Poor syntax notwithstanding the statement is broadly right. Kahn's opinions on nuclear warfare policy were taken as revealed truths, when in fact they were nothing more than the products of his imagination tailored to please his political clients.

Sovietologist said...

I disagree. Far from being a "tool of his political clients," Kahn was a rabble-rouser and a vociferous critic of the Eisenhower Administration's nuclear policies. In particular, he was infuriated by their extremely weak civil defense policy. This had a lot to do with why he left RAND in 1962 and founded the Hudson Institute--his superiors had apparently had it with his civil defense advocacy, which was unpopular both inside and outside of the government.

Ashutosh said...

What did Kahn think about some of Eisenhower's genuine efforts to implement test and weapons bans?

Sovietologist said...

Kahn thought that arms control was a good idea, but he distrusted the Soviets and doubted the ability to verify the sgreements. This was one of the serious holes in his thinking, but far from an unusual one in his mileau. Compared to some other people working at RAND in the 1950s, he was actually much more optimistic about the possibility of negotiating with the Russians; but he still feared that they would conceal clandestine weapons programs in order to gain a strategic edge.

Did you have a particular arms control proposal in mind?

nige said...

dv8 2xl:

If you actually read Kahn's most important work, On Thermonuclear War, the key arguments against wishful thinking are based on facts, not "opinions".

Fact: arms control was tried throughout the 1930s to enable the world to "live in peace" with the Nazis.

Fact: the Nazis simply agreed to everything then broke their word, broke the written agreements they gave to Prime Minister Chamberlain at Munich, etc.

Fact: arms control does not protect you from other countries with secret rearmament programs.

Fact: Hitler's Germany were able to almost instantly convert peacetime factories to munitions factories, by simply preparing the plans and blueprints. No practical arms-inspection policy can get around that.

Fact: even if arms control and pacifism prevented World War II, which it failed to do of course, but even if it did "succeed", millions would still have died in concentration camps and "peaceful invasions" could not have been prevented.

Fact: if you want to prevent evil, you need leverage, not worthless paper agreements. The only leverage the Stalins and Hitlers understand is bombs. Everything else is propaganda and lies as far as they are concerned. Dictators aren't interested in being seen as respectable nice guys who stick on contracts.

As Herman Kahn wrote, Khruschev's proposal for arms control - whereby no inspections of Russian disarmament were allowed and anyone cheating would be (in Kruuschev's words) expected to "cover themselves in shame" was a hoax. The Soviets never covered themselves in shame. They broke the testing cessation in 1961 and detonated a 50 megaton bomb. They were proud, not covered in shame.

Fact: the only way to encourage peace and freedom is to carry a big stick and be seen to be ready to actually USE the big stick. Having civil defence, even just improvised plans like the Kearny car-over-trench shelter than anyone can fix up in the time between a bomb going off and the fallout arriving and building up to a hazardous level downwind - is crucial. Three feet of dirt and you're safe. If you look at the fallout patterns actually measured after nuclear tests with the average yield of stockpiled bombs today, the danger is way exaggerated. Also, the fallout in hazardous areas is clearly visible. Walk crosswind, and you can get out of the danger area before you get a dangerous dose. All nuclear effects are grossly exaggerated. It's pretty easy to grasp this when you understand the physics, instead of believing uneducated hype and spin.

Unless you can find some wood-frame cities like Hiroshima and Nagasaki to detonate the bombs over, the effects are not as impressive as the hype claims. Even in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the death rates for people with any kind of screening from the thermal flash (whose severe effects was stopped by just a single leaf, a thin white shirt, or a sheet of paper) cut casualty rates massively. Duck-and-cover does work. Nuclear radiation produced high mortality only when combined with thermal burns: this is the "syngerism" effect because the mechanism for death is that radiation reduces the white blood cell count at just the time when skin burn blisters burst and become infected. If you avoid thermal burns, the LD50 for nuclear radiation is about three times higher. That's why ducking and covering is so vital. It also reduces the amount of debris that can hit you in the face (like flying glass). Most of the people killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki looked at the fireball, often through glass windows, as the blast wave was silently approaching. Films of nuclear explosions which superimpose the sound of blast on to the fireball with no delay time, mislead viewers about the time-sequence of the effects of nuclear weapons. Similarly, you get some time after a nuclear explosion to evacuate or prepare an improvised shelter, before the fallout even starts to arrive. Philip LaRiviere in the 1950s measured nuclear test data showing the different arrival times and maximum fallout dose rate times after a range of Nevada and Pacific nuclear tests in nuclear test report USNRDL-TR-137 ("The Relationship of Time of Peak Activity from Fallout to Time of Arrival", U.S. Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, 28 February 1957). On average, even once fallout begins to arrive, it settles diffusively and takes a long time to react peak activity. The time of peak radiation level is about the same time as the time taken for the fallout to begin to arrive in the first place. So as with the delayed double heat flash pulse and the delayed arrival of the blast, you have enough time to protect yourself or evacuate from a potential downwind fallout area. If fallout begins to arrive, you can see it. It's clearly visible wherever the dose rate is life-threatening.

The point is, nuclear weapons are not automatically going to produce a lot of civilian casualties if there is a reasonable civil defense education in the reliable (nuclear test based) facts.

If you are going to deter dictators from walking all over you like Hitler and Stalin, then you need to be tough. Toughness is the only thing that deters the sort of trash who don't care about human values at all.

DV8 2XL said...

I have read 'On Nuclear War,' Thinking About the Unthinkable,'and 'On Escalation,' and I still contend his models were flawed. Given the raw data he could have had available to him at the time it is difficult to see how his simulations could have been reliable.

However his assertions did play into the hands of what Eisenhower christened the 'military-industrial complex' and formed the central ideology for the Cold War (on both sides)

I am well aware nige is correct when he says that nuclear weapons are not the doomsday devices that we were made to believe they were, and for exactly that reason they should not have had the central place in geopolitical thinking that they enjoyed during the last half of the previous century. History will show that their most useful function was terrorize the populations of those holding them more than to serve a a deterrent to others attacking.

In fact if we go back to Clausewitz himself we see that that the idea "of an army of artillery only would be an absurdity in war" (On War, Chap 4, para 6) and that is exactly what was happening. The point here that there would never be a case where there would have been any political or military objective that could have come up where a duel with ICBMs was the logical conclusion and both parties would find themselves drawn it inevitably by the course of events.

The real military application of nuclear weapons is not breaking up cities, but in destroying armor massed on a border or flotillas on a coastal littoral. This is why nuclear weapons in the hands of a minor power is so threatening; it's not that they would think of launching an attack on a Great Power, but that the Great Power cannot threaten a conventional attack on them. In fact a RAND study done in 2002 states:"...the acquisition of nuclear weapons by countries hostile to the United States would constitute a serious threat to this nation’s security and to its ability to influence events in regions where critical interests are at stake,..." This is the point that Kahn missed; the real deterrence was happening in Europe where nether side could contemplate an invasion, not because their civilian population was hostage to a nuclear exchange but that their ground forces could not move against medium range nuclear weapons.

This factor was so important that even States like my own (Canada) which was broadly for nuclear disarmament deployed nuclear weapons in a tactical role. From 1963 to 1984 US nuclear warheads armed Canadian weapons systems in both Canada and Germany. It is likely that during the early part of the period, the Canadian military was putting more effort, money and manpower into its nuclear commitment than any other single activity. Canada was not the only State to deploy dual-key nuclear weapons, most if not all NATO counties did at one time or another during the cold war.

But it was Kahn fertile imagination that conjured up graphic pictures of the horrible side effects of radiation on the human body and the specter terrible mutations that was central to the publics beliefs about nuclear war that was leveraged by governments (and not just the American government) to scare their populations into accepting policy that would otherwise faced opposition. Even Kahn's approach to the civil defense problem assumed several givens while failing to account for certain complications and unquantifiable variables. He himself even admitted his assumptions were "optimistic."

Kahn's real damage was that his ideas not only effected policy on both sides of the Cold War, but that they also fueled antinuclear sentiments that indiscriminately included nuclear power of any sort and we are still dealing with those now.

While he was certainly a very influential actor in the Cold War, I cannot see any evidence that he was the strategic genius he is made out to be.

Sovietologist said...

I'm a little surprised by your critique of Kahn, DV8, because from comments I've seen you make elsewhere I know that you agree with the merits of counterforce targeting- and this was the main contribution made by Kahn and his RAND cohort to the nuclear strategy debate. I do think Kahn was wrong on a number of major issues; I think that his endorsement of the merits of pursuing a first-strike capability is problematic, for instance. I'm writing a lengthy post in which I'll explain my take on Kahn that should be posted soon.

DV8 2XL said...

While waiting for your detailed reply, let me state in short that due to the fact that nuclear weapons have become weapons of attrition, they have to be treated as such. As a consequence, yes counterforce targeting of the other sides nuclear capability is a necessary tool that nuclear States must consider. The issue to me was that there was never a real need for them to become such.

Counterforce targeting of conventional forces with nuclear weapons is its proper role.