Everyone alive today owes their life to a man most of us have never heard of, and that I didn’t even know existed until last week. On September, 26 1983, just past mid-night, Soviet lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov was alerted by his satellite early warning system that an attack from an American ICBM was underway. Normal protocol should have resulted in Petrov giving the order to fire Russian missiles at the US in response. Petrov instead did nothing, unable to explain to himself why the US would launch only one missile rather than a massive first strike in the hope of knocking out Russia’s capacity to retaliate. Then, something that made greater sense- more missiles appeared on Petrov’s radar screen, yet he continued to do nothing. And then more. He refused to give the order to fire, and he waited, and waited.
No news ever came in that night of the devastation of Soviet cities and military installations due to the detonation of American nuclear warheads, because, as we know, there never was such an attack. What Petrov had seen was a computer error, an electronic mirage, and we are here, thank God, because he believed in the feelings in his gut over the data illusion on his screen.
That is the story as told by Christopher Coker in his book Warrior Geeks: How 21st Century Technology is Changing the Way We Fight and Think About War. More on that book another time, but now to myself. During the same time Petrov was saving us through morally induced paralysis I was a budding cold warrior, a passionate supporter of Ronald Reagan and his massive defense buildup. I had drawn up detailed war scenarios calculating precisely the relative strengths of the two opposing power blocs, was a resident expert in Soviet history and geography. I sincerely thought World War Three was inevitable in my lifetime. I was 11 years old.
Anyone even slightly younger than me has no memory of living in a world where you went to sleep never certain we wouldn’t blow the whole thing up over night. I was a weird kid, as I am a weird adult, and no doubt hypersensitive to the panic induced by too close a relationship with modern media. Yet, if the conversations I have had with people in my age group over the course of my lifetime are any indication, I was not totally alone in my weirdness. Other kids too would hear jets rumbling overhead at night and wonder if the sounds were missiles coming to put an end to us all, were haunted by movies like The Day After or inspired by Red Dawn. Other kids staged wars in their neighborhoods fighting against “robot”like Russians.
During the early 1980’s world war wasn’t something stuck in a black and white movie, but a brutal and epic thing our grandfathers told us about, that some of our teachers had fought in. A reality that, with the end of detente and in light of the heated rhetoric of the Reagan years, felt as much part of the future as part of the past. It was not just a future of our imaginations, and being saved by Stanislav Petrov wasn’t the only time we dodged the bullet in those tense years.
Whatever the fear brought on by 9-11, this anxiety that we might just be fool enough to completely blow up our own world is long gone. The last twenty three years since the fall of the Soviet Union have been, in this sense, some of the most blessed in human history, a time when the prospect of the big powers pulverizing each other to death has receded from the realm of possibility. I am starting to fear its absence cannot last.
Perhaps it’s Russian aggression against Ukraine that has revived my pre-teen anxieties, it’s seizure of Crimea, veiled threats to conquer the Russophone eastern regions of the country, Putin’s jingoistic speech before the Kremlin. Of course, of course, I don’t think world war will come from the crisis in Ukraine now matter how bad it gets there. Rather, I am afraid we were wrong to write the possibility of war between the big powers out of human history permanently. That one of these times, and when we do not expect it, 10 years or 20 years or 100 years from now one of these dust ups will result in actual clashes between the armed forces of the big powers, a dangerous game that the longer we played it would hold the real risk of ending in the very nightmare we had avoided the night Petrov refused to fire.
Disputes over which the big powers might come to blows are not hard to come up with. There is China’s dispute with Japan, the Philippines, other, and ultimately the United States, over islands in the Pacific, there is the lingering desire for China to incorporate Taiwan, there is the legacy conflict on the Korean peninsula, clashes between India and China, disputes over resources and trade routes through an arctic opened up by global warming, or possible future fights over unilateral geoengineering. Then there are frictions largely unanticipated , as we now see, Russia’s panic induced aggression against Ukraine which brings it back into collision with NATO.
Still, precise predictions about the future is a game for fools. Hell, I can still remember when “experts” in all seriousness predicted a coming American war with Japan. I am aiming, rather, for something more general. The danger I see is that the big powers start to engage in increasingly risky behavior precisely because they think world war is now impossible. That all of us will have concluded that limited and lukewarm retaliation is the only rational response to aggression given that the existential stakes are gone. As a foolish eleven year old I saw the risk of global catastrophe worth taking if the alternative was totalitarian chains. I am an adult now, hopefully much wiser, and with children of my own, whose lives I would not risk to save Ukraine from dismemberment along ethnic/linguistic lines or to stop China from asserting its rising power in the Pacific. I am certainly not alone in this, but fear such sanity will make me party to an avalanche. That the decline of the fear that states may go too far in aggressive action may lead them to go so far they accidentally spark a scale of war we have deemed inconceivable.
My current war pessimism over the long term might also stem from the year I am in, 2014, a solemn centenary of the beginning of the First World War. Back when I was in high school, World War I was presented with an air of tragic determinism. It was preordained, or so we were taught, the product of an unstable system alliance system, growing nationalism and imperialism. It was a war that was in some sense “wanted” by those who had fought it. Historians today have called this determinism into question. Christopher Clark in his massive The Sleepwalkers details just how important human mistakes and misperceptions were to the outbreak of the war, the degree to which opportunities to escape the tragedy were squandered because no one knew just how enormous the tragedy they were unleashing would become.
Another historian, Holger Afflerbach, in his essay The Topos of Improbable War in Europe Before 1914 shows how few were the voices in Europe that expected a continental or world war. Even the German military that wanted conflict was more afraid until the war broke out, and did not end quickly, that conflict would be averted at the last minute rather than stopped. The very certainty that a world war could not be fought, it part because of the belief that modern weapons had become too terrible, led to risk taking and refusal to compromise, which made such a war more likely as the crisis that began with the assassination of Archduke Fransferdinad unfolded.
If World War II can be considered an attempt by the aggrieved side to re-fight the First World War, what followed Japan’s surrender was very different, a difference perhaps largely due to one element- the presence of nuclear weapons. What dissuaded big states in the Cold War era from directly fighting one another was likelihood that the potential costs of doing so were too high relative to the benefits that would accrue from any victory. The cost in a nuclear age was destruction itself.
Yet, for those costs to be an effective deterrent the threat of their use had to be real. Both sides justified their possible suicide in a nuclear holocaust on the grounds that they were engaged in a Manichean struggle where the total victory of the opposing side was presented as being in some sense worse than the destruction of the world itself. Yes, I know this was crazy, yet, by some miracle, we’re still here, and whether largely despite of or because of this insanity we cannot truly know.
Still, maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps I should not be so uncertain over the reason why there have been no wars between the big powers in the modern era, perhaps my anxiety that the real threat of nuclear annihilation might have been responsible is just my eleven year old self coming back to haunt me. It’s just possible that nuclear weapons had nothing to do with the long peace between great powers. Some have argued that there were other reasons big states have seemingly stopped fighting other big states since the end of World War II, that what changed were not so much weapons but norms regarding war. Steven Pinker most famously makes this case in his Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.
Sadly, I have my doubts regarding Pinker’s argument. Here’s me from an earlier piece:
His evidence against the “nuclear peace” is that more nations have abandoned nuclear weapons programs than have developed such weapons. The fact is perhaps surprising but nonetheless accurate. It becomes a little less surprising, and a little less encouraging in Pinker’s sense, when you actually look at the list of countries who have abandoned them and why. Three of them: Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine are former Soviet republics and were under enormous Russian and US pressure- not to mention financial incentives- to give up their weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union. Two of them- South Africa and Libya- were attempting to escape the condition of being international pariahs. Another two- Iraq and Syria had their nuclear programs derailed by foreign powers. Three of them: Argentina, Brazil, and Algeria faced no external existential threat that would justify the expense and isolation that would come as a consequence of their development of nuclear weapons and five others: Egypt, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Germany were woven tightly into the US security umbrella.
I am sure you have noticed that Ukraine is on that list. Had Ukraine not given up its nuclear weapons it is almost certain that it would not have seen Crimea seized by the Russians, or find itself facing the threat by Moscow to split the country in two.
A little more on Pinker: he spends a good part of his over 800 page book showing us just how savagely violent human societies were in the past. Tribal societies had homicide rates that rival or exceed the worst inner cities. Human are natural Hobbesians given to “a war of all against all”, but, in his view we have been socialized out of such violence, and not just as individuals, but in terms of states.
Pinker’s idea of original human societies being so violent and civilization as a kind of domestication of mankind away from this violence left me with many unanswered questions. If we were indeed so naturally violent how or why did we establish societies in the first place? Contrary to his claim, didn’t the institutionalization of violence in the form of war between states actually make our situation worse? How could so many of us cringe from violence at even a very early age, if we were naturally wired to be killers?
I couldn’t resolve any of these questions until I had read Mark Pagel’s Wired for Culture. What Pagel showed is that most of us are indeed naturally “wired” to be repulsed by violence the problem is this repulsion has a very sensitive off switch. The way it can be turned off is when our community is threatened either by those who had violated community norms, so-called moral anger, or when violence is directed towards rival groups outside of the community. In such cases we can be far more savage than the most vicious of animals with our creativity and inventiveness turned to the expression of cruelty.
Modern society is one that has cordoned off violence. We don’t have public hangings anymore and cringe at the death of civilians at the hands of our military (when we are told about them.) Yet this attitude towards violence is so new we can not reasonably expect it has become permanent.
I have no intention of picking on the Russians, and Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech would have done just as well or better here, but to keep things current: Putin in his bellicose oration before the Kremlin pressed multiple sides of the Pagel’s violence “off switch”:
He presented his opponents as an evil rival “tribe”:
However, those who stood behind the latest events in Ukraine had a different agenda: they were preparing yet another government takeover; they wanted to seize power and would stop short of nothing. They resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day.
And called for the defense of the community and the innocent:
Let me say one other thing too. Millions of Russians and Russian-speaking people live in Ukraine and will continue to do so. Russia will always defend their interests using political, diplomatic and legal means. But it should be above all in Ukraine’s own interest to ensure that these people’s rights and interests are fully protected. This is the guarantee of Ukraine’s state stability and territorial integrity.
What this should show us, and Americans certainly shouldn’t need a lesson in here, is that norms against violence (though violence in Ukraine has so far, thankfully been low), can be easily turned off given the right circumstance. Putin, by demonizing his Ukrainian opponents, and claiming that Russia would stand in defense of the rights of the Russian minority in Ukraine was rallying the Russian population for a possible escalation of violence should his conditions not be met. His speech was met with a standing ovation. It is this ease by which our instincts for violence can be turned on that suggests Pinker may have been too optimistic in thinking war was becoming a thing of the past if we are depending on a change in norms alone.
Then there is sheer chance. Pinker’s theory of the decline of violence in general relies on Gaussian bell curves, averages over long stretches of time, but if we should have learned anything from Nassim Taleb and his black swans and the financial crisis, its the fat tails that should worry us most. The occurrence of a highly improbable event that flips our model of the world and the world itself on its head and collapses the Gaussian curve. Had Stanislav Petrov decided to fire his ICBMS rather than sit on his hands, Pinker’s decline of violence, up to that point, would have looked like statistical noise masking the movement towards the real event- an unprecedented expression of human violence that would have killed the majority of the human race.
Like major financial crises that happen once in a century, or natural disasters that appear over longer stretches of time, anything we’ve once experienced can happen again with the probability of recurrence often growing over time. If human decision making is the primary factor involved, as it is in economic crises and war, the probability of such occurrences may increase as the generation whose errors in judgement brought on the economic crisis or war recedes from the scene taking their acquired wisdom and caution with them.
And we are losing sight of this possibility. Among military theorists rather than defense contractors, Colin S. Grey is one of an extreme minority trying to remind us the war between the big powers is not impossible as he writes in Another Bloody Century:
If we, grant with some reservations, that there is a trend away from interstate warfare, there hovers in the background the thought that this is a trend that might be reversed abruptly. No country that is a significant player in international security, not least the United States, has yet reorganized and transformed its regular military establishment to reflect the apparent demise of ‘old’ (interstate wars and the rise of new ones.
Grey, for one, does not think that we’ll see a replay of 20th century world wars with massive, industrial armies fighting it out on land and sea. The technology today is simply far too different than it was in the first half of the last century. War has evolved and is evolving into something very different, but interstate war will likely return.
We might not see the recurrence of world war but merely skirmishes between the big powers. This would be more of a return to normalcy than anything else. World wars, involving the whole of society, especially civilians, are a very modern phenomenon dating perhaps no earlier than the French Revolution. In itself a return to direct clashes between the big powers would be very bad, but not so bad as slippage into something much worse, something that might happen because escalation had gone beyond the point of control.
The evolution of 21st century war may make such great power skirmishes more likely. Cyber-attacks have, so far at least, come with little real world consequences for the attacking country. As was the case with the German officer corps in World War I, professional soldiers, who have replaced draftees and individuals seeking a way out of poverty as the basis of modern militaries seem likely more eager to fight so as to display their skills, and may in time be neurologically re-engineered so as to deal with the stresses of combat. It is at least conceivable that professional soldiers might be the first class to have full legal access to technological and biological enhancements being made possible by advances in prosthetics, mind-computer interfaces and neuroscience.
Governments as well as publics may become more willing to engage in direct conflict as relatively inexpensive and expendable drones and robots replace airmen and soldiers. Ever more of warfighting might come to resemble a videogame with soldiers located far from the battlefield. Both war and the international environment in which wars are waged has evolved and is evolving into something very unlike that which we have experienced since the end of the Cold War. The father out it comes the more likely that the next big war will be a transhumanist or post-human version of war, and there are things we can do now that might help us avoid it- subjects I will turn to in the near future.