Thinking the Unthinkable
by John Derbyshire (Oct. 2006)
Everyone knows how absorbing old newspapers can be. I recently found some crumbly old issues of the New York American (“A Paper for People Who Think”) from January 1927, being used as insulation in the ceiling of my garage. Wonderful stuff!—especially the ads: “Everybody wants a single dial radio set,” etc.
Amid the volatility of a distracted, information-drenched political culture, it can sometimes be just as instructive to look up news and comment from a mere few weeks ago. I am thinking of the period around mid-August when
The West is on a collision course with
It’s not so obvious in
Bit by bit, the Western mood is turning from disbelief regarding the “terrorist threat” to hard-knuckled realism about extremist Islam. 9/11 taught the terrorists little of use and many wrong lessons. It may be hard for some of us to discern what’s really happening, but the Islamists are resurrecting a militant, ruthless West.
The florid American master of horror fiction, H. P. Lovecraft, warned his characters, “Do not raise up what ye cannot put down.” Islamist terrorists are reviving the West’s thirst for blood. And this time it won’t be slaked in
The commentator who took these dark thoughts as far as they can be taken was the War Nerd, in a column dated August 25. I know, I know, the War Nerd can be a little off-putting, especially if you’re a Vic Davis Hanson fan, but there’s a lot of real insight and military understanding in his articles if you bear with the weird stuff and bad language. Here’s his August 25 conclusion:
It’s hard to say who gains in the long run. Short term, sure, Hezbollah wins big. But in the long run, maybe what’s happened is that the day when genocide replaces the farce called “CI [i.e. Counter-Insurgency] Warfare” just got a lot closer.
I hasten to say that I don’t think either Stanley Kurtz or Ralph Peters has the g-word in mind. They are, though, talking about acts of major violence against the Muslim Middle East (hereinafter MME). There is a spectrum of such acts, from our present fumbling and controversial efforts at one end, to the g-word at the other. In the “thinking the unthinkable” spirit of the late Herman Kahn, I’m going to take a stroll along that spectrum to see what the future might have in store for us, with particular reference to whether it might have the g-word in store.
There are some awful thoughts here, as there are bound to be in speculations of this sort. Those thoughts have been on a lot of people’s minds, though, as the contents of my email bag tell me. At least, they were on people’s minds five or six weeks ago. Perhaps it is a measure of the sheer awfulness of these thoughts that after that brief mid-August exposure, they have sunk out of sight again. I can’t help suspecting they’ll be back before long.
* * * * *
The g-word is not to be trifled with. In the age of Google, there is a case for the prudent commentator to avoid it altogether. Google just makes it too easy for unscrupulous propagandists to stick things on people. If I were to mention necrophilia in a column, however incidentally, then for the rest of time a person typing “derbyshire necrophilia” into a web search engine will get a hit, and the word will go out that ol’ Derb takes his pleasure by fondling stiffs. (In fact, since I have just mentioned necrophilia right there, this will now come true!) There isn’t a lot to be done about this, other than retreat into mealy-mouthed prissiness—a popular refuge among careerist mainstream journalists, but not my style.
Then there is the fact that the g-word has been seriously devalued in recent decades. Pretty much any act of unkindness by one group of people towards another is liable to get tagged with the g-word nowadays. In some quarters, in fact, even acts of kindness are so tagged: From 1972 to 1994 it was official policy of the National Association of Black Social Workers here in the
What the War Nerd has in mind in that August 25 column is closer to the true meaning of the g-word: The deliberate mass killing of a gens, which is to say, a human group related by descent from common ancestors, and conscious of the fact1—a clan, a tribe, an ethny, a nation, a race. He is thinking of what the Lord instructed Moses to do to the Midianites, or what British settlers did to the Tasmanians2.
That anyone should be thinking at all about such a dreadful prospect as the g-word is a reflection of the hopeless despair into which we are slowly sinking in all matters relating to the MME. Stanley Kurtz again:
War ought to produce the realization that peaceful compromise is the way out. Instead it produces the opposite. Gestures for peace fare no better. Withdraw or attack, the results are the same: more hatred, more terror, more war. Compromise and settlement have been ruled out from the start by a pervasive ideology, an ideology that is a product of the underlying inability to reconcile Islam with modernity.
I’ve been getting an earful of this kind of stuff from readers and friends. One e-friend posed the issue this way: Could I (he asked) think of any line of development over the next few years that did not include either the loss of U.S. cities to nuclear attack, or a massive assault by us on the MME (the Afghanistan-Iraq Wars counting as a trivial assault), or both? I had to confess I couldn’t.
Some other commentators can. There is a school of thought—Steve Sailer belongs to it, and Steve’s friend Greg Cochran has a piece in the October 23rd issue of The American Conservative on this theme—arguing that the threat to the U.S.A. from any or all of the MME nations and their terrorist proxies has been absurdly inflated. MME nations, these folk argue, are militarily feeble and culturally unappealing. Economically they depend entirely on us, the customers for their oil. They may be all kinds of threat to each other, but they are none to us. They haven’t got a single aircraft carrier between them; we have twelve, etc., etc. Even supposing they were to acquire nukes, they would no more think of handing a nuke off to some terrorist group than the Great Powers of 1900 would have given anarchists a dreadnought. Sailer, who has a knack for coining memorable phrases, refers to “the
There are all sorts of thing wrong with that reasoning. Anarchists were a nuisance to everyone, to the Tsar of All the
Furthermore, a dreadnought is not a hydrogen bomb. As puny as the MME states may be militarily, culturally, and economically, nukes are, like the Colt 45 in the Old West, equalizers. If, after a careful and judicious weighing of all the evidence, we were to conclude that there was no more than a ten percent chance of a terrorist nuke attack on a U.S. city over the next twenty years—that, in other words, the Sailer/Cochran hypothesis is probably correct, with probability at the 90 percent level—all the doom’n’gloom of Peters, Kurtz, the War Nerd, and me would still be fully justified.
* * * * *
As Ralph Peters says, there are some old, dark, atavistic impulses being slowly awakened here. It started with 9/11, of course. Reading George Packer’s book about the Iraq War recently, I took out my own reactions to that war once again and had a good look at them—the exercise George Orwell called “thinking your thoughts down to the roots.”
From long habit, and I suppose also from personal disposition, I see the world as divided into a zone of civilization and a zone of barbarism. From time to time the civilized world needs to chastise the barbarians by means of brief punitive expeditions, and I saw the Iraq War in that light. I saw it, in other words, as an exercise in gunboat diplomacy. Some petty ruler of a barbarous state makes himself obnoxious to you. You send an expeditionary force to lob shells on his palace, demolish his arsenal, knock down the walls of his capital, and humiliate his elite troops. That was the sort of thing I was thinking of, though on a bigger scale, since Saddam Hussein had far more than one palace, or one arsenal. It took me some time to realize that pretty much no-one else saw the matter like this, but I still think my approach was a valid one.
Anyway, that’s water under the bridge. Reading Packer’s book reminded me that another, more visceral, part of my reaction to the war was simple tribal revenge. They did this terrible thing to us. Let’s do something to them. “Them.” of course, refers to the MME, without much discrimination. Sure, it wasn’t
If that’s what the loss of a couple of skyscrapers and 3,000 lives will do to us, even to such an amiable and even-tempered fellow as myself, how will we respond to a smuggled nuke taking out one of our cities, with a death toll in six or seven digits? How will we, the people, respond; how will we want our politicians to respond; and how will those politicians actually respond?
It is entirely possible we shall find out. The upcoming Iranian nuclear bomb will mean that two backward, unstable Muslim nations (I mean, counting
How would we respond to that “no return address” nuke? With the g-word—by launching barrages of thermonuclear warheads at… them? I must say, I can’t believe it. What exactly would be the targeting philosophy? Would religious sites be out of bounds? Oil installations? Population centers? Would we allow for lethal fallout plumes over friendly nations? Someone would have to work all this out, and the frictions between our military and civilian decision-makers would be far more momentous than those described in George Packer’s book. Ultimately, I believe, they would be intractable.
And if these terrible events ever come to pass, it will, on Stanley Kurtz’s logic, likely be at a time when at least a couple of MME nations are “mature” nuclear powers, with good-quality (even if small-quantity) delivery systems, and perhaps thermo-nuclear3 capability. That puts us in Herman Kahn territory, trying to compute the pros and cons of single, or limited, or all-out nuclear assaults on an adversary who has some ability to retaliate in kind.
* * * * *
As best I can judge the mood of the present-day
That would require stupendous levels of manpower. This would not be war on the cheap, run by an administration reluctant to impose any real sacrifices on the mass of citizens, or to unduly disturb the nation’s commercial life. This would be total war, commandeering great chunks of the economy, scanting constitutional restraints, knocking over nations like bowling pins, fighting with grim ferocity, WW2-style, without over-much concern for enemy civilian casualties.
It would, in fact, require large-scale mobilization of our population. Now, conscription—let’s call it the c-word—is almost as unthinkable politically as the g-word is morally. Our practical choice, however, following the loss of a city or two, would be between these two unthinkables, the g-word and the c-word, civilizational annihilation or civilizational makeover.
Could we do it? Would our people accept the unthinkable—mass conscription, total war, a years-long effort to subdue and transform an entire region of the world? You’d better hope they would. As ugly as the c-word is in our ears, I hope it is less ugly than the g-word. The choice we may end up with, ten or fifteen years from now, I say again, may be just that: the c-word, or the g-word. I don’t write this with any pleasure. My kids just took themselves off to bed with cheery good-nights. I really don’t want to think of them involved in c-words or g-words. That’s the direction we’re headed, though, unless someone has a really good idea that so far I have not heard.
1. Even, as Walker Connor points out in his book Ethnonationalism, when the fact is not a true fact. Ethnicity is a complicated business.
2. Though some revisionist scholars dispute the familiar account of the Tasmanians’ fate.
3. Thermonuclear bombs—popularly “hydrogen bombs”—employ nuclear fusion, and are far more powerful than mere fission bombs (“atom bombs”). The most powerful practicable fission bomb has a yield of about half a megaton; a fusion bomb with a 50-megaton yield—a hundred times the maximum fission-bomb yield, and four thousand times the yield of the Hiroshima bomb—has actually been tested, and there seems to be no theoretical upper limit to the yield of a fusion weapon. Thermonuclear bomb technology is of course more sophisticated than the fission equivalent. The
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