When Nothing Is Unthinkable

“Take out your entire enemy, virtually risk-free.”

Strategic thinker, Herman Kahn, and his Kubrickian counterpart, Dr. Strangelove

What President Truman Taught Us

It was August 9, 1945 when Harry Truman, President of the United States, proved irrevocably that nothing is unthinkable. Truman had authorized the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Japan. They were loaded on two B29 bombers and flown to the island of Trinian, within striking distance of the Japanese homeland. On that August day they unleashed the second one, playfully called “Fat Boy,” over a second city in Japan. Any normal human being would agree that dropping the first nuclear bomb, which obliterated Hiroshima, was unthinkable, but to drop another one on Nagasaki, just three days later, surpassed all human understanding, thus firmly establishing the certainty that nothing–nichts, nada, niente, rien–was unthinkable.

This comes to mind after watching an eight-minute video on YouTube (Slaughterbots) suggested by Sue Halpern in a New Yorker article, “The Rise of A.I. Fighter Pilots.” The film is a spoof but it demonstrates convincingly the opportunities now offered by artificial intelligence for identifying and eliminating your enemies. An adequate adjective for these “opportunities” has yet to be invented, but we cannot permit ourselves the luxury of rejecting the possibility that the Slaughterbots will, sooner or later, be loosed on the world. President Truman convinced us of that.

Halpern’s New Yorker article traces in minute detail the process of applying artificial intelligence (A.I.) to the development and deployment of a robot fighter plane capable of winning a dogfight against a likely enemy. Actually the aircraft does have a pilot but Halpern makes clear that he or she is mainly set decoration aimed at complying with international regulations that require a human to be included in the killing loop. When push comes to shove we’ll see whether the excess pilot remains in that redundant cockpit. According to Halpern’s report, the robot executes virtually every maneuver faster and better than its human counterpart, and never requires a haircut.

The most fascinating aspect of the article is not the technology. At this stage in the game we can take that for granted. What really impresses is the magnitude of the whole project. There are some 600 firms participating, each one with its budget. One wonders how many more high-priority research programs exist and how many of them are as as unthinkable as the A.I. fighter plane or the Slaughterbots. Little wonder that critical seeds of President Biden’s social programs for the country have fallen on rocky ground.

Unthinkability Yesterday and Today

Herman Khan, a bright young man from Bayonne, New Jersey, raised in New York and Los Angeles, was one of the Rand Corporation’s leading lights in the 1950s, a specialist in war games and strategic futurology whose papers made important contributions to American foreign policy. When he left RAND, he founded his own thinktank, the Hudson Institute, which still functions today as a non-profit entity, a virtual hive of right-wing nationalist dwarves, financed by the usual suspects.

In 1960 Kahn published On Thermonuclear War, in which he looked on the bright side of a theoretical nuclear holocaust. According to his calculations, after an atomic war against Russia, the United States’ enemy of choice, there would still be enough Americans left to bury their dead. He thus became famous as the first strategist to admit to thinking the unthinkable. Insiders affirm that Stanley Kubrick’s extravagant Dr. Strangelove character was a composite based on Herman Kahn, the alleged conceiver of the Doomsday Machine, and the German rocket scientist, Werner von Braun.

Having come this far on the subject of unthinkability, we’re obliged to continue down that dark, crowded rabbit hole. Let’s start from the not-unreasonable premise that a functioning democracy presupposes a certain degree of honesty, decency, and good will among its practitioners. Anything less negates all democratic pretensions. Does the United States meet those vital conditions today? Clearly not. Today there are more weasels than rabbits in the hole, and the first priority of them all is bare-faced self interest–or worse, the interests of sinister movers and shakers–big pharma, big fossil fuels, big armament and big everything else–who formerly lurked in the shadows of Washington’s lobbying firms. Nowadays, thanks to legislation custom-designed by pliable legislators to facilitate the big guys’ sinister agendas, they have carte blanche everywhere and they can see to it that their word is law. How else can one explain a country where the pharmaceutical companies can collect multi-billion-dollar subsidies and then prohibit the government from negotiating the price when they come to purchase medications.

Then There’s Ukraine

Ukraine is all over the news these days, partly because of tensions along their long border with Russia and partly because the United States needs to take the world’s eye off their own lamentable condition. They seem to have realized only recently that the Chinese are winning the worldwide economic development race, and that their beloved country, the United States of America, is facing an imminent future when it will no longer be the world’s only superpower. It’s the first time that observers of Washingtonia have ever seen the American turtle on its back, and it’s unsettling as well as fascinating. They are in check today and will still be in check next week, and the coming checkmate is as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow.

This is America’s gravest geopolitical problem since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. It’s perhaps graver, as their victory over Japan was a foregone conclusion, and the Americans could depend upon the Russians to defenestrate the German Wehrmacht on the eastern front. Will the American response to China be a pondered, negotiated, carefully-cut-the-losses approach, or will they lose their cool and resort to bombast and hyperbole? Not to mention what they consider their strongest suit: war.

Their moves thus far have seemed silly, as well as dangerous. After threatening and insulting the Russians at the negotiating table the US state department has demanded of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, that Russia retire their troops from the Ukraine border, seemingly unaware that the Russian troops are sitting on their own territory, around 160 miles from the border. Meanwhile the U.S. and U.K. are flying arms and ammunition into Ukraine from stockpiles thousands of miles away in their respective countries, as if that weren’t a provocation. Why is NATO playing a role in this affair, anyway? Neither Ukraine nor Russia belong to NATO. This is a family affair. Furthermore, are the Americans sure Ukraine needs to join NATO? They are already threatening Russia by a semi-circle of missile bases in current NATO countries close by its borders.

Galloway’s Helpful Solution

George Galloway is a former member of the British parliament from Scotland and commentator for RT America. (Full disclosure: RT is a Russian communist English-language news service based in Washington, D.C., not far from the White House.) Galloway has made what he considers a reasonable proposal for resolving the Ukraine deadlock. With his wry Scottish sense of humor, he says that Russia should establish military bases in Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela so the Americans can begin to get the picture.

The Americans Lower the Benchmark

What proper country prioritizes war initiatives over the health, education, and welfare of its own citizens? What decent country has inserted so many loopholes and stumbling blocks in its legislative and judicial processes that laws benefitting its citizens are virtually impossible to pass, while the aforementioned drug companies are writing their own tickets? Can anyone name a modern, industrialized country which lacks even the most elemental standards of equality and opportunity for all of its citizens, regardless of race, religion or sexual inclinations? Or a nation that is currently carrying out a concerted state-by-state campaign to prevent a large segment of the society from being able to vote? I can only think of one. And all of this skullduggery and malfeasance is taking place in that country which is allegedly a beacon of democracy for the entire world, a universal role model. Who alleges that? Well, they do.

But Western Democracy, especially the severely-crippled American version, is not a one-size-fits-all solution for other countries if, indeed, it’s even a viable system for their own. In order to acknowledge that we must desist from considering “democracy” as the worldwide default setting, and stop believing the false equivalence, socialism=evil , when the reality is quite the contrary. There are other valid ways to approach the issue of governance. There’s Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and, yes, China.

Martin Jacques is a celebrated British intellectual who has been taking China seriously for decades. He devotes a lot of space in the new edition of his 2009 book, When China Rules the World, to explaining the legitimacy of China’s brand of communism/state capitalism, based on the singularities of Chinese history. If the proof is in the pudding, he makes a convincing case, after China’s non-democratic government has succeeded, with the massive approval (in the 90+ percentile) of the Chinese people, in lifting more than a billion of their citizens out of ignorance and poverty. That is something that, in 1978, when the Chinese economic comeback was launched, the entire world considered unthinkable.

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