Objectives And Constraints

     “If you’re willing to die you can do anything.” – lapel button

     Yes, there’s a point to the above – and it’s not that the accumulated wisdom of Mankind can be found on lapel buttons. (It’s also not that I’m willing to die.)

     Life under the veil of Time is an exercise in practical, individualized economics. Robert Ringer summarized it thus in his blockbuster How You Can Find Happiness During the Collapse of Western Civilization:

  1. What do I want out of life?
  2. What will it cost me in time, energy, pain, and sacrifice?
  3. Am I willing to pay the necessary price?

     Most of us never ask ourselves those questions in an all-inclusive, life-defining way. Rather, we ask them of ourselves with every individual decision, albeit not always consciously. Rational Man is in essence Economic Man, forever striving to decide what he wants, what price it will demand of him, and whether he’s ready, willing, and able to make the purchase.

     But as there are Rational Men, there are also Irrational Men.


     A long, long time ago, in an exchange of views about weapons of mass destruction and “what we should do about them,” I wrote:

     Deterrence fails when your opponent is willing to be severely damaged or destroyed if he can first inflict even a far smaller amount of damage on you. At that point, what matters is your own tolerance for death and destruction.

     I mulled this over at some length a few months ago, going all the way back to the classics of strategic thinking and conflict resolution — Thomas Schelling; Herman Kahn; Albert and Rebecca Wohlstetter; Bernard Brodie; Donald Brennan; even John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. To a man, they shared an invisible assumption that limited their theory, the theory undergirding MAD and every other warfighting doctrine of the Industrial Age: they assumed that there was a maximum price the opponent was willing to pay for victory.

     With some sorts of people, countries and “civilizations,” this assumption does not hold. We have seen this demonstrated by repeated suicide bombings in Israel and by Black Tuesday here in the United States.

     Because we have strong, highly constraining views of the value of human life plus a desire to keep on living it — in other words, because there is a maximum price we’d be willing to pay to impose our will on another country — we cannot abide the possibility that a group of madmen willing to die for their cause (and take a whole country with them) might get hold of a weapon of mass destruction and the means to deliver it to our soil. In our hands, it would be just another card to play against an enemy. In the hands of a true fanatic – one who is willing that he and all he values shall be destroyed if only he can inflict harm on his enemy – it would be the Ace of Trumps, not because we couldn’t match it manyfold, but because of our far greater sensitivity to death and destruction, at every level.

     (No, I never throw anything away.)

     And what do we have here? Gerard van der Leun has cited a darkly brilliant passage from Richard Fernandez’s book The Three Conjectures:

     The War on Terror is the ‘Golden Hour’ — the final chance. It is supremely ironic that the survival of the Islamic world should hinge on an American victory in the War on Terror, the last chance to prevent that terrible day in which all the decisions will have already been made for us. That effort really consists of two separate aspects: a campaign to destroy the locus of militant Islam and prevent their acquisition of WMDs; and an attempt to awaken the world to the urgency of the threat. While American arms have proven irresistible, much of Europe, as well as moderates in the Islamic world, remain blind to the danger and indeed increase it. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad recently “told an international conference of young Muslim leaders … (that) … Muslims must acquire skills and technology so they can create modern weapons and strike fear into the hearts of our enemies”. Fecklessness and gunpowder are a lethal combination. The terrible ifs accumulate.

     (The above-mentioned Mahathir Mohammad has also been heard to say that were Muslims to acquire a nuclear weapon, it would be morally obligatory for them to destroy Israel with it regardless of the consequences to Muslims and Islam.)

     The “what we should do about [nukes]” question can be phrased thus: Should nuclear weapons be outlawed and destroyed before they can be used?

     It’s a silly notion, really. The reasons are three at least:

  1. First, “Nature is an open book.” The knowledge that a nuclear explosive is possible guarantees that even if all nukes were to be collected and destroyed, someone somewhere and somewhen would “rediscover” them – and where would we be then, having disarmed ourselves?
  2. Second, there is no authority capable of enforcing such a ban on the nuclear-armed nations of the world. The U.S. would never agree to it; neither would Russia nor China. Who else really matters in such calculations?
  3. Third, nuclear weapons have actually gone a long way toward securing the peace. Indeed, they’re the only weapons known to Man that have taken zero lives. As Russell Baker once wrote, “There is no other bomb with a comparable safety record:”

         Although I don’t exactly love the H-bomb, it comes close to my idea of what a bomb should be. First, it fulfills the human need to have a bomb. Second, of all the bombs in circulation these days, it is the one you are least likely to be assaulted with.
         In the more than thirty years since it became popular, it has never been used against anybody. A person could get fond of a bomb like that. There is no other bomb with a comparable safety record. [From “Son of H-Bomb,” published on July 31, 1977]

     What is achievable is the deterrence of those who can be deterred. That’s no small consideration. It’s weighed heavily in the international balances these past seventy years. But the emergence of the suicide bomber makes plain that there are persons and organizations that cannot be deterred.

     Yes, Islamic fanatics are the persons I mean by that. For they acknowledge no constraints on their actions. They are willing to doom all of world Islam for the sake of doing harm to their “enemies:” Dar al-Harb, We the Unbelievers, and most especially Israel.

     The Fernandez excerpt delineates what that would mean in practical terms. Please head over to Gerard’s place and read it all.


     An impossibility is a constraint. If a particular action is impossible – temporarily, at least – it precludes basing a course or campaign on achieving it. This is one of those “goes without saying” things that I’m forever saying anyway, but by now my Gentle Readers know what I’m like.

     The Fernandez excerpt ends with a devastating quote from Winston Churchill’s history of World War I: The terrible ‘ifs’ accumulate. Yet when it comes to nukes and fanatics, the ‘ifs’ are absent, non-players in the Great Game of the future. There are and will be nukes. There are and will be fanatics. And just as in Tom Clancy’s novel The Sum of All Fears, a day will come when those two sets intersect.

     It behooves peaceable Muslims to think about the consequences. They can no longer stand aside while their fanatic sub-population rampages through the world. If they want a future for their creed – and this has nothing to do with my contempt for that creed – it’s time for them to cease being irrelevant:


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    • Steve Walton on July 20, 2022 at 8:48 AM

    Good points. One mistake, your “Point 3”: fusion bombs have taken zero lives, but fission bombs took Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were used in anger. Both are nuclear weapons.

    We will choose not to include those who died sooner than they might have through radioactive fallout from testing.

    1. No, A-Bombs are not nuclear weapons! The term “nuclear weapon” is reserved specifically to fusion weapons. That’s been the case since the first fusion bombs were developed — and I think it’s time you gave up trying to “one-up” me.

        • Steve Walton on July 20, 2022 at 11:14 AM

        I’m not trying to “one-up” you, Fran, you do yeoman work and I do not feel in competition with you.

        I spent five years working directly in the nuclear weapons field, and that distinction was not used at the time. Possibly that changed after my time in the field, 1988-1993. Fusion and fission both involve nuclear reactions, so if there is a distinction, it is more cultural than scientific.

        1. Sigh. Atomic weapons such as Fat Man and Little Boy involve fission, as I’m sure you’re aware. They rely upon the fragmentation of a heavy nucleus and the release of radiation and fast neutrons thereby. Nuclear weapons involve fusion: the formation of heavier nuclei out of lighter ones, with an accompanying release of heat and radiation. That’s why the distinction arose. It might be “cultural” in some sense, but it is nevertheless definite.

          I did a stint in strategic planning, and I assure you, the distinction matters to people in that field.

    • OneGuy on July 20, 2022 at 10:12 AM

    When nukes are outlawed only outlaws will have nukes.

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