Tuesday, 11 September 2012

An Army's Job is Fighting Disasters. (Of which War is only One).

"The Moral Equivalent of War" is the title of the last public speech of William James, a philosopher and psychologist, in 1906. He begins by stating why it will not be easy to bring an end to war.
The war against war is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party. The military feelings are too deeply grounded to abdicate their place among our ideals until better substitutes are offered than the glory and shame that come to nations as well as to individuals from the ups and downs of politics and the vicissitudes of trade. There is something highly paradoxical in the modern man's relation to war. Ask all our millions, north and south, whether they would vote now (were such a thing possible) to have our war for the Union expunged from history, and the record of a peaceful transition to the present time substituted for that of its marches and battles, and probably hardly a handful of eccentrics would say yes. Those ancestors, those efforts, those memories and legends, are the most ideal part of what we now own together, a sacred spiritual possession worth more than all the blood poured out. Yet ask those same people whether they would be willing, in cold blood, to start another civil war now to gain another similar possession, and not one man or woman would vote for the proposition. In modern eyes, precious though wars may be they must not be waged solely for the sake of the ideal harvest. Only when forced upon one, is a war now thought permissible.
...Modern war is so expensive that we feel trade to be a better avenue to plunder; but modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war's irrationality and horror is of no effect on him. The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us.
 James suggests that the solution is to have collective efforts that require as much strength as war, provide experiences that are as extreme, and even require extraordinary expenses and the taxes needed pay for them. However, ideally, these collective efforts would not destroy the lives or property of the innocent nor transform a large percentage of the young men in war into lovers of murder and rape, nor, as an alternative, amoral robots whose nature escapes corruption because they simply follow orders from above. "War is a racket" writes Smedley D. Butler, and he should know. He was a Marine Corps Major General and two-time Medal of Honor recipient. Is it possible to have war that is enobling more than it is brutalizing? Is it possible to have war that is not a racket?

I think we saw a half-hearted prototype of a moral equivalent to war during the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both nations competed, fiercely and openly. The effect of Sputnik I on the United States was fast and far-reaching. (From Wikipedia):
The depth of concern, and breadth of impact upon the American society and the West cannot be overstated. One of the many books which suddenly appeared for the lay-audience noted 7 points of "impact" upon the nation. Those points of impact were, Western Leadership, Western Strategy and Tactics, Missile Production, Applied Research, Basic Research, Education, and Democratic Culture. The USA soon had a number of successful satellites, including Explorer 1, Project SCORE, and Courier 1B. However, public reaction to the Sputnik crisis led to the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA in 1972), NASA, and an increase in U.S. government spending on scientific research and education. Not only did the launch of Sputnik spur America to action in the space race, it also led directly to the creation of N.A.S.A. through the space act bill. Sputnik also contributed directly to advancement in science and technology. This came about when President Eisenhower enacted a bill called the National Defense Education Act. This bill encouraged students to go to college and study math and science. The students' tuition fees would be paid for. This led to a new emphasis on science and technology in American schools. Sputnik also created building blocks which probably led to the general establishment of the way science is conducted in the United States today.
This effort was big enough to be noticeable in the U.S. Federal Budget. Even NASA alone was big enough: Between 1964 and 1966 "Roughly 4% of the total federal budget was being devoted to the space program." (From the Wikipedia article on The Budget of NASA). In comparison, "At its height, operations in Iraq cost around 1 percent of GDP."

There were speeches about the Space Race bringing out the noble character of the nation, such as John Kennedy's in 1962:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.
We had heroes come out of it, too: John Glenn and the crew of Apollo 13 and Neil Armstrong among them. We had casualties and martyrs to the cause: the crew of Apollo 1, killed in a fire on the ground, and the crews of the Space Shuttles  Challenger, (killed during launch) and  Columbia, (killed during re-entry).  The effort even entered popular culture in a thousand ways, including music. There was the hit tune Telstar, named after a satellite, Elton John's "Rocket Man," David Bowie's "Space Oddity," and more. (By the way, "Space Oddity" was turned into a very well-illustrated children's book by an Ontario illustrator, Andrew Kolb. It used to be available as a PDF on his web site, where it became a "viral hit," but is no more. Still, you can see the illustrations here and here. You can see it as an animated music video here).

It has been hard to find other examples of a moral equivalent of war, though some have tried. President Carter suggested that the effort to cut the United States' dependence on imports of oil could provide such a moral equivalent, but it lacks a few of war's necessary attributes. Even though taxes might go toward it, heroes and martyrs would be scarce. The defence industries would derive no benefits. Nor would David Bowie be likely to pen a song on the effect of wind farms on Major Tom's psyche. It would be the moral equivalent of a war on the scale of the invasion of Grenada, but of no more substantial one.

Perhaps we need to add an element of danger to our moral effort. There are natural disasters that are as damaging as a major war. Preparing for them would take as much expense and commitment as we put into preparing for war. If nations of the world chose to convince their populations of these dangers in the same way that they prepare them for a war, then we could mobilize the military-industrial complex to make the world a better place. Even better, every nation could be an ally in the same fight

Here are three such disasters, selected from memory, to show the scale of the dangers we should prepare for.
  1. A Carrington Event

    In 1859, a five-minute flare on the sun that was observed by Richard C. Carrington created Northern Lights even in the tropics; in some places, they were bright enough to read by. It disrupted the world-wide telgraph system. Operators were shocked by the sparks that flew out of their equipment. Telegraph paper caught fire.

    If a similar flare occurred now, satellite systems, including telecommunications and GPS, would be fried. Astronauts in space would die. Power grids would go down for extended periods, plunging large areas into darkness. There would be no cell phones, no internet, no banking machines operating, no electronic cash registers working.

    We are not prepared for another Carrington Event, even though it would do as much damage to our systems of civilization as a world war. Its cost to the world's economy could be one to two trillion dollars.

    On the other hand, preparing for it would cost a lot of money, take a lot of time, require expensive research and development, make the military-industrial complex very happy, and leave the world a safer place. Here is a discussion on Slashdot about how to protect computer data from a Carrington Event. Preparing for the Event would be an excellent replacement, or supplement, for war. Information on the Carrington Event can be found here, here, and here.

    If you're interested about the effects of a loss of technology on people's lives, try watching episode 1 of James Burke's series Connections. Here's the first part of it.

    Be sure to watch the entire episode. It shows that the fall of civilization would not happen all at once but, once the process had started, there would be no easy way back.
  2. A Tunguska Event or Dinosaur-Killer

    On June 30, 1908, something exploded in the air above Tunguska in Siberia. The Wikipedia page on it helpfully illustrates the strength of the explosion with a few comparisons:
    Estimates of the energy of the blast range from 5 to as high as 30 megatons of TNT (21–130 PJ), with 10–15 megatons of TNT (42–63 PJ) the most likely—roughly equal to the United States' Castle Bravo thermonuclear bomb tested on March 1, 1954; about 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan; and about one-third the power of the Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated. The explosion knocked an estimated 80 million trees down over an area covering 2,150 square kilometres (830 sq mi). It is estimated that the shock wave from the blast would have measured 5.0 on the Richter scale. An explosion of this magnitude is capable of destroying a large metropolitan area.
    Not simply capable. If it had entered the earth's atmosphere a few hours later, the object would have exploded over the city of St. Petersburg. The explosion's cause is unknown. The most common speculations are that it was a comet or asteroid. To avoid a repeat, we first have to know what is coming our way. Very little money is spent on this, though the Germans (bless them) have a project called NEOShield that is looking at it. We must then have a way to destroy or, at least, deflect the incoming object. At present, we have only a few ideas. Hollywood's favourite idea is blowing it up with nuclear bombs.
    (from Meteor, 1979)

    (from Armageddon, 1998)

    However, that won't work.

    The bigger the object, the worse the damage will be. The worst scenario might be an asteroid like the one that hit near the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico about 65 million years ago, creating the Chicxulub Crater, which is over 180 km across. It also is at least partially responsible for killing off the dinosaurs as well as many other species. It would be nice to be able to head off something like that from happening again.
    (from Deep Impact, 1998)
  3. The Return of Spanish Flu

    Every now and then you read about a government purchasing drugs to have on hand during a flu outbreak. In Canada, the preparation includes the National Antivirus Stockpile, which has enough doses of antiviral drug to treat every person in Canada. Apparently, "The NAS is a provincially/territorially administered supply of antiviral drugs held across the country on a per capita basis in secure temperature-controlled facilities." The federal government maintains another stockpile, the National Emergency Stockpile System (NESS), with another 14 million doses for use in a pandemic or for chickens in an Avian Flu outbreak. Private stockpiles exist for some provinces and government departments. It takes about three months to create a vaccine to treat a specific strain of flu, but the federal government has contracted with Shire Biologics so that, in the case of a pandemic, the work of creating the vaccine would start at once.

    Does any of this sound like stockpiling weapons, essential resources, and fuel for the military? Has our government already committed itself to a moral equivalent of war? In a way, yes. They remember what happened in 1918 when a strain of flu called the Spanish Flu spread through the world. It eventually infected about 27% of the world's population. Between 50 and 130 million of the infected people died. In comparison, World War I, one of the deadliest wars in history, killed 37 million people.

    Governments are understandably concerned that some new variation of human H1N1 virus or bird flu or swine flu or an unholy combination of them all (like the one that killed 18,000 people in 2009) would replicate the deadliness of the Spanish Flu. They prepare for it as they would for a war because it would be a war in every respect except the nature of the enemy.

    If the governments of the world coordinated their response so that drugs were stockpiled for the entire population of the world and transportation was available to transport them and administer them in time, that would be a moral equivalent to a major war.
This is becoming a long posting, so I should will put aside discussion of the disaster represented by a sea-level rise, caused by climate change. That deserves a posting of its own.

However, I think I have established that some natural disasters pose as great a threat as major wars. Nations find that they must turn to their militaries during such disasters. I believe we should, therefore, give the militaries the responsibility to prepare for these disasters as much or more than they prepare for war. Given that Canada is more likely to suffer a natural disaster than an invasion of its territory, perhaps this should be our military's dominant preoccupation.

The ability to respond effectively in times of war need not suffer from this preoccupation, since many resources and capabilities needed to respond to a disaster (move people long distances on short notice, have prepared stocks of food, shelter, and munitions, be able to distribute them at need) are useful in any disaster, including a war.


  1. Gareth, I love your true optimism that a simple trust in reason will trump instinct and the problem of short term thinking. Alas, reason is built on belief, and belief arises from pre-thinking, be it the collective and/or personal unconscious, or the unmeasurable emanations of sub-sub-nuclear particle awareness waves, or flicks of synaptic quanta. But reason by necessity attaches to belief, and belief is arbitrary, induces delusion, and all the while manages to be nonchalantly insurmountable and friable at the same time.

    Voltaire dreamed that reason had been born in his age, perhaps unreasonably even within himself! But that too, was a belief, as solid as our delusion that war is peace and, likewise, one that time has proven to be untenable. I stumbled across an opium addict's castigation of reason that has always resonated with me:

    Here I pause for a moment to exhort the reader never to pay any attention to his understanding when it stands in opposition to any other faculty of his mind. The mere understanding, however useful and indispensable, is the meanest faculty of the human mind and the most to be distrusted: and yet the great majority of people [especially economics graduates!] trust to nothing else; which may do for ordinary life, but not for philosophic purposes. Of this, out of ten thousand instances that I might produce, I will cite one. Ask any person whatsoever, who is not previously prepared for the demand by a knowledge of perspective, to draw in the rudest way the commonest appearance which depends upon the laws of that science – as for instance, to represent the effect of two walls standing at right angles to each other, or the appearance of the houses on each side of a street, as seen by a person looking down the street from one extremity. Now in all cases, unless the person has happened to observe in pictures how it is that artists produce these effects, he will be utterly unable to make the smallest approximation to it. Yet why? For he has actually seen the effect every day of his life. The reason is that he allows his understanding to overrule his eyes. His understanding, which includes no intuitive knowledge of the laws of vision, can furnish him with no reason why a line which is known, and be proved to be a horizontal line, should not appear a horizontal line: a line, that made any angle with the perpendicular less than a right angle, would seem to him to indicate that his houses were all tumbling down together. Accordingly he makes the line of his houses a horizontal line, and fails of course to produce the effect demanded. Here then is one instance out of many, in which not only the understanding is allowed to overrule the eyes, but where the understanding is positively allowed to obliterate the eyes as it were: for not only does the man believe the evidence of his understanding in opposition to that of his eyes, but (which is monstrous!) the idiot is not aware that his eyes ever gave such evidence. He does not know that he has seen (and therefore [with respect to] his consciousness has not seen) that which he has seen every day of his life.
           De Quincey, Thomas. "On The Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth" from Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 81. (Originally published in 1823.)

    [Continues in next comment.]

  2. [Continued from previous comment.]

    Greed is more stupefying than sex, and those addicted to reason the most easily deluded. And now, in the supreme act of societal delusion, we have chosen to be lead by the most easily deluded, those who are well educated and whose education has infected them with a 'greed is good' rationalization of reason. We extol them for their ability to find short term fixes to non-troubles while they ignore the big ones, which is how they have, with great pomp and point precise appeals to reason, efficiency, and efficacy, been taught to behave.

    And if James thought war would be a hard thing to fix when he was alive, it has become even harder to fix with a general contempt by the leaders for not just the poor and non-whites, but now too the middle class who have with the effectiveness of propaganda and formal education actually turned against themselves economically. And the level of rational delusion is so high that even as they actively support the economic means by which they are being destroyed, the middle class are convinced that what they do is not only sound but will enhance their prestige.

    When I re-read and edited this I found myself compelled to apologize for it, as it appears that I am writing from a very intuitive space.

    Be well,


  3. Those comments will require some thought to respond to. I think I should address them in my next posting instead of here.