Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Rise (and Fall?) of the Machines

When our children, one girl, one boy, were in their pre-teens, my wife instituted “ladies’ day” as a special occasion to hang out with our daughter. Periodically they would head out to the mall to shop for a bauble or a new dress and top off the expedition with an effetely gourmet lunch. It did not take long for our son to voice a wish for equivalent quality time with his father.

Thus began “men’s day.” Along with becoming a connoisseur of the subtle differences between the French fries at one or another of the fast food establishments nearest the Cineplex, we initiated ourselves into the philosophical conundrums of the Terminator films.  Their formula runs thus: malevolent machines have rebelled against their human masters and begun nuclear war all on their own. Was this possible, my son naturally enough wanted to know? And I naturally enough tried to calm a thirteen-year-old’s fears by dismissing the possibility.

The unpleasant truth is that the process is in fact well under way, though not exactly in the manner the films suggested.  Robots have not yet become conscious, autonomous, and capable of conquering humans in war, though the entrepreneur Elon Musk has been sounding the alarm against A.I., called it a greater threat than North Korea.

Nuclear weapons are not robots. But they are machines whose destructive power is so enormous that they have seriously warped the thinking of the humans who supposedly control them. The distortion has long passed the point where the tail of nuclear weapons began to wag the dog of common sense. The war of the machines is here, and we have become their pawns.

Watching Ken Burns’s documentary rehashing the Vietnam War makes this clearer even on the level of conventional war. War itself is a kind of system, a machine with a life of its own. Looking back (and setting aside that North Vietnam’s cause—national liberation from the colonial oppression of the French and the Americans—was more on the side of justice), both sides are able to reflect on how the system tempted them into stereotyping each other and rationalizing the indiscriminate cruelty of napalm or carpet-bombing or mass executions of suspected sympathizers to the opposing side.

Someday a film with similar conclusions will be made about the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, because the relentless system of war is always the same: dehumanization, abandonment of truth to propaganda, escalating chaos and cruelty, futile bloodletting, and ultimate exhaustion. Even the decisive defeat of one side only plants the seeds for further war. As Robert Frost wrote, “Nature within her inmost self divides/ To trouble men with having to take sides.”

Deterrence as a way of preventing the senselessness of total war has always seemed sensible to establishment makers of policy, because it appears to have helped to prevent a third world war since 1945. Even the stalemates in Korea and Vietnam can be interpreted as conflicts in which leaders escalated almost to the point of using nuclear weapons as a last resort to win, but finally restrained themselves because they realized that victory was only the Pyrrhic victory of mass death on all sides.

But these weapons leave us all in a moral limbo. Unused, they are the righteous preservers of the peace. Used, whether by design or accident, they become the worst war crime in human history. We pretend our nuclear weapons are good and theirs are bad, when the weapons are a mindless, heartless system that cares neither who occupies the moral high ground nor who “wins.”

Our diminishment in the face of these machines has become especially clear in the threats and counter-threats of Kim-Jung Un and Donald Trump.  The reality that one side is a totalitarian dictatorship where the dictator answers only to himself and the other side is a democracy that freely elected its leader makes not a whit of difference when it comes to nuclear decisions. Our presidents, no matter how experienced and well-trained, are identical to Kim Jung-Un in that they find themselves in the absurd position of being able to begin a nuclear war without consulting anyone.

Ominously, both Kim and Trump show equivalent signs of instability and unpredictability. History tells us that leaders faced with domestic threats to their power often turn to foreign wars as a way of externalizing the enemy and distracting their constituency from their own shortcomings.  As Mr. Mueller looms over him, will the president’s finger be tempted to edge nearer to the button to create the ultimate distraction?

The machines are rising, asserting their autonomous powers and reducing us, citizens and leaders alike, to helpless cogs in a potential war without winners. But forces of common sense opposing the malevolent nuclear system are also rising.  122 nations just passed a U.N. agreement to outlaw the construction, deployment or use of these weapons. The nine nuclear powers are quickly finding themselves on the wrong side of history. It is long past time for us to recognize that the greater enemy is not someone in another country shouting threats, but the weapons themselves. On the basis of this shared truth, new relationships among adversaries can flourish that will allow reciprocal reduction and elimination. Nature within her inmost self divides, and science has unleashed this process on earth as the mighty power of fission, setting before us life or death choices. It is not too late to restrain the rise of the machines we ourselves have created, and choose life.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Common Sense and North Korea

The phrase “common sense” implies practical and prudent good judgment, with a further implication that the obviousness of common sense is “common” because it is shared by many or even all.  For example, 122 nations just signed a Treaty on Nuclear Prohibition, confirming a majority planetary common sense that these weapons have become obsolete as a foundation for international security.

North Korea and the United States do not appear to share much of a common sense about anything with each other. Evan Osnos of the New Yorker has written a concise and intelligent summation of our mutual bewilderment and paranoia (“Letter from Pyongyang,” in the September 18 2017 issue) that should be required reading for the U.S. military-diplomatic-political leadership.

Given that the Korean War was never genuinely resolved so long ago, substantive reasons for conflict remain. But the destruction of both Koreas by further war would be all the more tragic and absurd if it happened less from misguided attempts at resolution by military means than from the present complete lack of communication, a lack that includes ignorance and puzzlement in North Korea about U.S. politics, historical amnesia in the U.S. (“the forgotten war”), and destabilizing bluster on both sides.

It is no harder to grasp the historical causes of North Korea’s paranoia than it is to understand our own fears: Korea was invaded and brutally colonized by the Japanese from 1910 to 1945. At the end of World War II, the victorious Americans and Soviets divided the country into two separate zones of occupation. No agreement ever ensued as to where the capital of a unified Korea should be. When the North attacked the South in 1950 in a forced attempt at reunification, the Americans came in one side and the Chinese on the other. Military stalemate followed three years of a war that included the deaths of a million Chinese soldiers, over 400,000 North Korean soldiers and 600,000 civilians, and almost 100,000 Americans.  Our air force bombed and napalmed the North until there was no intact target left, a shattering level of devastation not forgotten by North Koreans to this day. The aim of the North ever since has been to avoid a repeat of such helplessness, and the major means of avoidance became the acquisition of a credible nuclear deterrent—ironically ensuring that war in Korea today would be far worse than in 1950.

Meanwhile, in order to protect its ally below the 38th parallel from invasion, the United States surrounds North Korea with ships, flies along its airspace with bombers, and conducts military exercises that are seen by the North as highly provocative—just as the U.S. would see red if similar massive shows of force were conducted so close to our own coasts and up and down the edges of our own airspace.

The philosophy of nuclear deterrence pursued by both sides is all about credible threats, which drown common sense in an ocean of anxiety. The philosophers call this a performative contradiction: the weapons are there to prevent their use by anybody, but the threat of their being used must be seen by all as real, which means they must be instantly at the ready, which cuts the margin for error in crisis, which can lead to mistakes etc. etc. When will the experts see how there is no good way out of this death spiral waiting to happen? Additionally, credibility requires not only that threats be credible to one adversary, but intended as a warning to all. This was the catastrophe of Vietnam in a nutshell, where the U.S. could not afford to be perceived by the Soviets as weak, so it fought, and lost, a futile proxy war.

Therefore the ultimate resolution of the North Korean challenge must include a total shift in paradigm on the part of the U.S. away from the credibility of deterrence to the credibility of gestures of good will, such as a solemn pledge of no first use, in all potentially nuclear conflicts around the globe. The United States must cease to obstruct, and instead encourage, a grand plan of verifiable, reciprocal global denuclearization.

In the long term it is a virtuous circle of nuclear disarmament that will most effectively undercut North Korean motives for its own destabilizing nuclear gestures. Kim Jung Un’s regime will not last forever in its present form. If the U.S. could contain the Soviet Union through a half-century of cold war, we can cooperate with the world community to contain a small, impoverished nation and await its inevitable transformation. Meanwhile, we need to talk with them! The first “common” sense North Korea and the United States presumably share is a desire to survive. To strengthen the shared common sense that possession of nuclear weapons is a probable cause of the eventual use of nuclear weapons requires slowly nurtured relationships and a ratcheting down of the rhetoric of threat.

While there is international agreement that Kim Jung Un is worthy of collective sanction, it doesn’t hurt to remember how many countries feel that the United States itself is dangerously militaristic, and further that we have not lived up to our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970 to make good-faith efforts to cut and finally eliminate our arsenal. Part of getting North Korea to change includes realizing that we have to change. Without weakening ourselves, we can initiate diplomatic feelers that could lead to threat reduction on both sides. We can build trust on the basis of a shared interest in survival—not capitulating to each other but capitulating, like those other 122 nations, to the common sense that nuclear weapons have no constructive use.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Sixth Grade Recess

How close are we today to nuclear war between the United States and North Korea? As close as somebody in the military on either side making a mistake that looks to the other side like an escalation from mere words, however heated, to actual intent to kill.  As close as a group of military hawks egged on rather than restrained by civilian authority (See John and Robert Kennedy versus the chief of the Strategic Air Command, Curtis Lemay, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Lemay was hell-bent to attack Cuba, which we now know would almost certainly have resulted in holocaust.)

Hot words are all about credibility. But nuclear credibility contains a tragic paradox. Nuclear weapons are not intended for actual use, but to deter adversaries, while at the same time nuclear weapons, in order to deter adversaries credibly, must be ready for instant use—and so must conventional weapons for that matter. So everyone is rehearsing madly—madly in both senses of the word. Rehearsals take the form of joint military exercises on the part of South Korea and the U.S., and test firings of missiles and warheads on the part of the North, accompanied by fiery contests of macho rhetoric from leaders who really, really ought to know better.

When nuclear war gets this close, the situation begs examination beyond the level of right and wrong, of sides, of positions, of causes, of who was the first to violate agreements. It needs to be observed systemically as a planetary event, in terms of interests and probable results. What we find is that (setting aside momentary differences in tactics between the Presidents of the U.S. and South Korea) the U.S. is locked into its pledge to support its ally, and locked into credibility generally, just as North Korea is locked into its nuclear program as a reliable way to maintain the regime’s power in spite of being regarded as an international pariah.

Working backward from a war that went nuclear without anyone wanting it, what would have been resolved as a result of mass death on both sides of the 38th parallel? “The North Koreans begged for war; they brought it on themselves” would ring pretty hollow as a rationale. The United States would instantly join North Korea, what was left of it, in the pariah role. There would be a fission-level increase in the plotting of all those anywhere who wish America ill to make the United States suffer as they have made others suffer. The Korean peninsula would be united after fifty years of tension—united in a horrendous agony and chaos beyond description. The earth would endure yet more poisoning of the total life system by radioactive clouds of soot. This is resolution? 

The question is, as realists, are we trapped? Are all parties, not just the U.S., constrained by the pitiless demands of credibility to keep escalating their chest-thumping, as war-abetting pundits make what seem like reasonable arguments to justify each further step into the abyss?

As a system, nuclear chicken is completely nuts—and not less so because our representatives and their day-by-day pronouncements, lines in the sand, threats, ultimatums, sound so reasonable to the patriotic ear—that is until everything spirals out of control. 

One hundred and twenty nations recently signed a U.N. treaty outlawing nuclear weapons, but the nine nuclear nations still haven’t gotten the message.  If humans can acquire the immensely complex technological expertise to build these no-win weapons, we can also figure out how to make a gradual transition to a security system that does not rely upon them, knowing that security with them is a technological fantasy.

The United States, with its clear superiority in conventional forces, becomes the indispensable nuclear nation to lead the other eight beyond nukes. Without any loss of security we can pledge no first use. We can promise not to pursue regime change in North Korea as long as South Korea is not threatened. We can take measured diplomatic de-escalating and confidence-building steps. We can acknowledge, as President Reagan inevitably had to, that a nuclear war cannot be won and thus must never be fought. We can rely upon our experience of containing the Soviet Union for fifty years to contain North Korea, while an international conference implementing mutual, reciprocal, verifiable reduction and final elimination of all nuclear weapons goes forward, prodded and encouraged by those one hundred and twenty nations who have already decided against deterrence by mutual assured destruction in favor of mutually assured survival.

Meanwhile we in the United States could use a good long look at ourselves—at a political system that allows a person of this level of inexperience, poor judgment, and impulsive temperament to get so close to nuclear decision-making that could affect the fate of millions.

If we get past the present acute crisis unscathed, someday North Koreans, South Koreans and Americans are going to meet and build relationship on post-nuclear ground, the common ground of a shared desire to survive and flourish.  They will look back and see just how deeply irrational and silly this moment was, when humans possessing and possessed by immense, world-destroying powers threatened each other like sixth graders challenging each other to a recess brawl.