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August 16, 2005

The Profits of Fear

-- by Thomas Leavitt

boingboing.net just put up an article entitled, "The Profits of Fear", by Charles Platt (a former senior writer for Wired Magazine, back when it was worth reading). It is the story of Sam Cohen, the man who invented the Neutron Bomb, and his attempts to sell it in Washington, DC... and his encounters with our government's civilian and military leadership, who appear to be driven by lunatic medacity, pathological incompetence, and insatiable greed.

Why, as an STF reader, should you read this piece? Well, aside from the fact that it is a flat out fascinating read, the type of thoughtful, quirky journalism that expands the mind... to quote the author: "For those who wonder how neo-conservative think tanks managed to incite empire-building conceits that fomented a renewed war in Iraq, Cohen's experiences fifty years ago turn out to be unexpectedly relevant."

The article analyzes parallels between the nature and scope of the influence on policy that RAND (the original think tank) had in the early 1950's, and that modern incarnations like the "Project for a New American Century" have today.

I always thought that the nuetron bomb was a bad idea, because it would make war "too easy", by limiting the scope of the damage to property and life, etc. but I see that this was naive: our leaders, and our military could give a damn about the damage caused by war (this is evidenced, by, among other things, the fact that when a version of the nuetron bomb was finally built, it functioned like any other bomb: destroying everything in it's path).

Platt's theory is that our political process self-selects for pathological power-driven egotists, and that war provides these individuals with an excuse for self-importance (not to mention feeding the war machine) - and that the Cold War, and now, obviously, the "War on (some) Terror" serves this purpose ideally.

P.S. The reaction of Platt's editor at Wired to the idea of doing a profile of this sort, "The guy sounds wacky." explains why Wired became "tired" as the millenium arrives and lost it's relevance. The early Wired would have embraced the idea of a piece like this.

Posted by Thomas Leavitt at August 16, 2005 11:14 PM

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Comments

Very interesting article.

A couple of thoughts about the limits of Cohen's version of the neutron bomb:

1) The neutron bomb wouldn't have been at all useful in Vietnam. The problem for it would have been the same problem that made most U.S. firepower ineffective and counterproductive: there were very few massed-troop battles, but lots of guerilla infiltrations. Just as the napalm and free-fire zones killed thousands of civilians, so would have the neutron bomb. The neutron bomb may have been a more humane way to die than napalm and other horrors, but dead is dead in the end.

2) Use of the neutron bomb in the Gulf War would not necessarily have changed subsequent events. The coalition could have used it to kill Hussein's massed troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq, instead of doing that the conventional way. And maybe that would have meant immediately eliminating the Republican Guard and other forces that instead withdrew. But I just don't see that it would have changed things much given the political situation in 1990-91.

3) As with Vietnam, the neutron bomb would be as useless today in Iraq as the rest of our arsenal -- whatever weapon you have that can kill a large number of people in a concentrated area (whether nuclear or conventional) is ineffective and counterproductive when the enemy isn't concentrated and won't stand around in one spot waiting to be bombed. It's like being in a crowd and tossing hand grenades around -- you probably won't hit the person you want to hit, you probably will kill or maim those that you don't want to hit (although worrying about collateral damage may be passe in these kill 'em all days we live in), and you probably have turned a number of previously neutral people into bitter enemies.

4) The concern that the neutron bomb renders war "too easy" is not naive or otherwise rendered incorrect by Cohen's good intentions or the greedy and/or violent views that blocked him. Cohen designed a weapon that, if it were used by someone like Cohen, would be far more humane. But it wouldn't be used by someone like Cohen -- it would be in the hands of the venal, militaristic politicians and bunker-protected generals that he described. The American public seems quite capable of willfuly ignoring the horrors inflicted on citizens of Falujah and other cities in Iraq with only a bit of effort and a vague sense of unease -- imagine how easy it would be to completely ignore if everyone had been killed quickly and humanely in a manner that barely damaged the bodies (no bloodied survivors, no visible damage; in short, no horrible pictures to disturb anyone, just a fatal silence). Perhaps it is the inhumanity, the maimed victims, and the sheer horror of what war can do that prevents human beings from treating it all as just a game and not thinking about the reality of war. (But then again, Rwanda demonstrated the human capacity to take even up-close, bloody killing and treat it as just work to do.)

To go to the geek-level, it reminds me of the ST:TOS episode where they visit an alien planet where the two sides have been at war for decades, but the combat is reduced to computer simulations and casualties are identified and report in to be vaporized. All very humane and painless -- no maimed victims, no miserable survivors living in the hellish aftermath, etc. But it had become so easy to accept, so routine, so non-horrible, that there was no revulsion or other incentive to end the war. (I'm not sure whether the episode got it exactly right -- I'd have to guess that there would be some social strain from the psychological stress of knowing day-in and day-out that you could be the next random death -- but it was still a thought-provoking episode, despite having both the cliche of Kirk being irresistible to an alien woman and the cliche of Kirk telling everybody how to fix their world.)

Posted by: Paul Thompson [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 17, 2005 3:30 PM

The episode was #23, A Taste of Armageddon

Hat tip to Eric's Excruciatingly Detailed Plot Summaries:
http://www.ericweisstein.com/fun/startrek/

Posted by: Paul Thompson [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 17, 2005 3:48 PM

Thanks for the thoughtful and detailed response. These are good points.

Posted by: Thomas Leavitt [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 17, 2005 7:38 PM

I realize I'm coming at this a day late and a dollar short, but it's a very intriguing article. It reveals a lot about the players in this game and their psychology, even if I do agree with Paul's assessment of the "most moral weapon". Especially the sentence "Cohen designed a weapon that, if it were used by someone like Cohen, would be far more humane. But it wouldn't be used by someone like Cohen -- it would be in the hands of the venal, militaristic politicians and bunker-protected generals that he described."

That precisely summarizes my feelings about any illusions the Democrats have about staying in Iraq and getting it right. It is utterly impossible with this crew running the executive.

Posted by: Dr. Laniac [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 18, 2005 9:22 PM

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