Saturday, June 8, 2013

Some Mad Thoughts

Of course I refer to the old Cold War usage of MAD, that being mutually assured destruction.
Of late, the notion of another civil war in the US is much in the news, the polls, and this little sphere of blogs.  I have to say it reminds me of this little exchange from Dr. Strangelove.  If you've never seen this movie, it would be profitable to remedy that deprivation.

Muffley: What... what is it, what?

DeSadeski: The fools... the mad fools.

Muffley: What's happened?

DeSadeski: The doomsday machine.

Muffley: The doomsday machine? What is that?

DeSadeski: A device which will destroy all human and animal life on earth.

Muffley: All human and animal life? ... I'm afraid I don't understand something, Alexiy. Is the Premier threatening to explode this if our planes carry out their attack?

DeSadeski: No sir. It is not a thing a sane man would do. The doomsday machine is designed to to trigger itself automatically.

Muffley: But surely you can disarm it somehow.

DeSadeski: No. It is designed to explode if any attempt is ever made to untrigger it.

Muffley: Automatically? ... But, how is it possible for this thing to be triggered automatically, and at the same time impossible to untrigger?

Strangelove: Mr. President, it is not only possible, it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know. Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy... the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying. It's simple to understand. And completely credible, and convincing.

Turgidson: Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines, Stainsy.

Muffley: But this is fantastic, Strangelove. How can it be triggered automatically?

Strangelove: Well, it's remarkably simple to do that. When you merely wish to bury bombs, there is no limit to the size. After that they are connected to a gigantic complex of computers. Now then, a specific and clearly defined set of circumstances, under which the bombs are to be exploded, is programmed into a tape memory bank. ... Yes, but the... whole point of the doomsday machine... is lost... if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world, eh?

DeSadeski: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

  Kubrick gives a pretty good discussion of strategic deterrence here.  His discussion is quite relevant for the circumstances the US has found itself in.  You see, nearly any prospective parties to a 3rd American Revolution are in a MAD scenario, but in general they just don't recognize it.  Let's start with the most obvious and work our way down.    First, the US still has tons of nuclear weapons.  More than enough to produce MAD effects.  Not only that, they're a lot less constrained by codes and safeguards than most of us would like to believe.  You see, one of the things that analysts really worried a lot about back in the Cold War days was that the adversary would interfere with the delivery of same from the President.  Accordingly, a lot of the US arsenal, and probably most other nation's arsenals as well, don't require codes to detonate properly in a ground burst (i.e., on impact).  Ground bursts aren't as efficient at killing in the immediate term, but they generate tons more fallout and lasting devastation.  That design decision strongly deters the adversary from any attempt to 'intercept the football'.  Would one or both sides go nuclear?  If they perceived the threat to them was existential, I bet they would in a heartbeat.   Second, our infrastructure is much, much more vulnerable than it was back during the Cold War, especially our power grid and transportation system.  Lots of it is falling apart right before our eyes without any active enemy action at all.  Worse, we've gone way backwards in terms of civil defense, stockpiles, and ability to locally manufacture replacements for the most likely targets.  Not only that, we've got much lower social cohesion making the US government even worse at triage than it would have been back in the day.  Two percent is probably an overestimate of the fraction of the population that would be required to trigger MAD this way---hell, the Mormons could probably do it with ease.   The survival of 80-90% of our population is absolutely dependent on the maintenance of our infrastructure, especially our power grid.  My gut tells me all of the prospective sides of this conflict which looks increasingly inevitable grossly underestimate the ramifications of same.  My advice to readers is consider carefully your plans B and C.  I've no illusions that I might cause an outbreak of sanity.  Neither the Cathedral nor its opponents are likely to go gently into the night.  More likely they'll channel 'The Wrath of Khan'.