Iranian Nuclear War

After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war in the Pacific, many assumed that such armaments were too horrible to use again. There seemed to be a general taboo on their further military use. From a strategic perspective, nuclear weapons were seen primarily as instruments of deterrence rather than war-fighting.

American decision-makers, however, have long held a weak psychological firewall separating nuclear from conventional weapons. Nuclear weapons are part of a continuum of violence. Strong conventional military actions–Korea or Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan–may seem more conflictual than low-level nuclear strikes. Tactical  nuclear weapons have been a standard military option in strategic doctrine since the late 1950’s.

Attacks on Iranian nuclear targets may further attenuate the distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons. Western leaders now talk of using bunker busting bombs against Iran’s hardened underground nuclear sites. The targets by themselves ensure that the strikes will have a nuclear element. In addition, the munitions may have depleted uranium or other nuclear components. If this is the case, and they come into contact with Iranian nuclear energy facilities, the war may be nuclear at both ends.

The weakness of the nuclear taboo suggests that there will be little public outcry, at least in the West, about the nuclear dimension of the conflict.  In the target zone, however, the response may be much different. Attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities will motivate counterattack ambitions in many of the people who have been attacked and those who identify with them. Mirroring the initial attacks, counter-attack rhetoric can also include a nuclear component. All of this will further erode the nuclear taboo for future generations, with dangerous human and environmental consequences.


US Prepare to Fight Two Wars at the Same Time? No Magic Number

Should the United States be ready to fight two wars at the same time?

A lot depends on how one defines “fight”, “two wars”, and “at the same time”.

During its early history, the United States, according to many definitions of these terms, did not fight as many as two wars at the same time. During the 20th century, according to other definitions, the United States did not fight as few as two wars at the same time. I doubt that it was ever historically necessary for the United States to be able to fight exactly as many or as few as two wars at the same time. Based on past performance, this metric does not appear to be particularly useful as a guide to present or future policy over changing conditions.

A more useful maxim, derived from classical international relations theory, is that the United States should have the capabilities to defend its vital national interests. One of its vital national interests, as President Eisenhower emphasized, is to maintain a healthy economy. While national security is important, so also is the security of national citizens.
American military capabilities should change, as American interests and the nature of international threats and violence also change. It always has been and always will be necessary for the United States to be able to fight as many or as few wars as may be crucial to American vital national interests.

There is no magic number.

See also The Morningside Post November 2, 2012


Growing the Past: Archaeology and History

When the Maldives sink beneath the ocean floor, as a result of climate change, they will become a lost civilization. Over time their remains will decay and disappear, gradually becoming lost to the remaining civilizations above water. Over time, the curve of this decay function will intersect with a historical recovery function. Underwater civilizations decay over time, but, eventually, there is an interest in recovering their remains. Over time the present becomes the past and is lost. But then, the past again becomes the present and its remains grow.

Over the last several centuries, there has been an exponential explosion of artifacts from the past. Not only have there been more and more discoveries; they have been more and more productive in terms of the artifact yield.

How should we account for this process? On the one hand, there is simple path dependence. One discovery leads to another. Each set of historical treasures yields new clues, leading to the next find. At the same time, new technology allows archaeologists to find new assets and milk them more efficiently.

The pile of artifacts from the past has been growing before our eyes. These artifacts are the concrete physical remnants of prior civilizations. They embody a profound historical facticity that is a material foundation of historical knowledge.

The artifacts are elemental pieces in the puzzle of ancient societies. Archaeologists fit tiny physical fragments into larger mosaics. The mosaics become the floors of ancient apartments. The apartments become terraced houses. The houses cluster with other structures in ancient cities.

On this complex foundation are extrapolated the patterns of long past societies. Their politics, economics, social organization, culture, science and technology are teased partly from the clues that these and other artifacts provide.

The artifacts not only answer old questions and provide clues for further exploration and interpretation. They also raise new questions.

The population explosion of artifacts obviously enriches our historical understanding. Many known sites remain to be excavated. New sites remain to be discovered. Each new treasure presents new clues and whets appetites for more. Though deep water presents severe obstacles to exploration, land ultimately covers its treasures more densely and opaquely than the sea. The ocean is more transparent than land and promises ultimately to yield a greater percentage of its treasures.

At the same time, there remain limits to growth. Obviously the population of archaeologists and their budgets are not unlimited. They must compete with other social projects for scarce resources. Though there is still plenty of room for continuing growth in archaeology for a long time, at some point, the exponential increase of archaeological discoveries will level off and decline. The ultimate constraint, the final boundary of archaeology, remains the total treasure of history itself.

Assuming total transparency, what will we know if and when all the sites have been found and excavated? Of course, we will have a much more complete record of the material bases of historical society. At this hypothetical endpoint, all the pieces of the historiical jigsaw puzzle will be available to us.

These pieces are valuable in their own right, simply as remnants of the lost past. Yet they are far from being all the pieces to fill out the complete picture of the puzzle. They provide partial clues to obscure patterns of larger relations within and between local societies and the wider world. The small but growing population of artifacts helps us a bit to decipher the much larger puzzle of meaning–where we came from, who we are, and where we are going.