An Interview with Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi

How did you get interested in Herman Kahn?

I was taking a graduate seminar in cold war history. Up until that point I had never studied military strategy. One day I was in a used bookstore and came upon Kahn’s book, On Thermonuclear War, which was published in 1960. I opened it up and saw a table of crisis scenarios that put Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia next to a mythical battle of King Arthur. I flipped to another page and read the phrase, “Ersatz experience is a better guide to the future than the real past and present.” A third of the book was titled “World Wars I through VIII,” which was divided up into sections called “The Real Past,” “The Hypothetical Past,” “the Present and the Future.” This author, a nuclear strategist, looked like he was zooming pretty freely between history, literature, and very far out possibilities, something he called “improbable but not impossible scenarios.” So the first thing that snagged my attention was the science fictional quality of something I had expected to be dry and unimaginative.

The second surprise was that as I started to read a couple of pages, I had terrible trouble following the argument. Kahn would start to demonstrate something, veer off onto another topic, qualify this second idea, then, to my amazement, flip it over and contradict what he had just written, and then immediately take off into another idea altogether, leaving behind a trail of unfinished thoughts. The book was so disorganized, so digressive and speculative that I felt I was reading something other than, or more than nuclear strategy. There was something dizzying about its blurred string of ideas.When I finally read it straight through I simply could not have told you what Kahn’s basic argument amounted to. There were so many contradictions, so many reversals, multiples and variations of ideas that it was hard for me to know what to make of it. The strongest impression I had was that here was a kind of nuclear Shaharazade. If you recall, the narrative frame for the 1001 Nights Tales is that every evening Shaharazade tells a story to the King, who plans to execute her the next morning. To forestall her death, she tells such intricate tales, stories within stories, that the resolution of each plot is perpetually suspended in yet another digression. There was something close to that kind of anxious deferral in Kahn’s book that intrigued me. So right from the start, I thought of Kahn’s book, On Thermonuclear War, not as an update of Clauswitz’s On War, but as a series of nested folktales about the life and death of America during the cold war. Certainly Kahn’s heroes enjoyed all of the usual folktale powers of cunning, daring, resourcefulness and good luck.

So you’re saying that you considered Kahn’s ideas about nuclear war to be mere ideology, and not valid arguments at all?

Not at all. Kahn’s ideas were and are recognizable as arguments about nuclear deterrence and strategy, but what interested me was that there was so much more going on in his book, so much that was strange to me and rather grotesque. Had it been more conventionally done, I wouldn’t have stopped short and goggled.What really snagged my attention was the intensity of the psychic energy coursing through his book. Here was a man who insisted, repeatedly and loudly, that America must pay attention to the prospect of having to fight, survive, and reconstruct from a nuclear war. He was going to extraordinary lengths to make the reader stop and pay attention. He is more or less jumping up and down and waving his arms. Hey everybody! Pay attention! The survival of the United States hangs on this! But even as he expressed the most intense desire to direct America’s attention to the greatest horror, to sneak up to the topic, to make it visible, to talk about it, turn it over and examine it this way and that, he recoiled into a kind of conceptual stutter, into science fiction scenarios, discussions of methodology, jokes about the difficulties of designing models of hypothetical future events. In other words, he’s doing two things at once: claiming that scientific coolness and objectivity let him approach a terrifying subject, but also skittering away into a labyrinth of digression, variations, conditions, confessions about the skimpiness of his data, and reversals of things he’s just said.Here was the anxious spectacle of a man who loudly insists on “thinking about the unthinkable,” but whose performance of this thinking shows how truly unthinkable nuclear war really is. For Kahn, thinking about the unthinkable invariably meant thinking about something more tolerable. Of course, Kahn himself would not have agreed with this description, but the compulsive doubleness, — sneaking up to and dodging away from the topic — intrigued me.

Let’s talk about the idea of the grotesque. In several places in your book, you call Kahn a grotesque. Could you explain what you mean by this and why the idea is so central to your understanding of Kahn and the cold war?

The notion of the grotesque bundles together a range of ideas into a useful shorthand. It can describe formal qualities, psychological experiences, and social conventions. In each of these areas, there is something in Herman Kahn or the book he wrote that I find grotesque, and for that reason, interesting to think about. There are two instances of the formal grotesque that help me think about Kahn. The first comes from a certain type of ornamentation, which comes and goes throughout the centuries. Think of a decorative object like a snuffbox, hair comb, ladies’ fan, or the climbing vines on wallpaper. Maybe you have seen scrollwork in which vines have human faces, or parts of plants become animal limbs, and the top of a head of a creature becomes a vine or the bloom of a flower. The grotesque here describes the dissolution of species boundaries, in which a plant, an animal, human, demon or angel merge and metamorphose into one another. The scandal and pleasure of the grotesque is the idea that immutable boundaries segregating the plant, animal, human, and divine worlds have been violated promiscuously. Insofar as Kahn’s book mixes myths, history, future speculations, it is a grotesque hodge-podge of unlike things. The idea of grotesque mixing is also discussed in rhetoric where different streams of discourse that should be kept apart are jumbled together. For example, a theological sermon urging greater efforts towards piety that veered off into a couple of raunchy dirty jokes would be an example of grotesque promiscuity, the mixing of high and low discourses. Kahn’s prose was grotesque in just this way. He would interrupt the stream of his arguments to crack a couple of jokes, often jokes about nuclear war. Putting jokes together with details about nuclear war preparation, millions of dead, and the austerities of post-war survival is a perfect example of grotesque mixing. Another kind of formal grotesque that helps me think about Herman Kahn are instances where a painting is wreathed in overly exuberant ornamentation. Just think of a highly decorated portrait in a medallion. The portrait should be the subject of the painting. But what would happen if the ornamentation took up so much space and was so visually arresting that your attention wanders away from its center out to the fantastical figures twining the margins and the borders? In this kind of grotesque, the exuberance of decoration at the margins overwhelms the focal point of a work. I experienced that kind of distraction when I first read Kahn’s book. I was so often and so repeatedly beguiled by his digressions, nests of scenario variations, and parenthetical remarks that I would lose the thread of his argument. This is one of the reasons why I began to wonder what the book was really about, its focal point was so often swamped with these digressive threads. There’s also a notion of the grotesque that throws light on Kahn’s audience reactions to his arguments and public persona. There’s a psychological and cultural notion of the grotesque having to do with comedy about torture or death. Grotesque humor is an inseparable mixture of anxiety and laughter in the face of horror. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Herman Kahn is the fact that he would pepper his public lectures with sick jokes about nuclear war. While he thought it helped his audience to relax and face a difficult subject, his audiences had mixed reactions to his performances. Some were buoyed up by them, some were puzzled, some were offended, and some became frightened of Kahn himself, and thought he was a mad scientist.

Is that why Kahn was called “the real Dr. Strangelove” in the 1960s? Did he have anything to do with Stanley Kubrick’s movie? Did he help write the screen play?

While Kubrick did not base the character of Dr. Strangelove on Kahn, the spirit of the movie was certainly influenced by his ideas and his jokes. Kubrick had originally planned to make a serious film about nuclear war with a working title borrowed from a paper written by one of Kahn’s colleagues at RAND. It was going to be called “The Delicate Balance of Terror.” Kubrick had consulted with the strategist Thomas Schelling on the premise of an accidental, but irrevocable allout nuclear war. While he was writing the screenplay, he met with a number of other prominent nuclear strategists. He eventually struck up a friendly acquaintanceship with Kahn. Kubrick must have been impressed with Kahn’s nuclear jokes, because the screenplay gradually migrated genres from thriller to satire. Although I don’t have direct proof that Kahn was the impetus of this shift, I have no doubt that Kahn’s jokes and general approach to nuclear war would have intrigued Kubrick. They even talked about nuclear humor in the same way. For example, Kahn used to say, “One does not do research in a cathedral,” meaning that it was better not to be frightened of speaking plainly about nuclear war. He’d also say, “One wishes to relieve the grimness of the subject matter. People in a state of horror are not good analysts or detached and objective listeners.” Kubrick expressed the same idea. He told reporters when the movie was released, “Why should the bomb be approached with reverence? Reverence can be a paralyzing state of mind.” Kubrick not only borrowed conceptual ideas from Kahn such as “the doomsday machine” and the “mineshaft gap,” he actually used direct quotes from On Thermonuclear War in the Strangelove screenplay.

Why is nuclear war so hard to think about?

Here’s the problem with nuclear war, for Kahn in 1960, and for us today. You can’t answer the question pointblank, is nuclear war survivable, because the answer depends on the variables of any scenario of war. How many weapons are used? What is the magnitude of the bombs? What are the atmospheric conditions? What kinds of targets are hit? Cities? Nuclear power plants or weapons caches? Military bases in the suburbs of a city or in the countryside? And most importantly of all, what are your models of weapons effects? Unlike even very large conventional explosives, nuclear weapons have cascades of weapons effects that can only be modeled once you have made a whole series of assumptions about how the war is fought and terminated. Whether you are thinking of an allout campaign with multiple targets and redundant targeting, or a single strike against a single target, or an escalating series of retaliatory strikes will shape your notion of survivability. You also have to make assumptions about what kinds of protection, shielding, and decontamination technologies are available for human beings, agriculture, the environment, and the industrial base in order to make predictions about survivability and post-war reconstruction. The whole thing is approached with models, simulations, scenarios, and fuzzy extrapolations from natural disasters, allout conventional wars, data from weapons tests, and the two experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both of which were strikes with atomic bombs, weapons thousands of times weaker than thermonuclear warheads.

But scientists understand the physics involved. I thought a great deal about thermonuclear weapons is non-controversial and well-understood.

The question of whether or not nuclear weapons can and should be used as an actual weapon of war does not rest simply on the physics. In order to talk about weapons use, you have to build a complex architecture of assumptions: about the scenario of war, conditions that will contain or exacerbate the diffusion of fallout, fire, electro-magnetic pulse, and other immediate weapons effects. You have to make assumptions about society’s response to nuclear use, about the possibility of retaliation, about the world community’s response to nuclear use, about domestic response. All of the critical points in the scenario – biomedical, operational, strategic, diplomatic, political, social, ecological – rest on assumptions that have to be stated, argued for, and justified. These are not matter of fact affairs, but political and scientific constructs.

As we have seen in the Iraq war, assumptions that go into operational planning for war can be completely wrong. These assumptions are always based on a particular political and social world-view, these assumptions are always, and inescapably contestable interpretations of any particular scenario. The scenario going into nuclear war planning is the hardest one of all, since in order to talk about levels of radiation, and the possibilities for post-war reconstruction on the one hand, or global annihilation on the other, you have to sketch out a war all the way to its termination. One side does this, the other side does that. It’s very hard to work out the dimensions of such a war concretely, — the uncertainties are daunting and exhaustive. The numbers of dead could run into hundreds of millions, radioactivity could poison regions of the earth for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The variables and uncertainties make the task of modeling a scenario hard to do, completely speculative, horrifying and depressing. Most people, naturally enough, would rather think about a problem that is easier to approach and easier to solve, and doesn’t rely so much on guesses and untestable hypotheses.

The other problem, and one just as hard for the public to address is the fact that the explosive power of a nuclear warhead means it is a genocidal device. A single 30-megaton nuclear bomb dropped on a city could kill 3 or 4 million people at a minimum. Americans have a hard time talking about the political and social cost of enemy dead resulting from its military actions. In the Iraq war of 2003 to about 2006, for example, the US military refused to tally the Iraqi dead and wounded. Herman Kahn used to ask his audience: how many millions of Russians and Europeans do you think it is socially acceptable to kill in order to fight Communism? 40 million? 100 million? This was a bold thing to do. People just don’t want to be drawn into a discussion in which American society is responsible for killing hundreds of thousands, or millions of people in a single action. They don’t want to talk about the numbers of enemy dead at all. And while it’s certain that thousands or millions of people would die from a nuclear strike, even a limited one, the range of casualties depends, like every other consideration, on the assumptions going into the scenario of such a war.

Are the problems modeling nuclear war connected to your subtitle, “the intuitive science of thermonuclear war”? But isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

Yes and no. A nuclear war has never been fought before. Therefore any discussion of its dimension and magnitude will depend on assumptions, extrapolations, and speculative scenarios. The source of my term, “intuitive science,” is a bit of physics jargon that describes approximate models that can’t be tested empirically. When the physicist John von Neumann was exploring a complicated meteorological phenomenon with the aid of an “electro-mechanical calculator” in the early 1940s, he described his model as an informed guess. He wrote, “We have to be guided almost entirely by physical intuition … It is therefore impossible to be very specific about any point. And it is difficult to say about any solution which has been derived, with any degree of assurance, that it is the one which must exist in nature.” The physicists and systems analysts at the RAND Corporation working on nuclear war strategy adopted this phrase to characterize the provisional nature of their models. They all wrote something along the lines of the following statements, both of which are excerpts from RAND papers, “[The analyst] must … construct a model as best he can, where both the structure of the model and its numerical inputs may be based merely on intuitive insight and limited practical experience.” “In these analyses we have to do some things that we think are right but that are not verifiable, that we cannot really justify, and that are never checked in the output of the work.” Ultimately, and this is the key point, even though the most frightening dimension of nuclear weapons – radiation and other weapons effects – look like scientific matters, anything having to do with planning to use nuclear weapons can not be a matter of fact decided by experts. Whether or not humankind could survive a nuclear war could only be resolved with references to a set of beliefs about the social and natural world, none of which can be tested, and none of which enjoys universal consent. Since any discussion of nuclear war is embedded in a nest of speculations, it is only proper to ask, “But do we live in the scenario-designer’s reality? Do we agree this is how the world and nature and society operates?” This is not a problem belonging to the expertise of physicists, but a question for everybody.

Your book seems to wander off into topics that do not obviously belong to the nuclear strategy, things such as comic books, sick jokes and Mad magazine, tranquilizer use in the mid-1950s, Billy Graham’s crusade in New York City in 1957. Why did you feel the need to stray so far afield in order to tell your story?

While most people read nuclear strategy as the most cold-blooded of military, legal, and policy topics, it looms for me as a tableau or an ikonostasis for epic longings, fetishes, restorations, ritualized hopes and forgettings. Unlike many historians of nuclear war planning, I pay attention to the moods, anxieties and fantasies that leave traces in what looks like socially neutral models. Like every other composed artifact of a culture, the models and simulations produced by Kahn and his colleagues at the RAND Corporation in the 1950s are imbued with marks of the public emotions and preoccupations of that historical moment. So when I read technical reports and papers, I’m as sensitive to mood as I am to topical content. And, naturally enough, I want to trace these marks of mood and obsession to other tendencies in the society. More generally, because of its speculative content, I regard any discussion of nuclear war as a theater of enthrallment, horror and self-fashioning. It is a genuine science fiction, and like the literature of science fiction, deterrence and strategic arguments implicitly invoke a speculative world. That is why I regard Herman Kahn as a storyteller. In fact, that’s how I introduce him in the book. In the first paragraph of Chapter One, I wrote,

“This is a book about a buoyant man, a storyteller and visionary of the thermonuclear era. He masked his stories in the bloodless dialect of probabilistic risk assessment, but they were stories nonetheless. … Herman Kahn was especially good at imagining survival against unbearable odds, and telling stories that detailed the life or death of the nation. The hero of these tales was not a warrior but the ultra-modern lion of advanced industrial culture, the civilian defense intellectual. The eggheads at RAND, and this artless, sweaty man in particular, did not set out to conquer a world but to save the future with stories cocooned in numbers, stories of cunning and foresight and daring, of fortuitous invention, and the resurrection of spring.” (Page 10)

When you stop and think about the content of Kahn’s scenarios, they read like science fiction. He’s got a parallel America built underground, he’s got marvelous tools like Doomsday machines, anti-radiation pills, miraculous weather, lucky heroes, sneaky villains. While he occasionally allowed himself to speak and write sensationally about his ideas, especially when delivering one of his jokes, he usually expressed himself in dry abstractions. The trick is to put on X-ray glasses and see through the jargon of systems analysis to the speculative world sketched out by his scenarios. This is where we can find the fantastic stories of World Wars III through World War VIII, and the science fictions that promise survival and reconstruction from an all-out nuclear war.

Your book discusses events in the 1950s and ends in 1961. Don’t we know more about the dangers of nuclear weapons today and the limits of models and simulations? What relevance does your discussion of Herman Kahn have for readers today?

In 1961, a reviewer of Herman Kahn’s book was struck by its pose of hard-headed realism. Kahn had written grimly, “We did not choose this world; we just live in it.” While no one could argue with the sentiment in the abstract, the reviewer challenged Kahn’s description of the immediacy of the Soviet threat. “But do we live in Kahn’s world?” he asked his readers, and concluded that what Kahn had written was propaganda, not a scientific study of nuclear survival, so much did he bias his data towards his conclusions. I think readers of my book will instinctively understand the question, — But do I agree with his picture of the world? Is his description of the world accurate and reliable? — given the Bush administration’s exaggerations about the imminent threat to national security posed by Saddam Hussein’s WMDs. The President has sought to reactivate America’s nuclear weapons production complex. He is seeking Congressional approval for plans to design new generations of nuclear weapons, including “bunker buster” gravity bombs. So we’re back into a political and cultural moment where the President is actively promoting the idea that nuclear weapons are instruments not merely of deterrence and threat, but actual weapons of war. Once we’re talking about nuclear combat, we’ve entered into this network of supposition, assumption, and belief. I hope the experience of reading my book will teach people how to see through policy jargon into the web of assumptions behind it. By working through my discussions of the moods, fantasies, uncertainties, and beliefs that go into hypothetical scenarios and models for nuclear war, readers will be far more likely to ask the question: “But do we live in this world? Does this scenario match the world that I know? Do I share the beliefs underlying this promise of safety and survival?” And the reader will understand far more sensitively that the answer will rest on a tissue of cultural and political assumptions rather than expertly validated facts.