Tag: <span>Nukes</span>

The 8 Books I Finished in April

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  1. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by: Eric Schlosser
  2. Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less by: Alex Epstein
  3. The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion by: Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing 
  4. Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment by: Yanis Varoufakis 
  5. Apollo: The Race to the Moon by: Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox
  6. Ender’s Game (The Ender Saga, 1) by: Orson Scott Card
  7. The Dungeon Anarchist’s Cookbook: Dungeon Crawler Carl Book 3 by: Matt Dinniman
  8. Faith, Hope and Carnage by: Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan

April continued to be crazy busy with my business. I’ve hired some people, but in between the time it takes to manage them and the steady increase in the number of clients, thus far adding capacity has not reduced my workload. But I’m optimistic that eventually it will

Also I had a weird medical problem. This may be a case of TMI, but the whole thing was interesting. 

Both of my big toes have been tender and occasionally painful for several months. The problem didn’t seem to be getting worse, but it didn’t seem to be getting any better either. Also I eventually concluded that the nails of both had stopped growing, so I figured I’d better see a podiatrist. I expected him to prescribe some kind of cream, or for him to be mystified (as doctors frequently are.)  Instead, he knew exactly what was going on and determined that at some point I had traumatized my two big toes enough that my body had decided that the nails were no longer viable. I couldn’t remember any taxing toe trauma and told him that. He said he often saw severe shock among skiers because of the squeeze — of the boots. I had been skiing once this winter, but I thought the toenail truncation started thereafter.

In any case, because of the trauma my body had decided to give up on the old nail and switch to a new nail, but since the old nails were still there there was a good chance that the new nails would get blocked. If this happened then the body would start trying to grow a third nail, which would almost certainly also get blocked and at some point things get really backed up. The solution was to just yank out both of the old nails. 

This solution was way more dramatic and potentially painful than I expected. My immediate response was to squeak out “Right now?” I honestly didn’t feel psychically prepared — it’s not like the nails were loose or anything. Fortunately, except for a brief moment of discomfort, the removal was painless. The shots to achieve that condition were another thing entirely…

It’s interesting that the initial injury was so mild I can’t even remember it, but the resolution was dramatic enough that I’ll never forget it. Recovery hasn’t been too bad. Though occasionally a wave of pain will emanate from the top of the toe, and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to what sets things off.

One final update: I’m 90% sure I’m going to move to Substack in May. A few things pushed me over the edge: 

  1. The referral feature is nice. I have some fans who are also Substack writers and it will be easier for them to recommend me. 
  2. I like the idea of Notes. I think that might be more my style than the Hobbesian world of Twitter. 
  3. Finally the Substack team can apparently port over my entire domain, so links to old posts will continue to work. This is a MAJOR deal. 

I mention all this, so that if at some point in May you can’t get to my site, you’ll know why.


I- Eschatological Review

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

by: Eric Schlosser

Published: 2013

656 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The development and integration of nuclear weapons into the military structure, Cold War deterrence strategy, and the numerous accidents involving nukes, many of which avoided being an accidental detonation only by luck.

What’s the author’s angle?

Schlosser is an investigative journalist, so he’s after the juicy stories. I’m not saying he juiced this particular story up, but keep in mind that he has very little incentive to moderate the juiciness.

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, there’s a sense in which this is a sequel to that. More generally, anyone interested in nukes should read the book.

General Thoughts

This was a great book. It uses the common non-fiction structure of using a single incident to provide narrative momentum. Schlosser then builds off that incident into a larger examination of the general subject and its history. 

The momentum comes from the story of the Damascus Accident. In 1980, a two-man crew was servicing a Titan II missile. In order to do that they needed to use a very large socket. Unfortunately they subsequently dropped that socket. It slipped through a narrow gap, and dropped 80 feet where it ricocheted off the thrust mount and into the side of the missile. This punctured the fuel tank and the missile began spraying fuel into the silo. (Here’s a link to a YouTube video with a recreation of the accident.) The book recounts all of the events that followed, events which eventually culminated in the silo exploding and the nuclear warhead being ejected. Fortunately it did not detonate or break apart. In fact it only traveled a short distance. Nevertheless it was still an enormous disaster. Twenty-one people were injured and one person died.

On top of this story of disaster experienced and apocalypse avoided, Schlosser lays out the history of nuclear weapons and how they were handled politically and militarily. As you might imagine, he spends a lot of time talking about the Strategic Air Command (SAC).

In all this history I found the immediate post-war period to be the most interesting. I obviously can’t cover everything, but here are two facts to whet your appetite:

President Truman’s [vow to contain Soviet power was tough words [his vow to contain Soviet Power was] not backed, however, by a military strategy that could defend Western Europe. During the early months of 1947, as Truman formulated his anti-Communist doctrine, the Pentagon did not have a war plan for fighting the Soviet Union. And the rapid demobilization of the American military seemed to have given the Soviets a tremendous advantage on the ground. The U.S. Army had only one division stationed in Germany, along with ten police regiments, for a total of perhaps 100,000 troops. The British army had one division there, as well. According to U.S. intelligence reports, the Soviet army had about one hundred divisions, with about 1.2 million troops, capable of invading Western Europe—and could mobilize more than 150 additional divisions within a month.

I grew up at the end of the Cold War, and I often heard that NATO was outmatched conventionally. Still, I always imagined that the disparity wasn’t that great. And by the end of the Cold War it probably wasn’t, but I never realized that the disparity started out at 100 to 1! When that’s the starting point it’s going to take a long time to reverse, and the impression of being outgunned will probably last long after the actual situation starts changing.

Given this disparity, it is only natural that Truman would turn to nuclear weapons as a deterrent. The problem was that no one, not even the president, knew how many nuclear weapons the US had. 

In April 1947, David Lilienthal visited Los Alamos for the first time after becoming head of the Atomic Energy Commission. He was shocked by what he saw: rudimentary equipment; dilapidated buildings; poor housing; muddy, unpaved roads—and plutonium cores stored in cages at an old icehouse… Nuclear weapons were now thought indispensable for the defense of the United States; Lilienthal had expected to find them neatly and safely stored for immediate use. “The substantial stockpile of atom bombs we and the top military assumed was there, in readiness, did not exist,” Lilienthal subsequently wrote. “Furthermore, the production facilities that might enable us to produce quantities of atomic weapons … likewise did not exist.”The number of atomic bombs in the American arsenal was considered so secret that it could not be shared with the Joint Chiefs of Staff—or even recorded on paper. After visiting Los Alamos, Lilienthal met with President Truman in the Oval Office and told him how many atomic bombs would be available in the event of a war with the Soviet Union: at most, one. The bomb was unassembled but, in Lilienthal’s view, “probably operable.” The president was stunned. He’d just announced the Truman Doctrine before Congress, vowing to contain the worldwide spread of communism. Admirals and generals were fighting over the atomic stockpile, completely unaware that there wasn’t one. “We not only didn’t have a pile,” Lilienthal recalled, “we didn’t have a stock.” The threat to destroy the Soviet Union, if it invaded Western Europe, was a bluff.

You can imagine my reaction to this. After reading the first quote, I was surprised that the USSR hadn’t invaded Western Europe. One imagines that had they been aware of the information in the second quote, they certainly would have. 

As everyone knows, the number didn’t stay at one for very long, and in our haste to assemble an actual stockpile, safety was often a secondary concern. These efforts were further stymied by the state of readiness SAC insisted on. Bombers had to be prepared to take to the air with nukes at a moment’s notice, and they frequently flew training missions with actual nukes as well. Unfortunately, planes sometimes have accidents, and if you insist on loading actual nukes onto those planes they’re going to get into accidents as well. Accidents like a fire which might set off the detonators, and trigger a full or partial nuclear explosion.

It would be unfair to say that SAC completely ignored the problem of safety, but they strongly resisted numerous proposed enhancements because they worried it would make the weapons less reliable. When you combine this with the frequent handling these weapons received, there were thousands of accidents. Most were not serious, but dozens were, and that’s a conservative estimate. Since the end of the Cold War things have gotten better, but there are a lot of nukes still out there, and they’re getting older. It’s unclear what the future holds. Speaking of which…

Eschatological Implications

For many people nothing is more viscerally eschatological than nukes. Their vision of armageddon is nothing more nor less than all-out nuclear war. Command and Control makes it clear that we came very close to mutually assured destruction several times. We came even closer to accidentally detonating one of those weapons, which might have served to trigger an all out exchange — the accident could have been mistaken for a deliberate act. The book quotes General Butler, head of SAC at the end of the Cold War. He was tasked with revising our nuclear plans.

I came to fully appreciate the truth … we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.

Regardless of how, we should surely be grateful that we did escape. But is that escape permanent? There are still thousands of nuclear weapons and just a few weeks ago the NYT reported that China is massively expanding its nuclear arsenal with a goal of becoming the third nuclear superpower. Lots of people imagine that because we survived the last 75 years with nukes that the danger is past. But it seems more likely that the danger is just beginning. Despite the dreams of pacifists and presidents, the complete elimination of nuclear weapons is as far away as ever. 

Even if we can avoid war, what about accidents? As Schlosser points out, accidents are common, and while none has resulted in an actual detonation, it seems to only be a matter of time before one does. Obviously this book was written from the standpoint of the US. What would a similar book written from the standpoint of Russia and the USSR look like? Would it be even more alarming? And is there not a second book to be written about China? One where most of the pages are yet to be filled?

We are not out of the woods. We’re not even close to the edge of the woods. By all accounts, we’re actually journeying deeper into the darkness. 


II- Non-Fiction Reviews

Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less

by: Alex Epstein

Published: 2022

480 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That the downsides of fossil fuel use are overstated and upsides are understated.

What’s the author’s angle?

I’ll get to a charitable interpretation of his “angle” below, for an uncharitable interpretation all you need to know is that he spent seven years as a fellow at the Ayn Rand institute.

Who should read this book?

If you want a steelman of the case for increasing the use of fossil fuels or if you want someone to reassure you that staying on the current course isn’t as bad as people make it out to be.

General Thoughts

In a past post on climate change I pointed out that there are several stages/questions to any discussion of climate change:

  1. Is the Earth getting hotter?
  2. Are humans causing it?
  3. Is that a bad thing?
  4. If so, how bad?

While much of the discussion remains confined to questions one and two, this is a book about levels three and four. In particular, Epstein points out that the effects of climate change will be much easier to deal with if we have lots of energy. Of course the way we get lots of energy is by burning fossil fuels, so it’s a vicious cycle, but Epstein mostly argues that the ship has sailed. Climate change is already locked in, and dealing with it, while also dealing with an extreme lack of energy is going to make things very bad.

Climate change is such a contentious issue that I am not going to attempt any kind of deep dive on his arguments. Though I would be interested in reading something from the other side of this issue. What is the gold-standard “climate change is going to be a massive disaster” book? 

Though no deep dive, I do want to nibble around the edges. At its core the debate over climate change is a debate about impact and how it should be evaluated. (This book was a big part of the inspiration for my recent post on harm.) Consider an example:

There’s a lot of talk about ocean acidification. I frequently see it brought up as an argument against geo-engineering, because even if that serves to mitigate the temperatures we will still have irreparably harmed the oceans. Epstein discusses this at some length and puts forth a lot of different counter arguments. The one I found the most interesting was the fact that historically carbon-dioxide levels have been much higher. (Nota bene: Here historically means hundreds of millions of years ago.) But during those times when the carbon-dioxide level was several times higher than it is today, the ocean had more life in it than it does today. Historically, a more “acidic” ocean was arguably more hospitable.

This does not mean that there’s no impact. Even if the ocean is more hospitable to life, that life might be significantly different than what currently lives there. Changes to the ocean may kill off numerous species that were adapted to the current ocean. This is a very large impact, and a large part of Epstein’s book is dedicated to pointing out that zero human impact is an impossible goal, but it’s precisely the goal at the heart of the environmental movement. Zero human impact equals zero humans, so this leads them, at their core, to be anti-human. This observation is both interesting and, on some level, true.

In general Epstein makes a pretty convincing case. But I think his confidence that if we just continue to use fossil fuel that we’ll definitely be better off has a couple of very large issues. I think the speed of change has been pretty slow thus far, but that need not always be the case. Things could speed up and outpace our ability to adapt even if we don’t forswear fossil fuel (though I take his point that in the absence of fossil fuel our ability to adapt is even more limited). Just because carbon-dioxide was much higher historically doesn’t mean that the transition happened as rapidly as it is now. 

More perniciously I worry about visible effects vs. invisible effects. I think we have lots of ways to mitigate the visible effects of climate change: rising temperatures and sea level, climate refugees, droughts, etc. (whether we’ll actually use them is a different story.) But I’m certain that out of all of the effects it’s going to cause, there are some we’re not going to know about until it’s too late. While we’re busy building dikes and spraying sulfur-dioxide into the upper atmosphere, other catastrophes will be brewing and we won’t realize it until they’re too late to stop. 


The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion

by: Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing 

Published: 2022

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Democracy requires free and open communication — a loose system of control. But this same system, because of its lack of control, can easily go off the rails, and be exploited. Or, as the book says, “Hence the paradox: the more open the communication we enjoy, the more endangered democracy finds itself.”

What’s the author’s angle?

Most people think that “the default state of democracy is stability, and periods of disruption are the exception.” The author’s want to demonstrate that it’s the exact opposite.

Who should read this book?

The authors demonstrate the aforementioned disruption with a survey of democratic instability throughout history, if you’re interested in such a survey you should read this book. That said, this is one that I probably shouldn’t have read. I frequently point out that my reading is far too skewed towards recent books, that I should cut some of the more recent books in favor of older books. This is a recent book that should have been cut.

General Thoughts

There are people who are surprised by the idea that democracy isn’t being subverted, that it is in fact doing the subversion. I am not one of those people. I have long known that democracy can just as easily lead to illiberalism as liberalism. I’ve been warning about it in this space for quite awhile. This is another reason why I probably should have skipped this book, it was preaching to the choir.

Though the preaching was tiresome, some of it was quite trenchant. A few quotes demonstrate this:

We’re now confronting the greatest structural challenge to democracy we’ve ever seen: a truly open society. Without gatekeepers, there are no constraints on discourse. Digital technology has changed everything. Consequently, reality is up for grabs in a way it never has been before.

Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, sensed, far better than political scientists or sociologists, that our media environment decides not just what we pay attention to but also how we think and orient ourselves in the world.

We’re confronting the true face of democracy: a totally unfettered culture of open communication. Nearly all democracies up until now have been democracies in name only; they’ve been mediated by institutions designed to check popular passions and control the flow of information. 

I would disagree that we lack gatekeepers and that there are no mediating institutions. Their power has been weakened and the culture of open communication has made their interference far more transparent, but they are still there. Nor do I expect them to go away anytime soon, but what we are seeing is a fracturing into tribes and camps. The left has their institutions. The right has theirs. And even the centrists have splintered off into their own camp. As I have repeatedly said, it’s not institutions we lack, it’s a civil religion.

To their credit the authors recognize this:

All democratic communities are held together not by a shared conception of truth but by a commonly recognized experience and a commitment to active dialogue.

We have no commonly recognized experience. No universal myths we all agree on. When you combine that with unfettered democracy, that’s when you really have a problem.


Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment

by: Yanis Varoufakis 

Published: 2017

516 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An insider’s account of the 2015 Greek Debt Crisis written by the finance minister at the time, so, not just a little bit inside, very inside. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Varoufakis is at pains to show how ridiculous the process was and how intransigent the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) was. I have no doubt that his account is largely correct, nevertheless I would dearly like to read something written from the other side.

Who should read this book?

This book portrays a very narrow slice of the modern world, but cuts deeper into that machinery than probably any book I’ve read. If you want a look at the modern world which descends into the deepest depths of the ocean, through the crust, past the mantle and into the core. This is your book.

General Thoughts

This book was by turns gripping, tragic, and, most of all, damning. But I hesitate to pronounce damnation on anyone without hearing their side of the story. The functionaries and bureaucrats in this book, from Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, through Wolfgang Schäuble, German Minister of Finance, to Varoufakis’ own allies within the Greek Government, all do some really dumb things, and I can’t help but imagine that if told from their perspective that these things wouldn’t appear quite so dumb. 

In particular, I wonder what Varoufakis would point to today to prove that he was right all along. The Greek economy does seem to be growing, albeit slightly. The debt hasn’t gone down and in fact it continues to increase, but it’s so huge compared to the Greek economy that it almost doesn’t matter. Varoufakis made a big deal about the devastation austerity wrought on the poor. The poverty rate seems to have fallen in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, but then started rising again, though it’s surprisingly difficult to find recent numbers. 

I’m inclined to take Varoufakis’ account as the truth, but that’s precisely why I want to know more because it’s a truth so amazing that I’m curious to know as much as possible. 


Apollo: The Race to the Moon

by: Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox

Published: 1989

506 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A behind-the-scenes look at the technical and engineering side of the Apollo missions: building the rocket, coming up with the idea for a lunar lander, building the Cape and Houston, etc.

What’s the author’s angle?

Murray is best known for his social science books. He wrote this one with his wife, and I think it was because the story was so amazing he couldn’t help but write it.

Who should read this book?

If you’re at all interested in the moon program or engineering, I would definitely recommend this book. It’s fantastic. 

General Thoughts

Like many great books, this one is out of print. I don’t know why because it’s fantastic. It’s not even available as an ebook to say nothing of audio. You can get a decent copy for around $40, which isn’t great, but it was totally worth it.

As far as the book itself, I never considered myself to be a deep student of the Apollo program, but I figured I knew more than most. There was obviously Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong, and of course Apollo 13. And I knew there were several missions after 13.

I was also dimly aware that there were missions before 11. I knew they had circled the moon before landing on it. But these pre-Apollo 11 missions were where my knowledge was the most lacking and this is where this book excelled. Obviously just getting to the first launch was a ridiculously difficult endeavor punctuated by the enormous tragedy of Apollo 1’s fire, which killed three astronauts.

One of my favorite of these endeavors was the launch of Apollo 4. It was an unmanned launch and the first full test of all three stages. They had the rocket together for the very first time, a million pieces from countless vendors. They would start at the top of the countdown checklist, come to something that couldn’t be checked off, stop everything, fix it, and then start over. This went on for seventeen days where people were working nearly twenty-four hours a day, but when they finally fixed all of the problems, the launch went perfectly. None of the stages had been independently tested, but it all worked. No one thinks of Apollo 4 these days, but it was a massive engineering accomplishment. 

I know one shouldn’t long for the past, as things are much better on so many fronts today. But when you read about those amazing men, the challenges they overcame, and what they were able to pull off in less than a decade, it does feel like we’ve lost something. That whatever else we might be able to do today, we couldn’t do that again.


III- Fiction Reviews

Ender’s Game (The Ender Saga, 1)

by: Orson Scott Card

Published: 1985

324 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Ender Wiggins, a child prodigy, is taken from his family and sent to Battle School to be trained as an eventual fleet commander. Meanwhile his equally prodigious siblings, Peter and Valentine, engage in their own machinations back on Earth.

Who should read this book?

I expect the vast majority of people who read this blog already have. If for some reason you haven’t, you should. This is probably my sixth or seventh time reading it.

General Thoughts

Ender’s Game was originally a short story, which is how I first encountered it. My father maintains that this is the superior version. If you’re curious to compare the two, you can find the short story version in volume 1 of Jerry Pournelle’s There Will be War series (available on Kindle for $5). My personal opinion is that each version harmonizes with its respective format. The short story is more plot-driven and focuses on the twist ending. While the novel is more character-driven and focuses on the interaction between the siblings. 

One of my readers convinced me that I had to read Children of the Mind, the fourth book of the saga, because it contained some interesting ideas about unembodied intelligences, a topic in which I’ve expressed some interest. I figured in order to do that I needed to reread books 1-3, so here we are. You should expect reviews of Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide shortly.

And yes, the book was just as good as I remembered.


The Dungeon Anarchist’s Cookbook: Dungeon Crawler Carl Book 3

by: Matt Dinniman

Published: 2021

534 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

As you may recall, this is a series where aliens show up, take possession of the Earth, kill most of its inhabitants and make the rest participate in a real life fantasy dungeon crawl computer game. The series revolves around Carl and his sentient, talking cat, Princess Donut. In this book he has to defeat level four which, much like the internet, is a series of tubes

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for mindless escapist fantasy. And you enjoyed books one and two.

General Thoughts

Of the three books I’ve read thus far, I thought book two was the strongest. I suspect I’m going to tire of Carl continually triumphing over impossible odds by being very lucky and coming up with crazy ideas. But I guess that’s what I signed up for when I started the series. My grumbling aside, this series has been a very enjoyable diversion. I plan to continue reading it and I believe I’ll start book 4 right…now!


IV- Religious Reviews

Faith, Hope and Carnage

by: Nick Cave, Seán O’Hagan 

Published: 2022

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Cave and O’Hagan had several long conversations during the COVID lockdowns which they recorded and turned into a book. It covers a lot of territory, music, God, and, of course, all the words in the title. Carnage refers to many things, but mostly to the loss of Cave’s fifteen year-old son Arthur, who accidently fell to his death in 2015. 

Who should read this book?

My wife recommended this to me after reading it with her book club. Despite all the reviewing I do, I rarely reach out to someone and say, “You should read this book.” I did with this one. This is one you should almost certainly read. (Or at least listen to the authors re-narrate their conversations.)

General Thoughts

The conversation between the Cave and O’Hagan is so wide-ranging that it would be wrong for me to try and summarize it further. I’ll just end things with one of Cave’s numerous amazing observations:

Yes, but Arthur’s death literally changed everything for me. Absolutely everything. It made me a religious person – and, Seán, when I use that word ‘religious’, you do understand the way that I am using it, right? We’ve talked about that enough for you to understand I am not talking about being a traditional Christian or something like that. I am not even talking about a belief in God, necessarily. It made me a religious person in the sense that I felt on a profound level a kind of deep inclusion in the human predicament, really, and an understanding of our vulnerability and the sense that, as individuals, we are, each of us, imperilled.


I messed with the categories a little bit this month, and it made me wonder if I should stop ending with religious reviews. They have a tendency to be heavy, which makes joking about donations more difficult. And yet I soldier on regardless of how tasteless it is. If you appreciate that brazenness, consider donating.  


Nukes and Stability

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Back when Russia first invaded Ukraine, I made the decision to not write a post about it. First off, everyone was writing about it, and it wasn’t clear that I had anything unique to say. Secondly, while I knew the invasion was going to be bad, I didn’t think it would be apocalyptic. Though I knew that if it started to head in an apocalyptic direction, I would have to write about it. That’s my whole beat. Me not writing about an apocalyptic war would be like The Bark (tagline: “Dog is my co-pilot”) not covering the Westminster Dog Show. 

Fortunately since I made that decision I have come up with an angle on things that I haven’t seen other people cover. Unfortunately the chances of the Ukrainian invasion turning into the start of World War III have also gone up. So I apologize to those of you who came here expecting a post on the drug crisis. I will be getting to that next time.

I- Why an Apocalyptic Outcome Is Becoming Increasingly Likely 

I didn’t spend any time or effort on predicting whether Putin would invade, nor did I spend any on predicting how things would go if he did invade. I certainly wasn’t surprised when it happened—expecting black and gray swans is another thing where my record is pretty clear. But beyond a lack of surprise, my opinions and reactions generally followed the conventional wisdom, which was that Russia was going to have a pretty easy time of it. Having read Kill Chain by Christian Brose, where he describes the superb effectiveness of the Russian “little green men” in the Crimean Annexation, I was, if anything, biased towards a high assessment of Russian competence. As a result, like most people, including Putin himself, I expected a relatively quick victory. That before we had time to debate arming Ukraine, or imposing a no-fly zone, things would be over. 

As horrible as this would be for the Ukrainians. If Putin was going to invade regardless, a quick victory was really the best outcome we could hope for. Low casualties, minimal economic disruption, and most of all only a very small window during which escalations could happen

Instead what we have kind of reminds me of the start of World War I. One of the first things you discover when you start studying WWI is how quick everyone thought it would be. Of course everyone was wrong and the war turned into a brutal slog which ground through 4 years and 20 million lives, 40 million if you add in the wounded. In making this comparison between Ukraine and WWI there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that there is almost no way it will last 4 years, the bad news is that’s because someone will use nukes long before it comes to that. 

The longer it takes for Russia to conquer Ukraine, the more likely it will end up being the start of World War III. This is because there will be more opportunities for it to escalate, more opportunities for mistakes to happen, and more opportunity for passions to become inflamed. And of course we’re not just talking about passions on the Russian side of things, passions in the West are being inflamed as well. Increasingly the public is agitating for the establishment of a no-fly zone. Of course the biggest advocates for a no fly zone are the Ukrainians, but the Estonians have also recently called for one as well. Initially all sober-minded people declared a no-fly zone to be a horrible idea, but my central point is that the longer things go, the less sober-minded people become, and we’re already seeing that trend play out as people look for ways to eat their cake and have it. We have gone from everyone recognizing that a no-fly zone is a horrible idea to the idea that we could impose a limited no-fly zone, and this is not just uninformed members of the public, recently 27 experts signing a letter urging just that. These are generals, senior fellows and ambassadors.

In other worrisome news I just saw a poll from Pew Research where 35% of people were in favor of taking military action even if it risks war with Russia. That still leaves 62% who were not in favor (3% did not answer) but if the Russians stay the course and grind their way into a bloody occupation of Kiev, do you think the number of people in favor will go down or up? I’m betting the longer it goes the more bellicose people will become, and damn the consequences.

Obviously this worry about escalation is not unique to me, and of all the takes I’ve read I thought Ross Douthat’s was the best. In particular I like the way he structured things, so I’m just going to steal it:

II- Drawing Clear Lines (Plus NATO Expansion)

Clear commitments — we will fight here, we won’t fight there — are the coin of the nuclear realm, since the goal is to give the enemy the responsibility for escalation, to make it feel its apocalyptic weight, while also feeling that it can always choose another path. Whereas unpredictable escalations and maximalist objectives, often useful in conventional warfare, are the enemy of nuclear peace, insofar as they threaten the enemy with the no-win scenario that Petrov almost found himself in that day in 1983.

These insights have several implications for our strategy right now. First, they suggest that even if you believe the United States should have extended security guarantees to Ukraine before the Russian invasion, now that war is begun we must stick by the lines we drew in advance. That means yes to defending any NATO ally, yes to supporting Ukraine with sanctions and weaponry, and absolutely no to a no-fly zone or any measure that might obligate us to fire the first shot against the Russians.

He covers a lot of territory in these paragraphs. For those who are curious Petrov was the Soviet officer in charge of the early warning system one night in 1983 when it showed 5 inbound American ICBMs. Petrov decided to wait for corroborating evidence rather than sound the alarm. He was a hero and more than that a good man, and a lot of the scenarios people are discussing assume that nearly all men are that good. Which I’m not sure is the case. But we’ll get to that.

Douthat also brings up the difference between conventional war and nuclear peace. While I see WWI in much of what’s happening I think many people have defaulted to using WWII as an analogy. A European bad guy with nationalist ambitions starts his aggressions by claiming that some territory is legitimately part of his country, and he is just uniting a group of people who should never have been separated. The first time this happened we appeased the guy which was a horrible mistake, so we should never do it again. In addition to this lesson of “never appease the bad guy”, WWII taught us that the way to beat bad guys is through uniting the entire world in opposition. And this was a great plan in 1941. The Allies won because Germany could never keep up with the industrial might of the United States. Most people forget the millions and millions of Russians who died as part of this process. But regardless, this was true in 1941. It is not true today. It doesn’t matter how much greater our industrial might is, we can still lose, that doesn’t mean Russia wins, it means we both lose. 

Douthat goes on to make the critical recommendation that we have to stick to “the lines we drew in advance”. He’s not the only one making this point, Scott Alexander also mentions it in his post on Ukraine. He starts with the point I’ve already harped on:

If you only get one thing from this essay, let it be: unless you know something I don’t, establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine might be the worst decision in history. It would be a good way to get everyone in the world killed.

I’ve already written a post on how it won’t kill everyone, but it would be very, very bad. Alexander moves on from this to discussing the lines, the international norms that keep nuclear war from breaking out:

…those arbitrary lines are what save us from global annihilation.

Any sane person wants to avoid nuclear war. But this makes it easy to exploit sane people. If Russia said “Please give us the Aleutian Islands, or we will nuke you”, what should the US do? They can threaten mutually assured destruction, but if Russia says “Yes, we have received your threat, we stick to our demand, give us the Aleutians or the nukes start flying”, then what?

No sane person thinks it’s worth risking nuclear war just to protect something as minor as the Aleutian Islands. But then the US gives Russia the Aleutians, and next year they ask for all of Alaska. And even Alaska isn’t really worth risking nuclear war over, so you give it to them, and then the next year…

So people who don’t want to be exploited occasionally set lines in the sand, where they refuse to make trivial concessions even to prevent global apocalypse. This is good, insofar as it prevents them from being exploited, but bad, insofar as sometimes it causes global apocalypse. So far the solution everyone has settled on are lots of very finicky rules about which lines you’re allowed to draw and which ones you aren’t…

If there was ever a point at which two nuclear powers disagreed about who was in the wrong, one of them could threaten nuclear war to get that wrong redressed, the other could say they had drawn a line in the sand there to prevent being exploited, and then they’d have to either back down (difficult, humiliating) or start a nuclear war (unpleasant, fatal). So there are a lot of diplomats who have put a lot of effort into establishing international norms on which things are wrong and which things aren’t, so that nobody crosses anyone else’s lines by accident.

I think this is the way to understand the whole NATO expansion idea. We’re so focused on our own side, that we imagine it’s us who’s drawing the lines, but Russia can also draw lines. NATO expansion was their line, and they are also worried about a cascade of exploitation. Now what they call exploitation we call self-determination, but if someone has hundreds of ICBMs we should allow them wide latitude with definitions.

And this isn’t some line that’s only being discussed now, as a pretext for invasion. When Alexander talks about diplomats defining these lines we have dozens of US diplomats pointing out that NATO expansion was just such a line. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the issue of NATO expansion, since it’s been discussed a lot elsewhere, but I have noticed that most of the discussion seems very facile, it rarely mentions how nuclear weapons might change the calculus of expansion and it definitely doesn’t mention the lingering national dread Russia has be experiencing from losing 20 million people in WW2. But as I already pointed out, we have a very US-centric view of that war. I was also amazed that Alexander, who’s an incredibly smart guy, didn’t make the connection between his Alaskan example and the way NATO expansion appears to the Russians. 

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that I think Putin is a good guy, or that he’s justified in the slightest, or that the Ukrainians aren’t both brave and righteous. No, my whole point is that when you’re dealing with a nuclear power the rules have to be different. And the Ukrainian invasion is proof that we haven’t quite absorbed that lesson, and maybe we won’t until it’s too late. 

One final scenario before moving on. I was listening to a podcast the other day, and someone mentioned that if Russia used a tactical nuke that we would have to respond militarily. Obviously we should all hope and pray that this does not happen, but if it does, then this person thinks we should initiate World War III? That we should be prepared to trade US cities for Ukrainian ones? This is the central problem. Yes, we should definitely draw lines, but unfortunately we can’t draw a line anywhere we feel like it. There are consequences to where we draw our line, consequences we may shortly experience.

III- Getting Rid of Putin

Second, [these insights] mean that it’s extremely dangerous for U.S. officials to talk about regime change in Moscow — in the style of the reckless Senator Lindsey Graham, for instance, who has called on a “Brutus” or “Stauffenberg” to rid the world of Vladimir Putin. If you make your nuclear-armed enemy believe your strategy requires the end of their regime (or very life), you are pushing them, again, toward the no-choice zone that almost trapped Colonel Petrov.

Speaking of podcasts, it’s not just Graham that is being reckless. Garry Kasparov was on Sam Harris’ podcast vociferously advocating the same thing, that the only solution was regime change, that Putin is a psychopath, and either we win or he does, that he will not stop at Ukraine. 

To begin with, as I have already pointed out, it’s not inevitable that one side will win, what’s more likely is that we both lose. In response, when Harris brought up the point that Douthat, and many others have made, that if we leave Putin no other option—if it’s a choice between his death and using nukes—then he’s going to use nukes. Kasparov makes the point that he’s going to try to use nukes, but that the actual people in charge of those nukes will refuse his order, particularly if we make it clear that we will immediately respond in kind, by taking them out with a retaliatory nuke. He appears to be advocating that we resurrect the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) but in a limited sense. Of course, there’s no guarantee that it will remain limited. Also extending MAD to include Ukraine, feels like both a dangerous extension of the doctrine, and a dangerous precedent. 

For all of this, Kasparov may be correct, perhaps if we make it clear that we will immediately retaliate in kind if nukes are used, then if Putin issues an order to use nukes the commanders will disobey that order. But those are a couple of very big ifs. I think I would like to have more certainty when you’re talking about potentially starting World War III. Are you really that sure that no one will follow Putin’s order? You can imagine a scenario like the one I mentioned where a single tactical nuke gets used, and we respond with one of our own nukes. Well at that point the world is a very different place. Is the US still viewed as the good guy or would using a nuke mark the end of US soft power? What does China do? Are they able to take advantage of things to draw more nations into their orbit? I don’t have the space to really delve into the China angle, but obviously they’re the huge wildcard in this conflict.

Even if we avoided responding with nukes of our own and just went all-in on a conventional war, that’s still an enormous escalation, and Russian commanders who initially refused Putin’s order when it was just about Ukraine, might suddenly feel differently when Russian soldiers are being killed by US soldiers.

Even if we’re going to temporarily set aside the question of nukes, we still have to come up with a method of removing Putin from power (or killing him outright). There would appear to be three:

First, we could invade, march all the way to Moscow, or wherever he ends up, and do it in a manner similar to how we removed Sadaam. I can’t even begin to imagine us doing this, certainly I can’t imagine that nukes wouldn’t get used long before we got anywhere close to Putin.

Second, we could assassinate him. I refer you to this opinion piece on Politico (interestingly the same outlet that published the limited no-fly zone letter) for a discussion of why that won’t work and why it has never worked (despite being tried a lot). If nothing else  it would definitely make things very weird with China.

Finally, the option seemingly favored by most people: we can hope that, as Senator Graham said, a Brutus or a Stauffenberg will remove Putin, or perhaps the Russian military could overthrow him in a coup. This is nice to imagine, though as Douthat mentions, dangerous to advocate (particularly if you’re a senator), but how realistic is it? My sense is that overthrowing an autocrat is far more difficult than people imagine. Yes, there have been protests. Yes, the current sanctions will hurt. Yes, there is enormous international pressure. Yes, Putin is hated by lots of Russian citizens. But look at Kim Jong-un and Nicholas Maduro, and before them, Fidel Castro, Augusto Pinochet, and Joseph Stalin. You don’t think all of them dealt with protests, sanctions, international pressure, and the hatred of their own people? 

But let’s say that it does happen, that some Brutus rises up and kills Putin. Well if you know your Roman history you know that Caesar’s assassination was not followed by a peaceful restoration of the Republic, rather it was followed by years and years of war. Perhaps we’ll get lucky, on this count and the assassination or coup will be immediately followed by Alexei Navalny taking power, the oligarchs all getting arrested and the flowering of western-style democracy, but I don’t think that’s the way to bet. 

IV- What Does Stability Look Like over the Long Term?

I’m hoping that the previous sections had bits here and there that you hadn’t encountered before in all of the ink that has been spilled on the Ukrainian situation, but this section is where we finally get to the point of the post. This is the part where I’m arrogant enough to think that I’m covering things from an angle lacking from all of the other articles written about the invasion. To kick things off let’s turn to Douthat’s final point:

Third, [these insights] imply that the odds of nuclear war might be higher today than in the Soviet era, because Russia is much weaker. The Soviet Union simply had more ground to give up in a conventional war before defeat appeared existential than does Putin’s smaller empire — which may be a reason why current Russian strategy increasingly prioritizes tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional-war retreat.

Everyone, even Douthat, is worried about the situation as it stands now. A weakening Russia being led by a psychopath (if you believe Kasparov). But of course this is an obvious thing to worry about, what’s not so obvious is where things are headed. Should we get past this crisis, what does the future hold? Is Russia likely to be weaker or stronger in 20 years? What about 50 years? Which Russia is less likely to use nukes? Is the leader at that point going to be more psychopathic or less? One hopes less, but there’s plenty of room for them to be even worse. Perhaps you’ve heard of Stalin? And remember we allied with him because he was better than Hitler.

Beyond just the state of Russia there are of course numerous other concerning trends. What direction is US power headed? In 20 years will we be weaker or stronger? What about China? How does culture and ideology play out during that time? What about trends in proliferation? If you’re the leader of a country without nukes, does this war make you more or less likely to try and acquire them? I’m guessing that for a lot of people in positions of power, the number one lesson of the invasion will be that Ukraine should have never relinquished its nukes, and that if they don’t want their country to suffer a similar fate they need to acquire some of their own as soon as possible. 

Lots of people are of the opinion that the invasion of Ukraine marks the end of the Long Peace. Less discussed at the moment is why we had the Long Peace in the first place. One popular theory is that we had peace because nukes made war too awful to contemplate. That more specifically the threat of MAD kept the US and USSR from turning the Cold War hot. An equilibrium prevailed, and while it wasn’t a perfect situation, it was an equilibrium in which nukes were not used. This was a bipolar world with two relatively equal sides. As such the game theory was pretty simple, and for a while at least, stability reigned.  

A different form of stability exists on the other side of things. A stability of complete, or nearly complete destruction. A stability where people don’t worry about whether their enemies are going to use nukes because all of them have already been used, and we no longer have the ability to make more of them. I am not an expert on game theory, so I’m not 100% sure that both of these points of stability qualify as true Schelling points, but I do know that Thomas Schelling was obsessed with trying to find points of stability where nukes would not be used. (Which is why it seems particularly dicey to call the use of all the nukes a Schelling point.) Perhaps it’s better to say that in the graph of nuclear weapon usage we know of two points where the graph is at zero: a bipolar world with sides of relatively equal strength, and a world where war has raged so completely and ferociously that there are no nukes left. And the core question, the one I’ve been building up to this whole time, is are there any others? 

The reason it took me so long to get to my core question is that I wanted to illustrate that whatever sort of Schelling point we occupied, Putin has pushed us out of it. And damn him to Hell for doing so, but unfortunately, as the world transitions to a multipolar one, with nuclear nations of varying strength, it was going to happen eventually. If not when Russia invaded Ukraine, it would have happened when China invaded Taiwan. The question which confronts us is can we find a new Schelling point, a new zero spot on the graph? I see a few options, but one last point before we get to them. Remember that we can’t uninvent nukes. Whatever “point” we come up with has to last basically forever. As you can imagine this is a daunting prospect.

The preferred option would be something along the lines of what Kasparov is hinting at, and before him, what Steven Pinker argued for in his book The Better Angels of our Nature. (See my review here.) That liberal and enlightenment ideology has spread to the point where using nukes is inconceivable. That even if you have a psychopath at the top desperately clinging to power who gives an order to use nukes that the individuals below him won’t follow that order. Of course Kasparov was advocating for some additional inducements in the form of threatening horrible retaliation, so I’m not sure that his view is truly pinker-esque. But in this scenario you can imagine that through a combination of using liberal values as the carrot and massive retaliation as the stick we might have collectively already reached a new Schelling point as a natural result of progress.

As you can imagine I have my doubts about this option. We’d have to be exceptionally good at avoiding escalation (which based on what I said in part I does not appear to be the case). This sort of progress would also have to be exceptionally comprehensive. It would have to include individuals in all nations regardless of the provocation. It has to assume that mentally unstable people, or fanatical terrorists will never have direct access to nukes, that even if nations naturally end up with megalomaniacs as leaders that this megalomania will never infect the people actually in charge of firing nukes. Which is not to say I don’t hope it’s true, merely that it seems unlikely to be so. 

A variation on this option which seems more likely is that we might have grown out of aggressive war. Of all the issues Russia has encountered in their invasion of Ukraine, the issue of Russian troop morale has to be near the top. Russian soldiers do not appear to be particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of invading another country, and even in a society as repressive as Russia’s it’s difficult for Putin to force them to be effective in the presence of poor morale. All of which is to say that it’s the reaction of the Russian people to the invasion that gives me the most hope. I still think that an assassination or a coup would be difficult to pull off, but I’m heartened by how “low-energy” the invasion has been. 

Of course the problem here is that if a leader can’t rely on a conventional invasion then that may make them more rather than less likely to go directly to nukes as a way of getting what they want. Aggressive conventional war may no longer be “fashionable” but this may only serve to put all of the focus on the ways in which nuclear weapons can be used to underpin aggression. 

Another possibility for achieving a stable point of zero usage is what might be called the historical option, the one liberal and enlightened people have largely rejected. This is the idea of allowing great powers to have spheres of influence, spheres where, by convention, other great powers do not intervene. To the extent that this option might offer a “zero nuke usage spot” on the graph I don’t think it’s a particularly stable one, but it does make the process of drawing lines (previously mentioned by Alexander and Douthat) easier. For example, in the current situation, Ukraine obviously falls in the Russian sphere of influence, Russia is a great power and accordingly we should stay out of things—no sanctions, no supply of missiles, no drones. Of course even when the doctrine of great power spheres prevailed those powers were always messing with each other in subtle ways, and not only that, the spheres were not fixed and immutable. The great powers were constantly trying to expand their spheres at the expense of someone else’s, and not only that, but lesser powers continually aspired to become great powers and great powers spent their existence in fear that the reverse would happen, thus the lack of long term stability.

Still, as chaotic as these situations could become, it worked out better than you might imagine. Take the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and the US involvement in Vietnam. The two superpowers were clearly messing with one another as much as they could get away with, but the idea that either might resort to nukes was pretty much off the table. But now that’s all anyone can talk about, because Putin has clearly put it on the table. Obviously a large part of the current dilemma is that other aspect of great power spheres: what happens to them when a great power is in decline? And I understand that for various reasons both good and bad that Ukraine is viewed differently than Afghanistan and Vietnam, but I think we may have cast aside the idea of spheres of influence prematurely. 

My personal prediction for how things will evolve going forward involves a lot more nukes. I don’t necessarily put this forward as a stable spot where nukes are never used, though it could nevertheless be more stable than the current situation. This prediction derives from the opinion I mentioned earlier, the idea that a lot of people in power view the invasion of Ukraine as primarily a lesson about not giving up nukes if you have them and attempting to acquire them if you don’t. This lesson derives not merely from the current invasion, and the fact that Ukraine had nukes and gave them up, but also North Korea’s continued existence, as well as the fate of Muammar Gaddafi after he foreswore his nuclear program. 

I don’t know if it will turn out that two nuclear nations will never end up going to war. I do know that it brought a significant degree of calm to the India-Pakistan conflict. As I said this is my prediction for where things are headed, and I would guess that it’s more stable than what we’re currently experiencing right at this moment, but I very much doubt such an arrangement would end up being perpetually stable. 

The final equilibrium point we could end up in is not particularly stable at all, but neither does it represent the end of the world as people commonly imagine. Nukes, particularly low-yield tactical ones, could just become a common feature of war. Obviously this would be a pretty bad outcome, but it’s also hard to imagine that at some point in the next 50 years that someone somewhere isn’t going to use nukes. At which point we should be praying that it’s a low yield tactical nuke and that it doesn’t cause an immediate escalation to a full on exchange of all the nukes—a true World War III. But even if we should be that lucky, the use of one tactical nuke without the world ending would surely encourage the use of additional nukes. As I said this might lead to a new, temporary point of stability where it’s understood that people are allowed to use low yield tactical nukes because it’s better than using all the ICBMs. But as I’ve said this is not a great outcome, it is however one of the many depressing possibilities.

V- Final Recommendations and Observations

In the midst of all the coverage of the invasion, you may have come across the famous quote from Thucydides, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. It’s a depressing statement, but it’s also a true one. A large part of everyone’s faith in progress has been tied up in the idea that as part of that progress strength was increasing connected to goodness. That yes, the strong are able to do whatever they want, but what they want happens to be good for people and the world. In a sense this was Francis Fukuyama’s central claim when he declared the End of History. Not that history had stopped, but that liberal democracy, a government which encourages good outcomes, also happened to be the strongest form of government as well. Of course the current climate is raising questions about both sides of that statement, and their long-term truth remains to be seen. 

Whether Fukuyama was correct or not, the central theme of this very long post is that nukes undermine traditional ways of testing national strength—they mess with the traditional conduct of war. While it appears true that liberal democracies are better at fighting conventional wars, as we saw in World War II, they don’t appear to have any particular advantage when it comes to acquiring nukes, as the example of North Korea makes clear, since they are essentially the exact opposite of a liberal democracy. Of course, once a country has nukes any war it might engage in has the potential to go from a conventional war to a nuclear war. And there doesn’t appear to be any great options for dealing with this eventuality. 

Just because there aren’t any great options doesn’t mean that there are no options. The obvious thing to hope for is that Pinker and Kasparov are right. While nations will still have nukes there will be no one who will actually follow the order to use them. That this is one of the dividends of progress. If that’s the case I think we should be careful about spending down the principal of progress. This sort of forbearance only comes into play if liberal democracies still have a credible claim of being the good guys. And while I think some of the anti-western sentiment that’s come up recently—the “whataboutism” that excuses Russia’s crimes by pointing out our many crimes—is overblown, it does exist, and there are a lot of people who support Putin because he stands up against “The West”. And we need to be careful not to come across as a monolithic, self-righteous, and uncaring force. That is any more than we already do, which is to say we should actually be trying to dial down our monolithic self-righteousness even now. This project is made more difficult by the fact that we live in the era of the informational echo chamber. Where people who hate the West are likely to encounter other people who hate the West, and it’s possible this hatred has already metastasized.  

I also think that we need to be particularly careful when we’re going through a transitional period. Which we certainly are, both with respect to Russia and China. I understand that the general admonition to “be careful” is not particularly actionable. But I do think that if we look back to the way we treated Russia immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union that we didn’t exactly cover ourselves in glory. And the assumption that by bringing China into the global market that they would automatically turn liberal, also appears to be horribly mistaken, and instead it just created a peer competitor.

Of course the whole theme of my blog is that transitions are happening with ever greater frequency. We’re not just going through a transition where Russia is weakening and China is strengthening, we’re also dealing with multiple overlapping transitions related to technology. For example the invasion of Ukraine would be very different if social media did not exist. On top of that cyberwarfare is obviously happening, and apparently drones are wreaking havoc as well.

It also seems to me that attitudes are weird. There’s a certain bifurcation. On the one hand I see people, particularly when the war first started, claiming that Putin was going kill millions of people. And to be fair he still might, but so far, particularly when you’re talking about wars happening in Eastern Europe, casualties have been surprisingly low. But in any case you have people who, when they think about war, imagine it at its most terrible. Millions dead, Putin marching across Europe spreading famine and disease. And then on the other hand you have people who seem excited by the idea of war, who want to go over to Ukraine and fight. Who love the idea of the scrappy underdog Ukrainians. 

In both cases I think we have gone too long without war. It seems both a solution to civilizational malaise and also potentially the worst thing that could possibly happen. The first case is somewhat borne out by perhaps the biggest surprise of the war: the firmness and determination of Western Europe! Many people predicted that Germany would tacitly go along with the invasion because Russia supplies more than half their fossil fuel. No one predicted they would double their defense budget. Clearly the international unity in support of Ukraine is something to celebrate, It would just be nice if it didn’t take a war to get us there. Though a couple of years ago I predicted this very phenomenon.

The invasion of Ukraine is changing a lot of things. A lot more will change before it’s all over, let us hope that we can keep those changes from being apocalyptic. And then keep doing it for the next hundred years, and unless something dramatic changes, additional hundreds of years beyond that.


First off am I the only one who is having a hard time breaking the habit of saying “The Ukraine”? Second, this post ended up being and taking a lot longer than I thought, and as I am leaving tomorrow for GaryCon to pour one out for the father of RPGs, I don’t think there’s going to be a second essay this month. My apologies. If you appreciated the post despite this revelation of the frivolousness of its author and his subsequent dereliction of duty, consider donating.


Eschatologist #14: The Fragility of Peace

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This newsletter is an exploration of how big things end, and just four days ago something very big came to an end. Depending on who you listen to, it was the end of “peace on the European continent for a long time to come”, or the end of the post cold-war era, and the reintroduction of force into foreign affairs, or the end of all hope that humans are capable of change. And it’s possible that the invasion of Ukraine may be the end of all three of those things. Only time will tell what this event ended, and what it began, but in my opinion people’s chief reaction has been an overreaction, and these quotes are great examples of that.

This is one of the reasons why I spent the last few newsletters talking about randomness, black swans, fragility and its opposite: antifragility. If you put it all together it’s a toolkit for knowing when things might break and then dealing with that breakage. This is not to say that it enabled me to know that Russia was going to invade Ukraine in February of 2022, but it does put one on the lookout for things that are fragile. And it’s been apparent for a while that the “Long Peace” was very fragile. I wish it wasn’t, but that and a dollar will get you a taco. 

Certainly, now that it’s broken, it’s easy to say that peace was fragile, that it would inevitably break and we shouldn’t lose our heads about it. But how do we identify fragile things before they break? And in particular how do we make them less fragile, even antifragile? In simple terms things that are fragile get weaker when subjected to shocks, with antifragility it’s the opposite, they get stronger, up to a point. A teacup is fragile: the more you jostle it, the more use it gets, the more likely it is to end up in pieces on the floor. The immune system is antifragile: when you expose it to a pathogen (or a vaccine) it gets stronger. 

So how does all of this help us deal with the invasion of Ukraine? That’s an excellent question. Unfortunately I don’t think the answer is either simple or straightforward. But, as evidenced by the initial quotes, I think that we’ve had peace between the great powers for so long that we become unhinged at the idea of war. We’ll do anything to prevent it. Unfortunately prevention can turn out to be just postponement.

I’ve written a couple of essays where I used the analogy of fighting forest fires. The forest needs periodic fires to clean out the deadwood, but when you fight every fire the deadwood accumulates and eventually you end up with a fire that has so much fuel that it ends up wiping out the entire forest. You take an antifragile system and turn it into a fragile one. 

Obviously coming up with a clever metaphor for the situation doesn’t get us very far. But it does illustrate what I’m most worried about, that we’ve become so unused to fires (which used to happen all the time) that when the first one comes around we’re going to mishandle it and turn it into an inferno.

I see lots of people saying that Putin won’t stop at Ukraine, that this is the beginning of WW III. First off, it’s only been four days. Acting too hastily almost certainly has far more downside than upside, because if we’re not careful then, yes, this could be the beginning of WW III. Immediately losing our heads and declaring it to be so on day one could turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

This is because of another topic I talk about a lot, and part of why it’s difficult to draw on what happened in the past: the modern world has changed all the rules. War is now very different. Hanging over any decision to intervene, in the background of every war room, haunting every discussion of force, is a fear of nuclear war. And Putin has already upped the ante, by putting his nuclear forces on high alert.

I hope the Ukrainians humiliate the Russians, and it’s nice to see that the war is already not going as smoothly as they expected. But in the end if this escalates into a full on nuclear war, it’s not going to matter who started it, or whose cause was just, because the inferno doesn’t care.


If peace is fragile, is war antifragile? That’s a scary assertion, though one I have toyed with in the past. Perhaps historically it was, but we’re at the end of history, and no one knows how it’s going to turn out. If that scares you as much as it scares me consider donating.