Death of a strategist

William Kaufmann died a couple weeks ago, at the age of 90. Unless you’re a military history and strategy nerd like myself, the name means nothing to you (click here to read his obituary, published in yesterday’s New York Times). Kaufmann advised five presidents on how to fight (and presumably, win) a nuclear war. He was, to put it simply, one of those geniuses without whom a global empire such as the United States simply cannot function.

Kaufmann was probably a very nice and reasonable man. But he played a key role in building the most dangerous and threatening war machine in human history, which has since the end of the war against the Japanese in 1945 gripped the world in a state of “pure war.” As the Times obit (based largely on quotes and information from Slate‘s Fred Kaplan, one of the best military journalists working today) sums up nicely, Kaufmann’s biggest contribution to nuclear war theory was in convincing successive American administrations that threatening to bomb every city in Russia with nuclear weapons should the Red Army attack Western Europe was not the way to go (such a strategy would kill something like 285 million civilians).
Instead, Kaufmann argued, the U.S. should adopt a “counterforce” strategy, whereby we would only bomb Russian and Warsaw Pact “military targets.” This would, in the Times‘ words, “be a way of perhaps controlling nuclear war…”
Of course, counterforce is a fraud. Nuclear weapons, regardless of where dropped, would kill hundreds of millions of civilians. Think of the island of Oahu–there are, by my count, four major military targets there: Pearl Harbor Naval Station, Marine Corps Base Kaneohe, Hickham Air Force Base and Schofield Barracks. One nuclear bomb dropped on any one of those bases would slaughter at least half the island’s civilian population.
Kaufmann never sought publicity, so we have no idea if he ever seriously considered the ramifications of his ideas, which caught on with President Kennedy and never really stopped being U.S. policy (to this day the U.S. fields approximately 6,000 nuclear warheads to this day, though it is scheduled to decline to 2,200 by 2012). We still very much live inside that gigantic nuclear machine reasonable men like Kaufmann constructed for us; we orient our lives to it without thinking that we still live in the shadow of a global “war” that would erase half or more of the planet’s inhabitants in just a few minutes.
This is how we define “national security”–building enough bombs that war and genocide become indistinguishable. And we pay for it every year with our income taxes. But most of all, we say we feel secure because to say otherwise is to open a door to a monstrous terrors that would simply make society impossible to maintain. We don’t stop to think that harmless terms like “economic sanctions” actually mask depriving starving children of food or medicine, so why should this bother us?
After all, aren’t we the world’s only superpower? Who’s going to stop us?
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