An Era Of Pure Tactics / by Bryce Hidysmith

<Soundtrack - Night of Fire - Duc De Japan>  

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. - Catch-22, Joseph Heller, p. 56, ch. 5

It feels like we’re just going to be blown up tomorrow. That’s it. That’s the whole story. Thermonuclear war, maybe continuing into one of those long and unfortunate winters depending on how accurate or planetological estimates are. There’s this memory in my head of people around my parent’s family actually being scared about y2k in 1999, as though we had to invent an apocalypse to explain the fear that we still felt for entirely logical reasons. There’s something quite cute about taking account of our situation, and having our armageddon du jour pertain to accounting. But the message at the core is the same: The Cold War never really ended. Even if the ideologies have changed we're still in this mess where we've got a bunch of devices lying around that can blow up the world. 

I have memories from around the same time of my father telling me about what it was like as a young child in the early 1980s, going to sleep every day with the knowledge that he might not wake up. A couple of men on the other side of North America or far off across the Pacific Ocean and Eurasian expanse might make the wrong calls, and the myths of a strike turned into actualities of nuclear exchange. History fractures globally at the smallest points these days. Is there time to observe and orient? Are our decisions connected to our actions? Or are things moving so fast that our situation is more like roulette than chess? If so, when was that inflection point when it became a more effective global survival strategy to choose randomly than to trust your information? Lastly, is that whole line of reasoning the problem—the notion that it’s possible to get a better result through tricks than those obtained through empathetic communication and cold intellect? 

There’s something strange to the fact that we can only content with nuclear war as an abstraction. Proxy conflicts are just the globe burned in effigy to keep putting the big one off. Every shot fired feels like a prefigurative echo of another awful urbicide after Hiroshima. I keep thinking about Nixon’s Madman Strategy. There’s something horrifying about having to feign the necessary insanity to make people think you might use the bomb, in order to get them to not use it themselves as they’re concerned about your retaliation. In effect, to properly engineer the reliability of life for large numbers of people on the face of this planet, the reliability of truth itself for small numbers of people with control has to be incredibly shaky if not nonexistent. Rational thought creates a scenario where the deceptive embodiment of irrationality is the optimal strategy for trying to ensure the superlatively rational outcome of enduring into tomorrow. 

This is the logical illogic that rules the world. It’s not a revelation. Writing about it is even a little passé. Somehow it kept us alive for enough time for my generation to mature in a time when it was assumed that nuclear exchange wasn’t even an option. The nukes were out of sight, and out of mind. We Americans had to worry about mad dictators and terrorists getting their hands on them, rather than assuming that even interfacing with such weapons put you in a catch-22.  Admittedly, even if the catch-22 narrative was popular high up, it’s not exactly like you can just tell the population that it’s impossible to be reasonable when you can end the world with the press of a button. They’ve got to feel like there’s a tomorrow for today to be worth anything. 

I’m just amazed that we’ve managed to get this far without it going too bad. There’s no further optionality to preserve by engaging in nuclear conflict, as Wargames put it keenly “the only way to win is not to play.”  For decades now, the presidents of various nations have employed entire bureaus of experts in avoiding playing this game by pretending that they might just be crazy enough to think they could win it. As willingness to use nuclear weapons is clear irrationality, the best bluffers are the ones who aren’t bluffing, but that’s not the same thing as hoping to usher in the end. In a disturbing way, the only way to remove the threat of nuclear annihilation is likely the creation of a more-perfect singleton that can break the fearful symmetry of the superpowers. 

We live in an era of pure tactics. This is ensured by the technological constraints of our manner of warfare. There isn’t a future for the people at the center of it all, only the preservation of an eternal present, so the laid back, system-2 style authorial consent of strategy’s just a pleasant myth or ancestral memory. It appears there is simply action and reaction, nothing more. This shifting scenario, where bluffs cannot be serious and yet are, rewards the sort of person who doesn’t have any preferences, for whom the wind might blow any way, and it really might not matter to them a bit. This is cool, in the early, jazz sense: a sort of ironic detachment, pretending that nothing is serious because it cannot affect them. It takes a rather strange kind of individual to adapt in this way: a shell, or an extremely good emulation of one, who does not require assuredness or axiomatic thought, who does not need hope from external sources and yet does not have to manufacture their own. I wonder what it’s like to affect so many people, while also being almost totally unaffected.

I know I could never make those sacrifices. At the moment, all I can do is think about things more personal and narrative. I think about my grandmother, a downwinder, who died in her early sixties after what had become regular and protracted battles with cancer, likely all of them related from fallout, and a woman I once loved whose grandfather worked on the detonation systems that were likely the subject of the tests that rendered my grandmother belated collateral damage.  There was no blood feud, no Hatfield-McCoy scenario, only a sadness at that awful thing crafted in New Mexico, and a hope that it might be put away forever or at least render its destructive potential irrelevant. 

a word of thanks to Yana, who provided me with the title in conversation.