Sunday, December 26, 2004


Ubiquity and Casualties

Many moons ago, I read a magazine article sitting in a doctor's waiting room. It was about war. The author was making (or, more probably, reporting) two basic points. The first point was that most wars are relatively minor in terms of their death toll, but that, every now and then, a huge cataclysm comes along that kills extremely large numbers of people. These, he argued, were the type of wars humankind most needs to learn how to avoid.

The second point was that the proximate causes of wars are random and unpredictable in terms of seriousness. That is, trivial events sometimes lead to war and serious events sometimes don't. It is famously said that WWI was triggered by a chauffeur taking a wrong turn (thus bringing the Archduke Ferdinand accidentally into the presence of his anarchist assassin, who exploited the coincidence, and one thing led to another). This principle is thoroughly explained in an excellent book called Ubiquity, by Mark Buchanan. Buchanan tells of an experiment in which grains of sand are dropped singly onto a larger pile of grains of sand. Some grains cause minor avalanches, some cause nothing at all, and some trigger chain reactions of cascades that seems to involve the whole pile. The salient point is that the proximate causes of all degrees of reactions are the same--the dropping of a single grain of sand. Sometimes the pile is stable, and another grain has no effect; sometimes a grain falls on an area of local instability that's ready to "go," and it triggers an adjustment, a small "sandslide"; and sometimes the whole sandpile becomes effectively a web of instability, such that a single grain of sand can cause a series of avalanches all over the surface.

And so it seems to be with wars. For instance, the current war in Iraq had as its proximate cause the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. But think of all that had to happen to get even that far. First of all, New York wanted to out-do Chicago and regain the honor of having the world's tallest building(s), a distinction it had gotten used to for years by virtue of the Empire State Building, taken away when the Sears tower was built. Next, the architect happened to choose Islamic architectural and decorative motifs.

Then came the naming of the complex. Even as the world's tallest buildings, a conspicuous feature of the New York skyline, would the twin towers have attracted the obsessive attention of Islamic terrorists if they had been named, say, the Trump Office Suites? Or perhaps, The Port Authority Headquarters Towers? Seems dubious. But the "World Trade Center"--now, that sounds less like an office building and more like, well, a target.

Of course, a whole cascade of situations needs to pertain. The failed prior attack, the existence of a renegade militant who also happens to be a millionaire (wealth usually, but unfortunately not always, co-opts radicalism fairly efficiently), and the simple fact that airline pilots tended not to panic in hijacking situations because they believed that hijackers always just want to be taken somewhere. From the hijackers' perspective, just imagine how many things had to go right for the scheme to work--from finding 19 people either suicidal or fanatical enough that they would cause their own deaths, to the series of mistakes in U.S. intelligence-gathering that allowed them to avoid detection, to the plot simply surviving the internal bickering and tensions (which must have been high, given their intended fate) amongst the hijackers themselves.

And yet even after the spectacle of the twin towers falling, the prospect of us arriving at the situation we find ourselves in now is almost infinitesimal, if you look at it from the standpoint of ubiquity. First of all, you had to have at least two fairly improbably preconditions: an existing plan by a group of right-wing hawks for asserting American dominance in the globe, and the fact that an overindulged, profligate American nation produces seven million barrels of oil every day yet consumes 20 million. (You also need a populace that can't seem to connect a dependence on foreign oil with a wholesale lack of energy conservation, even to the rather absurd point of the Hummer H2 and the Lincoln Navigator.) Then you need a "Vanna White" type of presidential candidate with a brilliant and unscrupulous political advisor who is prepared and able to make day seem like night and night seem like day, such that a remarkably unqualified political candidate can pull more or less even with a very wise and very experienced one. Of course, you need all the improbable, controversial events of the 2000 election. You need a president who sees in simplistic good-and-evil terms, knows almost nothing about foreign policy or diplomacy, and yet who also places such a high value on "loyalty" that he surrounds himself with yes-men and -women. You need lots of Administration officials who are willing to lie, wittingly or not.

In other words, in the case of the morass in Iraq, the grain of sand touched an area on the sandpile that was a web of instability, ready to be set to cascading rather extensively.

But getting back to the article I mentioned at the beginning, the consolation prize for those of us who have always objected to this asinine war is that it seems to be a rather minor conflict. So far, at least. Personally, it seems utterly obscene to me when any fine young person dies in Iraq, for a "cause" that is either so well hidden or so poorly articulated. The Republicans' bankrupting of the Treasury is something I also object to, but rather less, because it's not my money. But looked at coldly on the scale of wars, this one will remain minor so long as the casualties number in the tens of thousands, instead of the hundreds of thousands or millions. Counting civilian deaths, the toll is so far "only" 1,700+ Americans (with another 6,000 or so crippled), and "only" 40,000 or so Iraquis, the majority of whom are completely innocent civilians who have far less influence on their government than I have on mine. Doubtless, in private, George and Rummy think this degree of loss is wholly acceptable. Sadly, the American public seems to agree.

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