Unthinkable chic

Thursday, October 21st, 2004

Nuke China in order to win the Korean war? Fruitcake bellicosity never seemed so attractive. Such is the charm of Niall Ferguson, the dapper Scot historian who can turn thermonuclear Armageddon and the probable death of vague yellow-skinned millions into nothing worse than a regrettable necessity, an act of tough love.

At least I got a chance to look him in the eye. For this I thank the college to which I recently wrote out a check in the upper four figures.

The occasion was two intense days of discussion and counter-discussion at Macalester College, in St. Paul, Minn., where my daughter is a heart-melting month and a half into her freshman year. By wonderful design, the school’s annual International Roundtable occurs during Family Weekend, so I not only got to visit my kid but also drink my cup of tea — that is, listen, talk and spit out politics.

This year the topic of the roundtable was: “America and Global Power: Empire or . . .?” Ferguson, author and Harvard professor, was one of three distinguished academic heavies invited to sit in on panels, present papers and collide with one another and with faculty, students and even parents. The others were Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute and Tariq Ali, author, editor of New Left Review and the only liberal of the bunch (but the school itself is so liberal, things more or less balanced out).

I’d forgotten how heady ideas can get in the ivory tower, where they are not mere servants of policy but ends in themselves, precisely articulated, nuanced, volatile. I had to keep reminding myself that this debate, however academic the setting, was not academic. It was about the real world — the actual future. What the panelists said mattered intensely. Does America constitute an empire? Should it? What are its constraints? Do its ends justify its means? Which principles should control history?

If I have a slight criticism of the event, it might be an insufficiency of urgency about it, a general understatement of the stakes, but that of course is where I come in.

On Saturday morning, I did the best I could to up the ante in my 30 seconds at the Q&A mike. I set my sights on Ferguson, who is not merely professor, author and scholar, but also TV personality. As the star of the multi-episode BBC production “American Colossus” — a history of the United States that calls on the reluctant superpower to stop being such a girlie man and rule the world, damnit — he is the embodiment of what I would call, in memory of the late Herman Kahn, “unthinkable chic.”

In 1962, Kahn wrote “Thinking About the Unthinkable,” which dared to postulate what winning a nuclear war would look like and called the difference between 10 million and 100 million deaths “tragic but distinguishable outcomes.” This was pretty shocking 40 years ago and earned Kahn screen immortality as the real-life model for Dr. Strangelove.

But Ferguson’s demeanor is anything but Strangelovian — he was positively witty as he refought the Cold War in “American Colossus” with the nuclear weapons of the day (presumably the H-bomb) and didn’t so much as hint that their use might have had messy moral, political and strategic consequences.

Such brilliance, such media savoir-faire. What a spokesman for the War on Evil. He delivered his message of the absolute necessity of U.S. military dominance over the rest of the world — today as yesterday — with confidence that it’s what a jittery consumer culture is ready to hear, that the unthinkable has become fashionable.

Rest assured, nothing we do is going to be worse than the barbarism of our enemies, who so obligingly have given the world suicide bombings, beheadings and such. Ferguson referred darkly to the beheadings a number of times, as though to balance whatever collateral damage the United States might churn up with 21st-century efficiency.

Here’s my worry — militarily, we’re just going to get more and more efficient, even as “victory” in the war on terror grows more elusive. Ferguson and his ilk give no hint that there need be any moral limits on our military efficiency.

I asked him this: “How can you have a moral issue with terrorism and not with nuclear war — including the de facto nuclear war we’re waging right now in Iraq with the use of depleted uranium munitions?”

It took him no more than a minute to answer. He ignored the part about DU, with which we’re poisoning both Iraqis and our own troops, and cited the alleged shortening of World War II by bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the no-brainer precedent for using nuclear weapons to win subsequent wars. Next question!

Nuclear weapons didn’t come up again. Ho-hum.