Radio Derb: The Calculus Of War, Whose Fault? The Nuclear Option, And America's Interest, Etc.
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00:48  The calculus of war.  (Atrocities in Ukraine.)

08:36  Whose fault is this war?  (Ask Prof. Mearsheimer.)

17:43  The Patriotic Knot.  (My country, right or wrong?)

23:39  The final solution to the Ukraine Question.  (Putin wants time.)

29:43  The nuclear option.  (It's there.)

33:32  America's interest.  (What should we do?)

38:07  The Resentment Coalition.  (Left & Right against the elites.)

39:56  Phones for wetbacks.  (Why not cars?)

41:16  The Sovietization of America.  (Rearranging Puccini.)

44:24  Signoff.  (With Mimì.)

01 — Intro.     And Radio Derb is on the air! Greetings, listeners, from your post-pandemically genial host John Derbyshire with some thoughts on the week's news.

Some correspondents have chidden me for not saying enough about the war between Russia and Ukraine. Hoo-kay, you asked for it.


02 — The calculus of war.     Here is an extract from one of my monthly diaries. I apologize for quoting myself so often; but at this point, after forty years of opinionating in print and pixels, I have passed comments on every general topic deserving of comment, so there's a strong temptation to recycle what I said ten, or twenty, or thirty years ago. As Oscar Wilde very sagely observed: The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.

The actual topic here is atrocities in wartime. Here I was in January 2005. Quote:

The other night I sat at dinner next to a gentleman of some age. We got to talking, and he told me he had been a bomber pilot in WW2, had served on thirty-odd missions over Europe, including the firestorm-bombing of Dresden in February 1945.

I asked this very pleasant and personable old gentleman whether, in all the time he served on bombers, he and his comrades ever spoke about the morality of mass aerial bombing of German cities. No, he said, it never came up. Not even once? No, he replied emphatically, not once. Did he himself ever think along those lines? No, not at all. Did he think that perhaps one or two of his comrades might have thought about such issues?

[Inner quote.]  "Possibly, but I doubt it. Nobody was thinking like that, nobody I knew anyway. It was a war. They were the enemy. Our missions were very dangerous — I was lucky to survive so many. Some of my friends were killed or captured. We just wanted to end the war, and one way was to bomb the enemy into submission. Which we did — and a good thing too." [End inner quote.]

End quote.

That recollection was prompted by news of atrocities in the Russia-Ukraine war. There have been atrocities by both sides, the reports tell us: Russian soldiers torturing and killing Ukraine civilians; Ukrainian soldiers torturing and killing Russian soldiers.

There's an asymmetry there of course. The ordinary instinctive morality we bring to these events tells us that for soldiers of one side wantonly to kill civilians of the other side is more flagitious than soldiers killing soldiers. Since Ukrainian military personnel have no access to Russian civilians, we look on the Russian atrocities as worse.

There's the fox-and-rabbit asymmetry, too: the fox running for his dinner, the rabbit for his life. A total victory for Russia in this war would mean the extinction of Ukraine as any kind of independent nation; a total victory for Ukraine would leave Russia much as before. That great "Because we live here!" clip from Red Dawn has been getting some Twitter time.

[Clip.]  "Tell me what's the difference between us and them."

"Because we live here!"]

And then there's my dinner-table companion from seventeen years ago. Ordering your uniformed personnel to slaughter tens of thousands of unarmed civilians is certainly atrocious; but what if it can be plausibly argued that by doing so you will greatly shorten the war, sparing unknown numbers of fatalities, both military and civilian? That was the argument for nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I don't see how you can say unequivocally that it was a bad one.

This is the calculus of war. You may not like it; I'm not keen on it myself. If you're going to bring forth opinions about some war, though, you have to engage with it.

When hostilities are actually under way, there is the further complication of distinguishing truth from falsehood. Truth is proverbially the first casualty in any war, and Russia-Ukraine is not likely an exception. This war has many spectators in nations all over, including the combatant nations. Of course propagandists for both sides seek to influence them. Lurid atrocity stories are part of that.

Our emotions play a part, too. If you are emotionally invested in one side or the other, you will believe or dismiss atrocity stories accordingly. There's plenty of that on social media. I'm neutral here, with an open mind, content to wait for postwar researchers to dig out the truth where they can.

None of that is to say atrocities don't happen. They are part of warfare and always have been. The Chinese idiom cao jian rén mìng (草 菅 人 命) — "to treat human lives as if they were grass" — was first written down twenty-two centuries ago and was probably in oral circulation long before that. I doubt it will ever go out of circulation.


03 — Whose fault is this war?     When I said I was neutral just then, I meant neutral as to the truth or falsehood of the atrocity stories. When it comes to assigning blame for a war, everybody has an opinion. Here's mine.

Russia had a legitimate beef with the government of Ukraine. There were issues between the two nations that needed resolving: mainly NATO, and some disgruntlement among Russian-speakers in East Ukraine. Zelensky seems not to have been very adroit or helpful in dealing with those issues. Perhaps he couldn't spare the time from padding out his Swiss bank accounts.

All right: but none of that rose to the level of requiring a military solution. There were avenues the Russians could have explored to resolve things peacefully — with NATO, with the EU, with mediator nations not involved in the disputes — even with the U.S.A., perhaps.

Russia did some of that, but they certainly didn't exhaust all possibilities before turning to the military option. The February invasion of Ukraine was an act of wanton aggression, with no good justification.

That's my opinion. The blame falls on Russia.

Out there among the serious, well-informed commentariat there is another very common opinion. The blame, say these pundits, or some large portion of the blame, falls on us, the U.S.A. We've been poking and prodding the Russian bear for twenty years, using NATO as our main prod, when we should have been trying to help Russia and establishing friendship with her.

There's much truth in that. Our foreign policy in regard to post-Cold War Russia has been quite sensationally stupid. We should have been striving by any means we could think of to win Russia's trust and friendship. To do so would have been of huge benefit to us, to them, and to our children and grandchildren.

One of the best expositions of this was given seven years ago by another Air Force veteran, political science professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago.

In the summer of 2015 Prof. Mearsheimer delivered an address to the university's Alumni Weekend. Title of the address: "Why is Ukraine the West's Fault?" Yes, this was seven years ago, and the topic was already up for discussion. This followed the Crimea crisis of the previous year.

You can see that address in its entirety, with a good intelligent Q&A session following, on YouTube.

The actual address is 45 minutes long. (I guess Prof. Mearsheimer learned the same rule I was given back in my teacher-training days: That 45 minutes is the limit beyond which people start to fidget and their attention wanders.) Then there's a half-hour Q&A for a total hour and a quarter. That's much more video clip than I can normally sit through, but I made an exception for Prof. Mearsheimer and you should too.

To give you the general flavor, here's the closing 55 seconds of Prof. Mearsheimer's address. He has just asked rhetorically whether Ukraine has lost Crimea to Russia for good.

[Clip.]  Yep, it's gone, gone. What are the implications for Ukraine? This is in many ways the most important part of my talk and I'll just take two or three minutes, then we can go on to Q&A.

When I give this talk, many people in the West think that there's sort of a deep-seated immoral dimension to my position because I'm blaming the West and not Putin, who certainly has authoritarian or thuggish tendencies — there's no question about that. But I actually think that what's going on here is that the West is leading Ukraine down the Primrose Path, and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked.

And I believe that the policy I'm advocating, which is neutralizing Ukraine and then building it up economically and getting it out of the competition between Russia on the one side and NATO on the other side is the best thing that could happen to the Ukrainians.

What we're doing is encouraging the Ukrainians to play tough with the Russians. We're encouraging the Ukrainians to think that they will ultimately become part of the West because we will ultimately defeat Putin and we will ultimately get our way. Time is on our side!

And of course the Ukrainians are playing along with this. And of course the Ukrainians are almost completely unwilling to compromise with the Russians, and instead want to pursue a hard-line policy. Well, as I said to you before: If they do that, the end result is that their country is going to be wrecked; and what we're doing is in effect encouraging that outcome.

I think it would make much more sense for us to neutral … to work to create a neutral Ukraine. It would be in our interest to bury this crisis as quickly as possible.

It certainly would be in Russia's interest to do so; and most importantly it would be in Ukraine's interest to put an end to the crisis.

Thank you. [Applause.]

Prof. Mearsheimer, I should say, is not as much of an isolationist as I am. He doesn't believe, as I do, that we should have left NATO in March of 1991, the week after the Warsaw Pact dissolved itself.

It would have been sensible at that point for the Europeans to unite for common defense, with all the uncertainty about where Russia was headed. NATO, preferably under a different name, could have been the basis for that. It just wasn't sensible for us, the United States, to continue being involved at the formal treaty level.

That aside, I didn't find much to disagree with Prof. Mearsheimer about. If realists like him had been steering America's post-Cold War foreign policy, today's world would be a safer and better place. Instead we got what the great H.L. Mencken called "World Savers" — ideologues, moralists, and missionaries.

And there was nothing party-political about our misfortune. Our foreign policy was nuts under Democrats and Republicans both, as Prof. Mearsheimer says elsewhere in his address.

I really hate to say it, but sometimes show trials for Enemies of the People don't seem like such a bad idea.


04 — The Patriotic Knot.     By way of a footnote to that, I just want to say that there is some reluctance in my agreeing with Prof. Mearsheimer.

There is a tendency, rather strong in some quarters of the Dissident Right, to be a bit too gleeful in pointing out America's blame for disasters like Ukraine.

Sometimes, reading Dissident Right commentary, I seem to hear the writer — no names, no pack drill — saying something like: "It's not patriots like me who make this awful stuff happen, it's those other Americans! It's all their fault!" Those other Americans who make it all happen usually, although not always, turn out to be the Jews.

I don't buy that: not because, as some of my correspondents believe, I get a nice monthly check from AIPAC — if only! — but because it doesn't seem plausible to me.

The first great World Saver administration of the twentieth century was Woodrow Wilson's. The modal American Jew at that point was stitching shirts in a Lower East Side sweatshop, not running the State Department. As his Secretary of State Wilson had two midwestern Progressives and one Northeastern WASP. Even earlier, the World Saver impulse was present right back to the founding of our republic: it was one factor in the outbreak of the Civil War.

By contrast, the Secretary of State in recent decades with the most realist views — the views most closely concordant with Prof. Mearsheimer's — was Henry Kissinger, a Jew, whom Mearsheimer quotes with approval more than once. Go figure.

Plus, blaming the Jews leaves too much unsaid. One of the things left unsaid is the one I myself said twenty years ago, quote:

If it is true, we must believe that 97 per cent of the U.S. population ended up dancing to the tune of the other 3 per cent. If that is true, the only thing to say is the one Shakespeare's Bianca would have said: [Inner quote.]  "The more fool they." [End inner quote.]

End quote.

What I also get from the blame-America-first point of view is a whiff of parochialism. "All politics is local," goes the saying; and indeed, foreign affairs are seen by most of us through the prism of U.S. politics. It's not Russia, or China, or Brazil, or the Congo that makes anything happen: it's Democrats and Republicans.

Believe it or not, sometimes things happen in foreign places that were not made to happen by any American — Democrat or Republican, Jew or Gentile. They happened because of circumstances in those far places, circumstances peculiar to those places, arising from history and geography, culture and custom.

A lot of people seem unable to grasp this. Sure, sometimes our meddling makes things worse; but we are not the Prime Mover of all earthly events.

Here we come to what I call the Patriotic Knot. If you are a patriot you have an instinctive, emotional love for your country. But then, when you contemplate the dumb, sometimes crazy things your country has done — like this past thirty years of our Keystone Cops foreign policy — you start asking yourself: "What the hell is wrong with us?"

My escape from that is to bring to mind the Patriotic Formula in all its fullness. The part everyone remembers is the first part: "My country, right or wrong." (Which G.K. Chesterton spoofed as: "My mother, drunk or sober.") There is consolation in remembering the whole thing:

My country, right or wrong: If right, to keep her right, if wrong, to put her right.


05 — The final solution to the Ukraine Question.     So how's the Russia-Ukraine War going? What are the likely outcomes at this point?

As best I can guess from events so far, Putin really did believe it would be a quick victory. I'm thinking particularly of those long lines of tanks and APCs on the approach roads to Ukraine's capital.

Seeing those vehicles advance, Putin supposed, the Ukrainian government would throw up its hands in terrified surrender. Russia could replace Zelensky with some more compliant puppet, as the old U.S.S.R. did in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and … game over.

Things didn't work out like that. Even discounting for anti-Russian propaganda, it's clear the Russian troops performed poorly. The Ukrainians by contrast put up a very spirited resistance. Six weeks in, the fighting is still fierce.

If Russia had a weak leader, he might very well have been deposed by this point, as some of us speculated. Say what you like about Putin, though, he is not a weak leader. He's intelligent and has a will of iron. So far as it's possible to judge public opinion in Russia, there's general agreement that Putin is more popular than ever.

It's not hard to understand. An intelligent national leader with a will of iron? Americans can only dream …

And yes, all politics is local. Russians can, for historical reasons, easily be brought to see themselves as a besieged nation with enemies all around. A leader who plugs into that psychic power socket gets their full attention.

So, given that his war hasn't gone well, what does Putin do now?

Not much of a secret about that. He pounds and pounds and pounds on Ukraine. Prof. Mearsheimer got it right seven years ago: "the end result is that their country is going to be wrecked," said the wise professor in regard to the Ukrainians, and that indeed is what is now happening.

Russia's infantrymen may have been a disappointment to Russia's leader, but there is more to modern warfare than squaddies with rifles — more, indeed, than tanks and armored personnel carriers. There is artillery; there are planes; there are missiles.

The utter devastation we see in places like Mariupol was not perpetrated by tanks or guys with rifles; it's the result of incessant shelling and bombing. This morning's atrocity, the killing of dozens of civilians at a railroad station in Eastern Ukraine, was caused by a missile.

It looks as though Putin has decided that if he can't have Ukraine the way he wants it, he will just eliminate it altogether. That's what we're seeing now. Putin has taken to heart a slogan that I believe I myself coined some years ago: "Rubble doesn't make trouble."

Now, Ukraine's a big country — eleven percent bigger than metropolitan France, nearly half as big again as California. There's a lot there to destroy, even with modern munitions, so it's going to take a while to reduce the whole country to rubble. To complete this project, this final solution to the Ukraine Question, Putin needs time. If I'm right about this, what we shall see over the next days and weeks, will be Putin playing for time to finish the job he's started.

This entirely destructive approach has as a side benefit that Putin can field-test his latest toy, the Kinzhal hypersonic missile. At any rate, Russia claims to have used Kinzhals to destroy fuel and ammunition depots in Ukraine, although I haven't yet seen verification of the claims.

I wouldn't be surprised to see Putin, getting bored while drawing out the time, try out other new toys, perhaps nasty ones like chemical weapons. Nukes? I wouldn't rule it out; but that needs its own segment.


06 — The nuclear option.     Talking to people about nukes — ordinary man-in-the-street types, not military specialists — I get the impression that nukes are widely misunderstood.

We have somehow been conditioned to believe, across all these decades, that nuclear conflict would be massively catastrophic: entire cities wiped out, perhaps entire nations, even civilization itself.

Well, yes, nukes could do that. There is other stuff they can do, though: stuff that might, under circumstances not impossibly unimaginable, appeal to a cornered despot.

There is the EMP option, for example: a massive nuke exploded outside the atmosphere above a hostile nation. There could be no physical damage at all, only a mighty electromagnetic pulse destroying all the microchips in all the computers, automobiles, control devices, and communications equipment over thousands of square miles. Bill Forstchen's 2011 novel One Second After tells the story.

And then there are plain-vanilla tactical nukes: low-yield weapons for taking out the enemy's troop concentrations, airfields, harbors, and so on. No need to annihilate Los Angeles; no need to blow every microchip in the continental U.S.A.; just a targeted blast far more destructive than anything you could do with conventional explosives.

Here's a thing about tactical nukes: Russia has way more of them than we have — ten times as many, according to some sources. It's kind of a Russian thing: they go more for the tactical stuff while we prefer the city-busters.

Another thing the Russians are very keen on is anti-missile defenses. I have been told that they are actually ahead of us in this area; that, in fact, one reason Russia's conventional forces have performed so poorly in Ukraine is that Putin has concentrated military spending on nuke and anti-missile technology, taking the lead over us in those areas.

So if things go badly wrong for Russia in the near future, or if perhaps there is another advance by NATO to Russia's borders — Finland has been making suggestive noises in that direction — a small nuclear strike might look awfully tempting to Vlad.

I don't believe it's out of the question. I seriously doubt it will come to the annihilation of American cities, so no need to start practicing "duck and cover" … unless you live close to a Finnish submarine base.


07 — America's interest.     So what is the bottom line for us here, for the U.S.A.? Is the Russia-Ukraine war any of our business?

Well, yes, it is, because of the damn fool decision to stay in NATO thirty years ago, rather than letting the Europeans — who are three times as numerous as Russians and have five times the Gross Domestic Product — take care of their own defenses against a possible Russian resurgence.

All right: We're stuck with that, curse the fools who made it happen. Should this war be any of our business, though? Would it be if we had left NATO in 1991?

And in the situation we're in now, where it actually is our business, what's the best course for America to take? Not best for Ukrainians, or Europeans, least of all for Russians: the best course for us, the U.S.A., for our interests?

In the first place: Yes, it is to some degree our business, and would be even without the NATO issue. Globalism is not a total racket. There do need to be rules for nations dealing with each other, to give some stability and predictability to international affairs; and it's inevitable that big, rich nations like ours have lead responsibility for enforcing the rules.

And in the case of Ukraine, with all the possible instabilities that might arise there, including the nuke option, I think we should try to figure some way to bring matters to a conclusion — a conclusion, I mean, other than the final solution that Putin has in mind.

Isn't this what diplomats are for? Let's make them earn their keep. Let's speak bluntly to Zelensky. Let's tell him: "OK, you guys put up a good show. There's no way this current situation can end well for you, though. Putin will just level the whole of Ukraine. If you don't want that, and we're sure you don't, let's get to work on a deal — something Putin might accept."

I don't see any alternative to this, other than the alternative that, according to me, Putin has in mind. Never mind what Zelensky has to give up. Surely it can't be as dire as giving up his entire country, seeing it burned to the ground.

Can't our diplomats rope in some European leaders, perhaps even China, and work out some kind of package Putin might look at? Yes, he's weathering our sanctions all right, there's not much leverage left there; but as a Russian patriot, does he really want a vast expanse of rubble on his border, populated — to the degree it will be populated — by bitterly resentful Russia-haters?

This is a war of two nationalisms: Russian nationalism and Ukrainian nationalism. Russian nationalism right now is looking like a sick, bullying style of nationalism.

Russia isn't going away, though. We have to understand their nationalism, and figure out how to live with it. That starts with talking to them across a table.

Unleash the diplomats!


08 — Miscellany.     And now, our closing miscellany of brief items.

Imprimis:  This weekend sees the first round of voting in France's presidential election, and things look interesting … or, I guess, intéressant.

The current president, Emmanuel Macron, is leading in the polls, but only by a whisker. The National Conservative candidate, Marine Le Pen, is nipping at his heels, and looks set fair to be Macron's sole opponent in the second round on April 24th.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, the Instapundit guy, had a good piece on the election in today's New York Post. He borrows from a different writer the phrase "Resentment Coalition" to describe the coming together of the traditional left and the traditional right in common loathing of the elite. It's happening in France, says Glenn, and it's happening here, too.


Many Americans on the left and the right are starting to realize they hate the establishment more than they hate each other. This, of course, terrifies the elites.

End quote.

Of course! I savor their terror.


Item:  ICE, which is to say Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is giving smartphones to illegal border-crossers. They tell us the phones have a tracking app installed, so that ICE can always know where they are.

Some unkind people have pointed out that there is nothing to stop the illegals from throwing the phones away once out of sight from ICE. I doubt there'll be any need for that. Given a week or two to figure it out, some 14-year-old hacker will disable the tracker app, then broadcast how to do that on the internet. So this will be free smartphones for illegal aliens.

From the wider point of view, this is a bit stingy, isn't it? What, just a lousy smartphone? Why not give each illegal an automobile, so they can get around more easily? Electric, of course. Gotta keep down that carbon footprint.


Item:  Here's one I'm going to file under the heading: "The Sovietization of America."

It concerns Detroit Opera, which advertises itself as, quote: "the premier multi-disciplined producer and presenter for opera, musical theatre, and dance in the Great Lakes Region." Well, three cheers for that. I'm glad to know that there are people working to keep high culture alive in the windswept wastes beyond the New Jersey Turnpike.

I'd be even gladder if I had not seen the notice at their website about their COVID-19 Safety Plan. It requires patrons to wear a mask at all times, unless actively eating or drinking, regardless of vaccination status. It doesn't insist that the singers wear masks, too, though, so I guess we should be thankful for small mercies.

That wasn't what brought Sovietization to mind. What did was a story in the March 30th Daily Mail.

The story concerns Puccini's opera La bohème, in the final scene of which the heroine, Mimì, dies from TB, notwithstanding her lungs have delivered several lusty arias in previous scenes. Hey, it's opera.

Quote from the Daily Mail story, quote:

A Detroit opera house is staging Puccini's classic La bohème backwards to give it a more uplifting ending, with the fourth act first in what the director says is a more fitting and hopeful version for the post-pandemic era.

End quote.

It brought to mind something I read once back in Cold War days about the Bolshoi Ballet changing the ending of Swan Lake. Instead of Odette and the Prince drowning together in the lake, this Soviet version left them living happily ever after together.

There must be no gloom, no darkness in the Paradise of the Proletariat, you see? Only sweetness, success, fulfillment.

Plainly the producers at Detroit Opera have the same Soviet philosophy. Heaven help us!


09 — Signoff.     That's all I have, ladies and gents. Thank you for listening; and to those of you attending's conference at the castle the weekend of April 22nd, I look forward to seeing you there.

That mention of Puccini's La bohème of course cues my signout music. For the benefit of listeners who know nothing about opera, I should explain that La bohème is firmly in the middlebrow zone of the opera repertoire. It is in fact traditionally a starter opera — the first one you engage with. Serious opera buffs roll their eyes at it as shamefully … popular. Eiuw!

That's OK with me. My tastes are incorrigibly middlebrow. I have musically sophisticated friends who keep urging me to engage with Messiaen, Bartók, and Stockhausen. I sit and listen, give it an honest try, but come away with nothing at all — well, nothing I can sing while driving my car.

So yes, I love La bohème. Here's the great Renata Tebaldi as Mimì belting out one of those arias.

There will be more from Radio Derb next week.


[Music clip: Renata Tebaldi, "Ma quando vien lo sgelo …"]

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