The Strategic Tricksterism of Herman Kahn

‘Better to operate with detachment, then; better to have a way but infuse it with a little humor; best to have no way at all but instead the wit constantly to make one’s way anew from the materials at hand.’

~Lewis Hyde, ‘Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art’

‘I am against fashionable thinking.’

~Herman Kahn

herman kahn

As someone who is deeply interested in the think tank world (and eventually perhaps finding employment there) I have long been fascinated by Herman Kahn. This is a field which attracts already-made celebrities, bur rarely creates them first. But with Kahn, it did. Or to put it closer to the truth, he was one of the rare disruptive personalities to make a name for himself there.

I recently finished Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi’s excellent part-biography part-Cold War think tank survey ‘The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War’ and was immediately struck by the kindred spirit painted so adeptly on her pages. I had known about Kahn before of course, but only related to his book ‘On Thermonuclear War’ and the effect it had on the popular consciousness at the time of its publication in 1961 (most obviously as the declared inspiration for the Dr. Strangelove character in the film of the same name). Seeing a personal portrait of the comical, self-deprecating man who fired off jokes about mothers learning to love their two headed babies twice as much in the event of a nuclear war, all while giving presentations to the media, the Air Force, and peace activists alike really helped flesh out Kahn’s larger than life persona better than even his controversial and potentially horrifying book on strategy.

Kahn was an early prodigy who breezed into Air Force logistics and support during World War II before devoting himself to wargaming, systems analysis, and work at the RAND Corporation. Within the organization he made a name for himself as an affable eccentric who loved to argue and play the contrarian. In some of the most establishment settings imaginable he upset norms and provided outsider insight.

All this was just prelude though. ‘On Thermonuclear War’ was coming, and popular culture was about to take note. Kahn wrote a book which somehow managed to offend everyone. Nuclear War was removed from a pedestal of ‘the final option’ to something real and almost mundane. Like a battlefield everyone lost but some lost much more than others, meaning of course that there were still winners and losers. Intercontinental exchanges of ICBMs became part numbers game and part tactical risk. It was doable, it was a real possibility, and there would still be a world left when it was all over.

Everyone lost it. The right threw a conniption because Kahn simply viewed the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. as nation-state rivals and gave no significant credence to any ideological element of the Cold War in his strategies (he had remarked in his personal life that he hated right wingers and refused to even eat dinner with them). The left by and large had a meltdown, seeing  the doomsday scenario treated in such a detached and occasionally flippant manner as the ultimate in diseased military-industrial complex thinking. The defense establishment itself worried about bad PR but had a more sedate reaction, even if Kahn personally rubbed them the wrong way with his jokes and gross inserts (he had once blurted out to officers that the military command were unthinking brutes about grand strategy and only capable of having ‘wargasms’-a term he coined and which would appear intermittently in nerd culture-most importantly to child-me in the late 90s action/strategy hybrid game ‘Wargasm.‘)

But Kahn wasn’t some mad technocrat simply crunching the numbers of people’s lives like the human resources department from hell. He was someone who saw quite simply that if at least two nations on Earth were willing to build and stockpile massive amounts of nuclear weapons than there was the obvious chance they might be used. This did not mean the world would immediately come to an end or that strategy had become obsolete. In fact, the idea that nuclear weapons could only lead to an immediate end of all things meant that they were less likely to be taken seriously as a threat both at home and abroad. Kahn took nuclear warfare seriously and many, if not most, of the establishment did not. So to get their attention he talked about a very real possibility of nuclear war in a manner deemed ‘unprofessional’. Crude jokes making light of the most dire subject matter ironically got people to take the unthinkable seriously, and thus start thinking about it. It was reported that once translations had been made, the Soviet leadership was all over the book just as much as the Pentagon was.

Since there never was a massive nuclear exchange, we may never know how good Kahn’s strategies were. But this is far less relevant compared to the discussion he started. He became target number one of the peace and anti-nuclear movements, who he was willing to meet in person. They often left discussions with him in a glow, feeling the man was both affable and respectable. No one, save one particularly vindictive book reviewer, viewed him as a threat. In the end some peace movements would even embrace his arguments, seeing them as the stark truth of the necessity of their cause laid bare in a neutral tone.

On the other side, many of his own employers were not exactly enthused with the kind of attention they were now getting. Feeling stifled by RAND after the release of his book, Kahn would go on to found The Hudson Institute, which seems to have somewhat different overall priorities today but at the time was his own personal project with some friends. It is the hallmark of the trickster, as they go along they travel constantly and upset the status quo, turning enemies into friends and friends into enemies but always leaving the world changed.

Could another international relations trickster exist (aside from this blog of course) and have such an impact from within the insider world of strategic analysis? Of course. But would they be able to get as far into the popular mind before being given the boot? One doubts it as things are now. The influx of raw talent from outside the calcified circles of the elite in past eras was caused by the mass mobilization of World War II. The perpetual defense mechanisms in place since have had no such upheavals however, and the reinforcement of tropes in thinking seems extremely strong.

But these things do tend to come in cycles. One day the tropes will fail, the complacency will shake, and outsider advice will need to be sought again. Nothing can stay the same forever.

The question is will I, this blog, and it’s mission of reinvigorating strategy from without, live to see it? And if so, where? As Kahn himself said about professional tones and overly serious working culture:

‘One does not do research in a cathedral. Awe is fine for those who come to worship or admire, but for those who come to analyze, to change, to tamper, to criticize…sometimes a colorful approach is to be preferred.’

Anyway, using the phrase ‘systems analysis’ seriously makes me think immediately of vaporwave, so have some on the house:

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