On Balance

At the beginning of 2018 the alarm bells are ringing. Doomsayers are crawling out of their holes, terrifying the rest of us with their predictions. Including, pollution, global warming, anti-biotic-resistant germs, nuclear war (especially in northeast Asia), computers that are more intelligent than we are, and what not. Accordingly, this is as good a time as any to draw up a balance of what we humans have achieved and not achieved on our particular cosmic speck of dust over the last few millennia or so.

Without any further preliminaries, here goes


What we have achieved


By some studies, 70,000 years ago humanity numbered just a few thousand individuals. Today the figure stands at about 7.6 billion. Had something similar applied to any other species, e.g chimpanzees, surely we would have called it an unparalleled triumph. Some ninety percent of the increase, incidentally, took place during the last two centuries or so.

We have extended our life expectancy from less than thirty years during the Neolithic to a little over seventy years today. Most of the increase also took place during the last two centuries or so.

We have reduced women’s perinatal mortality by approximately 95 percent. Ditto.

We have more or less done away with a number of important killer diseases. The last global outbreak of a pandemic that killed tens of millions was the so-called Spanish flu in 1919-20. Since then, all we’ve had is flashes in the pan. Hats off to the medical establishment.

The kind that is self-inflicted apart, we have more or less overcome famine. In many parts of the world today we are more likely to die of overeating than of not eating enough.

We have made life more comfortable. In fact, such are the amenities most of us in the West in particular enjoy as to exceed anything available even to royalty until the middle of the nineteenth century.

We have vastly increased our understanding of the universe, the things it contains, and the laws according to which it works.

Our technological genius has enabled us to set foot on the bottom of the sea as well as the surface of the moon. Also, to explore the planets. It has even enabled us to build machines that think, after a fashion.

We have built weapons capable of more or less putting an end to us. Though whether or not that should be counted as an achievement is hard to say.

What we have not achieved

We have not succeeded in uniting humanity under a single government (not that such a government would necessarily be a blessing).

We have not put an end to war.

We have not surpassed the achievements of, say, the ­ancient Greeks in such fields as sculpture, architecture, literature, drama, rhetoric, philosophy, and historiography.

We have not put an end to misery or to madness.

We have not made life less stressful. Some claim, to the contrary.

We have become no happier.

My grandfather used to say that, while growing old was good, being old was bad. That was almost certainly true during the Paleolithic It remains true today.

We have not put an end to death (though that may very well be a good thing).

Pace Freud and the entire psychological community, we do not understand ourselves any better than we did millennia ago. Did anyone ever understand human nature better than Shakespeare did?

Feminist claptrap to the contrary, the gap that separates men from women has not closed or even narrowed. Men are still from Mars and women, from Venus. Make up your own mind as to whether that is good or bad.

We still have no direct knowledge of the way animals think. Nor improved methods of communicating with them.

We have not become wiser.

Everyone thinks he or she knows about education. So how come we have not yet found a way to make our children better than ourselves?

We have not built a kinder, gentler, more just society. Nor, though everything is relative, is there any question of eliminating poverty.

We have not improved our methods of dealing with evil, when and where it raises its ugly face.

We have not closed the gap between free will and determinism even by one jota.

We have not discovered the secret of life. As a result, we are unable to create it either.

We are unable to control the weather or even forecast it much more than a week in advance.

We are unable to predict earthquakes.

We do not know what the future will bring. That means we are not in charge of our destiny.

We still do not know whether God exists.


Make up your own mind which of those two lists predominates.

On Technology and War (3)

Two weeks ago I tried to answer the question, how to use military-technological superiority when one has attained it. A week ago, to point out the things that technology does not change and will not change and cannot change. Today’s post is the last in the mini-series. I want to use it in order to ask: How is a new military technology received, and what happens to it once it is received?

Many of you will be familiar with the name of Giulio Douhet (1869-30). The Italian general who in 1921, published Il dominio dell’aereo, probably the most famous volume on the topic ever written. His portrait graced this column last week. But it is not this book I want to discuss here. In 1913 Douhet was a major on the general staff. In that capacity he produced an article on the above question, which I have used as my guide.

Stage A. A new technology is introduced. Normally this is done by the inventors and manufacturers who hope to make a profit and turn to the military as a potentially very large client. The idea meets with skepticism on the part of the officers who are sent to examine it. Though ingenious it is a mere toy, or so they declare. Good examples for this argument can be found in the Zeppelin; heavier than air aircraft; the submarine; and the tank. All of which were invented before 1914, and all of which initially met this fate. There is even a story about a British regimental commander, who receiving a couple of machine guns, told his men to take the “bloody things” to the wing and hide them.

Stage B. The manufacturers do not give up. They continue to push, sometimes by offering their invention to an enemy of the country they first approached. Sir Basil Zaharoff, though not an inventor but a merchant, was the undisputed master in this game, selling warships to both Turkey and Greece. Slowly and gradually, the military undergo a limited shift. They are now ready to see whether there is any way in which they can incorporate the new weapon or weapon system into the existing organizations without, however, acknowledging the need to change that organization in any fundamental way. At times indeed, they start adopting a new invention in order to prevent change; as the German Luftwaffe did when it developed the V-1 as a counter to the early ballistic missiles favored by the land army. Other good examples of the attempt to pour new weapons into old organizations are, once again, the heavier-than-air aircraft, and the submarine. And the aircraft carrier, of course.  

Stage C. Quite suddenly, the wind changes. As older officers die or retire, younger ones—those in charge of the new technologies and in favor of them—start shouting their virtues from the rooftops. Military history is making a fresh start! They (the new technologies) are about to take over! Everything else is ripe for the dustbin! And so on and so on. Douhet himself set the example. By the time he wrote his book he had convinced himself that armies and navies were about to disappear and that aviation, like the Jewish God in one of the prayers addressed to him, “all alone would rule in awe.” Similar claims on behalf of aircraft were made in the US by General Billy Mitchel; whereas in Britain another officer, Colonel John Fuller, was doing the same on behalf of tanks. Nowadays they are being made on behalf of artificial intelligence and autonomous killing machines among other things,

Stage D. It becomes evident that, useful as the new technologies are, they do not provide answers to all problems. As the defense becomes stronger, pilots find that their aircraft cannot simply bomb the hell out of whomever they want at any time they want. Submariners discover that, without support from the air (later, satellites), their ability to find their targets is very limited. Tanks are threatened by anti-tank guns and are, moreover, only useful in certain, well-defined, kinds of terrain. Carriers have to be escorted by entire fleets of anti-missile destroyers, anti-submarine destroyers, and supply ships. And autonomous killing machines kill indiscriminately. Briefly, the new technologies must be integrated with everything else: strategy, tactics, command and control, logistics, intelligence, doctrine, training and what not.

Stage E. Following the usual logistic curve, shown above, the process of reorganization has been driven as far as it will ever be and is now flattening out. Advanced, even revolutionary, weapons and weapon systems have become an integral part of the forces. Perhaps, as in the case of carriers from 1941 on, their lynchpin. By this time most of those who initially opposed the changes are gone. A new generation officers has risen and takes things as they now are for granted. And they start asking themselves: What has really changed?

Which, of course, itself is both cause and consequence why, as we have seen, so much does not change.

On Technology and War (2)

In last week’s post I addressed the following question: In view of rapid military-technological development that affects every aspect of war, how to best use military-technological superiority in order to win? Today, while remaining in the same general field, I want to look at the relationship between technology and war from a different point of view. In view of the speed and comprehensiveness of change, are there any aspects of war that remain essentially the same?

  1. The causes of war. Whether war is due to man’s nature (which is inclined towards evil from his youth on, as the Talmud puts it), or to structural problems inside human communities (as Rousseau and Marx, each in his own way, claimed), or to issues that arise between those communities (which seems to be the “realist” position), is moot. Nor is there any shortage of other explanations, including evolutionary ones such as are rooted in our biological nature. Which of them is correct I shall not presume to judge. What I do want to emphasize, though, is that not one of the has anything to do with technology; they are the same now as they were about fifteen thousand years ago when war, to the best of our knowledge, was firs invented.
  2. War requires an enemy. Without an enemy, no war. Many years ago, I had this fact brought home to me by a director general of the Australian ministry of defense with whom I had a conversation. He had succeeded he said, in formulating a strategy for a country that does not, or did not at that time, face any threat. With Papua-New Guinea to the north, Chile to the east, South Africa to the west, and penguins to the south, a difficult feat indeed! War, to put it in a different way, consists of the interaction between two (or more) belligerents. A single blow, delivered without opposition and over before it has even started, is not war.
  3. Strategy. Originating in ancient Greece (stratos means army, or host; strategos means general, strategama means stratagem, and strategia, generalship) strategy has become one of the buzzwords of our age. Definitions vary. The way I understand it, it is the art of waging a conflict between two or more opponents, each of whom has the right and the ability to pursue his objective while actively trying to prevent the other from doing the same. So understood, strategy is the same regardless of the environment in which war is waged (land, sea, air, space, cyberspace); the level at which it is waged, high or low; and the size of the forces that wage it. And also, nota bene, of the kind of technology in use at any particular place and time.
  4. War is the domain of uncertainty, friction, hunger, thirst, fatigue, deprivation, suffering, pain, and death. Also, last not least, sorrow. So it has been, so it is, and so it will remain. Such being the case, the qualities needed for waging war do not change. At the level of the individual they are courage in the face of death, determination, endurance, and perhaps a certain kind of callousness as well; fighting is no business for the soft of heart. At that of the unit or formation they include discipline, cohesion, and sheer fighting power; and at that of the commander, all of these plus the willingness and ability to bear the horrendous responsibility involved. All this was true at the time when Roman legionaries, carrying javelins, swords, helmets, body armor, and greaves conquered the oikoumene (known world). And all this remains true in the face of today’s most advanced and most powerful weapons and weapon systems.
  5. The difficulty of containing escalation. Starting a war may—perhaps—be a rational act. One that those in charge perform with a clear mind on the basis of cool calculation. No sooner does it break out, though, then things change. Whether for hormonal or for psychological reasons, the most elementary and most powerful emotions known to man emerge from deep inside the soul and start playing a major role. Among them are anger, fury, revenge, cruelty, and above all, hatred. Under such conditions making sure that war does not degenerate into a sheer orgy of violence, which is of no use to anyone, but continues to follow the direction of policy is certain to be very difficult, not seldom impossible.


See you next week.

On Technology and War (1)

As anyone who casts even an occasional and superficial view at the media knows, military-technological development, driven by hundreds of billions in R&D funding, is proceeding at a furious pace. Not a day passes without the announcement of some new and revolutionary weapons and weapon systems that have recently transformed the entire face of war or are about to do so in the near future. The objective is always the same: namely, to obtain that elusive and often ill-defined thing, military-technological superiority.

As one who has spent much of his life studying military history, specifically the interaction between technology and war, today I want to address the following question. Suppose you have got this kind of superiority. In that case, how do you go about using it?


  1. On its own, even the most novel and most powerful weapon or weapon system is useless. That is why it is essential to embed it in everything else that waging war involves. Including, at the very least, organization, logistics, training, doctrine, strategy and tactics. The officers responsible for all these fields must learn what the technology they are working with can and, above all, cannot do. Also, which is equally important, how the various factors interact and how to make them work together in a seamless team.
    A good example of what can happen if this is not done is provided by the rise of modern armored divisions. Come 1940, it was the French who had the most and the heaviest tanks. However, it was the Germans who, having learnt how to use them along with other technologies in an armored division, went ahead and won a victory so spectacular as to turn into a legend.
  2. Any weapon (except nuclear ones, against which the only defense is deterrence) can, in principle, be countered by one means or another. The enemy is not stupid. That is why, the longer the war the more likely this is to happen. Such being the case, the side with technological superiority has a strong interest in making sure that the war is as short as possible. And the other way around, of course.
  3. To shorten the war, it is necessary to take the enemy by surprise. To take the enemy by surprise, the new technology must be developed and introduced in secret, as far as possible. A technology whose existence and characteristics are known is a technology half-countered. But pay heed: maintaining secrecy comes at a price. It can lead to a situation where one’s own troops do not know the new technology as well as they should and where the integrated whole mentioned above is not achieved. A well-known example was the mitrailleuse, an early kind of machine gun. Come war in 1870, it was a revolutionary weapon the French alone possessed. Being large and heavy, though, it was misunderstood and misemployed as an artillery weapon. In World War II, the fear lest the Germans would use proximity fuses against the Allied bombers caused Washington to delay their operational use by about one year.
  4. Any new technology should be used en masse. Short of nukes, rarely if ever in war has any weapon been so powerful as to be capable of acting as a silver bullet. That is why new ones must be husbanded until there are enough of them around to make a real difference. The British in 1915-17 violated this principle. As a result, their armored attacks made little impression on the German defenses. Only towards the end of 1917 did things begin to change. As Guderian, the creator of modern armored warfare, used to put it during the 1930s: boot them, don’t tickle them.
  5. Following directly from this premise, the new technology should be used at the decisive point. In other words, at that point where it can do the greatest good to one’s own side and the greatest harm to the other. Again, 1940—the German breakthrough at Sedan—provides as good a case in point as may be had. French armor was so dispersed that entire units never saw any action at all. By contrast, the German armored divisions were concentrated against a single sector of the French front (so much so, in fact, that the queue of vehicles reached back a hundred kilometers all the way across the Rhine). Supposing there is no decisive point, a situation of which Afghanistan provides a particularly good example, not even the greatest military-technological superiority will be of much avail. The outcome is likely to be a long war which will finally be decided by attrition

Is that enough for today? See you next week.

How Have Heroes Fallen

For those of you who are too young, or have forgotten: there used to be a time when the Israeli military was supposed to be one of the best, perhaps the best, in the world. This was particularly the case between about 1967 and 1973. In 1967 the Israel Defense Force (IDF) only took six days to defeat several Arab armies which, between them, enjoyed a two-and-a-half to threefold numerical superiority over it. In 1973, though similarly outnumbered, it succeeded in repulsing a surprise attack and ended by threatening both Damascus and Cairo. At the time and later—but especially at the time—rivers of ink were spilt in an attempt to explain the “secret” behind these performances. Here I don’t intend to recapitulate the literature in question. Suffice it to say that, when everything is said and done, all of it came down to three factors: motivation, motivation, and motivation.

Today, though, that motivation is no longer there. Official figures how that the percentage of conscripts who volunteer for combat units, especially but not exclusively the armored corps and artillery, has reached an all-time low. What follows is a brief analysis of a few of the causes that have got the IDF into this sad state.

  1. Social changes. In the Israel in which I grew up, the Israel of the 1950s and 1960s, the best thing anyone could be was a soldier and a “fighter” (in English). To the point where the first Hebrew-language song I, having arrived from the Netherlands as a four-year old, learnt had to do with how wonderful soldiers were and how the girls should welcome them (instead of looking for opportunities to accuse them of sexual harassment, as is currently the case). To the point where people sent each other New Year cards with pics of soldiers, tanks, jeeps, etc. And to the point where youngsters who for one reason or another were not drafted sometimes committed suicide. But no longer. Much the best positions the IDF has to offer are in intelligence, computers, and combinations of the two. To the point where people are prepared to pay for having their offspring enter them. And with good reason: as was described in D. Senor and S. Singer’s Startup Nation (2011), it is these units that lead to good jobs and, here and there, great wealth. Adding a hundred dollars to combat soldiers’ monthly pay, which has recently been decided upon, is unlikely to change this situation.
  2. The role of women in the military. The IDF during its years of glory was the world’s only army to draft women and provide them with some kind of weapons training, albeit that it was almost purely symbolic. In return for not having to fight or shed their blood, women served for shorter periods, had to be content with less glamorous work, and enjoyed limited prospects for promotion. No longer. Owing to their physical weakness, women are still very rare in any units where they have to do excessively heavy work, let alone such in which they might become casualties if war breaks out. For example, when announcing the graduation of the first thirteen “tankwomen” the other day the IDF was careful to point out that they would not serve in any dangerous sectors. Nor is it clear who is going to do the heavy maintenance work required. Women can volunteer for “combat” units if they feel like it; men are assigned even against their will. Meanwhile, in units and positions that do not come under fire and do not require such work, women have gained complete equality. Women in other words, get all the cushy jobs. Nor, owing the above-mentioned social changes, can men compensate by serving in combat units. Not to put too fine a point on it, men get screwed.
  3. Until 1973 inclusive the IDF always fought enemies stronger, or at any rate more numerous, than itself. As it did so it heaped glory on itself. No longer. Starting as far back as the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, it has fought weak opponents almost exclusively. So much so, indeed, that in many cases the term fought—as against Palestinian kids armed with nothing more dangerous than rocks—has become a misnomer and should have been put in apostrophes. Fighting the weak, the IDF became weak. Its performance deteriorated and its victories no longer counted as such. To quote Friedrich Nietzsche, nothing is more boring than a victory endlessly repeated. Especially because, as the very need to repeat them shows, the victories in question are, in reality, no victories at all.

So far, the IDF. But this blog gets read in many different places around the world. Does any of this remind anyone of the situation in your own countries?


Guest Article: The View of the Jade Emperor: Why North Korea is Right for China

By Karsten Riise

It is always a delight to read William S. Lind. His informed way of putting issues on their head is thought-inspiring, and always makes you wiser – even if, as in this particular case, he happens not to be right.

Is North Korea really a disadvantage to China?

In an analysis “The North Korea Threat to China” 9 November 2017, Lind argues, that North Korea should be seen as a threat by China. Briefly put, his argument is that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons may induce Japan, South Korea, and perhaps even one day Vietnam to acquire their own nuclear arsenal. And that indigenous nuclear arsenals in the hands of China’s immediate neighbors would make it difficult for China to create a buffer-zone of client states around herself.

It serves China

This argument neglects the Olympic fact that China is already confronted by an enormous arsenal of US nuclear weapons, based in South Korea, Okinawa and aboard the US Navy. It also overlooks the fact that some American leaders, due to their country’s faraway location, may be much more prone to risk a nuclear confrontation in East Asia than the indigenous countries inside the region are.

Accordingly, my response to Lind is that China must be happy with North Korea and its nuclear policies. If North Korea can somehow cause the enormous arsenal of US nuclear weapons on China’s doorstep to be swapped for a much smaller nuclear arsenal controlled by the people who live close to China’s borders, and who depend on good relations with China, not only for their survival, but also for their prosperity – then China should be satisfied. 

Finally, we must remember that North Korea has a pivotal role as a friendly buffer state for China. 

North Korea needs a nuclear deterrent

Unfortunately North Korea needs nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the USA. 

In 1945, the USA used nuclear bombs not once but twice. You might have thought that one such mass-killing was enough. But it wasn’t. General Douglas McArthur wanted to use nuclear weapons against North Korea, but fortunately was prevented from doing so by his president, Harry Truman. At the time, in closed talks, the US leaders shocked the British by casually hinting that the USA was considering attacking Communist China with nuclear weapons. To calm their allies they said that, in that case, they would “avoid striking the bigger cities” (Gribb-Fitzgibbons, Imperial Endgame, 2011). During the Vietnam War Henry Kissinger, according to a TV documentary, raised the possibility of “nuking” North Vietnam, telling Nixon “don’t be so shy about it”. 

Numerous historic deliberations of the USA to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear adversaries, and the way the USA breaks its commitment on the Iran nuclear deal, all confirm this. 

North Korea needs intercontinental capability

Now you would think that North Korean possession of nuclear weapons capable of devastating its neighbors Japan and South Korea should be enough to deter the USA from attacking. But unfortunately it is not. 

The current panic in Washington DC, just as North Korea is on the verge of acquiring missiles capable of reaching the continental USA, proves that, deep inside the minds of US leaders, there has been a false sense of comfort that any US escalation to a nuclear exchange involving North Korea could not touch the American homeland. It even seems to make a difference to US leaders whether North Korea can “only” reach Guam, Alaska or California – or if North Korea can hit their own personal residences in Washington DC. Now, due to North Korea’s new long-range missiles, that false sense of US comfort in its ability to apply nuclear blackmail is about to evaporate. 

In other words, North Korea now makes sure that nuclear deterrence in East Asia will become absolutely effective. 

It is often argued that North Korea is somehow posing a problem for China. That is entirely wrong. North Korea acts as a “wild-dog on a leash” – and China holds the leash. This is exactly similar to the old play of “good-cop”/“bad-cop.” North Korea plays the role of “bad-cop,” and allows China to play the “moderator.” Thus China can always enter the scene as the “good-regional-cop,” as an indispensable partner in talks with the USA. 

China’s play-book works every single time.

China now gets into an even better position vs. the USA

Armed with nuclear missiles capable of reaching Washington DC, North Korea becomes an even better “bad-cop.” As the false sense of comfort of the US leadership vanishes, the “wild-dog” on China’s leash becomes ever more awe-inspiring for the USA. 

Now the USA needs China even more, so as to handle the “wild-dog.”

What China – and North Korea – do is, from their point of view, quite correct.

No Escape

Of Saint Augustine it used to be said that anyone who claimed to have read everything he wrote was lying. The same is true of Philip Roth. I do not claim to have read everything he has written. But I have read pretty much, and each time I add another volume I am astonished at how good a writer he really is.

The Dying Animal, the book I want to discuss today, just fell into my hands by accident. Published as long ago as 2001, it is as fresh today as it was then. The basic story is simple. The life of the protagonist, David Kepesh, has been described in some of Roth’s previous books. Now he is a moderately well-known art critic in New York. He appears on local TV and radio on a regular basis and teaches a class in “creative criticism.” Needless to say, most of his students are young women. Each year he immediately notices the one he wants. There are, however, any number of spoilsports around. That is why he waits until the course is over and all the grades have been handed out. At that point he invites the students to a party at his home, and the mating game can get under way.

Her name is Consuela Castillo. She is twenty-four to his sixty-two. As Roth is careful to point out, the attraction is mutual. He is attracted to her reverence for him as well as her beauty. Especially the erect way she carries herself (she is Cuban, and very proud) and her “powerful” breasts. The latter she is careful to put on show by keeping the upper three buttons of her blouse open. She is attracted to the courteous way he treats her, his relative renown, and his culture. In addition to being a literary critic he plays the piano, albeit not too well. So different from men of her own age who “masturbate” on her body, as she puts it.

Some feminist critics, desperately jealous of their younger “sisters,” have denounced Roth and his protagonist as typical male chauvinist pigs. For the benefit of any members of that extraordinary breed—feminists—who may be reading these lines, let me emphasize: Consuela is not an innocent victim. She has slept with men before. Even as she sleeps with David she also sleeps with others, including two brothers. She is neither too stupid to understand what is going on nor, as we soon learn, too weak to say no. In fact it is hard to say who, David or Consuela, leads the other in the minuet that slowly, inevitably, takes them to bed. By presenting Consuela as if she were an unwitting ninny, the critics in question do her a much greater injustice than David ever did. If, indeed, he did her any injustice at all.

In fact it is Kepesh, much the older of the two and very much aware of approaching death even when they are making love, who holds the weaker cards. She can throw him out at any time. A year and a half into their affair, when he refuses to join a party her family is throwing in which he would have to pretend he is nothing to her but a kindly old teacher, that is just what she does.

The loss of Consuela sends David into a depression that lasts for years. What we, the readers, get are his memories and his thoughts. About sex, that enormously powerful drive no one, young or old, can ignore. About nature which, for reasons of its own, has made men basically polygamous (marriage kills sex, is what Roth says not only in this volume but in several others as well). About nature which, again for reasons of its own, has made women want nothing as much as children, which of course implies a long-term, stable, relationship even if, over time, it becomes sexless. About the man—David’s son—who, trapped into a marriage he hates, takes a mistress and is crushed by the resulting burden of guilt. About another man who, trapped into a marriage he hates, escapes from it, only to quickly enter into another one just like it.

About the young woman (not Consuela) who, overwhelmed by the freedom modern contraceptives provide her with, uses it to do exercise her right of sleeping around with anyone she wants and ends up with serial divorce and a nervous breakdown. About the woman who, determined to do whatever it takes to have a good career, attains that goal—only to discover that she is past the age at which one can fall deeply, deeply in love and that what she really wants, i.e. a family and children, is beyond her reach. About the childless couple who call five times a day so as to forget that, in reality, they have nothing to say to one another. And about the man and the woman, both of them unattached and independent and mature people, who are looking for a “pure” relationship based exclusively on free will and mutual attraction. Only to discover that time creates its own obligations and that such a relationship does not exist.

Another six and a half years have passed. David is seventy now. All of a sudden Consuela reenters his life. She is thirty-two, a young woman in the prime of life. Even better looking than before. But she has cancer. One of those glorious breasts is going to be cut off, and she worries no man will ever love her again. Besides, her chances of survival are just sixty percent. Of course she is terrified. Most of her immediate relatives having died, she turns—where else?—not to any of the young men she has slept with. But to the one man who, though he is no longer sexually attracted to her, she knows she can trust. Absolutely and unconditionally. She asks David to photograph those magnificent breasts of hers from every side and angle, which he obligingly does. Next thing he knows, she calls him. In the middle of the night. She needs him right by her side. And he knows that, if he goes, he will be “finished.”

Roth is too good a writer to tell us the outcome of all this. But the moral, I think, is clear. However much we may twist and turn, and however much feminists may rant and rave, neither men nor women can escape from what nature has made them.a

When I Dipt into the Future

I. What I am Trying to Do

As some readers will no doubt know, the title of this post has been taken from Alfred Tennyson’s poem “Locksley Hall.” Written in 1835, and first published seven years later, it recounts the musings of a rejected suitor. Wandering about, at one point he reminisces about the happy times when he “dipt into the future/far as human eye could see/Saw the vision of the world/And all the wonder that would be.” But just how did he do so? Metaphorically speaking, what kind of “bucket” did he bring to bear?

Tennyson’s unnamed protagonist was hardly the only one who ever tried his hand at this game. To mention a few outstanding names only, when the prophets Isaiah (and Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and all the rest) tried to foresee what the future would bring, what methodology did they use? And how about the Greek Pythia? The Roman Sybil? Nostradamus? Jules Verne? H. G. Wells? Stephen Hawking? Ray Kurzweil? Yuval Harari?

By now, I have spent a year trying to answer these questions. In the hope, of course, of one day writing a book about them. One that will put the matter into perspective and explain, if not how good or bad the various methods are and how they may be improved, at any rate when and where they originated, how they developed, the principles on which they rested, and how they related to others of their kind. As a first step, I want to devote today’s post to providing a brief summary of some the most important methods people have been using.

II. Some Methods of Looking into the Future Explained

1. Shamanism. Shamanism is widespread all over the world, particularly among societies made up of hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists. Tribes without rulers, as I have called them in another book. Imported into modern cities, especially those of the so-called Third World, in many places it is active even today. At the root of shamanism is the assumption that, to look into the future, it is necessary first of all to leave the “normal” world by entering into an altered state of consciousness (ASC). The methods used to do so vary enormously from one culture to another. Among the most common are music (especially drumming), dancing, prayer, solitude, fasting, long vigils, sexual abstinence (or its opposite, engaging in orgies), breathing exercises, alcoholic drinks, hallucinogenic drugs, and many others.
In each of these cases, the objective is to embark the shaman on a mysterious voyage which will take him into a different country, realm, or reality. One in which the difference between present, past and future is eliminated and the last-named becomes an open book to read.

2. Prophecy. Also known as revelation, prophecy of the kind many of us are familiar with from the Old Testament in particular is little but a more institutionalized form of shamanism. The difference is that it is not the spirits but God Himself who supposedly reveals himself to the prophet and speaks through his mouth. Sometimes, as in the famous case of Jonah, he does so even against the prophet’s will. Whereas shamans were almost always illiterate prophets tended to spend their lives in societies where either they themselves or others were able to read and write. Often the outcome was a more detailed, more cohesive, idea of what the future might bring.

3. The interpretation of dreams. Like prophecy, the interpretation of dreams goes back at least as far as the Old Testament. It, too, rests on the assumption that, by entering upon an ASC, people will be enabled to see things which, in their waking state, they cannot.

As the Biblical story about Joseph shows, dreams were supposed to deliver their message not in simple form but with the aid of symbols. Lists of such symbols are known from ninth-century century BCE Assyria and continue to be published today. Note, however, that interpreting the dreams and relating them to future events was the task, not of the person who had them but of specialists who approached the problem in a cool, analytic manner. Before delivering their verdict, they often took the dreamer’s age, sex and personal circumstances into account.

4. The Greek oracles. Oracles were extremely popular in Greece and Rome. To use the example of Delphi as the most important one of all, it centered on the Pythia. She was a woman who, sitting on a tripod in a dark subterranean abode, came under the influence of foul gasses emanating from a split in the earth. Going into a sort of trance, the Pythia let forth confused gibberish which was supposed to contain the clue to the future. Next, a special college of priests interpreted her words. Oracles, in other words, resembled the interpretation of dreams in that prediction was divided into two stages, each of these was the responsibility of a different person or persons.

5. Necromancy. The best-known case of necromancy (from the Greek, nekros, dead, and manteia, divination) is the one described in the Old Testament. King Saul, wishing to learn the outcome of a battle which will take place on the next day, asks a witch to raise the spirit of the prophet Samuel from the dead. Whereupon Samuel tells Saul that, tomorrow, he and his sons too would be dead. Necromancy also occurs in Greek and Roman sources. Virgil in particular has Aeneas visit the underground abode of the dead where he is shown the future of Rome over a period of about a millennium, no less. The basic assumption underlying necromancy is that the dead, having crossed a certain threshold, know more than the living do. Even today in some cultures, procedures for raising the dead and consulting them concerning the future are commonplace.

6. Astrology. Along with shamanism, astrology is probably the oldest method for trying to look into the future. Its roots go as far back as Babylon around 3,000 BCE. That is why, in Imperial Rome, it was known as the “Chaldean” science. At the heart of astrology is the proposition, so obvious as to be self-evident, that the sun and moon (which, before Copernicus, were classified as planets) have a great and even decisive impact on life here on earth. Building on this, its students try to make that impact more specific by also taking into account the movements of the remaining planets, the fixed stars, and the relationships among all of these.

Even today, almost one third of Americans are said to believe in astrology. True or false, that does not change the fact that, unlike any of the above-mentioned methods, it is based not on any kind of ASC but on observation and calculation. Of the kind that is practiced, and can only be practiced, by perfectly sober people in full possession of their faculties. So mathematically-rooted was astrology that it acted as the midwife of astronomy, helping the latter become the queen of the sciences. This position it retained right until the onset of the scientific revolution during the seventeenth century.

7. Divination. As Cicero in his book on the topic makes clear, neither the Greeks nor the Romans ever took an important decision without trying to divine its consequences first. Both civilizations also maintained colleges of specialized priests who were in charge of the process. The most important types of divination were the flight of birds on one hand and examining the entrails of sacrificial animals on the other.

Like astrology, but unlike shamanism, prophecy, dreams, the oracles, and necromancy, divination did not depend on people becoming in any way ecstatic, mysteriously travelling from one world to another, and the like. Instead it was a “rational” art, coolly and methodically practiced by experts who had spent years studying it and perfecting it. Today the same is true for such techniques as numerology, Tarot-card reading, etc.

8. History (a). The idea that history is a linear, non-repeating, process that leads in a straight line from far in the past to far into the future is a relatively recent one. In this form it only made its appearance after 1750 or so. Before that date history was considered to be, either the province of “again and again” (as the historian Jacob Bronowski used to put it) or of regularly occurring cycles (as Plato and many others did). If the former, and assuming that the same circumstances always lead to the same effects, then the resulting patterns could be used to look into the future; such a view is very evident both in Thucydides and in Machiavelli. If the latter, then in principle at any rate the future could be predicted on the base of the point in the cycle that had been reached.

9. History (b). Both the idea that historical patterns repeat themselves and that history itself moves in cycles are alive and well. Starting with the Enlightenment, though, they have been joined by two other ideas both of which are often used for prediction. The first, which has since become easily the most common of all, was the discovery of “trends,” a term which was hardly used before 1880 or so but which has since grown into one of the buzzwords of our age. Trends made extrapolation possible. A good example is Moore’s Law which predicted that the speed of computer would double every eighteen months. Used by countless people, the characteristic hallmark of this method are the oft-repeated words, “already now.” “Already now” the situation is such and such; hence we can expect it to be even more so in the future.

The second method consisted of dialectics. The basic idea goes back to Heraclitus’ saying, around 500 BCE, that all things originate in agon, i.e. “strife.” In its modern form, the first to bring it to the fore was the nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Hegel. In his hands it was applied to intellectual history above all. Next, it was taken over by Karl Marx. The latter, turning Hegel on his head, applied it to material factors. Both men believed that any historical trend must of necessity give rise to its opposite, thus making prediction possible in principle.

To retrace our steps, history (a) and (b) provides four different ways of looking into the future. Two of those, based on the idea that there is no change, are age-old; whereas the other two, assuming that change is the very stuff of which history is made, are of more recent vintage. What all have in common is that there is no room, in them, for ASC. Instead they are based, or are supposed to be based on sober study of recorded facts to which anyone has access.

10. Models. Modeling, like history, owes nothing to ASC. Essentially it consists of building models in order to understand how various factors that shape reality, past and hopefully future, are related and interact. The earliest, and for millennia almost the only, models were developed in order to represent the movements of the heavenly bodies. A very good example, which still survives, is the great astronomical clock of Strasbourg whose origins go back to the fourteenth century.

By definition, models are based on mathematical calculations. The more accurate the calculations, the better the model. But not all mathematical attempts to understand the world have been translated into nuts and bolts. Most remained on paper in the form of algorithms. Following the publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica in 1687 the popularity of models of this kind increased. Applied to the physical world around us, currently they represent the most sophisticated, often almost the only, method for looking into the future we have. Some go so far as to predict developments that will take place in millions and even billions of years.

Attempts to extend mathematical modelling of the future from astronomy and physics to social life go back to the Renaissance when the first firms specializing in insurance were created. Assisted by the establishment of statistical bureaus from about 1800, their use increased during the second half of the nineteenth century in particular. The introduction of computers, which made possible the procession of vast bodies of data at enormous speed, caused reliance on them to grow exponentially. This has now been taken to the point where anyone who does not use, or pretend to use, computers for prediction is likely to be regarded as a simpleton.

III. Some Tentative Concluding Comments

To misquote Tennyson, methods for looking into the future go far back as human eye can see. Probably there never has been, nor ever will be, a society which did not have them or tried to devise them as best it could. Broadly speaking, methods for looking into the future may be divided into two kinds. The first relies on ASC and focuses on applying a variety of methods for entering upon those states. The second is based, or is supposed to be based, on rational, often mathematical, analysis and calculation. Some methods, such as the interpretation of dreams and oracles, separate the person who experiences an ASC from the one who explains her or his visions and utterances. By so doing they combine them.

The two basic methods have always existed side by side. However, with the advent of the scientific revolution their relative importance changed. Previously even educated people—often enough, the best-educated people—put their trust in ASC in its various forms. Not so in the centuries since 1700 or so when they were pushed into the margins, so to speak.

However, there is no proof that even the most “rational” methods, used with or without the aid of computers, obtain better results than the rest. Generally speaking, the less grounded in physics the future we are trying to foresee the more true this is. Furthermore, and presumably because visions have greater emotional appeal than equations, the greater the stress on individuals and societies the more likely they are to revert to ASC.

The topic is enormous in size, fascinating, and very difficult. Which is why, at this point, this is all I have to say about the topic.

A Visit to Warsaw

I have been to Warsaw before. This was in the spring of 1989, just weeks before the first free elections that put an end to Communism in Poland. And twenty-two years after Poland had broken diplomatic relations with Israel, which meant that my colleagues and I were the first Israeli delegation to visit the country in all those years.

At the time Warsaw was a weird place. Clean and safe, or so we were told. Built almost entirely of bare concrete, painted exclusively in gray, a sea of unintentional brutalism gone mad. And with hardly any colored signs to relieve the depressing monotony. People living on $ 20 a month. People queuing in front of small kiosks to buy various kinds of preserved fruit, apparently the only food that was freely available. Every corner occupied by old women holding out small transparent plastic bags with a single tomato or cucumber inside. Every street swarming with black market dealers trying to con you as they changed your dollars into zloti.

Very little traffic, consisting almost entirely of locally-produced, antiquated Fiat (Polski) cars on the streets. A hotel with lousy food and no running hot water (when I called reception to tell them of the problem, they sent up a waiter with a glass containing it). Big “magazines” staffed by lazy saleswomen who spoke nothing but Polish and refused to get up if you were looking for something. Returning home, people asked me what Warsaw was like. I used to tell them it was a place where you spent a week looking for a present for an eight-year old—but could not find any.

Twenty-eight years later Warsaw is still clean—as my wife and I could see with our own eyes—and quite safe—as we were told. In other ways, though, such is the change as to merit just one description: stunning. The kiosks, the old ladies, the black market dealers, and the antiquated cars are gone. While traffic is as heavy as in any Western city drivers are, if anything more polite. People are very well dressed. Public utilities gleam with cleanliness. Color is everywhere. Shops, many of them first class (and, for those of you who are contemplating a trip, very cheap indeed) are bursting with the best imaginable merchandise: clothing shoes, leatherware, cosmetics, electronic appliances, what have you. Any number of excellent restaurants serving every imaginable kind of food. Some truly excellent museums. An extremely lively cultural scene. To be sure, compared with London or Paris Warsaw remains quite poor; the minimum wage is about 400 Euro per month. But it has gone a long, long way towards catching up.

All this is interesting, but it is not what I want to talk about today. The reason I went to Warsaw was because the Polish Staff College asked me to give some talks. I readily agreed, and so I found myself lecturing to 40-50 officers, most of them colonels (on their way to becoming generals) and lieutenant-colonels with the odd major thrown in. Average age about 35-50. As agreed, the lectures were based on my book, More on War. The course was a success and the members of the audience, most of whom spoke very good English, seemed very interested. They kept asking questions, which is always a good sign.

Again, though, this is not what I want to write about. What I do want to write about as the fact that, for the first time in God knows how many years, I found myself in a class that did not include any women. Having asked, I was told that the Polish military, which like other Western ones consists entirely of volunteers, does in fact take women; they are, however, mostly limited to ancillary tasks such as medicine, logistics, administration, etc. In the higher ranks there are hardly any women at all. One outcome being that, unlike most Western militaries, the Polish one has no difficulty attracting as many young men as it needs.

Finding myself in this unaccustomed situation, at first I kept opening my talks by saying, “ladies and gentlemen.” As the week went on, though, I discovered that not having females around has its advantages. I found myself able to mention some sensitive, but serious and interesting and important questions; and do so, what is more, without having to follow the obligatory wisdom whereby women are no different from men and can and should imitate the latter in everything. Or having to worry about some crybully getting “insulted” and running off to admin to make a tearful complaint.

Briefly, the evil winds blowing from Brussels did not make their effect felt. Political correctness did not reign. I did not have to worry about anyone feeling “embarrassed” by what I said. Though I only spent five mornings lecturing, the experience of liberation was overwhelming. What a blessing, not having to constantly look over one’s shoulder! All, paradoxically, in the one institution—the military—which is normally considered the most hierarchical and the least open to freedom of thought.

Shame on those who have brought us all to this point. However, I am happy to say that the Director of the College has asked me to come back next year. Health permitting, I most certainly will.


The cat is out of the bag: the U.S is in decline. If, perhaps, not yet in absolute terms—economic and demographic growth still continue—then at any rate relative to the rest of the world. Why this is so, and when the decline got under way, is moot. Perhaps the turning point was 1945 when 140 million Americans, forming less than six percent of the world’s population, producing fifty percent of the world’s GDP, and monopolizing nuclear weapons as well as their delivery vehicles, reached what in retrospect appears to have been the peak of their power. Perhaps 1949, when the Soviet Union tested its first nuke and started working towards parity in this respect, a situation it finally attained during the 1960s. Perhaps 1965, when the effects of de-industrialization first began to make themselves felt. Perhaps 1971, when vast balance of payment and budget deficits (which have only got worse since) forced Nixon to take the dollar off gold. Perhaps 1975, when the various wars in Indochina (Vietnam and Cambodia) ended in defeat, demonstrating the limitations of U.S military power. Perhaps 2000, when Vladimir Putin started turning his near moribund country around and when China, growing rapidly, first began to emerge as a serious competitor. Perhaps, perhaps.
Looking back, American reactions to the process have varied. Kennedy, building on Eisenhower’s Domino Theory, worried that America might be losing the Cold War. In response he initiated an enormous arms buildup and started the war in Vietnam which Johnson continued. Nixon, with Kissinger’s help, sought détente as well as a closer relationship with China. Carter seemed to resign himself to becoming number two; whereas Reagan, by way of a reaction to him, engaged in an even larger (or, at any rate, more expensive) arms buildup. To show that the US had overcome the “Vietnam Syndrome,” he even invaded Grenada. Bush Sr. invaded Panama and defeated Iraq, and Bush Jr. invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq. All, basically, to no avail.
Next, Barak Obama. The last word on his presidency has certainly not yet been written. Looking back, though, he appears to have been one of the sanest men to inhabit the White House during the last few decades. Aware of his immediate predecessor’s military failures, and even more so of the American people’s reluctance to continue shedding their blood and treasure in hopeless wars, basically he went back to the Nixon-Kissinger approach. As, for example, by trying to engage China in a vast economic web (the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership) so designed as to leave many of the cards in America’s hands. As by signing an agreement with Iran so as to avoid the need for what might very well have turned into another disastrous war. And as by cutting the defense budget so as to reduce the deficit, albeit only by a little. His reward? To be accused of short-sightedness, weakness, cowardice, and what not.
Next, Donald Trump. Kennedy, older readers will recall, rode to power on Eisenhower’s supposed weakness. Substituting Obama’s name for Eisenhower’s, Trump did the same. Personally I was ready to give him the benefit of doubt; see Jakobsen’s article, “To Trump or Not to Trump,” on this blog, 23 March 2017. Now that Trump’s own Secretary of State has been calling him a “moron,” though, all argument seems to be at the end. In less than a year Trump has failed to improve relations with Russia as he promised to do. He has also alienated his European allies, Germany above all, while at the same time pushing relations with North Korea and Iran to the point where a nuclear war no longer looks utterly impossible. All against the background of a budget deficit that is growing day by day; causing every American man, woman and child to owe him- or herself $ 60,000 or so.
Any society needs heroes. There used to be a time when America had them. Davy Crockett, who could swallow a Nigger whole if you buttered his head and pinned his ears back. Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and Co. John Wayne, who fought first bad Indians and then even worse Communists. Rambo, who fought and killed anyone who showed himself for miles around. Rocky, who at one point in his career engaged and defeated his Soviet opposite number in a sort of global boxing match.
Meanwhile the U.S went on losing one war after another—see on this my book, Pussycats. The outcome was to make these and other male heroes lose any credibility they had ever had. So what to do? Enter the women. Wonderwoman I (Lynda Carter) who, back in the 1970s, beat the stuffing out of her wicked male enemies. Xena the Warrior Princess (Lucy Lawless) who, armed with a sort of wonder ring she alone possessed, did the same during the 1990s.Wonderwoman II (Gal Gadot) who took over the role in 2016 and killed countless ferocious enemies of civilization with her bare hands. And these are just four out of dozens who made their appearance in the movies and on TV; to say nothing of any number of video- and computer games.
All these ladies have this in common that they are poor actresses (none could have played a Shakespearian heroine, not even for a zillion bucks; to be fair, though, the same applies to their male opposite numbers). Perhaps to compensate for this fact, all “fight” while dressed in some sort of outlandish swimsuit. One which, had it been real, would have directed their enemies’ weapons straight between their oh-so desirable breasts. As to the movies and TV series, what they have in common is that they are simply attempts to save America’s lost honor.
And the fact that they fit the IQ of a nine year old, of course.