Friday, December 17, 2004

Beacon No. 16: Hold the Smallpox, I'll Take the Flu


Hard power is the application of military force. No other nation dares resist the U.S. in a stand-up fight, everyone says, for fear of bringing destruction down on their own heads. For terrorists, large-scale sabotage will backfire, too: It was simple for U.S. investigators to trace the September 11 hijackers back to Al-Qa'ida, Usama bin Ladin and Afghanistan, and quickly destroy the Taliban regime. So this leaves terrorists, so far denied weapons of mass destruction, to issue tape recordings from caves and perpetrate one-off bombings. Doesn't it?

About 25 years ago, science-fiction author Frederik Pohl wrote about intermediate steps between combat and influence in The Cool War. In it, a Unitarian minister named Hornswell "Horny" Hake is shanghaied into helping a CIA successor called The Team to conduct something with elements of sabotage and propaganda, but smaller than war. Here, a Team member tells Hake how the world really works:

"There are two ways to win a race, Hake. One is to beat your opponent by sheer force. The other is to trip him up. They're playing trip-him-up with us. Why do you think we're so short of energy in this country?"

"Well, because the world is running out of—"

"Because they manipulate our balance of payments, Hake. The mark is up to three dollars, did you know that? And what about crime?"


"You've heard of crime, haven't you? It's not safe to walk the streets of any city in America today. Even our highways aren't safe, there are bus robbers in every state. Do you know why you can't get an avocado for love or money? Because somebody—somebody!—deliberately brought in insect pests that wiped out the crop."

Horny said, "I think you jumped over something about crime. I didn't quite get that part."

"It's plain, Hake! Somebody's encouraging this lawlessness. Cheap Spanish and Algerian porno flicks that show muggers and highwaymen doing it to all the girls. They look crude. But, oh, how carefully engineered! War is not all bombs and missiles, my boy. It's hurting the other fellow any way you can. And if you can hurt him so he can't prove it's happening, why, that's one for your side. And that's what they're doing to us, Hake. Here, have a look at this tape." And she threaded a cassette into a viewer.

Horny stared at it, bemused. It started way back, back before the Big Wars entirely. The peace-loving British had pioneered in this immoral equivalent for war as far back as the nineteenth century: they found a good way to discourage resistance in subject populations by encouraging them to trip out on opium. America itself had exported cigarettes and Coca-Cola around the world. Now, according to the tape, it was becoming state policy, and William James was turning in his grave. China flooded the Soviet Union with Comecon vodka at half the market price. It was not a weapon. No one died. But twenty percent of the steelworkers in Magnitogorsk were absent with hangovers on the average working day. Tokyo flooded the Marianas with cheap, high-quality sukiyaki noodles, reminding the voters of their ancestry just before the referendum that rejoined the islands to Japan. During the London water shortage just before the completion of the Rape of Scotland waterworks, Irish nationalists went around turning on hydrants and covert sympathizers left their taps running. It worked so well that Palestinian refugees, circumcised and trained for the occasion, repeated the process in Haifa to such an extent that two hundred thousand acres of orange groves died for lack of irrigation.

By now such tactics had become well institutionalized, and wholly secret. Everybody did it. Nobody talked about it.

Pohl's plot follows the reluctant Hake through his transformation into a not-so-glamorous international saboteur. For example, he chaperones a group of schoolchildren on their European goodwill tour, dispensing gifts of paired marmosets everywhere they go. The marmosets carry a disease that gives everyone recurring diarrhea—and not incidentally cuts European factory production. Meanwhile, others plot to use deniable, seemingly random events like labor strikes, messianic cults and cheap PCP to slow down their competitors.

In this world, cutting other people's efficiencies is a job for professionals employed by roughly symmetric competitors. (In The Cool War, the low cost of "tripping people up" lets countries like Spain and Argentina compete successfully with the U.S.) It grinds people down, creating chronic strikes, power outages, mild epidemics that harass or sideline workers.

It's a wonder it doesn't occur more frequently in our world, particularly in asymmetric warfare. If al-Qa'ida weren't so obsessed with annihilating infidels, it might do better to give them really bad colds or flood the U.S. market with cheap heroin—technically simpler solutions that are harder to trace to terrorists or their backers.

But then, the U.S., Iran and several other countries are all about to receive lots of quality narcotics from Afghanistan. It's just that the cheap smack about to wash up on U.S. shores is gang-sponsored, rather than government-sponsored, and market-driven rather than policy-driven.

1 comment:

bukra fil mish mish said...

Low level sabotage of various sorts has been a tried and true technique for destabilization in Latin America for decades. Allende's Chile comes to mind, or Arévalo's Guatemala.
Pohl's mention of the Opium Wars shows that it's nothing new.

Still, there's a fine line between "cool war" and good (short-term thinking) capitalism. After all, if you gut the educational system, you end up with a large workforce of low-paid, untrained individuals. You can employ some of them in the inevitable prison-industrial complex. Conspiracy-minded individuals might suggest that media glorifying increasing levels of dumb violence is all part of the system.

You could argue that American entertainment exports comprise a "cool war" of culture. I've certainly met people who believe this, although many of the anecdotes tend to point more towards industrialization and the decline of rural living in the subcontinent than American media itself. The breakdown of cultural values certainly is not independent of the proliferation of televisions.

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