The past dominates our thoughts and imaginations, even as we veer away from truly looking at its lessons, let alonge speculate uncomfortably about the future. Well, except in cogent science fiction. And even then, how to tell which projections are accurate?
Naturally, this applies to current events... we'll apply the question to the Ukraine War as well as World War II, below. But first...
The Future of Man: Take this rumination by Bertrand Russell in 1951, on the three possible futures he could conceive. “Before the end of the present century, unless something quite unforeseeable occurs, one of three possibilities will have been realized. I do not pretend to know which of these will happen, or even which is the most likely. What I do contend is that the kind of system to which we have been accustomed cannot possibly continue. These three are:
1. The end of human life, perhaps of all life on our planet.
2. A reversion to barbarism after a catastrophic diminution of the population of the globe.
3. A unification of the world under a single government, possessing a monopoly of all the major weapons of war.”
Of course, we read these words more than two decades after his deadline, and none of the three has happened. One could berate Russell for the myopia of urgency that also led (that same year) to dire-warnings like the film The Day The Earth Stood Still.
“If things are allowed to drift, it is obvious that the bickering between Russia and the Western democracies will continue until Russia has a considerable store of atomic bombs, and that when that time comes there will be an atomic war. In such a war, even if the worst consequences are avoided, Western Europe, including Great Britain, will be virtually exterminated. If America and the U.S.S.R. survive as organized states, they will presently fight again. If one side is victorious, it will rule the world, and a unitary government of mankind will have come into existence; if not, either mankind or, at least, civilization will perish. This is what must happen if nations and their rulers are lacking in constructive vision.”
I remain astonished by the pertinence of a brilliant thinker who – while correct in his general appraisals, was (fortunately) wrong in the very-widely-shared gloom of his assessment of our civilization’s future.
Wrong, that is, up until now? Having said that, I remain daunted by how almost everything Russell said in 1951 about his future could now be said about the tomorrows that we face, looking ahead. Go ahead and read the essay, squinting and updating by 70 years, replacing some of the players and inserting ecological catastrophe to loom alongside the spectre of nuclear Armageddon. And an America-led enlightenment whose well-earned confidence has been shattered by a deliberately-instigated spate of wholly unnecessary internal civil war.
To all of the oligarchies now united in desperate urgency to bring down this Periclean experiment, I will further quote Bertrand Russell from 1951:
“Only democracy and free publicity can prevent the holders of power from establishing a servile state, with luxury for the few and overworked poverty for the many. This is what is being done by the Soviet government wherever it is in secure control. There are, of course, economic inequalities everywhere, but in a democratic regime they tend to diminish, whereas under an oligarchy they tend to increase. And wherever an oligarchy has power, economic inequalities threaten to become permanent owing to the modern impossibility of successful rebellion.”
George Orwell surely must have read this essay before writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, wherein he portray's the oligarchs ruling Oceania doing this. The essay will likely shock you in some ways, especially in its militancy, given that Russell would later tout pacifism and denounce US errors in Vietnam. I know I blinked in surprise at a number of paragraphs!
As prediction, the essay failed, in ways that turned out to be fortunate. But as an exploration, it will make you rethink some of the crucial factors that are even more redolent than they were in the year that I first looked out upon the world.
It is in this context we must recognize that oligarchy - the ruling pattern in 99.99% of human societies across 6000 years - has had to concoct fresh tactics to counter the blazing, brilliant strengths and creative fecundity of democratic enlightenment, inciting our own virtues - like individualism and suspicion of authority - to divide and disrupt us.
Russell concludes his essay: "There is hope that law, rather than private force, may come to govern the relations of nations within the present century. If this hope is not realized we face utter disaster; if it is realized, the world will be far better than at any previous period in the history of man."
== Looking back to World War II ==
While sane and decent people are deeply moved and enraged by the criminal horrors of the invasion of Ukraine - and encouraged by not only the courageous defenders but also the obstinate stupidity of the invaders (more on that, below) - I am further prompted to comment on the struggle that shaped the modern world and gave the Enlightenment one more, last-best chance.
For example it was 80 years ago, yesterday, that the USS Hornet sailed through fog under the Golden Gate Bridge laden with B25 bombers on a rendezvous - 2 weeks later - with destiny. An innovation that changed history and whose 'mother' was necessity born of innovative duplicity at Pearl Harbor.
I also read more about the Battle of Leyte Gulf, where my uncle (later professor at UIUC) Victor Stone commanded a set of landing craft. And I re-evaluated my opinion of Admiral Kurita - blamed for a Halsey-level flub in not pressing his attack after a hellish encounter with a small US force called Taffy 3. I've realized that blaming Kurita is simply wrong! During that 90 minute tussle, the IJN commander realized a simple truth - that the USN of October 1944 was not even remotely the same force that had been crushed at Pearl Harbor, in December 1941. Not by decades or even generations. Just as Imperial air power was annihilated a few months earlier, in the Philippine Sea, and as the IJN southern and northern forces were pulverized with ease that same day, Kurita’s Central Force faced skills, ships and technologies against which they never stood a chance.
Consider that the totally surprised and unprepared Taffy Three - 6 tiny escort carriers with 3 destroyers and 4 destroyer escorts - applied 5-inch pea shooters and (with help from a couple of torpedoes) wrecked or sank four IJN heavy cruisers. Read that again. Radar control, gunnery stabilizers, terrific damage control and - oh yes - incredible courage and skill made the sacrifices of those tiny ships into a lopsided victory that left Kurita staring in astonishment as his flagship, mighty Yamato, veered wildly to evade other torpedoes…
… and 400+ aircraft equipped only for supporting ground troops, but whose bombs and strafings turned the superstructures of three IJN battleships into confusion and chaos.
Kurita’s later apologia claimed he had intel about more vulnerable US carriers to the north and he did spend a few minutes charging after that ghost target, before calling it a day. But even if he had continued south, chasing after my uncle and the fleeing transports, he’d only have met 14 more destroyers, who were preparing to charge in (again perhaps suicidally) and damage his force enough to make it easy prey for Adm. Oldendorf’s six older battleships, rushing north from their victory in Surigao Strait…. and then 5 newer ones hurrying south from Halsey’s Mistake.
I have a habit of re-evaluating earlier opinions, like coming around to realizing that the Battle of Gettysburg was never in doubt and never even close. And thinking maybe that a statue of Benedict Arnold wouldn’t be so inappropriate, after all. (Ask in comments!)
In this case, I have come to conclude that even with Halsery's entire 3rd fleet off chasing potemkin distractions, just Taffy 3 alone showed what a supremely competent buzz saw the USN had become, in just 2.5 years. And so, I have total sympathy for Takeo Kurita. The IJN was already finished. But at least his retreat meant a few of his sailors made it home to their families. And so did the crews of those 14 fresh U.S. destroyers, And so did Victor Stone.
== So many lessons from Ukraine ==
We are likewise behooved to learn from more recent events. Take this anecdote from one of the best members of an under-ratedly brilliant clade, retirees of the US military officer corps, Gen. Wesley Clark.
General Clark recalled teaching a class of Ukrainian generals in 2016 in Kyiv and trying to explain what an American military “after-action review” was. He told them that after a battle involving American troops, “everybody got together and broke down what happened.”
“The colonel has to confess his mistakes in front of the captain,” General Clark said. “He says, ‘Maybe I took too long to give an order.’”
After hearing him out, the Ukrainians, General Clark said, told him that could not work. “They said, ‘We’ve been taught in the Soviet system that information has to be guarded and we lie to each other,’” he recalled.
To which one could cynically reply that there is still plenty of butt-covering in the US military! Of course there is. Ass-covering and delusion-protection are core human nature attributes, perhaps THE core attributes responsible for the litany of horrors we call ‘history.’
After almost any war (including 'wars' between companies in the marketplace or between theories in science), the victors prepare for the same kind of war they just won, while the losers try to innovate. Hence, Russians rebuild what they think enabled them to crush Army Group Center in 1944, while Ukrainians had to re-adjust and listen to guys like Clark.
The biggest exceptions to that 'only losers innovate' rule? European observers watching the US Civil War went home appalled and demanded top-to-bottom changes. Except the French, who soon were smashed. by the Prussians.
But the biggest was George Marshall in 1945 asking: “What mistakes do empires always make?” And red-team critiquing became part of US military culture. Enough to maybe half compensate for inevitable human delusion. (The same question about mistakes of all previous empires led to US counter-mercantilist trade policies that for 75 years have uplifted poor nations all over the world, though some ingrates yowl "we did it all ourselves!")