Saturday, October 21, 2023


We just watched Oppenheimer. And sure, I am grateful that Christopher Nolan is making the kind of sprawling, deeply-moving and meaningful delights for mind and senses that David Lean used to do. Like Lean, Nolan simply can't make films without the Difficulty Multiplier cranked up way past 11 (more like 1100!), which is why his one (so far) perfect film - Inception - should have won Best Picture not just of the year but the decade! And maybe more.

(Again, a near perfect film, Inception also (alas) nearly left me permanently deafened!)

Okay, regarding Oppenheimer, well, the vast cast of characters might have seemed bloated to some - not to me, since I had met several and knew the stories of almost all the rest, and even barely-glimpsed figures were treated with some effort at fairness and accuracy - even Teller. (I suspect that some reviewers didn't complain about cast-bloat since they didn't want to look ignorant.) In any event, I enjoyed the completist tour of mid century physicists and have no complaints (of any substance) about that.

Still, despite having my 99% enthusiastic approval, Oppenheimer did have aspects that one could (perhaps) call flaws, or just nitpick a little.  I do wish that there had been more physics! Oh, sure, Nolan brilliantly inserted brief snippets, like Oppie's and Bethe's delight when Niels Bohr reported on Heisenberg's mistakes handling the Nazi atomic program, showing them that the Manhattan Project would likely win the race. 

Nolan could have done something similar re the crucial differences between Plutonium and Uranium, and glimpsing the massive scale of effort at Oak Ridge (if Nolan would just relent on his loathing of special effects, it coulda been done for $5 and fifteen seconds of screen time.) Or Groves's worst mistake, cancelling work on centrifuges, which might have shortened development - and possibly the war - by six months. 

There was room elsewhere in the movie for cuts, like a little less of that admittedly-marvelously-claustrophobic hearing room and associated flashbacks. Okay we get it. Oppie was a deeply flawed man and vulnerable to both personal vendettas and the paranoia of the time.

(For comparison see Day One, a much smaller film about Oppenheimer, starring the superb David Strathairn.) And American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by K. Bird & M. Sherwin, inspiration for Nolan's movie.

Strauss made a marvelous villain. Though seriously, the 'issues' at stake and harm done to JRO were actually short term and rather minor, compared to other tragedies going on, at that time. Especially in light of his horrific mistake, putting Klaus Fuchs in the one precise place where a Soviet spy could do the worst harm. I did love how Strauss knew his limitations in his vendetta. At most he could humiliate JRO, not do him any palpable harm.

Naturally, Nolan intends to have effects. Secondarily on politics, since we need constant reminders that the Far Left can't be trusted … while almost the Entire US Right is almost always deeply corrupt and insane. All right, that's not exactly explicit in the flick, but it’s implicit in the event. And young viewers will be reminded.

More important is the reminder of what's at stake. Our one chance - as a species - to grow up.

== The basic lesson of Oppenheimer ==

The thing about Oppie was that he was correct that these powers could kill us all. In this linked 1965 CBS interview, he expressed (a decade after the events in the movie) very-guarded optimism that the terrifying image of the mushroom cloud was causing us to shift - in baby steps - toward more cautious maturity. Way too slowly! Still, far too few folks nowadays pause to note we've had 80 years of the greatest per capita peace the world ever saw.

Do you doubt that? Well, that's unsurprising. Violent episodes from Korea to Vietnam, from the Hungarian Revolt to Iraq, Bosnia and Ukraine and recurring Middle Eastern calamities remind us how how far we have to go. And yet, should we not also note that somewhere like 95% of the world’s living humans have never witnessed war personally, with their own eyes? Few of our ancestors could have said that, amid millennia of pillages and conquests and burning towns and cities.

Were the teams of weapon builders - working under Oppenheimer - partly responsible for a quelling of truly major warfare across an entire human lifetime? 

Well, it didn't happen the way he wanted - by handing power over to say the UN. It happened instead through the thuggishly immature process of balance-of-terror. A phase during which the U.S. always had advantages that it always chose not to exploit. (History will note that fact, even if China, Russia etc. refuse to. Were they ever to have such power, they would use it, instantly.)

I assert than it also happened because Oppie was leader of a commune of artists. What do I mean by that?

If "art is imagery which visually transforms human hearts without words or persuasion," then their team creation - that terrifying mushroom cloud - was undeniably the greatest, heart-transforming artwork in all of human history. Made by scientists, engineers and nerds…

… almost matched by the Twentieth Century's other great, soul-changing artwork, the December 1968 gift of Apollo 8... culminating that awful, exhausting year by giving humanity a glimpse, at last, of what's at stake: a tiny oasis world, floathing in the vast desert of space. But I've written about that elsewhere.

== Just so we are clear, here ==

Don't come away thinking I am 'critical' of Christopher Nolan's new masterpiece. I am awfully glad it's out there. And that the media somehow hyped “Barbenheimer” in ways that got thousands of Barbie fans (my dad attended and reported from the “Barbie Trial”) to complete the dual experience by viewing something rather deeper.

I am very glad we have a new David Lean in Christopher Nolan. There are other, great stories that need telling. (May I offer suggestions?)

Seriously, whenever he offers us something, I’ll be eagerly ready.


mcsandberg said...

I'd like David Nolan to tell David Weber's Honor Harrington story!

Tony Fisk said...

Given Nolan's dislike of special effects, you are perhaps hoping that he will team up with Cameron to develop a working impeller drive?

duncan cairncross said...


I love the Honor Harrington series

But its useless for a movie - there is simply too much happening

Lord of the Rings - a book which is heavy on description and low on action - needed three movies
Each of the 20+ Honor books would need MORE than three movies

A movie is about the same as a short novelette

mcsandberg said...

duncan cairncross

Yep, Honor Harrington would take something like 4 or 5 TV seasons to do properly. Just think of an arc getting into the Grand Strategy of Manticore winning with tech because they have a great education system.

Or how about the scene where she takes up the sword of state?

duncan cairncross said...

4 or 5 TV seasons to do properly

That is about 100 "shows"

The equivalent of maybe 20 movies - That would possibly cover the first four or five books

Thinking about that - that is why I'm not a great visual media fan - the "data stream" is just so much slower than reading

I think I would rather re-read the books (again)

Alan Brooks said...


scidata said...

duncan cairncross: that is why I'm not a great visual media fan - the "data stream" is just so much slower

Completely agree. I wrote a piece last year about how visual media is destroying games by squelching interactivity and subjective experience. OPPENHEIMER shows what can be done by 'inception' into the viewer's mind and humanity instead of shock-and-awe dizzying special effects. Only a very small percentage of the world has been zombified, ask anyone who has travelled widely. The average world citizen is actually quite thoughtful. They just don't make daily news. It won't be as easy as the evil doers think to undo the changes made in the past 75 years.

mcsandberg said...

duncan cairncross

"that is why I'm not a great visual media fan - the "data stream" is just so much slower than reading"

All too true. Almost everyone reads a whole lot faster than anyone can talk.

Larry Hart said...

duncan cairncross:

Thinking about that - that is why I'm not a great visual media fan - the "data stream" is just so much slower than reading

I think it's more that art forms don't generally translate well from one to another. Sure, you can make a movie from a novel, or make a musical play from a movie, but in doing so you inevitably change some important aspect of the original. If all one cares about is the plot or the music, then this isn't a problem. But to hard-core fans of the original work, the essential changes in form tend to ruin the adaptation for them.

I was ok with the movie Dune for what it was (the latest one, not the 1984 debacle), but for me, even a great movie adaptation is a pale echo of the novel. The invented language, the characters' inner thoughts, the juxtaposition of the self-referential literary references, even the ability of the reader to put it down for awhile and immerse oneself in the work for days or weeks on end are all essential elements of the work.

OTOH, something like the Netflix series The Diplomat works best as a tv miniseries. The visuals of the characters and the settings work well to capture the high stakes of the drama in a way that the written word wouldn't do. The phenomenon that was the original Star Wars depended entirely on its visuals. The story was just a routine pirate/cowboy story in an unusual setting. Only as a movie could it have been what it became in the culture.

The play Deathtrap is brilliant because the play is about two authors collaborating on a play which is the very play you are watching! There was a movie based on the story, but it just didn't pack the same punch, because the play they were writing couldn't be the movie that the audience is watching. "It don't work." The 1970s science-fiction play Warp was amusing precisely because of the way they mimicked special effects on the live stage. A movie could have been done with real special effects, but they wouldn't have been "special" in the same way. You have to be watching it and going, "Look how they managed to do that in a live show!"

My long-winded point is that it is not so much one artform being superior to others as it is a particular work being designed for a specific art form, and not translating as well into other forms.

(There are exceptions, of course. I think Logan's Run made a better movie than a book. Same with Soylent Green. And while Watchmen was a better graphic novel than it was a movie, the 2019 sequel worked best as a tv miniseries.)

locumranch said...

Genius, hero, scientist, philosopher, moralist, traitor, communist & soviet operative, the story of Oppenheimer puts to lie the Black & White, All-or-None and Either-Or dichotomy of Moral Absolutism.

It reminds of the Parable of the Little Birdy, as told by Terence Hill in the 1973 Spaghetti Western 'My Name is Nobody':

The answer to this parable comes at the end of this marvelous celluloid morality tale. To whit, that all those who dump on you are not necessarily your sworn & evil enemies and all those who aid you and respond to your cries for help are not necessarily your friends & saviors.

To CITOKATE, this is an unspoken corollary, as those who mistake criticism for antagonism are unable to recognize (let alone correct) their most egregious errors.


duncan cairncross said...

Bloody hell!!

Hell must be frozen over

Locumranch said something sensible

Unknown said...

Watched Oppie in a small Santa Fe theatre/museum of art that was also showing a photographic exhibition about the Project, while visiting the state to help with the estate of my uncle, who had been a physicist (lasers, mostly) at Los Alamos. Took part of his general library to a specialty used book store run by a guy who'd retired from working with computers at Los Alamos. Drove past a marker showing where civilians had been interned during WWII (Italian nationals, I think). Santa Fe is chock full of M.A.s, B.S.s and Ph.D.s.

And of course, I'd provided weather support for SAC during my USAF career. USAF weather stations had programs available - thanks all the gods I only had to use them in exercises - that show the radioactive plumes of a (provide megatonnage) nuclear weapon exploding at (provide height) over (provide lat/long) given (provide current winds at altitude). There were still plenty of nuclear storage bunkers in the back hills of Kirtland AFB, when I used to work there.

Maybe a little too close to home, that movie.


P.S. my old harpist friend has decided to hang up her strings - retiring with her husband to a Portuguese-owned island in the Atlantic. She cited "road rage and MAGA" and the threat of WWIII as finally forcing her to make up her mind. I noted, to her pleasure, that there had been no natives to enslave or eradicate when Portugal first colonized it - an unusual circumstance.

I'll think I'll play Paul Simon's "Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes."

scidata said...

Pappenheimer: Santa Fe is chock full of M.A.s, B.S.s and Ph.D.s

I'm envious - Santa Fe is one of my Meccas. The Santa Fe Institute (JD Farmer and others) is where cellular automata games go to ascend into agent-based models. I've described before how computational psychohistory germinated, largely unseen, in the shadow of the gadget. Hans Bethe's kindness towards citizen science was bigly inspirational.

Robert said...

I'm partway through Robert Sawyer's The Oppenheimer Alternative right now. Quite enjoying it. I don't think it would translate well into a movie, because so much of the novel is Oppenheimer's inner thoughts.

Worth reading, though.

Currently queued up for watching on Apple TV+ is Lessons in Chemistry, which looks promising.

Keith Halperin said...

I believe that all different artistic media have their benefits and faults, and aren’t usually equally effective in translation.
I also believe that tools such as Chat-GPT, Mid-Journey, and their musical equivalents (as creative aids) could allow for a great increase in creative productivity.

David Brin said...

Duncan I agree. Theories abound, but the best explanation is continuing his sojourn away from whatever poisons were in his water supply or food, back home. But maybe Hell did freeze.

Alan Brooks said...

or is it sino-prop?

GMT -5 (Hugh) said...

I enjoyed the first few Honor Harrington novels, but the books kept getting longer, the amount of story kept shrinking, and the stories became more formulaic.

Also, I found that I liked my fiction to be drier...and I ended up becoming a fan of well written histories. If you want to see a story about a real-life Honor Harrington, look up Vice-Admiral Willis Augustus Lee. He was a battleship commander in WWII and his exploits are amazing.

Drachinifel has an excellent pair of videos on Lee's life and his most famous battle: the second night of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. On the night of November 14-15, 1942 the situation was grim. The Allies had lost all of their cruisers and they knew that the Japanese were going to send a detachment of ships to attack the Allies air strip on Guadalcanal. The area commander, William Halsey, ordered Lee to take a hastily organized and mismatched group of ships to defend the airfield. The group consisted of two battleships, USS South Dakota and USS Washington (Lee's flagship) and four destroyers. This was a desperate act...putting battleships in an enclosed area like this was very risky; it was a job tailor-made for cruisers but the allies had none left. The Japanese had a battleship, 2 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, and 6 destroyers.

It was the middle of the night and the Japanese excelled at night fighting. The US faith in the early radar was not an effective counter. As the battle progressed, the Japanese sank or disabled the 4 US destroyers. USS South Dakota suffered electrical failures and was wallowing out of control as Japanese ships pounded it with fire.

Washington was the only effective Allied ship left. Luckily for the USN, Lee was an expert at gunnery and radar control. He knew the radar systems and main guns better than the Washington's crew. He had been exercising them heavily in the weeks prior to this engagement. Long story short...Lee pulled a victory out of the jaws of defeat.

Here are links to Drachinifel's videos on this subject:

Admiral Willis 'Ching' Lee - The Ultimate Sharpshooter:

Guadalcanal Campaign - The Big Night Battle: Night 2:

That was Lee's only major battleship on battleship engagement. During the rest of the war there were a few close calls: the Battle of the Philippine Sea; Leyte Gulf (and the ultimate "what if" scenario where you could have seen Task Force 34 with 4 US battleships including 2 Iowa Class going up against a Japanese fleet including the Yamato in the San Bernardino Strait; and Operation Ten Go: Yamato's last stand.

David Brin said...

Yeah I know about "Ching". Lee. He was a highly competent fellow. Too bad he missed the real battleship fifight in Surigao Strait at Leyte. Jesse Oldenforf(sp?) was the one who got to do that.

scidata said...

Audiobooks depend almost as much on the narrator as on the author. I have found that a slight British accent helps me tremendously (family familiarity), but that's a personal preference of course. The narration must effortlessly 'flow' to allow your mind's eye to draw your own pictures (not a problem when reading with your own inner voice). My advice: listen to the sample on Amazon before buying to make sure the narrator 'syncs' with your ears. The set of narrators for EXISTENCE is one of the best I've heard. Derek Perkins does the Yuval Harari books, and he's exactly the voice that works for me.

David Brin said...

Yeah, the three narrators for EXISTENCE were darn near perfect. Shoulda won an Audie!

duncan cairncross said...

Honor Harrington books

I found the exact opposite - the first few books were good but quite "Right Wing" - the "problem" was the damn "socialists" - very simplistic

It was only later that the Author appeared to become a bit more realistic and looking deeper at the actual causes

GMT -5 (Hugh) said...

You know your history David. I am impressed. Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf (I had to look up the spelling) had overwhelming superiority at the Battle of the Surigao Strait. He had 6 battleships (all refurbished WWI vintage ships, 5 of which had been sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor on 12/7/1941), 4 heavy cruisers, 4 light cruisers, 28!!!! destroyers and 39 PT boats versus a Japanese force of 2 battleships, 2 heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, and 8 destroyers. The battleship Fuso was sunk by torpedoes launched by the destroyers. Yamashiro and Mogami received the attention of the battle line.

Lee died much too young at the age of 57. He had a heart attack on 08/25/1945, 10 days after the Japanese surrender, while riding in a launch to the battleship Wyoming where he was researching defenses against aerial attacks.

David Brin said...

GMT, in fact Oldendorf used way overkill. I don't fault him for that. What he did wrong was to chase after a couple of fleeing cruisers with his entire force, whose job it would have been to face the bigger threat the next morning... Kurita's massive Main Body bearing down on poor heroic Taffy 3.

(My uncle was there, commanding a landing craft!)

Oldendorf and Halsey made exactly the same mistake, gallivanting off in opposite directions, leaving the center exposed... and it didn't matter. Two little destroyers and three even smaller D Escorts charged at the biggest battleships in the world, helped by planes dropping depth charges onto armored decks and popguns from the escort carriers... and sank two heavy cruisers, damaged others and sent Kurita's officers into an uproar. Five destroyers did that... 3 of them sacrificing themselves, sure, but it showed that the US Navy in 1944 was entirely different from 1941, with stunning radar fire control and other skills.

Hence I defend Kurita. He did the right thing, bugging out. Maybe he feared Halsey was coming? No one knows. But his doom was approaching from Leyte Bay... five more US destroyers.

He would not have survived.

Unknown said...

"Bugging out" was common among IJN naval commanders in WWII because they knew the ships they had were ALL they had - there would be no significant replacements to compare to the US tidal wave of new ships and aircraft. At both the Battle of the Eastern Solomons and the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, for instance, the US Navy was outright defeated, but the Japanese withdrew anyway.

Not having radar was a massive disadvantage.


P.S. the Mogami would have sunk at Midway if not for its uncommonly brilliant damage control officer, who ditched all the cruiser's torpedoes after a night collision with another IJN cruiser (Mikuma) crushed its bow and left Mogami limping away in broad daylight the day after the IJN carriers had been scuttled and the US had full air superiority. The less-damaged Mikuma stayed behind as well as a shepherd, but the Mikuma didn't ditch its own torpedoes. US dive bombers* scored on both ships. The Mikuma was shattered by secondary explosions and sank; the Mogami took its hits and straggled on, finally getting to safety.

Dauntless ex machina indeed

Don Gisselbeck said...

78 years is by far the longest the human race has ever gone between the second and third wartime use of a new technology for killing people.

Lena said...

Apropos of nothing, I am reading Robert Sapolsky's new book, and he mentioned a paper I had to track down. It's called, "On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit." I suspect some of us will find it useful, if not humorous.

Paul SB

Lena said...

Alan Brooks,
Not quite ready to beam anybody up, but who knows? Progress is not very predictable.

Paul SB

Paradoctor said...

Here's a bit of political science for you:

The Terrorism Trilemma

The definition defines terrorism;
The definition does not describe the routine behavior of all States;
The definition is not hypocritical;
Choose at most two.

GMT -5 (Hugh) said...

David, regarding your uncle at Leyte Gulf, wow! Just wow!

Regarding your comments about Oldendorf, I did a little research and I don't think he did much chasing after the Southern Force. Let me steal a quote from a post on Quora on this matter:

"Lets see we have six old battleships, and four heavy cruisers that have spent the previous two hours or more engaging the southern force. The crews are tired and the ships have fire a large number of rounds: over 2,000 rds from the cruisers and 283 rounds from the Battleships. So they have burned fuel and now are low on ammunition.

The fleet can only move as fast as its slowest battleship. And for the most part they all topped out at 24 mph. So if the distance is only 75 miles it would take three hours at flank speed to get there. Kurita caught T3 by surprise three hours after Olendorf began firing on the southern force. Thus to be there when T3 was attacked would have required Olendorf to disengage on contact with the southern force. By fighting, Olendorf had only one hour between the defeat of the southern force and the start of the fight between T3 and the center force.

And the important point is that if Olendorf did go to flank and try to intercept the Southern force they would not arrive until one hour after the center force had begun its retreat. So they would have been late, low on fuel and short of ammunition."

End of quote. I checked the times and this writer seems to have his facts strait. Yamashita sank at 0420 hours on January 25. Kurita's Central Force began firing at Taffy 3 at 0700. Considering the 75 mile distance involved and the slow top speed of Oldendorf 's standard battleships, he could not have arrived in time to rescue Taffy 3.

Also, I believe that Oldendorf was under the mistaken belief that Task Force 34 was guarding the San Bernardino strait and the US invasion fleet.

In defense of Halsey, we need to remember that Spruance's actions during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, where he kept his carriers close to the invasion fleet in case the Japanese tried to pull a sneak attack, were severely criticized at the time. There were calls for him to be relieved of command and court-martialed. It wasn't until after the war that the USN realized the impressive nature of the US victory in that battle. Halsey would have been worried that his carrier force would risk fire from Japanese capital ships that were protecting the Northern Force.

It is easy to criticize decision-makers long after the fact. We need to understand their actions by understanding what they knew at the time they made their decisions.

GMT -5 (Hugh) said...

Errr...Yamashiro, not Yamashita. Curses to auto correct and typing all of this on a smart phone.

Larry Hart said...


I'd say that "Using cruel and unusual punishment to coerce a population into obedience" works as a first approximation definition.

YMMV on specific definitions of those terms, but I know what I mean. :)

David Brin said...

Here's the most sapient and clear-eyed political interview I have seen in a couple of years. Incredibly insightful and well-spoken. Of course one must read the book to get details on the '5 things'... or else just study 1933 Germany.

The only aspect Stevens fails to mention - nor anyone else - is any reference to the blatant *coercive* element in GOP discipline - blackmail. Just look at the 25 House Republicans who finally found some backbone to stand up to the documented pervs in the "Freedom Caucus." Family men, all of them.

One thing is clear. The campaign to demonize the FBI, the Justice department civil servants, the courts and the nationwide grand juries (who have indicted almost 100X as many high GOPs and dems) has one aim. To prepare the way for a 2024 wave of Timothy McVeighs.

David Brin said...

GMT you raise all good points, but miss the core thing. Sure, Oldendorf could not have got back in time to rescue Taffy 3, whose destroyers messed up Kurita all by themselves, anyway.

What he COULD have done in time was get to the Leyte landing anchorages, if Kurita had plunged ahead on his mission to detroy them. My uncle and most of the ships were fleeing south by then, but Kurita could still have started in, making a real mess of MacArthur... and Oldendorf's expert radar controlled old battlewagons might (if they hurried) have tipped the scales.

ESPECIALLY since he had GOBS of the same kind of destoyers as Taffy 3 used to shred Kurita. Perhaps when they arrived they would be short on fuel, able to do just one charge at the Yamato. But it would have been enough. Jeepers there were kinda like FIFTY of them!

Moreover, those destroyers could have helped defend Taffy 2 from the war's 1st major kamikaze attack, around noon.

So, sure, I am not dissing Oldendorf. But there are hindsight things he shoulda done better.

GMT-5 said...

David, excellent point. I did miss that issue.

Some day I need to get a few of my naval sim buddies together and wargame out what would have happened if Central Force under Kurita and forced through Taffy 3 into the invasion force with and without Task Group 77.2. It's hard getting people to commit to these long scenarios in person when it is easier to play sims on computers. I miss the good old days when we would spend 12 to 18 hours with 1/1200 scale models of ships fighting out these naval battles on a gymnasium floor.

By the way, have you read SHATTERED SWORD by Tully and Parshall about the Battle of Midway? Fascinating reading.

David Brin said...

Have fun with the scenarios GMT. But I am prettyf sure Kurita would not have plowed ahead. If just five destroyers could wreak such havoc as those of Taffy 3 did... well, five more were on their way from Taffy 2 and more after that. He would have suffered very badly. He made the right decision.

Paradoctor said...

Larry Hart:
That's a good definition of terrorism. Here's another:

The use of violent force against a civilian population to compel political change.

Both definitions cover what is usually known as terrorism, but they also cover the routine behavior of all Great Powers. Fortunately for official thought, hypocrisy comes to the rescue; so 'their' terrorism is terrorism but 'ours' is not.

On the other hand, here's another trilemma:

Only terrorists kill noncombatants;
Some of the fighters kill noncombatants;
None of the fighters are terrorists;
Choose at most two.

duncan cairncross said...


Only terrorists kill noncombatants;

Only terrorists DELIBERATELY kill noncombatants;

Paradoctor said...


Very well then:

Only terrorists deliberately kill noncombatants;
Some of the fighters deliberately kill noncombatants;
None of the fighters are terrorists;
Choose at most two.

However, I lack telepathic powers, so I cannot tell what killings are deliberate; so in practice I drop that word.

Larry Hart said...


Both definitions cover what is usually known as terrorism, but they also cover the routine behavior of all Great Powers.

I know what you're getting at, but that's why I used the term "cruel and unusual punishment", in reference to our Eighth Amendment." In the modern age, civilized governments in which the governed have at least some say tend toward fines and imprisonment moreso than the rack. The point is to get the bad guys off the street rather than to torture them.

You may counter that in practice, the threat is always there from governments, but I'll remind you that your condition wasn't "States don't do it," but rather "The definition does not describe the routine behavior of all States" (emphasis mine). All states use some sort of force in opposition to certain behaviors, but "all states" don't resort to cruelty as a feature. I think it's safe to assume that all terrorists do.

I may be reading too much into this, but it seems that your point is that states routinely engage in terrorism and just refuse to apply the term. To me, that's similar to the assertion that the Israeli response in Gaza is "genocide." Both assertions water the term down until a word meant to describe an egregious horror becomes a banality instead.

duncan cairncross said...

You do not NEED telepathy to distinguish deliberate and accidental deaths

Todays Terrorists ensure that everybody KNOWS that they are deliberately killing civilians

90% of States DO NOT kill civilians deliberately

The difference is NOT a small one

Robert said...

I miss the good old days when we would spend 12 to 18 hours with 1/1200 scale models of ships fighting out these naval battles on a gymnasium floor.

You might enjoy "A Game of Birds and Wolves" by Simon Parkin. Wargaming to win the war…

Paradoctor said...

Larry Hart:

I stand corrected: you're right about 'all states'. All states are beasts, but some are more housebroken than others, and Great Powers, less so. So here's the Terrorism Trilemma, reformulated:

A definition defines terrorism;
The definition does not describe the routine behavior of all Great Powers;
The definition is not hypocritical;
Choose at most two.

Please recall that our own Great Power has for many decades maintained world order via threats of global thermonuclear incineration. How cruel and unusual! If that is not terrorism, then what is?


100% of all states do deliberately kill civilians, in times of warfare. And they always rely on the threat of violence. Indeed, one definition of a 'state' is an institution authorized for the legitimate use of force. What constitutes legitimacy? Your mileage may vary.

This isn't necessarily criticism on my part. Humanity long ago figured out that it's more expensive to pay off 10,000 small robbers than it is to pay off one big robber to suppress the 10,000 small robbers. For details, consult Thomas Hobbes.

In "The Statistics of Deadly Quarrels", by Lewis Fry Richardson, he documents a continuum of violence, from individual retail monomurders up to State wholesale megamurders; and the same power law governs both ends.

What we call 'terrorism' is in the middle range. The terrorist is too big to be a gangster and too small to be a statesman. I submit that the real crime of the terrorist is that he makes that continuity undeniable, which annoys people.

Ambrose Bierce, in the "homicide" entry of his "Devil's Dictionary", notes that there are four grades of homicide: felonious, culpable, justifiable, and praiseworthy; but these distinctions make little difference to the slain - the classification is for the benefit of lawyers.

Larry Hart said...

duncan cairncross:

Only terrorists DELIBERATELY kill noncombatants;

Authoritarian governments often deliberately kill noncombatants. Even soldiers do, such as currently going on in Ukraine.

I'm ok with considering invading soldiers to be terrorists (they can be two things). I'm not sure the term applies to someone like Putin relative to his own countrymen. But I'd be open to convincing.

What I don't accept is something akin to "The US government is indistinguishable from a terrorist, because it arrests, prosecutes, and imprisons insurrectionists." If we hung them by the balls or impaled or crucified them, I'd reconsider.

Paradoctor said...

Darnit, I misquoted Bierce. Make that "felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy".

Paradoctor said...

Another correction: Richardson discovered, not a power laws in deadly quarrels, but a Poisson distribution.

duncan cairncross said...


Only a few states "deliberately" kill civilians
90% of states go to considerable lengths to MINIMISE the civilian death rates

There is a considerable difference between Hamas and Russia targeting civilians and civilians being killed in the course of a conflict

In 90% of states it is a war crime to target civilians - yes there are people who do go over the limit - but its simply NOT "deliberate" on the part of the state

Back in WW2 then all Nations did target civilians - most Nations have moved on since then

Unknown said...


Forgive this old SAC veteran, but we have not moved on from targeting civilians.

We just aren't launching at them.

I don't deny that this is an improvement.


Larry Hart said...


We just aren't launching at them

First of all, I think I misinterpreted your original post about "the routine behavior of all States". I had assumed you were alluding to such things as the state's monopoly on the use of force or "taxation is theft" as being equivalent to terrorism. In retrospect, it's obvious that you are speaking specifically to tactics in war.

At least on a sliding scale, war always targets civilians in the sense that the losing population will suffer at the hands of the conquering force when the war is over. Even in olden times when the war was confined to a battlefield and civilians could watch with picnic lunches, the losers were going to be subject to rape and pillage and conquest afterwards.

In a war situation such as Russia vs Ukraine, or the US vs Iraq if you will, I'm more willing to concede that the aggressor force acts in a manner not so unlike terrorism. Especially when they do indeed "launch at" civilians. I think Russia does that last bit more than the US did, but I might be a bit one-sided there, so caveat emptor.

The situation isn't as clear-cut on the defending side. From the Ukrainian POV, the analogue in civilian terms is a hostage situation. Force used in overcoming a hostage-taker is not terrorism. If the hostage is killed in the process, that doesn't mean that the rescue attempt targeted the hostage--what it probably means is that rescue was not possible. That doesn't mean that the hostage-taker should have been allowed to flee with the hostage in hand. Doing so would not have given the hostage back his remaining decades of life. The rescue is a necessary response, and a bad outcome in an individual case does not change that calculus.

The situation in Israel is more complicated by the fact that some see Israel as the aggressor, either by their actions in occupied and formerly-occupied territory, or simply by their existence. One's view on that subject will color whether one sees Israel as terrorizing Gazans or engaging in self-defense with some regrettable consequences.

In Ukraine, Russia is the one who has the option of ending the war simply by no longer fighting it. Who has that option in Palestine?

Laurent Weppe said...

Paradoctor:«one definition of a 'state' is an institution authorized for the legitimate use of force. What constitutes legitimacy? Your mileage may vary.»

THAT is an incomplete/mistaken/mistranslated summary of Weber’s writings: what he said was that the State was the only actor who, within a given territory, can enforce his claim of legitimacy. That’s not a matter of moral debate about legitimacy or not, but of power balance: a state is a state when, within its territories, nobody has the (fire)power to challenge the state’s claim that it is the only arbiter of what constitute legitimate violence.


duncan cairncross«Only a few states "deliberately" kill civilians
90% of states go to considerable lengths to MINIMISE the civilian death rates

Most states CLAIM to minimise civilian casualties: sometimes the efforts are genuine, sometimes there are lapses, and sometimes the state claiming so is straight up lying.


Larry Hart«The situation in Israel is more complicated by the fact that some see Israel as the aggressor, either by their actions in occupied and formerly-occupied territory, or simply by their existence»

What *makes* the situation in Israel complicated is not how X & Y perceive Israel but the ongoing existence of far-rightists settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
These create the motivation, legitimation and opportunities for things like the October 7 raid. By this I mean:

•The murders, harassment, material destruction committed by Kahanist settlers have, understandably so, infuriated Palestinians and fuelled their resentment and desire for retaliation (motivation)
•The fact that settlers are protected by Israeli soldiers AND that the Fatah-controlled Palestinian authority is powerless to stop them has reinforced the idea that Israel is not trustworthy, that the official Palestinian Authority is useless in protecting Palestinian people and therefore that any group opposed to the Fatah/Palestinian authority and who chose a more bellicose way is in the right (legitimation)
•It is BECAUSE the far-right settlers received extra-protection that border with Gaza was understaffed, allowing Hamas to do far more damage and kill far more civilians than the organization itself expected (opportunity).

The riddled-with-far-rightists settlements have to be dismantled (as the UN as demanded time & again), otherwise groups like Hamas will always be able to replenish their ranks with revanchist new members, no Israeli overture will be seen as being done in good faith, and expanding men and resources to protect the “vanguard” of settlers at the expanse of everyone else (not simply in terms of military protection: settlements have received a lot of subsidies from the Israeli state while its social safety net on the other side of the green line has been in decline for years, especially with the Right in power) will continue, Israel as a whole will grow more brittle and susceptible to deadly attacks.

mcsandberg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DP said...

WWIII as a low level conflict stumbling around the globe has just started.

Current Axis: Russia, Iran, Hamas/Hezbollah, China, North Korea (maybe drug cartels)

Current Allies: NATO + Ukraine, Israel with the Saudis as a silent partner, Taiwan, South Korea + Japan + Australia/New Zealand (with maybe India as part of the recent cruise missile alliance).

Current active fronts: the Donbass, Gaza, Lebanon, Yemen, west Africa coup states.

Fronts that could turn hot: Straights of Hormuz, the Caucasus, Straights of Taiwan, Korean DMZ and Sea of Japan (maybe northern Mexico)

However, this war is too important to be allowed to ever end.

We have entered a 1984-ish state of permanent war where Oceania always has to be at war with Eurasia/Eastasia.

The Axis authoritarians need a permanent enemy to maintain control over their own peoples, and their oil oligarchs need inflated energy costs to cover the costs of smuggling oil.

The military industrial complexes and high tech industries of the Allies need the profits as consumer demand dwindles due to declining/aging populations. And Allied oil companies need a new market (military fuel) as we transition to renewable energy.

Since these wars are or will soon be fought with terrorists, specialists, security forces, robots and drones, ordinary people won't notice much unless there is a terrorist attack on civilians or the price of gasoline and food goes up.

Also, nonstop war plus climate change equals mass migrations of refugees - which nobody will accept for fear that these migrating throngs will harbor terrorists and/or drug dealers. So look for billions to be living in tent cities kept alive by international aid - another source of fat government contracts in a world that otherwise is seeing demographic shrinkage of its consumer markets.

This war will go on as a low level conflict forever.

There are just too many powerful businesses, political groups and governments that benefit from and need this war.

Late term capitalism achieving its final end stage, fully dependent on government contracts and non-stop war for its profitability and viability.

Larry Hart said...

Laurent Weppe:

What *makes* the situation in Israel complicated is not how X & Y perceive Israel but the ongoing existence of far-rightists settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
These create the motivation, legitimation and opportunities for things like the October 7 raid.

Not arguing that point. But motivation for a right-wing, ultra-orthodox Israeli government was in part fanned by continual terrorist attacks on Israel including "land for peace" deals which didn't result in peace. The blow-for-blow dynamic goes well back before the establishment of the state of Israel. There have always been both Jews and Arabs living in Palestine. I don't see how anyone can say who "started" the enmity.

That's why I said the situation there is more complicated than Russia vs Ukraine. It wasn't lip service to one side but solidarity with the other. I meant it literally.

Paradoctor said...

Cogent analysis. Yes indeed, 1984-ish. Some small critiques:

If the powers that be fear migrating drug dealers, then the solution is obvious: legalize it. Most of the users will successfully self-regulate; those who destroy themselves would have found less efficient ways to do so, so the powers that be won't care. Some of the dealers will use their now-well-gotten gains to advance in society. It worked for Joe Kennedy.

The low level conflict will not go on forever. We mortals cannot validly use the word 'forever'. But it will seem forever.

Paradoctor said...

Also: if the powers that be fear declining population, then again the solution is obvious: take in the climate migrants. They'll buy consumer crapola, and pay into the pension schemes, and serve as omega-dog scapegoats. They will be assimilated, resistance is futile. America did it before.

Larry Hart said...


We mortals cannot validly use the word 'forever'. But it will seem forever.

We mortals tend to use "forever" as a shortcut for "with no obvious path to an ending in sight." For all practical intents and purposes, the meaning is the same.

The computer in Star Trek which was commanded to "compute to the last digit, the value of pi" could be said to be stuck doing that computation "forever" in theory, even though in practice, the heat death of the universe would put a stop to it.

DP said...

Paradoctor: " if the powers that be fear declining population, then again the solution is obvious: take in the climate migrants."

Those climate migrants won't be White.

Larry Hart said...

Needs saying...

Right now the left is using an outdated, ill-fitting model of colonialism to explain what’s happening in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. It borrows from antisemitic tropes, leading to a cruel and dehumanizing view of Israelis and Jews. Colonizers do not have thousands of years of history in the land they colonize, as Jews do in Israel, and colonizers do have a home country they can be decolonized to. For those who callously called Oct. 7 a “step toward decolonization,” I ask that they consider where the Jews who fled from Iraq are supposed to go? And those who fled from Iran? And those from Yemen? And those from Russia? And those from Ethiopia? And how about the Jews who came from Europe after surviving the Holocaust? They were dispossessed of their land, their homes, their belongings, just as their ancestors were dispossessed by the Romans in the first two centuries of the common era and by the Babylonians before them.

This does not in any way justify the dispossession of Palestinians from their land and homes and belongings, but it is a fact. Here we are, two peoples, stuck together. There is no way forward without recognition of that reality.

Larry Hart said...

Well duh...

“We should explain that what Moscow is doing in Ukraine is dangerous for all nations because if the type of international order that the Kremlin is pursuing, and that Beijing is pursuing, becomes the international order, that means that all small, comparatively weak states would be at the mercy of their larger neighbors,” Mr. Herbst said.

The global south aligning with Russia and China to poke the west is foolish in the same way that Palestinian-Americans are when out of anger at Biden's support of Israel help Trump be our next president. In both cases, how's that gonna work out?

David Brin said...

The notion that a 'military industrial complex' is propelling world war is unsupported cliché nonsense. Major US defense contractors make far more money off normal precautionary defense spending. Most are led by retired officers who spent their careers deeming hot war to be at best unpredictable and risky and at worst horrific.

Among many drivers today... including Arafat's dismally stupid refusal of a two state deal under Clinton and Israeli demographics of hardliner orthodoxers outbreeding reasonable semi-seculars... one factor stands above all others...

...a world oligarchy desperate to bring the Enlightenment Expreiment crashing down before Hollywood can complete the project of value-shaping democracy/individualism into all the world's youth.

David Brin said...



April Iris McLeod said...

This old "SAC Veteran" agrees with you and I will veer the conversation in another direction to state, adamantly, I have personally witnessed LEO's, and other governing persons, at different levels (local, state, and federal,) here in America the Beautiful, target, terrorize AND kill non-combatants during "a regular day in the neighborhood" in many of the states where I have lived. I know this is not the overarching theme of this discussion, but, I believe this fact is even worse. I said what I said. (Label me one- time proud patriot, disabled veteran, daughter of a WWII B-24 pilot( who was also a disabled veteran,) Buddhist, prepper, who's disgusted with our government's inability to police itself.)

April Iris McLeod said...

May all the gods and goddesses have mercy on our souls and may we all be touched "... by the better angels of our nature."