Since I’m sure you’ve read everything on this blog by now (snerk!), you already know I’m in favor of critical thinking. But, you may ask yourself (you have my permission), what does this look like? How is it applied? Directly to the forehead? Under a full moon? Far be it from me to let unasked questions go unanswered, so let’s do an exercise with a recent article from Wired Magazine. This is long, so I’ll get into my stride (read: frothy rant) after the jump.
So. Wired Magazine published an article about the Soviet Union’s unique defensive system, called “Perimeter.” Immediately after a lovely frontispiece depicting nuclear death in the style of a 1950s propaganda poster, we start the article with this line, no lie:
Valery Yarynich glances nervously over his shoulder.
Oh my. Is it bad to judge articles based on their openings? Even though I squinted in mental pain, I plodded on to see if I was being fair in my initial assessment that this was a dime-store conspiracy story that actually belonged in a porn mag. More dramatic writing (well, typing, anyway) followed, and the article begins to explain what Perimeter is. In short, it’s an automatic counterstrike system that can attack the US without any input from Soviet personnel – in fact, that’s precisely when it launches itself. In other words, when everyone dies in the Soviet Union (from an apocalyptic nuclear strike), everyone dies in the US too.
Okay, we pause here to start the exercise. What purpose, we may ask, does a system such as this serve? The Soviet Union is so wasted that no one is actually able to launch a counterattack. But, apparently, a counterattack is extremely important to implement, because it… um… will prevent Soviet ghosts from wandering the wasteland with unfulfilled dreams of justice? I’m just guessing here, because intelligent thought doesn’t provide any answer.
Now, if you’ve got some background in classic contemporary movies, you may already have muttered, “Dr. Strangelove,” at this point [my spellcheck doesn’t like the word, “Strangelove,” so obviously the programmers of WordPress are uneducated Philistines]. But just in case, the article actually brings this movie and its plot up anyway. In the movie, the Soviet Union had created exactly the same kind of weapon, a doomsday device that ensured that all life on earth would be wiped out when it was triggered. The primary plot point of the movie revolves around a simple concept: such a thing is useful as a threat, but ludicrous to actually build. And in order to even be useful as a threat, your enemy has to actually believe it’s there.
So we’ve established that the author of this article (Nicholas Thompson) understands the concept of ultimate consequences that are pointless in practice. Good. So we’re going to see how this system that the Soviets had circumvents this apparent, overwhelming implausibility, right?
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we have too much of the article to go through. First, let’s see why the Soviets saw the need for such a thing. So we’re treated to a flashback to the Reagan years, and how aggressive the US was becoming under his forthright, no-nonsense leadership (yes, it’s perfectly okay to read that as sarcasm). The example?
Meanwhile, in ways both small and large, US behavior toward the Soviets took on a harsher edge. Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin lost his reserved parking pass at the State Department. US troops swooped into tiny Grenada to defeat communism in Operation Urgent Fury. US naval exercises pushed ever closer to Soviet waters.
Ho-lee fuck-ing shit! Even though I grew up in that era, I had no idea we were that vicious! Dobrynin losing his parking space is pretty callous, and surely a shot across the bow of the Soviets, but the icing, of course, is Grenada! Ha ha, Soviet Union, we said! We’ll not let your style of government take root in a country larger in size than the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania [this is true – check it yourself], and that most people think was named after a shitty Ford sedan! And so we struck a blow for democracy, or so Thompson wants us to believe, having no clue that Grenada was already largely socialist before the coup and that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the Soviet Union. I can only guess that, to the writer of this article, “communism,” is automatically linked to “Russia.” Let’s see, that puts him, at this point, less informed than a typical eighth-grader. Even better, at the exact same moment in time on the other side of the globe (you know, Asia), the real Soviet Union was just shy of four years into its invasion of Afghanistan. But that, apparently, doesn’t hold a candle to Grenada.
No, no, that’s not the only example! There’s also this, as proof of the Soviet fear of Shogun Reagan:
A few months later, Reagan made one of the most provocative moves of the Cold War. He announced that the US was going to develop a shield of lasers and nuclear weapons in space to defend against Soviet warheads. He called it missile defense; critics mocked it as “Star Wars.”
Critics mocked it as a whole hell of a lot of things, including physically implausible and stupid as hell. The critics, by the way, weren’t Maltin and Ebert, but scientists with more than a passing background in physics. Science, however, has never been a concern of politics – it’s that “Non Overlapping Magisteria” thing that Stephen J. Gould talked about. But wait! Wasn’t the Strategic Defense Initiative (Thompson appears to have forgotten its name) strictly a defensive weapon? As in, worthless for attacking? Ah, he does indeed answer this:
To Moscow it was the Death Star—and it confirmed that the US was planning an attack. It would be impossible for the system to stop thousands of incoming Soviet missiles at once,…
This was true – it was even questionable that it could stop five. Moreover, quite a few sources have long ago revealed that the Soviet Union knew this and that the only thing the Soviets needed to do to counteract this dreaded “Death Star” was to launch even more missiles.
…so missile defense made sense only as a way of mopping up after an initial US strike. The US would first fire its thousands of weapons at Soviet cities and missile silos. Some Soviet weapons would survive for a retaliatory launch, but Reagan’s shield could block many of those. Thus, Star Wars would nullify the long-standing doctrine of mutually assured destruction, the principle that neither side would ever start a nuclear war since neither could survive a counterattack.
Ahhhh! I get it now! No, wait, no I don’t, because, unlike Thompson, I have a tiny bit of understanding of Cold War technology. You see, missiles leave a noticeable signature when launching and take some time to arrive – not a lot, granted, but enough to say, “Hey, lookit those missiles coming!” and push your own damn red button. That was, you know, the whole issue of Mutually Assured Destruction. So the idea that the Soviets would have a couple of stray missiles left after a US sneak attack destroyed most of their silos completely ignores the fact that the counter launches (with, you know, their thousands of missiles overwhelming Reagan’s “Death Star”) could take place before the first US missile even struck. And, of course, the SDI/Star Wars plan only worked on high-altitude, extra-atmospheric missiles, and was utterly useless against, for instance, cruise missiles or ones launched from submarines thirty miles off the Virginia coast.
But, for the sake of our critical thinking exercise, let’s assume that the Soviets really did believe that Star Wars was effective and useful in the way Thompson describes. So what does he tell us the Soviets do in response to an effective missile defensive shield? Why, build a missile offensive system! Because, you know, when your opponent erects a wall, the best thing to do is keep throwing stones at it.
Okay, so remember Dr. Strangelove? [Very weird thought as I’m typing: In some post-apocalyptic world, I imagine this a rallying cry among the survivors, along the lines of “Remember the Alamo!” Remember Dr. Strangelove!] Thompson brings us back to the idea that it’s a dumb idea. And he admits that the Soviets made absolutely no move to announce that it even existed. So, what purpose does it serve?
The Soviets had taken game theory one step further than Kubrick, Szilard, and everyone else: They built a system to deter themselves. By guaranteeing that Moscow could hit back, Perimeter was actually designed to keep an overeager Soviet military or civilian leader from launching prematurely during a crisis. The point, Zheleznyakov says, was “to cool down all these hotheads and extremists. No matter what was going to happen, there still would be revenge. Those who attack us will be punished.”
Hmmmmm. Two rather interesting things to consider here. The first is that anyone at all is going to get nice warm secure feelings from the idea that, when your entire country and everything you love is merely a glowing crater in the side of the planet, there will at least be one on the other side too, so we should spend a lot of money and effort on seeing this project through (and not, curiously enough, just building your own fucking missile shield). And the second thought: just who was making this decision, and how did they put it past the very hotheads it was supposed to placate? Wouldn’t it be easier to get rid of the hotheads in the first place? I mean, hell, we’re treated throughout our media, and even within this very article itself, with the Soviet penchant for disappearing people – wouldn’t it be cheaper to do that than build a pointless retaliatory defensive system to slow them down?
But okay, we’ve adequately (sorry, still sarcasm) answered the Strangelove question, and why it wasn’t really a secret even when it was a secret. So now let’s go back to the opening paragraph again, with Yarynich looking around furtively and speaking in whispers. Um, why? Wasn’t Perimeter a deterrent for a now non-existent impulsive military? Even if the Soviet Union was, as Thompson tells us, afraid that the US might be able to disable the system, the Soviet Union is long gone and the military is fractured and underfunded. The Cold War is over. So what’s Yarynich afraid of?
The system remains so shrouded that Yarynich worries his continued openness puts him in danger. He might have a point: One Soviet official who spoke with Americans about the system died in a mysterious fall down a staircase.
I think the only proper comment to this one is, “Yikes!” I mean, there’s stairs all over the place. I know, if I were a former KGB or NKVD officer tasked with keeping a non-secret secret, and with all the tools of the espionage trade at my disposal, I’d go with stairs myself. I mean, how many people actually survive falls down stairs? It must be as low as 85-95%.
So yes, Yarynich. Lay low, meet in public places where you can talk in whispers and glance around furtively, and by all means, publish a book about the system (yes, the link’s right there in the article). Might I suggest changing your name to Lo Kee?
But okay. There’s some difficulty with the plausibility of the whole concept, and all of the reasons behind it. This, true enough, doesn’t mean it doesn’t actually exist. So, what’s the corroborating evidence? What does Thompson and Wired present for us to support the notion that this was, and is, a real system created by the Soviets?
Not a fucking thing. No, seriously. Master researcher Nicholas Thompson, and the sharp-eyed editors at Wired, give us a couple of russian-sounding names and a couple of instances of hearsay. In fact, the article actually states more examples of denial than examples of proof.
Now, I’m familiar with this concept, since I used to see it all the time when I played around with UFO research. In fact, the entire article reads exactly like most articles about alien technology, Roswell, Majestic-12, and the like. Lots of drama, gross misstatement of facts and historical climate, vague and furtive inside sources, nonsensical explanations and actions, and a dearth of evidence. Within such circles, denial is considered “very interesting” (you can see my commentary on this, among many others, here). Come on, why would someone actually deny something, unless they were trying to cover it up? “Because there really is nothing there,” is not an acceptable answer.
I became so suspicious of these similarities that I looked up Nicholas Thompson, thinking he was a UFO book author. Nope, missed that call – he’s a senior editor of Wired itself. And he’s also written a book on the Cold War. After having read his execrable take on events and attitudes during the Reagan years in this article, I consider his book a must-miss publication. The best credit I can give him is that he aims at a particular audience that will accept his statements at face value without even comparing them against their memory of relatively recent world events, and punches some nice romance novel drama in there for flavor. You know where I said I’d give the article the chance to prove it didn’t belong in porn or pulp magazines? It failed.