The world weighs on my shoulders, but what am I to do?
You sometimes drive me crazy, but I worry about you
I know it makes no difference to what you’re going through
But I see the tip of the iceberg, and I worry about you …
– Neil Peart, Distant Early Warning
But wouldn’t it be luxury to fight in a war some time where, when you were surrounded, you could surrender?
– Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
Reading through background material on the UN’s recent request for $16.4 billion in humanitarian aid in 2015, I find that the number of displaced people was already at its highest since World War II at the end of 2013, and has risen by several million since then. Nearly all are somewhere inside or on the perimeter of the Muslim world, with Ukraine the only sizeable exception. My sense, in which I am hardly alone, is that we are reliving the mid-1930s, with aggression unchecked and chaos unmitigated by morally exhausted Western institutions. That “low dishonest decade” ended in global war with a per capita death toll around 1 in 40. A proportional event a few years from now would kill 200 million people.
Strauss and Howe portray four prior “Crisis Eras” in American history:
- the Glorious Revolution Crisis in the late 17th century;
- the American Revolution Crisis in the late 18th century;
- the Civil War Crisis in the mid-19th century; and
- the Great Depression – World War II Crisis in the mid-20th century
A quarter-century ago, based on their reading of the temperaments of the generations then living, including the Millennials being born at the time, they predicted a fifth instance, which they called the Crisis of 2020. This is not to be taken as an event occurring in 2020 or in any single year, but in the years around 2020 and reaching its climax and resolution within a few years of that date. The Great Depression – World War II Crisis could have similarly been predicted, circa 1910, as the “Crisis of 1940.”
GENERATIONS was blurbed by a collection of personages as variegated as then-Senator Al Gore and then-Cato Institute president Bill Niskanen. I have met and spoken with enough people of contrasting political persuasions who have read it to know that its appeal, and perhaps its ability to give offense, is entirely orthogonal to conventional politics. Note that my belief in the model, however fervent, is not a desire for the Crisis of 2020 to continue to unfold; I would greatly prefer to live quietly. I don’t think I’m going to get to do that for a while, even if I happen to survive, and our own Crisis Era is likely to include, besides plenty of casualties, a degree of societal regimentation far greater than any libertarian, or most conservatives or liberals for that matter, could ever welcome. Heinlein: “You can have peace. Or you can have freedom. Don’t ever count on having both at once.” If I’m right, we won’t have either for several years, starting soon. This is about acknowledging our situation and moving to meet it, not being thankful for having been matched with this hour.
The general theme is that relatively constant stresses in combination with steadily declining crisis-management abilities create ever-greater “negative risk events” (I tend to litter these posts with project-management terminology) until a truly existential struggle is joined. Pressure does not build up, but its containment fails, simply because the generations that survived the previous Crisis Era, thereby acquiring an almost instinctive ability to overcome crises, inexorably depart from the scene. The youngest cohort of the Silent Generation turned 72 last year, and Boomers have, if anything, a propensity to foment crises. “Absalom, Absalom, Absalom!”
This is not a merely arcadian worldview in which we are endlessly descending from an ideal past, but a description of the crossing of a threshold for the fifth time in three and a half centuries, one that, as in past instances, requires prompt and drastic adaptation. As to our particular crossing, I would nominate non-state WMD acquisition – if not development – and use no longer being successfully prevented or deterred in the near future. The domestic-economic phase of the Crisis of 2020 has been underway since at least 2008; predicting the exact mechanism for starting its international-military phase matters much less than realizing that our ability to prevent geopolitical calamities has steadily atrophied, because the “we” of 2015 is not the “we” of 1985, much less 1945.
2015–16: Gridlock, Institutional Failure, and Occasional Disasters
- The 114th Congress will probably be deadlocked with the Obama Administration from day one; see Axelrod for game-theoretic considerations as applied to the end of a politician’s final term of office. And even without party turnover of the White House at the next presidential election, the period from 9 November 2016 through 19 January 2017 will be one of exceptionally unpleasant opportunism.
- A general and widely acknowledged air of institutional ineptitude, as recently commented on by no less than Larry Summers, will continue unabated. I note that the recent and much-praised Orion flight test was, at most, a re-enactment of the first such flight of the Saturn V/Apollo CSM … 47 years earlier. The salient differences are that Apollo/Saturn was developed in half the time, was without historical precedent, and was far less expensive.
- Political gridlock and institutional dysfunction may, however, have the virtue of thwarting numerous and surprisingly popular attempts to seal off the US from the world, both physically and economically, all stemming from fear of contagion. Proposed restrictions on travel, trade barriers (on the movement of labor as well as goods), capital controls, and even internal checkpoints will proliferate. They will be promoted by people who loudly proclaim, in their next breath, to be defenders of freedom, supporters of civil liberties, etc. Like gun control and narcotics Prohibition, if implemented, these measures will not stop motivated actors, and will invariably create black markets.
- The UN will look more and more like the League of Nations, especially in its non-management of violent conflicts, the large majority of which will be in or immediately adjacent to Dar al-Islam. Refugee counts will remain in eight figures, and death tolls will reach toward seven figures. The prevalence of failed states, already stretching in a nearly uninterrupted arc from West Africa to Central Asia, will widen and deepen. As I draft this post, as a side effect of Saudi determination to render independent US production uneconomical by holding down oil prices, the implosion of Venezuela seems certain. This will have, to put it mildly, nontrivial secondary effects around the Caribbean, already bordered by several other nations with some of the world’s highest violent death rates.
- Simultaneously, however, at least one Middle Eastern nation formerly thought to be institutionally secure, quite possibly the KSA itself, will be destabilized in the manner of Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. This will effectively arm and train tens to hundreds of thousands of new jihadists. American public opinion will resolutely oppose incurring ~1,000 KIA in the Middle East to annihilate ISIS, which will thereby grow beyond the scope of any limited military response as it continues to add affiliates in Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia.
- Closer to home, in an atmosphere of extraordinary intolerance for immigration, an incident analogous to the MS St Louis, but with victims of the collapse of Venezuela, the ISIS genocide of Yazidis, or some similar situation, seems likely to occur. Notwithstanding obvious, imminent danger to refugees’ lives, allowing them into the US will be enormously unpopular. (This is one of my easier predictions, given that we have already nearly had such an incident within the past year.) Many, possibly most, of those turned away will die violently in the next few years.
- Meanwhile, entirely within the US, a domestic debacle entailing a 4- or 5-digit death toll may occur as a direct result of institutional neglect of, or clumsy government overreaction to, a stressor, possibly epidemiological. A tsunami of conspiracy theorizing and intermittently violent fringe political activity will follow.
- Worst-case scenario: widespread, active homegrown disloyalty escalating to fifth-column activity in support of foreign interests or violent domestic factionalism; numerous completed acts of terrorism and sabotage, with overt red/blue sectional differences.
2017–20: Over the Edge
- The Administration/Congress relationship will improve greatly, especially for most of 2017, irrespective of the outcome of the 2016 election. This will occur even in the event of a bizarre combination, eg, a President Elizabeth Warren and a conservative Republican Congress.
- International tension will be extreme – much worse than during the Cold War. Expect desperate attempts throughout the First World at negotiating peace and at diverting public attention to non-military priorities, including grandiose environmentalist and economic-restructuring schemes.
- War, when it begins, will as usual be caused by a disagreement about relative strength. The West in general and the US in particular, thanks to the previous decade of floundering in general and our ignominious defeat in Afghanistan in particular, will be perceived by an attacker as incapable of decisively imposing its will – or even of responding to an attack at all. The oft-noted large size and cost of the US military will be irrelevant to this calculation.
- I unimaginatively predict an opening, undeterred attack on the US, by a non- or only quasi-state entity, employing WMD, targeting DC and NYC, and possibly other high-cultural-profile (ie, settings of internationally popular TV series) cities. I note that the flight time of an aircraft, or for that matter a cruise missile, from the Arabian Peninsula to the northeastern US is less than twelve hours; and of course the time-of-flight of a ballistic missile between any two points on Earth is three-quarters of an hour at most. A ship-launched IRBM could reach a coastal target in less than 20 minutes. A century ago, no attack on such timescales could have ranged over more than a few miles. From an early-21st-century military perspective, the entire planet is now no larger than a typical US county prior to mechanization.
- Official overreaction may kill more people than the attack itself, most likely by ordering the evacuation of an area hundreds of times the size of the one directly affected. This order may nonetheless have considerable popular support; see last year’s Ebola hysteria (or the similar panic over enterovirus D68) and attendant calls for drastic Federal action.
- Sizeable disloyal elements will celebrate the attack, and opposition to a military response will be widespread among those who self-identify as having voted against the current Commander-in-Chief. Blue states and cities will protest a Republican president; red states and suburbs will protest a Democrat. Some of the sharper verges in American political geography, eg coastal vs interior California, may see clashes between rival factions.
- Of course, depending on the timing, location, and scale of the attack, abrupt turnover in national leadership may occur. Overall institutional continuity is likely, however, since 3 USC § 19 specifies a line of nearly 20 eligible presidential successors.
- Domestic partisanship aside, thanks to huge civilian casualties (unlike at Lexington/Concord, Fort Sumter, or Pearl Harbor) there will be enormous political pressure to respond in kind. This will range up to and including a nuclear strike on at least one national capital in or near the Middle East, with millions of attendant civilian deaths. Resisting the temptation to carry out such a strike will be supremely difficult, as it will have the support of a large majority of the American population.
- Notwithstanding that consensus, widespread derangement will manifest itself in the form of conspiracy theorizing far more intensive than that in the aftermath of 9/11. At least one extremist political movement based on such conspiracy theories will arise and briefly capture the support of many of the adherents of whichever major party happens to constitute the opposition to the current Administration. Its platform will consist almost entirely of scapegoating: “investigations,” show trials, and purges.
- Worst-case scenario: terrorists acquire lower time preference and therefore execute a widespread biological attack that takes weeks to months to kill most of its victims, rather than a single- or few-point nuclear or chemical attack that kills immediately. Note that viruses can already be made to order in laboratories and shipped to customers, and Variola major, for example, reliably kills one-third of those infected and permanently disfigures most of the remainder. Toy quadcopter drones with atomizers could infect thousands of people in minutes at large public gatherings, in hundreds of locations around the country simultaneously.
2021–25: Climax and Resolution
- A combat theater encompassing nearly the entire Muslim world, from Morocco to Maluku and Sierra Leone to Shaanxi. A possible additional, smaller Western Hemisphere theater in the “gap” nations of the Caribbean Rim and Andean South America. Participation, modulated by conscription, by most of the Millennial generation in the US, with its manpower significantly augmented from India.
- Chinese devolution/breakup and US alliance with faction(s), not necessarily that/those with the largest Christian population – recall that Urakami Cathedral, the largest church in northeastern Asia, was 500 meters from the hypocenter of Fat Man – but that/those most willing to destroy jihadists after the manner of the suppression of the Dungan Revolt of the 19th century.
- WMD use successfully deterred wherever a second strike remains possible. Nuclear bombs could be, and were, used on Japan in the summer of 1945 not merely because they were available, but because Japan could not strike back at the US itself, while still being capable of inflicting huge casualties on an American ground invasion force. Belligerents lacking any second-strike capability or WMD-armed allies will be similarly vulnerable this time around.
- Ubiquitous situational awareness and direct communication worldwide among soldiers and noncombatants alike, mediated by mobile phones, wearable cameras, VR helmets, 4k video, drones, and haptic interfaces. An incessant torrent of gruesome, full-motion, multisensory imagery, immediately accessible by most of the First World populace. Frequent unauthorized but unpreventable contacts between adversaries, either directly or through neutral mediators. Significant participation by freelancers, mercenaries, and partizans; combat as LARPing with the possibility of death, and the usual likelihood of PTSD.
- Accelerated development and use of military nanotechnology as a force multiplier, including greatly shortened prototyping/manufacturing cycles for weaponry – compressed from years down to weeks or even days – and immense progress in regenerative medicine routinizing organ/limb replacement. Treatments or (by comparison with those available now, benign) pharmaceuticals to reduce the need for sleep to 2 hours or less out of 24.
- See Xenakis on genocidal “crisis war,” in which the value of individual lives drops to near zero. Various resulting material privations, including severe rationing of domestic/civilian medical care, especially for the elderly and those with compromised immune systems (six weeks ago as I post this, the CDC estimated that 800,000 Americans have unsuppressed HIV). Widespread, accepted de facto if not de jure euthanasia, unopposed even by most of those who have been prophesying such a development ever since Roe v Wade was handed down. Large domestic refugee populations, depending on our adversaries’ targeting and, not to overlook the obvious, the prevalence and concentration of fifth-column activity.
- Even amidst desperate struggle, however, parasitism in the form of an attempt to gain legal and cultural status for nonmilitary Federal “service.” This idea will be especially popular in areas of the US with historically low per capita rates of volunteer enlistment, that is, the West Coast and the Northeast megalopolis, plus prominent mid-sized academic cities like Austin and Madison.
- Assuming relative continuity of national leadership, the late-term game-theoretic problem of early ’15 – early ’17 discussed above repeating in early ’23 – early ’25, possibly moderated by national unity in the face of existential conflict.
- Events acquiring a retrospective coherence – that is, an imposed narrative, such that the conflict is described as having had a specific beginning, middle, and end – which, other than perhaps the very beginning and very end, was not obvious to participants at the time.
- And the butcher’s bill? Doing a bit of math, I find that per capita death tolls in past Crisis Eras have ranged from 1/326 to perhaps 1/25 of the American population; lower if the conflict was foreign, higher if domestic, and much higher if one domestic faction makes itself relatively vulnerable, ie, attacks unrealistically and, for obtuse-cultural or low-situational-awareness reasons, doesn’t know when to quit. Thus the Civil War toll was proportionally twice that of the Revolution, and that of King Philip’s War was proportionally twice that of the Civil War – as much as a third of the indigenous population of New England died. American deaths in the Crisis of 2020 may therefore be expected to range from 1 million to over 10 million.
- Worst-case scenario: a large but vulnerable domestic faction fighting the majority, and unrealistic enough to refuse to surrender early on, pushing the US KIA number into eight figures.
As overwhelming as our disadvantages may seem – the foolishness of American baby boomer-generation leadership and the wishful thinking of the American electorate being high on that list – and as long and deadly as I expect the conflict to be, I believe that both civilizational and American survival are likely. Many of the people reading this will lose someone close to them in the next decade. Some of us will not live to see the final victory ourselves. But the America of the late 2020s will be as much improved over what it is now as it became between the middle 1930s and the late 1940s. Like those who saved the West then, whatever generation you belong to, you have a rendezvous with destiny.