Herman Kahn consciously followed Clausewitz’s lead in choosing the title On Thermonuclear War.
However, whereas Clausewitz was trying to develop a general theory of war from his and others’ experiences, Kahn was trying to develop a theory of a war of a kind that had never been fought.
In Chapter 8 of Book 1, Clausewitz telescopes war down to “a single short blow” to show that this is not possible. Nuclear war moves closer to this idealization. Kahn’s analysis is that even a nuclear war does not consist of a single short blow. There can be warnings and exchanges.
Kahn was analyzing the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. There was 30 minutes warning of a strike by one on the other. Kahn died before India and Pakistan achieved approximate nuclear parity in 1998. Their warning times come much closer to Clausewitz’s “single short blow.”
This is one way in which technology may have changed Clauzewitz’s analysis. But there is an element of Chapter 8 that remains relevant. Clausewitz is trying to dispel the too-easy assumption by those managing a war that they have a decisive strategy or weapon that will end the war as it begins. So the two Cold War rivals found ways to protect their missiles for a second strike. So the “shock and awe” of the March 2003 attack on Iraq became today’s slow progress on an agreement for the United States to withdraw. So Israel’s attack on Lebanon did not eliminate Hezbollah, as its attack on Gaza is unlikely to eliminate Hamas. The idea of a decisive air strike to take out Iran’s nuclear capabilities dances in some heads. The idea of a single short blow is still with us.
Kahn’s book remains hypothetical in a way that Clausewitz’s is not. Casualties can be calculated, probabilities of destruction of the second strike force, but those calculations depended, and still depend, on assumptions that have little empirical backing. When we bring in all those factors that we will be discussing over the next weeks, we will see many ways to make those assumptions.
And technology has advanced from Kahn’s time in the making of calculations. A 2007 paper in Science magazine predicts that several tens of nuclear weapons exchanged between India and Pakistan could result in a devastating nuclear winter for the world. Again, it appears that a single short blow is not possible, that in this case the natural world responds.