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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Gunslinger's Dilemma

I'm behind in my podcasts. I operate this way on purpose. Not sure if that's rational, but my rationalization for it is this: news of the day is charged with a sense of immediacy that interferes with understanding the content. The really big events are reported on for weeks. Blips on the chart might occupy an entire news cast, but not be remembered past three or even two days.

(Photo: Stephen King's Gunslinger Series)

Anyway, I uncovered one from the BBC newscast that I thought was interesting. I've linked to the article it was based on. Basically, some UK researchers wanted to examine whether or not a gunslinger from the old American west would be more likely to survive if he drew first, or if he drew second. The article pointed out two important concepts: 1) Securing the moral highground, that is: shooting second becomes an act of self-defense, and 2) the logical imperative of a preemptive strike, meaning: logically you'd think you're more likely to survive if you shoot first..

What the study, though completely idiotic, was sort of interesting to me because I thought it could help undermine theories of preemptive war. The study proved the following:

In a series of "laboratory gunfights" - with pistols replaced by electronic pressure pads - researchers found that participants who reacted to their
opponent's movement were on average 21 milliseconds faster to the draw.

If the reaction is faster than the action, why act at all?

As many young men, I grew enamored of the philosophies of Machiavelli and the German Chancellor Otto von Bismark. So moved was I, by these warlike ideas, that I saved two quotes to my quote book:

No government, if it regards war as inevitable even if it does not want it, would be so foolish as to leave to the enemy the choice of time and occasion and to wait for the moment which is most convenient for the enemy--Bismark

Men must be either pampered or annihilated. They avenge light offenses; they cannot avenge severe ones; hence, the harm one does to a man must be such as to obviate any fear of revenge.--Machiavelli

Well, I was young then, and not the biggest boy in the playground. I was eager to prove my manhood, and infatuated by G.I. Joe and action films. I was a child. I began to reject these ideas as a teenager, but even until recently, I held privately, that these ideas must be true. I was a pacifist, but--were there a need, it would make more sense to strike first, and strike hard. it is hard to escape this logic, particularly in personal encounters. The few fights I've had would seem to encourage this thinking. Most people, or most men I should say, are all talk. All bluster and bravado. Therefore a good drubbing would end the need for further conflict. Maybe.

However, personal encounters aside, I think that this rational for preemptive war is repugnant. And though this study in no way discusses, nor purports to support any policy rationale, I'm going to draw one anyway.

It might be, that were the United States to fire off it's entire arsenal of nuclear weapons at a potential aggressor they would "obviate any fear of revenge." However, such a treatment, even by war mongers is so unlikely as to be sheer grandiose, pompous, nonsense. Far more likely, we would engage in wars like Iraq. Which, while the preemptive strike did eliminate the Saddam Regime, might well end up permanently losing for the United States, the war on terror. As we have permanently ceded the moral highground, there can be no victory--short of genocide--which is most definitely NOT a victory. Furthermore, the aggressor was not, in fact, Saddam, or Iraq, but a worldwide terrorist agency.

Which is to say, preemptive war is not sound policy, but sheer idiocy. I think a good example of the reaction speed of retaliatory attacks would be the American build up and entry into World War II. Despite moves by FDR to motivate the U.S. entry into the war--the country wasn't sold, and may well never have been had the Japanese not attacked us at Pearl Harbor. The reaction speed of the U.S. to the attack is consigned to history.

Another more thorny example would be the Cold War. There you had a terrifying arms race, and side battles fought in extraneous nations, but no preemptive direct attack by either nation. And when that armsrace bankrupted the U.S.S.R, it collapsed, averting war altogether. That would be another argument against preemptive war.

Interestingly, as someone who has played a variety of war games over the years--Heroes of Might and Magic, Age of Empires, and StarCraft*. Preemptive war was always the way to win. However--and this is an important point to note: War Gamers are an interesting breed. The real players, not dabblers like myself, would spend hours timing the collection of resources, the build times for war factories, and the best number and type of units for use in a preemptive attack. Naturally, they did the same for defense. Amateurs like myself would read their collected data and attempt to put it to use. This worked well on other amateurs, including myself. But if that attack failed--as it inevitably would when you fought more skilled players--the preemptive attacker was so overexposed and depleted that a successful counter attack could annihilate the attacker.

(Photo: Here the marines run a preemptive attack on the Zerg base. By sending in troops before the other side has fully mobilized they are afforded the opportunity to destroy the resource gathering units of the enemy, crippling his production capabilities)

But think about this. A video game is programmed by a team, and has a very specific set of rules--that never alter. That preemptive attacks could work, were basically manipulations of chance by a clever use of statistics in a static world. Needless to say, (but saying it anyway) this not a static world. There are no rules for engagement, and statistics are merely a guide for what's possible, not a set regime for reality.

I'd love for any gamers to chime in here. Like I said, I was an amateur gamer, and would love a more practiced player to comment.

*Here's a shoutout to the 710 alliance. The group me and my old roomies formed to battle the other denizens of the seventh floor of our dorm.

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