Before The Dust Settles

Working within the limits of remote coverage, remote history, and remote futures.

Perhaps it was Trinity that had everyone on edge.

July 16th marked the 75th anniversary of the first atomic detonation at Trinity, and the first two and, so far, only uses of atomic bombs in war on August 6th and August 9th. There was a moment of reckoning and remembering nuclear weapons, which in its most charitable interpretation is what spilled over to twitter on August 4th, as a towering cloud rose above the port in Beirut.

By now, the explosion of the stored and abandoned ammonium nitrate is something of common knowledge, but in those first hours after the news, Twitter was a mess. That Twitter is, functionally, one of the major arteries through which news is broken and reported is a topic of its own for another time, but rampant speculation that a billowing cloud had been a surprise nuclear detonation was a hazard of its own.

People, and perhaps more important, states respond very differently to disasters that are seen as the result of an attack, and ones that are seen as more of a catastrophic accident. When responding to perceived malice, nations can make tragedy exponential. Which is why, in that moment, I wrote what I could with my absolutely and fundamentally limited knowledge of the situation on ground: “Think ‘Halifax’ Not ‘Hiroshima’ For Beirut Explosion”, a relatively quick news analysis for Forbes dot com.

Halifax is, like Beirut, a place I have never been, but the 1917 Halifax disaster is burned into my memory, like a particularly on brand bar trivia question: it was, prior to Trinity, the largest human-caused explosion in history. It was a wartime disaster measured in kilotons. It is part of the ritual memory of Boston, as Halifax to this day still sends Boston a Christmas Tree as a sign of thanks for aid rendered in December 1917.

As the people panicking about nukes subsided, and as it became clear it was neglect not malice that caused the explosion, the world moved on from rapt attention to a more familiar pattern of disaster recovery.

(Though the recovery is, like everything, now shaded by the pandemic, by the ongoing Syrian refugee refugee crisis within Lebanon, and especially as aid flows in, will likely be stymied by the complicated second-order effects of US sanctions on non-state actors. Expect to see a story from me on this from me in the coming week).

As someone who has found Tom Friedman exasperating long before I ever even considered going into journalism, every time I write about news outside of where I live I have to remember to start from both the limits of what I know going in, and the limits of what I can find out remotely. Friedman, for all he hinges on the cab drivers he attributes news to in his stories, is at least in theory sourced locally. On August 4th, I was not, and while the ubiquity of online communication makes that easy to change, I still have to work within my limitations: I speak and read only English, I am relying on people capable of the same, I am trusting that what I can pull from on-the-ground reactions on social media is earnest.

To compensate for all of that, in telling the story for Forbes, I focused on what I knew fell within my understanding: mushroom clouds predate nuclear weapons, the size and color of the cloud give clues about the blast, and nukes come with a host of other effects, none of which were observed in Beirut. Added to that is, at least, the minimum wisdom to know that a surprise nuclear attack would take a state actor and a knowable motive, neither of which was present.

Thanks to using Halifax as my point of comparison, I was invited to talk about the disaster on Canadian radio. You can listen to me starting at roughly 22:14 in this clip of the August 5th episode of the John Oakley Show.

This is a lot of equivocation for a 750 word story written and published in the space of about an hour. But as someone whose entire beat revolves around understanding so much that happens thousands of miles beyond my capacity to immediately observe it, I think it’s important to have some sense of not just what stories I am being asked to tell, but what stories I am capable of telling.

WHAT IS THE POINT OF DYSTOPIA

So much of my beat is spent covering the slow realization of bad futures. It was nice to take a moment, or, really, closer to two hours to talk about the construction, utility, and political roles of dystopian fiction on The Loopcast, together with guest J.M. Berger. While some recent works of dystopian fiction are mostly naked cash grabs (Maze Runner, we’re looking at you), a lot are somewhat deliberate political commentary.

The whole discussion is worth it, from the weird trend of people watching, like, Rollerball and wondering what it would take to set up a league, to how much of the genre’s early history is rooted in some of the grossest racism of the 19th and 20th century. I argue, perhaps naively, that the net effect of dystopia in school curricula is to paint our present as the best of all possible worlds, which itself leads to a deep dwindling of imagination for better futures. Berger has far more interesting things to say.

For a closer look at what it feels like to watch stories on my beat end up as hyperbolic fears, patrons of Hell of a Way to Die can listen to me talk with Francis about nukes, drones, and drones buzzing nuclear reactors. I also make my entry in the annals of “nuke journalist laughs for a long time about EMP fears,” though I’m pretty sure Jeffrey Lewis’ 77 seconds is still the record to beat. 

CLOUDCRAFT MINECRAFT TRADECRAFT

Like most other professional jobs, much of the Pentagon has moved to virtual work as a result of the pandemic. This comes as the whole military apparatus is working on adopting several different clouds, with varying levels of security, to protect secrets while also sharing them. It is, purely from a technical standpoint, a bit of a daunting task, and so the Department of Defense is leaning on its own code libraries, to create a kind of plug-and-patch solution to keeping the clouds working. 

The scale of the Pentagon is such that a $1 million contract is a rounding error on a rounding error of spending it might even notice, but if it’s DARPA spending that money I at least pay a little attention. This fortnight, I wrote about testing AI for squad management and team communication in Minecraft. Virtual worlds offer a lot for this kind of research: actions can be recorded and played back, the open source code makes it easier to add in AI agents, and if a computer messes up in a game, the stakes are incredibly low. 

READING LIST: THESE ARE THE FORAGERS

Earlier this summer, as Alymay was assigned “Guns, Germs, and Steel” for school, I asked around for scholarship done in the 20+ years since that offered an accessible alternative to Diamond’s tidy and deterministic reading of history. There are plenty, but the one I found in the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Library System was “Against the Grain” by James C. Scott.

It is, by design and its own admission, a work specifically designed to challenge the received wisdom of civilizational narrative, and won that fundamentally aggregates the collective research of others. 

What I found refreshing reading Scott was how at every turn it treats how humans live as the result, in part, of deliberate choice made with awareness of alternatives. Not that there isn’t coercion at work, but by emphasizing the distance between early agriculture and early states, Scott gives narrative space for people who, having tried farming, give it up when presented with other alternatives, including and especially after the collapse of early states. Scott contends that early states were only able to sustain their premise, enabling an elite to extract wealth in the form of stored grain, for so long as maintaining the repressive apparatus (read, enslavement/enserfment and violence) did not prevent people from actually producing the grain.

Most illuminating, I think, for our present moment is the notion that dark ages seldom were. These gaps in the written historical record reflect more on the capacity of elites to pay for recordings of history, and may obscure the relative freedom people found in returning to earlier life ways in-between extractive rule by early states.

It is, at the very least, more interesting than the notion that agriculture and the state were both simply inevitable. 

Reading “Against the Grain,” I also couldn’t help but think of this story from the Los Angeles Times in July: “Crowds removing sea creatures from San Pedro tide pools put delicate ecosystem at risk.” While framed primarily about the ecological risk, the problem described is less one of willing neglect, and more of a profound societal failure.

As unemployment checks ran out, and as both state and federal government refused to offer extraordinary relief for an extraordinary crisis, people did what they have always done at times of acute crisis: found food that existed outside the normal, and price-rationed, food supply.

It is worth saying, plainly, that at present this kind of deprivation, and return to forage, can coexist with the continuation of the state. The whole edifice of state power, including especially but not only police forces and the military, is set to be insulated from any part of this crisis, where even some of the most radical proposals floated by activist campaigns suggest cutting the US military budget back to roughly 2003 spending levels.


As a quick business note, I am planning on setting up a paid option for Wars of Future Past by the end of the month. You can expect newsletters like this to remain free, but I’m exploring options for what other writing I could do as a bonus for paid subscribers. (As floated on Twitter, I’m also definitely considering a way to transform some of my bad tweets into one-of-a-kind items for paid subscribers.) I very much enjoy writing like this, and I want to find a way to make it reader-supported, if possible.

That’s all for this (loosely defined) fortnight. Thank you all for reading, and if you’re in the mood for more newsletters, may I recommend checking out what we’re doing over at Discontents?