Strategic Studies Slapstick: A Review of Patrick Porter’s Looking Back: WWIII Remembered

Dr. Jeffrey H. Michaels

Dr. Michaels is Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London

In the original script of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, the film concludes with a custard pie fight in the War Room. Thankfully, Kubrick had the good sense to avoid the full slapstick approach and chose to cut the scene before releasing the film. As I was reading Professor Patrick Porter’s Looking Back: WWIII Remembered, I greatly feared that reaching the end of this relatively short piece (less than 2,700 words) would take nearly as long as reading a Jane Austen novel, such was the extent I repeatedly broke into laughter after every sentence, at least for those sentences where I could actually reach the end without laughing half-way through.

Humour in Strategic Studies is a rarity, albeit with some notable exceptions. The nuclear strategist Herman Kahn’s briefings to military audiences could easily be compared to a stand-up comedy routine, such were the number of jokes he would tell. Of all the figures working in the field, Kahn probably came closest to slapstick humour. Sitting in on his briefings one could easily think one was in a Catskills resort rather than the Pentagon. By contrast, Henry Kissinger also regularly employed humour, but of a much drier type. Other notable figures in the field, such as Thomas Schelling (cited by Porter), Bernard Brodie, Albert Wohlstetter, Daniel Ellsberg, William Kaufmann and Andrew Marshall, seem to have exhibited scarcely any humour at all by comparison, or if they did, then they kept it well-hidden.

With Porter’s ‘Looking Back’, he has taken comedy in the field to a new level. To appreciate the full extent of his artfully crafted humour requires an initiation into the language and concepts of Strategic Studies, some knowledge of his earlier work and ideally an awareness of the struggle academics who study and teach this subject must undergo, particularly when it comes to debunking bad analogies, the ‘brawn over brain’ mentality one typically comes across, the constant unthinking reference to buzzwords, and the limitations of using scenarios in the classroom to educate students about decisions on war. Porter’s humour operates on three levels. The ‘highest’, or most sophisticated level, is reserved for the insiders, namely those academics working in the field that can appreciate his attacks on various popular theories about war (his mockery of the ‘war is obsolete’ thesis is so biting that it might just as well be interpreted as an obscene gesture aimed in the direction of Steven Pinker) and international politics (reference to the ‘League of Democracies’ is probably intended to garner a few chuckles from those old enough to recall this fanciful idea and the politicians, academics and DC think tankers who once supported it). At the second level is humour aimed at the general reader, such as the ridiculous sounding names (Cassandra Blood) and silly dialogue (the Chinese Paramount Leader’s use of the expression ‘colour me underwhelmed’ – no doubt the first and only time such an expression will ever be spoken by a Chinese leader whether real or imagined, past, present or future). And just as Armando Iannucci in his Death of Stalin portrayed the Soviet dictator with a cockney accent, Porter’s Iannucci-style Chinese leader makes an odd-sounding reference to ‘barbarian management’. In one important instance, there is a combination of these two levels of humour. This is the reference to the US National Security Adviser who is named ‘Howard Blob’, with the surname acting as a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) reminder to read Porter’s article ‘Why America’s Grand Strategy Has Not Changed’, published in International Security. The third level is simply the absurdity of the scenario; absurd both for what it includes and what it excludes.

If Porter has done nothing else with ‘Looking Back’ he has condensed a semester-long course on Strategic Studies into a short story, a not insignificant achievement, and one that will be appreciated by teachers having to instruct students with short attention spans. One can only speculate if, in the course of drafting the story, he literally went through the index of a Strategic Studies textbook and found ways of placing many of the terms he found into the dialogue of his characters. Use of the following terms showcase this point: ‘extended deterrence’, ‘use it or lose it’, ‘decoupling’, ‘impose costs’, ‘ride out’ and ‘no first use’ – to name but a few. And even if not using the precise terms, he clearly refers to a number of concepts such as ‘limited war’, ‘escalation dominance’ and the ‘domino theory’. If only real-life leaders spoke like this – though given that this story ends with a nuclear war it is probably a good thing they don’t! Also consider Porter’s littering his story with a mix of historical analogies: Second World War, First World War, War of the Third Coalition, Seven Years’ War, the Taiwan Strait crises of the 1950s and mid-1990s, the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, the Berlin airlift, West Germany during the Cold War, and Kosovo.

Porter speaks volumes through his characters. On one side are three Americans, on the other side are three Chinese. The male-to-female ratio is quite telling in its own right. On the American side are two women and one man. On the Chinese side are three men. Thus, whereas Porter views the American system as being progressive, the Chinese system remains as unrepresentative as some critics have observed about the RUSI Land Warfare Conference in recent years. Of the Americans, the Howard Blob character is probably the most intriguing. At one point in the conversation, Cassandra Blood, the US Secretary of State, refers to him as ‘professor’. Given the lower case ‘p’ it is unclear if she is simply making a joke about his intellectual pretensions or whether he has a legitimate academic background. After all, the hawkish intellectual serving as a National Security Adviser is not an unfamiliar character type (Kissinger, Brzezinski, Rice). Walter Matthau’s brilliant portrayal of Professor Groeteschele in Fail Safe immediately springs to mind when trying to picture Blob. In that film, Groeteschele mocks a US Air Force General referring to him as ‘the military man who is the dove’ whereas he is ‘the civilian who is the hawk’. In Porter’s script, this applies to the Chinese rather than the Americans. Among the Chinese are the Paramount Leader, the Foreign Minister and an Air Force General. Unlike the more aggressive Foreign Minister, the Air Force General acts as a voice of caution, as was the case in Fail Safe. At one point, the Air Force General warns about the possibility of a US Navy submarine captain misperceiving things and using his nuclear weapons against China. The impact of Hollywood on Chinese strategic thinking is evident here – presumably their views of American nuclear command and control were influenced by watching Crimson Tide. Moreover, with the Chinese Paramount Leader’s uttering of five simple words, ‘How does it end, then?’, the reader is cast back to General David Petraeus’s 2003 reference to Iraq, and the reader is alerted to the same sort of policy trap: the impending Blunder is obvious yet to change course is impossible.

In a further instance of Porter’s esoteric humour, for which one needs to employ the methods of Leo Strauss to uncover, the opening conversation of both the US and Chinese includes use of the Sir Humphrey-esque expression ‘as you know’ by the subordinate officials to their respective leaders. Leaders are busy people and do not need to be reminded of what they already know. By repeating the reference for both the US and Chinese, Porter is no doubt identifying the universal etiquette problem of subordinates feeling required to be respectful to their masters. Despite the superior knowledge of the subordinates, the political master must be treated as if they are all-knowing, even when it is evident they know less.

Porter vividly illustrates the anti-democratic nature, even in democratic systems, of decisions about war and peace. For both the Americans and the Chinese, only three individuals participate in the discussion leading up to the key decisions – not only does the public not have a say but it would seem as though there is no debate within the higher ranks of either governments’ national security apparatus. Interestingly, whereas military advice is sought in the Chinese case, there is no equivalent US general or admiral providing their ‘expert’ opinion.

On the whole, the portrayal of the Americans is decidedly negative. Several points are noteworthy in this respect. First, the Americans are criminally slow to react to the Chinese, discussing options to counter their blockade only after it is already well underway. This is more likely a critique of the US policymaking system’s inability or unwillingness to accept bad news and take tough decisions early on – to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg – rather than a criticism about the quality of US early warning intelligence or the mainstream news media. On the other hand, Porter faults the US military for poor operational security, or to put it another way, he credits the Chinese with a first-rate intelligence system. Within moments of the US dispatch of carriers to counter the Chinese blockade, the Chinese signals intelligence service have already intercepted the US Navy’s comms traffic and passed this intelligence up the chain of command. Finally, notwithstanding a later reference to the UK and France, Porter has the Americans acting unilaterally once again. Also attributed to the Americans is a ‘shoot first, try diplomacy, economic warfare, cyber-attacks, etc. later’ mentality. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

As noted earlier, Porter’s story exhibits an absurd quality both for what it includes and excludes. Near the end of the story, the reader is informed that the British and French fleets are sailing towards the region. Judging by the rather ridiculous timeline (within the course of a single hour the American president decides to dispatch US navy carriers, the carriers actually set sail, the Chinese government finds out about this and the Chinese leaders hold their own meeting to plot a response), the British and French seem to be so eager to join the fight against China that they have set already sail, most likely preceding the dispatch of the American fleet. Perhaps some imitation of Geoffrey Palmer’s character ‘Admiral Roebuck’ in Tomorrow Never Dies is serving as First Sea Lord in 2029! What reason the French could possibly have to intervene in this conflict is not discussed, with this reviewer completely stumped about the reason Porter has them participating. But at least with the British, Porter pulls no punches, and makes explicit reference to ‘Global Britain’. Implicitly, Porter seems to be conjuring up the ghost of former UK Defence Minister Gavin Williamson as continuing to haunt British defence policy in the decade ahead. He may also be taking a potshot here at those officials and academics that have made the case for the Royal Navy to take a more active role in the Pacific. Furthermore, the Chinese leader’s criticism of the British – ‘wants our business but wants to get in our face’ – may be an attempt by Porter to raise the issue of a perceived ‘double standard’ as far as British policy is concerned. But one wonders if the author of Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes was being deliberately provocative by mentioning the involvement of two European powers in a war in the Pacific yet simultaneously avoiding any reference to the role of regional powers, thereby casting an unfavourable light on the Transatlantic-centrism that continues to pervade the Strategic Studies discourse. No doubt to the astonishment of some naval scholars, especially those that focus on sea power in the Pacific, to say nothing of readers living in that region, the Japanese Navy doesn’t rate a mention, nor does the Australian Navy. Most shocking of all is that the Taiwanese military seems to have disappeared into thin air. China is seemingly able to conduct a naval blockade of Taiwan with zero opposition. Irrespective of whether or not Porter was being deliberately provocative, his lack of reference to the Taiwanese military in a China-Taiwan conflict unfortunately seems to be the norm for many similar scenarios.

Particularly disconcerting in Porter’s view of a future conflict is that the character of war hasn’t moved on. This is a war that could have just as easily occurred in 2009, if not earlier, rather than 2029. His scenario is based on ‘traditional’ military capabilities such as ships, missiles and nuclear weapons. With all the hype about cyberwar so prevalent in the contemporary Strategic Studies literature, Porter seems to have accepted Thomas Rid’s thesis that ‘cyber war will not take place’. When the Americans are contemplating how to respond to a Chinese blockade of Taiwan, and as the Chinese are contemplating their response to the American response, nuclear weapons are discussed, but for some reason cyber options are beyond the pale, or perhaps are so secret or complicated that the key leadership of both countries have little knowledge about them, whereas nuclear weapons still continue to have gravitas in international relations and in the crisis signalling of great powers.

That being said, cyber weapons are not entirely absent either. As Blob chillingly states, ‘The lights have already gone out in Taipei’. In a tone reminiscent of Sir Edward Grey, the image of cyber weapons blacking out a city on the one hand is combined with images of First World War trenches on the other. Although Porter probably missed a trick by having Blob utter these words rather than Cassandra, with this simple reference he recalls H.G. Wells in The Shape of Things to Come, in which after years of fighting a war with highly advanced weapons the combatants are reduced to using only the most primitive. One is also reminded of Albert Einstein’s remark that ‘I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones. A hint of the First World War can also be detected in the final two words of the story: ‘Do it’. Similar to ‘Goodbye-ee’, Porter’s use of ‘Do it’ speaks for itself. One does not even need to be informed in the story’s prologue of the forthcoming nuclear apocalypse. With the Paramount Leader’s utterance of those two simple words, the reader requires no further cues that a tragedy is about to befall the world. Nevertheless, this ending is also somewhat anticlimactic. It may be clear to the Paramount Leader and his subordinates what ‘Do it’ refers to, but the reader might still want the question ‘Do what’ answered. Similar to the ‘Yada Yada’ episode of Seinfeld, Porter has ‘yada yada‘d over the best part’ by avoiding any discussion of the precise chain of events that led from ‘Do it’ to millions of deaths and rumours of a ‘little Ice Age’.

This minor criticism notwithstanding, there is little doubt ‘Looking Back’ will become standard reading in Western and Eastern defence establishments. In terms of its brevity, wit, and intellectual substance, Porter blows P.W Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet out of the water. With luck some clever publisher will recognize an opportunity to capitalize on the large market for those interested in future war scenarios, particularly those that deal with a US-China clash, and have it republished as a short story, ideally as an expanded version that adds some gruesome details about the war itself. Regardless of its prospects as a best-seller, Porter can be congratulated for making Strategic Studies funny again – and generally accessible.


Featured Image – Xi Jinping and Barack Obama at a White House state dinner during Xi’s September 2015 state visit to the United States


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s