Yuri Tarnopolsky                                                                                                                          ESSAYS
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1      Artist on War           

Vasily (Vasilii, Vasilij, Vasiliy) Vasilievich Vereshchagin (Верещагин, Василий Васильевич,1842-1904) was a Russian artist and humanist. He left a pictorial record of his travels, including Balkans, Middle East, India, Japan, Philippines, Cuba, and USA. Behind this short bio clip lies a rich creative life and unusual destiny.  Vereshchagin, an anti-war batalist (painter of war), described also as Artist at War in the book in English of the same title  (http://www.upf.com/book.asp?id=BAROOS93 ),  remains a personality of global rank, well remembered but still relatively little called under the light of modernity—and postmodernity—outside Russia. He was by no means anchored to his Russian background. His Apotheosis of War (Figure 1) was painted in Munich, among other works in the Barbarians series.  It was  inspired by the painter's impressions during the Russian-Turkestan war (1868) on the territory of today's Uzbekistan, a former Soviet Republic. It was intended as a symbol and supplied with an inscription: "Dedicated to all great conquerors: present, past, and future ones." 


Figure 1.  Vasily  Vereshchagin (1842-1904), Apotheosis of War, 1871.

Tamerlane (Timur Lang), one of the greatest and bloodiest conquerors, died in 1405 and was buried in his capital city of Samarqand (or Samarkand) in Uzbekistan. His grandson Ulug Beg (Ulugbek),  famous of his patronage of arts and sciences, especially, astronomy, and not of murder, was buried aside Tamerlane. For the fans of historical symbolism that may mean something about the precedents for progress in the Middle East, to which Uzbekistan—the neighbor of Afghanistan—belongs. All you need is the oriental patience, for which the American Constitution, with presidential elections every four years, did not make any provision. Quite to the contrary:  the midterm elections give the citizens  a limited opportunity to vent their impatience every two years.

Although Vereshchagin had seen some small piles of sculls during his travels along the Russia-China border, the following photo from Cambodia (Figure 2) testifies that Apotheosis was not painted from nature: in his painting the lower jaws look still attached to the sculls. The ongoing global murder makes us all experts in such things. Vereshchagin's prophetic imagination was surpassed by the reality of the killing fields of the twentieth century


Figure 2. Victims of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge rule in  Cambodia. The skulls and bones of thousands  of unidentified victims are displayed  at the "Museum   of Genocide."  Photo and caption from:   http://www.frontline.org.za/articles/blackbook_communism.htm


Figure 3.  Golden Opulence Sundae, $1000


I have already used the photo of the Golden Opulence Sundae, $1000, in Essay 46.  I confess that the sundae with its "edible gold" struck me more than the photo of human bones, for which I had  already been prepared by the catacombs of Paris and the living skeletons of the Holocaust. The Golden Opulence symbolizes the remarkable stability of America amidst turmoil. It celebrates wealth, the best ballast for hot air balloons in stormy weather. It does it with a cavalier attitude toward gold: the omnipotent tyrant is forced to crawl through human bowels to the infamous end. This is why I counterbalance the gray morbidity of Figure 2  with Figure 3.  The picture of hell is unconvincing without paradise as an alternative. And vice versa.

Regarding Tamerlane, here is his place in an excerpt from the roster of wars:


—And David and his men went up, and invaded the Gesh'urites, and the Gezrites, and the Amal'ekites: for those nations were of old the inhabitants of the land, as thou goest to Shur, even unto the land of Egypt.

And David smote the land, and left neither man nor woman alive, and took away the sheep, and the oxen, and the asses, and the camels, and the apparel, and returned, and came to Achish.   Samuel, 27:8,9

Ordered by Mangu to subdue the Mongols' western neighbors, Hulagu led his enormous army into Persia in 1251 and by 1256 had crushed the heretic Ismaili order of Muslims (also known as the Assassins). In 1257 he besieged and sacked Baghdād after the Abbasid Caliph al-Mustasim rejected Hulagu's demand for Abbasid surrender. In the massacre, only Christian lives were spared, apparently due to the intervention of Hulagu's Christian wife. Baghdād burned for seven days, and some historians estimate as many as 800,000 people, including the caliph and his family, were killed. In a letter to King Louis IX of France, Hulagu estimated his army killed 200,000 people.

—On Tamerlane's distant expeditions, where his purpose was only to loot and strike terror, he ordered atrocities that are still remembered. At Esfahān (Isfahan), in Iran, which had rebelled after surrendering in 1387, he massacred 70,000 people and constructed towers of their skulls. In 1398 at Delhi, in India, he had 100,000 Hindu inhabitants slaughtered and razed the city.

—The human cost, not including more than 5 million Jews killed in the Holocaust  who were indirect victims of the war, is estimated to have been 55 million dead—25 million of those military and 30 million civilian.

On the night of February 13, 1945, hundreds of Allied bombers released a firestorm of bombs on Dresden, killing 135,000 people and demolishing 80 percent of the city.


 —In a contrast between Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union, the Black Book [of Communism] notes that while an average of 68 people were executed a year under the Czar, up to 690 000 executions a year could be carried out under the Commissars (such as in The Great Purge!) In 1918, Lenin personally authorized the execution of 15 000 people in just 2 months. In just 7 years 7 million people were condemned to the concentration camps, in the gulag. Source: Peter Hammond,  http://www.frontline.org.za/articles/blackbook_communism.htm


The above quotations, except the first and the last, are from: Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2000. © 1993-1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

What the above incomplete roster tells us is the confusing nature of war: a war can be waged against a side that, as the Jews, Cambodians, and the victims of Stalin's terror, does not offer any resistance. Moreover, the absolute majority of the Geshurites, Gezrites, Amalekites, inhabitants of Baghdad, Esfahan, Delhi, and Dresden did not resist either.  Moreover, a war, as war on cancer, smoking, drugs, poverty, terrorism, global warming, Democrats, and middle class, can be waged without firearms against an abstract or invisible enemy. Furthermore, a war can be waged only in somebody's imagination or even against yourself.

At least since the times of Socrates, to serve in the army and navy has always been a noble occupation, which, I believe, it should be. It is the intentional mass murder of unarmed people and not the war itself  that stands alone in the history.

A confusion descends on me like the morning fog from the Pacific when I watch how the awful human toll has been accumulating over the years in the Iraq war. Mass murder can be committed incrementally, triggered unintentionally, displayed openly, and executed without a slightest personal responsibility: no Tamerlane could be found.

The following  is  my  own personal  impressions of an impatient, but mostly passive, witness of five wars: WWII, the war of the Russian Communist government on its own people (ended in 1987), the war of the militant Islam on the West, the Cold Civil War in America, and the Iraq war. As for the wars with myselfI have lost count of them.

Watching TV on September 11, 2001, I had an overwhelming feeling of defeat: my new country was built with windows and doors wide open and left unguarded against the hostile world from which I came.

The Iraq war  has been another defeat: the self-proclaimed "only superpower," the world hatchery of technical miracles, the richest country in the world, the nursery and attraction of the most brilliant minds, the source of a unique system of democratic ideas, and the shelter for refugees like myself, is shamefully failing in a limited war with invisible but certainly human enemy, armed only with simple weapons, fanaticism, and the honed through ages cruelty. 

I mourn the dead on both sides, but I also mourn our defeat.

One of the causes of the defeat is another war—or, worse, a chronic disease—that eats up America from the inside: the Cold Civil War. A war ends up with peace. A chronic disease may end up in death.  The Democratic tsunami of 2006 dispelled the heavy stale air, but I still cannot regain my equilibrium. I see a slim chance of truce, a ceasefire, but not the end to the CCW.  America confronts only one unfriendly world superpower: herself.  America and I are of the same blood.

I foresee scores of books written about the Iraq war, probably, even more than about the Vietnam War. I am not qualified for any professional judgment about war. All I can say is that I am not a pacifist and I do not believe in the end of history. I also believe that there could be sound reasons to invade Iraq. The tragedy was not the invasion itself but the utmost inability of America to win the war, understand the situation, learn the lessons, adjust to reality, stop the slaughter, to prove the "number one" rank of the only superpower, and even to think more than one election ahead.

I am not familiar with military theory.  I am not a fan of military literature.  I can hardly say anything original, but the topic of war is something I have to get off my heart.

Next I will share some thoughts after reading The War of the World by Niall Ferguson. Further I will approach the abstract concept of war as a chemist, using the metaphor (ideogram) of surface tension. Finally, I will convey some impressions of the Iraq war and conclude with a political recipe.

For a different take on war see History as Points and Lines.

2    Historian on War      


I see The War of the World by Niall Ferguson (The Penguin Press, New York, 2006) as a brilliant performance.  The main events of the twentieth century are widely known. It is the performance of the epic script that matters.

What is performance? Instead of definition I suggest comparing any two movies based on the same book, for example, Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005) and Sword of Gideon (Michael Anderson, 1986), both based on  Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team by George Jonas. The difference is in performance. In classical Japanese theater Kabuki and other traditional theaters of Asia the audience is attracted not by the content of the ancient plays, which everybody knows by heart, but by the way the actors perform the familiar roles. In modern theater, however, the faithfulness to the original is not required. Cesar might well kill Brutus.


A live witness of most of the bloody century, including WWII, and  a reader of a big stack of books written by the WWI and WWII generations, I find the representation of the misery of the twentieth century by Niall Ferguson, born in 1962, amazingly correct. Of course I well remember the triumphal side of the era, too, but that was not the objective of the book. Even though I am not sure that the author proves his thesis (the exclusive violence of the century and three e—ethnic, economy, empire—as its cause, all of that unimportant, though), I refuse to criticize his book because whatever flaws one might find, there are no standards for this kind of project. Thus, I completely approve of his minimalism regarding military operations and ignore slip-ups like attributing a Russian opera to a wrong composer.

At the first reading I dropped the book after a couple of chapters: it all was too familiar. But something was still pulling me to the heavy volume. When I had opened it for the second time, I got glued to the pages. A younger generation of readers without any relevant background may perceive the book differently, but I got captivated by the work of novelty and talent. Scores of small details, stimulating ideas, arrogant parallels (Roosevelt and Hitler, Holocaust and Hiroshima), and troubling questions hide in the wide folds of the generous and eloquent narrative. 

I see the book as a study of organized mass violencea difficult topic, especially because of the overabundance of materialbut not as a theorizing or even descriptive study aimed at assembling and organizing facts. More like a study (étude) in visual arts, it works also as a novel, a painting, a symphony, and a play combined. I attribute its design and style not to its TV affiliation, but to the postmodern shift in arts and humanities, probably, most of all influenced by Michel Foucault.  See Essay 46. Postmodernity: Postmortem for Modernity. Postmodernity looks not for the truth, but for entertainment.    

In no particular order, this is what still reverberates in my mind after reading Niall Ferguson's book.

1. The use of the word war regarding unarmed people as victims leads to a misconception. In a fight between two soldiers both have a chance to win, as in sports, while an unarmed civilian, especially, woman or child, has no chance to stand against a gathering of hostile and murderous people. The fatal doom of organized non-military violence comes from the clash of an individual with a group, usually armed. The individual always wins in the westerns, but hardly ever in real life. The "war against the Jews" and the war against Imperial Japan are two very different species in the taxonomic family of organized violence. I believe that the war on terror and the war of Islamic terror against the West are two new separate and  still very little explored kinds. 

2. The victory of the Allied forces against the enemies who did not regard them as human was possible only because the Allies also saw the enemies as inhuman. Military victory against a powerful and determined enemy is impossible without extreme hate and dehumanization of the opponent. A strong, clever, cruel enemy can be defeated only by ruthless, brutal forceor by decades and centuries of patience. What follows is that  the side that starts the war, the aggressor, loses a significant  part of  its strength because it inflames and legitimizes the reciprocal hate on part of  the victim. Counteraction equals action.

This instinctive understanding of war as necessary dehumanization can explain the initial trust of  most Americans in George W. Bush. He and his circle, as I believe, saw many things right, although not too far ahead. I expect some of the future historians say that one of the reasons the initial fast victory in Iraq turned into a defeat was that America was not as brutal and wily as the customs of the invaded land required. One cannot conduct a war in a politically correct way. I see plenty of evidence that the administration had realized that and tried to outsource cruelty, but one cannot outsource hate. The idea of a native strong man in Iraq was quite expedient, but, unfortunately, not politically correct.  Actually, there is a more weighty property than political correctness: "election correctness"  or  suitability for electoral campaign.


With a belated soberness Americans began to realize that the same things have different meanings in different cultures. Thus, corruption is natural in cultures of stark survival. Harsh and violent measures are seen as natural in authoritarian cultures, which explains the resurgence of Stalin's cult in Putin’s Russia. 


3. The ultimate outcome of the modern war, if it does not end soon, depends on the superiority of human and material resources, in spite of some lessons from ancient history.  Planning the invasion of Russia, Hitler counted on the kinetic effect, i.e., the advantage of speed. The final outcome, however, was, as the chemists say, under the thermodynamic and not  kinetic control:  the grand finale of WWII was ensured by the Russian resources critically enhanced by American help. The Korean War was under a similar spell.

Thermodynamic reaction control takes place with vigorous reaction conditions or when the reaction is allowed to continue over a long time to give a slow reaction time to reach equilibrium (Wikipedia).

The way chemists see chemical reactions, if translated into the language of war—and, by the way, of political action as well as of Hollywood action movies—predicts that if the attack is fast, the enemy can be completely overpowered in the short run and prevented from realizing its advantage if the situation is quickly frozen. If, however, the struggle drags on over a long time, the side with numerical, intellectual, and material advantage wins more often than it loses. The high art of war, therefore, manifests its effectiveness mainly in the beginning of a military operation. If the victory is not swift and decisive, the protracted conflict goes into attrition and the battle of resources instead of the battle of ingenuity. This is true of  the war as a whole and of its episodes.


I found  Ferguson's concise portrayal of the battle of Kursk (pp. 533 and 534), which was mostly attrition, heartbreaking in its eloquence. On page 111 one can find a great example of lost kinetic control resulted in Moltke's nervous breakdown.


The Iraq war is another example of  the  kinetics-thermodynamics play.  The initial speed of invasion and the easy military victory had been lost and the balance of power began to shift due to the overwhelming numerical and suicide-technological advantage of the Islamic world. Quick, harsh, cruel, politically incorrect American actions would lock in the initial success, but the American commander-in-chief simply had neither guts nor brains to do that. War can be driven only by a clear goal of victory, not ideology. There was no clear American idea of victory, either. On the one hand, it was democracy, on the other hand, it was domination, on the right foot, it was oil, on the left foot, it was another military base. And yes, the elections in the head. 


We may wonder how Turkey could become a working democracy, with all its shortcomings. The answer is simple: Kemal  Ataturk acted as a decisive and cruel dictator establishing secular democracy.  To compare, Vladimir Lenin was a decisive and cruel leader successfully turning a fragile democracy into a dictatorship. His clearly stated goal was never democracy but dictatorship of proletariat.


Do I call for hate and terror?  If we are incapable of it, we should not start preemptive wars. Much better, we should never start wars at all. We can do better with defense, even if it means a defensive war.

4. Nothing is more cruel than a civil war. If a scale of qualitative comparison is possible, the recent civil war in Sierra Leone set an absolute record of cruelty, while the Iraq war excels in madness. But why is it so?  My tentative explanation is that a side in a civil war is an army that has no state behind its back. Each of two armies may have headquarters, but no common government and no border. Since the civil war starts  with  the conflict of ideas, however primitive, one can never be certain that his neighbor shares the same idea. The fault lines of civil war run across families. Each side feels a fundamental uncertainty of statelessness and  recurs to the most intimidating and barbaric acts of terror to make up for the absence of the security and supply that only a state can give.  This is especially applies to rebels who, being at a numerical and material disadvantage and lacking tanks and airplanes, use hacking off the limbs of children or the torture with power drills as psychological warfare

5. I do not see any proof that the twentieth century was the bloodiest of all. We simply know much more about its atrocities and the productivity of the murderous technology. They have been documented in all detail, photographed, and kept fresh in memory. 

I certainly agree with Niall Ferguson that collapsing empires release the worst miasmas from their former subjects. Does it mean that empire is a source of order and stability, as he apparently believes? Probably. Ferguson  was even accused of being a kind of  a neocon ideologue.  A label and  a battle banner instead of facts, analysis, and logic is the sure sign of postmodern polemics. 


The main conclusion I have drawn from my life experience is that we have to reject the primate of any abstract idea—whether democracy, or empire, or dictatorship, whatever—over the basic human needs.  Am I completely sure that this is right? No. I do not know what is right or wrong, unless history leaves a record to judge on, but then the categories of good or bad lose meaning.  To be happy is always good.


Looking back at my life during WWII, under Stalin, and further under the dictatorship of Soviet Politburo, I see that the adaptability of people to the pressure of circumstances is enormous. What people need most is stability and hope. Nothing undermines stability and fuels hope as much as a new abstract idea, usually false one. Hope without stability is the most common source of bloody conflicts.    

In short, I am for defense. I believe in a great moral and practical advantage of defense over offense. This could be a sign of  age, of course.  By attacking we always empower the enemies within and without. Defense gives us maximum freedom to think and invent, plus the right to believe in our supremacy.  Starting an offense, however, we must be rough.

6. "Why do the men obey?"  asks Niall Ferguson, following Leo Tolstoy.  My answer is: because when a man considers a conflict with the state or tribe, he knows that the state or the tribe comes to his door as a group of armed men.

It is the same as to ask why we die. We face a much stronger opponent, we have no choice, and everybody dies alone.

When we join a group or an army, we regain stability and we hope that we will not die tomorrow. 

7. Although Niall Ferguson lists military technology among the causes of the "bloodiest century," he does not consider it a decisive factor.  Nevertheless, he vividly depicts the role of railways in the initial stage of WWI. 

From all I have read about WWI  I conclude that the mere logistic and bureaucratic inertia of the huge mass of matter rolling with little friction across huge distances at high speed was one of the main reasons the great war could not be stopped. The American overseas wars with planes and ships instead of trains could not be easily stopped either. The speed is a kinetic factor. A whole host of new weaponry  launched  in WWII  was a thermodynamic factor, especially, artillery in the field, on tanks, and in airplanes. 

To stop a war is extremely difficult. On the contrary, to start a war one needs only to sign the orders and push a button.

  3     Chemist on War   

Consider a case of a standoff across the border between two enemies: BLUE and RED, Figure 4.

Short-border   Straight-border   separation
                A                                              B                                                  C

Figure 4. Borders between  enemies.  A: moderate, B: minimal,  C:  extended 

The mutual animosity means that there is a border tension between the sides. Naturally, the longer the border, the more probable an armed conflict and the more pronounced overall tension.  The border can be abstract. Thus, the length of an ideological border is measured by the number of disputed issues, or, better, by the sum of the intensities of all debated issues.

Thus, the number of the disputed issues between Republicans and Democrats in the Cold Civil War may be quite insignificant. It is the intensity of the single non-ideological issue of who has the voting power that makes it so brutal.


When a conflict flares up, it runs like a chemical reaction in which the human and material resources are transformed into waste, which can be only partially rehabilitated and restored.


 Border tension has a semi-permanent presence in the world news.   The following data are taken from Google on November 13, 2006:      Results 1 - 20 of about 30,200 for "border tension".


TIME: The Korean DMZ Tension between the two Koreas escalates after the North tests a nuclear weapon.                    US and Mexico ease border tension                    Serbian border tension growing       Border tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea has eased           Syria Turkey Border Tension and Water dispute             Scoop: Border tension between Ethiopia, Eritrea continues                     India and Bangladesh Confer On Reducing Border Tension           Thai-Burma border tension eased  Border tension as escape route to Syria stays open

A border can be sleepy or full of anxiety.  Anxiety means instability. All things considered, the longer the border, the higher instability.  Figure 4 presents  two extreme cases: a border of  a minimal length (B) and a tortuous extended border that exacerbates all typical border problems (C).  The type C border is common for ethnic and religious maps and for unsettled areas like Palestine where it is, in my opinion, one of the few main factors of the initially local  and later regional conflict turning into a global one right before our eyes.  A similar situation was a cause of  the murder and exodus after the division of India and the first page in many other macabre chapters of world history.

Civil wars have the longest front lines.

The problem of minorities, including the origins of anti-Semitism, has  roots  in the  pattern  (ideogram) of border tension. Small groups of "different" people or, quite often, "different" individuals of high prominence are surrounded by an unmarked border, which can be sleepy or inflamed, too. It can be ethnicity, religion, class, flamboyance, intellectual superiority, arrogance, any other distinction that draws lines in rock, sand, or water of human interactions. The authoritarian state tries to reduce tension by instinctively "scientific" measures: the Pale of Settlement for the Jews in Czarist Russia, discrimination by race or origin, unsustainable colonial borders, internment of the Japanese Americans in WWII.  All such acts substitute a group distinction for an individual one and in this way shrink the border. 

The K-street project, the brain child of the Republican ideologues of the Bush II era, i.e., discrimination by party allegiance in the bipartisan democracy, was a typical border foray amid the Cold Civil War. To tell the truth, it was far from a national discrimination by political allegiance, but it was both a pattern and a seed of one of the traditional tools of totalitarianism. McCarthyism was another configuration in the same pattern.  There are only a couple of steps from the K-street seed to the all-out political job discrimination and, by the way, political boycott of companies as a response.  The CCW has a lot of steps to escalate, all the way up to HCW.

NOTE (March 15, 2007).  Here is the next step: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales fires US Attorneys for lack of anti-Democratic zeal. Surprisingly few people have connected the two dots.


Two traditional ways an individual can escape the personal border tension are emigration or joining a group.

In 1636, Roger Williams, who had individual border tensions with the Massachusetts Puritans, founded my dear little Rhode Island, where another different personality, Anne Hutchinson found a refuge from border conflicts with the same drowning medium. During the midterm elections of 2006 the blue Rhode Islanders were torn between the genuine esteem for their incumbent Republican senator Lincoln Chafee and the Democratic candidate Sheldon Whitehouse. In the border conflict of the state with Bushism, Chafee found himself under a water-repellent coat and the Ocean State rejected him with a heavy heart. I felt proud of my impuritanic American roots.  


I am catching myself  on switching from border tension to the physical phenomenon of surface tension, which is exactly the ideogram I am trying to draw. 

 (Google, November 14, 2006:  Results 1 - 20 of about 1,800,000 for "surface tension" )

When we put some salt, sugar, or alcohol in water, the substance dissolves because it has affinity for molecules of water and the solution is more stable than the heterogeneous mixture.  It is not the same with oil and water: they separate. Furthermore, liquids and gases are both fluids, and the mixtures of water and air separate, too.  The droplets of water have a spherical  form in air, as if they were covered by a thin stretched rubber surface. 

The surface tension  arises on the border between immiscible fluids, when molecules of one type have more affinity to each other than to another type.  They, so to speak,  feel good (a metaphor for stability) among those like themselves. On the border, however, they have less neighbors of their kind than in the bulk, which decreases the stability ("feeling good"). This is the essence of surface tension for dummies. Surface tension needs at least one fluid and it exists also on the borders between fluids and solids. Negative solid-fluid surface tension means that a fluid freely spreads all over the solid surface, which is used for lubricating engines.

Serious sources on the Web use a similar language:

Another way to think about it is that a molecule in contact with a neighbor is in a lower state of energy than if it weren't in contact with a neighbor. The interior molecules all have as many neighbors as they can possibly have. But the boundary molecules have fewer neighbors than interior molecules and are therefore in a higher state of energy. For the liquid to minimize its energy state, it must minimize its number of boundary molecules and therefore minimize its surface area. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surface_tension


Border tension and surface tension belong to the same pattern, for which I prefer more general surface tension as the label for the ideogram.

As another illustration of generality of the surface tension ideogram, I refer to the title of the book:

Meg Daly, Surface Tension: Love, Sex and Politics Between Lesbians and Straight Women.  Touchstone, 1996. 

Obviously, it deals with situations on the surface between two social groups with limited miscibility, which all men and women, as well as adults and children exemplify, with scores of books on the subject, actually, most of the world literature.

There is a universal and known since ancient times chemical way  to reduce  the surface tension between  two liquids: soap, or, more generally, surfactant: a substance that has affinity to both incompatible media and thereby reduces the surface tension. Egg yolk in mayonnaise is a surfactant.  Thus, numerous American political figures have tried to play the role of a surfactant in the surface tension between the Israelis and Palestinians, to no avail, though.   The name for a geopolitical surfactant is shuttle diplomacy. Weather, small talk, a cup of coffee, a joke (ice-breakers) are social surfactants.   

Even within the short span of twenty years I have been observing the constantly diminishing tension along  the racial and sexual rifts of America. The most powerful surfactant was simply the public light under which the  idea of tolerance can self-propagate, assisted by the power of personal experience and habit. With religion and politics, however, it was the opposite. During the Cold Civil War, George W. Bush did all he could to divide the country and increase surface tension between fractions of society. 

How can we increase surface tension? What is the chemical equivalent of hostility and intolerance?

Taking the water-oil pair, we can do it by adding to the oil small amounts of a substance with a much greater surface tension in contact with water, for example, a silicone oil, known for its water-repellent property. Under surface tension as ideogram, all extreme and narrow views  (complete ban on all abortions, complete ban on all prayers, war until victory) increase surface tension by generating intolerance and are met with hostility.

Throughout history we see strategies of reducing surface area: dense Greek phalanx, Roman tortoise formation, compact medieval castles, fortified cities, colonization by conquest instead of settlement, and the American gated communities. Note that the reduced area increases stability, but does not mean a reduced intensity of surface tension measured as force per a unit of length. Centrism is the only reliable political surfactant, which does not imply its ultimate efficiency: without extremism it leads to stagnation. Eloquence is a powerful surfactant invented by the Greeks, employed by Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan, and practically lost in current American politics. 

The evolution of the American two-party system in terms of surface tension could be a great subject for an undergraduate paper.  Someday.

The social chemistry, like the molecular chemistry, has a whole array of factors that can influence social evolution, among them concentration, catalysis, temperature, and pressure (also an ideogram).  In the Iraq war,  the tension-easing  function of American occupation was designed basing on fantastic ideas about  the chemistry of the Iraq  society.  In the  Palestinian conflict,  the American affinity with the Jewish side (or pressure of various groups) was certainly higher than with the other, and the temperature of both sides was too high, with that of Palestinian side at the boiling point. 

Figure 5 presents symbolic pictures of a tight (A) and  separated (B) mixture of two abstract "liquids."  The nonexistent void between the droplets is left for the convenience of graphics. An emulsion, as a fine mixture of two liquid is called, looks typically as (C).  Figure C can be interpreted as terrorist or dissident cells, as well as xenophobic ethnic or political enclaves.

suspension      segregation   isolation

    A                                                B                                    C

               Figure 5. Mixture (A) and its separation (B).  Emulsion (C)

The way to ease the overall surface tension in such systems in the absence of surfactant is to reduce the border to the Figure 4B type. 

If we accept that the abstract surface tension is the main source of conflicts, the first recipe for reducing the threat to American interests is to shrink the border with the opponents. American physical presence in the world looks today like Figure 5C, with main globules in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea. The presence of terrorist cells in the West, of which nobody has exact knowledge, looks the same, only the size of the enclaves is minuscule. The only conclusion  we can make is that the  palestinization of the world, i.e., overstretching  the border between the enemies as result of fragmentation and insularization of physical presence, is a source of increased danger. This is a consequence of globalization.

The excessive shrinkage of the border, however, leads to the bottleneck effect, for which I would prefer the term  Thermopylization. I derive it not from the Greek root for heat but from the battle of Thermopylae (incidentally, from the same root). In 480 B.C. 300 Spartans and 1100 other Greeks delayed the advance of over 200,000 (some think millions) Persians for eleven days, with the fight locked in the narrow Thermopylae pass. The conflict looked as in Figure 6, which is another ideogram,  related to bottleneck or channel.  The small area of the direct contact of the warriors equalized  their grossly unequal resources, although, of course, the Spartans were doomed.

Figure 6. Thermopylization

Thermopylization is not the same as the kinetic control: in chemistry it is a kind of the diffusion effect.  The kinetic bottleneck in chemistry means simply that the slowest process in a chemical system determines its overall speedquite like in life, war, and business. 

The above effects illustrate the meaning of ideogram:  it is a very general pattern that spans across the borders between very different complex evolving systems.


Political recipes are beyond me (nevertheless I will give one at the very end), but within the framework that the surface tension ideogram offers there are not too many choices.

Here are some:

1. Use of surfactants, i.e. negotiations with whoever occupies large and small droplets of trouble, from terrorists to dictators.  The policy of the current government has been the opposite: erection of impenetrable walls, condomization, so to speak, of the rogue world, with military conflict as the only remaining option. Diplomacy is the most common international surfactant.  

I am wondering how to classify bribe...  neither lubricant (it does not spread), nor surfactant (the sides are eager to deal). Just a transaction.


2. Cutting the lines of supply to the areas of conflict and communications within the area.  De-globalization, i.e. localization.

3.  Transforming the antagonistic medium by propaganda, the tool as powerful as intimidation by extreme violence, although slower. Both act upon the mind.

Figure 7 symbolically presents two kinds of propaganda effect .


Figure 7.   Propaganda by raising doubts (A) and by antagonizing factions (B).
The desired result: domination (C). 

Propaganda can decrease the resistance of the opposite sides by raising doubts in their own propaganda.  I am convinced  that it is currently the weakest part of the "war on terror."  It was a powerful tool in the Cold War with Russia. Since propaganda works upon human mind, it should be developed by a sophisticated human mind.  Since it should penetrate the surface between incompatible views, all said about surfactants applies to propaganda. Start with ideograms.


A threat and an offense can be counterproductive Thus, the cartoon in Figure 8 ("Your future, al-Zarqawi") could only boost the will of al-Zarqawi's henchmen. 

A piece of disinformation, once discovered, which is easy in our wireless time, undermines a whole batch of other disinformation. A promise could be somewhat better. But nothing works better than truth and logic, which I experienced on myself while listening to the Voice of America and BBC in Soviet Russia

There is a lot of amazing material on propaganda and its over 100 varieties  at the  SourceWatch web site:



NOTE:  Surface tension is a physical phenomenon. Only chemistry, however, relates physical properties to the intimate structure of molecules. This is the very essence of the chemical view of the world: it penetrates complexity, individuality, and uniqueness. 


I believe there is no way traditional physics and chemistry can be applied to social phenomena. It can be done only in a more general framework of evolving complex systems (X-systems) based on the notions of structural complexity, novelty, uniqueness, and individuality.


4     Paul Revere and the Internet  


Regarding the reasons for the Iraq war, we have to wait until the dust settles and the library shelves fill up with memoirs.  I believe that George W. Bush could have some quite rational motives (Niall Ferguson in Colossus thinks so, too)  underlayed with some emotional impulses, also understandable. I believe that the initiators of the war were driven mostly by their understanding of American national interests. I believe that when history enters a new phase it is rather difficult to interpret it. Nevertheless, there are always people who do it correctly and some who make mistakes. The best example I am aware of is the advent of Nazism.  Those who had looked far ahead, left Germany in time. Regarding history, however, the only way to look far ahead is to look far back into history.

What I can see today as the main revelation of the Iraq war—while the whole nest of lies remains still unearthed— is political, technical, and military incompetence of the administration and, quite probably, of the army. My personal worst problem with this is that I, unlike friendly foreigners, cannot separate the administration from America. 

I believe that America is in a new stage of history and not only because her environment changed. America is a large evolving  complex system: a system with novelty. The historical novelty can always be outlined and formulated. Thus, the novelty of fascism consisted in the network of wired and wireless one-way mass media, fast transportation, and instant two-way communication. The novel technology was combined with historically traditional ideology of conquest, hate, and violence.  The person who discovered and formulated  the novelty  knew it from the inside. He was Albert Speer, Hitler's Minister of Armaments, and he did it in his last word on August 31, 1946, before the judgment in Nuremberg was pronounced:

Hitler's dictatorship differed in one fundamental point from all its predecessors in history. His was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made complete use of all technical means in a perfect manner for the domination of its own nation.

Through technical devices such as radio and loudspeaker 80 million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man. The telephone, teletype, and radio made it possible, for instance, for orders from the highest sources to be transmitted directly to the lowest-ranking units, where, because of the high authority, they were carried out without criticism. (Albert Speer)


I read Speer's last word for the first time around 1960, in a multi-volume Russian edition of Nuremberg Trial documents. I immediately saw how well it applied to the Soviet Union and since that time I have not  found a better short description of totalitarianism.

While typing the previous paragraph on my computer, I suddenly realized that  Speer's discovery applies perfectly to the entire history of the twenty-first century, including America and the post-Soviet era. Although in a war with itself, America is a democracy, whichever accusing fingers are pointing at it and whatever fumes are rising from the Web. The role of the media and communication, new no more, but incomparably more powerful, remains the same. All over the world, humans are placed like iron shavings in magnetic fields that orient them along proper lines. In authoritarian societies there is only one magnet, while in America there are formally two competing sources of influence of different strength, painted blue and red over green. In fact, there are more: listening "to a higher authority" is another one. A complete lack of magnetic properties is yet another factor.

The same effect has been known for millennia without any radio and television.  A detailed written code of daily behavior performed the ordering function in the form of Talmud and Koran. Today the novelty of the situation is that  the interpretation, update, instruction, and correction to the code, regarding the current moment, can be delivered immediately all over the world and with visual illustrations. In tightly interconnected dense tribal society the deviations from the code are immediately visible to the clan. In an individualistic loose and scattered society the sinner may be easily in charge of an anti-sin department and it could take quite a time to discover the hypocrisy.

Postmodernity is about speed. It is driven by the kinetic control.

The great American Constitution was designed and written in the times when Paul Revere on horseback personified the Internet of his time. Today two years sounds like eternity, updating all concerns, fads, and lessons.

American life, which has been  my own life for twenty years, is still amazingly stable. This "still"  is an expression of my anxiety.

5     The Hangman's Bill  

I promised a political recipe. Here it is, quite a trivial one: in order to win over terrorism we have to reduce instability caused by surface tension by straightening and shrinking the visible and invisible borders and by using human surfactants. If we strike, however, we have to strike hard, plugging our ears with wax against the voices of the political sirens.

This is not enough.  X-systems depend on supply of energy.  The Western and especially American dependence on oil and the transformation of oil into edible gold means that we are paying for the bullets that kill us.  The terrorist system depends on our dependence.  It bribes us.

Hitler made relatives of condemned prisoners to pay for their execution (see APPENDIX; I read a lot about such bills but this is the first time I see it).

The price of oil includes the premium for our funeral.

The price of the cheap stuff made in China  includes a bouquet on the casket.

History is not for the faint of heart and feeble of mind.




Between the next two horizontal lines there is an excerpt  from the site : http://www.thelooniverse.com/books/kastner.html by harrie verstappen.

(His page is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs2.5 License.)

Hangman's Bill :                



To establish the proper atmosphere, this is as good a place as any to show a sample of the bill you got for having your husband killed by the Nazis for political, or any, reasons. Yes, you were supposed to pay for the execution (or else...) It comes to a total of what now must be well over $6000. They even charged you 12 cents for the stamp to send you the bill.

The document is the bill from a "State Attorneyship at the People's Court" sent to Erna Knauf for the execution of her husband Erich Knauf on May 2 , 1944.  I removed the last two lines of commentary that did not belong to the bill.

The bill contains the following charges:  fee for capital punishment,  postal expenses, public defender's fee,  cost of prison detention, cost of execution of death sentence, postal expenses for sending the bill.


Yes, on January 25, 2007, it is too early to write history, but there is nothing too early to imagine.

Perk up, Hollywood: two personal stories of Shakespearean magnitude in one.

Imagine two leaders of two distant countries with bad bloodand good oilbetween them. The countries  are incomparable in  their  size, influence, and power, but the leaders turn out to be comparable along a mysterious hidden dimension of history: the dimension of foolishness. 

The first leader, blinded by arrogance and narrow-mindedness, loses a block of his biggest city, starts a war with the second leader, loses a whole another city to forces of nature, sacrifices thousands of human lives,  loses crowds of sanctimonious loyalists, destroys the power of his political  party, loses trust of his people, andwe are right at the border between reality and imaginationloses a long war with a much weaker enemy. He sinks into history without any dignity.

As the story goes, at the same time, the second leader, blinded by arrogance and stupidity, provokes the war with the first one, loses his army, country, power, freedom, dignity, two sons, tens of thousands of human lives, and, finally, his own life, regaining dignity in the end, but leaving no appreciation by anybody.

NOTE (2016). Reading this and some previous Essays, I cannot understand why I was so hostile to George W. Bush. Ten years later, I have no trace of that. But I can understand why my rancor is gone: I find no ill will in his presidency.  I see no realistic alternative to his foreign policy. Today people justly, in my view, criticize Barak Obama for his weakness in the Middle East. But the alternative could be only more killed and mutilated Americans. This is how history works: it brings up hidden human motives and values, but it is always late to learn something from the lecture of the past because the present has already wiped up the blackboard.  What we really need to understand is the future before it comes.  Patterns are carved in stone.  

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