“The Essence of War”

An in depth analysis of

Stanley Kubrick’s



Chapter six
Flaws in the system

While the plot and characters of Dr Strangelove includes multiple references to real people and specific historical events, the film also makes broader statements about the causes of war in general.

  1. Systems and technology
  2. Over regulation and blind subordination
  3. Information transference and the vicious “Gap” cycle
  4. Miscommunication based on human imperfections
  5. Identity politics
  6. Paranoia
  7. The left / right illusion and other logical “Gaps”
  8. Misplaced attribution and promotion
  9. Skill versus morality (update added 16th Jan 2012)

1. Systems and technology

The Doomsday Machine is inherently flawed because it is unable to differentiate between nuclear explosions caused by external attack and those caused by accident. Elsewhere in the film we find malfunctions in the bomber plane that eventually triggers the Doomsday Machine. As a result of a failed attempt to destroy the plane its bomb bay doors malfunction, the CRM114 is unable to receive the recall code and leaking fuel tanks prevent it from reaching its target destination. This in turn causes the Captain, Major Kong, to choose an alternative target on his own authority, while the Soviet air defences remain fixed on the original flight path provided by the Pentagon.

The novel contains another, even more amusing, example of technology malfunctioning against its creators. The crew of the bomber release a decoy, called a Quail, to trick Soviet radar, but the Quail guidance system locks onto the plane that launched it and follows at a distance of one hundred feet, making the bomber’s position even more noticeable to the enemy.

In other scenes failures of communication technology are prominent. Phone lines either malfunction or are sabotaged, an amusing example being Muffley’s phone conversation with Premier Kissoff. One minute he can’t hear Kissoff due to background music, then the phone connection suffers brief interference, and then he is advised to call Omsk Information to get an important telephone number to relay information that will help the Soviets destroy the attacking planes. And all this on account of a failed code word system that is designed to prevent fake orders from the enemy, but actually ends up blocking orders from those who created the system.

A simpler example of communication equipment failure is Mandrake’s effort to relay the recall code to the President. He’s forced to use a payphone, but doesn’t have enough change – the fate of the world depending on a few absent coins as opposed to the billions of dollars spent on defence. And Colonel Guano’s smashing of a soft drink machine to access the required coins results in him being sprayed with Coca Cola.

In a deleted scene President Muffley is strapped into a chair and raised through a ceiling to enter the War Room through a trap door. A set photo in the Stanley Kubrick archives book shows the missing scene and the novel describes the mechanism malfunctioning.

“The chief threw the switch and the chair rose rapidly and smoothly on a hydraulic shaft straight toward the ceiling. Unfortunately, due to some mechanical malfunction it did not rise properly and came to a stop some feet below the ceiling.  … Finally it worked and the chair rose again, up and out of sight through the trap door in the ceiling.”

A few pages earlier in the novel the President’s over dependence on technology is depicted in his travelling from an elevator down a corridor in a “small electric car”, while “utilizing a battery powered electric shaver”. Walking and shaving, two simple and easy human activities, have been reduced to dependence on electric gadgets. Even Muffley's breathing is dependent on an inhaler gadget.

The film pokes fun at the unreliability of computers, machinery and other non-human systems, but we must inevitably consider these flaws as being rooted in human behaviour. A system is only as good as its human creators make it.


2. Over regulation and blind subordination

In the aforementioned section of the novel (introducing President Muffley) there’s a hilarious moment in which the President, on his way to the War Room, has forgotten his security pass. A Captain guarding a metal door entrance requests to see identification. Muffley responds, “You do recognize me, I take it, Captain?” Despite admitting that he recognizes the President and despite Muffley explaining the grave urgency of the situation, the Captain repeatedly asserts “Security regulation one thirty-four-B Section seven Sub-Section D item six, state definitely that White House I.D. pass will be surrendered by all personnel entering the War Room. There may be no exception to this regulation, sir”. To overcome this bureaucratic obstacle which, like Mandrake’s lack of coins for a phone call, could spell doom for humanity, Muffley’s secret service aides tackle and restrain the Captain and his two Sergeants. On his way into the War Room Muffley orders one of his agents return to the White House for his security pass. Though the scene was edited out of the film, the concepts of over-regulation and blind subordination, either to command chain hierarchies or paper regulations, infuse many other scenes.

Misplaced subordination to command hierarchies is prominent, but so is misplaced disregard for the chain of command. So on one hand we have Burpelson Airbase troops firing on fellow American soldiers for no other reason than Ripper’s order and supporting claim that the apparent allies are likely to be communist saboteurs. This renders the troops immune to all counter-orders, even those from Ripper’s superiors, the very same dilemma created by the CRM114 coding device on the bombers. The novel includes additional dialogue during the ambush of the approaching convoy. “How do we know they’re saboteurs? … How do you know they’re not? … They have to be saboteurs. Who else would be coming at four in the morning?”

In the novel Ripper uses the same logic to try and overcome Mandrake’s loyalty to the RAF; at length he claims the RAF is “full of Commies”. So he’s simultaneously asserting command down the ranks and defying it up the ranks. The novel also mentions that Mandrake is afraid of what Ripper will write about him in his reports and in the film Mandrake uses the threat of demotion to persuade Colonel Guano to help him contact the President with the recall code. These fears of immediate superiors tarnishing one’s reputation, whether resulting in military imprisonment or the blocking of future promotions, is central to the military mindset. Without it ethically questionable orders would be defied frequently.

Even with the dominating chain-of-command fear in military personnel, there are still those who question or disobey commands. Major Kong insists on a triple reading of the go-code to attack (plan R). He thinks his crew are joking then he requests confirmation from base, and one of his crew enquires, “Do you think this is some sort of loyalty test. Give the go-code and then recall to see who’d actually go?”  An additional example in the book is that when the bomb bay doors malfunction Kong suspects that one of his crew is trying to sabotage the mission. This kind of doubt doesn’t appear to have been a problem for Colonel Paul Tibbets, the commanding officer on the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, but then he knew in advance what his mission was and trained a crew especially for the assignment, though he claimed in the documentary film “The Men Who Brought The Dawn” that neither he nor his crew knew what a nuclear explosion looked like until after they'd already dropped one on Hiroshima. The crew were also apparently told that the detonation might destroy the bomber along with the city.

Another example in the Dr Strangelove novel of officers being more preoccupied with careers than ethics comes after the nuclear bomb has already been set off, ensuring the Doomsday Machine will be triggered. An official in the war room asks, “Mister President, how are we going to break this to the people? I mean, it’s going to do one hell of a thing to your image.”


3. Information transference and the vicious “Gap” cycle

Just after President Muffley learns of the Soviet Doomsday Machine, the Russian Ambassador DeSadesky explains that his government prioritized the development of the device in response to learning that the Americans were working on a Doomsday Machine of their own and were “afraid of a Doomsday gap”. Muffley claims he’s never heard of any such device. DeSadesky then responds with one of my favourite lines in the film, “Our source was the New York Times.” It’s actually plausible that Muffley hadn’t heard of the Doomsday concept because, in real life, such studies were conducted by privately owned organisations such as the Rand Corporation. And, in a widely published rumour, President Ronald Reagan on his first visit to the Pentagon asked to see “the war room”, which he’d seen depicted in Kubrick’s film. Apparently it didn’t exist.

I’ve not located the New York Times source implied in the film, if there is one, but in chapters one and two of this study we did explore the effect of Herman Kahn’s Doomsday Machine writings on Kubrick’s research. There were actually many news sources from which Kubrick may have encountered Kahn’s theories, not to mention Kahn’s 1960 book On Thermonuclear War. The very publication of such a book was self-defeating in that any useful conclusions within could be learned by Soviet translators without having to infiltrate the US defence establishment. In turn the Soviets could either use the same ideas in their own strategy or develop effective and, most importantly, secret counter-strategies.

A good example of how publicly available information on nuclear war strategy could whip up paranoia, among both host population and enemy military leaders, is the article Man’s Last Big Blast by Martin Mann, published Sept 1962 in Popular Science magazine. It presents, in layman’s terms and with simple diagrams, the most terrifying and outlandish concepts of the nuclear strategists of the day, particularly those of Herman Kahn and one W.H. Clarke, a physicist who worked on ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) technology. The concepts include the following:

The Popular Science article alone could have spiralled Soviet military strategists off on a path of deadly new inventions and ideas. No doubt Kubrick the chess player recognized this destructive loop between the Americans and Soviets; Concept, Creation, Information Leak … Counter-concept, Creation, Information Leak … repeat. The core assumption on each side being, I must always be and appear to be as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than my potential enemies perceive themselves to be. After all Stanley, as a civilian, was able to learn an incredible amount on the subject in a fairly short time span of a few years. Just how much did the Soviets learn from Kahn’s writings?

In the Cold War the technology and strategy “gaps” caused each side to continuously escalate their nuclear weapon arsenals, and it is one of the most important premises of the film. The “gap” fear leads to the creation of the Soviet Doomsday Machine. Even as the majority of the human race is about to be annihilated by that device, the Pentagon officials want to start the whole destructive cycle over again out of fears of a “mineshaft gap”. And they give their ideas away in front of the Soviet Ambassador, who is off to advise his Comrades to pursue the same policy.

Herman Kahn’s 1960 document for Rand The Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrance illustrates his mental block in recognizing the military counter-escalation cycle. He talks in great depth about ways of anticipating the enemy’s nuclear war advances, but pays limited attention to how his own country provokes those advances.

The best source I’ve read that demolishes the notion of a self-sufficient Soviet nuclear advancement is Antony C. Sutton’s book The Best Enemy Money Can Buy. Though the book was published in 1986, it is the culmination of several previous works by the same author. These include:

The Best Enemy Money Can Buy is a definitive study, proving that the Soviet military and nuclear might was created by technology and expertise acquired from the west through gift, purchase and theft. Sutton provides evidence in the form of sales receipts, corporate contracts and congressional records in a way that lends his work far more credibility than the theoretical opinion writings of Herman Kahn. Sutton’s book uncovers the following:

And that’s a small portion of the book’s examples. In some respects, these kinds of transactions are understandable. For example, British Petroleum assistance with gas pipelines resulting in gas supplies from Russia to Europe. But in terms of the Potential for nuclear warfare with a Communist superpower many of these transactions were, as Sutton labelled them, “national suicide”.

Sutton also explains the Soviet dependence on western technology and skill as being down to the inability of a Communist economy to compete with that of a free market. After all, Communism is supposed to eliminate competition through state distribution of wealth. But Sutton also highlights the greed of western capitalists as problematic; the clear prospect of assisting an apparently anti-business superpower was no dissuasion. On the other hand the Soviet contracts with capitalist western firms illustrate the artificiality of Soviet “Communist” economic principles.

There were actually a variety of laws in western countries prohibiting the economic and technological assistance of the Cold War enemy, but that’s a topic we’ll return to later.


4. Miscommunication based on human imperfections

We’ve already explored examples of miscommunication based on technological failure, but simple human misunderstandings play their part in Dr Strangelove. At the simplest level this manifests in language barriers – the Pentagon officials are baffled by the Russian dialogue between Ambassador Desadesky and Premiere Kissoff. Another example is Turgidson’s secretary relaying national security information to him in the bathroom, having answered his telephone. Not only is it adding an additional person to the information chain, but it’s also a breach of security. The content of the conversation is supposed to be for high level commanders. They even use Pentagon communication lines to squabble over their relationship, while Buck is supposed to be addressing the urgent prospect of nuclear war.

An aspect of the book that wasn’t included in the film, due to the cast being unable to keep straight faces while shooting, is President Muffley being ill with the common cold. Conversations are frequently interrupted by his sneezing and blowing his nose into a handkerchief.


5. Identity politics

Among the various notes and sources in the Stanley Kubrick Archives book is a short personal statement handwritten by Stanley. It reads:

“Just as man once viewed the Earth as the true center of the universe, he now views his nation as the moral center of the Universe. … Who will be our Galileo?” – SK archives book p361

The perception of one’s own country as divinely good natured and an “enemy” country as inherently evil or immoral is central to the psychology of international warfare. It’s true at the lowest ranks of foot soldier and at the highest ranks of politicians and military commanders. This identity paradigm is so entrenched that direct evidence to the contrary are filtered out of consciousness. Hence in Dr Strangelove the billboard signs of the Strategic Air Command carry the slogan “Peace is our profession”. Although it seems like a joke, it wasn’t made up for the film. It was the actual SAC slogan, adopted in 1958. Such is the power of identity politics, SAC personnel would either not notice the irony or would block it out of their minds. The irony of the slogan, which contradicts SAC’s function of bombing enemies in the event of war, is emphasized in the film by repeated shots of these billboards. And Kubrick makes sure to get them in as US troops engage each other in ground battle. A sign reads "Bomb wing. Peace is our profession". Another sign "Keep off the grass" is ignored too. The same contradiction is found in Muffley’s interruption of a wrestling match between DeSadesky and Turgidson, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the war room!” and the words written on a bomb, "Nuclear warhead. Handle with care."

The persistence of identity politics effects dialogue on many levels.

Additional examples of identity politics in the book include Muffley, without thinking, claiming over the phone to Premiere Kissoff that his own pilots are the best in the World. Kissoff takes exception to the claim and Muffley corrects himself by stating they are merely the best in America.

Another Kubrick note in the Stanley Kubrick Archives book reads:

“All great powers act like gangsters. All small powers act like prostitutes.” – SK archives book p364

The statement is reiterated on page 113 of the Dr Strangelove novel, no doubt included by Peter Bryant at Stanley’s request. And it's absolutely true. Since the end of World War 2, the superpowers of the US, Soviet Union / Russia and China, have repeatedly fought each other indirectly by prompting smaller nations to fight on their behalf. Examples:

But the most important examples relating to the plot of Dr Strangelove are Cuba being used by the Soviets as a missile base (Cuban Missile Crisis) and, on a much subtler level, the so-called “US-UK special relationship”, which basically consists of Britain as a lap dog of American foreign policy. For example, America invades Iraq and Britain is the first to sign up as an allied force. The “US / UK special relationship” is symbolized in Dr Strangelove by the relationship between General Ripper (the US) and Group Captain Mandrake (the UK). Mandrake the lap dog is dragged, despite his attempts to reason with his superior, into helping Ripper the war monger in a machine gun battle.

If anyone reading this thinks I’m being judgemental of particular nations then I offer The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperitives as a credible source. It’s a foreign policy book by top US think tank guru Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has been closely linked to the policy decisions of US presidents for decades. Kubrick would have loved him; what Kubrick calls "prostitute nations" Brzezinski calls "Geopivotal states", that is states that can be used as pawns (note the book title) by superpowers vying for global domination. He even spends half the book describing the European Union as a covertly US / German dominated second fiddle global superpower for extending US influence into Asia. See my article New Labour New Fascism New Racism (chapter two) for a more detailed outline of Brzezinski’s book.

The US high echelon fear of Soviet plans for world domination is evident in another quote from Herman Kahn:

"The big thing that the Soviet Union and the United States have to fear from each other is fear itself. I am making some very optimistic assumptions. One is that the soviets would really be willing to give up any hope of world domination to be achieved by the use of military force. Another is that they would give up their curious notion that the only satisfactory status quo is a situation in which the Soviet World increases every year and the Free World decreases, and that all kinds of subversive and violent activities are part of the peacetime status quo. On the other hand, out understandable hope that the satellite nations will be one day liberated does not look to the Soviets like a reasonable acceptance of status quo." – Herman Kahn, On the Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrence, page 44 (1960)

Which of course leads into ...


6. Paranoia

In the following excerpt from Herman Kahn’s The Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrance, the author inadvertently demonstrates the mirroring and mutual escalation of nuclear war policy between the two superpowers. Yet he doesn’t recognise the obvious – his own contributions to the escalating “deterrence” cycle.

“The mutual-annihilation view is not unique to the west. Malenkov introduced it in the Soviet Union several years ago, apparently arguing in the now-classical fashion that with nuclear war entailing the end of civilization, the capitalists would not attack; the Soviet Union, he said, could afford to reduce investment in heavy industry and military products and concentrate on consumer goods. A different view seems to have been held by Khrushchev and the Soviet military. They agreed that war would be horrible, but at the same time they argued that this was no reason for the Soviet Union to drop its guard: given sufficient preparations, only the capitalists would be destroyed. With some modifications their view seems to have prevailed.” Page 3

As depicted in Dr Strangelove, this domination of the paranoid us or them military mindset was present in both the US and Soviet Union. Each fed into the other in a spiral that almost kick-started, in the form of the Cuban Missile Crisis, WW3. The point is made repeatedly in the film, starting with Ripper’s fears of water fluoridation by the enemy. On page 76 of the novel he elaborates that the scientific community is in on the plot. And in both film and book he specifically claims the fluoridation plot started in 1946, which was the year after WW2 ended. Examples of the swift realignment of war attitudes in 1946, depicting the former Soviet allies as a new enemy, include:

Other depictions of paranoia in Dr Strangelove include Turgidson and DeSadesky’s wrestling match regarding an apparent hidden camera, Turgidson’s recommendation of an all out nuclear attack to prevent a Russian counter-attack against Ripper’s first strike, Colonel Guano’s insistence that Mandrake is a communist infiltrator, Turgidson’s claim that the Soviet’s are lying about one of Ripper’s planes penetrating their defences and, at the end of the film, the plan to take a stockpile of nuclear weapons into the proposed fallout shelter. Additional examples in the novel include DeSadesky suspecting his Vodka has been poisoned or drugged (a mirroring of Ripper’s fluoridation fears), the perception of the Soviet defence formation as a counter-attack, and an accusation made by DeSadesky that the Americans deliberately triggered their Doomsday Machine. Muffley’s response: “Damn you! This was the result of one man’s action, a mentally unbalanced person, and we have no monopoly on lunatics.”

The Cold War was, in simple terms, a battle of classic conspiracy theorists, each with nuclear war capabilities at their disposal. As General Ripper says, “Shoot first, ask questions later.”


7. The left / right illusion and other logical “gaps”

In the original novel Red Alert there was no Dr Strangelove character. This aspect of the film is Kubrick’s creation. One of the thematic functions of the character is that he visually depicts the self destructive nature of Earth’s collective political and military community. This is conveyed through his independently destructive right hand, which the scientist fights with his left hand. The “alien” hand wrestles with and attempts to choke its owner before throwing a fascist Nazi salute.  The involuntary hand movements are part of a condition known as Alien Hand Syndrome or Agonistic Apraxia. The condition is usually brought on by stroke or brain surgery separating the hemispheres of the brain. The sufferer perceives the purposeful actions of their affected hand as being controlled by another mind, though it is merely their own unconscious and disconnected hemisphere that is in control.

Alien Hand Syndrome is an excellent metaphor of global conflict. As we noted earlier in this chapter, the Soviet threat was a direct result of western technological and economic support. The West created its own enemy and then fought with it, as outlined in Sutton’s book The Best Enemy Money Can Buy. Also documented by Sutton in another book Wall Street and the Bolshevik Revolution (1974) is western political and economic support of the communist system from as early as 1916. The same is also true of the Nazis, which Sutton thoroughly documented in Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler (1976).

The Alien Hand Syndrome as a western political pattern repeats across the last century. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein received a great deal of western support only to later become an “enemy” in two wars.  The same is true of the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, an off-shoot of which was Al Qaeda. So strong was the western support of the Mujahideen, a Jihadist group, that in the 1987 film The Living Daylights James Bond fought along side them against the Soviets and in 1988 Sylvester Stallone did likewise in the war film Rambo 3. More subtly, in the 1984 film Red Dawn a Soviet invasion of America creates a band of teenage rebel fighters. In a key scene set in an Afghanistan-like rocky landscape, Soviet helicopters attack the rebels (watch clip on youtube) who are likened to Afghan rebels by a Soviet military officer earlier in the film. Such films helped the US military instil fear of the Soviet Union in the American people, yet are also illustrative of the paranoia themes in Dr Strangelove. A remake of Red Dawn was due for a 2012 release. This time the fictional invading force was to be China, but was changed mid-production to North Korea. The change of enemy may be due to the obvious propaganda elements as outlined by an Asia Times article about the production. But once again Antony C. Sutton clears the smoke screen. Back in 1984 he briefly warned of western support for the Chinese Communist regime leading to a new superpower enemy.

“This is not the place to tell the whole story of American involvement in China. It began with Wall Street intervention into the Sun Yat Sen revolution of 1911 – a story not yet publicly recorded. During World War 2 the United States helped the Chinese Communists into power. … By about the year 2000 Communist China will be a “superpower” built by American technology and skill. … And who is to say that the Chinese Communists will not make their peace with Moscow and join forces to eliminate the super-superpower – the United States?” p180-181 America’s Secret Establishment by Antony C. Sutton.

Sutton’s predictions were correct. Half of Brzezinski’s 1997 foreign policy book The Grand Chessboard is about strategic containment of China as a superpower with policy recommendations of “deploying strategic resources” in “Geopivotal” states in the Middle East. The cover of the book shows a chess piece placed specifically on Iraq. In 1970 Brzezinski acknowledged Sutton’s assertions about America creating their Cold War opponent, yet there he was, twenty-seven years later, formulating strategies to stop another “red threat” in the form of China.

“For impressive evidence of Western participation in the early phase of Soviet economic growth, see Antony C. Sutton's Western Technology and Soviet Economic Development: 1917–1930, which argues that 'Soviet economic development for 1917–1930 was essentially dependent on Western technological aid' (p.283), and that 'at least 95 per cent of the industrial structure received this assistance.' (p. 348).” - Between Two Ages: America's Role in the Technetronic Era (1970)

The significance of Agonistic Apraxia as a metaphor of a global tendency toward self-destruction is also a key feature of the primary marketing poster for the film. Russia and America are depicted as the two hemispheres of a global brain, split precisely down the center. The bottom third of the globe disappears off the bottom of the image, making it even more brain-like. Two near identical men in suits are stood half into the image on either side, as if they are split halves of each other, either one could be Soviet or American. And the hemisphere split of the poster design is furthered by the subtitle of the film being written, one word at a time, down the center of the image. Symmetry became a regular staple of Kubrick’s cinematic style in his post Dr Strangelove filmography, usually with thematic intention.

The self-destruction metaphor of the human mind fighting itself doesn’t only apply to the west creating / supporting its own enemies. It also applies to ideology, or more accurately the artificial political spectrum. Notions such as capitalism versus socialism / communism, left versus right, and conservative versus liberal are illusions. Western corporations and communist regimes have been doing business with each other for over a hundred years, while corporate monopolies are often created not by free markets, but by government legislation that eliminates their small business competitors. The real political spectrum has always been democratic rule versus power centralized in the hands of men who think they are wise enough to run the lives of everybody else. And so, we are witness to nations claiming to sit at one position on the artificial left / right spectrum, while their behaviour has them acting like socialists one minute and fascists the next. The only constant is that they try to maximize profit (what else is communism but profit for the bureaucrats through politics?) and increase their power base. Very rarely do they relinquish significant amounts of money or power voluntarily.

Just like the human brain, the left and right wing portions of the political spectrum are not independent of each other. They are part of the same system. They have to be because a balance between state adminstration of law and individual freedom is essential to every civilization. A small detail in the novel that nicely portrays this occurs during Muffley’s conversation with Premier Kissoff. On page 84, “He (Muffley) switched his phone from right hand to left and began to write rapidly on the pad in front of him.” I’ve read plenty of novels in my lifetime, many of which had descriptions of characters making phone calls, but I don’t recall any instance of an author bothering to describe a character switching the phone from one hand to the other. Such details are irrelevant in most stories, but Muffley’s phone call is between the leaders of the world’s greatest superpowers – the two hemispheres of the artificial left / right political spectrum.


8. Misplaced attribution and promotion

One of the difficulties with political systems is that only a small number of leaders are democratically elected. The rest are assigned either by those previously elected or, more frequently, assigned by others who were themselves assigned by the elected. Two particularly undemocratic areas of leadership under almost every government are Central Bank Leadership (sometimes even appointed to private hands, as is so with the Federal Reserve in America) and Military Leadership. Basically we trust that elected politicians will use sound judgement in selecting financial and military leaders, but what often comes out of this is ideological clubs who would otherwise never be voted in. One war monger promoted to high office, such as Buck Turgidson, can open the promotional door for other bureaucrats of kindred thinking. Next thing you know they're running an administration. It is through this mechanism that men like General Ripper can move up rank, men who would unlikely stand the test of a democratic vote.

The mechanism of how such men acquire power is vaguely hinted at by Dr Strangelove’s opportunistic behaviour; his lurking in the shadows (the novel frequently mentions his approval of the escalating international tension). But there’s another amusing feature of the novel that directly communicates misplaced attribution and promotion. On page 110 Colonel Guano, whose paranoia of communist saboteurs almost prevented the recall code being transmitted, is mistakenly attributed with having acquired the code and is promoted, while Mandrake’s efforts are instantly forgotten.

“The president put his inhaler to his face, quickly pulled it away, and looked across the table at General Faceman. ‘What was the name of the officer who called me from Burpelson?’
Faceman said, ‘I didn’t speak to him, sir. But Colonel Guano was commanding the airborne battalion. I imagine he made the call.’
‘I want that officer upped to brigadier general and flown to Washington. I want to decorate him personally.’ “

With his infiltration paranoia, Brigadier General Guano could be the next General Ripper.


(update added 16th Jan 2012)
9. Skill versus morality

A week after posting this chapter I received the following email outlining an additional Flaws in the system theme. I doubt I could make the point any more succinctly so have posted the email here with permission. Special thanks to Karl-Filip Faxén.

When I first saw Dr. Strangelove, maybe in my early twenties, there was one theme which stood out for me and that I do not find explicitly addressed in your essay, namely skill versus morality.

Basically, one important ingredient of the final disaster is the skill and commitment to their trade displayed by major Kong and his crew. I think this theme is relevant since moral decisions are often tricky and without satisfying resolution (is it good to kill ten to save a hundred?). So there is a temptation to retreat from morality as a basis for action and indeed self image, replacing it with skill as a self image. In another situation, in another film, Major Kong could have been a hero for not aborting the mission and for sacrificing his own life to release the bomb.

Another example of this conflict is Enrico Fermis remark on the nuclear weapons work: "Don't bother me with your conscientious scruples - after all, the thing is beautiful physics." While this statement is about aesthetics rather than skill, I think that these are related, in the sense of "art of X" as in "how to do X well". In that sense the conflict comes down to one between ethics and aesthetics.

I think many people, certainly myself, live like this; we pride ourselves on doing our little piece as well as we are able, and most of the time this is for the best. The film is a reminder that this however is just a heuristic, a rule of thumb; there may come a time where our own skill may lead to disaster.

Best regards,

Karl-Filip Faxén


The concepts outlined in this chapter revolve around human frailty, especially imperfect decision making that is not made any less dangerous by good intention. But Strangelove himself is of a different breed. He wants war. And, judging by the group response to his mineshaft plans, the sincerity of several other characters is open to debate.