“The Essence of War”

An in depth analysis of

Stanley Kubrick’s



Chapter seven

In 1963, one year before the release of Dr Strangelove, United Artists released one of this author’s all-time favourite comedies, Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The plot of the film was simple. A group of people driving on an American highway witness a car crash. Near the wreckage they find the reckless driver who, in his dying breaths, tells them of a stolen stash of £350,000 that he has hidden in Santa Rosita State Park (a fictional location) in California. Instead of reporting to the police, the witnesses race against each other to retrieve the money for themselves – their criminal behaviour escalating to automobile theft, reckless driving and violent assault. The film was an excellent commentary on the financial greed underpinning western society and beneath the slapstick presentation was a sophisticated and intelligent humour very much like that of Dr Strangelove.

As well as sharing a similar comedic style and critique of western civilization, the poster designs of the two films have interesting similarities. Like the Strangelove artwork, one of the posters for It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World features a cartoon depiction of the Earth as a human brain.

The Strangelove poster has a fleet of bomber planes flying out of the globe and two of the Mad World posters (including the one above) show a crowd of money-grabbing people spilling out of a globe.

Another Mad World poster includes a crudely drawn globe with grid lines, again similar to the Strangelove poster.

The designer of that particular poster was Saul Bass, who also designed the excellent title sequence animation for Mad World, which is full of the kind of visual metaphors Kubrick was moving toward in his films. Twenty five years later Kubrick hired Bass to develop hundreds of cryptic poster ideas for his classic horror The Shining (1979). The fascinating sketches are currently held at the Stanley Kubrick Archives in London. Especially similar to Saul Bass’ poster and intro sequence for Mad World is the French poster for Dr Strangelove.

As the highest grossing film of 1963 there’s no doubt Kubrick would have taken an interest in It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World while editing Dr Strangelove and working on its marketing campaign. As well as recognising thematic overlaps with his own, soon to be released film, the commercial success of Kramer’s film may well have inspired Kubrick to design Dr Strangelove’s poster in a similar style. This may have even contributed to the cartoon-like titles in the Strangelove intro – apparently they were only put there as a temporary measure while editing, but Kubrick decided to keep them.

Kramer’s Mad World film is a nice companion piece for Kubrick’s. The former depicts the insanity and selfishness of many everyday people, and the latter depicts the insanity and selfishness of many people in positions of great power and responsibility.

While researching this article I frequently encountered real world information that would go nicely in a comedy. MAD, the title of this chapter, was a real acronym coined for the term Mutual Assured Destruction, a nuclear deterrence concept theorizing that if both sides had the ability to destroy the other after being struck first then there was no advantage for either side to gain from a first strike. The name of the bomber in Dr Strangelove is Leper Colony, but the name of Paul Tibbet’s bomber (the one that dropped a nuclear warhead on Hiroshima) was even more ridiculous, in fact distasteful in the extreme. On 5th August 1945, the day before the bomb was dropped, Tibbet’s christened his plane the Enola Gay - his own mother’s name. The bomb itself was code-named Little Boy. The Nagasaki bomb was nicknamed Fat Man and was delivered by a plane named Bockscar (a pun on its pilot Captain Bock, not the term “rockstar”), accompanied by planes called Laggin’ Dragon, Full House, The Great Artiste, Necessary Evil and Big Stink. With these kinds of real life stories no wonder Dr Strangelove ended up a comedy.

Another film that appears to have influenced Dr Strangelove thematically is the 1962 James Bond film Dr No. We noted in chapter three that Kubrick specifically hired Ken Adam because he was impressed with the sets of Dr Strangelove and, in a drawn out and deceptive fashion, encouraged Adam to create a War Room set of similar triangular design to that of Dr No’s laboratory. Other similarities include the word Dr in both film titles, in each case referring to the villain of the story. Strangelove has a gloved right hand as a result of injury and Dr No lost both his hands in a radiation accident. Both escaped to America from past conflicts and now play Eastern and Western powers against each other while pursuing their own secret objectives. Dr No: “East, West, each points of a compass, each as stupid as the other”. Both are arguably insane. Both have German in their blood. And both films feature nuclear weapons and underground bases as part of their plot.

As well as references to the aforementioned films, there are also two characters in Dr Strangelove named after famous mad men. General Jack D. Ripper is a pun on the serial killer Jack the Ripper and Ambassador DeSadesky is a play on the Marquis de Sade, a French writer whose fictional works depicting sexual sadism (the word was coined after his name) caused him to be imprisoned and declared insane. De Sade’s works have since fed the fantasies of many famous serial killers and have been the object of psychological study.

Was Kubrick calling the collective military and political establishment madmen? Although the definition of insanity has always been open to debate, the word mad (according to assorted dictionary definitions) has many meanings, including mentally disturbed, angry, deranged, foolish, excited, confused, irrational, and unwise. So the answer would have to be “yes” being that all these traits are present in several Dr Strangelove characters. I’ll also offer a repeat quote from chapter four, illustrating that at the very least the fear of madmen lurking in opposition high command was a factor in shaping Cold War policy.

“There is no acceptable way to protect ourselves from a psychotic Soviet decisionmaker who launches a surprise attack without making rational calculations.” – Herman Kahn, On the Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrence, page 40 (1960)

Remember that these are Kahn’s published reports and so are phrased in what the author considers reader friendly terms, but Herman’s language is still revealing. Launching a “surprise attack” with “rational calculations” would not necessarily, in his mind, be a psychotic decision. It gives away his position on war, which is basically If we can attack and win with acceptable losses to ourselves then let’s do it. It’s Buck Turgidson all over.

Let’s break down this high echelon madness into more defined terms.


Disassociation from morality

Lack of empathy for suffering or injustice experienced by others is the key trait of a psychopath. There are the extreme cases of serial killers and torturers who can personally inflict horrific physical acts against other people without feeling empathy, but there’s another type of disassociation from other people’s experiences that is much more dangerous. A serial killer or sadist is limited in how many people they can harm, but a politician or military commander can issue orders that inflict great suffering upon millions of people. The problem is that high officials are not there to witness the death and suffering their decisions cause. It happens far away in other parts of the world where the person issuing the orders is unable to hear the screams and see the mutilated dead. So it’s easy for commanders to internally deny responsibility. This is even true of pilots. Mandrake sums it up, “I’ve only ever pressed a button in my spitfire.”

The disassociation with the effects of a nuclear explosion is summed up in that it leaves no immediate witnesses. The witnesses all die. But the question stands. If a group of officials order that a nuclear bomb be dropped on a city is it any less immoral than if they personally pushed thousands of people into scorching furnaces and injured thousands more by personally dousing them with fuel and chemicals and setting them alight? It’s a difficult question because there are times when enemy forces have to be fought, but that same logic can also be a smoke screen for other motives – the most obvious one being financial profit. War creates multi-millionaires at the severe cost of the many.

Herman Kahn’s essays and books on nuclear war strategy were shocking enough to draw criticism from others in his own field of research. Here’s a quote from his essay The Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrence (1960).

“If 177 million dead is too high a price to pay for punishing the Soviets for their original aggression, how many American dead would we be willing to accept as the cost of our retaliation? I have discussed this question with many Americans, and after about 15 minutes of discussion their estimates of an acceptable price generally fall between 10 and 60 million dead. … The way one seems to arrive at the 60 million figure is interesting. One takes about one third of a county’s population or a little less than half.” (the article doesn’t explain who the “Americans” are that Kahn spoke to, they may simply be other nuclear war strategists) Page 15

“Published unclassified estimates of the casualties that the United States would suffer in a nuclear war generally run from 50 to 60 million.” Page 17

“After we had put ourselves in a position in which the Russian retaliatory strike would inflict much less than a total catastrophe, the Russians would have just three broad classes of alternatives:

  1. To initiate some kind of strike.
  2. To prolong the crisis, even though it would then be very credible that we would strike if they continued to provoke us.
  3. To back down or compromise the crisis satisfactorily.” Page 33

“If preparations like these were at least moderately expensive and very explicit, the Russians might find it credible that the United States would initiate and carry through such a program if they were provocative, say, on the scale of Korea or less. The Russians would then be presented with the three following alternatives:

  1. They could strike the United States before the buildup got very far. This might look very unattractive, especially since the buildup would almost certainly be accompanied by an increased alert and other measures to reduce the vulnerability of SAC.
  2. They could try to match the U.S. program. This would be very expensive.
  3. They could accept a position of inferiority. Such an acceptance would be serious, since the United States would now have a “fight the war” capability as well as a “deter the war” capability.” Page 3

Compare these comments with the calm delivery of apocalyptic news and pro-war ramblings of Buck Turgidson. The pathology of playing down death and suffering with a mask of statistics and polite language is very similar, but emphasized for comedic effect.

“Mister President, there’re one or two points I’d like to make if I may:

  1. Our hopes of recalling the 843rd bomb wing are quickly being reduced to a very low order of probability.
  2. In less than fifteen minutes from now the Russkies are gonna be making radar contact with the planes.
  3. When they do they’re gonna go absolutely ape and they’re gonna strike back with everything they’ve got.
  4. If, prior to this time, we’ve done nothing to suppress their retaliatory capabilities, we will suffer virtual annihilation. … Now …
  5. If, on the other hand, we were to immediately launch an all out and co-ordinated attack on all their airfields and missile bases we’d stand a damn good chance of catching them with their pants down. Hell, we’ve got five to one missile superiority as it is. We could easily assign three missiles to every target and still have a very effective reserve force for any other contingencies. … Now …
  6. An unofficial study, which we undertook of this eventuality, indicated that we would destroy ninety percent of their nuclear capabilities. We would therefore prevail and suffer only modest and acceptable civilian casualties from their remaining force, which would be badly damaged and uncoordinated.”

“Mister President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth for ourselves as a nation and as human beings. Now truth is not always a pleasant thing, but it is necessary now to make a choice; to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but distinguishable, post war environments – one where you’ve got twenty million people killed and another where you’ve got a hundred and fifty million people killed. ….I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops, depending on the breaks.”

Buck also refers to four planes shot down by Soviet air defences as “four splashes”, a deliberate playing down of the deaths involved, while Ripper, in the novel, states “there’s very little difference between an ordinary bullet and an H-bomb”. The survival kits for the bomber crew are described as looking like “Boy’s Christmas surprise parcels”.

Note that the projected figures Buck gives aren’t significantly far off from those given by Kahn (Kahn 10 to 60 million dead as an “acceptable” number of US civilian casualties against Buck’s 10 to 20 million … and Kahn’s 177 million dead as “too high a price to pay” against Buck’s 150 million).

Buck’s dialogue is, without doubt, a parody of Herman Kahn’s warped mass murder statistical logic. In emphasis of this point, on page 34 of Kahn’s document he lists seven “non-military” forms of what he calls “Type 3 Deterrents (Deterrents of Moderate Provocation)”. He also describes, on the same page, that “the capability to fight a limited war of some sort” is “the most obvious threat that we could muster”. He then dismisses all but one of these options, including “limited war”, from further discussion because they are “complicated and space is limited”. The only one of the seven "non-military" options he is willing to discuss further in his document is an increase in US military capability, which is actually a military option after all. Among the dismissed deterrents are “Loss of friends or antagonizing neutrals”, “Diplomatic or economic retaliation” and “Moral or ethical inhibitions”. Did Kahn really dismiss these factors for complexity and lack of space or because he was more psychologically geared toward engaging in, and winning, a war? Surely ways of resolving conflicts non-militarily are more important.

“We must have an ‘alternative to peace,’ so long as there is no world government and it is technologically and economically possible to have such an alternative. … What does it mean to live with this non aggression treaty. Can we prevent it being ‘signed’? Can we delay its ‘ratification’?” – Herman Kahn, On the Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrence, page 43 (1960)

The pen, or in some cases lack of it, is mightier than the nuclear bomb. It is the high command pathological pursuit of war that is the real danger.


The big board

“The Soviets are saying that at any level of violence we care to use they can either meet that level on the spot or promise such a severe punishment that we will be deterred. The Russians also point out that Berlin is a chess game, not a poker game, and that everybody can see what our capabilities are. … In actual fact we do have some very strong cards to play, but if we do not know what these cards are, we may be tricked out of playing them.” – Herman Kahn, On the Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrence, page 38 (1960). Underline emphasis added for this article.

“Your trick is clever Mister President, but one thing you forget – we are chess players, and in chess there are no tricks! No tricks Mister President! Just traps! And only the beginner falls for traps. We are not beginners.” … “I formally request that you have this … this … checker-player removed from the War Room.” Ambassador DeSadesky speaking in the Dr Strangelove novel pages 62 and 67. Underline emphasis added for this article.

The consideration of war as a game isn’t restricted to war simulation exercises. As the above Herman Kahn quote reveals, some military strategists think of war as a game generally. This is required for commanders to think calmly and rationally about decisions leading to great violence and destruction, yet there’s also a certain childishness at play, there being a considerable market for intricately carved miniature soldiers and toy tanks used by war strategy enthusiasts (civilian and military) that is more about the pleasures of war strategy. And so General Ripper has a model of a bomber plane on his desk. Alongside the historical war miniatures in retail stores such as Games Workshop we find fantasy alternatives – knights, demons, wizards and dragons and occasionally futuristic space craft and aliens. But it’s the concept of war that links these past, future and fantasy examples together.

Kubrick was something of a war strategy enthusiast too, being particularly interested in the life of Napoleon and, very nearly, putting into a production an epic film about his life. Chess itself, another favourite Kubrick pastime, has been used historically by nobility in various parts of the world for training in war and diplomacy on the base level of anticipating and thwarting opponents intellectually. Its use as a metaphor of power politics has been visually present in the variations on chess pieces in different empires. The Indians, Persians, Chinese and eventually Europeans, used pieces that reflected their own social class structures.

John Von Neuman, mathematician and one of the pioneers of the nuclear bomb, developed Game Theory in the 1920’s and in 1944 released a book applying the theory to economic decision making. But game theory would also become an integral part of war strategy, though the perception of war as a game had been around for hundreds of years. And so we encounter in Herman Kahn’s writings war strategy described in terms of chess and poker moves.

Kubrick made sure to get lots of game references into the production of Dr Strangelove. He regularly played chess with cast and crew. A photo in the Stanley Kubrick Archives book shows a chess board with a large sign above it stating “strict continuity”, illustrating that the chess metaphor applies both to the production and content of the film. Though the film is black and white, page 30 of the book describes the War Room air as being full of thick smoke and the circular table being covered with green baize, each official with a light shining down from above him. It’s a game table.

The “Big Board” or “Threat Board”, which shows positions of planes and their targets, is reminiscent of a “Board” game. Page 30 of the novel specifically points out that the board doesn’t display population centers and on page 120 Muffley comments, while offering compensation to the Soviet Union for the La Puta bombing, “I’d hate to have to equate human lives in dollars and cents.” He then learns from the Russian Premiere that the bomb will hit a population of “two million seven hundred and twenty nine thousand”. He asks Turgidson, “Have we got that place down as a two point seven two megadeath situation?” Dimitri then requests permission to drop a nuclear bomb on Detroit as a compensatory measure, to which Muffley responds with another chess game reference, “You can’t just trade people like pieces on a chess board.” Dimitri even goes so far as to complain that the doomsday shroud won’t reach America until two months after it has covered Russia.

Two other instances of war as a game metaphors in the film are Ripper hiding a machine gun in his golf caddy and the bomber crew playing poker and filling in crosswords. And the crossword motif is mirrored by Ripper’s crossword-like scribbles of the recall code.


Macho fantasies

The fantasy of being superior to others, and thus not threatened by any hostilities they might engage in, is a key trait of military motivation. It’s present in sports too, in fact any competitive endeavour. Throughout history men have sought to prove their manhood to themselves and others by inflicting violence in all manner of ways from wife beating to drunken brawls to military service and … military high command. It even results in competition between different military branches within a single nation. So we find in Dr Strangelove that Turgidson’s warning that Burpelson air base will be sealed off and defended is countered by an Army commander’s claim that, “Our boys can brush ‘em aside without too much trouble”. Turgidson also shows his preoccupation with defeating the enemy for ego’s sake when asked if the unaccounted US bomber will be able to penetrate Russian radar at low altitudes. He works himself up into a frenzy of enthusiasm, stating that the bomber’s jet engines will be “frying chickens in a barnyard”.

Major Kong’s macho fantasy mostly manifests in his Cowboy identity. Kubrick couldn’t get John Wayne for the part so he chose an actor who was near enough in persona, Slim Pickens. He starts off wearing pilot head gear, but ridiculously switches to his Stetson after receiving the bombing mission go-code – the hat being found in the safe among all the various coded war plans. Accompanying his mission we hear the humming and drums of the civil war song When Johnny Comes Marching Home, which could be a reference to his desired John Wayne identity. And his bronco riding of the nuclear warhead to its destination casts aside any doubts about the cowboy themes.

Kong’s motives are outlined more in the novel. He calls his father "Ole’ Bull Daddy" and is proud of his father's military exploits and wants to live up to, if not surpass, them for the sake of pride. “Combat” he says is the one thing missing from his life. Dropping a nuclear bomb, of course, will get him far more kills than Daddy and Grandpa put together. Kong also encourages the crew to think along similar lines, assuring them that they’ll all be in for medals and citations when they get home. It may sound idiotic that men will kill others for such personal feelings of glory and the commanding of respect from their peers, but military institutions have instilled this in young impressionable recruits for centuries. Such is the strength of this motive for Kong that rather than abort a failing mission he declares, “We didn’t come all this way for nothin’, ” and pursues a target of his own choosing.

Other details communicating the macho fantasy themes include a war game exercise, which the bombers are engaged in when they receive the go-code to attack, called Operation Dropkick, and Ripper smoking a cigar in almost every scene he is in, even while firing a machine gun. Major Kong is also nicknamed King Kong.