Dan Carlin's Hardcore History: Addendum - Asymmetrical Perspectives

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It’s Hardcore History.



So, the origin story for the conversation

you’re about to hear is that I was on a panel

with the upcoming guest,

and as we were departing the panel,

he leans in and whispers in my ear,

we should talk about asymmetrical warfare

sometime on your show.

And as many of you know, I’m a sucker

for romantic talk like that.

So, we set it up, and we had the conversation,

I should point out, back on December 14th, 2021.

So, I’ve held this for a little while,

which might mean if somewhere in the timeline

there’s anything that seems a little strange to you,

that might be why.

Although, I didn’t notice anything,

but I tend to miss stuff, especially when I’m as deep

into the Hardcore History weeds as I am right now.

There’s a lot of mental issues

that the host has at the moment.

I don’t even know how to describe the guest

that’s upcoming, because he’s done so many things

in so many different areas.

Actor, author, writer, senior fellow

at the Modern War Institute at West Point,

and writes about zombies.

He is the author of World War Z.

He was a comedy writer at Saturday Night Live.

His father and mother are both probably known to you.

His dad’s Mel Brooks, his mother’s Anne Bancroft.

It’s a fantastically interesting individual.

I enjoyed my conversation with him immensely.

So, for the next hour and a half,

I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did

that we had with Max Brooks.

Max Brooks, thank you so much for coming on the program.

Um, why don’t we start with your definition,

since you brought it up, thought we should talk

a little bit about asymmetrical warfare.

Tell me what your definition

of asymmetrical warfare is, and why you think

people should know about it.

Yes, well, my version of it is, uh, as Clausewitz

once called war politics by other means,

I call asymmetry war by other means.

Uh, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t include violence,

but it’s not exclusive state violence.

And what I mean is, uh, the traditional definition

of war is that you have Army A on one side

and Army B on the other side, and they go at it

on a chosen battlefield, and whoever wins, wins the war.

And asymmetry is using every other means possible

in order to achieve your goal, which is, could be anything.

Uh, and so I think the reason I wanted to talk to you

about it today is because I think America’s

kind of at a crossroads, and we need to remember

that fighting in what the military calls

the gray zone is nothing new. It’s a very old way of fighting,

but we have sort of forgotten that because we’ve gotten

really, really, really, really good at sanitized,

conventional conflict, and we need to get back

to the gray zone.

So, I was looking at the, uh, list of hardcore history shows

that we’ve done, and the second one, so show number two,

was essentially about asymmetrical warfare,

uh, the West and field battles and that mentality

versus the East and guerrilla warfare

and wearing down and all that kind of stuff.

We couched it in terms of the West and the East,

more like a Persia-Greece sort of thing,

but now everybody practices all these.

I mean, these are in everybody’s playbooks, right?

Everybody knows about field battles,

everybody knows about, um, you know,

I had a teacher once who described

asymmetrical warfare as everything other than

field battles. Um, and so, everybody knows

about those kinds of things. Now, if you’re going to fight,

uh, the strongest military power in the world,

and I’m gonna say we still are the strongest military power

in the world, you don’t wanna fight somebody like that

conventionally, right? Wouldn’t the asymmetrical,

uh, method be the smart way to do something like that?

Yeah, yeah, and I think, you know,

you’re the perfect guy to talk to about this

because this is recent history for all of us,

whether we realize it or not, and it all goes back

to a recent war we fought, which I consider

to be the worst war we ever fought,

which was Desert Storm.

Now, why do you consider Desert Storm

to be the worst war we ever fought?

Uh, because it’s not about, as in life,

life is not about the experiences we have,

life is about what we take from them.

And you know this, this is just being a person.

We know people who have had incredible life experiences,

haven’t learned a damn thing.

And are the exact same person they were 20 years ago.

And they keep wondering why, uh, things keep happening to them.

And they haven’t learned.

And that’s the problem with Desert Storm,

was we fought this war,

specifically as a war of deterrence.

The world was changing, the Soviet Union was crumbling,

uh, America was sort of stepping onto the world stage

as the only superpower left.

And we thought the best way to deter future aggression,

you know, up-and-coming challengers,

was to have a very public, very conventional,

big, mechanized, expensive conflict.

Uh, and we did that. We did that with the Iraqi army,

which both sides hyped up the fact that it was one

of the biggest armies in the world, at least on paper.

And that’s why we invited this brand new, uh,

fledgling company, CNN, you know, 24-hour cable news,

to cover the war.

Because we wanted everyone to see us just utterly pulverize

this massive army.

And we thought that would deter aggression.

We thought that if we said,

listen, if you mess with America on the battlefield,

we will smash you into atoms.

What we didn’t realize was what we were teaching

all our future competitors was,

if you are going to mess with America,

don’t go anywhere near the battlefield.

Find alternative means.

And our enemies have been developing asymmetric means.

Whereas we keep gearing up,

despite what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We’re still gearing up for the next desert storm.

So, here’s what… So, I think I take away

a little bit differently the recent history,

only because I see it more as a continuum.

Um, I mean, so, it’s funny, because as you get older,

ten years starts seeming like not that much time.

When I was a kid, it seemed like half my life

when I was 20, because it was.

But you think about the time period,

let’s go between like 1975,

the year the Vietnam War officially ended,

and 1985, when the new American military,

it really is gonna be debuted against

Manuel Noriega in Panama, right?

You’re gonna see stealth technology debut there.

You’re gonna see a bunch of other different elements

debut there. Uh, maybe call that a warm-up

or a test case for, uh, desert…

Okay. So, uh, so, to me, that ten-year period,

including things like the impact of people

who were junior officers in Vietnam,

like Colin Powell and the people who’d ridden

through the ranks, Schwarzkopf, all those guys,

was to create sort of a different sort of mentality,

different kind of warfare.

Uh, certainly, these guys, having been through Vietnam

on the ground, would’ve understood

the challenges of asymmetrical warfare.

Do you tend to… Is there a bureaucracy involved

where you tend to want to focus on the big things

because that’s where… I mean, not to change subjects here,

but I mean, I remember talking about submarines

and the Japanese military, the Navy in the Second World War,

and the literal excuse for why they didn’t care more

about it was, the guys who would have to study it,

the junior officers, didn’t want it.

They want to study big fleet battles

and decisive things. Is there some sort of, um,

call it a bureaucratic, um, um, um, uh, bias

towards those sorts of things?

Whereas, things like asymmetrical warfare

seems like small potatoes by comparison,

not very exciting?

I think so, and I think it’s a combination

of culture and money.

And so, you would think, coming out of Vietnam,

that we would’ve come out of that war

with the absolute best guerrilla warfare school

the world has ever seen.

Because we used to be good at things like that.

We would come out of these wars,

and we would learn incredible lessons.

We came out of the Civil War understanding

that the U.S. Army had to be professionalized.

You couldn’t just elect your officers anymore.

You couldn’t just appoint an officer

because his dad had made a campaign contribution.

The Army had to be professional.

Uh, we came out of wars like World War I and World War II

understanding these new technologies

like air power, uh, tank warfare,

even things like snipers.

These things had to be institutionalized.

But then you come out of Vietnam,

and you see this gravity back to our comfort zone,

back to the Fold the Gap,

uh, back to the idea that Vietnam was a one-off,

we’ll never have to fight that again.

And that’s where you get into, uh,

the psychological disaster of Desert Storm.

The idea that Desert Storm was a return to how wars

will be fought and should be fought,

as opposed to what it really was,

which was a dying breed.

That it was a last gasp of the old ways of fighting.

And so that’s why you get into this problem.

You know, being a fellow at the Modern War Institute

and meeting these mid-grade officers

who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan,

I got this understanding of how little has been studied

about exactly what they were going into.

You know, a lot of the guys that I know

who went into Afghanistan,

they had no books about Afghanistan.

They had the bear went over the mountain.

They weren’t indoctrinated to study even the Afghan War,

uh, the Soviet War in Afghanistan,

uh, guerrilla warfare in Iraq.

I mean, I always said the day that we got out of Saigon,

if I had been Secretary of Defense,

I would have given General Bowen Japp a check

for a million dollars to come and be a professor

at West Point and teach us everything.

Because that’s what we used to do.

When somebody would give us a run for our money,

after the war, we’d invite them in.

We had a lot of ex-U-Boat commanders, uh,

helping us prepare for an underwater war

against the Soviets.

You know, it’s a funny thing, though,

because I, you feel, to take some of the pressure

off of our planners and military,

I think they’re in a little bit of a bind here,

because they don’t have the option of deciding,

as you know, Max, I don’t mean that I’m telling you

anything you don’t know, but they have to plan

for both eventualities, don’t they?

They don’t know that you’re not going to get into

some weird sort of war in, um, in, in, in Asia right now,

off the coast, maybe in a, in a Taiwan defense situation.

In other words, you don’t know what the enemy’s going to do

or what the situation is going to develop into.

You have to sort of be prepared for everything.

And it’s a Sun Tzu quality, isn’t it?

That defense everywhere is like not having defense anywhere.

But, but you kind of have to be ready for 9-11

or World War III, don’t you?

You do. And this, this is why I said,

it’s not just about culture, it’s also about

money because there is, there is a center of gravity,

which is the military industrial complex.

Right. There’s a tail wagging the dog thing.

We don’t need more tanks for the military,

but the Georgia district where they make them

needs them, that kind of dynamic, right?

Right. And in which you actually have

General Ray O’Dierno speaking to Congress saying,

we do not need any more tanks.

You know, if you think about the amount of money

we shoveled into things like laser weaponry

during the Iraq war and trying to retrofit them on Hummers

so we could shoot IEDs with a laser beam to blow it up.

That’s big money at work.

Compare that to the fact that in 20 years in Afghanistan,

20 years, Dan, we never had a witness protection program

for our Afghan allies in which a massive amount

of our casualties were guys being shot

by their Afghan opposite numbers

because the Taliban would threaten their families.

Now there should have been a program where those guys,

the moment they get the call from the Taliban,

we’re going to kill your family.

Unless you kill an American, he should have been able

to go to his American opposite number, tell him

the American should have said, well,

we have a program in place.

You can come on base. Your family is safe.

Don’t worry about it.

Not once did we ever have that program.

That’s not where the big money was.

The big money was in putting a laser on a 747

to knock off the one ballistic missile

that Kim Jong-un might fire someday.

Well, that’s the vulnerability then

that opens the door to the Ace Amendment.

That opens the door to the asymmetrical warfare, right?

Because the more you invest at that very high level,

the more things aren’t being handled

at the very low level, leaving vulnerabilities.

And what’s so weird, though, Max, is as you had said,

we’ve fought enough of these things.

I mean, since the Second World War,

this has been the main kind of warfare

we’ve actually engaged in.

You would think that by now this would be institutionalized.

And yet we still follow in the same sort of pattern

that you can see.

I mean, I love the Roman legions

because they would start off when they first formed them,

you know, made up of the conscripts.

And they would form, and they wouldn’t,

they would be totally green and not very good.

Then they would work themselves over time

into this fantastic fighting machine.

And then they would disband at the end of the conflict

and lose all the institutional memory that they had built up.

And I feel like that’s our pattern, too.

I mean, when you fought Korea, Vietnam,

innumerable small sorts of things,

you would think we would have this figured out by now.

And you know what’s also funny,

and you know this better than I do, Max,

but you’ve met enough of these officers to know

that this has to be one of the most well-read,

intellectually curious, historically minded

group of commanders that I’ve ever encountered.

I mean, they totally buck the trend of the sort of the

stuck in the last war military mentality.

So if that’s the case, you would think

that we would be specifically excelling at things

like learning from past experience.

Why do you think that’s not helping more than it is?

This is one of the issues I think we’re coming up against,

is, like you said, the officers that I have known

at the Modern War Institute, the mid-graders,

the captains and the majors, they’ve all been through it.

And they know the old system doesn’t work.

They are insanely curious.

A good friend of mine, John Spencer,

recently retired from the Army, he

is the preeminent scholar in urban warfare.

And on his desk is a little disc, a copper disc.

And he said, this is the primary mechanism

inside the Iranian IED that killed a lot of my friends.

And behind him on the wall is an AK-47.

He said, that killed the rest of them.

And he said, that’s it.

That’s what killed them.

Nothing high tech.

And that’s an example of how these guys are very much aware

of how wars are being fought.

But the problem is, they are, I think, like we said,

we’re arrayed against culture.

We’re also arrayed against, like we said, big money,

the military-industrial complex.

I think there’s also a third element in this triumvirate,

which is geography.

Because we are safe, because the wars we fight

are not existential wars.

I don’t think there’s enough of an honest-to-God threat

that burns through the fog.

I think because we think that our wars

can be wars of choice, then we might

have the choice never to fight another Iraq or Afghanistan.

We can delude ourselves into thinking that the next war

can be desert storm, because we will choose the time and place.

That’s just the typical hubris that goes back forever.

But it’s interesting, because in my, you know,

if you think about yourself like a science fiction

supervillain, right, or the Joker, or somebody like that,

you can see, I would think, that we’re much more vulnerable,

if you’re talking about, you had mentioned,

existential threats, right, a threat to your existence.

Other than nuclear weapons, I think

the most logical threat to our existence

is having some program, and I’m sure the Russians are doing

this, but I bet everybody’s doing this,

where you’ve got paid people who are going on message

boards in the United States and helping to rip the country

apart from within, which I would argue,

we’re much more vulnerable to something like that right now

than anybody launching a serious ground

war anywhere in the world.

And yet, that’s not very sexy if you’re

in the halls of military academia

studying, you know, potential war scenarios.

That’s not the one you necessarily

want to be working on, but I would

argue that except for the nuclear weapon

threat, which never goes away, and the longer we don’t talk

about it, the more we just become inured to it,

that would be the next level, is simply being torn apart

by what Max Brooks has labeled correctly,

asymmetrical warfare.

Well, I’ll go one even farther.

We knew, we knew years ago that the Russians were putting bots

on medical websites to begin to debate vaccines.

And they would put them on both sides, by the way.

You would have debates being waged by bots pretending

to be regular Americans debating about vaccines,

and that was to sow doubt.

And that was way before COVID.

And I’m sure years from now, you and I

will be doing a podcast about some historian who

will do a deep dive into how much that attack on our trust

in vaccines contributed to the deaths suffered by COVID.

You know, Max, though, here’s an interesting thing that

reminds me of some of the nuclear brinksmanship-type

debates they used to have at places like RAND,

where they would ask about countries exploiting the fact

that you didn’t want to launch World War III,

so we’ll just take a little bit of territory

and see if you’re willing to use nukes for something

as minor as that.

I feel like things like bots in cyberspace tearing apart

your national cohesiveness are one of those kinds of things.

I mean, you’re not going to launch a war, for example,

with Putin’s Russia over that, right?

It’s not like invading Latvia might have been.

But at the same time, certainly you

can’t just let that stuff fester if it’s as dangerous

as we just said it is.

It almost seems to me like the kind of thing

that you would, that in the old days during the Cold War,

you would have addressed in some sort of summit agreement

or something like that.

No, you’re exactly right.

And I’m glad you used nukes, because the thing

about human psychology is, you and I both know,

the human mind has a problem with imagination.

For all our imagination, we still

have difficulty thinking about things

until they’re right in front of our face.

And the reason that we had such incredible diplomacy

and legality when it came to the use of nukes, right?

Who keeps them?

Who gets them?

How do they use?

What’s the oversight?

What are the treaty stipulations surrounding them?

I mean, the legislation would fill a library

about nuclear weapons because we saw them used.

And you couldn’t argue with them.

And it didn’t take much for the human mind

to look at Hiroshima and Nagasaki

and picture the rest of the world.

And you can’t tell me that Kennedy and Khrushchev

didn’t have those images in the front of their brains

when they were negotiating over Cuba.

But the new threats that we have,

we haven’t seen something like Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Take, for example, cyber warfare.

I did an article, I wrote an article on this

a little while ago, speaking to a friend of mine

in Cyber Command, who said that we have all the tools

to stop cyber warfare.

What we don’t have is doctrine.

We never got to that phase like we did with nukes,

where you get in generals and lawyers and diplomats

and really sit down and order pizza and beer

and stay up all night and hammer out agreements

about this new power, which is cyber warfare.

We don’t have that.

I always use the example, what if, let’s say,

Russian hackers hijack data in a hospital, right?

And all they want is money.

They’re not working for the Russian government.

They’re just taking the money.

But while they’re holding that data for ransom,

people are not getting their prescriptions.

And they’re dying.

Well, that’s murder or manslaughter.

How would you judge this?

Is that murder?

Is it manslaughter?

And then if the Russians don’t turn over these killers,

is that any different than the Taliban

harboring Osama bin Laden?

And if that attack on the hospital is a NATO ally,

isn’t that Article 5?

Isn’t that an attack on the citizens’ lives of a NATO ally?

So this is what I mean.

We don’t have a cohesive doctrine

to tell us what is a cyber crime versus a cyber act of war.

Reminds one of sort of like letters of Mark or something,

allowing plausible deniability.

You know, that’s the other thing when

you compare it to nukes, too.

With nukes, you’re talking about physical things,

the possession of which can be seen, photographed, studied,

assessed, movements of which can be followed.

When we’re talking about somebody who can just quickly

sign on into cyberspace anywhere in the world,

push a button that begins a process,

then sign off, throw the phone away, and run.

I mean, I feel like the plausible deniability

reaches new levels of deniability,

if that makes sense.

Well, you know, Eisenhower made a wonderful speech

during the nuclear age about how our power was

exceeding our wisdom, and how we had to catch up.

I love that one, by the way, yeah.

Wasn’t that a great one?

Oh, my god.

It’s a future shock type statement by Eisenhower,

isn’t it?

He got it.

He understood that, wait a minute, we’ve

unleashed all this power.

We need to now get in front of it.

We need to build a fireplace around this fire

before the fire burns down our house.

But we haven’t done that with anything else.

And that’s the problem, because these new sources

of power, like cyber or like the internet,

they’re so insidious, you don’t see the immediate threat

until it’s too late.

Now we’re starting to see it, and we need to catch up.

So this is where free societies are at a bit

of a disadvantage, perhaps.

So you look at these states who see, you know,

we always make it sound like the reason that states

like Iran, for example, or China are threatened

by the internet is because they’re

threatened by openness.

But we’re threatened by it, too.

And we’re not threatened by the openness.

We’re threatened simply by the fact

that, you know, we used to be scared

about the anarchist cookbook information getting online.

And something like that’s ridiculous now, right?

It’s like we used to be scared, or the Soviets used

to be scared, about one radio signal, Radio Free Europe,

coming over the Iron Curtain and what

that one radio signal of propaganda might do.

Can you imagine trying to have the Cold War with the internet?

I mean, so I feel like there’s this ability that regimes that

are more authoritarian and can cloak

the curtailing of civil liberties and the freedom

to go online and read what you want

in terms that sound like patriotic, self-defense,

protect yourself from the invasive enemy outside.

I mean, I feel like they have more of an ability

to close that loophole or that hole in their defenses

than we do, because in our society, it’s not just a bug,

but it’s also a feature.

Does that make sense?

Yes, and you know, but what’s funny

is that in the short term, they have an advantage,

but only in the short term.

Because in the long term, our advantage

is our openness and our ability to have these messy debates

and the ability to inoculate ourselves

from these kinds of viruses.

See, the idea is that in a free and open society,

you have more chaos.

But in the chaos, you self-correct, right?

You elect different people.

You change the laws.

You try a law out.

The law doesn’t work.

You change it.

Or the law goes too far.

You pull it back.

I mean, that is the story of Western democracies,

is we’re always sort of shifting that line.

And in the short term, yes, it’s much more chaotic.

But it builds a more durable society,

as opposed to, say, the People’s Republic of China,

where in the short term, it’s peace.

But it’s peace built on a fragile absolutism,

where the moment a problem leaks in,

you have no mechanism to self-correct.

It’s either perfection or it’s the end.

And that’s why they have to shut things off.

I mean, any society that is afraid of debate

is a society that is doomed eventually to failure.

And we saw that.

We saw that with the Cold War, that they

had to wall themselves off.

Because the moment free ideas, freedom, and expression,

and arguments came in, they had no mechanism

for controlling it and for inoculating themselves.

And the system collapsed.

So I’ll take a little bit of short-term chaos

any day for a little bit of long-term durability.

You know, you and I are, I’m a little older than you,

but we’re almost the same age.

That, to me, is the argument we always grew up with, right?

That’s the old free society versus closed society,

pros and cons argument.

I feel like some of the variables, some

of the things we’ve already discussed here,

may impact, though, that received conventional wisdom

that we both grew up with.

For example, it’s almost like a jujitsu kind of thing,

where you were just talking about the arguments that

keep us healthy and allow us to self-correct in our society.

But it’s almost like when we talk

about these bots or the ability to undermine our society

from within, acting as though you’re

American citizens having political debates on message

boards or in the comments after news stories,

I mean, that you would say is a feature 35 years ago

of our strength in the debates and all this kind of thing.

Now it seems to me almost something

that’s turned against us.

I feel like the debates that we’ve

been having in this country is what’s ripped us apart.

And if those debates have actually

been prompted by our adversaries or international competitors,

then they’ve taken that advantage

that you and I grew up with calling a feature

and turned it into a bug.

Does that make sense?

It does.

But I would argue that it means that we

need to have better debates.

We need to have all the facts at our disposal.

Like, for example, when I go on Twitter,

as I’m sure when you go on Twitter, right,

we need to have a check next to our name

to make sure we are who we are.

Yeah, I don’t have that, Max.



I have to have that.

Preaching to the wrong guy here.


But I had to do that, you know, the same way

I had to do that on Facebook.

But the average person doesn’t have to do that.

Well, why is that?

Well, I am lucky enough to live in a society

where if I had the will, I could elect someone

who could run for office, who could drum up support

and make the case, and then make the law and say,

listen, anybody who wants to be on social media

can be on social media, but they must prove who they are.

So therefore, if I am hearing a debate about vaccines,

I know that it’s actually not a working class single mom

from Hammond, Indiana.

I know it’s Sergey and Igor in Kaliningrad.


I mean, you know, this goes back to how I grew up.

No, I was going to say, it’s analogous to the letters

to the editor and those kinds of things

where there was a person checking

the validity of those kind of apps.

So you’re going back to sort of a brick and mortar

model for the cyber age and things

like how we attach accountability

to those kinds of things.

Well, you know where I’m going back to?

I’m going back to my mom.

My mom was a health nut.

And I grew up, as you do.

You and I, we grew up in a time when

it was probably the least healthy time to be an American.

You know, because the generations that came before us

had healthy, good food.

It probably didn’t last as long.

It was probably a little more expensive,

but it was good for your body.

The generation coming up now is better off

because of what happened to us, where we

were just shoveled in crap.

Now, my mother was one of the first consumer advocates

who lobbied and made sure that everything

that was in the supermarket had ingredients on it.

And so that way, she, at the very least, nothing was banned.

But she, as a consumer, had the choice of what

she put in her child’s body.

And you can argue that’s all we need from social media.

You can say what you want, but I need to know who it is.

And that’s a first step, is having actual ingredient labels

for information, the same way you have it for nutrition.

Well, what it makes me think about, Max,

is if you and I are talking about national security

concerns, it strikes me that, and you know,

didn’t strike me five minutes ago.

It just struck me now based on what we’re saying.

But it strikes me that one could make a case that true, accurate,

confirmable, trustworthy information

might be more wrapped up in our national security

than we had otherwise thought.

I mean, the old idea of the importance of the fourth estate

to the running of the rest of the constitutional part

of the country, maybe there’s something to the idea

that those are all support systems.

And if any one of them becomes rotten

or ceases to function as a support beam,

our stability is perhaps endangered.

What would you say to this idea about maybe something

like truth and factual information

being important enough for our national debates

to be a core component of maybe our national security concerns?

Well, we used to have that.

And I think as a historian, you will appreciate the term

by Francis Fukuyama, the end of history.


And are we allowed to swear on the show or not?

I don’t generally, but, you know, well, say what you want.

We’ll figure out how to handle it.

Well, I think, you know, I will say that the notion,

I’d say that in many ways, our institutions

are still stuck in the 90s.

And by that, I mean this notion that it is the end of history,

that all the great challenges are over.

And I think that notion in the 1990s,

that the great challenges of the human race

are over, that it is the end of history,

has, to quote Dr. Samuel Johnson, has fucked us.

And so we need to get back to the idea

that we had, we used to have, that everything is connected,

Dan, that you cannot separate the sheep and the sheepdogs

when it comes to our national security,

that we used to understand that everything eventually

flowed back to keeping us safe.

From our children getting good nutrition,

to our environment keeping us healthy,

to our infrastructure, to our schoolteachers

knowing what they talked about.

Everything, everything meant having

a healthy, well-informed society that

was able to govern itself, and therefore

able to withstand outward threats.

And we gave all that up in the 90s

because we saw the threats as going away.

So we could all just do our own thing.

We didn’t need these institutions.

We didn’t need oversight.

No more, you know, no more grownups.

Because it was happy time.

Well, the happy time is over.

And we need to get back to the notion

that we can still be free.

We can still make good choices.

But we need to keep our eye on the ball.

I’m meditating on this we thing that you keep using.

Because it sounds utopian to me at this point.

Because I don’t feel like we are a collective, unified.

I see a lot more division, not just in the United States.

But I mean, I think you can see, as you’ve

been able to see for 50 years, echoes

of what goes on in the United States you see elsewhere.

I think you see it in Europe, too.

I think one could make a case that there’s

some of this in Asia also.

These trends of, and you know, it reminds me,

and you’re going to know about this, Max,

it’s almost become sort of an internet trope.

The Project for a New America Century,

New American Century paper that came out before 9-11 saying

that there should be, you know, that the natural tendency

in our country is to pull apart.

And then it’s only big events like Pearl Harbor

and whatnot that contradict that momentum.

I don’t know if that’s true or not.

But I would suggest that I think certainly

that’s where we are now.

And to me, so many of these things

that you say we should do break down

when we’re not really we, right?

Because if I say, oh, yes, we should do this,

we may be one group of people who want to do A,

and we may be another group of people that want to do B.

And they disagree, and they elect different people

to Congress who fight in the Congress.

And then you have the military industrial complex

and foreign countries buying access on K Street.

I mean, the way this actually all interacts

when it gets into the soup of actual reality

sounds a little bit more complicated to me

than this idea that we need to do this,

and we need to do that.

Well, I didn’t say that we need to do what’s easy.

That’s the thing.

And this is always what I come up against,

whether I’m talking to a strategic studies

group or a biodefense panel.

The pushback I always get really can be boiled down

to what you’re saying we need to do is hard, to which I say,

yes, yes, it is.

Running a self-governing democratic system

is very difficult, which is why you

see the appeal of dictatorship, because I

think there is something in all of us,

really, deep down, that wants to be children.

Remember that horrible moment when we were kids,

and bit by bit we had our innocence ripped away from us,

and we realized, oh, my god, I have to do work.

I have to help take care of myself.

And I think that that’s painfully

traumatic for all human beings.

We start off completely helpless.

Someone else is running everything.

Some of us are very lucky to have

the people who are running everything

know what they’re doing, or we think

they know what they’re doing, and we get to go out and play.

And then bit by bit, we go, oh, boy, I got to pitch in.

And that’s hard, and it sucks.

Well, we live in a society where we have chosen to be grownups.

And being grownups is hard, and it’s messy, and it’s painful,

and it’s uncomfortable.

Or you can choose to live in a country like Russia, or China,

or Iran, in which you can be a child,

and you are not responsible for how things go.

Somebody else is in charge, and you

get to blame them.

And so we have a lot of freedoms in this country,

but what we don’t have is freedom from responsibility.

And I think I’m very blessed in that I had two greatest

generation parents who told me about what it was like to grow

up like that, where you had to do your part,

and serve, and sacrifice, and it sucked.

But that’s what you got to do if you want to live this way.

See, here’s the thing.

You bring back so many echoes of the way we were all raised.

I mean, these are the sort of things that, in our generation,

we were infused with.

And this is Cold War stuff to me.

I mean, this is why we fight, like the old line about why

we fight.

These are the things that they would put in a movie

that you would see between the double feature in the movie

theater explaining what this war in Europe is all about,

and American values, and Western democracy,

and all this kind of stuff.

But I mean, we’ve had a civil war in this country before.

And that’s not so much about people not wanting

to do the hard work and wanting someone.

You know what I’m saying?

In other words, some of what you’re saying

sounds to me like on a different level from, hey,

we’ve had a civil war before.

We could have a civil war again.

And if we have a civil war, well,

that’s not helping any of this democratic stuff

we were just talking about.

And I mean, I would put the odds,

and this is a stupid thing to do.

But I mean, I would put the odds of the United States

having a civil war in the next 25 years

as better than they’ve ever been since the 1850s.

And that says something.

Now, I’m not sure what it says.

But if you’re in the halls of power

and your job is to defend the United States from threats

both foreign and domestic, I’m more scared of that

because I think that’s more of a realistic threat

than coming to blows, for example, with Russia,

even though coming to blows with Russia

ain’t as far away as it used to be either.

No, no.

And as far as, I mean, a civil war, everyone is always,

that seems to be what everybody’s talking about.

I mean, as we both know, it’s not going to be 1860s.

No, no, because we’re all mixed together.

There’s no easy divide.

We’ll have it precinct by precinct.

Yeah, but there is a real fear.

There is a real, honest to God, fear.

And I know this from my friends in the national security

world of a right wing, white supremacist insurgency

in this country.

And it’s very real, and it’s bubbling.

But it’s not inevitable.

None of this is inevitable.

That’s the wonderful thing about a free and democratic society

is self-correction.

But we get back to the truth.

We’re in a loop here because it gets back

to the truth thing, right?

Because these people, one would make the case,

and I have, that the great ballast

of the American electorate would self-correct

if given reliable information that they could trust.

Now, I would make the case that I don’t think there’s

a society in the world that has ever

been given reliable information that they could trust.

But I would say that the democracies maybe

in the 1970s and 1980s gave it a good stab.

But without that, and with the disinformation,

and with all of the choose your own truth

sort of post-20th century society we live in now,

I feel like the self-correction mechanisms are broken.

So if you don’t have that truth and reliability factor,

does it impede our ability to self-correct?

And if we can’t self-correct, what does that mean?

Well, I feel that it is all, it might be broken,

but it is all fixable if we do our part.

And that is something that we used to understand.

And like I said, this goes back to what I was saying before,

is that that means having to see yourself

as part of something bigger, and having

to do things you necessarily don’t want to do.

I mean, I’m buoyed by the fact that I live in LA, which

is the most selfish, narcissistic, lazy Sodom

and Gomorrah ever, ever.

I mean, if you want to point to possibly the worst of America,

welcome to my hometown.

And yet, for the first time in my life,

I’m seeing my neighbors starting to take

an interest in local politics, and the details

of local politics.

Why is this happening?

Nobody I’ve ever known, my whole life,

knew who our city councilman was.

Nobody cared.

We lived our lives.

And now, because the homeless crisis is out of control,

and people are asking, why is this happening?

And they don’t believe the propaganda they’re hearing,

we’re starting to have community meetings.

And for the first time in my life,

I went to a meeting in the cold, sitting out, freezing my buns

off, for a candidate who’s going to run for city council.

A municipal attorney talking to me about court cases,

and why things are the way they are,

and the big money that’s at work.

And if she is elected, what she will do to unseat the man who

has allowed homelessness to run rampant.

And by the way, not helping the homeless people either.

She rattled off statistics of every homeless person

who died in and out of shelters in LA that night.

Now, she is just one person.

But if I do my part, and show up, and sit in the cold,

and maybe give a little money, and maybe canvas for her,

and maybe do some phone calls, I can help

make a little bit of difference.

And maybe if my neighbors do that,

they can make a little bit of difference.

I don’t get to do that in China, or North Korea, or Russia.

I get to do that here.

I’m trying to, I feel like we’re circling around the same points

again, which is I’m thinking about the end.

You know, remember, there’s a Star Trek episode.

I feel like I’m contractually obligated to bring that up.

But where there’s a mere universe, right?

And it’s the absolute opposite of everything.

And in my mind, there is a Max Brooks in Los Angeles,

or maybe he’s in Georgia.

I don’t know what the opposite of Los Angeles is.

And he’s got a goatee.

And he’s going and doing just what Max Brooks is doing.

He’s going to support this candidate who’s

going to unseat them.

But he’s on the exact opposite of all the issues.

In other words, I feel like your activism is canceled out

by the other Max Brooks.

And that describes the country as a whole.

You know, you keep saying we, and we.

But we is something that, to get back

to that Project for a New America Century thesis,

was that we’re naturally pulling apart.

I don’t feel like that we is here.

And if you say, OK, if it’s not here now,

what can foster the conditions to recreate that sense of unity

so that we comes back?

Well, then are we talking about a specific kind of leadership?

I mean, do you need an almost JFK call

to some sort of higher calling?

I mean, if you decide, if Dan and Max have identified

the problem right here as a sort of a we, unity, lack of focus,

lack of whatever that might be, a need

for a reinvigoration of our democratic system,

how does one accomplish that beyond the child level?

If we’re all children and would rather just be led,

how does one do this?

Well, I think we all need to be more aware of the forces at work

that are pulling us apart.

We can’t just say it’s just happening.

We can’t just say, oh, we’re just being pulled apart.

No, there are actual forces at work that are pulling us apart.

And if we identify those forces, then we

can actually combat it as opposed

to some sort of nebulous darkness

that we all see as inevitable.

OK, I like this, though.

I like this, though, because I think

I don’t mean to interrupt you, but I think

you’ve hit the nail on the head here.

So what happens when our freedom, right,

the fact that we get to debate, we get to have the,

what happens when our very freedom is

part of what undermines what you’re just talking about?

In other words, we can have multiple media companies all

giving a very different narrative,

playing that narrative to a very different audience,

interested not in truth, but in clicks, viewers, audience

size, impact, that kind of thing.

But that’s a facet of our freedom, right?

Putin doesn’t have to deal with an opposition network

that he, you know what I’m saying?

In other words, it’s our very freedom

that has opened the door to these things that

are the impediments to us becoming we again.

Right, right.

So we need to identify what exactly are the forces at work.

And that’s what makes me so optimistic,

because finally, after years and years of banging my head

against a wall, I am starting to see the national debates start

to center around these forces.

For the first time in decades, I’m

starting to hear people on TV, on social media

talk about voter suppression.

Well, what exactly does it mean, redistricting, gerrymandering?

I’m also starting to hear the attack on social media

about these algorithms that specifically

are devoted to extremism.

You know, this has been happening for decades,

but we were much more concerned with what

Lindsay Lohan was up to.

And it is so wonderful to hear the top stories now

about these forces at work, because we

have to identify them first in order

to do something about them.

It’s like in my neighborhood, going back to local politics.

For years, I was just seeing the homelessness getting out

of control and homeless people dying on the streets

and their encampments bursting into flames,

but always hearing, oh, it’s inevitable, or oh, God,

this is so terrible, we need to do something.

Or they’re the victims, and they have rights.

And if you want to do something to mess with their rights,

you’re a fascist.

Well, for the first time, I heard a candidate say, no, no,

no, you have to look at it in terms of addiction,

mental illness, the housing plans, long-term housing.

I mean, really breaking it down.

And that’s what I’m starting to see on a national level.

Why do my neighbors fly opposite flags?

Why do they watch opposite TV shows?

If we can identify them, we can also solve them.

You know, when I look at the current climate,

and this is all simplistic stuff,

and this is why I’m not a historian,

because I can play with all these simplistic,

non-representative scenarios and not worry about it.

But I mean, to me, there’s a Weimar Germany vibe.

And the Weimar Germany vibe is that there’s

extremists on both sides.

And both of those groups are growing in size,

pulling people from the ballast, the societal ballast

in the center, because there is no center to hold.

So in the Weimar situation, it was

a level of distrust and disenchantment

with the ability of that government

to do what the people there wanted done.

And that helps peel the ballast population off

to the extremes.

So I guess what I’m saying is in the 21st century,

so there was something I remember in the early 1990s.

It was when Al Gore and Bill Clinton

were running for office against George Bush Sr.

And one of the planks that they were pushing

was this idea of reinventing government.

And what I liked about the idea of reinventing government,

forget the specifics, was this idea

that because of new technology and new things being learned

all the time, we should not assume

that that is not something that can be continually done.

Because during that time period, there

was this attitude that government is government.

It was the same in ancient Greece.

It is the same now.

The pluses and minuses are all the same.

What I liked about the Gore-Clinton idea

at the time was this concept that, no, we

can improve these things.

We don’t have to sit and stand pat

and pretend like none of this stuff can be improved.

If this is the Weimar Germany situation,

then improving the credibility and the functioning

and the belief and trust in the government

itself would be a way, I would think,

to reverse the peeling off of the ballast population

to the extremes.

How can something like that be done?

Because to me, again, everything,

and you said it yourself, everything

we’re talking about here, which seems

like a bunch of different issues not connected

to military things at all, are all wrapped up

in our national security more than most people might think,

including this, is the government functioning?

Is it not functioning?

Can it be fixed?

Can it be improved?

And if it can’t, what does that mean?

Yes, well, this is what I mean about reintroducing ourselves

to the connections, where we used to,

my parents’ generation used to understand

how everything was connected.

But like I said, the 90s fucked us,

because the 90s believed that it was the end of history,

and we could all take our eye off the ball

and do our own thing, and we understand that we can’t.

We understand a lot, a big portion

of our friends and neighbors became

radicalized in the 90s because of globalization.

The jobs moved away.

That’s economics.

But that economics flowed into politics.

At the same time, we deregulated the media.

So that’s politics and economics.

Those two were connected.

At the same time, you then had the rise

of the opioid addiction, which goes into public health.

At the very same time, you are outsourcing things

like the biotech industry, which meant that when COVID hit,

we didn’t have enough supplies, because it was all overseas.

We used to understand how everything flowed together.

And in the 90s, we completely outsourced everything.

And we need to understand that everything is connected.

And once again, going back to being,

I’m buoyed by the fact that we are

starting to understand this now.

Our policy on China is starting to change,

and that’s bipartisan.

I’m so buoyed by the fact that Trump was China hawk,

but so is Biden.

He didn’t just come in and say, well,

everything Trump said is wrong.

He said, no, we have been financing

a whole alternative method of government,

which is based on capitalism without democracy,

and that is wrong.

And I think that if we support that notion,

we can get back to the idea that our value shouldn’t

be taken for granted.

Nation states do exist.

There are different ways of living our lives.

And we can wrest back control, which will bring us together.

So that takes us back.

So we’ve added now the dimension of something like this.

So the China hawk question is interesting to me.

I don’t know what we gain from all this, whether it’s

I don’t know what the United States.

So if we assume, and this is a little off the path of what

we were talking about, but since this national security

umbrella pretty much covers anything we want to shove

into this space, it seems to me that the country’s policy

should be dictated towards what’s

best for the people who pay the bills that the country racks


How does confrontation with other large nation states

benefit the average American on the ground?

Well, there’s different types of confrontation.

If you have our carrier battle group facing off

with the Chinese carrier battle group in the South China Sea

and everybody’s got their finger on the button,

that’s probably not going to turn out well.

However, it is time to reach back into history,

specifically the 1990s and the early 2000s,

and reset our trade relationship with China.

Because we believed in the goodness of our hearts,

going on the death of the Soviet Union,

that if we were to just engage with China,

bring them into the World Trade Organization,

and put factories, Nike and Apple over there,

and they would liberalize.

We believed that liberalization would come

from economic engagement.

OK, nothing wrong with that.

I personally think that’s a better foot to start out with.

But now we know that it’s wrong.

Now we know that instead of them becoming more like us,

they’re using our money to make us more like them.

They are now using our greed to influence us here at home,

whether it’s the NBA not being able to say anything

about Hong Kong, or whether they’re censoring

Hollywood movies now.

We understand now that it has backfired.

Fair enough.

Yay for a society that’s able to self-correct.

We can reset those trade agreements and say,

I am very, very sorry, corporate America.

And I’m very, very sorry, Xi Jinping.

We can no longer finance a system that

is dedicated to ending ours.

If you want to do business with us,

then you have to compromise.

And you have to be a fair player in the game.

That’s it.

And if you don’t, then you can be like South Africa

and go your own way.

Good luck.

So this is interesting, because I would argue that,

and I think you set it up well by saying that they’ve

gotten us addicted.

And we have to, we’ve fused our societies together

in ways that have made it difficult for either one of us

to pull apart without hurting ourselves.

But what I would argue is that we

don’t have the control over, so let me back up.

I have these wonderful history books,

and they will show ads from American companies

during the Second World War.

So there was one for an American cigarette manufacturer,

Lucky Strikes.

And the ad was how Lucky Strike had changed its color to green

for the war effort, the poster said, right?

In other words, to support the United States in the war

against the Axis.

That’s an American company back in the day

when companies had a more tie to their nation states of origin.

Now these are global international concerns

with as much stuff on the ground in China as they have here.

If you were to get into a Third World War with China,

I’m not so sure all these companies

are going to pick us like Lucky Strikes did,

rather than stand aside and just say, hey,

we just do business with people.

We’re not going to get involved in this dispute.

I guess what I’m saying is you can still have these,

you can have bilateral trade agreements with China.

You can have these giant NAFTA or GATT-type deals

that China has to then adhere to the rules

the rest of the world’s playing by.

But I don’t know how you’re going to necessarily

get the very companies on board here by telling them

that they’re going to have to penalize themselves,

their stockholders, their bottom line,

by somehow punishing the largest, one of the largest,

because it depends on whether you’re going numbers of people

or the amount of spending money available per person,

but one of the largest markets available on the planet.

Well, this is what I mean.

This goes right back to how we started the conversation.

This goes back to asymmetric means of fighting.

When I look at the global competition

between American Western democratic freedoms

and Chinese authoritarianism, I think,

which is the best way to spend our money?

We have a limited amount.

Do we spend it on trying to match their hypersonic missiles

with our hypersonic missiles?

Or do we take that money and use it as tax incentives

for our companies to move back to Ohio and the Rust Belt

rather than making money overseas,

than putting all that money into sweatshops overseas?

Which one gives us more leverage over the PRC?

Well, again, I think then you’re getting into long-term…

I mean, if you’re going to say that…

You know, what’s great about this, Max,

is we could do six hours on this

because everything we talk about

leads to the next step in the conversation.

And they all are completely interactive with each other, right?

They’re pinging off all the other societal questions

that we’re dealing with.

For example, if you talk about things like the Rust Belt

and tax incentives to pay people there enough

to do what the Chinese sweatshops are doing,

well, then you’re talking about maybe 20 or 30.

I mean, when does that stop, right?

Then in the next generation,

you’re going to have people saying,

oh, my gosh, now you just had these lazy people

in the Rust Belt who don’t have to work

because they’re getting these…

I mean, I think you’re going to…

I think that’s a yin and yang.

You talked about self-correction.

That’ll be…

I can hear the Milton Friedmanites out there saying,

no, no, no, no, no, that’s not how you run economics.

But to get back to what you were saying

about national security and asymmetrical warfare,

this is going to be a problem

whether or not we’re dealing with China per se

or Russia per se.

And this is the problem I’ve always had

with U.S. foreign policy is we sort of say,

okay, this is the great adversary.

And you had talked about the Francis Fukuyama

end of history moment.

Well, that only happened because we’d had a 50-year

Cold War that seemed over.

And then you think, okay, ding dong, the witch is dead.

Now we can just have a nice, peaceful world.

And we forgot that there were global interactions

between nations that existed

before there was a Soviet Union

that would come back into play.

Well, they’re going to come back into play

whether there’s a China down the road

that we’re worried about or…

I mean, they could become our best friends tomorrow

and there will be some other thing behind them

that necessitates our need to keep building tanks

in the key districts in Georgia,

whether we need them or not.

You see what I’m saying?

Yes, and this is why I think it is critical for America

to learn from its own history.

Because we started this conversation

talking about how we don’t learn from our defeats.

We also don’t learn from our victories.

One of the conversations that I’ve been listening to

within the halls of national security

is the re-engagement with what’s called soft power.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, totally.

And we used to be masters at that.

And I guarantee you have this picture in your library

of an American Marine on Okinawa

giving a canteen to an old Okinawan woman on a stretcher.


We all know that picture.

Because that’s who we used to be.

We used to have two armies at the same time.

The army would go in and beat the enemy with guns and bombs.

The second army would come in with quinine and sea rations.

And I was part of living history in 1994 when I went to Russia.

And I watched them all standing there with their hands out

waiting for another Marshall Plan.

And why shouldn’t there have been?

That’s what America does.

When we conquer an enemy, we rebuild them

and make them see the advantage of our way

instead of leaving them to rot.

And we didn’t do that.

Once again, the 90s.

OK, Russia, you’re free.

We have better things to do.

There’s naked people on our computers.

And that kind of on we and rot gave way to poop.

Well, and then also expanding NATO to the Russian borders

might not have been the best balance of power move either.

And once again, so as you’re leaving the Russians to decay

and fall, and I literally spoke to when I was a college kid

talking to a member of the State Department in Moscow,

telling me that these people, these very proud people,

are watching their country go from being

an industrial powerhouse to an exporter of raw materials.

To which then I spoke to a Dutch businessman who said,

don’t kid yourself.

Their biggest export is women.

Now, how is that going to play on the soul of a nation

if that’s not going to come back to haunt us?

And it did.

And here we are.

So we need to also remember our history.

Like you said, there’s going to be other threats.

Well, we also have to look back and say, well,

what did we do wrong?

But also, what did we do right?

Because America’s done a lot of things really, really right.

And we need to remember that whenever we

engage with other countries.

This has not happened for the first time.

It has happened before.

So you mentioned the soft power.

So this is a problem that I’ve had talking to people.

And they’re generally not the military people.

They’re people that enjoy the ability to use force

and who seem to think that things like diplomacy

is a sign of weakness for countries that

don’t have large militaries.

And I keep trying to point out historical examples

of diplomacy, which is used not as a shield,

although there’s nothing to be scoffed at when it is.

That’s very valuable.

But as a sword.

I mean, you look at how the Chinese and the Byzantines

used diplomacy, for example.

I mean, they would destroy whole nations without using

their military at all.

And that’s what we’ve really forgotten, is that this stuff.

And this is something, by the way,

that our adversaries have not forgotten at all.

They don’t scoff.

I mean, that is what this undermining us,

if it’s happening through our own social media,

is very similar to, right?

This idea that there are ways to defeat your enemy

without putting on the armor, saying

your lineage to your adversary across the giant mode,

and then getting into Victor Davis Hansen style

Western hoplite combat.

I mean, you’re just as dead if somebody

shoots you from behind.

And I feel like some of these things

we’re talking about here, our own people

would think was sort of wimpy.

But listen, if the Byzantines can destroy you

without using their military, why use it?

And that’s soft power used like a weapon.

Oh, yes, well, I think this comes from the fact

that America has changed from my dad’s generation.

When my dad was in World War II, everybody served.

And everyone understood soft power

because everybody who had fought in World War II

was also part of the armies of occupation.

My dad’s last job in the Second World War in occupied Germany

was counterinsurgency.

Because as we both know, the werewolves,

the idea that these Nazi kids, these Hitler youth,

they were going to go into the mountains.

They were going to go into the forest.

There were caches of weapons buried.

And they were going to fight the Allies for the next 100 years.

Well, the reason my dad survived to make me

is because those insurgencies died out

because those kids had jobs.

They didn’t have to fight.

Because the moment they came out of the forest,

somebody said, hey, you, kid, we got some milk

that needs delivering.

You want a job?

And they did that.

And the rebuilding of Germany and Japan

is what made them not just passive,

but some of our best allies.

Now that’s changed because now we have a sheep and sheepdog


And most of the people in the military I talk to

understand that.

They understand what soft power really means.

I met a special forces officer who’d

been to the Ebola task force in West Africa.

And he said, we have an open door now.

Thanks to what we did in West Africa with Ebola,

they will welcome us there for any reason.

If we need to get into West Africa

in any of those countries, we will be welcomed with open arms.

The people you’re talking about, the hawks,

tend to be chicken hawks who’ve never actually served,

who are very macho and don’t know actually what the facts

are overseas on the ground.

And that’s another problem of the sheep and the sheepdogs.

Because when you tend to see these people pushing

for armed conflict, they tend not

to be the people who’ve actually been

in the profession of arms.

I agree with that.

I also want to point out that, you know,

because we’ve referenced it multiple times,

this idea about like in your dad’s era.

And my grandfather was in the AEF Army of Occupation

in the First World War.

But we should recall that those people that

may have been unity, but it wasn’t

unity of a sort that had existed forever.

This was conscription, right?

This was a temporary unity because of the war effort.

I mean, the idea that this was how it was in 1900

or something is a real departure from US history.

And that to me is what the second, you know,

you had talked about how the Gulf War kind of screwed us.

My own view is that the Second World War screwed us

is because it put us on this path that we’re still on now

and that there’s no getting off.

Where, like you mentioned, if we needed

to get into West Africa, well, the American in me

says, why on earth would we need to get into West Africa?

Right, what does West Africa have to do with us?

But in the 21st century American mindset,

any place in the world is potential interest zone.

And that’s why we have to have bases all over the planet.

That’s why we have, what is it?

We have, I think we have a military command

for every continent except one and now space.

I think most countries would say, I mean, if you’re,

let’s pick out, I’m trying to think of it.

If you’re Denmark, that’s not a concern for you.

But it is a concern for us and has been

since the Second World War.

Max, what would happen if we found out

to dovetail this whole conversation

into one sort of bucket?

What if the biggest threat to our national security

as a nation is the path that we have set ourselves on,

which would put us in confrontation

with any other great power on the planet

that seeks to be a great power on the planet

if we don’t like them?

I think that the Second World War set us on the best path

because it made us understand that we are all trapped

on this very tiny little planet.

And what affects one of us affects all of us.

And we understood that because after the Second World War,

we did not establish an American empire.

You talk about military commands.

However, these military commands are all partnerships.

These are not armies of occupation.

These are armies of alliances that we have.

We spent the immediate post-war period

setting up international organizations

like the United Nations and the World Health Organization, NATO,

the European Union, all these different organizations

that are very, very messy and go against the polar opposite

of some of us who are isolationist.

But there was a forward-thinking, enlightened

part of that generation who led America

through the Second World War that

understood the only way to avoid a third world war

is if we all work together.

Because like you said, it doesn’t affect Denmark.

Yes, it does.

What affects a tiny little country across the world

will eventually, if left unchecked, come to Denmark.

Now that, before anybody jumps in there,

starts making comments, that does not

mean the Bush doctrine, which means

that we must intervene militarily

at the first sight of trouble and go it alone

and get all the Americans killed.

That’s not what I mean at all.

What I mean is we must identify how these problems,

no matter how far away they are, will eventually

come to all of our shores.

How do we identify them?

How do we all work together and share

the burden of responsibility?

And we used to be really, really good at that.

And as you and I both know as history buffs,

the very first test of that was the Korean War.

And it was not an American war, as faux historians

would want us to believe.

That was a UN conflict.

Yeah, fought under the UN flag, yeah.

Fought under the UN flag, because that

was a threat to all of us.

Same thing right now.

We talk about vaccine diplomacy.

I think COVID should be a wake-up call,

because it is a threat to all of us.

So even though it did start in China, it did come to Denmark.

I’m thinking about, see, it’s funny, because, and this is,

I’m a natural contrary, and I think,

and a natural devil’s advocate.

So I hope you’ll take this all in the spirit that it’s meant.

So I’m thinking about, like, the very things

that you were talking about in terms

of enhancing global stability, enhancing global peace.

And I see it in just the opposite sense.

So take the alliance system before the First World War,

which was seen as a stability-producing sort

of thing, and then, of course, after the First World War,

it was blamed as one of the main potential stressors that

might have led to not allowing the countries involved

in the war much leeway once things got rolling.

For example, if we ended up, I mean,

we mentioned earlier the NATO pushing

the borders towards Russia.

Now, I have no problem with all the people in Europe

who want to get involved in an alliance

to protect themselves to do that.

But I do think that alliance systems have

a way of prompting counter-alliance systems,

and then history shows spheres of interest and influence

get breached, and you end up with problems.

I mean, that’s what Belgium becomes in the First World War

kind of, and what one might make the case

that the Baltic nations, or who knows,

Donbass in Ukraine, or Georgia when they were talking

about the NATO stuff.

I mean, I feel like these all become,

if you want to look at them in a negative light as opposed

to the positive, we’re creating more global stability,

these are also potential flashpoints,

areas of disagreement, area, I mean,

look at what we would be facing today, Max,

potentially, if we hadn’t sort of backed off,

and this sounds terrible because it

sounds like you’re leaving people in the lurch,

but if we were still basically pledging

to defend Taiwan from China, we right now

would be looking at, I mean, Taiwan

could be Belgium in the First World War.

So I mean, in my mind, these things

are all potentially double-edged swords.

I’m not arguing that we don’t get stability

in some of these cases, but let’s not ignore the fact

that they also become potential flashpoints

that trap decision makers and policy makers.

Well, I would argue, though, that the only way

you’re trapped is if you’re overly rigid either way.

Because even at our-

Wait, but in a negotiation, you’re only one side.

The other side has to tango also, right?

Yes, but at some point, you always

are deciding where you’re going to draw the line.

You know, at our height, the Korean War

could have gone into World War III,

but that was a decision to keep it limited.

Likewise, in 56, when the Hungarians rose up,

Eisenhower made a very specific decision

that defending the Hungarian people,

and I remember I was at the Atlantic Council,

this other think tank that I’m on,

speaking to a Hungarian diplomat.

It was 1956, right?


In 56, and I said, listen, we screwed you.

I’m sorry, we did.

But Eisenhower made a calculated decision

that the temporary freedom of the Hungarian people

was not worth the nuclear annihilation

of the entire world, and he was right.

And as a result, you and I are right here.

So alliances work, but alliances are not biblical text

that must be followed fundamentally.

They are fluid, and we must decide when and where.

The same way Nixon decided to flip China.

If we were ideologues, then the entire communist world

would have always been against us.

Likewise, Tito was our communist,

and Fidel Castro could have been our communist

if we hadn’t been so stupid.

Likewise, Ho Chi Minh could have been our communist,

because he wanted to be.

He wanted to be our ally.

No, he liked George Washington, I know.

Yes, so what I’m saying is alliances work.

So Max, would you offer NATO a membership to Ukraine?

No, no, no.

If alliances work?

Absolutely not.

I would say that we need to understand

where the alliances end.

We have to understand Russian culture.

We have to understand Russian history.

We have to say to Putin, listen, you

want to protect your borders.

We understand that.

Ukraine cannot join NATO.

However, if you continue to fund this war,

then we will have that episode of Star Trek,

where the hill people and the village people

are both getting flintlocks.

Because for Dan, a private little war.

This is exactly what I’m talking about

when it comes to asymmetry.

Does it mean that if Putin rolls in the tanks to Ukraine,

we respond with our own tanks and start World War III?

Absolutely not.

Does it also mean when he rolls in the tanks,

we wash our hands of Ukraine?

Absolutely not.

If Putin does roll in the tanks and hoist the Russian flag

over Kiev, there must be a price.

And he needs to understand that, in the words of Sting,

the Russians love their children too.

And Russian mothers will not tolerate Putin any longer

if those zinc coffins start coming home from Kiev.

I wonder about that.

Because I also think that this gets back to what you and I

were saying earlier about the differences authoritarian

or more authoritarian regimes have in controlling.

I mean, for example, once upon a time during the Vietnam War,

we saw the coffins coming back to the United States flag

draped, and they were on the media, they were on the news.

We don’t do that anymore ourselves.

But the Russians and the Chinese can completely

control that.

I mean, they could lie about the numbers,

and you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

Funny you should say that.

A little piece of history, that’s actually false.

What’s false?

We know now, through unclassified historical

documents, that in the height of the Soviet-Afghan conflict,

when we fought, right?

We thought that Soviets could do whatever they want.

They’re the Soviet Union.

They could throw as many lives into that furnace

as they wanted.

We know now that the war was deeply unpopular, to the point

that the casualty trains, the trains coming back into Moscow,

bringing in those zinc coffins, came in at night

because they didn’t want the Soviet people to see

the casualties stacking up.

Even authoritarian regimes are vulnerable

and are casualty averse, because sometimes it

doesn’t come down to the form of government.

Sometimes it comes down to the culture.

We know Russian culture, they want the spoils of war,

as Churchill said, without having to fight the war.

It’s very different when Nazi armies are slicing

through the motherland.

That’s when they’ll give up anything.

But would Russian mothers now want

to risk their darling sons for a piece of the Ukraine?

I think that’s going to be the key,

is that it’s going to be the goal.

Is the goal seen as worth the cost, right?

And so I think with Afghanistan, you’d already,

what did they sink into that, a decade before it ended?

And one of those things where I think, like we did too,

eventually you look at it and the various lines on the paper

are not intersecting at the right place,

and you just go, OK, oh, it’s like the Vietnam War.

When you decide, what did the Pentagon papers say?

That the government knows that we can’t win,

but you can’t get out either.

And then there’s going to be this moment where, OK, we’re

five years away from getting out.

We have to stabilize things on the ground

before we can get out.

And then you lose half your people

after you already figured out it was over.

OK, but that’s good stuff about the Soviets.

And I actually, I agree with that.

But I also would point out that that was a country that

by 79, 80, 81, and that’s right when they went in,

was already in trouble.

And by the time they got out, what was it, four or five years

that they lasted after the withdrawal from Afghanistan

before we had Boris Yeltsin and a brand

new Russian Federation?

Right, right.

Well, and this is what I mean about asymmetry.

When I’m talking about stopping Putin,

what’s the best way to stop Putin from invading Ukraine?

Is it Javelin missiles?

And is it tanks and planes?

Or is it a negotiated settlement with Western Europe

to stop the gas from pipeline?

So therefore, the United States or North America

becomes the number one natural gas supplier for Western Europe

and not Russia.

Which one gives us more leverage?

But OK, so this is where I’m going to take you to task.

Because this, to me, is the same thing.

Which one gives us more leverage?

Which, I mean, this is all part of the competition.

Instead of going to the Russians and maybe saying,

were we in your shoes, we would not

want Russian assets in Mexico, right?

We just wouldn’t.

We wouldn’t allow it, right?

So we understand what’s involved here.

And of course, we also understand Russia’s history,

how often it’s been invaded.

If you were to say that that country had

the equivalent of a national PTSD complex,

I wouldn’t argue with you, right?

They have every reason to be afraid of invasion,

is what I’m saying.

Oh, God.

Look at their national eagle.

It’s got two faces pointing east and west.

Yeah, and people, I mean, the trauma of that place

is palpable and understandable.

So knowing all these things, my grandfather was a salesman.

And at his funeral, somebody said

he was a great salesman because he could always see things

from the other side of the fence, right?

With the other side.

If you went to Putin and you said, listen,

I understand what you’re saying.

What if we talked about a band of demilitarized states

on your border, right?

You couldn’t, I mean, this is the Romney,

we’re going to play Star Trek, this

is the Romulan neutral zone, right?

In other words, you can’t do it and we can’t do it.

But this is a way to tell you that we

have no bad intentions.

I know what would happen.

It would start to be the commercial inroads,

and that would all be the things that cause trouble.

But I think right there, you would be showing that,

because I feel like, this is a terrible thing to say,

because we’re on, but I feel like the West really

pushed their advantage after the fall of the Soviet Union.

And this would be a way to do what you were saying,

where you would essentially say diplomacy,

and you would say, we understand your problem.

How about this as a solution that works for everybody?

And then you could also put the safeguards in place,

which would say, for the people in Ukraine,

for example, that have every right

to not want to be invaded.

This neutral zone, if violated, and of course,

now I’m setting up Belgium in the First World War again.

But I mean, if this area were invaded,

then we would consider that to be a terrible violation

of a neutral country that the rest of the world

has acknowledged is neutral.

Like I said, I’m just setting up World War III

by setting up World War I again.

But that’s, I mean, maybe something

like that is how you diffuse situations rather than trying

to gain leverage in an ongoing eternal struggle

against Russia and China.

Well, that’s what I mean, is where does the power

of your enemy come from?

You know, like what I said, when dealing with Russia,

which is casualty averse, and we know this.

We know the Russians do not want,

they don’t want to be bathed in blood.

They want the spoils of war without the war.

That’s very different than dealing

with someplace like Hamas, which only has outrage and revenge

as their power base.

The worst thing that you could do for Hamas

would be to declare peace, because then they

would be exposed.

Instead of glorious freedom fighters,

they would be a bunch of screw ups who can’t pave a road.

So they live on violence.

They require violence in order to exist.

That’s not Russia, and that’s not China.

The threat of violence is a card to be played in negotiation

the same way information warfare, economic warfare,

energy warfare.

The Russians are the masters of energy warfare.

And we need to step that up, and we need to understand this.

Our enemies, like I said, going back to the beginning,

they understand how to play every key on this piano called

international relations, and we just

keep banging on that deep one.

Max, have I not asked you, is there

something I haven’t brought up in this conversation,

something you’d like to get into?

We’re at about 1.22 now, and I’m happy to go

wherever you want to go.

And listen, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way.

It is a devil’s hour.

I feel like it’s just a better conversation when you and I go

back and forth, rather than me asking questions

and you answering.

I hope that’s OK.

No, I mean, listen, I know you don’t

want to admit this to the people listening,

but you and I have both been on Bill Maher.

And Bill’s whole thing is you can disagree, and we disagree.

And that’s good.

That’s the great thing.

I would much rather be, if you and I were both Chinese

and we were on the history podcast,

Hardcore History in China, it would

be called the glorious history of the perfection

that is the Chinese people.

The celestial heavenly kingdom, yes.

And then we would just be complimenting Xi Jinping

and all the Chinese, and that would be it.

So no, the debate is good.

Through the debate, we get to the answers.

So I mean, I think one other thing that we haven’t hit on,

because I always wanted to talk to you about this.

You’re a history, you’re Roman history, right?

Some of it, yeah.

Right, you know Roman history.

This is the example.

When we talk about the ability to self-correct

and the Roman Republic, how many consuls

did they go through before they got to Scipio Africanus?

Well, a lot.

Right, right.

Imagine if they had just had one emperor.

Well, I like, I’m seeing the value in the consul,

the two consul system more and more these days.

I have to tell you, I’m starting to wonder if we wouldn’t benefit

from something like that a little bit.

As I look at the downsides of our own system right now,

because Max, I truly believe this isn’t,

I think it’s an existential test for our system,

what we’re going through right now.

And I think the social media is sort

of the tip of the iceberg.

I mean, we sort of referenced either directly or indirectly

the Alvin Toffler future shock type conversation earlier.

I think that’s what we’re in right now.

And I think this is trying to figure out

how we’re going to wrestle.

Like we said, once upon a time, radio-free Europe

was seen as a dangerous, destabilizing thing,

if not from the people behind it,

then the people on the other end of it, right, the Soviet Union.

Well, now you’ve got zillions of radio-free Europe.

And everybody’s got them, and they’re

pointed in every direction.

I mean, we’re like a, I mean, it’s

a great giant experiment with all these nation

states as guinea pigs.

I had a conversation with James Burke from Connections

in the day the universe changed.

And he said that he thought it was very possible

that the very forces that made nation states a good idea

once upon a time, right, where size mattered

and all that sort of stuff, that it’s

going in the opposite direction.

And that maybe the idea that, you know,

the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia type nation state thing

has run its course, and that people

would be able to form virtual type nations

through communities and whatnot in multiple countries

so that you’re not, I mean, obviously, there’s

some long-term development that would be

needed to make that possible.

But I think the idea is interesting when

we start thinking about, where does all this lead?

Either, you know, the Max Brooks self-correction

towards the nation states solidifying and repurposing

again, or maybe a de-evolution to something different

that we can’t even imagine, yet made possible

by all this technology, interconnectivity,

and yes, the stresses and strains

that are heaping up in our country

to the point where we’re ready to kill each other.

Well, you know, I think that that’s very possible.

What the hell do I know about what the future will bring?

Same here, baby.

Same here.

I’ll know when we get there.

But what I will say is what I, and I’m like you,

I’m not a professional historian.

I’m a history major.

I’m guessing you were too.

Yeah, totally.

And what I have taken from American history

is a constant series of addiction and self-correction.

Something is starting, you know, something is working for us.

We love it.

It’s great.

And then eventually, there is a heavy bill to pay.

And sometimes it’s huge, like slavery.

There was a very heavy bill.

We’re still paying for that one.

And sometimes it’s something like oil, you know,

made a lot of people rich, made us very powerful very fast.

And we’re now paying for that one.

But I do always see the ability of America to be better

because I believe, and I see it, our whole national identity

is built on fighting the good fight.

We understood this even in our Constitution, right?

The idea that it doesn’t say a perfect union.

It says a more perfect union.

Even our founders understood that humans are imperfect

and that the American experiment is not about being great.

It’s about fighting to be better than we already are.

And I see that.

No matter what you say about where we are

and all the trials, even in my short little life

of almost half a century, I have seen

so much incredible progress in this country.

The America that I grew up in, the social freedoms

and the tolerances, the people who were not even

allowed to exist when I was a kid

are now free and equal to me.

The fact, and you know more than me,

so I’m going to challenge you.

I’ve always challenged people on this.

Maybe you can prove me wrong.

Find me another civilization where our recent president

could have been a slave of our first president.

Has any civilization made this much social progress this fast

without a gun to its head?

Because Germany and Japan did that,

but they had a gun to its head.

Has any other civilization made this much progress

in this short a time on its own by its own force of will?

The historian that neither of us really are officially

would say that progress is a culturally specific sort

of an attitude.

And what we would consider to be progress,

we would be measuring other countries by a standard

that they wouldn’t think of as progress at all.

Which is exactly why I’m proud to be an American.

Because I’ve traveled all around this world.

And I’ve seen other countries.

And I’ve seen other so-called great powers.

And they look around and they go, we’re done.

This is it.

This is us.

This is who we want to be.

And we’re totally OK with it.

And then I come back to America, and I

see this constant growing pain of always reaching

towards the light.

And sometimes we fall back, and sometimes we go forward.

But that fight for the light makes

me proud to be an American.

I’ve always said, Max, I want an America that lives up

to the marketing materials.

My friend, thank you so much for coming on the program.

These are the kind of conversations I have for fun.

So thank you for providing a really entertaining afternoon

for me.

Thank you, Dan.

And I look forward to your next 11-hour Hardcore History


Oh, God.


Thanks, man.

Listen, hopefully, you and I will be in the same room

before too long again.

You bet, buddy.

My thanks to Max Brooks for coming on the program.

I really enjoyed the conversation.

I wouldn’t mind doing that one again.

That’s a lot of fun.

And I know there’s 9,000 things I’m supposed to tell you.

But with the Hardcore History temporary brain

fog that develops at this stage of the process,

I can’t remember any of them except to say that we said,

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Also, we have some relatively new merch available.

If you’re interested in a hat or a shirt or something like that,

head on over to the website at dancarlin.com

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And thanks for all the support and patience, folks.

We are working on the big show, I promise.

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