The War Nerd: NATO, A Memoir

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Yves here. This is a fine backgrounder on NATO, particularly on the beliefs driving its existence and continuation. Some additional points:

As Scott Ritter noted, a military fights in the way it has been trained to fight. Brecher points out that NATO’s first engagement was in the Middle East, and since then, it was regularly dragged in to support US misadventures. As a result, its forces were increasingly being trained and equipped to fight insurgencies, as opposed to a combined arms operation against a peer power.

Second, the US and NATO went from overestimating the USSR to in recent years underestimating Russia. Admittedly, that might not be hard given that Russia had an economic extremely lost decade in which it was probably lucky if it kept its military in a holding pattern, which would mean falling (further) behind relative to the US with its continued spending. However, Russia was alarmed by the US withdrawal from nuclear arms reduction agreements, and then by its plans to build a defensive shield (which BTW never worked but if it had, it would have been one of those storied game changers).

Third, Russia is a land power. It does not have a huge navy or air force like the US, nor does it have costly military bases all over the globe. Russia arguably has the best missile and missile defense systems, relying on long-distance precision missiles rather than manned aircraft for strikes deep into unfriendly territory, and generally reserving its air force for cover of its ground operations. Russia’s hypersonic missiles, where the West has no comparable weapons systems in production, allow it to hit enemy targets without the possibility of being intercepted, which if deployed at scale, could enable it to take out so-called decision centers before there was time to respond.

And we’re pouring $40 billion into Ukraine (actually only $6 of new weapons for Ukraine; the rest is replenishment of stocks sent to Ukraine, training, payments to the Ukraine servicemen and I believe other Ukraine budget items, and other NGO goodies). If we really are worried about the great Slavic peril, perhaps we need to revisit our priorities.

By Gary Brecher. Originally published as a Radio War Nerd subscriber newsletter on May 7, 2022

NATO’s been around for longer than I have. It survived what should have been its extinction event, the fall of the Soviet Union. In fact, it expanded and became more aggressive once the USSR, its supposed enemy, vanished. NATO’s own site mentions an odd factoid: Its first military operation came, not in the Cold War years, but in 1991.

That’s odd, right? If you’re old enough to remember the Cold War, like me, you took it for granted that defending Europe from the Soviet threat was NATO’s whole purpose, its reason for existing. Western Europe was at the mercy of Soviet tanks, and the NATO forces were the only thing keeping them from rolling in. Thousands of Russian tanks were “poised” — the newspapers always used that word, “poised” — to pour through the Fulda Gap.

Most of us were pretty vague about what the Fulda Gap was and couldn’t have found it on a map — people couldn’t google things in those days, and it was a lot harder to go to the library, grab one of those giant Atlases, and try to find Fulda on it — but we proto-War Nerds were proud of just knowing the term, “Fulda Gap.”

That put us way ahead of the ordinary rubes who uncomplainingly paid their taxes for the expensive weapons NATO stacked up in what was then West Germany, and to show off,  we talked a great deal about that Fulda Gap. It was our favorite gap, over there somewhere in the clogged, incomprehensible, history-littered mess of Central Europe. We were very worried about it. It was vulnerable.

Here’s the actual gap, if you’re interested:

The Fulda Gap, a mythical realm of the NATO Era.

It’s not much, just a route around what passes for mountains over there. But it was vulnerable, that was the key. NATO was always vulnerable, like a silent-film heroine. Those Russian tanks were always on the verge of rolling over NATO like a steam locomotive chugging toward Mary Pickford, tied to the tracks.

But the Russian tanks never came. The rubes still paid for new, more expensive weapons meant to stop them. But they never came. Even when America was distracted, as in the Vietnam War, or during Watergate, they never came.

All through the whole second half of the last century, taxpayers coughed up for endless NATO upgrades and nobody in America questioned or complained about it. I seem to remember the actual Western Europeans complained sometimes, but what did they know? Europe seemed weak, drained of all its fire, gone from berserkers to appeasers in the wake of 1945. Why, those Dutch even let their army have a union!

The US was the bulwark of The Alleged West. And even in Europe, everyone who mattered supported NATO, as far as we knew.

Looking back now, it’s our acceptance of the whole farce that seems odd. You’d think people would catch on after a few decades, but we never did.

It was the old joke, the favorite joke of any protection racketeer: The fact that the tanks never poured through the Fulda Gap just proved how well the protection racket was working.

Any time a nay-sayer dared to suggest that the Russians might not even mean to send their tanks, they got slapped down with the same cliches: “Munich!” “1939!” “Readiness!” and “If you want peace, prepare for war.” That was a big one, that slogan. The less you know, the more sense it makes, and we didn’t know much.

Like I say, this was before the internet — and no matter how annoying the internet can be, you durn kidz just try imagining a world where the censors of the three TV networks and a half-dozen big-city newspapers ruled the entire spectrum of media discussion. Hold your thumb and index finger about a centimeter apart; that was the range of opinion.

And for those editors, it was always 1939. It’s still 1939, for mainstream people. Sure, there have been  gigantic, horrific wars all over the world since then, but those wars were in the Global South, the hot countries, and they mostly killed poor, non-European people, who just don’t count for the pundits.

If you think I’m exaggerating, just compare the orgy of commiseration about war in Ukraine with the pundits’ studied silence about Yemen or Tigray. It’s so blatant, so obvious, and so gross that there’s no use even beating them over the head with it. I’ve tried, and it’s like sermonizing your cat. They can’t change, and don’t even want to. They’re comfortable with 1939; it’s the only navigation aid they know, their one lighthouse in a dark world.

Khomeini said, “Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala.” Well, for a NATO-shilling pundit, and they were legion, every day was the Munich Conference, every dissent was “appeasement,” and the only danger was not pouring trillions into weapons that would never be used.

And this strange tableau never changed, even as other things were morphing wildly. That’s what amazes me, looking back: the sheer granite stability of the NATO scam. You could call it a tableau vivant, but you’d have to leave off the vivant part. That Russian blitzkrieg never came, but it was always going to come.

Being an American in the Cold War was a lot like belonging to one of those Last Days churches, where you sit through a scary sermon every Sunday about how The Lord is coming soon, very soon, all too soon, and YOU PEOPLE AREN’T READY! YOU WILL BE CONSUMED IN FIRE!

Come to think of it, I wonder if 40 years of believing in those Russian tanks swarming through the Fulda Gap had something to do with the rise of the Evangelicals. They must have found it easy to believe “The End is nigh! You will be consumed in fire!” In fact, that pretty much was the prediction: We would be consumed in fire, but secular, Soviet fire, tank fire.

And all it amounted to was money, the boring, adult stuff Cold-War kids like me never even thought about. Money didn’t seem very interesting in those years. The notion of worshipping billionaires was alien — that’s one thing I have to say, grudgingly, for that accursed era: They didn’t worship billionaires.

But the oligarchs of that era didn’t mind not being worshipped, as long as that sweet Defense money kept coming. Those budgets were as irrational in their details as in their basic premise.

That is to say, they were overwhelmingly invested in conventional, armored warfare tailored to the European battlefield. NATO strategists, and their colleagues (“colleagues” is very much the correct term) in the Warsaw Pact planned endlessly for a replay of the Eastern Front in WW 2.

There was one little flaw in this thinking: Nukes. There were no nukes on the Eastern Front in WW 2. If there had been, they would have been used. Like, instantly. By either side. Used until they were all used up, and Europe was a lake of glass.

So if the Eastern Front sequel, replayed with nukes in the inventory, would inevitably go nuclear, then what was the point of all those troops with rifles, all those tanks?

You’d do just as well — and save a few trillion — by stationing a few thousand unarmed soldiers with radios along the border between East and West Germany. If the Russian tanks crossed the border, the soldier with the radio could call it in, and the ICBMs would fly.

But NATO did not want to think much about that. Nukes were oddly unpopular among post-1945 officer corps. They were a form of automation that the officers’ guild did not favor. They would put all the armored divisions out of business, all the infantry divisions, all the surface navies.

Whereas an updated Eastern Front would mean full employment for the whole guild. And the best part was, you didn’t — you never would, in fact — have to make actual war. You would train endlessly for an event that you and your guild colleagues knew in your secret hearts would never happen.

Because they knew it would go nuclear and nobody wanted that. The big armies in NATO did plan for nuclear war, but glumly, in secret, with none of the zest for publicity they displayed when discussing conventional weapons that could be used against that “sea of tanks” the Russians were always about to send.

Nuclear war was like that line in Ghostbusters:

Bystander, staring up at the sky: “It’s a sign!”

Ghostbusters secretary: “It’s a sign all right, ‘Goin’ out of business!’”

The dream of this perfect, imagined NATO/Warsaw Pact conventional war was so precious that people had to invent scenarios which confronted and defused the nuke problem.

Somehow, the future war had to be conventional. But it had to deal with the existence of nuclear weapons. So storytellers came up with plotlines in which nuclear weapons were used, then abandoned. It had to be mano a mano, with good old tanks, planes and small arms.

So in the 1980s we got plotlines in which nukes were used only once or a few times, then abandoned in favor of conventional weapons. Sir John Hackett, a “respected” British general, published The Third World War: The Untold Story in 1982.


Hackett clearly savored every battle in his imagined war, except the nuke part. He didn’t look forward to that at all.

So he came up with a storyline that made all his readers happy: Early in the big NATO/WP war, the Soviets nuke a British city, and the Brits respond by nuking a Soviet city. And that’s the end of the nuclear war. After that, both sides stick to good ol’ tank/air warfare.

The genius of Hackett’s plot is the choice of city. It’s a Tale of Two Cities nobody who mattered would miss. So, in his book, the Soviets nuke…Birmingham. Perfect! Nobody Hackett was likely to meet at the MoD or over drinks at the club would miss Birmingham! In fact, they’d wax droll over it, little jokes about how they’d have paid the Russians to take care of Birmingham for them, etc.

And in retaliation, Hackett’s plot has NATO nuking…Minsk. Not to bad-mouth Minsk, but…it’s Minsk, OK? Nobody in the Kremlin would miss Minsk. So, after exchanging pawns, NATO and the Warsaw Pact get down to business, in Hackett’s book, blasting each other with updated WW2 weapons.

There’s something similar in the original Red Dawn (1984), the movie that defined Reagan-era Cold-War dreams.

In the movie, Powers Boothe plays a shot-down F-15 pilot (“I’m an Eagle jockey,” he introduces himself) who parachutes into occupied Colorado and is rescued by the Wolverines, a teen clique of American insurgents. First, Boothe has to justify getting shot down (because Patrick Swayze and his fighters are pretty hardcore, believe you me), which he does by invoking the common view that the Russians had more of everything, including fighter planes. Boothe growls, “There was four of’em. I GOT three!”

After that the Wolverines accept him as an OK fighter and ask him to explain the big war picture to them. Boothe lays it out, his face smeared with expensive “battle-smoke” camouflage, using a stick as they stare into their campfire in the Rockies.

Boothe’s summary has it all, from illegal immigrants who are actually Soviet infiltrators, to a craven Europe which has decided to “sit this one out…all except England, and they won’t last very long.”

Then he adds another commonplace used to explain why the war didn’t go all-out nuclear: “The Russians need to take us in one piece, and that’s why they won’t use nukes, and we won’t either, not on our own soil…the whole thing’s pretty conventional now.”

Every now and then, some troublemaker would break the taboo and ask the old, annoying question, “But wouldn’t an all-out war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact go nuclear?”

That quibble was mostly ignored by the newspapers of record, the television networks, the talk shows. We dreamed of nuclear war, but in an oddly detached way, imagining our cities vanished under the mushroom cloud. It wasn’t a battlefield, and it didn’t have much to do with how we imagined a replay of WW 2 in Europe. It could happen for any reason, our president having a tantrum, the Soviet boss waking up on the wrong side of the bed, anything. We didn’t connect it with trillions spent on NATO, or the 400,000-odd US troops we kept in Europe, along the West Germany vs. East Germany line.

And there was a funny thing about those H-Bomb dreams: They were a feature of the first phase of the Cold War, the 1950s and early 1960s, much more than the second Cold War, under Reagan. Reagan’s Cold War was tilted toward conventional war, while that first phase was dominated by the possibility of a sudden, unpredictable, all-out nuclear exchange.

There’s a Peanuts strip, from about a year before I was born, showing how sudden and nuclear people imagined war in the first phase:

Peanuts 1954. This was totally first-phase dreaming, not at all like Reagan-era dreaming.

There was a logical problem with US action during this first phase: Everyone thought that the war would be sudden and nuclear, with no role for old-timey soldiers with guns. But at the same time, the US maintained almost half a million soldiers with guns, tanks — the whole outmoded WW 2 arsenal — in Western Europe. So what were they doing, the 400,000 American troops in Europe?

There weren’t enough of them to stop a Soviet blitzkrieg, but there were about 390,000 too many to be pure “tripwire” soldiers. “Tripwire” was a common way to describe them, meaning their job was to get rolled over and call it in.

It’s so strange to remember that now, the “tripwire” talk that pundits used so blandly. That’s something I keep coming back to when I try to remember that dim time, dim in more ways than one: Didn’t they think harder? Didn’t it cross their minds that their strategy was hopelessly confused?

400k soldiers was too many for a tripwire, too few for a deterrent, but we accepted them. I wonder now if that was because we knew it was all theater. I think people did begin to think that, as the years went by with no big war.

Maybe when NATO started in 1949, Americans really expected a big WW3 to flare up in Central Europe, as if the embers of WW2 hadn’t been fully hosed down. But by the 1970s, the idea that the Russians were eternally revving their engines, waiting to hit that Fulda Gap, was a little far-fetched.

Cool people made fun of army guys (Animal House) and saw “the service” as a last resort of the unemployable. It was not cool at all. Brezhnev was running the USSR, and all it took was one look at his photos to see that this guy’s whole ambition was to die in his bed, as comfortably as possible. He didn’t make a plausible war chief.


Brezhnev: “Just let me die in peace, OK?”

Only a few specialists thought hard about what those big NATO armies were doing. Most Americans accepted NATO as a form of insurance. You might not need it, but you should always have it, and that means paying the premiums every year.

The premiums were the gigantic Department of Defense budgets Congress voted every year. After all, the way we saw it, NATO really amounted to the United States with a few lesser, much lesser, sidemen. And we made the rules, as shown by the rule about withdrawing:

“…any Party may cease to be a Party one year after its notice of denunciation has been given to the Government of the United States of America, which will inform the Governments of the other Parties of the deposit of each notice of denunciation.

Like a tough landlord, we insisted on a year’s notice. And even when our European allies followed the rules, the U.S. vilified them.

When de Gaulle tried to downscale France’s integration in NATO in 1966 (because he had this quaint notion that France was a sovereign power), he became an enemy forever. I remember the editorial cartoons, the furious opinion pieces, and the scornful reminders of France’s supposedly cowardly record in WW2 after de Gaulle tried to pull France back.

It was obvious, it went without saying, that if NATO showed weakness in any way, those Russian tanks would roll west til they hit the Atlantic Ocean. And maybe they wouldn’t stop there, either. First they take Paris, then they take Manhattan, as Leonard Cohen didn’t say.

De Gaulle’s pride in the French nuclear force may have been odd, by superpower standards. The French (and British) nuclear forces were nothing compared to the Soviet or American stockpiles. In 1977 Britain had 500 nuclear warheads, France about 230, enough to level most major Soviet cities. That seemed small compared to the five-figure totals of America and the USSR.

Those two nuclear forces were something else, unprecedented. The ability to end the planet! There was something hysterical about it, even exciting. I always wondered why no one spoke in favor of nuclear war, but I didn’t say that out loud. You were supposed to be anti-them; even I knew that. Kept it to myself, how beautiful those mushroom clouds were, how right they felt, how deserved.

A still from Akira (1988), in which you get not one but two nuclear annihilations, both beautiful. It’s always fun when 21st c. academics go “Heeeey, there’s jouissance going on with those mushroom clouds!” As my compatriots in Cold-War Pleasant Hill were wont to say, “No shit, Sherlock Ph.D.!”

This made for some awkward conversations with Mark and Steve Shumway, children of a liberal Minnesota family across the street. They would go to their heretical church and get all anxious about nuclear war. It seemed a bit shameful to me, though I tried to be broadminded.

There were lots of jokes about the crazy overkill of those stockpiled nukes, but the people making the jokes were a few fringe comics and lefties, and even they tended to moan about nuclear war as if it was bad weather, something sad that wasn’t anyone’s particular fault. That dog sitting in the flames smiling? Very Cold-War, only the flames were in the future tense. It was an awful lot like thinking about Hell: it would be bad if it happened, but you couldn’t help giggling about it, all those flames.

In fact, a lot of us, I think, felt the pull of oblivion. When I heard Tom Lehrer’s supposedly anti-nuke song, “We’ll All Go Together When We Go,” I heard it as a dream of justice, not a warning.

Every other war killed some people, often the best of their world, and left others, often the worst, alive and gloating. Wasn’t it better, a war where “we’d all go together”

Maybe that was an eccentric reading, but I don’t think, looking back, that I was all that eccentric. Just “outside the permitted discourse,” as they said in grad school. We were legion, the oblivion fans.

There was no real argument in the media about any of this grotesque tableau. In fact, there was very, very little argument in the American media about anything beyond preference for one or the other presidential candidates. I’m telling you, those gatekeepers ruled the world before the internet came along.

The US media lost interest in NATO a bit in the worst years of the Vietnam War, from about 1968-1973. By the time Nixon resigned, the US central government was adrift and the Army was a demoralized branch of the Civil Service.

You had to wonder — well, I had to wonder anyway, in my few lucid moments, why the USSR didn’t attack during Watergate, or in the chaos afterward, when a comically feeble Gerald Ford was fronting the Presidency for the deposed Nixon. The Russians could have won a conventional war easily at that time. They must have known it. Why, I wondered while picking my various scabs, didn’t they send the tanks across that famous Fulda Gap?

That got me wondering why they hadn’t struck after JFK got killed, in November 1963. You wouldn’t believe how that assassination pole-axed America. Hell, even Lou Reed wrote a maudlin song about it. People were paralyzed. And there were constant rumors that the Soviets had killed JFK, either by themselves or via their Cuban proxies.

Looking back, it’s pretty obvious why not. First of all, the Soviets didn’t want to. They were much more afraid of war than America, which had never been invaded. The Soviet elite of that era wanted a little calm, the chance to have a moderately prosperous life. That’s what they’d always wanted: no incursions, leave us alone. No one had taken that World Revolution noise seriously for decades.

Second, they knew what would happen if they did send the tanks across the West German border. The US would nuke every city and military base in the USSR. Of course the USSR would return the favor, nuking every American city and military base, but that wasn’t much comfort.

In other words, only amateurs took those big conventional armies in Europe seriously. What mattered was the nukes. It was that simple.

Which raises the question, what the Hell were those huge, expensive armies all about? Even if you could suspend your disbelief in a purely conventional war, it was impossible to explain how those NATO armies were supposed to survive a long, grinding Eastern Front war. It didn’t seem likely that they could be reinforced from America if an all-out war started.

Even the Nazis had come very close to cutting off trans-Atlantic shipping with no more than a few diesel submarines, and the Soviets were a lot bigger and smarter than the wretched Nazis. The Soviets had magnificent interceptor aircraft (or so we were told) and were always “building” a great navy. How was the US supposed to reinforce its troops in Central Europe across an ocean full of Soviet subs and within range of Soviet interceptors?

There were Popular Mechanix stories that “we” planned to commandeer commercial airliners and use them to ferry G.I.s across the ocean. But even for a trusting Cold War product like me, those stories seemed absurd. They were going to ferry tanks and APCs across the Atlantic, in wartime, on a bunch of re-branded 747s? Those big giant radar-signature planes, in range of the fearsome Soviet fighter-bombers?

Much as I wanted to believe, I couldn’t help thinking, “I don’t think I’d want to be on one of those planes.”

Yet even NATO’s most obvious weaknesses led to bigger budgets because there was always some gadget under development that would fix them. STOL cargo planes would allow NATO to use highways and small airfields, more fighter aircraft would be able protect convoys of cargo planes and so on.

There was always a gadget on the way that would save us. Gadget wars were something we could win, unlike Vietnam, where no gadget, however loudly touted in Popular Mechanix, seemed to make any difference. Russians played war fair, with tanks and planes and a front, a proper front. Them you could beat with gadgets.

And the most feared Russian gadgets were new, secret, superpowered attack planes that could blast those converted 747s out of the sky, like the MiG-25. You would not believe the volume of terrified, awed, enraptured prose about that plane which flowed from the typewriter keyboards of thousands of NATO shills. Hell, Clint Eastwood made a movie about it. That’s how much we all loved to fear it.

The MiG-25, NATO codename “Foxbat” though it turned out to be more of a stripped-down 1970s muscle car.

Well, a Russian pilot flew his Foxbat to Japan in 1976, and the techies swarmed over that plane. What they found — though they didn’t publicize it much — was that the MiG-25 was a stripped-down, low-rent muscle car of a fighter. Its famous “Mach-3” speed required a long, slow acceleration; it was hand-welded of nickel-steel alloy, not titanium as claimed; its electronic systems used vacuum tubes, and its range was a crazy-low 300 km/190 mi.

It was essentially a short-range interceptor, useful for attacking bombers or short-range recon, but not much else.

The news that the MiG-25 wasn’t as scary as we’d been told didn’t get out nearly as fast as the claims about its super-powers had. There was no profit in downplaying Soviet threats.

As far back as the “Bomber Gap” and “Missile Gap,” Cold War media told the scare stories loud and clear, but consigned the corrections to page 17. So us rubes had an inflated notion of the USSR’s power, right up until it went out of business.

We had our own champions, like the F-15, marketed as an answer to the “growing” Soviet AF threat.

The F-15 Eagle: Always outnumbered in our dreams

It was a good plane (and a very expensive one) but we had so few of them! We always needed more.

There was always that sense that the USSR had more of everything, as in Powers Boothe’s account of his unequal combat against the MiG’s. More tanks, more fighter planes, and more will.

The part about more tanks may have been true, at certain points during the long phony war, but the rest was totally false. The Soviet AF never matched the USAF, and as for the will to fight…well, that myth lasted right up to the moment the USSR fizzled out like a damp campfire. Just plain fizzled out without firing a shot. So much for their iron will, their endlessly growing threat, their terrifying potential.

The collapse of our designated villain was a shock. I mean across the board. A shock to Kremlinologists, a shock to the public, and a giant shock to weapons manufacturers. What’s St George supposed to do when his Dragon ups and dies?

Most of the people reading this will have grown up after that moment, so I should tell you, no one expected it. (Except Andrei Amalrik, and all he got for being right was an early death.)

We had a whole Hogwarts of Kremlinologists, whose job was to read the entrails and practice divination from them. Seriously, there were thousands of these charlatans pulling down tenured salaries in every respectable university in the NATO countries — and not one of them noticed that their subject, their very raisin deter, was about to fold. If they’d been employed by more rigorous institutions — say an actual wizards’ college in some fantasy novel — they’d have paid for their staggering incompetence with a slow and unpleasant death.

They didn’t, of course. They didn’t even get fired. That’s what it was to be part of the NATO industry: You did your part in the charade and got paid for that. Being competent had very little to do with it.

So when the Soviet Union turned off the lights and posted “Closed—Under New Management” in 1990-93, these Kremlinologists did what the Department of Defense and its contractors did: They changed the phrasing of their budget demands and scholarly articles from “Soviet threat” to “Russian threat.”

Thank God the USSR collapsed in the 1990s, because there were word processors by that time, so these people didn’t even have to risk RSI by retyping whole pages. “Soviet” became “Russian,” and they were back in business.

You might be wondering if there was any blushing, any apologies, from the Kremlinologist wizards’ guild. Then again, you might know better. Of course there wasn’t.

Reagan’s administration had so tamed the supposedly unpatriotic and liberal media that they never even called out all the Kremlinologists. I’d see some of them coming out of Barrows Hall, UC Berkeley, home of the Poli Sci Department (and in the running for ugliest building on campus, no small feat at a school which experienced a building boom during the 1960’s). Most were smug wretches like Steven Fish, later famed for trying to smear Stephen Cohen.

And I’d wonder even then, seeing people like Fish striding confidently along in their utter failure, almost with awe, at the mysterious workings of the God of Tenure. I’d think, “God, if all the marine biologists hadn’t noticed that the oceans were about to vanish, they wouldn’t be so smug!”

But the God of Tenure is a Calvinist, and his favors are distributed to many a Holy Willie.

And in a way, being distracted by envy of mere professors was typical of all of us victims of the great Cold War scam. We never even thought about the people who’d been collecting dividends, from Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, McDonell Douglas. That’s where NATO won its victory, in the dividend envelopes that arrived each month — do dividends arrive by month? I don’t really know. Hell, I never even got a tenure check.

All that was left was hazardous industrial waste. Those tanks, “a sea of rusting tanks” as one Soviet general mourned when it was all over; all those planes, whole deserts full of abandoned USAF deluxe models, all just part of the cost of doing business.

And the most bizarre part of NATO’s history, the footnote that was longer than the text itself, was yet to come: NATO’s many, many military operations after its precious Soviet Union had almost ruined things by unilaterally declaring peace.

Gary Brecher is the nom de guerre-nerd of John Dolan. Buy his book The War Nerd Iliad. Hear him read his comic memoir Pleasant Hell in audiobook format.

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  1. ambrit

    I remember the Late Cold War period and actually playing out on a tabletop wargame the Soviet attack through the Fulda gap. It almost always ended up with a nuclear exchange. When you are having your a– kicked, you don’t stop to worry about the continued existance of Terran human civilization; your career is on the line!
    That is what I remember about all the people I knew who were in ROTC and planning for a career in the Military; they viewed it as a career, not a calling.
    We are just lucky to still be here.

      1. John Emerson

        “Is 1964 early or is it late? ”

        Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech was in 1946, and many players were already fullt committed to the Cold War. NATO came later, but in 1964 the Cold War (which was organized around the nuclear threat) was 18 years old. So I’d call it late.

        1965 was the turning point for me, when I first started meeting people who unequivocally opposed American foreign and military policy, but that’s because I went to a school with a longstanding left tradition and a lot of red diaper babies. The cultural world came first, the newspapers and networks came later, and I’m not sure that the inner circles of policymaking ever did more than make local and situational adjustments. For example, the lesson they drew from the Vietnam War was mostly just “Don’t send draftees into a policy war, and we’ll have to take a few years off while we modernize”. Between 1975 (end of Vietnam) and 1990 (Gulf War) was like a speed bump, and people were toying with th idea of limited nuclear war.

    1. eg

      Was it by any chance Avalon Hill’s “Blitzkrieg”? I played that in a neighbour’s basement in the mid-70s.

          1. ambrit

            I was part of a ‘circle of friends’ who had most of the SPI output. We divided up the purchase and rotated the games in play. Avalon Hill was considered a “popularized” version of SPI by us.
            I remember setting up the board for “Destruction of Army Group Centre,” otherwise known a Operation Bagration, Soviet Offensive in 1944. Hundreds of tokens, each representing a unit, each with it’s own rules and ‘properties.’ I can see where the Late Cold War apparatchiks would think of the “coming war” as a replay of the East Front. It falls squarely into the theory that military planners are always preparing to fight the ‘last war,’ as in previous one.
            One of our group liked all things naval and we would also play big naval battles spread out on his parents double car garage floor, with scale models of actual ships from history. I remember being a Persian naval “officer” for the Greek Persian wars of antiquity. “Ramming speed” was a thing.
            Our mutual friend later went to Annapolis and, I believe, was commissioned. So, the tabletop games could be characterized as “gateway drugs” for admittance to the insular worlds of militaria.
            I also remember the introduction of “Empire of the Petal Throne.” We all marvelled at that one.
            “Wow! He even made up a functional language to go with his made up civilization!’
            Thus was Fantasy Role Playing established formally. I had an original copy, which is now lost in the mists of time.
            Stay safe and game out the possibilities!

            1. David

              Ah yes. I played DAGC several times. I also played War in the East with at least three other people, over several tables and with I don’t know how many counters. I do remember it must have taken a good hour just to set up, and each move took so long that you almost had the sensation of playing in real time. But towards the end of the 70s, these games started to go baroque: so complex and sophisticated that the rules were the length of a small book, and quite often you’d find that you’d overlooked one small rule that changed everything. It’s not surprising that the first home computers featured war-games quite widely.

              1. ambrit

                Whoever originally wrote the treatment that became the film “WarGames,” from 1983, must have been ‘plugged-in’ to that sub-culture.
                The “what if” style games were also interesting. I remember playing a game called “Dixie,” based upon the United States invading the independent Confederate States in the 1920s to try and take over the oil fields.
                I cannot quite rid myself of the feeling that the Neo-cons behind the present ‘adventure’ in the Ukraine have bought in fully to the idea of “alternate realities” being a ‘real’ worldview.
                Dulce Base anyone? See:
                The older I get, the more cynical I need to be to navigate myself around this world of ours. It’s beginning to look a lot like “Yes Minister” meets “Berlin Alexanderplatz.”

            2. veto

              As for fantasy role playing, I was into post-apocalyse rpg in the mid-eighties, and I thought Twilight 2000 seemed very cool. But we never got around to play it. I also remember the concept seemed very unrealistic to me. After a few minutes of WWIII, wouldn’t Europe be a “sea of glass”?

      1. Roland

        As a Canadian boy in the early ’80’s, I played a lot of the AH wargames, but I always preferred the ones with historical themes (e.g. PanzerBlitz, Russian Campaign, D-Day). The contemporary stuff always seemed to me to be neither-here-nor-there.

        Just the “Designer’s Notes” booklet for PanzerBlitz was, for me as a twelve year old, an opening of a whole new world of analysis. I think I spent as much time pondering the AFV descriptions, Unit Composition Tables, and Higher Echelon Charts as I spent playing the game. I can still almost quote from that booklet, although I later came to disagree with a lot of what Dunnigan wrote. But education isn’t about agreement, it’s about thinking, and those games gave me much to think about. I’ll always remember fondly the summer evening that my Dad sat down with and helped me figure out the rules.

        The SPI games were more sophisticated than AH, but I never could find them in my region. I seldom had pocket money, anyway. Any wargame was a treat.

        1. ambrit

          I got many of my SPI games through a subscription to “Strategy and Tactics” magazine. I saved my lawn cutting money and odd job profits to pay for that subscription.
          Friday Night gaming was a social occasion for many of us. (Forget the High School football games. Simple stuff!)

    2. OIFVet

      No wonder the US is war-mad. Growing up in the 80’s Eastern Block, none of our board games had a military theme. We played outdoor games like ‘cowboys and Indians’ and “cops and crooks,’ but nothing as ideologically loaded as y’all. And I thought I grew up heavily propagandised…

    3. Michaelmas

      ambrit: We are just lucky to still be here.

      The United States and the Soviet Union each built seventy thousand-odd fission and fusion bombs. Producing all that thermonuclear ordnance was in fact one of the largest industrial enterprises in human history.

      So, as regards ‘Terran human civilization,’ Gandhi’s words regarding ‘Western civilization’ apply: “I think it would be a good idea.”

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        And isolated little fringe branch offices of Western Civilization like Finland might well have made Gandhi happy to see them.

  2. Ralph Reed

    “Like I say, this was before the internet — and no matter how annoying the internet can be, you durn kidz just try imagining a world where the censors of the three TV networks and a half-dozen big-city newspapers ruled the entire spectrum of media discussion. Hold your thumb and index finger about a centimeter apart; that was the range of opinion.”

    So, along with turning “search” algorithms into a mechanism of mass censorship and book-burning Naked Capitalism promotes some revisionist geezer who eliminates the vibrant anti-nuke popular culture of the US, from Doctor Strangelove to Threads and The Day After, and the plethora of underground and alternative news in every book store and most comprehensive newstands, like IF Stone’s Weekly to Ramparts and The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The informational richness of the 60s through the 80s help end the War in Central America and the Cold War. Red Dawn was nearly universally mocked while The Day After was a cultural event.

    I don’t know why the editors find “The War Nerd” anything but puerile.

    1. ambrit

      Alas, all of the “cultural influences” you mention had exactly what long term effect on western Cultural Exceptionalism?
      Vietnam finally fell out of favour because the MSM of the day lost faith in the omnicience of The Military Establishment. Do note that in subsequent wars, American journalists were “embedded” in the troop columns, thus effectively making them propagandists for the Establishment view. Who told Walter Cronkite that it was allright to switch off the jingoism? I F Stone?
      The War Nerd might be borderline peurile at times, but so are most of the “influencers” you cite. Burning draft cards? Symbolism. Spending your “tour of duty” in Leavenworth Prison because you refused to cooperate, (as a friend of ours did,) is the real deal.
      The ‘Ban the Bomb’ movement goes back to the days of Bertrand Russell, the 1950s. We still have thousands of nuclear devices scattered across the world. Vibrancy is peurile without concrete accomplishments to show for it.

    2. Alyosha

      Wait, what? The Cold War was ended by US activists? I always thought it was Gorbachev, and I guess I missed the news about there being peace in Central America nowadays. Glad to hear us Americans brought peace to the world. What a terrible world it would be if those activists had failed. We’d probably have a trillion dollar defense budget, multiple 20 year wars half a world away and Russia would still be an enemy. Can you imagine?!

    3. Donald

      I am old enough to remember the days before the internet and you had to look for those alternate sources in very good libraries or very good bookstores. I had to convince a friend about what we helped do to East Timor by loaning him a couple of books I had bought in a radical bookstore. I couldn’t send him a link. Another friend just thought I was a crackpot on the subject.

      As for talking about what Israel had done to the Palestinians, forget about it. You simply couldn’t discuss serious issues with normal people in those days—as Chomsky said, they would think you came from Neptune.

      And speaking of Chomsky, in the pre- internet days his books functioned as the internet for some of us. The man read everything and people sent him information from around the world.

      But it wouldn’t do any good to cite him with normal people. They either didn’t know who he was or thought of him as a crackpot extremist.

    4. John Emerson

      Dolan accurately describes public opinion where I was up until 1964 (small town Minnesota) and I’m pretty sure, most of mainstream America. I remember Huntley-Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, and a few others speaking effectively for the consensus. They weren’t raving wingers but 20 years into the Cold War they didn’t seriously question it. There were a few bubbles of resistance in NYC, SF, and on some campuses, and in 1964 I went to one of those campuses. But even in 1967 opposition to the war was still scattered and rather sparse.

      1. Janie

        The local newspaper of record, the Daily Oklahoman, was owned for decades by the Gaylord family (they do hotels now) and was regularly ranked last in the country. They were all in for the war, as was Time magazine. So what did you know if you lived where the war had full-throated support?

    5. John Emerson

      1979-1983 I was actively working against our intervention in Central America, and we had the darnedest time trying to get the NYT to publish factual stories that everyone in Europe knew about (e.g. the El Mozote massacre), and most legit news sources cooperated with the warmakers by saying that government killings were by “unknown assailants”. I can’t say that we were successful; it may be that the ending would have been even worse without us, but the civil war and our support of the right wing lasted for many years. The war just finally fizzled out, with an outcome the US could accept.

      1. JBird4049

        Considering how long the fizzling lasted, I think it was the collapse of the Soviet Union that finally ended the war. Considering how poor the country is and remains, the United States could have more cheaply kept the country under the American influence just by pushing for honest and effective government instead of the murderous and corrupt oligarchy that it did support; that would have meant less profit for whatever random American corporation that had its blood funnel in the country, which would mean supporting “communism.” Can’t have that, can we?

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          What if the reason for the DC FedRegime’s support for the Death Squad Regime in El Salvador ( for example) was because the Nazi Paperclipper Deep State Core hidden inside the visible DC FedRegime Containment Dome actively preferred the Death Squads for esthetic and philosophical compatibility reasons having nothing to do with corporate profit?

          1. JBird4049

            Some from column A and some from column B might be right. Reading some of the comments from America’s (and Banana Republics like El Salvador) Elites over the past century plus is a fascinating if nauseating read. Fascistic is just a partial description. Classist, racist, homicidal, and general awful needs to be used as well.

      2. Tom Stone

        I was lucky enough to be raised in the east Bay from the late 50’s through the 70’s where I had a number of excellent used bookstores to patronize.
        Paperbacks were 10 for a dollar at Holmes Book Company on 14th St in Oakland and I’d ride my bike there Saturday Mornings as a kid with my friend John and we’d buy 10 or 20 books each and later swap them.
        When reached my early teens I added Shakespeare& Co,Moe’s and Schillings on Telegraph Ave.
        I picked up a copy of McCoy’s “Politics of heroin in SE Asia in 1973 at Shakespeare& Co that helped open my eyes to the way things actually work.
        And of course there was the “Berkeley Barb”…
        Dad subscribed to IF Stone’s weekly and “The Realist” as well as the New Yorker, I had more information available to me than most in my time simply due to where I lived.

  3. Eclair

    Love The War Nerd! I remember reading one of his dictums a couple of years ago: never declare war on the nation that makes the spare parts for your tanks. Corollary to that could be: never declare war on the nation that pumps the fossil fuels that make your tanks run. But, what do I know.

  4. Alice X

    The 1983 TV movie The Day After dealt with the lead up and afterwards of a nuclear exchange, though it was suggested that things would actually be far worse. I wonder if Brian Williams would find our weapons so beautiful in such an event.

    1. Eugene W.

      The Day After was aired in 1983 in those quaint old days when people were still scared of nuclear war. Not like today when you have hypersonic ICBMs with 16 MIRV hypersonic glide vehicle warheads and zero concern for nuclear war and the WSJ runs commentary on how a thermonuclear is actually winnable.

  5. Alyosha

    When I’m an old man I shall grow Brezhnev eyebrows.

    I find it fascinating that in US thought Russia has an insatiable list for territorial gain. There’s really no basis for it but it’s an axiomatic truth. This is even though a casual review of Russian orders of battle and force posture clearly indicates a military designed to protect their nation. I also find the Russian lessons learned from Iraq (2003) fascinating and that they implemented them. The “Iraq War files” (scrubbed from the internet for a long time be republished by an Australian blogger who saved them back then) have a large section on US reliance on overwhelming air power and maintaining air superiority. At the time there was a discussion about merging Russian air defense with the Air Force itself and the authors argue strenuously that the merger is a terrible mistake because air defenses will be deprioritized in favor of planes.

    But that’s not what happened at all. Instead, Russia built a huge, layered air defense system that’s now multiple generations beyond the US. (Which doesn’t really need much of the goal is defense of the US mainland.) and Russia realized it would never match US air power in number of craft. Instead, it focused on missile technology and now has at least one style for every occasion. Missiles don’t need well-trained pilots and they’re a lot easier/cheaper to make than planes.

    But maybe it’s more fascinating that the US hasn’t acted on any lessons learned from its wars (except don’t let the truth of them into the media) and has rolled forward into the present with a bureaucratic inertia that would make Brezhnev blush. We keep building aircraft carriers even though we can’t defend them against the missiles of Russia and China which are produced at orders of magnitude lower cost. The Navy is still fighting WWII while the army decided that tanks are obsolete because all the battles of the future will be light infantry campaigns against insurgents, and the Air Force assumes it will always have unfettered air superiority. The Army accepts the air force’s assumptions and plans accordingly.

    We sure are lucky that Russia doesn’t have an insatiable desire for territorial acquisition, because it looks like Russia could roll NATO up pretty quickly. (Note, war with NATO would be different than Ukraine, where they left the lights on in Kiev and the trains ran on time until Ukraine used them as part of the NATO demilitarization of equipment operation.)

    1. digi_owl

      It was likely a return to the red scare mentality that was dominant before WW2.

      This even though after Stalin’s death, the Soviet leadership turned inwards.

      But because said leadership was deeply paranoid of a sneak attack by NATO (just see their Able Archer 83 reaction, that spooked Reagan), they could never allow themselves to ease back on military spending in favor of the public.

  6. David

    Well, it’s a memoir, I suppose, but the real title should have been “what it felt like growing up during the Cold War if you were sort of interested in these things.” It’s odd for a self-proclaimed nerd that he didn’t do any research, apart from watching a few Hollywood films.

    Let’s go back to the beginning. Europe in the late 1940s was bankrupt, starving and deathly afraid of another war. The Soviet Union was feared, not militarily but as a political force: Communist governments had come to power in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and there had just been a nasty civil war in Greece. There were large and active Communist Parties in France and Italy. In France, the FTP, the largest resistance organisation, linked to the PCF, had openly toyed with the idea of taking power by force after the Liberation, but had been dissuaded by the Resistance hero Jean Moulin, working on behalf of De Gaulle. But France came closer to civil war during that time than is often realised.

    As the US started to turn its back on Europe, European leaders, led by the British Foreign Secretary Bevin, began to think that continued US involvement might help to stabilise the situation, as well as providing an answer of sorts to what to do abut Germany. Thus, the Washington Treaty, proposed by Bevin, which would link the US to European security. But this was not a military alliance, and indeed the Red Army was not considered a threat as such. That changed because of something completely different: the Korean War, and the entry of the Chinese into the war. This is still a very controversial issue, but the important thing is that, at the time, the Chinese were not seen as independent actors, but as surrogates for Stalin. Thus, the West rapidly revised its ideas, and assumed that the next Soviet intervention would be in Europe, and probably very soon. This produced panic, and a demand for rearmament, and led to the setting up of NATO; not as a deterrent, since war was considered certain, but as a command structure for the inevitable conflict. However, it was simply impossible to generate the forces needed without the re-militarisation of Germany, and that of course freaked the Soviet Union out, and led to the Warsaw Pact. (The Europeans always provided the bulk of NATO forces, contrary to legend).

    And things remained frozen like that. Each side regarded the other as an existential threat. Soviet doctrine was offensive at the operational level: Marxist-Leninist military science predicted an attack by the capitalist West, it was only a question of when, so when such an attack seemed likely, the Soviets would launch a preemptive strike to avoid fighting another war on their territory. But since the list of warning indicators that Moscow could take as a sign of imminent attack was almost endless, practically any development in the West could be seen as a threat. (Gordievsky recalls being asked to count the number of illuminated windows in the Defence Ministry building in London and plot them over time.) So yes, it was a very uncomfortable time, and there was a real sense, including within governments, of being caught in a machine that could get out of control. There was no obvious way of getting out of it either: concessions by one side would simply be interpreted by the other as devious preparations for war. When all you have is a fear of being wounded, everything looks like a knife.

    But there were actually positive political benefits to NATO. The main one was to do with Germany. NATO allowed Germany to rearm without having its own national command system, which comforted a lot of other European nations, and acted even as a slight reassurance to the Soviet Union. A US presence in Europe was seen as a useful counterweight to Franco-German political and economic domination, and enabled the British to have more influence than they otherwise would have done. It gave the US an important voice in European security issues, though US governments have blown hot and cold over NATO for generations. Even during the Cold War, these and other incidental benefits were very important in day-to-day politics, and they still largely explain why NATO continues to exist.

    On the nuclear side … well, Soviet doctrine explicitly assumed that any war with NATO would go nuclear quite quickly. Their forces were trained and equipped to fight in a nuclear environment, and this explains the allegedly “primitive” nature of the MiG-25 that Becher talks about. In fact, it incorporated simple nuclear and EMP-resistant technology for its assigned mission, which was high-altitude interception of US strategic nuclear bombers after nuclear missiles had already been “exchanged.” From published Soviet doctrine, and from documents declassified since, we know that Moscow assumed a cataclysmic nuclear war, followed by anything from ten years to a generation of reconstitution of some kind of civilisation. Whichever side reconstituted quicker would win, and the Soviets wanted it to be them.

    Which is kind of hard to respond to. The massive Soviet conventional superiority (which was not a myth, it was the result of a wartime level of mobilisation, itself the product of a paranoid fear of a repeat of 1941) could not be matched without destroying the economies of the West, as the Soviet economy was itself finally destroyed. Soviet forces in Germany were on two hours alert all the time, so afraid were they of an attack. There was no way the West could match that. So early, hopefully “deterrent” use of nuclear weapons appeared in NATO doctrine from the start. (That wasn’t a secret, by the way: the Nuclear Planning Group was established in 1966, and still exists as far as I know.)

    A lot of us thought then, and think now, that we were quite lucky to survive the Cold War. There were certainly days when I wondered if I would wake up a radioactive crisp the next morning. But effectively nations became enmeshed in a situation which they hadn’t wanted, and couldn’t control, based on mutual fear and suspicion, and competitive misreading of history. There’s room for a few serious studies of that.

    1. Maxwell Johnston

      I enjoyed reading your comment, but: NATO was created in 1949, whilst the Korean War started in 1950 (and China joined the conflict in October 1950). I don’t see that the Korean War had anything to do with NATO being set up.

      1. David

        I should have explained more clearly. What historians call the “militarisation” of NATO only really started after the Korean War. The Washington Treaty itself (1949), doesn’t set up any military structures, and at the time of its signature it was seen as a general security guarantee of the traditional type. It set up a Council, and a Defence Committee but that was it. There was already an embryonic collective military capability in Europe under the 1948 Brussels Treaty (although initially directed at Germany), with Montgomery as Chief of Staff. Effectively, these two structures were bolted together and bits added on in a panic, and it wasn’t until the Lisbon Council meeting of February 1952 that anything like a coherent structure emerged. The point is that NATO, in the institutional sense, was a panicky, ad hoc creation that was never expected to last very long, because war was seen as highly likely, if not inevitable, within a few years. But like many political structures born in panic, it lived a long time under conditions that nobody had anticipated.

    2. upstater

      Allowing the rearming Germany was a US effort. German reunification and neutrality was proposed by Kruschev in 1955, around the same time as Austrian occupation ended and became a neutral country. Eisenhower rejected the Soviet proposal. We’d be living in a different world had that been accomplished. Like today, the militarists in late 40s and early 50s in the US dominated policy. DOD spending was 10-12% of GDP. The last thing they’d want was neutraility and demilitarization in Europe (as today!). While Eisenhower is credited with warning about the dominance of the Military-industrial complex in his farewell address, he was ultimately responsible for institutionalizing the monster that haunts us today.

      1. David

        It was essentially a Pentagon idea, and wholly technocratic. David Bruce, the US Ambassador in Paris, told his British colleagues that the Generals had completely forgotten that WW2 had ever happened.

      2. hemeantwell

        I’m completely in accord with disappointment in Brecher’s eliding the causes of the Cold War. You can’t thoroughly criticize arms spending unless you talk about the assumptions underlying it. So much of what passes for “antiwar” criticism in the last 75 years implicitly accepts the division of Europe as having been determined by Soviet wall building, as though Churchill was merely identifying a phenomenon he played no role in bringing about, and most definitely not only because he drew some lines on a map at Yalta.

        I’ll again pimp Carolyn Eisenberg’s Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-49. One of its best features is that she shows how careful we have to be about assuming unity of purpose within the US admin, and among the western allies, during this period. So much was in play then. German rearmament was of the greatest importance to the Soviets, but also the French. But the Sovs were in favor of maintaining a unified Germany because 1. that would have allowed them to pull in reparations from the entire country, not just the east and 2. it would have made it easier for Soviet-friendly political forces to organize throughout Germany. The French, on the other hand, were resistant to unification.

        The US was at first in favor of maintaining unity, but over time decided against because they wanted to set up a barrier to Soviet influence and cut them off from reparation access in Germany as a whole. The latter motive got twinned with a worry about Europe falling into political “chaos” that the various national lefts would be able to use to bid for power. As the US sorted out its preferences, and they were quite varied in 45-46, the US came to use food aid as a cudgel to whip the French and English into line. The underside of the eventual Marshall plan is really quite ghastly, e.g. the newly-installed Labor government in Britain thought that the German industrial cartels should be busted up — the Sovs were very much in accord — but the US threatened to withhold food aid from Britain if the British made too much of cartel busting.

    3. Laura in So Cal

      The pilot, Lt Belenko, who defected with the MiG 25 has his own memoir. MiG Pilot by John Barron. My husband vividly remembered reading the book in high school, and I tracked down a copy for his birthday a few years ago. It is out of print, but there are used copies around.

    4. Ludus57

      Thanks for reminding us about the MiG 25 Foxbat. The sight of those vacuum valves caused much mirth until someone in the Pentagon pointed out the significance of a control system impervious to the magnetic pulse given out by a nuclear explosion. It presented the horrifying vision of Soviet fighters still flying as more sophisticated NATO kit was falling out of the sky.

  7. John Emerson

    Love this guy.

    Around 1980 I had a friend who had been in the tank corps in W Germany during the 1970s. (A lot sweeter than Vietnam). He was a smart guy and his officers liked him, and he ended being a flunky around HQ. One day he was sent somewhere as a courier with an update of his unit’s battle plan, and he took a peek at it and found that his unit’s mission was to hold the Soviet attack back for 5 minutes before being totally destroyed. That evening he got a map and figured what out the best route from where he was to a neutral country was.

    I also remember a newspaper column just after the fall of the USSR by a columnist reputed to have CIA connections (Georgie Ann Geyer I think). She reported on a brainstorming conference with representatives from a number of military and intelligence organizations on the topic “What is our new enemy, now that our 50 year enemy has ceased to exist?” The nominees were Islamic terrorism, narcoterrorism, and (believe it or not) ecoterrorism. Osama Bin Laden dutifully answered that question for them in 2001, of course

    The idea of directing a military-intelligence complex of several hundred billion a year at the few doozen self-financed “Earth First!” supposed terrorists boggled me.

    1. GC54

      In the late-90s a Norwegian academic I knew was connected to NATO higher ups. He mentioned to me then that that organization was flailing around for a mission. In addition to the topics you mention he also noted their interest in “planetary asteroid defence” no doubt from the two movies about to come out then. Nothing came of that of course thanks to OBL and 9/11 theatre. Regardless of what to think about the reason the twin WTC towers collapsed, I’ve been convinced since I saw it in real time that WTC building 7 was a controlled demolition. Which begs the question, why was it wired up in the first place (it collapsed in place only a few hrs after the main towers), and why is it rarely mentioned?

    2. OIFVet

      Before 9/11 I was part of several field exercises aimed at combating eco terrorists. MLRS were involved. Looking back, that boggles the mind but we didn’t even question it at the time, at least I didn’t.

  8. Dave in Austin

    Ah! The Fulda gap. The location of great battles is always contingent on time and chance, so I’ve made a habit of checking out the great “Might have beens”, the places where decisive battles almost took place or where minor, barely remembered engagements decided campaigns.

    Ever heard of Union Mills, MD? That’s the defensive line Meade was streaming the Army of the Potomac into when the overenthusiastic commander of one wing of the army, a Pennsylvanian named Reynolds, decided to exceed his orders and commit his infantry to support a cavalry screen in a place called Gettysburg, 20 miles north of Meade’s chosen position. The rest is history. Union Mills and the creek in front of it are barely remembered- and a fabulous, well-chosen defensive position covering both Washington and Baltimore. The only tourists I’ve ever meet there were professional Army officers out on a staff ride looking at the campaign. They know.

    I’ve seen Fulda. And as usual, the war nerds get it wrong. Most of northern Germany is flat as a pancake and that’s where the Russian blitz would have gone, a region defended by Germans and a few Dutch and British. The Fulda gap was in the low mountains on the south flank of the north German plain, the gap through which the Russians would have come to get at… the Americans. The best bet a small force has to defend against a numerically overwhelming enemy is to plug-up a pass, a gap. Thermopylae. “Go tell it to the Spartans.”

    So the American 11th Armored Cav Regiment was stationed in the gap to hold up the Ruskie hordes long enough for the US armored divisions to move north and hopefully stop the flood of Russian tanks. And what was the goal? Well, there were about 150-250,000 US dependents in southern Germany and we had to get them out via Frankfurt to the English Channel or via Strasbourg to France. If plugging the gap failed… the civilians were kaput.

    The real war of big numbers would be fought between the Germans, Russians and the US Air Force on the northern plains. The American army was in Germany to show everyone “The Americans are serious”. Geography is destiny; the Fulda Gap was where the American army would have met destiny. I’m happy to report it didn’t.

    1. David

      Er, “a few” British? Not quite. The 1st (British) Corps had a peacetime strength of 55,000, all professionals, and a war establishment of nearly twice that. And then of course there was the Air Force. But yes, that’s where the main Soviet thrust was assessed to be coming from, and the British spent the whole Cold War staring at the Soviet Third Shock Army staring back. The Europeans wanted the Americans quite far forward as something close to political hostages, because nobody was really sure if in a crunch the US would actually fight. QAs one Army officer put it to me “we have to make sure that the first man to die in the next war is a Yank.”

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        NATO was, is, and remains a Euro-British conspiracy against America. And our soldiers there were always Euro-Britain’s hostages.

      2. synoia

        I believe it was called BAOR, British Army (of or on, I forget which) The Rhine.

        I visited aa Army friend of mine there in 1976.

  9. The Rev Kev

    In his book “The Day of The Triffids” by John Wyndham, there is a section that I often recall and it is this-

    ‘The human spirit continued much as before – 95 per cent of it wanting to live in peace, and the other 5 per cent considering its chances if it should risk starting anything. It was chiefly because no one’s chances looked too good that the lull continued.’

    But then came the 80s and you had Reagan’s laptop bombardiers – none of whom had served in the military – expressed the sentiment that the world could survive a limited nuclear war. Yes, they actually said this and I think that they meant it. So what shut them down? As I have mentioned before, I believe that it was the dinosaurs. No, seriously. Back in 1980 a team of scientists led by Luis Alvarez discovered what we call the K2 boundary and which told us that is was an asteroid strike which wiped out the dinosaurs by the mass destruction and the following nuclear winter.

    Only four years later the book “The Cold and The Dark” came out which used the “Alvarez hypothesis” to describe what the world would look like after a nuclear winter. It makes grim reading. And in films like “The Day After” and I think that people woke up to the fact that with nuclear war, that you do not want to go there and even the 5% realized that their comfortable lives would also go away.

    So the relevance with NATO is that it has always been the military wing of the western world and Smedley Butler would recognize them immediately. After the USSR went away, they were unleashed to enforce what the west wanted in places like the Balkans, Libya and Afghanistan. But Russia is back again and NATO has just discovered that they cannot beat Russia and I think that this is really messing with their minds. Nukes are not an option and the gear that they have is just not up to par. So I think that this part is a story that is just starting.

    1. digi_owl

      The west is ruled by lawyers, and thus they, much like Westminster at the height of the British Empire, though they could subjugate the world using legislation.

      But now China has control over most of the world’s industrial capacity, and Beijing has basically told said lawyers to pack it in.

      And Moscow is now amply demonstrating that they are not some banana republic that can be sanctioned into compliance.

      In the end the rule of law only applies as long as the law carries the bigger stick…

      1. Synoia

        Do the Kitchener, Roberts and Allenby mean anything to you, in the context of the British Empire?

        PS They were not Lawyers.

      2. jsn

        Read Hannas’ “Pyrates Nests”: for 200 years it was an empire of piracy justified on racial and religious grounds.

        Only in the 18th C did they start trying to justify their behaviors with laws that were primarily to codify the advantages already in place for the Oligarchy under the seal of the Crown.

        The essential pirate ethos never went away in the attitude towards the Colonies, particularly in the private sector whose behavior Neoliberalism was invented to rationalize as “law based”. With the infrastructure of violence now imaged in the West to be a product of nature, thus immaterial in how much of it got shipped to China, the Oligarchy has come to believe their privileges are self policing. And are in the process of being disabused..

    2. c

      Yes, and that’s kind of scary. Little preppies and octegenarion millionares like those who infest the State Department, Congress, and the so-called ‘security’ state cannot get their minds around It. All they seem to know how to do is double down. As NATO is getting its ass handed to It the danger increases.

  10. Glen

    The down side to NATO at any point was that everybody with half a brain understood that an actual attack by the USSR would end with Europe being nuked, and a very very good chance the world was nuked. The upside to NATO back then was it sucked up all of the DoD’s attention, kept the MIC all fat and happy without all the later attacking of Middle East nation states after the USSR fell. Clinton’s NATO adventures were bad enough, but W’s later efforts were a complete debacle. It was only much later about when Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States can out that we all understood that the USSR’s desire to attack was probably never very high – they were responding to our threats. But that does not discount the fact that two highly nuke armed nations were on a hair trigger for years, and almost pulled that trigger more than a few times. We were lucky to escape intact, and we were lucky that our leaders during that time were all mostly veterans of WW2, and knew what war was. Our current crop of leaders, by comparison, are complete fools.

    1. JTMcPhee

      Maybe I recall incorrectly, but as to “nuking Europe,” US military doctrine, armed with “tactical” and “battlefield” and even “man-portable backpack nukes,” posited that the US would use nukes to blast the Slavic Hordes when they had advanced onto Sacred NAT Terrain. Like Germany, Poland, France. So it would be the US nuking its NATO subordinates, and who did that ever become a palatable idea? I guess that part about “everyone knows this is just a huge sinecure and wealth transfer, and the weapons and war games are just for show, and to foster Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt in the rubes to keep them in line…”

      Our bleeding “leaders” had white papers and conferences and war games that played out all kinds of incredible scenarios where these weapons, constantly proliferating and now reflected in the “dial-a-blast” nukes being added to the US/NATO inventory. I recall a John McPhee book, “The Curve of Binding Energy,” which included a long conversation with a really smart nuclear weapons designer who when asked what was the smallest full fission weapon he had developed, said it was pretty much a nuclear hand grenade with a “yield” of a couple of kilotons. Wonder what GIs who had to carry these things around, with minimal safeguards in the case described, would have thought about combat with the Rooskies and how they would respond to orders to “throw the grenade at the advancing Soviet Threat…”

  11. Maxwell Johnston

    Brecher is always good, and I thoroughly enjoyed this post which evokes a much simpler world. Ah, the Fulda Gap, haven’t thought about that for many years. There was also the Hof Corridor further south. Fulda was covered (supposedly) by the 11th armored cavalry regiment, whilst Hof was covered (again, supposedly) by the 2nd ac regiment. My unit (3rd infantry division) was stationed betwixt the twain and was supposed to come to either’s rescue if things got hairy. Of course none of that ever transpired, which was a good thing especially since we were scarcely capable of going into combat against anybody. Presumably our WP counterparts were equally non-combat ready, and cooler heads prevailed all around. Cool heads seem to be in scarcer supply nowadays.

  12. John Emerson

    The American commitment to an anti-Soviet policy was firmly established in 1948 when Truman was reelected and Wallace’s anti-Cold War presidential campaign crushed. Butthe decision was made back to 1944, when Wallace was replaced as VP by Truman on the understanding that our alliance with the USSR against Hitler was only temporary, something Wallace could not be counted on to agree to. It was already understood that FDR wouldn’t live out his fourth term.

  13. rowlf

    Years ago while reading Len Deighton’s 1966 novel The Billion Dollar Brain, the scene of the British spy arguing with the billionaire seemed to sum up the Cold War very well:

    …But a good agent should have a fast brain and a slow mouth, so I took it slowly. I
    said, ‘Is this your way of protecting America, employing second-rate hoodlums in Riga?
    Subsidising violence and crime in the U S. S. R.? All that does is strengthen police and
    governmental power there.’
    ‘I’m talking about…’ Midwinter said in a loud voice, but this time my voice carried
    ‘OK Inside America you are doing even more to assist the Russians. You spread
    false accusations and false fears through the land. You smear your Congress. You smear
    your Supreme Court. You even smear the Presidency. What you don’t like about
    Communism is that you’re not giving the orders.
    Well I prefer America with ballot boxes
    and I prefer my orders to come out of a face instead of a telephone. You can’t look a
    telephone in the eyes to see if it’s lying.’

    To me the conflict was the USSR/Russia not allowing the West to plunder the resources. The possibility of Soviet invasion of Europe was a childrens’ story told by the elites to convince the lower classes to fight for them.

  14. Canelotkidd

    The purpose of NATO was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
    seems like the more things change the more they stay the same

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      The element of Euro-British conspiracy to keep America involved in Europe is nowhere mentioned in this article.

      When I commented that the evil Bill Clinton drove NATO eastward in defiance of the solemn Reagan-Bush promise not to do that, commenter Vlade noted that the sainted Vaclav Havel lobbied Clinton very hard to drive NATO eastward. I remember reading a Havel quote something like . . . ” Europe must never again be divided over the head of the Europeans”. And conspiring to force NATO all the way to Russia’s border was a way to do that I suppose, for people who considered Russia to be never ever any part of Europe to begin with.

      Vlade’s comment made me an even firmer believer in the “Euro-British conspiracy against America” aspect of NATO, brought to us by the same sort of people who tricked America into World War One to begin with.

      I hope the War Nerd will look into that aspect of NATO, and that DC FedRegime war-and-peace strategy and tactical decisions were made by anti-American angophile europhiles in power over the American people.

      1. Synoia

        Winston Churchill was very influential in WW 1, as the Head of the Royal Navy. His mother was American, and in no way was he Anti American – and I doubt that there were many, if any, of the British Ruling class who were anti american in the WWI era.

        Please could you list those in the British ruling class who you believe were anti American in that era.

  15. JustTheFacts

    I presume “raisin deter” is a mispelling of “raison d’être”, which means its justification for existing. (If this was a joke, I didn’t get it.)

    I recall that not that long ago the nuclear attack on Japan was widely viewed as a crime against humanity, at least in Europe. Some of those who had fought in WW2 and spoke about it to me said they felt it was necessary because Japan wasn’t going to surrender, and because Japan tortured its POWs, so it would cost too many lives to take Japan conventionally. Germany wasn’t nuked, they said, because it treated (western) POWs correctly. Of course that was probably the propaganda they had been fed by their military command, but the key point that nuclear weapons were thought of as truly horrific in Europe in the 1970s, and therefore no one wanted a nuclear war. Oddly enough, recently I saw people arguing, for example in the German media, that nukes are not a real danger anymore, just a “psychological trick to frighten us”, so NATO should be allowed to intervene in Ukraine.

    At the same time in Russia, as the author says, Russians just wanted to be left alone. The fact Russia did not attack is not remotely surprising. Russia has only ever wanted peace and quiet, and that’s why it wanted large enough buffer zones (Afghanistan, Ukraine, Finland, the Baltic states, and the rest of the Warsaw pact) to keep envious and greedy foreigners at a safe distance from its vast resource rich underpopulated land. (the Mongols, the Swedes, the Poles, the Germans, the French, the Americans, and no doubt many others).

    I have never understood why so many Americans I meet are so rabidly anti-Russian. But this explanation makes sense: they’ve been propagandized that way to make certain industries and people rich. The fact so many “experts” in the media are so very wrong and are never called out on it is a feature, not a bug.

    Another concern is that, at least according to people like Scott Ritter and Ray McGovern, there are very few actual experts on Russia, or even people who can speak Russian and understand its culture, left in the US government. That makes mistakes even more likely. It makes me fear that we could, all too easily, blunder into WW3.

    To my mind, none of this bodes well for the West. Whether a country is democratic or not, understanding reality seems necessary for it to successfully adapt to a changing world. If those running it believe propaganda, they will not adapt to the propaganda rather than to what is actually happening. That is why countries that are simultaneously democratic and which propagandize their citizens should not expect to survive. One has to wonder whether the West still understands this. At this point, it seems to me that those running Russia do understand this, which is why so far all the actions the West has taken against Russia have failed to produce their anticipated effects.

    1. JBird4049

      >>>Oddly enough, recently I saw people arguing, for example in the German media, that nukes are not a real danger anymore, just a “psychological trick to frighten us”, so NATO should be allowed to intervene in Ukraine.

      As someone who spent his childhood in the Cold War, read the books and the magazine articles, then after the war read about all the very near occasions of either nuclear accidents or full on nuclear war, I have to say that whoever said that nukes are just psychological tricks is a fool, or a moron, or a liar, or is insane; ffs, this is like Covid again.

      I had the dangers of nuclear weapons repeatedly beaten into my mind. Not everything in reality is of the word or the mind, and acting like what you say or believe dictates reality has serious mental or emotional problems. Unfortunately, this seems to be much of political class and their minions as well as a large part of our population.

      Maybe it is better described as our Professional Managerial Class for whom the spin is reality while reality itself is just spin, not real, an illusion? This would explain their actions.

  16. Nikkikat

    I remember the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis. The propaganda at school as TV sets were brought in and we were shown mushroom clouds and fed stories about how the Russians wanted to take over the world. Their leaders were maniacs with no reasonable way to deal with them. I didn’t believe a word of it ever. Maybe it was because any fool could see that getting under my desk and clasping my hands behind my head could not possibly save me from much of anything. Several of our neighbors had bought bomb shelters. Dug into the ground. When I asked my Dad about it. He told me these people were nuts. He said even if one of those could save you, the world wouldn’t be too nice of a place to live. It wasn’t too long until the Vietnam war started, again there was the propaganda about the domino effect and the dangers of China because they were trying to take over. It seems again that none of this made much sense but we just always went along. Just like we have done before we are going along again.

  17. Hickory

    Great essay. I love how the War Nerd mixes lots of insightful info with a light irreverent tone, while acknowledging the gravity of things.

    My first impression upon beginning the article was that fighter jet picture. The jet looks like a gym rat mostly interested in looking good: huge upper body (pecs, big shoulders and biceps) and spindly little legs (ie incapable of any useful work, and liable to hurt himself). Does anyone else see what I mean, by the outline of the jet? Like a football player all suited up… but itty bitty legs!

    I saw a lot of these sorts in my college gym.

  18. N

    While the writer is eloquent and knowledgeable I think he is purposefully ignoring some obvious points for the sake of argument or was just blinded by the opportunity to write beautiful prose.
    The reason nukes are a bad deterrent without a conventional force is the same reason they are a bad law enforcement tool, you would never use them.
    If the only tool was total world annihilation would we use it if a small city got bombed? no. What if only a single city was annexed? again, no. What if a city got annexed every 10 years… ?
    Now that the tanks are rolling in Ukraine, lets assume we wanted to stop it, should we use tanks or nukes? if the answer is not nukes than this entire history lesson is interesting but reaches a very silly conclusion.

  19. drumlin woodchuckles

    Purely tangential, but . . . I have trouble believing that Gary Brecher was always John Dolan in disguise. For several years the War Nerd columns seemed one way and then they changed to seeming another way.
    Gary Brecher spent several years never ever mentioning things like ” the faculty lounge” until one sudden column, “Gary Brecher” suddenly mentioned ” the faculty lounge”.

    So if there never was a real “Gary Brecher”, whose photograph was being offered to us as the face of “Gary Brecher”? And who was writing the War Nerd before “Gary Brecher” left or retired or whatever and John Dolan took the column over?

    If John Dolan really was the War Nerd from the very first column, then he must be laughing right now if he is even reading this comment.

    And Mark Ames must be laughing, too.

    1. Andrew Watts

      Eh? It’s always been Dolan who masqueraded as Gary Brecher since his Moscow-based eXile days. It wasn’t that big of a secret way back then either.

      I think that some of his students confronted him with his War Nerd writing if I remember correctly. That was the story at least floating ’round the internets.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Really? Well, I don’t have any counter-information to argue back with. I still note that over time the War Nerd shifted from one writing style and things-he-supported to another writing style and things-he-supported. If that was all John Dolan right from the start, then John Dolan is a master of different voices.

        So who was the guy in the photograph said to be of “Gary Brecher”?

        ( By the way, I remember Dolan and Ames both railing against America’s ” beige-ist” society. Well . . . America certainly isn’t “beige-ist” anymore. Are Ames and Dolan a pair of happier campers now?)

        1. John Emerson

          I don’t know what Ames and Dolan think but it has proven impossible to move the Democratic Party away from beige.

        2. dermotmoconnor

          The guy in the photo was a musician from some scandinavian metal band IIRC.

        3. TMR

          “Gary Brecher” started out as a character, a reactionary loser from the Central Valley backwater with an unhealthy obsession and understanding of all things military. Dolan’s an English Lit professor who specializes in poetry. Those two are going to have distinct voices.

          As the East Timor/Iraqi Kurdistan debacles showed, it was useful to have a nom de plume with a recognizably different voice, when he still had a day job.

  20. Watt4Bob

    In an important sense, for a long time, NATO was an immensely complicated and expensive cover for operation Gladio, the secret war of mayhem and assassination intended to eliminate any possible political resistance to the New World Order by those pesky Europeans of socialist bent, and even those like Charles De Gaulle who considered their countries sovereign.

    After the Soviets defeated Hitler, it was obvious the world had to be made safe for fascism again. Gladio was the secret army that provided that service under the cover of NATO.

  21. Bazarov

    “Twilight Struggle” is the best Cold War simulation—and probably the best two player board game—I’ve ever played.

    I highly recommend it.

  22. Cesar Jeopardy

    Holy cow! I was stationed in the Fulda Gap while in the U.S. Army early, 1970 through late 1971. My life was on the line. Of course, since then I’ve realized that the Russians are far more rational than Americans. Russia always seems to have wanted to avoid war while the U.S. always courts it.

  23. VietnamVet

    Fulda Gap is still applicable today.

    I ducked and covered in elementary school. I spent a year after Vietnam prepared to fly to Germany and if lucky maybe survive for a week after Russia invaded. Nuclear War then was very real.

    Today everyone is in total denial. I blame the counter revolt in the1990s that made “only money has value” the ruling ideology in the West. Reality fell into the rabbit hole. It became obvious in 2003 when the USA, with NATO members help, invaded Iraq because of non-existent weapons of mass destruction. They (the corporate oligarchs and the paid professionals) really can’t think things through to the end (only this quarter’s profits matter). The basic ignored problem is that Christian Crusaders cannot win quick profitable Holy War against Islam. Fat Chance! A few volunteers, mercenaries and special operators embedded with the Kurds are still holding down the fort in Syria. Like Afghanistan, soon they will be gone. Iraq too.

    If there isn’t an armistice right now to end the proxy WWIII in Ukraine, and a return of peace; billions of humans could die in thousands of flashes of bright light as the world war escalates to its inevitable end.

  24. Recovered Cold Warrior

    A most valuable little essay and should be a must read for anyone born after 1990 for some first rate cultural background on the Cold War topic.

    It’s also horrifying to recall how hyper-militarized we all were. Popular Culture was all about war and military. Those board games were sinister in hindsight

    1. Kevin Walsh

      Board games of that type are still being made – you can look up the Next War series, or Flashpoint: South China Sea.

  25. Ana

    Interesting to see comments from others who were in Germany back in the days of commies under every bed.

    My personal story of that time and place is being young and one of the military type dependents near Trier, Germany. My father was a civilian who was in charge of the cruise missiles owned by the Air Force but run by one of the familiar names of the MIC. I know that by 1962 some of the missiles were tipped by atomics and not just conventional warheads. I do not know if they had atomics in 1956 though. My father was very good at his job, and all his rocket/jet engine combo cruise missiles that were launched hit their targets (a story for another day).

    I was there in Germany in 1956 when the Hungarian revolution was suppressed by Russian tanks. The panic among the Germans was immense. My mother and I were tossed into the back of a surplus WW2 truck with a bunch of other American dependents. My father and his crew disappeared into the pine forest with the truck mounted cruise missiles. We were in a long convoy moving west into France with no communication with him or anyone.

    Eventually we all ended up back home. He later told me that my mother and I were expected to survive in France but any American “over the border” that is to say remaining in Germany was expected to die and therefore be the reason that we started a war with Russia. He also expected to get the code to launch but never did. I can verify that the people on the ground back in the mid 1950’s did expect to fight somewhat but mostly to die in order to justify starting a war much like Pearl Harbor (which my mother and her family participated in – again another story).

    Ana in Sacramento

  26. Susan the other

    I’m always puzzled about who it was who was really being contained during the Cold War. And how important can NATO be now for “containing” (our goal) China? We seem to have completely dropped the ball on our little war for the control of oil in the Middle East. Is it because the reality is that it is Europe who needs that oil. And could it be that we (the US) might well be done with NATO. Makes me think there was an agreement reached on the subject whereby the Europeans were told by us that it was their baby, not ours. The whole bloody war for the freedom and liberty of Ukrainian Nazis was just dropped like a hot potato. Maybe we balanced our books; got payed for mega-tons of obsolete cold war weaponry and said goodbye and good luck. Could we actually be talking about an obituary, not a memoir?

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