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Apocalypse Right Now?

An interview with Alvin and Heidi Toffler on the future of war (and peace), offering their views on a technologically advanced future, how to avoid nuclear conflicts, and excerpts from their latest book, War and Anti-War.

Simultaneously chilling and empowering, War and Anti-War , the Tofflers' newbook (Little, Brown), left us awed by the power of knowledge and technology--and wanting to hide under the covers. In an exclusive excerpt and an interview with PT's editors, the authors plant images of nuclear destruction in our minds while at the same time instructing us to arm ourselves with nothing more concrete than information.

"On a bright spring morning recently," Toffler cowrites with his wife, Heidi, "eight of us met to decide whether or not to drop a nuclear bomb on North Korea.

"At precisely 9:26 A.M. two North Korean nuclear bombs exploded over an area where South Korean armor was massing for defense. Four more nuclear blasts followed three minutes later. The Second Korean War had begun with a nuclear bang.

"The task facing our team was to put practical options on the desk of the president of the United States. We had 50 minutes. Should we respond in kind to North Korea's use of nukes?"

The incident described is a think-tank game--a simulation designed to educate its participants and observers about potential nuclear crises. "But the real nuclear game," the authors continue, "is not over. In fact, it is becoming more ominous every day. For that game, like war itself, is being transformed by the arrival of Third Wave civilization and its knowledge-based technologies."


"Armies all over the world are racing to meet the realities of the 21st century. Peacemaking, by contrast, plods along, trying to apply methods more appropriate to a distant past. This much we know: The way we make war reflects the way we make wealth, and the way we make anti-war (or peace) must reflect the way we make war.

"No subject is as easily ignored by those of us lucky enough to be living in peace. After all, we each have our private wars for survival: making a living, caring for our family, battling an illness. Yet how we fight our personal, peacetime wars, how we live our daily lives, is deeply influenced by real, and even by imagined, wars of the present, past, or future.

"Today, as the world hurtles out of the industrial age and into a new century, much of what we know about both war and anti-war is dangerously out of date. A revolutionary new economy is arising based on knowledge rather than conventional raw materials and physical labor. This remarkable change in the world economy is bringing with it a parallel revolution in the nature of warfare. Anti-wars must match the wars they are intended to prevent."

PT: What is your view of the world of the future as we approach the millenium?

AT: It is distressing. We think it's a very dangerous situation. For instance, the average yearly number of military conflicts going on since 1945 has been about 30 to 35. In the last 12 months, there have been 62. And we're in the midst of an enormous transformation in our civilization. To expect that to happen calmly and peacefully and without all kinds of turmoil I think would be naive.

As far as Americans go, there's a shift in values regarding conflict, in that we not only want low casualties on our side, we also don't want to see a lot of body bags on the other side, either. The public simply won't allow it anymore. The mood of the country shifted, beginning with Vietnam, when on television every night we saw killing and flamethrowers and children and women. When it came into our living room, that was the point at which we said, "We don't want it anymore."

HT: Look at Somalia: One American soldier was dragged through the streets and the entire country goes nuts. In WWI, 600,000 British troops died in one battle. And in Berimny right now there is a terrible civil war and terrible bloodshed, but you haven't heard about it on television so it doesn't exist.

AT: Nobody knows the future. Nobody can predict with assurance anything about the future. But we can identify some of the large moving patterns and watch them as they develop or shift. And if we do watch them and are more or less right about where things are headed, then there may be some things we can do to prepare ourselves.


"It has belatedly begun to dawn on people that industrial civilization is coming to an end. Its unraveling brings with it the threat of more, not fewer, wars--wars of a new type. Today, the lineup of world civilizations is different. We are speeding toward a totally different structure of power that will create not a world cut in two but sharply divided into three contrasting and competing civilizations: the first symbolized by the hoe; the second by the assembly line; and the third by the computer.

"Third Wave nations rise to dominance based on the new ways in which they creates and exploits knowledge. They sell information and innovation, management, culture andpop culture, advanced technology, software, education, training, medical care, and financial and other services to the world. One of those services might well also turn out to be military protection based on its command of superior Third Wave forces. (That is, in effect, what the high-tech nations provided for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf War.)

"True military revolutions have occurred only twice before in history, and there are strong reasons to believe that the third revolution--the one now beginning--will be the deepest of all For only within recent decades have some of the key parameters of warfare hit their final limits. These parameters are range, lethality, and speed.

"Armies that could reach further, hit harder, and get there faster usually won, while the range-restricted, less well-armed, and slower armies lost. For this reason, a vast amount of human creative effort has been poured into extending the range, increasing the firepower, and accelerating the speed of weapons and of armies. Yet these three distinct lines of military development have converged explosively in our time, reaching their outer limits at about the same moment in history--the present half century. If nothing else, this fact alone would justify the term 'revolution in warfare."'

PT: Where is all the new technology leading us, and what should our strategy be for future wars?

AT: There will be future wars, of course, and cutting defense spending across the board is not a good strategy. We're not lacking in military strategy; we're lacking in political strategy. This country has not clarified what its interests in the world are; therefore we've got one finger in Somalia, yet we're not really involved. At this point there is a total confusion as to what is really important to this country.

Our policy--both good and bad--is shaped by certain unspoken realities. Israel's policy is shaped by the activity of Jews in the American political system. I think the reason we're in Somalia has to do with the fact that we have a large black population in this country that's worried about Africa, and so on.

HT: We believe that the people who run this country are not actually elected officials but bureaucrats. And the president has far less power than most Americans know. He lets the bureaucracy do its thing until there's a crisis, then he makes a choice. There is no grand American strategy for dealing with the new ecology of threats and risks to American interests.

And in the absence of any kind of strategy, Congress simply says close this military base, shut this missile down. But it's for purely political reasons--the people making the policy want to still be in office after the next round of elections is held.

AT: There's a former senior intelligence official who says that there are fewer than 10 places in the entire United States that can be taken out in order to shut this country down. He says, 'Give me $1 million and 20 people and I'll shut America down. I'll shut down the federal reserve bank. I'll shut down the ATMs. I'll shut down the computers that drive our production lines, our communication systems, etc.'

We are so unaccustomed to considering our own vulnerabilities that companies and institutions build things and never even think twice about vulnerability to attack. But, in fact, we are exceedingly vulnerable to attack if you listen to the people who actually monitor these things.


"Something occurred in the night skies and desert sands of the Middle East in 1991 that the world had not seen for 300 years--the arrival of a new form of warfare that closely mirrors a new form of wealth creation. Even the most advanced economies-- those in Europe, Japan, and the United States--are still divided between declining muscle work and increasing mind work.

"Simultaneously, some opponents of the war launched what seemed like a campaign in the Western media against advanced technology itself. The world press soon echoed with technophobic rhetoric. U.S. helicopters would be downed by sandstorms. The Stealth Bomber would fail. Night-vision goggles wouldn't work. 'Is Our High- Tech Military a Mirage?' the New York Times wanted to know.

"Yet when the images of the Gulf War flashed across the world's TV screens, we gasped as we saw the new face of war strategy: Destroy the enemy's command facilities. Take out its communications to prevent information from flowing tip or down the chain of command. Take the initiative. Strike deep. Prevent the enemy's backup echelons from ever going into action. Integrate air, land, and sea operations. Synchronized combined operations. Avoid frontal attack against the adversary's strong points. Above all, know what the enemy is doing and prevent him from knowing what you are doing.

"Anti-missile defense systems will also refocus attention on anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) designed to take out the eyes and ears of adversaries. In April 1993, even as Congress cut more and more of the Pentagon budget, the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force made an impassioned speech in which he declared, 'We simply must find a way to get on with the construction of capabilities aimed at ensuring that no nation can deny us part Of our hard-won space superiority.'

"Urging a complete reconceptualization of American space strategy, he spoke of ensuring that 'we can limit our adversaries' ability to use space against us.' To accomplish this, he argued, the United States would need a set of 'tools,' including anti-satellite capabilities. His words fell on deaf ears and were followed a month later by the forced cancellation of a small army program for an ASAT missile.

"The problem facing the United States, however, is not cancellable. It is now becoming clear that in the future the first thing any regional power involved in conflict with the U.S. will do is try to scratch out its eyes in the sky. Ironically, because our country is the most dependent on its space-based assets and on advanced communications, it is also the most vulnerable to any adversary who can successfully disable or sabotage them."

PT: How can this knowledge help us prevent future conflicts?

AT: We need to recognize the centrality of knowledge; we have never looked upon it as a source of power. Only recently have we begun to make a connection between knowledge and international competitiveness. We send out pop culture all over the world, but never asked ourselves what's the political impact of that around the world. I remember when we interviewed Ceausescu, Romania's infamous tyrant, and he invited us to spend our vacation with him. "We'll watch Kojak together," he said.

We know pop culture has some kind of effect on the world, but we never looked upon that as one of the elements of American power. I believe that if we want to stop the various wars going on around the world, then we need to help the people who want to stop the wars. What we always talk about is sending more arms in, lifting the arms embargo. Don't lift the arms embargo, lift the information embargo. Open that place up and you'll see political changes take place.


"The people thinking hardest about warfare in the future know that some of the most important combat of tomorrow will take place on the media battlefield. Just as the United States cannot develop a fully comprehensive knowledge strategy until it puts its intelligence house in order, it faces an even greater problem with respect to the media. The American Constitution, as well as its culture and politics, sets limits on censorship, and 'propaganda' is a dirty word to most Americans.

"Thus, while the military knows that putting the right 'spin' on war news can, at times, be as important as devastating an enemy's tanks, nobody loves a spin doctor who wears khaki. Especially the American press.

"Instead of a handful of centrally controlled channels watched by all, vast numbers of humans will eventually gain access to a dazzling variety of over-the-border messages their political and military masters may not wish them to hear or see. Before long, one may assume, the spin doctors and knowledge warriors of many nations, not to mention terrorists and religious fanatics, will begin thinking creatively about how to exploit the new media.

"Policies dealing with the regulation, control, or manipulation of the media will form a key component of the knowledge strategies of tomorrow. And their knowledge strategies, in turn, will determine how different nations and their armies fare in the looming conflicts of the 21st century.

"Win, lose, or draw, the media will be a prime weapon for Third Wave combatants in both the wars and anti-wars of the future, a key component of knowledge strategy."

PT: What you're saying to some degree means raising the level of public paranoia. If we begin to believe we're that vulnerable, and we've always got to have our defenses up, that doesn't seem like a very American approach.

AT: Bear in mind the danger in what we're saying. It's a danger we recognize that somebody's going to come along and in effect control the knowledge system of this country. The counter to that is that we should also be very smart about manipulating the other guys in the electronic infrastructure.

If we wanted Yeltsin in, for example, whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, we should have had an available satellite over Moscow and said, "Here Boris, take over the television studio. Here's the key. We can jam them and give you access."

But we never think in those terms. That runs against the American grain, because we hate the idea of propaganda and we hate the idea of deception. But it beats blowing somebody up.

HT: We've got smart soldiers now, and we need to make them smarter, but what we're doing is sending them home. We have smart weapons, but we need to make them smarter, too. We still have this idea that we need large numbers--X number of carriers and tanks and so forth. The military already knows that's not the right direction to go in, and the smart ones understand that the future lies in digital technologies and communications.

AT: If you want to wage smart war, don't even aim at the men--aim at the satellite. You don't even have to aim a physical weapon; all you have to do is twist the message. When you cannot shoot the shooters, just take out their communications and you will save lives, your own and theirs.


"Throughout most of the Cold War only a handful of nations were members of the so-called 'nuclear club.' The sudden split-up of the Soviet Union left the newly independent Kazakhstan, Belorussia, and Ukraine with 2,400 nuclear warheads and 360 intercontinental ballistic missiles on their hands. Tortuous negotiations led to agreement that, over a seven-year period, these countries would destroy their strategic weapons or ship them to Russia to be dismantled.

"Soon, however, Ukraine balked, demanding money for the uranium or plutonium in the warheads. The United States was slow delivering promised funds to speed the process. As a result, the task of shipping and dismantling has barely begun.

"Some 15,000 such warheads are now supposedly in Russia. Many more may be squirreled away, however, either undelivered or uncounted in official tallies. Some of these weapons, says one of the Pentagon's top experts, 'were old, primitive systems that had no safety devices built in. Are they all back in Russia? Who knows?'

"Governments, criminal syndicates, and terrorist groups around the world are itching to lay their hands on even a few of these weapons. The Russian military, in turn, are poorly paid and not above corruption. Russian officers have already peddled other weapons to illegal buyers in under-the-table transactions.

"Even if we totally ignore the mounting threat from nongovernmental groups and focus on nation-states alone, we can conclude that approximately 20 countries are either in or knocking at the door of the nuclear club. Indeed, according to former Ambassador Richard Burt, who helped negotiate nuclear build-down agreements between the United States and Russia, some 50 to 60 countries can acquire these weapons.

"And if, instead of a nuclear club, we imagine a mass destruction club, with a broader membership that includes countries with chemical and biological weapon capabilities or ambitions, that number would leap upward. We may be looking at a world in which a third to a half of all countries have some hideous weapons of mass murder tucked away in their arsenals."

PT: What do you think the chances are of some sort of nuclear conflict occurring in the near future?

AT: The Minister of Nuclear Energy in Moscow, referring to the thousands of tactical nuclear weapons now deteriorating in Russia, went on-camera and said, "Everything's okay. Everything's safe, don't worry." Off-camera he said to us, "You Americans promised us a lot of money to dismantle them. We haven't got it. And if we don't get it, we'll sell them to anybody."

I think there will be use of tactical nuclear weapons within the next five years, because if you have 20 or 30 thousand of these things out there, the probability is that some of them are going to leak out. And the next Bosnia will seek the use of nuclear weapons.

PT: Should people move out of cities in order to be safer?

AT: People probably will move out of cities--but not necessarily for safety reasons. They'll move because we've shifted toward an information-based economy where millions of people can work where they wish to work. Still, those 10 places that could shut America down are not necessarily cities like New York.

PT: What places might they be?

AT: Never mind.

PHOTO: Heidi and Alvin Toffler

PHOTOS (2): Heidi Toffler

PHOTOS (2): Alvin Toffler

PHOTO: Dynamite

PHOTO: Firearm

PHOTO: Globe