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Chernobyl and that Idaho Republican gubernatorial debate

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- with an extended riff on the apocalyptic significance of Chernobyl, as mentioned by the Idaho curmudgeon, Walt Bayes ]

This may be the most remarkable piece of political theater I have ever seen

It’s the debate between four Republican candidates for Governor of Idaho — “a cowboy, a curmudgeon, a biker, or a normal guy, take your pick” as the biker claims — and although the whole video runs close to an hour in toto, I found it riveting.

I’m not alone: Washington Post blogger Alexandra Petri headlined it as “surreal, magical”, and termed it “incredible” and “everything that you ever wanted and more”.

Why? Not because it featured the sitting Governor and a State Senator, who utter their focus-grouped speaking points, but because of two of we-the-people, Harley Brown and Walt Bayes, who speak their minds.


It’s the last four minutes or so of the debate — from 54.25 to be exact — that contain the apocalyptic reference to Chernobyl that caught my attention:

At 54.25, candidate Walt Bayes (the “curmudgeon”) begins his closing statement. Earlier in the debate he had made it clear that

You remember Chernobyl where the Russians had a little problem with their atomic energy? Chernobyl, when you translate that into English it comes out Wormwood. Wormwood is mentioned in the Bible a whole lot where your studying these Last Days, and it’s radiation.

and then after a brief discussion of potassium iodide, Fukushima, and US nuclear power plants, he closes on the words:

and my Bible says it’s going to get worse and worse and worse! We’d better get some


Our curmudgeon is correct, BTW, insofar as it’s true that the Ukrainian word Chernobyl corresponds to English Wormwood.

Michael J. Christensen presented a paper on The Russian Idea Of Apocalypse: Nikolai Berdyaev’s Theory Of Russian Cultural Apocalyptic at one o the Center for Millennial Studies conferences which I attended. I’m quoting his paper in the extracts which follow here.

Revelation 8. 10-11 reads:

Then the third angel sounded: And a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it was made bitter.

The Orthodox Study Bible comments:

Wormwood (in Slavonic, “Chernobyl”), an extremely bitter plant that would make water undrinkable, symbolizes the bitter fruits of idolatry…

The association of the Chernoby the place with Chernobyl the devastating apocalyptic star has history to it:

Chernobyl is first mentioned in twelfth century manuscripts as a settlement near the River Pripyat in Lithuania (later Poland and Ukraine), and was settled by an apocalyptic sect of Old Believers in 1775, under the headship of one Illarian Petrov. The “Chernobylites” preached the arrival of the Antichrist and the imminent end of the world. Whether they migrated to Chernobyl because they believed the end centered around that town, we do not know. Illarian Petrov, according to Russian journalist, Andrey Illesh, “bore the rather strange nickname ‘Cows Legs’ and was known for his extreme fanaticism.” The Chernobylites were persecuted because they “refused to pray for the tsar, acknowledge passports, forbade military service and oaths, and behaved in a contrary manner.” At the end of the nineteenth century (when the end did notcome), the sect emigrated to Austria.


In the refectory of Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, there is a fresco illustrating the falling Wormwood star. During the 1950′s, the monks interpreted the Wormwood prophecy in terms of a [sic] atomic bombs

Then the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 happened, and was interpretetd…

On a widespread and popular level in Ukraine and Belarus, according to documentary evidence, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster is considered “an act of God” and assigned religious significance. Chernobyl is interpreted as prophetic (fatalistic or predictive) and apocalyptic (cataclysmic or revelatory) in harmony with a long, popular tradition of Russian apocalyptic.

During my initial visits to the Chernobyl region in 1990-91, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of Chernobyl, I often would ask Belarusians: “Do you have a religious opinion about Chernobyl?” They typically answered “yes,” and proceeded to rehearse the long history of suffering in Belarus. Frequently, they would cite the “Wormwood star” in the writings of Nostradamus and in the Bible as referring specifically to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

And the results?:

Applying Berdyaev’s Russian apocalyptic eschatology to the Chernobyl Prophecy in Revelation 8:10-11, it can be argued that the Chernobyl catastrophe of 26 April 1986 was a decisive apocalyptic event in the history of Rus, marking the end of an age. It fueled the reformist policies of glasnost and perestroika, broke the back of Communism. It serves an eschatological marker for the end of the Soviet Union, the end of the modern age of the “peaceful atom” and fail-safe technology, as well as the beginning of a postmodern age in the newly independent states.


Regardless of authorial intent and historical-critical interpretations of Revelation 8:10-11, the Chernobyl prophecy is understood widely, in the context of post-Soviet Ukraine and Belarus as pre-ordained and prophetically fulfilled, presenting a fascinating case study of Russian apocalyptic eschatology.

From Richard Landes, ed., Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements, p. 133:

In the aftermath of Chernobyl, popular calendars in Minsk and Kiev distinguished the years before and after Chernobyl. Digital clocks in Belarus continued to flash the current time, temperature, and radiation level. Citizens remembered their former life and anticipated future sufferings. The passing of time had not changed apocalyptic consciousness as much as it changed the meaning of the End for different segments of the population. In striking apocalyptic language, Russian journalist Alla Yaroshinskaya writes how Chernobyl has changed the course of personal histories, national history, and perhaps even sacred history:

…this ancient wonderland, this forest, these fields and meadows, our whole lives…from now on life on earth would not only be divided into epochs and eras, civilizations, religions and political systems, but also into “before” and “after” Chernobyl. The earth would never be the same as it had been before 26 April 1986 at twenty-four minutes past one….


I can’t really leave the debated without a quick tip’o’the hat to the biker, Harley Brown, one of whose central concerns on behalf of his fellow Idahoans is “getting our lands back from the Feds”. He explained:

The key is getting our lands back from the Feds … Here’s my plan of attack. You go in there, and your use spiritual warfare. Everybody talks about the natural, but this other realm … you bind the evil spirits that are behind the fights with the blood of Jesus, the name of Jesus, and the power of [??] of the Holy Spirit, the power of agreement, the word of God. Take air superiority and then go in with your tanks… blitzkrieg.

To which the reporter who had questioned him responded, “The question was about taxes.”

Spiritual warfare? That’s the territory of C Peter Wagner and his New Apostolic Reformation, featuring Rick Joyner and Gen. Jerry Boykin among others — and including such views at that Japan is under demonic influence because the emperor slept with the Goddess Amaterasu-?mikami at his coronation

And for the record, the particular talk of spiritual warfare at the Idaho debate comes from a proud biker who has also been a Navy SeaBee, a long haul trucker — and a taxi driver, who also says:

I’ve picked up my fair share of the gay community. And they have true love for one another. I’m telling you, they love each other more than I love my motorcycle.

Consider me amazed!

And Harley Brown is both “reach for the stars” and humble with it. Reaching for the stars…

I said, God, how about putting me back on active duty and making me a battalion commander? Long story short he says, “No son, I got a higher rank for you, I’m gonna make you the commander-in-chief.” And I staggered not at his promise….

After God told me he was gonna make me president, I went out and got the presidential seal tattooed right here on my shoulder, my morale went from negative-500 to off the scale, and I started a presidential campaign right there. [ … ]

For three years I had the credibility of Chicken Little, you know, the sky is falling? And finally, one time, one day, this bishop from Africa comes over and he says, “I am a prophet of the most high God, and in that office I here authenticate that God told you that.”

I says, “Yeah? You mind putting that in writing? He said, “Sure.” And he put it in writing, and I’ve got the original at home. And I was able to go up to all my detractors and say, “Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah.”

That’s more than a touch apocalyptic too, to be frank. But fortunately, Brown is also humble…

I need practice! Practice! I don’t wanna say stuff [when I'm president] like, “Sorry if our bombing caused you any inconvenience.” So I wanna work in the Little Leagues as a governor.


A “cowboy, a curmudgeon, a biker, or a normal guy” — these were the candidates for Governor of Idaho in the debate.

Idaho has a $2.78 billion budget for fiscal 2014.


A Brief Comment on Ukraine vs. Russia

Friday, March 14th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a "zen"]

Russia, borrowing a tactic used by the Soviets with unruly satellites, has massed a fair amount of troops on the eastern border of Ukraine under the guise of “military exercises”

This has spurred much commentary and articles, hawkish and dovish, about what America or NATO can do or not do, as in the Carlo Davis article in The New Republic magazine or Condoleeza Rice writing in WaPo.

In my view, neither America or NATO or even Russia are not the crucial in this moment. The major variable here in deciding what the US should do or not do in terms of policy and strategy are the Ukrainians.

The overriding question is political: Are the Ukrainians willing to fight and kill Russians to preserve their national independence? That’s the key. Are the security services and Ukrainian military loyal, not just to the government but to the idea of an independent Ukraine? Arguably, the behavior of the chief of Ukraine’s Black Sea fleet makes this questionable – is he indicative of his generational cohort’s attitude or not? All the military and IC capacity in the world on paper matters little if the Ukrainian military and security agencies opt for “neutrality” between Moscow and Kiev. And if they are indeed loyal then Putin’s saber rattling will require a tenfold increase in troops to move into Eastern Ukraine and he can expect that his pipelines will be destroyed, buildings in Moscow and St. Petersburg blown up and his officials at risk for assassination as Ukrainian infiltrators are about as easy to distinguish from native Russians as Canadians are from Americans.

If Ukraine is serious about fighting then the US and its Western allies can have a rational planning session about what concrete measures will make their fighting capacity more effective and make Russia’s secondary costs high enough to give Putin pause without triggering a direct military clash between NATO and Russia (why we are surprised and chagrined that NATO is not a good for preventing problems which *by design* it was not created to prevent or solve escapes me).

The best options until we have some clarity on Ukraine’s real intentions are to strengthen Ukraine’s new government by helping it take measures that increase its stability and legitimacy in the eyes of wary eastern Ukrainians and the world community while making it clear through a united western front that Russia’s economy will suffer if it invades Ukraine – this means the EU and states like Britain and Germany will share in the pain and not off-load the crisis onto America alone while cutting lucrative side deals with Putin ( the Europeans initial preferred course of action and one doomed to be as fruitless as Putin leading the diplomatic charge to reverse an American seizure of Baja California from Mexico).

Europeans allegedly wanted Ukraine in the EU, now they need to roll up their sleeves and accept significant costs of engaging in counter-pressure. Rhetoric is not enough.


Zen at War on the Rocks on China and Avoiding War

Thursday, November 14th, 2013
Chinese Navy

Chinese Navy

[by Mark Safranski, a.k. a. "zen"]

The editors of the excellent War of the Rocks invited me to post a short rebuttal to the op-ed “How Not to Go to War With China”, by Scott Cheney-Peters, which appears in their “Hasty Ambush” section:


….A place to begin our efforts in avoiding war with China might be avoiding engagement in some of the same incorrect mirror-imaging assumptions we once made about the Soviet Union, not least of which was MAD.  As a doctrine, Soviet leaders never accepted MAD and the Red Army general staff ignored it in drafting war plans to fight and prevail in any nuclear war. While the Soviets had no choice but to tackle the logic of deterrence as we did, the operative Soviet assumptions were predicated on a different strategic calculus, a different force structure and above all, different policy goals from their American counterparts.  A dangerous gap between American assumptions of Soviet intentions and the reality of these intentions came to light when in 1983 the Reagan administrationdiscovered to their alarm that Soviet leaders had interpreted the NATO exercise Abel Archer 83 as preparations for a real, imminent nuclear first strike on the USSR and ordered Soviet nuclear forces on high alert.

The military-to-military confidence-building initiatives outlined by Cheney-Peters intended to construct “habits of cooperation” are not entirely useless. There is some value in ensuring that high-ranking American military officers have personal and limited operational familiarity with their Chinese counterparts in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), but as potential game-changers, they need to be taken with a grain of salt. Such a policy misses the essential strategic and political centers of gravity in the Sino-American relationship.  Namely that for the first time in 600 years, China is building a blue water Navy that will foster power projection as far away as the Indian ocean and Australia.  Secondly, this naval expansion, coupled with a new Chinese foreign policy, aggressively presses grandiose territorial demands on nearly all of its neighbors, including India and Japan.  These are fundamental conflicts with American interests that cannot be explained away or papered over by banquet toasts with visiting delegations of Chinese admirals. [...]

Read the rest here.

Also read another WotR  China piece “99 Red Balloons: How War with China would Start” by Matthew Hipple


Pattern recognition: backlash

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- on human obstinacy, a change of heart, and what seems to me a major piece from Res Militaris ]

There’s a pattern of backlash that occurs when you present people with facts that don’t fit their preconceptions — they don’t switch, they double up. Here’s the opening of io9‘s report, The Backfire Effect shows why you can’t use facts to win an argument:

“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” isn’t just a maxim for shady politicians and journalists. It’s also the way people often live their lives. One study indicates that there may even be a “backfire effect,” which happens when you show people facts that contradict their opinions.

Then there’s a study — Brendan and Jason Reifler, When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. I won’t go into the details, it’s the pattern it finds that’s of interest to me, but I will note that the title is a tip of the hat to Leon Festinger‘s When Prophecy Fails, a classic study in the same pattern of denial as it applied to a group whose belief in an end time prophecy was not shattered when the day arrived and the world went on as usual…

Here’s how the pattern works:

Participants in the experiments were more likely to experience the Backfire Effect when they sensed that the contradictory information had come from a source that was hostile to their political views. But under a lot of conditions, the mere existence of contradictory facts made people more sure of themselves — or made them claim to be more sure.

Everyone has experienced the frustration of bringing up pertinent facts, in the middle of an argument, and having those facts disregarded. Perhaps the big mistake was not arguing, but bringing up facts in the first place.

Okay? That’s a veeery interesting pattern to think about any time you’re considering ways to persuade people to change their minds during, for instance, a CVE campaign.

I’d like to dig into it a great deal more, of course.


Maajid Nawaz, a former recruiter for Hizb ut-Tahrir who renounced his membership and is now Chairman of the counter-extremist Quilliam Foundation, seems to have persuaded Tommy Robinson, until recently a leader of the English Defence League, to renounce the EDL and join Qulliam — a move whose results and second-order effects have yet to be seen. Both men, however, offer us examples of people who have in fact changed their minds on matters of profound belief, religious and political, and the odd uncomfortable fact may have played some role in those changes.

The role of anomalies (cf. “outliers”) in Kuhn‘s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions comes to mind.

And if showing people the error of their ways (a very loose equivalent of telling them unwelcome facts, I’ll admit) doesn’t work, here’s another anomaly that I ran across only yesterday, that “proves the rule” by, well, partially disproving it.

Dutch ex-politician Arnoud van Doorn, previously a senior member of Geert Wilders‘ fiercely anti-Islamic party, has changed his mind — or his heart was changed for him, within him, depending on your perspective. He has made the Shahada and is henceforth Muslim himself. In this photo, van Doorn is performing the Hajj, the pilgrimage to circumambulate the Kaaba in Mecca:

Do I detect a hint of enantiodromia here?


In closing, I would like to offer this link to an article in Res Militaris by Jean Baechler, titled Outlines of a psychology of war. It’s a weighty piece, as befits its grand sweep, and I believe it throws some light on the obstinacies of the mind to which this post is addressed.

I tried excerpting it, but it appeared to me that each sentence in every paragraph in turn begged to be highlighted, approved, tweaked, questioned, or disagreed with, and I wound up feeling you should read it for yourselves. I’ll be very interested to see if it captures the attention of the ZP readership, and leads to a more extended discussion…


The Myhrvold Report and Understanding Strategic Threats

Monday, October 7th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Several weeks ago, Cheryl Rofer wrote an important post analyzing the report “Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action” by Microsoft billionaire, venture capitalist, theoretical mathematician and cookbook author, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold. I found Cheryl’s argument quite persuasive and would like to add a few points of my own; because while some of the concerns raised by Myhrvold are valid and his intent is no doubt well-meaning, the approach he suggests is, at times, problematic.

If in the past ten years you have been a serious student of terrorism studies, insurgency and COIN, national security, counter-terrorism policy, counter-proliferation policy,  intelligence community affairs and military theory, there is little that will be new for you in the first part of the report. Many of these problems had previously been raised (at least in part) by figures as disparate as Michael Scheuer, John Robb, Martin van Creveld, Thomas P.M. Barnett, William Lind,  Robert Bunker and dozens if not hundreds, of thinkers, practitioners and scholars. In addition, this ground was also covered by government agencies like the National Intelligence Council in its periodic Global Trends reports, and in classified analysis by the Office of Net Assessment and various three letter agencies. The blogosphere also had a lively discussion of catastrophic WMD terrorism, superempowered individuals, 4GW/5GW, apocalyptic Mahdism and related subjects throughout the mid to late 2000′s.  Diffusion of society-shifting power into the hands of small groups and individuals was a theme of Alvin and Heidi Toffler back in the 70′s and 80′s, so this is an old rather than new problem.

Dr. Myhrvold is a polymathic character, but his original area of specialization was mathematical research so it is not surprising that his approach to things “strategic” is dominated by scalar considerations. Namely, a threat taxonomy based upon potential magnitude of  disaster events up to the extinction of the human race (High M 10).  Wondering here, as the bibliographic references of this report are extremely scanty, if Myhrvold was influenced by Herman Kahns ideas on escalation or game theory based literature on deterrence or something else. Regardless, while there’s some merit to this definition – obviously if your civilization is destroyed or everyone is dead you have suffered the ultimate in strategic defeat – there are weaknesses too as the linear progression of destruction implies an apolitical environment and inevitable process. That’s not how things work with strategy in the real world, neither today nor back in the era of Cold War superpower nuclear brinksmanship. Even John Foster Dulles and Vyacheslav Molotov were more politically nuanced than that.

This is an important point. Myhrvold is focused on capacity alone rather than in conjunction with political purpose in defining strategic threats.  Capacity in bad hands is worth worrying about and Myhrvold is right when he criticizes the government for their obstinate refusal to develop a robust threat detection system for shipping to US ports of entry ( that’s boring, hard work with little payoff from a political perspective, but the NSA building a system for surveilling all Americans is fun and gives government bureaucrats great potential power to ruin anyone they wish); that said, outside of comic books and James Bond movies, people do not historically initiate violence on an epochal scale out of a Joker-like admiration of nihilism, not even terrorists. Instead, they have a political end in mind for which violence is a tool. This variable appears to be absent from Myhrvold’s thinking.

More troubling, Myhrvold’s solution to the potential threat of bioweapon terrorism would appear to be, as I infer it, even greater centralization of power in the hands of a national security surveillance state. As I expect Dr. Myhrvold is a great respecter of data-driven, probabilistic logic, he might want to consider that nearly every man-made, high magnitude, lethal event in the past century and a quarter years has been initiated by governments for reasons of policy, up to and including the auto-genocide of tens of millions of their own citizens. Most people on this planet are in far greater danger of harm at the hands of the state than they are as a result of terrorism or foreign attack and it would seem foolish, in light of such statistics, to increase our risk by delegating greater grants of power to the entity most likely to cause us harm. In the words of the late defense and security expert Dr. Fred Ikle, we would be risking Annihilation from Within.

Ikle anticipated years ago much of what Myhrvold wrestled with in his report and, in my view, prescribed better answers.


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