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The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War
The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War
Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi
Harvard University Press, 2005
432 pp., 28.50

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Reviewed by Andrew Wilson


How to Think the Unthinkable

The lessons of Herman Kahn.

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In her introduction, Ghamari-Tabrizi quotes Donald Rumsfeld's now-infamous statement about Saddam Hussein's purported weapons of mass destruction and their possible conveyance to Al Qaeda: "There are things we know we know. There are known unknowns, things we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns." Ghamari-Tabrizi points out that Rumsfeld's cryptic threat assessment evoked, and was to some extent rooted in, Kahn's thinking about the unthinkable.

The affinity between Rumsfeld and Kahn is not surprising. Like the specter of nuclear holocaust at the peak of the Cold War, the threat of 9/11-inspired terrorism demands a willingness to contemplate contingencies that most of us instinctively shrink from. At the end of her introduction, Ghamari-Tabrizi suggests that "for President Bush, as for all of us, the matter ultimately turns on faith," the matter being the waging of war in the nuclear era. For her part, Ghamari-Tabrizi does not trust "the sciences underwriting war." Near the end of the book, she quotes disarmament activist H. Stuart Hughes reflecting on the dilemma of faith: "the best any man can do is make his choice in the agony of conscience … convinced that whatever he does will be in some sense wrong, that, like Pascal, he is making a desperate wager in the dark." In The Worlds of Herman Kahn, Ghamari-Tabrizi portrays a man who made that bet against seemingly impossible odds, and, probably laughing along the way, went for a swim.

Andrew Wilson lives in Chicago.

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The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.

For book lovers, our 2005 CT book awards are available online, along with our book awards for 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, and 1997, as well as our Books of the Twentieth Century. For other coverage or reviews, see our Books archive and the weekly Books & Culture Corner.

Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review (want a free trial issue?), appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:

With God on Our Side | David McCullough's account of the pivotal year 1776 has resonance for Americans in 2005. (July 19, 2005)
The Rich Are Different—and Not So Different—from Us | Think you're burned out on memoirs? Read this book. (June 28, 2005)
A Grief Observed | Exploring the valley of the shadow in two literary lives. (June 13, 2005)
The Mind and Soul of Combat | Perhaps war really is hell. (June 07, 2005)
The Universal Language | If Latin died in our mouths, we'd just stop talking. (May 24, 2005)
At Home in the Dark | The first new book of poems in almost twenty years from Rod Jellema. (May 17, 2005)
"Taken Up in Glory" | The Ascension has been forgotten in many Protestant churches, jettisoning an essential part of the Christian story. (May 10, 2005)
Making Believe | Bedtime stories for grown-ups. (May 03, 2005)
Looking for God on the Holy Mountain | A journey to Mount Athos. (Apr. 25, 2005)
The Words of the Word | Two sharply contrasting perspectives on Bible translation. (April 19, 2005)
Divine Comedies | A report on Baylor's Art & Soul conference, version 2005. (April 12, 2005)
Unbelievable | Religion is really, really bad for you. (April 05, 2005)
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