Cowboys vs. Kippot

The awesome sci-fi novel about U.S. relations with Israel -- in an alternate acid-trip universe.

Texas has seceded from the United States. Israeli tanks thunder across the Southwest plains -- mercenaries hired by the nuclear-devastated federal government to drag the recalcitrant republic back into the Union.

This is the cowboys vs. kippot world of The Texas-Israeli War: 1999, a 1974 science-fiction novel by Jake Saunders and Howard Waldrop, and one of the most bizarre SF books ever written. With this month marking Texan independence from Mexico in 1836, a petition to the White House for Texas secession already garnering 125,000 signatures, and the president of the United States in Jerusalem, it seems an appropriate moment to examine what will likely be the first and last war fought between Israel and Texas, as well as take a look back at how 1970s sci-fi foresaw the future. Besides, who can resist a book with a cover that shows an Israeli tank being charged by a horde of Native Americans on horseback?

The novel's premise is that the United States was devastated by a nuclear and biological war in 1992, after it supported a Russo-British alliance against a Chinese-Irish-Afrikaan South African triad. (Actually, the war is triggered when the IRA conquers Ulster and pours LSD into Britain's water supply, inducing British leaders to launch their nukes, presumably to enjoy the pretty colors.) The ensuing conflagration wipes out 90 percent of humanity and leaves the survivors sickly and starving -- except for Israel, which somehow emerges unscathed and prosperous.

To add another drop of lysergic acid to this alternate history trip, billionaire oil barons convince a neo-fascist Texas to secede from the Union and restore the Republic of Texas (ReTex) after 150 years. Desperate for Texan oil reserves but with the bulk of the shattered U.S. military fighting off a Chinese invasion of Alaska, the federal government hires a tank unit of Israeli mercenaries (other Israelis are hired by the Texans, including Ariel Sharon) to beef up its army and bring the renegade republic back into the Union. The story's protagonist, Sol Inglestein, is a veteran Israeli colonel leading a force of Israelis, Americans, and loyalist Texans on an armored commando mission to rescue the U.S. president, who was kidnapped by Texas Rangers during a peace conference. Their effort will be supported by an amphibious invasion of Cuban marines storming Galveston. Yes, it sounds like more like a game of Risk than real international politics. But then again, someone writing in 1974 that U.S. troops would fight in Afghanistan for 10 years would have been dismissed as a fantasist or a nut.

The Texas-Israeli War is solid Grade B sci-fi: punchy, page-turning prose with lots of action and a fair bit of sex (Sol gets it on with Myra, a dark-haired beauty who commands an all-female Israeli tank crew). This is one of those books that is funny even when you are not sure the authors mean to be humorous. Inglestein's Israeli mercenary unit has the radio call sign "Charlie Bagel," and dances the "Hora" and sings the "Hatikvah" after battles. The U.S. vice president, now president in the new capital of Pittsburgh, plots to dump his wife in a Minnesota lake and appoint a presidential consort. As for the Texans, their currency has John Wayne's portrait, and their secret police are "The Sons of the Alamo" (not-so-subtly abbreviated "SA" like the Nazi paramilitary organization), who wear SS-like lightning bolts on their collars. A final ingredient in this stew of clichés is the Confederate theme embodied by a ReTex general, portrayed as a reluctant, honorable warrior who talks like Robert E. Lee and acts like he could have stepped out of a painting of Appomattox (and lest this be judged as Yankee propaganda, the authors are Texans themselves).

Growing up as a teenage science-fiction fan in New Jersey, I loved this novel. Action, intrigue, and, as a bonus, the crushing of Texas. ("Drive 70 and Freeze a Yankee," will you? Think again, cowboy.) It is very much a product of the 1970s, an ugly decade squatting unloved between the turbulent idealism of the 1960s and Reagan's "Morning in America." The theme of doomsday spread like plague bacilli through that era -- from Charlton Heston as the last human in a mutant-ridden world in 1971's The Omega Man, to Heston's culinary discovery in 1975's Soylent Green, to the cruel "In space, no one can hear you scream" universe of 1979's Alien.

The true fascination of the book is to read it 40 years later for its vision of a future America. It predicted a grim time of war, disease, and poverty -- a world in which the descent of man leaves the living envying the dead. The Texas-Israeli War is Cold War apocalypse, where whatever survived the nuclear bombs was destroyed by weaponized diseases and blights that decimated the human and plant worlds and left the survivors sickly and struggling. As Inglestein reflects while looking out over the Texas farmland, "Early in the War of '92, the plagues -- many more than seven -- began to strike. Moses had been dead a long time. Now there would be no deliverance."

But some things in the book's future are actually less frightening than our present and recent past. Our 1999 saw the advent of drones and cyberweapons, leading to an era where autonomous machines make war (and one day will turn on us, in the world of the Terminator). Tanks have begun to seem like Industrial Age relics, ponderous and useless compared to agile robots and special operations forces. However, in the alternate 1999, armor is the king of battle in a future that is more like World War II than Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Texas-Israeli War is post-apocalyptic Panzer porn, with tanks appearing on every page, as if the Omega Man found himself an M-1 Abrams to pump high-explosive shells at those weird-eyed mutants that torment him. Yet it is also the twilight of the tank, as warfare plummets toward the pre-industrial. The United States and ReTex forces make do with junkyard leftovers and museum pieces, such as World War II Sherman, Grant, and Stuart tanks. Only the Israelis have high-tech equipment, a handful of Centurion tanks armed with plutonium-powered engines and Gatling lasers:

Sol's unit was among the last possessing modern tanks. When the remaining stuff wore out, the battlefield would be totally given over to infantry. Already, the airplane approached the dodo's fate. Eventually the two great power conglomerates would resemble men who, having wounded each other fatally, crawl together and thumbwrestle even as they bleed to death.

The portrayal of Israel will be especially jarring to 21st century readers. The novel, and the original short story that spawned it, were written just after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and a few years after the Six-Day War, when Israeli military prowess was legendary (an image dented by the 2006 Lebanon War). The Israelis are depicted as spirited but weary warriors resigned to a lifetime of struggle and to losing friends and family to war and terrorism. Soldier-farmers are fighting for the promise of money and a few of acres of American land to farm, which won't seem much like the upwardly mobile Israeli computer programmers now earning shekels in Tel Aviv.

Perhaps the eeriest, almost creepy, part is the portrayal of Ariel Sharon, who is mentioned in passing, but in reverential tones as a skilled and honorable warrior who refuses to obey orders by the Sons of Alamo to execute civilians. The book was written just after Sharon earned fame by leading a counteroffensive across the Suez Canal that turned the tide of the Yom Kippur War, and before the Israeli government found him responsible for not preventing a Christian massacre of Palestinians during the 1982 intervention in Lebanon's civil war.

Our time as foreseen in 1974 may be similar in some ways, but it is very different. As Sol Inglestein would say, baruch Hashem, it is a blessing that the world did not turn out so.

Ballantine Books

National Security

Rabid Response

Is the Pentagon crazy enough to bring nukes to a cyberfight?

The latest Bond flick, Skyfall, could well be the most realistic of the entire series. Its villain, disgruntled ex-MI-6 operative and creepy cyber-hacker Raoul Silva, launches massive cyberattacks from his high-tech lair on a deserted island somewhere off of Macau. He threatens to commandeer the infrastructure of entire nations at the speed of light with the mere push of a button, leaving nary a trace. Who needs cyclopytic henchmen or sharks-with-frickin'-laser-beams-attached-to-their-heads when you can invisibly disrupt power grids around the globe by merely hitting the "Enter" key?

As it turns out, our most senior defense officials and intelligence chiefs, as well as top CEOs, are now grappling with this very issue: What to do about the Raoul Silvas of the world before they wreak cyber-havoc on the nation? The problem is that some in the Pentagon are threatening "deterrence" via kinetic reprisals -- including nuclear counterattacks in the most extreme cases -- that could actually encourage the very cyberattacks the government hopes to prevent.

In the latest report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), cyberthreats climbed from being the number-three threat last year to the number-one position -- beating even terrorism to claim the top spot. In introducing the Worldwide Threat Assessment to the Senate, DNI James Clapper said that "when it comes to the distinct threat areas, our statement this year leads with cyber.... [I]t's hard to overemphasize its significance." And yet cyberattacks have yet to cause damage in the way a military strike could. A sobering article by Thomas Rid in Foreign Policy points out that not a single fatality has yet been attributed to any cyberattack.  

On the other hand, about $100 billion is believed to be lost annually to cyber-crime, cyber-extortion, cyber-espionage of corporate secrets, and in cleaning-up and addressing those threats. So it certainly makes sense to get out ahead of cyber-insecurities instead of waiting and reacting to a more metastasized crisis in a few years. The question is, when do cyber-intrusions cross the line from being an expensive criminal nuisance to a national-level concern requiring military intervention or military threats? And, relatedly, how should the United States divide the nation's cybersecurity mission between the civilians (at the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security) and the military?

This is where the recent 146-page report from the Pentagon's Defense Science Board, "Resilient Military Systems and the Advanced Cyber Threat," comes in. A 33-member panel of government and civilian experts was charged with reviewing the robustness of Pentagon defenses against cyberattacks and making recommendations to improve them. Although the report contains many sensible recommendations, it also makes an outrageous and counter-productive one: It suggests threatening the use of nuclear weapons in response to the most severe cyberattacks. "Deterrence is achieved with offensive cyber, some protected-conventional capabilities, and anchored with U.S. nuclear weapons," the report states, adding, "Cyber risk can be managed through the combination of deterrence (up to a nuclear response in the most extreme case) and improved cyber defense."

Nuclear deterrence isn't the best analogy for addressing cyber-threats, and it is certainly the wrong policy. All through the Cold War, and even now, the United States had early-warning satellites that used infrared sensors to pinpoint where nuclear-tipped missiles may have come from, thus fulfilling the critical attribution criterion on which deterrence hinges. Nothing remotely equivalent exists in cyberspace. Another critical difference is the involvement of subnational groups. During the Cold War, if U.S. sensors indicated that missiles were coming from the Soviet Union, we had no doubt they were launched by the Soviet government. The same is not true of cyberattacks, which a group of teenagers in Russia could launch without the permission of their parents, let alone the government. Massive attacks can be carried out with cheap technology available to individuals. It's as if all citizens worldwide had easy access to squadrons of stealth fighters.

Openly threatening U.S. military responses to cyberattacks may just encourage hackers trying to cause mischief -- or subnational groups hoping to cause far worse. There are a number of dissident and terrorist groups in China -- not to mention extremist anti-government militias in the United States -- who would be happy to try to lead the United States into war with China. Even if we assume that they would not be able to trigger a nuclear response, it makes no sense to create incentives for them to do so by carrying out repeated malicious and severe cyberattacks against the United States. At best, threatening nuclear reprisal just legitimizes another use for nuclear weapons at a time when the United States is trying to reduce its reliance on them and ought to be setting a positive example.

The fundamental reason that deterrence does not translate well into the cyber realm is that true attribution is difficult in cyberspace. Even though cyber-sleuths can now trace attacks much better than even just a few years ago, it still is not good enough to determine exactly who carried out the attack and who may have sponsored it. Groups, whether state-sponsored or subnational, could also physically move overseas to launch attacks and thus reliably mislead attribution efforts. A group of Chinese hanging out in Paris for the summer would probably not attract much attention. Or they could hire hackers in a third country. One of the earliest documented hacking incidents, in 1986, was the "Cuckoo's Egg" intrusion into about 400 U.S. military computer systems -- to try to access documents on the Strategic Defense Initiative and nuclear bombs. After some first-rate sleuthing, the hacker was identified as a West German, Markus Hess, who was a paid recruit of the Soviet KGB.

But deterrence theory is not entirely useless in cyberspace. After all, you can deter an attacker not only by threatening to punish him in retaliation, but also by denying him any significant benefit from the attack. By making its systems highly resilient and instituting secure redundancies, the United States could make it seem futile for adversaries to attempt disrupting our computer systems.

The government is already taking steps to require stricter standards in designing more secure operating systems. Last month, President Obama signed an executive order and issued an accompanying presidential policy directive (PPD-21) that calls for a voluntary public-private approach to address cyber-threats to critical infrastructure. The measures appear to be a mixed bag: They encourage government agencies to share unclassified threat information with critical infrastructure operators, which is eminently sensible, but they also aim to impose mandatory regulations down the road, which may not be flexible enough to deal with rapidly mutating cyber-threats. The soundest solutions will likely come from innovation rather than legislation. One promising avenue for improving cybersecurity seems to be by migrating processing and data to a secure "cloud." Just as most of us place our money in a bank and not under the mattress, the future of secure computing might be in deterring cyberattacks by holding a small encrypted share in a massive cloud.

There is also a growing realization that some norms or rules for cybersecurity are a good idea. For example, this week, NATO's Co-operative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence released rules governing the conduct of cyberattacks by its members. Until recently, the United States was wary of negotiating rules of the road for cyberspace, essentially claiming that the laws of war sufficed. But following a series of well-publicized cyberattacks against the United States, the Obama administration now favors establishing ground rules for cyberspace, going so far as berating China for not abiding by (largely non-existent) international cyber norms. That won't be easy -- the United States would like to focus on cyber-espionage, while Russia and China want any rules to leave them free to censor the Internet -- but it is an essential step.

There should be no illusion that the cybersecurity problem is ever going to be solved entirely: The Internet is attractive because it is open, and being open is fundamentally at odds with being secure. We simply cannot legislate our way out of this problem. Like the war on drugs, it will continue. The real-world Raoul Silvas of the world will continue to cause cyber-havoc. We can respond by making our systems more resilient, improve our attribution abilities, and, to the extent possible, cooperate with other nations in smoking out the Silvas worldwide. But one thing we surely don't need in cyberspace is nukes: It's dangerous enough as it is.

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