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Perpetual Peace

[From I. Bickerstaff, The Endower Institute History of the 21st Century, pp. 55-60 ff. Hoboken: Endower Institute Press, 2207.]

In 2045 the Endower Institute organized the GSPW (Group for the Study of the Phenomenon of War) to conduct an interdisciplinary study of game theory, war-gaming, and evolutionary psychology. An elaborate computer simulation had originally been planned, but finally the participants in the War Study were issued modified versions of off-the-shelf strategy board games. Over the next four months, playing these games became the jobs of the study participants in a literal sense, as they were paid based on their performance in the game. (Several nonetheless indulged in bizarre behavior, such as massing their forces in Madagascar.)

The curious first result was that players in versions of the game altered to penalize war-waging (by introducing a random element weighted towards the defeat of the aggressor), and to reward commerce and diplomacy, waged war more often than players in the unmodified games. Players in altered and unmodified versions were about equal in other sub-optimal behaviors to be expected in connection with war (refusal to recognize imminent defeat, underestimation of the enemy, refusal to compromise between strategic goals when they became incompatible).

But the usual irrationalities would not suffice to explain why an increase in the difficulty and uncertainty of war would result in an increase in the rate of war waged.

The hypothesis, which the Second War Study would confirm, was that human beings were, for sound evolutionary reasons, prejudiced to regard violence in general, including war, as open-ended. As Dr. Abraham “Abe” Saintpear, then Director of the Institute, later explained in his book The Cornered Instinct:

An animal which has been backed into the proverbial corner is more likely to die than an animal being chased in an open field. From a game theory point of view, the animal should, to secure the best long-term results, instinctively fight its hardest when it has the best chance for survival. Instead, we find the opposite. It’s the doomed animal, the cornered animal, that fights most fiercely. Similarly, the people we admire the most are the ones who exert themselves to the fullest degree at the last minute, or in an emergency, even to a degree which, under ordinary circumstances, would be considered absurd.

The conclusion reached by the GSPW was that these behaviors arose from a hypothetical “short-circuit” which might take place in the brains of mammals in violent situations. As Saintpear said in his 2058 lecture to the World Post War Society:

We realized that cornered behavior could not be a rational reaction at all. It must in some sense be evolutionary advantageous to be irrational in this respect. We had been studying a false dilemma. The survivability of the species required the sacrifice of the survivability of the individual in such a way that, in certain situations, the rational optimizer and the irrational gambler must be the same person.

Their insight came through a thought experiment involving two “characters.”

The first was known as the Rabbit. The Rabbit always acts in such a way as to maximize the probability of his own survival by minimizing (through avoidance) anything that threatens his survival.

The second was known as the Wolverine. The Wolverine’s maxim is always to spend higher quantities of any finite resource (energy, money, or so forth) as the probability of his survival decreases.

What should have been obvious (according to Saintpear’s memoir, My Project) but did not show up until the simulations were run, was that in most situations their behaviors would be the same; and that, while in some border cases the Wolverine lost his life unnecessarily, it was in fact the Wolverine, not the Rabbit, who stood the best chance of survival, given any nontrivial rate of dangerous situations which could not be avoided. Wrote Saintpear: “The best long-term strategy of survival, given unavoidable dangers, is in extreme probability of death to replace optimization according to probability with optimization according to possibility.” Later, he restated the principle as: “In a crazy situation, the sane thing is to go crazy.”

The solution to the problem of the high-warring gamers was then simple: “As the probability of victory decreased, so did the players’ attention to the probabilities.” As the odds turned against them, they ignored the odds.

The War Studies became the centerpiece of Saintpear’s monograph The Last Argument: The Instinct for War. In this book (an unexpected best-seller), Saintpear contended that it was human nature to regard war as open-ended, even when the conclusion was objectively foregone. Negotiations, he pointed out, are begun with some idea of the treaty likely to issue from them; trials (in the first instance), of the verdict; but everyone believes they can win a war. “Wars are not lost once victory becomes impossible for the losing side; wars are only lost once there is nothing, however pointless, left to try; once there is no hope left to cling to.” Rational forms of conflict resolution, in Saintpear’s view, could not substitute for war because they did not make the participants feel cornered. Not feeling cornered, they were not confident that victory must, eventually, be theirs; and therefore, they did not commit themselves fully. His position was that a bloodless means of conflict resolution would require a strong admixture of irrationality and open-endedness.

It was according to this theory that Saintpear formed, with his own profits from the book and the contributions of several philanthropists (including the Estate of Wildcard Endower), the Court of Circular Appeals, a body whose stated aim was to render only provisional decisions in conflicts of international law. “It is only by offering an inexhaustible, receding supply of false hope,” wrote Saintpear to a friend, “that we can create a bloodless activity which will be the psychological equivalent of war.”

Saintpear did not make the mistake of trying to recruit the first-world nations into his scheme directly. Instead, he began by traveling with the whole Court into the most unstable areas of the world, in order to render judgments in sub-national conflicts of tribes, cartels, and so on. Soon the entourage of the Court, innumerable advocates ceaselessly debating all the causes into which the Court had interposed itself, had reached such a scale that it could not continue to travel, and took up permanent headquarters in Switzerland.

Later, when Saintpear discovered that a pair of tribes had impoverished themselves to the point of starvation to pay their advocates at the Court, he caused a portion of the Court’s fees to be diverted to humanitarian organizations, to be used in alleviating whatever misery the Court might cause.

After its first decade the Court could no longer remain in Switzerland. The road systems of that tiny, mountainous country could not support the logistical needs of the advocate corps of the first-world nations. Offers of land were made from every quarter; but, to the world’s surprise, the offer Saintpear accepted was in Israel. “It is best,” he said shortly before his death, “that the Court remain as close as possible to what have been the most fought-over regions of the world.”

Today the traveler hears the shouting of the advocate corps engaged in ceaseless argument on the plains below even before they come into sight of the shining World Headquarters of the Court of Circular Appeals upon the hill of Megiddo.