The Usual Suspects
What's remarkable about Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Laureate Tom Schelling, and Hassan Nasrallah is that they probably agree with Keyser Soze, the legendary fictional villain of The Usual Suspects on one subject. Part boogeyman and part urban legend, Soze was a near-metaphysical example of implacable retribution. Soze's presence exists entirely offscreen until the final scene, but his legend is created in a an early bit of movie dialogue.
Verbal Kint: He's supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody ever believed he was real. Nobody ever knew him or saw anybody that ever worked directly for him. But to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew; that was his power. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. One story the guys told me, the story I believe, was from his days in Turkey. There was a gang of Hungarians that wanted their own mob. They realized that to be in power, you didn't need guns or money or even numbers. You just needed the will to do what the other guy wouldn't. After a while, they come into power and then they come after Soze. He was small-time then, just running dope, they say. (We see all of this in flashback) They come to his home in the afternoon, looking for his business. They find his wife and kids in the house and decide to wait for Soze. He comes home to find his wife raped and children screaming. The Hungarians knew Soze was tough, not to be trifled with, so they let him know they meant business.
(Flashback: Hungarian cuts one of the children's throats) They tell him they want his territory, all his business. Soze looks over the faces of his family. Then he showed these men of will what will really was.
(Soze shoots two Hungarians, then shoots his children and his wife as the last Hungarian watches in surprised horror) He tells him he would rather see his family dead than live another day after this. He lets the last Hungarian go, waits until his wife and kids are in the ground, and then he goes after the rest of the mob. He kills their kids. He kills their wives. He kills their parents and their parents' friends. He burns down the houses they live in, the stores they work in. He kills people that owe them money. And like that, he's gone. Underground. Nobody's ever seen him since. He becomes a myth, a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night. "Rat on your pop and Keyser Soze will get you." But no one ever really believes. (We see a shadow-encased figure of Keyser Soze walking towards the camera in front of a huge tower of flame as Verbal speaks about the process of revenge.)
Agent Kujon: Do you believe in him, Verbal?
Verbal Kint: Keaton always said, "I don't believe in God, but I'm afraid of him." Well, I believe in God -- and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze.
The dramatic screen dialogue is matched by the mathematical precision of the game-theoretic concept of commitment for which Tom Schelling was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. The Nobel press release said in part:
Schelling showed that a party can strengthen its position by overtly worsening its own options, that the capability to retaliate can be more useful than the ability to resist an attack, and that uncertain retaliation is more credible and more efficient than certain retaliation.
What this means is explained by notes from the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which summarizes Schelling's lectures. First described is the basic notion of commitment, which communicates to the enemy that you will do what you undertake. Commitment makes deterrence credible and credibility is the essential problem. "The most difficult part is communicating your intentions to your enemies. They must believe that you are committed to fighting them in order to defend" what you say you will defend for them to take you seriously. As Verbal Kint put it "to be in power, you didn't need guns or money or even numbers. You just needed the will to do what the other guy wouldn't." To accomplish it no matter what. Schelling taught that threats are more credible if you "burn your bridges or ships" thereby making it clear that you have only one option: fight. When the Hungarian mob invaded Soze's home to intimidate him into submitting, he simply killed his family first, illustrating Schelling's point that to truly be believed “you must get yourself into a position where you cannot fail to react as you said you would”. Such is this power that when the fictional Kaiser Soze demonstrated absolute commitment he ceased to be simply a man and became a force of nature.
Tom Schelling's key contribution was to establish on a sound mathematical basis the role of will -- expressed as commitment -- in war. Deterrence was not simply a matter of possessing advanced weapons. That was only half the equation. The other half was to establish that you were absolutely ready to use those weapons to your purpose. And given a choice between superiority in weapons and ascendance in will, weapons always came in second. Die Welt relates the experience of an Israeli officer who fought Hezbollah during the early 1980s. Israel had artillery, tanks, airplanes to Hezbollahs guns and knives. But Israel was a liberal democracy and Hezbollah a ruthless criminal organization. The overmatch in will made knives were more powerful than tanks because Hezbollah was willing to use them unhesitatingly. "Hezbollah’s barbarism is legendary. Gen. Effe Eytam, an Israeli veteran of that first Lebanon war, tells of how--after Israel had helped bring "Doctors without Borders" into a village in the 1980s to treat children--local villagers lined up 50 kids the next day to show Eytam the price they pay for cooperating with the West. Each of the children had had their pinky finger cut off."
None of the weapons in the IDF arsenal could level this disparity in will. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in a speech before the Harvard class of 1978 explained how weapons simply became "burdens" to those who lacked a belief worth fighting for. Authentic belief brought commitment; but relativism could only aspire to fashion. Schelling would have understood. His audience did not and Solzhenitsyn tried to spell it out for them.
No weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of willpower. In a state of psychological weakness, weapons become a burden for the capitulating side. To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being. Nothing is left, then, but concessions, attempts to gain time and betrayal.
The matchless power of inherited Cold War weapons was more than overcome by withering of the very mental attitudes which made them effective. Mark Steyn argued that as a result the West's power shrank in direct proportion to the effectiveness of weaponry because the laws of political correctness always diminished the will to use them faster than their increase in destructiveness. "We live in an age of inversely proportional deterrence: The more militarily powerful a civilized nation is, the less its enemies have to fear the full force of that power ever being unleashed. They know America and other Western powers fight under the most stringent self-imposed etiquette. Overwhelming force is one thing; overwhelming force behaving underwhelmingly as a matter of policy is quite another. ... The U.S. military is the best-equipped and best-trained in the world. But it's not enough, it never has been, and it never will be."
The near panic which gripped Teheran and Damascus in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom was not the result of the fear that America had found new weapons -- the lethality of those weapons were already known -- but that it had found unexpected the will to use them. Today even better weapons are there yet the American force in Iraq is regarded as having become totally impotent, not because it has become militarily weaker; through fixed airbases, experience, new weapons it has become immeasurably stronger than it was in 2003. But it's impotence is due entirely to the perception that it's will has drained away -- that it cannot use its power. That leaves American power weaker than had it never been used. As Tom Schelling taught commitments that are repudiated -- such as by those politicians who now say they were against OIF even before they voted for it -- destroy not only the current commitments but the possibility of future commitments. The cost of escaping one commitment “is the discrediting of other commitments that one would still like to be credited”.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn asked his audience whether man could live without faith and received no answer. Tom Schelling answered, without hearing the question, that man cannot not survive without at least the counterfeit of faith: something called commitment. In game theoretic at least. And as for Keyser Soze, of whom, "to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for", faith and fear run together until finally God is indistinguishable from the Devil. "Well, I believe in God -- and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze."