Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 20

General Owens

As a general rule, parents weren't talked about in K- Entry. It was almost as if no one had any. The main exception was Mary Ellen, who called and popped up occasionally. But the consensus was that she really didn't seem like anyone's mother, perhaps the second wife of someone's father.

Kent, of course, had real parents. But he talked about them only with Tom. On this occasion, Tom could see that he was almost desperate that Tom go out to dinner with himself and his father on the latter's forthcoming visit. Tom asked,

"Do you want a third party present so that he can't raise certain subjects?"

"There already will be a third party. You're the fourth."

"Is your mother coming too?"

"No. Dad's going to be here on some sort of official government business, and an air force general is coming with him."

"Is the idea to introduce you to the general?"

"I think so. It's thought to be high time that I stopped messing around and got on with something important."

"Are you supposed to join the air force?"

"No. Dad's ties are to the civilians who run the Defense Department. His idea of power consists in controlling the finances and pushing military programs that he happens to like. So he's generally allied to the military men who run those programs."

"Would he want you to leave college and go to Washington?"

"Not immediately. The hope is probably that the general will be impressed with me. I would then complete college while being groomed for some junior position from which I could gradually rise to prominence."

"I can't imagine that these people will want me to be there."

"I asked Dad if I could bring you along, and he said it was fine. He likes you."

Kent seemed to think it a bit of a joke that his father liked Tom, but Tom wasn't sure what to think. For his own part, he found Kent's father quite open, affable, and intelligent. But, of course, it was one thing to be a friendly acquaintance and another to be a son.

General Owens actually made Tom want to be an air force general until he considered the long hard road that would have to be trodden. Surprisingly young, the general was relaxed, funny, and supremely confident. He had commanded the first test of a hydrogen bomb with a typhoon bearing down on the island test site, and he now made jokes about it. Tom imagined that he always made the right decision in a fully rational but casual way, and then looked ahead to the next problem.

There were professors as smart as General Owens, but they were hardly men of action, much less men who could shoulder great responsibilities with a sense of joy.

Within ten minutes, it was clear that Kent's father didn't belong in the same league. There was nothing wrong with Mr. Holden. He was as pleasant as usual, and was certainly no fool. But Tom suspected that, with respect to ability, he might stand to the big leaguers in the Department of Defense much as Kent stood to the big leaguers in the Department of Anthropology. Both Holdens were competent and intelligent, but not brilliant enough to conceive a policy that would win converts in those rarefied realms.

The difference was that Mr. Holden's money gave him access and influence. But, then, Kent would one day have the money. The big boys would have to listen to him, too. It was remarkable that, having the same problem, father and son didn't understand each other better.

At one point, the general said to Kent,

"Several people warned me not to drive with your father, but, on the way up from New York, we only had two or three close calls."

It was said in a joking way, but it sounded as if Mr. Holden was known more for his dangerous driving than for his expertise as a defense planner.

The talk soon turned to various cold war possibilities, and General Owens said,

"It's all a question of degree. How likely does it have to be that the Soviets will launch a full-scale nuclear attack on us before we launch a pre-emptive one on them?"

Kent immediately took the position that the United States couldn't attack unless it had actually been attacked. General Owens replied,

"That's how we deal with murderers. No matter how much a man may look and act like a murderer, we can't arrest him until he at least attempts to murder someone. He gets one shot before we react. But can we deal that way with the Soviets?"

Tom had been party to many discussions such as this, but he was now with people who would help make some of the decisions. Not only that, General Owens was curious as to whether any philosophical positions might bear on this question. Tom replied,

"For the utilitarians, it would be a matter of calculation. In each scenario, we multiply the amount of pain by the probability of its occurring. Of course, none of these calculations could actually be made. We can only speculate about them."

"Would it matter if the people involved are Americans or Russians?"

"Not unless some separate argument were made. For example, one might argue that Americans are likely to lead the world toward Utopia while Russians will take it in the opposite direction."

General Owens laughed and replied,

"I don't think I'd want to assume that. Anyhow, a lot of our reasoning is of the sort you describe. We do mention numbers of casualties, always at least in the tens of millions, and we try to guess at the probabilities. You could hardly call it calculation, perhaps pre-calculation."

That was another joke, and he then asked,

"Are there other philosophical positions quite different from that?"

"There's intuitionism, which claims that some actions are inherently right, others wrong."

General Owens laughed in a different way and pointed at Kent. It was again a friendly gesture, but it implied a lot. The father was the one who drove dangerously, and the son was the one who thought it immoral to nuke first. General Owens got the gist of intuitionism quickly, and then asked,

"What happens if two people, having taken in all the relevant information, still disagree in their moral intuitions?"

"According to the theory, that can't happen. Everyone would then agree, in just the way in which they agree that two plus two equals four."

"Do you believe that?"


"Are there any other theories?"

"Yes. In its extreme form, emotivism says that ethical language doesn't express facts of any sort, natural or non- natural. It's function is to persuade, rather like advertizing."

General Owens smiled and replied,

"We try to calculate outcomes, and, when we realize that there are too many imponderables to permit calculation, we resort to persuasion."

"I suppose that's what usually happens."

"It must happen whenever you're dealing with large issues."

Tom nodded, knowing that a large issue for the general would be one in which forty or fifty million people might get killed. As if thinking along the same lines, General Owens added,

"And then, you have to always remember that a large issue for us may not be one for the Russians. They lost more then ten million people in the last war, perhaps twenty. The same in the war before. That's normal for them. The average American is more likely to be killed in a traffic accident than in war."

There was another humorous side glance at Kent's father, but the main point wasn't lost on Tom. A country prepared for such losses might be quite willing to initiate nuclear war if it could inflict crippling damage on its opponent. Tom asked,

"How much better will the country that strikes first come out?"

"All other things being equal, perhaps with one third to one half the damage of the country that waits to be struck. Of course, no one really knows."

There was an interesting contrast in the expressions of Kent and his father. The elder Mr. Holden was about to enter the conversation, evidently with ideas of his own about nuclear balance. Kent looked as if he were about to be sick.

In the event, Kent simply remained silent as the discussion whirled around nuclear strategy. And then, suddenly, General Owens adressed Tom,

"I've often wondered what it would be like just to ignore all these things and immerse myself in something like philosophy."

It was a shock to Tom that someone like that would ever have considered such a thing, but he replied,

"I've never insulated myself to that extent. I still get worried when one side says it'll nuke the other if it does X, and the other side says it intends to do X."

"Yes, you'd really have to avoid newspapers, radio and TV, and associate only with people who also avoid those things. Are there people here at Harvard who do that?"

Before Tom could answer, Mr. Holden said,

"There are people who get so involved in their personal problems that world affairs have no impact on them at all."

General Owens looked at him with interest, as if such a possibility had never occurred to him. The general might conceivably have withdrawn from the world to study philosophy, but it wasn't conceivable that he would be incapacitated by any sort of personal problem. Meanwhile, Tom was aware of an implicit father-son transaction.

Mr. Holden hadn't looked at Kent when he spoke, and he might well not have had Kent personally in mind. But Tom was morally certain that Kent took himself to be the prime example of one immobilized by his personal problems. Not only that, Kent had often, when alone with Tom, complained that his father was concerned with such things as NATO and national security. Why, Tom had wondered, shouldn't he be? He had money, ability, and influence. Would it have been better if he had devoted himself to golf?

Kent's answer to that question had never been very clear. But he usually argued that, instead of being expansive like his father, a person should contract his personality to a hard minimal kernal. Tom was happy that he put forward no such arguments on this occasion, contenting himself with a wan smile toward his father.

After dinner, when Kent and Tom were returning alone to K-Entry, Kent said,

"I bet I made a terrible impression on General Owens."

"You were pretty quiet, but you didn't want to make a good impression. I doubt that you want to be dragooned off to Washington."

"The general found you interesting."

"He was just interested in discovering that there are people still studying things like philosophy when the world is about to explode."

"Is it about to explode?"

"I think he thinks so. And he knows a hell of a lot more than we do about it."

"It is true that I hardly care. I suppose I'll be as panicked as anyone else if a great nuclear ball of fire engulfs K- Entry, but I can't feel the danger with any immediacy."

"I think I can imagine it, but the immediate problem is simpler, at least as far as you're concerned."

"How's that?"

"You've always claimed that we're born into a given culture by accident, and that there's no reason to conform to it. Particularly when there are likely to be better alternatives somewhere within reach."


"Well, you don't like the little subculture that your father and General Owens belong to. Just leave it."

There was no immediate reaction from Kent, and Tom continued,

"Jimmy's decided that he doesn't like the Chinese culture or his chief of the secret police father, and he's exiting. At least after his father's paid his tuition. You can do the same thing."

"Jimmy's at a great distance from his father."

"But his father's much worse. A murderer, in fact. Your father seems quite nice to me."

"If my father gives encouragement to these people who want to mount a surprise nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, he'll be helping to kill tens of millions, not just thousands."

"I can see that I'm lucky that my father departed early and permanently, but you can do it if Jimmy can. In fact, even tonight, it must have been pretty clear to all that you're not signing on. You don't even need to take positive action, just relax and do what comes naturally. For that matter, you could become a playboy! That would certainly disqualify you for membership in whatever they belong to."

Tom was aware that he was urging a subversive doctrine on Kent, but Kent did seem to brighten up a little. He even said,

"If I'm going to be a playboy, I suppose I should go into Boston and get outfitted in the right sort of costume."

"I don't think you go to Brooks Brothers for that. Peter might be able to tell you where to go."

"I'll ask him."

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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