Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Getting Schelled?

Keeping with the theme of Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling, an article in (Slate) discusses his "little-known role" in the Vietnam War. Schelling was working on his pain theory of bombing at the time and he had the ear of policy-makers in Washington. Therefore, his studies punitive damage from bombings and of incremental risk increases was influential in convincing the Johnson administration to attempt to bomb the Vietcong into submission.

As history would tell us now, Operation Rolling Thunder was a complete failure. This incident is important in many different aspects even today. Of particular importance is the gap between the academic world and the professional world. There is an enormous difference between something working in theory and working in practice. Social sciences can be studied empirically but where are always caveats. Is the actor rational? What are the stakes? Each situation is different. Schelling's original analysis was devised for how the US should interact with Russia where the fear of nuclear warfare was a distinct possibility. Was there reason to believe that punitive bombing would work in a completely different situation in Vietnam?

Social sciences are rarely exact and those in charge of policy would do well to remember this. The lesson of failed US bombing campaign may be the most important aspect of Schelling's early work. Today the idea of punitive bombing is basically dead because 1) it doesn't work and 2) moral/human reasons. Don't feel too bad for Schelling though. He still got his Nobel Prize, albeit 40 years later.

No comments: