Is This a Real Plan or Just a Fantasy? Five Characteristics of Fantasy Documents

In a previous post, we spoke briefly about fantasy documents a term coined by Lee Clarke of Rutgers. In this post, I wanted to dive a little deeper into this concept. There are, I think, five characteristics[1] of a fantasy document as described by Clarke.

Characteristics of Fantasy Documents:

  1. A fantasy document tells the reader a story rather than describing reality[2]
  2. A fantasy document plans by simile[3]
  3. A fantasy document calls for actions which have never been done successfully and/or are not seriously prepared for operationally[4]
  4. A fantasy document (tries to) protect a system or organization from criticism and scrutiny[5]
  5. A fantasy document never admits a risk is unassessable or uncontrollable, rather asserts that every risk is not only understood but controlled[6]

Fantasy documents follow a story-like structure. They read like a script for everyone to follow, cleanly denoting timelines, designating actions to be taken, communication lines to be established, supplies to be requisitioned, and actions to be taken. In all reality, a true plan at scale would have to work something like a choose your own adventure novel; except it would fill bookcases upon bookcases trying to account for every any eventuality or combination of events. These plans would swell to the size of the reality they inhabit, like Borges’ unconscionable maps, making them exact, but functionally useless.

Fantasy documents don’t take that multi-path procedural tact. Instead, they lay out a narrative. ‘In the case of [x], we will do [y], within [h] hours we will do [z], within [d] days we will do [a]. Himself a perpetuator of his own fantasy documents, nuclear strategist Herman Khan mocked early nuclear war plans of the US. He said in On Thermonuclear War that the Army’s plans to, immediately after a nuclear exchange, begin embarking state-side units to sail overseas and fight a land war with the enemy, were patently absurd.

Khan, likely rightly, observed that in the event of general nuclear war what was left of domestic military formations would be immediately engaged in reconstruction & keeping domestic order, they would not be embarking to fight a land war in Europe. But the story of sneak attack followed by an extended land & sea battle is a story policymakers and civilians alike were familiar with.

In service of the story, fantasy documents plan by simile. [x] event which we’ve previously dealt with is like [y] event which we’re trying to plan for. Nuclear war is like conventional war but with bigger bombs. A big oil spill is like a little oil spill[7], we just need more response vessels. The evacuation of Long Island during a nuclear reactor meltdown is like the daily Long Island – NYC commute. Responding to a radiological emergency is like responding to a fire[8]. They often presume that a small emergency response will linearly scale to a large one.

These similes often lead to fantasy documents specifying actions to be taken which, would be impossible or nearly impossible to undertake, and are never seriously prepared for operationally. One clear example is civil defense plans in America. One of the plot points in the stories told by civil defense planners was the evacuation of urban areas if the government believed nuclear war was imminent. This would, planners thought, serve two purposes, first to get civilians out of harm’s way and second to put the United States on more secure footing to fight a win a nuclear war.

Never mind that the total evacuation of New York is something that had never been done before. Never mind that the millions of evacuees could be easily seen and then targeted by bombers. Simply envision for a moment the logistical challenges of moving the entire population of New York City out of New York City. Then the challenges of housing them somewhere far enough from Manhattan to be safe from a nuclear attack. This alone would stretch the resources of the government to the breaking point. Now imagine doing that simultaneously with the 10 largest American metro areas under a condition of imminent nuclear war. It simply strains credulity that urban evacuation could have ever been considered a serious policy, but it nonetheless was.

Khan, a physicist by training, was frustrated nearly to the point of rage over what he saw as unrealistic and ineffectual civil & military planning in the early cold war. In one famous incident during a meeting in the Pentagon, Khan slammed the table saying in extreme frustration “Gentlemen, you do not have a war plan. You have a Wargasm!”[9] referring to the military’s doctrine at the time of massive retaliation. But by looking at the plans in Clarke’s framing as fantasy documents instead of Khan’s framing as ‘plans which should guide operations,’ they begin to make more sense.

The actual function of a fantasy document is often not to plan for anything, but rather, in part, to shield an organizations or institution from criticism. Oil spill containment plans assure the public & environmental groups that the oil company is in fact prepared to respond to, contain, and resolve even a massive spill. Civil defense plans assure the public that their government is ready and able to protect them in the case of a nuclear war. The story that nuclear war plans tell is that the government or the military stands ready an able to not only fight, but win a nuclear war.

As Clarke details at length, the United States government claimed to be able to protect 80% of the American population in the event of nuclear war, a number which, as near as could be determined, had no basis in reality[10]. It was stated in a single report and then repeated as fact for years.

Fantasy documents never admit an inability to control risk. The reality was, most likely, that the potential damage from a nuclear exchange was completely unbounded, and there was little to nothing the United States government could do to control that risk other than trying to prevent nuclear war to begin with through deterrence. The risks involved in a nuclear exchange were unassessable and uncontrollable.

The reality was, that in the event of a 200,000 barrel oil spill neither the oil company nor the government would have the ability to contain the oil or prevent ecological damage. The very act of shipping oil by supertanker had created an uncontrollable risk. How could planners admit that to themselves let alone the public at large? A fantasy document wouldn’t be fantasy if it didn’t purport the ability to control the uncontrollable.

Now that we have a good background on what a fantasy document is, next up we’ll talk about some uses of fantasy documents and why writing them may not be as bad as it seems.


  • [1] I should emphasize these are drawn from my reading Clarke’s work but this is not a set of criteria he explicitly lays out anywhere in his book. I have tried to include robust page references so that a reader can follow where I’m drawing from.
  • [2] Clarke, Lee. Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Document to Tame Disaster. 16
  • [3] Clarke. 74
  • [4] Clarke. 39; Clarke p.78
  • [5] Clarke. 41
  • [6] Clarke. 142
  • [7] Clarke. 78
  • [8] Clarke. 89
  • [9] Kaplan, Fred. The Wizards of Armageddon. 222-223
  • [10] Clarke. 35-38

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s