James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
  • It's Not Just the U.S. Educational System...

    Australians look north and quake.

    Late last year I was somewhat cross with the American public, wondering about our collapsing educational standards and sources of basic info, in light of the Pew study showing that 44 percent of Americans thought that China was the "world's leading economic power." My perhaps intemperate response at the time:

    More here and here and here.

    Now it turns out that it's not just us. According to the redoubtable Lowy Institute in Sydney and its just-released annual survey of Australian opinion, a full 55 percent of Australians think China is the world's leading economic power, followed by 32 percent choosing the United States (then eight percent for Europe, three for Japan, two everything else). Download link at Lowy's home page.

    Of course you can understand this reaction: China is on the move, its scale is immense, according to news reports and coverage of the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai Expo it seems to be able to achieve whatever it wants. But it also has just now surpassed Japan in total economic output -- with ten times as many people (to support) as Japan has. I will say for the millionth time that it is one thing to take China very seriously and prepare for a world in which it plays a major part. It's something else to imagine it already having solved its many and profound (environmental, social, even economic) challenges. But, we'll all see -- maybe the Aussies are more attuned to shifting realities than the Yanks are, or maybe they're getting carried away.
  • Weakening America: Mitch McConnell Shows How

    One man's objection leaves 80 posts vacant

    One man's objection leaves 80 posts vacant


    Depressed about how hard it is to get first-rate people into federal jobs, so they're ready to handle emergencies like the BP oil disaster? Wondering if our systems of self-government really are up to the challenges of the moment? Curious about whether people who complain about Senate obstructionism and tyranny-of-the-minority are exaggerating?

    Consider the works of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY (below), on the Senate floor 36 hours ago.

    As you may have heard elsewhere, the Obama Administration has been relatively slow in vetting and choosing nominees for many of its important posts -- but then has encountered extreme slowness from the Senate in approving the appointments once they get made. If you go to this White House site, you'll find a searchable, sortable list of all 820+ nominations and appointments made so far in the Administration; about 240 have not even come up for a Senate vote. If you go to this U.S. Senate site and click on the link for "Executive Calendar," you'll get a long PDF showing in its "nominations" section the scores and scores of people who have come through committees but not received a vote on the Senate floor. (Direct link to the PDF here.)

    On Thursday afternoon, just before its Memorial Day recess, the Senate had planned to consider about 80 of these nominations as a group. They all had been through financial and security vetting; they had been through committee consideration; they were headed for jobs that in many cases now stood vacant; they were ready to go. Sen. Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, moved for approval by unanimous consent, apparently believing that a deal to clear out the huge backlog had been struck. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, begged to differ. He was still sore about the recess appointment of Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. Therefore he wouldn't agree to the en-bloc vote. As he put it:

    Unfortunately, we are snagged over one particular nomination which has already been defeated by the Senate, and that was the nomination of Craig Becker to be on the NLRB. The President then recessed Mr. Becker and recessed a Democratic nomination to the NLRB but not a Republican nominee to the NLRB. There is a fundamental lack of equity and fairness involved, and that has been a significant hindrance in coming to a consent agreement.

    Fundamental lack of equity and fairness, indeed. Among other points, the nomination was not "defeated" by the Senate; the Democrats couldn't get the 60 votes to break a filibuster, which is different. After the jump, the extended exchange between McConnell and Harkin, which ends with a remarkable peroration by Harkin on what "fairness" has come to mean. For now, the comments of one of the people who had been scheduled for block approval and was ready immediately to head off to her job. (I call this nominee "her" without implying anything about her real identity or gender.)

    This person is the nominee for a significant though not household-name international role. The process of matching her with this job was underway by the time Obama took office 17 months ago. She had become the Administration's internal pick by about a year ago, and then spent most of last fall and winter in the vetting process for security-clearance and financial background (the latter requiring her to sell any holdings that might conflict with her new responsibilities). By early this year, that process was finished, and her nomination was officially announced. She and her family got their belongings ready, considered what to do with their house in America -- and began the long wait.

    It's bad to leave so much governmental and diplomatic leadership vacant for so long the beginning of each administration—and worse to allow a process that makes talented people think, "Why would I ever want to go through that?"

    Earlier this year she appeared before a Senate subcommittee, did well, and got their support. Then her nomination joined the big backlog on the Senate's Executive Calendar. The Administration's team thought that the skids had been greased for bloc-approval of this nominee and 80 others this week. She was all set -- nearly a year and a half into the Administration -- to go through the formal swearing-in procedures and head to her assignment, before the interim appointee had to leave and before an important overseas event. But Mitch McConnell said it would not be so.

    "I'm about as well positioned to handle this as anybody," the nominee told me this morning. "I don't have kids in school, I'm self employed, I can simply keep receiving briefings and working on the local dialects. But is it any wonder why people don't want to take these jobs when they get dicked around like this? I consider myself a patient person. But this is turning into a test of how long you can wait without going crazy."

    The next chance for consideration is when the Senate returns on June 7, but there is no guarantee that Mitch McConnell's grievance will be resolved by then. In July, the Senate goes on recess again. Then everything shifts into slo-mo for the mid-term elections.

    Let's be clear about the complaint here: Yes, people endure worse hardships than being made to wait for Senate confirmation for a fancy job. "I still tell myself this will be worth it in the end, assuming it ends," the nominee said. But it is bad for America to leave so much of its governmental and diplomatic leadership vacant for months or years at the beginning of each administration -- and it's worse, in the long run, to allow a process that makes many talented people think, Why would I ever want to go through that? Why would I want to spend half a year on the financial and security vetting, during which time I was not supposed even to tell my friends I was being considered; and then another half-year being ready to switch from my normal life to a new role somewhere else, but not knowing when that would happen, if ever?

    Mitch McConnell objects to Craig Becker's role on the NLRB? Fine. Let him make his case. But can we stand a system that allows him to gum up the whole rest of the government at his whim? Rule by laws, not men, is supposed to be the idea here. For now the main countervailing force is to put a spotlight on the petulant men behaving this way.

    After the jump, Tom Harkin's exchange with McConnell about "fairness and equity."

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  • Holiday Weekend Reading: "Living With A Computer" in 1982

    Time-capsule message from the dawn of the computer age.

    I mentioned yesterday that I used to talk with my friend Steve Banker about the "exciting" new offerings of the nascent computer age. The Victor 9000, the KayPro, the Eagle, the Xerox Star, the TRS Model 100 (the iPad of its day) and so many others. Model 100, which was a wonderful little machine:


    I believe that one of the first articles ever in a "real" magazine about these delightful new inventions was my "Living With a Computer," which came out in the Atlantic 28 years ago. The elegant and valuable new site LongForm.org, whose virtues I'll describe more another time, had an updated reference to the article last month. Several people have written asking me about it since then, so for the record the article can be found here. The Processor Technology SOL-20 that is the star of the article looked like this, genuine walnut sides and all (photo from sol20.org):


    Considering that every possible aspect of the technology world has changed since the time I wrote the article, I think it actually has aged OK! But judge for yourself. Certainly it has aged better than the author. And the author tries to avoid thinking that the little children he describes in the article as dragging dead cats into the house are now as old as he was when he wrote it.

    You could download the article and read it on your iPad, nook, or Kindle. Somehow that seems right.

  • Cutting Through the BS: Ambinder, Kinsley

    The internet shows the value of fast-cycle fact correction; and a correction of my own to make

    Not that either of them needs a tout from me, but I wanted to mention two posts today by Atlantic colleagues that, in different ways, illustrate the real-time self-corrective potential of the modern news system.

    One is by Marc Ambinder, and its point is best summarized by our home-page headline: "There's No Scandal Here." It refers of course to the "scandal" of the White House trying to convince Rep. Joe Sestak that he should not challenge Sen. Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary this year. (Of course Sestak did, and he won.) Ambinder disposes of the alleged lucrative-job offer to Sestak as, simply, "false." The job in question was Secretary of the Navy, and the Obama Administration had already offered it to somebody else a month before Specter switched parties. (Ie, while Sestak could not even have been thinking of challenging him in the primary, since Specter was still a Republican.)

    And if the "accusation" is that the Administration sent Bill Clinton to see if Sestak could be talked out of running, including with an unpaid position on a Presidential advisory board, so what?  That is how political parties operate, trying to minimize internal struggles and deploy electoral talent for the best overall results. The U.S. has nothing like the nationwide re-shuffling of manpower that often happens in Britain, where the parties match parliamentary candidates with constituencies anyplace in the country where the prospects seem best. But every American president, regardless of party, has tried to encourage strong candidates, discourage weak ones, and generally boost his side's chances. I would feel exactly the same way if John McCain were now president and the story involved his efforts to sort out the Marco Rubio / Charlie Crist struggle in Florida. A curse of standard political coverage is the "critics say" pose of faux objectivity: "Critics say that Obama committed a crime, but the Administration denies the charge." Ambinder, to his credit, explains why the main charge is "false" and why a larger effort to keep Sestak out of the race, whether or not it was politically wise, was perfectly normal and legitimate.

    The other item is by Michael Kinsley, who applies a "cut the BS" perspective to a political analysis two days ago on the front page of the NY Times and more generally to the Richard Blumenthal "when I was in Vietnam" episode. As always, he needs no help in making his case, one trenchant part of which is:

    It's often noted that North Vietnam defeated the United States in the short run but the US won in the longer run. Look at Vietnam today. Meanwhile, another reversal seems to have happened to the argument in America about the Vietnam war. The war ended when it lost the support of most Americans. Today, ambitious politicians imagine that they fought there. If they're going to make up anything, they should be making up stories about how active they were in the anti-war movement.

    This last line is a segue to a fairly significant correction-of-the-record I have to make. In several previous posts about ROTC and the Ivy League, I noted that the original argument about pushing ROTC programs off-campus was to protest the Vietnam war. For the past few decades, the ongoing objection to ROTC's return has involved the military's refusal to accept openly gay service members, but that's a different matter. In these recent items, I have said that the Vietnam-era argument "made sense at the time," at least to me. It turns out that even at that time I was talking about the danger of an enforced separation between the military and the elite schools. Witness this "on the other hand" dissenting editorial from the Harvard Crimson just before the faculty's vote on expelling ROTC in 1968, provided by my friend Jack Wheeler.

    I suppose I could feel better about consistency-of-view over the decades, but in fact I feel worse about the distortion of memory. My only explanation is that the rapidly increasing anti-Vietnam and anti-ROTC fervor of the following two years had made me sympathetic to the anti-ROTC argument by the end of my time in college, so that's the memory that stuck with me. In any case, it's long past time for the elite universities to begin repairing this breach.

  • Stephen Banker

    A journalist who always spoke his mind, remembered

    I am sorry to go on in commemorative fashion, but on the same day on which Gary Heyne died at the Boxing Cat Brewery in Shanghai, Stephen Banker died at his home in Washington. This is him a few years ago, talking about the "future of the media" at a Harvard seminar:


    Steve Banker's death was unexpected, even though he had been coping with the complications of prostate cancer for many years. He is someone whose effect on his friends was so powerful and vivid that I can't let his passing go unmentioned.

    There are people who make you want to scream by saying that they "went to school in the Boston area," begging you to tease out the confirmation that they in fact went to Harvard. Steve Banker was instead the kind of person who told you first thing that he went to Harvard -- and that he was very proud to be part of the college class of 1955 that contained so many distinguished journalists. David Halberstam became the best known of them, but also: J. Anthony Lukas, Sydney Schanberg, William Beecher, and others. Steve Banker worked on the radio station as an undergraduate and then in various roles as a CBS TV correspondent and reporter for the CBC.

    By the time I met him in the early 1980s he was mainly working as a tech-world writer and independent producer of TV and radio items. But his two main talents were friendship, which he cultivated by over the years convincing you that he would always say exactly what he thought ("This is a second-rate article," he told me one time, after reading something I had written. "First-class among the second-rate, but second-rate"); and tennis, which he played in a "crafty" but deceptively skillful way. I had advantages of age, fitness, mobility, etc over him, but I didn't win as reliably as I would have thought when we played through the 1980s and 1990s. Through those years we also shared a fondness for prehistoric early computers -- including what we both thought was the most elegant computer we had ever seen, the now-long-forgotten Victor 9000. He dragged me once to Comdex, the then-vast computer show held in Las Vegas, which had the upside of our standing in a taxi line behind a frugally-minded Bill Gates. (Victor 9000, below.)


    He was not the easiest person I have had for a friend -- "You look bad!" "Stop rushing for a minute and sit and talk!" "The only magazine I care about is the New Yorker" -- but he really put his heart and mind and time into sustaining contacts among people he cared about. Over the past ten years this was mainly through the "Oyster Foundation," described by our mutual friend Martin Moleski SJ here (and with a tribute page here). People live on in different ways; for Steve, it will be through the intensity of his friends' memories.

  • More on ROTC and the Ivy League

    Why the military might not rush right back to Harvard or Yale

    I won't pursue this indefinitely, but many interesting additions have come in on the question of whether Harvard, Yale, etc should/will/must bring back on-campus ROTC programs, now that the main stated objection to the programs is going away. Background here, here, and here; I'll collect all ROTC-related items here.

    As a reminder, the programs were originally pushed off-campus in the 1960s in protest of the Vietnam war; through the last two decades, they've been kept out of some elite schools in protest of the military's refusal to accept openly gay service members. Students at those schools can accept ROTC scholarships, but they go off-campus for training -- for instance, to MIT for Harvard students, and to Berkeley (!) for Stanford.

    First, from a member of West Point's class of 1972, who says that ROTC's problem is broader than the ban at several campuses and has its own "class war" aspects: 

    ROTC seems to be disappearing from private universities even where the program survived the Viet Nam era. Around 15 years ago I worked for the North Carolina Army National Guard (NCARNG) in the recruiting office and acted as the coordinator between the NCARNG and the ROTC programs in the state. Davidson College and Duke University both had thriving ROTC programs at that time.

    Around this time the Army restructured the ROTC scholarship program to the point where the ROTC scholarship would not cover the costs of attending a private university the way it had before. I saw the ROTC programs at Duke and Davidson shrink from being ROTC battalions to being satellites (the battalions moved to UNC-Chapel Hill and Charlotte, respectively). My contacts at UNC (where I work) and Charlotte (where one of my kids goes and who wants to enroll in ROTC this fall) tell me that this situation still exists. Good people who had the desire to be officers and the academic credentials to go to schools like Duke and Davidson took their ROTC scholarships to state schools where the money went farther. ROTC has been priced out of the market in at least some non-public schools.

    Quite frankly, I would accuse the Ivy League schools of contributing to the existing class rift in the country that resulted from the Viet Nam era draft. I would challenge these elite schools to meet the armed forces half way: if the Defense Department does away with DADT, the elite schools need to provide ample scholarship aid to ROTC scholarship cadets to make it feasible to have ROTC back on these campuses...

    Now, from a product of Berkeley's ROTC program, who argues that for dollars-and-cents reasons the military will not be rushing to reconstitute programs at Harvard etc even if they are officially welcomed back in:

    As a UC Berkeley ROTC graduate and current Naval officer, I feel obliged to point out that there's a fair bit of myth and misinformation surrounding the absence of ROTC units from "elite" campuses. While it's certainly true that many campus administrators and student groups have objected to the presence of ROTC units because of DADT, the services' manning and budgetary demands are what is actually behind the absence of the program at elite universities.

    An ROTC program requires an O-6 (Colonel/Captain) to lead the command, and O-5 (Lieutenant Colonel/Commander) to serve as executive officer, and several additional officers and senior enlisted personnel to fill advisory and administrative positions. If a campus's student body is relatively small, an ROTC program will probably not be able to attract a sufficient number of students to justify the expense of maintaining such a staff.

    Therefore, ROTC programs are generally found at either campuses with large undergraduate classes, or at schools in close proximity to other universities. For example, the UC Berkeley-hosted Navy ROTC program hosts students from Stanford, UC Davis, and the California Maritime Academy. The MIT-hosted program is made available to students at Harvard and Tufts.

    While it's certainly true Stanford and Harvard may choose to lift the ban on ROTC if DADT is repealed, the Navy will almost certainly not invest the resources to begin new programs at either school. Similarly, unless another large university is founded in New Haven, it is doubtful ROTC will come to Yale.

    Navy ROTC programs: https://www.nrotc.navy.mil/colleges_nrotc_unitsXP3.aspx
    Army ROTC programs: http://branchorientation.com/rotc/find_schools.jsp
    Air Force ROTC programs: http://www.afrotc.com/college-life/college-locator/

    Finally, after the jump, a Columbia graduate argues that torpor and hidebound-ness on the military's side has made the situation worse.

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  • Sad News From Shanghai: Gary Heyne

    The sudden loss of a big figure in Shanghai.

    As soon as I arrived in Shanghai ten days ago on a short trip (about which more some time soon), I went directly to the establishment I had heard most about but not seen for myself. No, no, not the Shanghai World Expo -- I went there the next day. I am talking about the famed Boxing Cat Brewery, on Fuxing Lu in the French Concession area.


    When I was living in the city in 2006 and 2007, I spent many afternoons evenings in an ambitious but obviously economically-doomed microbrewery called Henry's, in a grim location on Sichuan Lu off the Bund. There I usually talked with the brewmaster, the roistering Texan Gary Heyne, who had come to the city around the time my wife and I did. That's him at the left, in an altogether typical pose, minus only the Hawaiian shirt he often favored. The photo is from UrbanAnatomy.com.

    We started talking beer -- Gary was the hired brewer, for the Chinese-American owner of Henry's who didn't like beer himself but thought there was a market niche for non-watery beer in China. There is, and probably was even then: his business plan just had too many quirks and obstacles. Soon we mainly talked Texas, politics, writing, China etc. Gary had recently come from several years designing water-treatment systems with the U.S. occupation forces in Iraq. (Insert obligatory "brewmaster designing water systems" jokes here.) He had a million beer-fueled theories about the war, and about Iraq, and about any other topic that might come up. One of my happiest memories of the city and of him is of serving together on a battle-of-the-beers tasting panel organized by our mutual friend Jarrett Wrisley, then of SH magazine in Shanghai and now of the Atlantic in Bangkok.

    Henry's folded, and Heyne and partners got the money together to start Boxing Cat. Its location was good, and reports I heard from my friends were very positive. When I visited last week, the beer was great; the food was "good enough for a brewpub"; and the placed was packed. I didn't see Heyne at the bar that evening but thought I'd find him to send congratulations on my next visit. Therefore I was shocked by the news that he died this weekend, while at the brewery, at age 45.

    Appreciations of Gary Heyne here from UrbanAnatomy and here from Shanghaiist. Adam Minter, of Shanghai Scrap -- who, with another friend Shi Hongshen, I had met for beers at Boxing Cat last week -- has an account here. Adam Minter also adds a crucial detail that all of Gary Heyne's writer-friends knew: he was sure he had a "book in him," and was in a nonstop effort to enlist someone as co-author of his Iraq memoir, which as he imagined it would have the combined virtues of Catch-22, War and Peace, The Best and the Brightest, Atlas Shrugged, etc. I worked with him on it for a while in 2007 before thinking that, hmmmm, maybe somebody else would be a "better match" for this undertaking. Minter was part of the long line of would-be collaborators too, as he explains. Delightfully, he includes an early excerpt from Heyne's memoir, here

    If you were a public-health expert, you might look at Gary Heyne's style of life and chosen profession and not be shocked by his dropping dead in his mid-40s. But everybody who knew him is shocked and saddened. I'm reflecting now on the fact that someone I knew well for only about two years left such a large personal impression on me and so many memories. RIP.

  • If You're in Chicago This Evening

    Panel on media and politics at University of Chicago, May 26

    I will be interviewing Rick "Nixonland" Perlstein and Tom "Secret Lives of Citizens" Geoghegan, about the future of media and politics, at an event at the University of Chicago at 7pm on May 26th. Details here. This marks just about the end of my recent intense immersion in Hyde Park/U Chicago activities. Nice neighborhoods! Impressive students! See you on Wednesday night.

    (And if I were in DC this evening, I would be giving birthday greetings on their respective big birthdays to my son Tad and my friend David I.)

  • Catching Up: Richard Blumenthal, Facebook

    Atlantic items on the Connecticut senate race and Facebook's privacy travails.

    Because of travel and related chaos, have been behind the news on both these topics. But two recent Atlantic posts provide handy shortcuts to points I meant to make.

    Blumenthal: This story is simply strange. On the one hand, men of that generation do not easily forget whether they were "in" Vietnam. On the other, if a public official gives hundreds and hundreds of speeches over the decades, it's possible that, innocently or not, he could say the wrong, self-serving thing several times. Without knowing how the story would finally shake out, something about the initial NY Times stories struck me as trying too hard and pushing the evidence beyond its natural limits. (Disclosure: I don't know Richard Blumenthal, but his younger brother, David Blumenthal MD, has been a friend for many years.)

    This Atlantic item, by Richard Blumenthal's long-time friend Ben Heineman Jr., seems to me to do the fairest job of weighing the overall evidence pro and con. To me it's a more convincing presentation that that of the NYT's ombudsman Clark Hoyt, whom I generally agree with and admire but who in this case seemed (to me) defensive on the paper's behalf. We'll see how the evidence emerges.

    Facebook: This has become a cliche, but I really hate the way Facebook runs its business and deals with its customers. I've been through round after round of trying to keep one step ahead of its ever-changing "privacy" settings by removing info from public view. As I mentioned a few months ago, I made a mistake early on by mixing actual friends -- family, people I "know" -- with "contacts" in the professional sense. But something changed for me a few weeks ago when I was at the Washington Post site and saw, unbidden, the list of my "friends" who were also reading the Post and emailing articles from it. So if I'm seeing what they are doing, then they are seeing....

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  • Correction: No ROTC at Stanford

    Where Berkeley is more "conservative" than Stanford.

    Earlier today I quoted a reader who said that Army ROTC had returned to Stanford. It turns out that that is not exactly so. Like Harvard, Stanford has an "off-campus" program. Students may be members of ROTC, but they go elsewhere for training. Reader Michael Segal writes:

    The statement made by a member of Advocates for Harvard ROTC that "Stanford University already has Army ROTC" is not true  We summarize the situation at: http://www.advocatesforrotc.org/national/

    Stanford: (Off-campus Navy, Army and Air Force ROTC, no university-sponsored ROTC Web page)

    The confusion may be with UC Berkeley, which has both Army and Navy ROTC, or the writer may have heard of the committee at Stanford examining inviting ROTC to return.  Also, it is not clear whether this week's effort to repeal DADT will succeed, and what the effect will be if it does succeed.  I outlined some of the nuances at http://www.securenation.org/a-centrist-approach-to-reform-of-%E2%80%9Cdon%E2%80%99t-ask-don%E2%80%99t-tell%E2%80%9D/, with some updates for this week's events.
    Michael Segal '76 MD PhD
    • 21 May 2010 Boston Globe article "Harvard's ROTC grads to get full treatment in Yard commissioning".  Note:  Speaking at Harvard ROTC Commissioning on 26 May will be Michael G. Vickers, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, depicted in the film Charlie Wilson's War, former US Senator Paul Kirk '60 and Harvard President Drew Faust. 

    Noted for the record. Another reader writes to say:

    As someone who went the ROTC route (thanks to a full scholarship!) and has now served almost 21 years in the Air Force I have to completely agree with the National Defense author: "increasing estrangement of the professionalized military from the rest of society was dangerous for democracy in the long run"

    I think this was well captured by the attached picture you've probably seen, which made the rounds a few years ago.

    After the jump, another Stanford student on the situation there.

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  • Three About DADT, ROTC, and the Ivies

    What was really behind the Ivy League ROTC ban?

    In response to this item, late last night, arguing that the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" could and should mean the end of ROTC's exclusion from a number of elite university campus, these responses:

    Reader Konstantin Doren challenges the basic premise of my argument:

    I just (about a month ago) found my heavily underlined and dog eared copy of "National Defense" on my bookshelf. I thought I had lost it. The writer of that book, of all people, should know how inextricably intertwined, or closely knit, our military already is to our society and economy. At least the ivy ROTC bans keep one group of students at arm's length from the claws of the military recruiters.

    The only reason the people who fought for the ROTC ban during the Vietnam era would not have urged or imaged that the policy still be in place today is because they did not believe they could be so successful. They thought then it was a bad idea for Americans to be killing Vietnamese and, in their heart of hearts, know it is a bad idea for Americans to be killing Muslims today.

    As it happens, I am familiar with what the author of National Defense said then and would say now on the subject. When that book came out, nearly 30 years ago, he argued that the increasing estrangement of the professionalized military from the rest of society was dangerous for democracy in the long run. There's a longer argument back and forth on this question, but for now my point is: if we are going to be a world military power, it is (in my view) better in the long run if the military includes and reflects as many strands of society as possible.

    Reader Steven Corneliussen challenges my assertion that the Vietnam-era push to get ROTC off elite campuses was mainly about Vietnam, rather than mainly being about the military:

    As someone who wore an ROTC uniform during Vietnam at Duke [in the Vietnam era], I'm not so sure that late-60s opponents of ROTC envisioned only a temporary banishment. Then and now, I thought that whatever was to be made of Vietnam, respect for military service needed to be conserved for the long term -- and I also believed that many around me explicitly, in fact energetically, disagreed. My perception was that many wanted ROTC not just gone, but gone forever.

    That is consistent with the argument made by John Wheeler (mentioned yesterday) over the years, that the ban on ROTC was in effect a stigmatizing, "blame the soldier" policy. He, like Corneliussen, is in a better position to judge those effects than I am. Speaking for myself, I viewed this as always having been about Vietnam.

    Another reader writes to add:

    There has been an organized effort to bring ROTC back to Harvard for decades (I'm a member of the group) and Stanford University already has Army ROTC.

    Yes, these efforts have a long history. But the point of raising the matter now is that, with the pending elimination of DADT, the main stated objection to ROTC's full return has been removed. If the programs don't come back now, then there really is something else at work.

  • DADT and Ivy League ROTC

    Might the end of the anti-gay policy bring ROTC back to elite campuses?

    The impending deal to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bars openly gay people from military service will be good for the military, good for the country, and good for national security. The national security argument includes the damage the military has needlessly done itself by dismissing Arabic-language interpreters and translators because of their sexual orientation.

    It should also have another effect, in ending the prolonged absence of ROTC programs from a number of the nation's elite universities. (ROTC = Reserve Officer Training Corps, a way of bringing civilian-educated officers into the military.) The case I know best is Harvard's, where ROTC programs were forced off campus in the late 1960s as part of the general effort to register opposition to Vietnam war policies. That made sense at the time, at least to me. But what was initially intended as a focused objection to a specific war extended into a general separation between an important military intake system and some of the most elite universities. This separation is, in my view, bad for the military, bad for the universities, and bad for the country. Almost no one urging the anti-ROTC change of those days would have argued or imagined that 35 years after U.S. troops left Vietnam the ban should still be in place. As the original Vietnam-related rationale has faded into distant memory, the prohibition on ROTC has been sustained as an objection to the military's exclusion of openly gay service members.

    John P. Wheeler III is a member of West Point's class of 1966, which was the subject of Rick Atkinson's wonderful book The Long Grey Line. (Wheeler and I have been friends for many years.) He has just organized a public campaign by Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Stanford alumni to bring ROTC back to those campuses, in anticipation of the removal of this last stated objection to their presence and as a recognition of what he sees as the "blame the soldier" implications of ROTC's continued exclusion. The text of the public letter they sent today to the universities' governing boards is after the jump. I don't agree with every part of their statement or rationale, but I fully support the conclusion. A volunteer military, despite its advantages in efficiency, naturally becomes separate over time from much of the society it defends -- especially people in elite positions. Any measure that more closely knits the military to its society is a plus, and ROTC has historically been an important part of forming that bond. It's time to bring it back. Letter follows.

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  • What "Monetization" Means to People Without Money

    Making the online news more profitable will be good for the news industry -- but obviously not for all readers.

    In a followup to my article about the emerging economics of the news in this month's Atlantic, I mention the cultural gulf that affects all such discussions of journalism's future. On one side are many people in today's press establishment, whose mournful and fatalistic mood unavoidably reflects the nonstop layoffs, loss, and contraction they (we) see around them. On the other side are those from the online and tech start-up worlds, who know they are part of a generally growing industry and naturally feel more confident about the results of experimenting, innovating, possibly failing several times, and (they assume) eventually finding a business model that works.

    A reader writes in to raise another cultural/economic aspect of this evolution: what improved "monetization" models will mean for readers who lack money.

    There is one aspect of internet economics that doesn't get mentioned much, and it raises, for me, the question: is the internet a luxury? I've gone through life purchasing the subscriptions and useful equipment that I can afford, and muddling through. I can't afford a NY Times subscription AND a local paper subscription, so I have to choose. Sometimes I have a rough patch and I have to let Harper's lapse. [As long as you don't let any others go.... ] I let my cable subscription lapse because I can access the things I care about on the internet, and I have to let go of the re-runs of MASH from my life.

    Up until recently, I have access to a trove of information that I've never had access to before. I read the NY Times daily, along with a host of other resources.... I take advantage of shareware, and open source utilities and applications. Software lost a healthy dose of utility to me when I was asked to pay for technical support (the hey-day of WordPerfect tech support is a fond and distant memory). I'm not a free-loader; I just can't afford the service.

    My point is not that I should get things for free; clearly a limit was reached on the economics of funding software companies through upgrades alone. But as this thing called the internet is starting to demand to be paid for, there is a decreasing list of services that are economically available to me. And so with all of this talk about "paywalls" and "monetization" I am starting to see the writing on the wall: I fear that I will have to forgo a great number of things have opened up for me in my life.

    Scarcity drives wealth, and wealth is scarce. The internet as it has been conceived to date has opened tremendous opportunities to those without wealth. Clearly the trend is now toward increasing scarcity on the internet, and, accordingly, the decreasing access of those without wealth.

    PS: This opens an entirely different dialog about the increasing demonization of those without wealth: if you can't afford it, you're lazy and worthless (morally speaking). A public education, with access for all, used to be a good thing. Am I a free-loader when I read the Times for free? Or am I a person who can afford it when it's free, and who will, as before the internet, have to forgo the luxury when I can no longer afford it?

    I don't have an answer to all the questions here; but this note struck me as identifying an issue I hadn't seen presented in just this way before. Like every other technological/business upheaval, what is happening now to the press will have unanticipated effects, both good and bad. 

  • Another Ike/Obama Issue: "Tarmac"

    Should the FAA's new "tarmac delay" rules refer to "taxiway delay" instead?

    In introducing an item about Barack Obama's West Point speech (36 hours after delivery, still not posted at the White House site - but it should eventually be here), I mentioned that I had spent a depressingly long amount of time recently sitting in planes on the tarmac at LaGuardia or O'Hare. An alert reader begs to differ:

    As a long time pilot, I cherish any writer who has the knowledge and background to write about flying. Which brings me to my small issue. Like your boiled frogs, as a pilot, I have this odd little issue when people refer to the "tarmac" at an airport.

    I don't know any pilots or controllers who refer to the apron or runway or taxiway in this way. Tarmac is a trademarked name for a surface that was indeed widely used during WWII on airports. It is much more akin to asphalt than the concrete used at most airports that have commercial service.

    Of course I may have to give up on my mission to get people to stop using the term since there is now a "tarmac" rule for airline passengers. Perhaps it is the simple evolution of the language. After all I'll use a Kleenex to blow my nose and I often have to Xerox my receipts before turning them in. I'm sure that drives somebody crazy some where.

    Technically, of course, this is right. "Tarmac" is a trade name derived from tar being placed over "Macadamized" roads, which in turn were named for the Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam. (Below: McAdam. Below that: what is colloquially but incorrectly called "tarmac.")

    John Loudon McAdam.


    An airport's "tarmac."

    So, yes, the reader is right. And in my life as a small-plane pilot, I would always refer to being on the "apron" or the "taxiway" or the "runway" or the "ramp," rather than on the tarmac. But for general usage, including our lives as commercial airline passengers .... this seems to me to have entered the realm of "using a kleenex" or "having a coke," which in my personal dialect signifies not the respective brand names but the generic products. Usage eventually trumps logic or "rules" or grammar, and despite the reader's logically-sound argument, I think that usage is making "tarmac" generic too.

    We'll never bow to incorrect usage on boiled-frogs, though.
  • Obama and Ike: Readers Push Back

    Is Obama's speech really up to Eisenhower's standards? Was Eisenhower up to the standards of Malcolm Moos?

    In response to this item yesterday, saying that Barack Obama's address at West Point was an intellectual descendant of Dwight Eisenhower's famous farewell address in 1961, three themes of complaint. They are: that I was too easy on Obama, too easy on Eisenhower, and not easy enough on Malcolm Moos. Here they come.

    A reader says that Obama's speech was in fact a disappointment:

    What I did see [of the speech] seemed to be 'stated baldly'(to use your phrase), not particularly inspired and framed to not upset the 'Fox News' crowd very much and his manner a wee arrogant at times.

    Of course this was a speech to the military graduates, so I understand the appropriateness of projecting 'strength'. But in comparing even the quotes you highlighted with those of Pres. Eisenhower and Pres. Carter - I feel Pres. Obama comes up short. Your comment noting the different times, background and age between the current president and Pres. Eisenhower is certainly on point and true. Even more so, with the coming election Pres. Obama no doubt is careful not to give his opponents any ammunition in that war.

    But I must say, as someone who supported, voted for and contributed money to his campaign several times - the speech continues my disappointment with the President on many issues. I don't think it was a 'brave' speech in any way, it said what it had to to not infuriate either his supporters or his opponents. That it didn't promote 'preemptive wars' was hardly a surprise, since he campaigned on that premise...

    Another agrees that Eisenhower's farewell address was great -- but wonders why his Administration had not applied the same wise principles over the preceding eight years. Jerome Doolittle, of the Bad Attitudes site (and my colleague as a Carter administration speechwriter) writes in to say:

    I also remember Eisenhower's farewell address, but have trouble getting too misty-eyed about it. Who had been president for the previous eight years? Who had sent White Star special forces teams to Northern Thailand just months before? Who was to tell the incoming president that the greatest threat to world peace facing him was Laos? Who made the unspeakable Dulles secretary of state and kept him in the job? Who sent thousands of "advisers" and billions in military aid to Diem after he violated the terms reached at Geneva by refusing to hold the national elections that he (and we) knew Ho Chi Minh would win?

    More »


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