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.
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.
On January 11, I was carefully carrying a load of trash outside my house in Washington D.C., trying like crazy to avoid skidding into oblivion on the two-inch layer of ice on each step.
On January 13, I was going out for a mid-day run at the stadium at the University of Redlands, in California, our operating base during the West Coast swing of American Futures travels, about to resume.
I have no larger point here other than, (1) it is more enjoyable to be warm than cold, notwithstanding overall climate-change perils, and (2) reminder number five zillion of the range of experience in this vast land.
And perhaps (3), hopes that Pete Aguilar, a University of Redlands alum who after becoming the young mayor of the town has just been sworn in as a new Representative in the 114th Congress, first Democrat in the seat since the 1960s, is withstanding the reverse version of this climate shock.
And one more. When I was a school kid here, Joan Didion wrote her famous Saturday Evening Post article about the area, "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream," which was included in her breakthrough collection, Slouching Toward Bethlehem. In her first paragraph, she described this as ...
... a harsher California, haunted by the Mohave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the Eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.
Yesterday the harsh, dry Santa Ana winds were coming down from the Mojave beyond these very mountains, whining through the palm trees as you see here:
It can be tough to run in the wind, but this time I didn't mind.
Through the past week, while tied up with other projects, I've been reading through the enormous and valuable correspondence that has come in about America's "chickenhawk" status. For reference, my piece on "The Tragedy of the American Military" is here, and for previous reader responses see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, and No. 10. This is No. 11. As became the case with the emerging High-Speed Rail correspondence, I'll start grouping these thematically to illustrate a range of arguments.
Today's theme: the tragedies of grand strategy. This first note, from a serving and well-regarded Army officer, echoes many that I received:
I think Fallows has strummed a string in an important way. [But] One slight concern I have, though, having studied this issue, this 'tragedy', over many years now is that by limiting the context of this tragedy to one within the military, we as a Nation on the whole may end up being left off the full hook.
The real or "true" tragedy here is one within American Grand Strategy.... what we see in the current civil society-unformed public service servant imbalances today, both within our military and our policing forces for that matter, are mere symptoms of a much bigger, chronic, and if left untreated potentially 'terminal' disease.
This point is in sync with what I meant to argue in the article. The U.S. military is of course the instrument of national strategy. But through what I contend has been a decade-plus of strategic failure by the United States, members of the military have also absorbed most of the cost of these mistakes. Similarly on the "our military, ourselves" front, a reader writes:
While the American military is in many ways sui generis, many of your piece's themes—failure of venerated institution, total lack of accountability for a cosseted elite, epistemic closure among insular social groups, intractable rent-seeking—are the same stories we've been hearing across American society for the past several decades: Congress, Wall Street, the CIA, the Catholic Church, the NCAA and NFL, etc.
Much of the analysis of this phenomenon has cast the US military as the exception to this trend. Your piece shows it ain't so exceptional.
And now, on the larger strategic perspective, related to the image above:
I read your article “The Tragedy of the American Military” with interest. I did a short stint in the largely peacetime Navy in the early 1990s, but my approach to your article was historical.
They say history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes, and I find that right now, the 21st Century is rhyming with the 19th. In our century, the US is playing the role Great Britain played in the 19th—namely dominant power. I find the other parallels striking.
In both cases, the dominant power had a military organized to fight Over There, with large navies and relatively small, professional armies. In both cases, lip service is paid to the military (see Kipling’s “Tommy” for an example) but actual attention is not. At least, as long as the wars are Over There.
In your article, you expressed dismay that no US general was relieved of command in Iraq or Afghanistan for incompetence. In Victorian Britain, Raglan and Cardigan, the generals who bumbled their way into the Charge of the Light Brigade, weren’t cashiered but rather promoted. The Charge itself, rather than being seen as an epic screw-up, was lionized as a heroic effort. (Tennyson, the man doing the lionization and Poet Laureate, had no military experience, like many of the elite of his day.)
I would also like to comment on our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and the need for a commission to examine them. I submit that no commission is needed. General Shinseski told Congress on the eve of Iraq that we would need around 250,000 troops to occupy Iraq. Since Afghanistan has roughly the same population, I would assume we would need the same number of troops there. Our highest troop count in either country was barely half of that.
I also submit that, if less than a year after 9/11 the idea of a draft is so toxic that nobody will seriously float the idea, the US will probably not be able (or more accurately, politically willing) to radically increase the size of our Army – certainly not to the level needed to support an occupation force of a quarter of a million. Therefore the simple lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is either:
1) Don’t invade countries that will require an occupation force of over 100,000, or:
2) Make sure you have sufficient troops lined up from allies to cover the gap, or:
3) Plan on raising native auxiliaries, recognizing said auxiliaries are never as effective, loyal or efficient at US troops.
Over the past six months, I've done a long series of posts on the case for, and against, and then again for the north-south high-speed rail project that Jerry Brown has made a test of his legacy as governor, and that is the most ambitious infrastructure project underway anywhere in the country.
The purpose of this post is to be a one-stop index and compendium of these posts, with a few updates. First, the updates:
1) "Why Today's High-Speed Rail Launch is Miraculous," by David Dayen in Salon. Dayen is a writer based in Los Angeles whose view on many topics is different from mine. But on this one we are in sync. He makes the case for this project as an extension of previous, big, long-term, mocked-at-the-outset efforts that have reshaped our lives for the good. Eg:
Gov. Brown, who really willed high-speed rail forward in 2014, obviously sees it as a legacy project, similar to the University of California system, intra-state highway network and water infrastructure built by his father, Pat Brown, the governor from 1959 to 1967. Those investments drove the state’s prosperity for decades, and the rail line could be a more sustainable component of that growth in the future.
But building out high-speed rail has implications for more than California. Americans have effectively given up on a visionary politics, as the 2014 midterms exemplified.... But those who would drown government and create an own-your-own society cannot explain away the Hoover Dam, or the New York City subway, or the roads linking Maine, Florida, Arizona and Idaho.
2) "A Sharp Contrast in Visions for America's Transportation Future," an editorial on the day of the ground-breaking in the Sacramento Bee. Sample:
In 2008, many Republicans supported the high-speed rail bond measure. Now that Obama and Brown support it, many Republican politicians have flipped....
The view of the Central Valley Republicans is disconnected from the region they represent. The U.S. census recently ranked Fresno as the second most impoverished metropolitan area in the nation... The Central Valley perennially has some of the nation’s dirtiest air and highest rates of asthma. Clearly, more gas-powered automobiles and additional freeway lanes, themselves costly, are not the answer.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, is an exception, contending that the rail will give her city a much needed jolt by making Fresno “the essential connecting point for Northern and Southern California.”...
As evidence mounts about the impact of climate change, this nation must find alternatives to oil. One such alternative began to take shape in Fresno on Tuesday. Yes, it was rife with symbolism. The rail won’t be carrying passengers for years. But it was a start, and a wise step into the future.
Now, the compendium. In order, the installments were:
1) "The California High-Speed Rail Debate: Kicking Things Off." An introduction to the role of big infrastructure projects in American history, from the Louisiana Purchase and the Erie Canal onward. Also this contained the first link to a powerful interactive map created by UC Davis and Esri, which allows you to see the staged development plans for the railroad and overlay them on economic and environmental indicators. Plus links to various economic and environmental impact assessments.
10) "Palate Cleanser." A (relatively) brief entry on the question of how and whether 21st-century America can decide on infrastructure projects whose full value might not be felt for many decades.
11) "Thinking in Time." An extension of the point in #10. This also has been an increasing theme in Jerry Brown's speeches, based on his references to medieval masons work on cathedrals whose completion their grandchildren might see.
12) "All Aboard!" Mainly reader mail on the effects of rail networks.
14 1/2) "California High-Speed Rail: It's Happening." Shortly after the 2014 elections, Jerry Brown announced that on the first full day of his fourth and final term, he would go to Fresno to break ground for the rail system. This is No. 14 1/2 because I had promised that No. 15 would be the grand finale.
15) "A Minor End, an Important Beginning." Last week, on the day of the ground-breaking, I explained why I thought that the centuries-long record of American infrastructure investments argued for going ahead with this one.
* * *
Thanks to the hundreds of people who wrote in, pro and con. On looking through the past installments, I am once again impressed by and grateful for the range of expertise, the passion, and the English-composition skills in the diaspora of our magazine's readers. I am also impressed by the range of California-specific art work, commercial art, photography, and other images on the theme of transportation. I've used scores of those and am grateful in particular to the excellent Calisphere site for its riches. While I'm at it, I'll also mention that Calisphere and its parent University of California system are of course themselves examples of public infrastructure investments with wide-ranging benefits.
Today's followups on the question of whether America is a "Chickenhawk Nation," as I argue in this month's issue:
1) "If inequality is our problem, military service is the answer." A powerful op-ed in the L.A. Times by recent USMC veteran and current M.B.A. student Benjamin Luxenberg:
A student at my alma mater, Brandeis University, recently asked me to speak to her school group about my post-college experiences, specifically my time studying in China and Germany and now at Harvard University. There was one major problem with this request: I'd graduated five years ago, and she skipped most of what has defined my adult life—the four years I served in the Marine Corps.
Very much worth reading in full.
2) "Can a Gold-Plated Military Counter ISIS?" From long-time (and frequently quoted-by-me) defense analyst Chuck Spinney, one basic question about today's strategy, and a discouraging but realistic answer. Sample:
Lightly armed guerrilla/insurgent/terrorist forces are once again holding off the high-tech, heavily armed forces of the United States. A string of defeats is slowly accumulating at the strategic and grand-strategic levels of conflict, even though US forces almost always win battles at the tactical level, if they can fix the insurgents and destroy them with overwhelming firepower, particularly bombing. But when viewed through the overlapping lenses of the operational, strategic, and grand strategic levels of conflict guerrillas have advantages to offset US firepower.
One of the underlying points in my current article is that, whether you agree with Spinney or not, questions like this should be in mainstream of U.S. political and media discussion, not consigned to specialty military sites. Also of course worth reading in full, with a link to a piece by the authoritative Patrick Cockburn. It even has a link to the urtext thinking about this form of war, "Patterns of Conflict" by the late Colonel John Boyd.
3) In-house news. I was on C-SPAN this morning, with host Pedro Echeverria, talking about my article and reactions pro and con, notably including the "so what do we do about it?" question. I was also on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, to similar effect. The call-in audiences for the typical programs on C-SPAN and WNYC differ but each satisfying and revelatory in different ways. If you are in D.C., this evening at 5 p.m., at TheAtlantic's home office at the Watergate, I'll be doing a session on these themes with Senator Joe Manchin and Helene Cooper of the NYT, moderated by The Atlantic's Steve Clemons. Details here.
4) What is to be done? This question comes up, as it should, in both the C-SPAN and the WNYC interviews. As you'll see and hear, from my point of view there is simply no realistic prospect of reinstating compulsory service via a draft. But there are possible ways to make service of a variety of forms more attractive and practical, and in the near term it is important to move these military questions from the vague periphery closer to the center of political discussion.
For all the reasons to feel a sinking heart about the upcoming round of presidential-race speculation, here is a positive aspect. On both sides the prospects make discussions of national-strategy issues more likely than it was four years ago:
Among the Republicans, the Rand Paul-vs.-the-field divide is over questions of strategic overreach and the national-security state in general.
Among the Democrats, Hillary Clinton's vote for the Iraq War was the main vulnerability that gave Barack Obama his chance in 2008. The potential (long-shot) runs by Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, even Elizabeth Warren would in different degrees involve questions of military ambitions, especially of course in Webb's case. So maybe on both sides we'll talk about these issues.
* * *
I am trying hard to choose manageable samples from the now thousands of thoughtful responses I've received, mainly from people with military backgrounds. More to come.
Yesterday in Sacramento, Jerry Brown was sworn in, at age 76, for his fourth and final term as governor of our most populous and economically most important state.
Today in Fresno he will preside at a symbolic groundbreaking of his major infrastructure project as governor, and the largest one underway anywhere in the country. This is a north-south high-speed-rail program that will start construction in the state's hard-pressed Central Valley region and ultimately link the great population centers of the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin.
You can see Brown's inaugural address yesterday via (non-embeddable) C-SPAN video here. If you jump to 12:20, you'll see an introduction by Brown's wife, Anne Gust Brown (in screenshot below), and get an idea of why she has been considered such an important part of his third- and fourth- term success.
And if you go ahead to roughly 23:00, you will see Brown talking about his high-speed-rail project. It gets a cheer, but to be fair, it's a secondary theme in the speech, which goes in more detail into Brown's plans for education, prison reform, and environmental protection. If you're wondering what it's like to talk with Jerry Brown, the speech as a whole (full text here) will get you started. As I mentioned in my article, the autumnal Governor Brown peppers his formal statements and informal comments with references to his family's many generations in the state, and the state's unusual position in the nation. That's also how he ended this speech:
Whether the early explorers came for gold or God, came they did. The rest is history: the founding of the Missions, the devastation of the native people, the discovery of gold, the coming of the Forty-Niners, the Transcontinental Railroad, the founding of great universities, the planting and harvesting of our vast fields, oil production, movies, the aircraft industry, the first freeways, the State Water Project, aerospace, Silicon Valley and endless new companies and Nobel Prizes.
This is California. And we are her sons and daughters.
Yes, California feeds on change and great undertakings, but the path of wisdom counsels us to ground ourselves and nurture carefully all that we have started. We must build on rock, not sand, so that when the storms come, our house stands. We are at a crossroads. [JF note: This "crossroads" sentence is in vapid contrast with the rest and could have been cut.] With big and important new programs now launched and the budget carefully balanced, the challenge is to build for the future, not steal from it, to live within our means and to keep California ever golden and creative, as our forebears have shown and our descendants would expect.
* * *
Now, the rail project. Why am I for it? Beyond the details laid out in the previous installments, here are the summary reasons.
1) America is direly short on infrastructure; the financial and political resistance to remedying that is powerful (for reasons Mancur Olson once laid out) and usually prevails. China is biased toward wastefully building infrastructure it doesn't need. The U.S. is biased the opposite way. So when there's is a real chance to build something valuable in America, I start out in favor of it.
2) The counties of the Central Valley of California, where the first stages of the construction will begin, are not just the poorest part of a rich state but also, taken on their own, would constitute the poorest state in the entire country. Of the five poorest metro areas in the United States, three are there. Most dynamic analyses of the effects of the rail project indicate that it would bring new jobs to a region that most needs them, while chewing up less farmland than normal sprawl and freeway expansion would destroy. Which leads to ...
3) The state's population is growing, and so is the demand for intra-state travel. Any other way of getting California's 30-plus million people from north to south, via cars on new (or more crowded) freeways or planes to new (or more crowded) airports, will be more destructive of the state's finances, its farmland, and its environment than a rail system.
And, maybe the biggest factor of all:
4) There is an established track record of overestimating the problems of big infrastructure projects, and short-sightedly under-envisioning their benefits. Here's the crucial contrast with big military construction projects I've written about recently. Repeatedly, big military projects have come in over budget, past schedule, and below performance promises.
Repeatedly the opposite has been true of big national or regional infrastructure projects. Their drawbacks have been exaggerated before they've been started, and their potential benefit has been grossly under-imagined. Here's a few of the projects that seemed impractical, quixotic, ruinously expensive, or not worth the bother when proposed:
The Louisiana Purchase
The Erie Canal
"Seward's Folly" of buying Alaska
The Transcontinental Railroad
The Panama Canal
The Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay Bridge
The TVA, REA, and WPA, plus Boulder/Hoover Dam
The expansion of a continental airport system
The GI Bill
The Interstate Highway system
Washington, D.C.'s Metro and San Francisco's BART
Details on some of these in the first post in the series.
All of these projects have had their problems. But without any one of them, the United States would be in far worse shape than it is today. High-speed rail also has its problems, and will have more. But the record of big ventures of this sort suggests that we are better at worrying about the problems and noting imperfections than we are at envisioning long-term rewards. Thus I think that the benefit of the doubt should go with the proponents. People on their side have more often been right.
"We are quick to jail some junior enlisted teenager for leaking secrets or acting out in the stressors of war. But was anyone fired for failure to secure the supply lines, not protect our troops, engage in the protracted war?"
On the title of this installment No. 9: Long ago when I was starting in magazine journalism at The Washington Monthly, its founder and editor Charles Peters hammered away at the concept of "meanwhile, the realities." That is, the gap between theoretical discussion of some public issue and the way things actually looked on the delivery end. Here are three notes in that vein.
1) Helicopters are boring but important. From a Pentagon official involved in aircraft tests:
I've long been troubled by our country's emotionally empty "support" of our military, so I quite enjoyed your article. I'm [directly involved in engineering new aircraft] for the DoD, and while I'm not authorized to speak for my organization in any official capacity, I'd like to comment on the procurement-related piece of your writing.
The F-35 is certainly a large, high-profile, example of aviation procurement gone wrong. It illustrates the problems inherent with developing a complex, multirole, aircraft on a compressed timeframe. Other journalists have explored the failure of the "concurrency" concept for development and fielding.
F-35 is also emblematic of our fascination with high-tech toys that are largely irrelevant to recent wars. The military has spent billions on advanced fighters like F-35 and F-22, but also on anti-submarine aircraft like the P-8. None of the assets has been used in any meaningful capacity in the War on Terror, yet they absorb a large percentage of our RDT&E [research, development, test, and evaluation] budget.
Meanwhile, our military has struggled with aging and obsolete helicopters to perform the actual mission during our 13 years at war. The Army has failed with every major helicopter upgrade program (RAH-66, H-60M Upgrade, ARH-70), while the Marines have limped along on the 30-year old CH-53E for their heavy lift mission.
Rotorcraft are not as sexy as pointy-nose fighters, and perhaps it's harder for policymakers to envision us fighting the Soviets with them. Still, it seems that our focus and spending is misplaced when emphasizing jet fighters over helicopters.
2) The procurement racket. From someone with experience in defense contracting:
The company I work for used to have a major software contract with [one of the military branches]. We don't any more because it was gradually pried away from us by first forcing us to pair with one of the big-name DoD contractors, and eventually awarding the contract to them outright instead of to us.
The hollowness of this bid was immediately evidenced when they hired our entire project staff outright.
3) "Where is the accountability?" From a veteran of the invasion of Iraq:
As a junior officer and part of the initial invasion I came back from the war with more questions and extreme frustration. This wasn’t any sort of PTSD but pent-up frustration that accumulated for several years, then exploded into apathy and an unconscious desire to stay distant from the war.
For me, your article shed some light on why I was so frustrated. It’s the disconnect between policymakers, civilians, and the military.
I was part of the last class of [a program] that allows for learning between various services and branches—why they discontinued this program is beyond me. I first expressed my frustration with two simple points that you alluded to in your article but would be worth expanding upon.
1) Why were we not able to secure the main supply lines in Iraq? These are basically 3-4 open highways similar in size and scope to Texas.
2) Why were we not able to immediately retrofit the HMMWVs to become armored resistant from the beginning of the invasion or at least when IEDs were becoming routine.
The points above would pale in comparison to some of the tasks for the WWII mobilization. One of the few reasons I can think of is that the policymakers didn’t have any of their own kids in the fight. They didn’t get it.
Our unit directly benefited from the A-10. This plane eliminated opposition forces that could have killed our troops during the first few weeks. I remember seeing an engine of this plane coming into a landing at the Tailil air-force base in Nasiriya. The pilot got out and joined us in the lunch line without even acknowledging the damage. Kind of like the dent in your old pickup truck.
3) No sense of urgency from generals or politicians
a. I remember hearing (second hand) that General Abizaid gave a speech at Harvard in 2007 or so where when asked why we were still in Iraq and the response or how it was conveyed to me was we were there to buy time until the policy figured itself out. Wow. I’d hate to be a parent of a soldier killed because we were trying to buy time to figure things out.
b. The Hart Plan that you cite is fine but for $1.5 trillion can’t we find more competent policymakers and a greater sense of urgency to implement these basic ideas before the invasion? Asymmetric warfare is nothing new.
4) No accountability from policymakers. This enables your idea of easier to go to war.
a. We are quick to jail some junior enlisted teenager for leaking secrets (which doesn’t say much for our control on keeping them) or acting out in the stressors of war but what is said about the $1.5 trillion failure for the points you mentioned and I’ve listed above? Was anyone fired for failure to secure the supply lines, not protect our troops, engage in the protracted war? When ISIS recently rolled through five years of blood, sweat, and tears, was anyone held accountable, like, “Hey this plan was really fucked up from the beginning, training the Iraq troops didn’t work”? All the people supporting training the Iraqi troops should be fired or at least barred from making poor choices in the future. I mean no accountability.
5) Commo—why is it that will all the advancements in military technology are communications constantly down in a fire fight??
I could go on and on but ... this article has helped me personally understand some of the sources of my frustration. Not many things help me so thank you.
Two days ago, on the occasion of Mario Cuomo's death, I mentioned his ability to "think in public" through his major speeches, notably his address on private faith and public policy at Notre Dame.
This morning, readers Allison B. and then Kevin M. talked about the music of spoken prose and the allusive power of 20th-century speakers from Cuomo to Robert F. Kennedy.
This evening reader David M. closes the loop with an old West Wing segment that bears on exactly these questions. The first two minutes of "War Crimes," an episode from Season 3 of the program in late 2001, could have been in response to ... well, to a blog post 13 years later.
The clip above is legit as of the time I post it, from YouTube. If it turns out to be unauthorized and you can't see it any more, after the jump you'll find a transcript (via David M.) of the exchange I'm directing your attention toward. Placeholder note: Although, as noted over the years, I am not a spiritual person, my inner sense of the proper shape and pace of an English sentence is heavily affected by having heard, recited, and engraved into my brain passages from the old (Thomas Cranmer) version of the Book of Common Prayer thousands of times through my youth. If you watch the West Wing clip you might see why I mention this.
Back to military discussions soon. See transcription after the jump. Envoi: A dozen years after this show appeared, it's conventional to make fun of faster-paced-than-real-humans-could-manage Aaron Sorkin banter. But these two minutes are a reminder of what was impressive in this show.
As I listened I kept asking myself who wrote the lecture (Cuomo himself, I presume) and how he learned to do that? How does it work, practically speaking? I'm not expecting an answer, I just wanted to let you know one result from this short article.
I know how to write a research paper and how to get from a topic to a doc. But the spoken phrasing? The timing? The timbre and oratorical glory??? Yes the writer knows the man and how his rhythms and the words he can speak without embarrassment (Salvific! Although Cuomo knew the word and knew he could say it there). How to deflect cliché and leave grandness. I could never do it.
Wow, what a gift in the writer and the speaker.
I have spent a lot of my working life wrestling with versions of such questions. How does it work, in practical terms, this process of learning to convey thoughts and emotions in words? And learning about the different tools that are available for meaning conveyed on a page or screen, versus through the sound of a voice in a broadcast, versus the look and bearing of a speaker before a group? And the odd art of writing words someone else will deliver, via a script or a speech, versus those where writer and speaker are the same?
As with any learned-and-practiced craft, there are no set answers to any of these questions, simply the ongoing practice. I don't know whether anyone ever thought to ask Mario Cuomo a version of Allison B.'s question, or whether the process was conscious enough for him that he would have been able to offer an answer beyond: I listen and think and try.
* * *
Update: Reader Kevin M. has this astute follow-up:
It was not in the segment of the San Francisco keynote that you linked, but I still distinctly remember him saying “mirabile dictu” at one point in that speech, which I watched on TV and have never rewatched or reread it.
And that reminds me of RFK quoting Aeschylus in Indianapolis the night King was assassinated.
Both of those moments cause me to wonder if the answer to Allison B.’s question is that once upon a time it was more common for politicians to know who they were, knew that it included being intelligent and articulate, and didn’t feel the need to be ashamed of it. Yes, Cuomo could “get away” with salvific at Notre Dame, but the keynote speech was not offered to Catholic scholars.
Moreover, what would happen to a politician, a white politician no less, who started musing on Aeschylus before an African-American audience, especially at such a moment?
Thanks for this addition. Three extra points. First, the RFK/Aeschylus quote on the night of Martin Luther King's assassination was quite extraordinary:
Robert F. Kennedy, delivering an extemporaneous eulogy to Martin Luther King, Jr., the evening of April 4, 1968, in Indianapolis, Indiana, said, “Aeschylus wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”
Second, I also remember hearing Cuomo use mirabile dictu in a major convention speech—but the one eight years later, when he nominated Bill Clinton in 1992. In a great NYT article about that 1992 speech, Michael Winerip quoted Cuomo as saying, no doubt with a wink, "You write that in for guys like Bill Buckley."
Third, when being reminded of Cuomo's and Kennedy's classical allusions, I naturally thought of another politician I'd written about recently, Jerry Brown. As I mention in my article, he was throwing off references to Yeats and Comenius (?!) when I talked with him, and not in a trying-to-seem-impressive way. What Cuomo, Kennedy, and Brown had in common, of course, is an old-school Catholic education. Brown actually spent three years in a seminary; Cuomo and Kennedy (plus Buckley) were very public about the importance of religion in their lives.
"The same inherent disadvantages that crippled the Soviet centrally planned economy in trying to compete with the American free-market-capitalism model are coming to bear on the Pentagon," says a former Air Force officer.
I've spent most of the past two days reading through the ~ 1,200 emailed or paper-mailed responses I've gotten, most from past or current military people and most supportive overall if differing in degree. Obviously I can't quote from (or unfortunately even acknowledge) all of them, but I'll excerpt some as feasible in coming days. Again, I'll assume that I am free to quote from incoming messages unless specified otherwise, but I won't use real names unless you say so in advance.
Today's theme: business aspects of what I call the chickenhawk economy.
1) Centrally planned economies have failed elsewhere; so too with the Pentagon. Brian Weeden, with experience in military and civilian space projects, writes:
I served for nine years in the Air Force in both nuclear ICBM and space operations. I now work for an NGO on space policy, and your article touched on a lot of the issues the U.S. military is facing in space.
Early on you asked why military spending keeps going up as the capability delivered goes down. I think a big part of the answer is that the Pentagon is still trying to run their affairs like a centrally planned economy, while their adversaries (and the world in general) is increasingly being run as a free market. And the same inherent disadvantages that crippled the Soviet centrally planned economy in trying to compete with the American free-market-capitalism model are coming to bear on the Pentagon.
The Pentagon approaches the budget by first trying to figure out what threats it will face in the future, what capabilities it needs to address those threats, and then what specific systems are best suited to provide those capabilities. It then develops budgets and execution plans to procure and field those systems.
The problem is that this approach first requires the Pentagon to know exactly what threats it will face years in advance of when they will appear, just as the Soviet economy had to figure out consumer demand for products before it actually emerged. Moreover, the Pentagon has to figure out ahead of time what the one best way is to deliver a specific capability, as opposed to the free-market model of trying them all and the best ones emerging. Any political scientist will tell you that the principle of bounded rationality means it is impossible to have perfect knowledge, perfect understanding of that knowledge, and enough time to actually do what the Pentagon is trying to do.
When the only real adversary was the Soviet Union, you could make the system work because it was easier to figure out the threat. But the Pentagon currently faces a proliferation of threats from near peers, failed states, and non-state actors. It's no longer possible to build one single set of systems that can meet all those threats. Moreover, it is easier for those adversaries to take advantages of changes in technology. They are more agile because they don't have the same legacy systems or bureaucracy to deal with. As technological innovation speeds up, it becomes harder and harder for a centrally-planned system to keep up.
The only long-term answer that I can see is to shift towards more of a free-market approach that gives commanders in specific geographic regions, or perhaps even units preparing to face specific threats, more flexibility to go out and procure systems and capabilities that meet their own needs. Doing so would require breaking the centrally planned budget and delegating more budget authority to lower levels. But that would be a massive cultural and political shift, one that I don't think the military bureaucracy is ready for, as it would have huge repercussions on everything from training to logistics.
2) The specific instance of the F-35. My article spent a lot of time talking about the financial and technical problems of the F-35 multi-purpose fighter. In an article a dozen years ago, I said that the F-35, then known as the Joint Strike Fighter, would be an important test of whether Pentagon budget-and-contract problems could be solved. The results of the test appear to be in, and they're not positive. From someone in the business:
I would like to put my 2¢ worth in on the F-35.
I worked as a performance analysis engineer on the Boeing entry [which lost to the Lockheed Martin design]. From the beginning I had serious doubts about the combat capability of our design. Primarily it seemed the weapon load was too small and the combat radius too small. Also there was NO capability for engine growth, which is vital for a front-line fighter.
No one in management seemed concerned, so I figured I wasn’t completely informed. I can only assume Lockheed’s winning design had many of the same shortfalls.
The Australian assessment you offer a link to is quite frank, as opposed to U.S. and Great Britain head-in-the-sand approach.
3) The case for the F-35, from inside the Air Force. A lieutenant colonel on active duty in the Air Force writes to disagree with my criticism of the F-35. On equal-time principles I'll quote him in full:
After 20 years in the Air Force, mostly in the airborne reconnaissance business with about 11 years flying both the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper (with thousands of hours flying close air support over Iraq and Afghanistan), there was a few points I found intriguing, and a few points with which I must take some issue. [JF note: to be clear, both the MQ-1 and MQ-9 are drones rather than manned aircraft.]
One question: In 2002 you wrote a fairly positive article on the acquisition of the F-35. Now you think it’s an example of wasteful spending. What changed? [JF note: What changed is what happened in the past dozen years.] As I recall, the fly-away costs of the F-35 significantly grew during the development years, but then the program was restricted and now the flow-away costs are pretty close to the projections made when the contract was awarded ($80M in 2001 dollars).
Still, that’s crazy expensive. Having spent some time at Air Combat Command headquarters, my own suspicion is that the concept of joint acquisition is to blame. Rather than realize efficiency, the attempt to make one program meet the unique requirements of each service just drives up costs and results in duplication of effort. That combined with the failed concepts of spiral development and low-rate initial production concurrent with developmental testing spell real trouble. In an effort to save money, we signed up for a much bigger bill.
I saw the same thing with the Army acquisition of the MQ-1C Grey Eagle [also a drone]. The Air Force program was much more mature, and the Air Force had already committed itself to transitioning to an all-MQ-9 fleet (a huge increase in capability over the MQ-1B for a marginal increase in costs, since all the ground elements of the system are the same). But the Army insisted that it had unique requirements for a separate airplane. And OSD’s insistence on trying to find common payloads and software only drove up development costs without ultimately achieving any common procurement.
I suspect the F-35 shook out the same way—especially with the Marine Corps “requirement” for short take-off and vertical landing. The Marine version is almost a completely different airplane. And even with a lot of common parts, all three services have to set up their own logistics chains, depot support, and operational maintenance—the real culprit when it comes to high operating costs and the reason the Air Force wants to kill the A-10 ($4.6B per year just to maintain an A-10-unique sustainment chain).
As for the Air Force and the F-35, we have to have it. We’re replacing about 2,000 F-16s and F-15Es with the 1,767 F-35s at the same time that we’re replacing 600 F-15Cs with 185 F-22s. We’re therefore accepting strategic risk in an age when we’re already too small of a force and possessing of too few resources to cover all the taskings expected of us.
With that small of a fleet, we will have a very difficult time defending Taiwan, South Korea, or our allies in the Gulf or Europe in the face of any serious aggression. There has not been an American killed on the ground by an enemy aircraft since the Korean War. We in the Air Force believe that air supremacy is an American birthright, and a gap in the combat air forces puts that at risk. It would one thing if our civilian leaders had made a conscience decision to accept that risk and took responsibility for it. But of course that hasn’t happened (the closest anyone came was when Secretary Gates put the procurement cap at 187 F-22s and declared that he believed the F-35 could fill the counter-air gap).
Notice that I did not include the A-10 as an aircraft that will be replaced by the F-35. In my view, the A-10 and the F-35 have little to do with each other. Rather, the aircraft that will replace the A-10 and fill the CAS role is the MQ-9.
Despite the emotionalism of A-10 proponents, the truth is we just don’t do CAS at 300 feet with a 30mm cannon any more. We do it at 30,000 feet with targeting pods and a bunch of laser-guided weapons. The MQ-9 is far better at this than the A-10, owing to its endurance (20+ hours vs. 2-ish for an A-10), it’s speed (just as fast as the A-10 but able to cover a lot more ground with its endurance), the situational awareness of the crew (due to the fact that it’s much easier to pump things like Link-16 and Blue Force Tracker with an unlimited number of communications links into a ground-based cockpit), the global distribution of data and video inherent in the way the MQ-9 is flown (allowing the crew to leverage the support of intelligence analysts, tactical ops centers, etc. anywhere in the world), and the fact that the MQ-9 pilot sitting at one G and zero knots has none of the physiological issues of manned flight, and therefore at least has the potential (along with the patience) to make better combat decisions.
And the Air Force is buying 300 MQ-9s—the same number as current fleet of A-10s but with a lot more capability and reliability (over 95 percent mission-ready rates) per aircraft—and as you point out, lower acquisition and operating costs. It’s pretty clear to me that the MQ-9 is the A-10 killer.
What the MQ-9 can’t do, and what the A-10 was never expected to do, is something that the F-35 will excel at—kicking down the door on Day 1 of the big war. [JF note: This is for another day.] With its dependence on data links, lack of on-board self-defense systems, and low maneuverability, the MQ-9 would never survive in a contested air environment. But of course neither could the A-10—not against 4th-gen Russian fighters. And we just won’t have enough F-22s to do the job.
So we will absolutely need the F-35 in part for the counter-air mission, but mainly for the suppression of enemy air defenses and the electronic warfare missions in a contested or denied environment. Once Phase 1 of the big war is complete and air supremacy is achieved (which you would need as a pre-cursor to sending in the Army anyway), we can bring in dozens of MQ-9s and provide all the persistent close air support you like.
So we’ve got to make the F-35 work—and we will. We always do. But it won’t be cheap. And in the meantime, the MQ-9 is the breakthrough technology like they have in the private sector that does the job better and cheaper than the A-10.
4) Combat aircraft as viewed from the ground. An opposing view from an active-duty marine:
Thank you very much for writing about the excesses of the F-35 program and the DoD. I am a Marine captain who served in the infantry and reconnaissance fields with four deployments, two of those being combat tours in Afghanistan. Before commissioning, I studied political science in college and my senior thesis was on the "Iron Triangle." After seven years of service, the theories I read about and the warnings from leaders past sadly did not prove to be unfounded.
Military worship and the blank check that it guarantees for those on the hill is extremely dangerous, as has been borne out over the last decade. It clouds discourse over the real merits of our military interventions and campaigns abroad. And, for a variety of reasons, in the public sphere the topic is conveniently "out of sight, out of mind." Civic society and its decay was a popular topic a decade ago when I was in school, and I am glad you are trying to bring renewed attention to that theme in your writing.
I have personally experienced nearly being killed by the excesses of the collusion between industry and the military, a la the V-22 Osprey. I was forced to use this platform despite its limitations in theater, and due to various reasons I can't discuss, I feel it was responsible for nearly getting myself and my men killed. Yet, top brass shoves down the throats of career-minded subordinate commanders that it is a sound platform, with dog and pony shows put on toward "proving" that.
The Paladin system also comes to mind, being absolutely unnecessary among a branch (artillery) that is in an existential crisis as to why it exists at all in the modern era. Instead of busting rust on the venerable self-towed howitzers for the (remote) possibility that we must engage a conventional force in a WWII/Korea-style land campaign, they choose to buy a logistically expensive and mechanically complicated piece of equipment like the Paladin that has no real place on the battlefield.
I am a believer in what my colleagues would describe as a bit of heresy—a complete restructure of the Department of Defense as a unified force. Component services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines) are an anachronism, lead to budgetary infighting and politicking, and bleeds equipment and personnel through redundancy. A new model should be developed that is based on SOCOM [Special Operations Command] with a vertical alignment of budgets, a concerted effort to deconflict lines of operation, and a streamlining of equipment and personnel (read: smaller!) That is what the F-35 is all about, while failing miserably—one end system that all component services can dip their hands into for their purposes. It is a fallacy, and a symptom of the problem that a unified and truly Joint DOD would fix.
Let me explain why: Why would the Marine Corps need a VTOL (Verticle Take-Off and Landing) F-35 variant? To replace an aging Harrier as a close air-support platform is the official line. The real reason why is the protect the Marine Corps' raison d'etre; amphibious warfare, also largely an anachronism—a divorce from the Navy and its carrier fleet with platforms that can provide the same capabilities (the F-18). The result is an engineering dud if you are talking 5th-generation air war against a near-peer. This bureaucratic infighting with expensive consequences is repeated many times over with all sorts of major and minor end systems.
As Captain David Ryan remarked in a Tweet just now, "So much for the Right to be Forgotten." Thirty years ago, when Ronald Reagan was in his second term, I did a cover story for this magazine called "The Case Against Credentialism." Now, as Barack Obama is in his second term, I am surprised (to put it mildly) but also gratified to see the same article turning up today as a trafficked item on our home page.
At right you see how an Atlantic cover looked in those days. I could feel either depressed or encouraged that so many of the themes that I was writing about, and the magazine was covering, under our editor Bill Whitworth in the 1980s are the same ones we're concentrating on under Scott Stossel and James Bennet now. So I'll choose to be encouraged!
We wrote a lot then about the role of the military, its relationship with civil society, its proper role around the world. We wrote about the strengths and vulnerabilities of the U.S. economy and important American businesses, and how they matched those of other economies around the world, plus the dawning of the digital tech age. We wrote about the functions and dysfunctions of families and schools. And we wrote about the openness, fairness, and opportunity of American society, on axes of race and gender and class.
Those are more or less our main subjects now too. This "Credentialism" piece is obviously from a different era, and a few fugitive online typos reflect the fact that it was scanned in from our bound-copy archives.
But the matters it deals with are, I think, related to those of racial justice that Ta-Nehisi Coates has so memorably been developing; and those of economic mobility and justice that Don Peck and others have dealt with; and to the ongoing questions of class, opportunity, resilience, and identity that Deb Fallows, John Tierney, and I have been approaching with American Futures; and even to the nature of the military that I've approached in our current issue. (For the record, later in the 1980s I wrote a book on these questions of class, mobility, and opportunity in America, especially in comparison with then-rising Japan. It was called More Like Us, and it came out in 1989.)
I'm grateful too that the magazine has resurrected this part of our journalistic past, for the relevance it may have to today's debates and what it shows about our magazine's long view.
"I can offer you no final truths, complete and unchallengeable. But it's possible this one effort will provoke other efforts—both in support and contradiction of my position—that will help all of us understand our differences and perhaps even discover some basic agreement."
While in transit, I've heard the sad news of Mario Cuomo's death. From sketchy connections in airport(s), here are two ways to remember him.
First, Cuomo's speech 30 years ago at the Democratic Convention in San Francisco, which did more to electrify its audience than any other such speech I have heard, including Barry Goldwater's 20 years earlier (which I watched on TV as a kid in Southern California) and Barack Obama's 20 years later (which I saw in person in Boston).
Listened to 30 years later, Cuomo's speech is startling in its partisan edge. Franklin Roosevelt talked more or less this way. Modern aspirant Democrats don't. Contrast it with Obama's reputation-making convention speech—Obama was much more conciliatory, as given his historical situation he probably had to be.
While that speech is Cuomo's most famous, another one is to me more representative. That was the second speech I want to mention, at Notre Dame, in which the very publicly Jesuitical Governor Cuomo talked about the separation of church and state, in a speech titled "A Catholic Governor's Perspective." You can watch the whole thing via (non-embeddable) C-SPAN report here; or hear an excerpt of Cuomo's speaking (without seeing him) in the video below; or ...
... you can read the full text from Notre Dame's archives, here. It's the source of the quote at the beginning of this article
One thought on Cuomo's legacy. National office in the modern United States—the presidency, or a serious candidacy for it—requires a broader range of skills than any real human being has ever possessed. This is a point I've made in different ways in long Atlantic articles about Barack Obama in 2012, about Jimmy Carter in 1979, about George W. Bush in 2004, and a shorter one about Bill Clinton in 2001.
To succeed fully in national leadership a person would in principle need to be as shrewd a manipulator as Lyndon Johnson, as confidently patient a commander as Dwight Eisenhower, as quickly intelligent as John F. Kennedy, as publicly sunny as Ronald Reagan, as fundamentally sane as Gerald Ford—you get the idea.
Mario Cuomo did not have all these skills. He no doubt was aware of that, which is probably why (through what was generally referred to as his Hamlet-like era in the 1980s) he broke many liberals' hearts by never running for president. If he had run, who knows whether he would have won; if he had won, who knows how "successful" he would have seemed. It's easy to imagine him ending up seeming "feckless" and "indecisive" as president.
But he possessed one of these abilities in remarkable fullness. Among politicians of the past generation-plus seen as national-level contenders, he was the most accomplished and engrossing public thinker. (This is also Obama's strength, and presumably he will overtake Cuomo through the scale of the issues he has been involved in.) Most public officials know, or fear, that they need to buff away the complicated or challenging parts of their views before presenting them in public. That's assuming they ever had, or kept, such thoughts. Mario Cuomo was notable in trying always to talk up to his audience, not down. You see that especially in his Notre Dame speech. It's an example worth reflecting upon.
Rhetorical success, like presidential effectiveness, involves more separate elements than you might think. It helps to have a good voice and physical bearing; to have actor- or announcer-type skills in presentation; to have an ear for sentence-by-sentence euphony; and to understand the intellectual and emotional shape of a speech. Mario Cuomo had all of these, and our public life was richer when he was an active part of it.
The story so far: My piece on "The Tragedy of the American Military" is here; the "Gary Hart Memo" is here; an extra reading list is here; and for previous reader responses see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, and No. 6.
Now, for No. 7, some responses on the question of "winning" and "losing." The magazine presented the article in a deliberately provocative way, asking on the cover "Why Do the Best Soldiers in the World Keep Losing?"
Anyone who reads the article will see that it places responsibility mainly on all of us. That is, on the chickenhawk American public that "will do anything for its military except take it seriously," and on leaders who know that most voters are willing to "honor" their heroes but will not pay attention to how, where, and why they are sent to fight.
But people who didn't read the article could misunderstand the headline, as some manifestly have, to be casually dismissive of U.S. troops as losers. This kind of misunderstanding, inadvertent or purposeful, goes with the territory of public debate. It foreseeably leads to a kind of tribally minded angry response. Tribal? As in: 1) this guy seems to be against us; 2) since he doesn't like us, we don't like him; 3) therefore whatever he's saying is probably wrong.
That's a minority response; I'm touched and overwhelmed, in a good way, by the volume and sophistication of the submissions I continue to receive. Today's installment No. 7, like No. 4, is on meanings and responsibility for victory and defeat.
1) The truest sign of a strong military is not having to use it. From a reader in California:
Your article that should have been written, and perhaps you did write it, during the Reagan era when the military started to become a sacred cow. [JF note: In 1980 I published several Atlantic articles on this theme, and the next year my book National Defense came out.] It is singularly bizarre to spend a trillion dollars a year on national defense. This money, invested in other ways (e.g., health, education, transportation, technology) could have dramatically transformed society. We might indeed have been better off burning that money.
It is even more bizarre to spend so much and then find the military entangled in, and often actively creating, one unwinnable quagmire after another. Even after the debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, we still found a way to screw up Libya in a manner that was so clearly boneheaded that you'd think someone would have pointed out the only way this could unfold.
The mistakes are so unoriginal, and it is definitely not academic for the people who actually live and die in these places. Getting played repeatedly by Pakistan has cost the U.S. (and several other countries) an incredible amount of blood and treasure, but we have yet to reorient our relationship with this terrorist state. As recent books by Carlota Gall and Anand Gopal illustrate, the U.S. itself has done much more harm than good by blundering into conflicts that could have easily been handled with diplomatic skill and political finesse.
Politicians appear to have discovered that chickenhawkery checks all the boxes. You get to take money away from deserving causes to direct them toward the well-connected. You have genuinely righteous people take on the bullets and bombs so you can laugh all the way to the bank. You get to accuse people who are prudent, brave, and wise, of cowardice. And the voters fall for the chest-thumping, flag-waving displays of jingoism a lot of the time.
The main point that I would've wanted your article to make is that if you have such a powerful military, you should rarely ever have to use it.
2) Winning battles, losing wars. A reader writes in response to James Jeffrey's argument that U.S. military engagements have been much more successful than I claim:
I think Jeffrey redefines "winning" so restrictively that it becomes meaningless. By his definition, the Wehrmacht "won" World War II in the sense that it defeated the enemies it faced in all the principal tactical battles for the first two years or so of the war, and only "lost" when strategic considerations that the army wasn't responsible for, such as the United States entry into the war, led to changes that made it impossible for Germany to win.
And a reader in Michigan piles on:
1) Mr. Jeffrey comments that our armed forces have generally been successful on the battlefield. Yes, but with an important qualification. It's been over a century since the U.S. armed forces were unequivocally successful on their own, in the Spanish-American War, fighting against the decrepit Spanish Empire, and arguably in the subsequent insurgency in the Philippines.
All of what are perceived as subsequent successes, such as those in WWI and WWII, were as part of coalitions. In WWI, our largest contribution was economic, not military, and in WWII, the Soviet Union was arguably the most substantial contributor to the conquest of Germany.
Our public discourse is served poorly by our failure, unfortunately highly prevalent, to recognize these facts and our tendency to overestimate the historic impact of the U.S. armed forces. I don't doubt that Mr. Jeffrey knows this but his comments, probably inadvertantly, are consistent with the unfortunate triumphalism that surrounds a great deal of the discussion of the U.S. armed forces.
2) Mr. Jeffrey comments on the general failure of conflating tactical success with strategic success. The most extreme example of this phenomenon is the Bush administration's use of torture in interrogations. As an example of substituting physical force for clear thinking and planning, this is tough to top.
3) Finally, an additional point about the U.S. armed forces and counter-insurgency. A number of critics point to the Vietnam experience and tend to present the Army's subsequent focus on conventional warfare as a kind of post-traumatic repression of the Vietnam experience.
But, the truth is that we were heavily involved in insurgencies in the post-Vietnam era, both supporting insurgencies (Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Southern Africa), and supporting counter-insurgencies (El Salvador). This was generally done through proxies but our involvement was deep and durable. In the Salvadoran Civil War, an estimated 75,000 people, mainly innocent civilians, were killed over the course of a decade. In a country with a population of only 4.5 million, this was an enormous casualty rate, and our proxies in the Salvadoran military and their paramilitary allies were responsible for the great majority of the deaths. We weren't directly involved in the horrible civil war in Guatemala but quite a few of Guatemalan officers who committed genocidal crimes were trained in the U.S.A. Our support of the Afghan insurgencies contributed to what can only be described as the destruction of Afghan society. These facts were well described and well known at the time. If you were an intelligent American officer in the late 1970s and 1980s looking at conflicts around the world, what would you conclude about the nature of insurgency and counter-insurgency? Given the alternative of focusing your career on the tactically and morally straightforward objective of fighting the Soviets, what would you do?
3) Imagine, for a moment, the possibility of a loss. I mentioned in my article that the current "success" of U.S. drone-warfare policy could prove to be Pyrrhic. We won't like these weapons as well when other people have them. A reader in Canada writes:
Your mention of the acquisition of global drone technology by other nations touched on a concern I think needs more discussion: an understanding of the decision to undertake any military operation in terms of reciprocity.
Before invading another country, Americans need to imagine T-72s parked in the White House lawn and on the National Mall, with foreign flags on their aerials and the devices of another army painted on their turrets, and ask: How bad would it have to get in this country for us to look at those tanks as rescuers rather than invaders? To put it another way, how badly would our government have to behave, one way or another, before we looked at the sight of those tanks and had to admit we brought them on ourselves?
Germany, Japan, Italy, and France, among other countries, have gone through that process in recent enough memory that they can incorporate the memories into their policy debates; they can ask themselves if the government they propose to defeat has behaved badly enough to justify the national humiliation that will result. Americans would need to make an effort of imagination to accomplish the same thing.
Thirty-three years ago, in his book Illiterate America, Jonathan Kozol made a chilling prediction concerning the fate of an America struggling with the legacy of government acceptance of mediocre American educational performance. He wrote that Americans as a whole would lack the knowledge and understanding of other countries and other cultures, would not appreciate their perspectives, concerns, or grievances. He predicted American decline in these chilling sentences, which I have never managed to forget: “America will grow into a tougher, taller, more tormented fortress. We will be more lonely.”...
I fear the problems the United States faces with foreign military engagements need far broader solutions than mutual civil military understanding or the reform of the contracting system.
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Thanks to Dan Perkins, creator of the wonderful This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow cartoon strip, for allowing me to use these images from one of his recent panels. One of my great if transient pleasures as editor of US News in the 1990s was getting his cartoons into the magazine. You can find out more about supporting his work here.
As we near the end of the year, background: My piece on "The Tragedy of the American Military" is here; the "Gary Hart Memo" is here; an extra reading list is here; and here are previous reader responses No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5
For No. 6 we have two reading-list updates, then a message from a recent Air Force veteran.
1) The F-35 and its gun that won't shoot. It's worth reading this new report by Dave Majumdar of The Daily Beast about the latest travails of the F-35, the plane I described in my article. Short version: The challenged F-35 is scheduled to start becoming operational next year. But software problems reportedly mean that its cannon will not work, and the problem will apparently take longer to fix than the United States spent fighting all of World War II. As the story says:
Even though the Joint Strike Fighter, or F-35, is supposed to join frontline U.S. Marine Corps fighter squadrons next year and Air Force units in 2016, the jet’s software does not yet have the ability to shoot its 25mm cannon. But even when the jet will be able to shoot its gun, the F-35 barely carries enough ammunition to make the weapon useful.
The report relies entirely on unnamed sources, which is not ideal; but several similar preceding reports by Majumdar have not been knocked down by Pentagon responses.
2) Aussie reading on the F-35. It is also worth checking out this quite interesting site. Its head of testing and evaluation, Peter Goon, previews its approach:
What is America and its closest allies like Canada, Japan and Australia going to do in the post-2015 "stealth-on-stealth"/"counter-stealth" world where all the leading reference threats, both airborne and surface based, being proliferated around the world by some of the world's best new-age capitalists, have the common design aim of going up against and defeating the F-22A Raptor and B-2A Spirit stealth bomber; especially when there are so few of the latter capabilities to be a persuasive deterrent let alone an effective defence?
3) "It angers me to the point of an ulcer." Steven Specht, who served in the Air Force from 2006 to 2010, writes:
I suppose I come from a military family as most of the males and at least one female has served in the armed forces, but I don't really think of it as an obligation to family history so much as an obligation as a citizen.
The constant prattle of "first, I want to thank you for your service" angers me to the point of an ulcer. Normally I just mutter a thank you and go on ordering my coffee, but deep down I feel a seething anger of wanting to ask them precisely what they want to thank me for.
The anger came to a head this most recent Veterans Day when I was asked to come to a Veterans Day event held by a local lawyers organization. (I am a vet and a law student). I wrote the following piece titled "If You Want to Thank Me for My Service." I think it captures some of the substance of what you speak of.
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By Steven Specht
It is Veterans Day.
I will be thanked a few dozen times for my service. I will feel some combination of irritation and embarrassment as I mumble a thank you for the thank you. I am generally humble about what I did. It’s not that I don’t like to talk about it but that there isn’t much to say. Any pride is rooted in the crews and teams I served with. They are some of the best people I will ever know, and it was an honor to serve among them. Some of them are dead; some have moved on; some are lifers that will stay in the uniform until the government tells them to go home. Despite what I was told in briefings, I wasn’t that special. I was but a tiny cog in a giant war machine.
If you want to thank me and honor my friends, do so by being a good citizen.
I do not take the term citizen lightly, and I bristle when politicians and pundits refer to us as consumers or some “percent.” We are American citizens, and we deserve more than this. However, as American citizens, we owe much more than we have been willing to give.
Good citizenship entails more than standing for the Pledge of Allegiance or taking our hats off for the Star Spangled Banner. These are bare-minimum acts of citizenship. I won’t call them meaningless, because they do forge a sense of national identity, but they are akin to reciting the alphabet, something learned alongside the Pledge of Allegiance in kindergarten. When moving beyond the age of six, good citizenship is so much more. It is constant work that begins at the first moments of cognizance and ends only when our minds and bodies have failed us.
I write to point out what Good Citizenship means to me as a veteran and what a thank you looks like.
The first step is to read the U.S. Constitution. This remains the supreme law of our nation. So many are quick to thump their chests and assert what is constitutional, but so few people have ever bothered to read our founding documents; fewer ever try to understand them. At 4,400 words, it should take less than an hour to bulldoze through the content, but it takes much more time to explore its meaning. We must think in terms of years rather than hours. We must realize that there are multiple ways to view each clause. For everything that seems obvious, there is another clause which may counter that belief. The brilliance of the document is the necessity of interpretation and political growth rather than being locked into a single paradigm forevermore. The task of reading the U.S. Constitution is to be done annually, for understanding will likely change over time. That understanding serves as the basis of our legal system.
Once we are informed on our legal values, we must work toward being informed on a variety of issues. This does not mean establishing an opinion and finding information to justify it. It means learning over time through a wide array of sources. Cable news is a beginning, but it isn’t sufficient, even when consciously seeking out anchors with whom we disagree. Read magazines, newspapers, and blogs. Go to conspiracy sites and see what the fringe believes. View foreign sources to understand how we are perceived and the things that affect those beyond our borders but never make it to the front page of The New York Times. Just like reading the U.S. Constitution, learning is a lifelong process. What we know today may be irrelevant tomorrow.
We must test our knowledge through civic engagement. Good national citizenship starts locally, so join a lodge, or start a community garden. Meet with people in a book club. The greatest source of learning is through interacting with others, and while we don’t have to agree on the details, we can generally face forward and embrace our fellow citizens. Don’t just embrace the ones that agree with you. Despite what the pundits tell us, I seriously doubt any among us actually hate America. We may just disagree on what is best.
We must vote. I would like to say that voting is one of the bare-minimum acts of citizenship, but it seems most of us have missed that memo. I am embarrassed by a country which speaks on changes in Congress last week after only 37 percent of eligible voters voted. This is purportedly the lowest turn out since WWII. I say again, I am embarrassed, because I knew Afghans who risked their lives to vote in Afghan elections, but I know many not willing to spend a modicum of time it takes to cast a ballot in my own community. Voting has not always been something we could take for granted. There was a time when we only voted in local elections that often excluded all but white-male landowners. The scope of elections broadened with time to include national elections, women’s suffrage, and equal access for minorities. This change did not come easily as women risked their dignity and familial wealth to achieve their goals. Minorities faced down brutality and lynching to gain access to polls. With early voting and mail ballots, the process is easier than ever. What excuse do 63 percent of Americans have for failing to vote? Why have millions not even registered?
We must learn to question government. When I say question the government, I do not mean we should idle in a smoky room and wonder whether 9/11 was an inside job. I mean we must assert ourselves proudly and politely in front of elected officials who depend on our input to do their job effectively. Write a letter to your representative or call the White House. When that fails, we must take to the streets in protest. Protest does not mean looting and burning parked cars, but it may mean facing down tear gas and uniformed police wielding assault rifles. A great man once said, “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” Those who signed the Declaration of Independence all knew they would be executed if they failed in their treason. By no means am I using analogy to suggest sedition. I am saying that the revolution that began in 1776 has never actually ended and in each generation, we get better, only by being engaged citizens.
Finally, we must reject the notion of American Exceptionalism. I have no doubt that we are a great nation, but we are not this way through some external force. What makes America great is not an abstraction but angry people who wanted more than death and taxes. If America is exceptional, it will be only because we work to ensure America is continually improved as we lean in toward a more perfect union. We are not the best at everything. We don’t need to be the best at everything, but we do need to work toward constant betterment of ourselves and our nation.
This list is not comprehensive. I’ve left some things out purposefully, because these six work concurrently. By doing all of the above, the other requisites of citizenship will become obvious and fall into place. If you want to thank me for my service, do so by telling me that on your day off for a federal holiday, you took an hour of your time to explore the meanings of the Constitution’s Preamble. If you want to honor my friends, tell me that you sat down to write a letter to a politician on an issue of importance to you. Make yourself known. Do not settle for the bare minimum of citizenship any longer.
If you're joining us late: My piece on "The Tragedy of the American Military" is here; the "Gary Hart Memo" is here; an extra reading list is here; and here are previous reader responses No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4. As mentioned earlier, I'm including these in our American Futures saga because, while from a different vantage point than our normal city-visits, they're about the civic texture of American society
Today's installment No. 5 is reader mail on the general subject of recognizing those who serve.
1) All the whooping and hollering. From a young American who has not been in the military but has spent time in Iraq and Turkey working with Kurdish refugees:
One point in your analysis that finally puts into words something I have struggled to vocalize for years. I was always put off by the whooping and hollering that went along with those military appreciation football games at [the University of North Carolina].
Those young men and women were paraded onto the field, drunk college kids falling over one another to show how proud they were by screaming "America!" and "Go Heels, Go America!"
I sat questioning what exactly it was that these folks were cheering for. Were they cheering because they knew what these young people would face if they were deployed? Were they cheering because of the useless and sometimes counterproductive violence that our military and political leaders would ask these young people to inflict upon others? Were they cheering with the knowledge that the C.I.A. had failed to notify our soldiers that they might come into close proximity and/or handle leftover chemical weapons in Iraq (even after they knew these weapons existed)?
No, none of these, they were cheering because they wanted to be seen as patriots and they wanted to feel as if they were doing something rather than do anything at all.
To think critically about the military would be too difficult, too risky, too doubt-inducing. So instead, they choose to cheer and go home, forgetting about the military or anyone in it until the next game day.
I sometimes find myself becoming bitter when I think of how superficial all of it is—from politicians, to students, to older folks, no one knows what our military really does, how they do it, or why. They'd rather not know, and hang out their "support our troops" sign and forget about it all. They don't want to know what's wrong, they just want to think they are safe.
I never cheered at these games... Then I attended a program at the U.S. Army War College and another program at the U.S. Air Force Academy. These programs gave me the chance to speak directly with the people who have made it a part of their life to understand, improve and participate in the military. My thoughts on it, surprisingly, did not catch their ire, rather, they were welcomed. In mainstream society, any rebuke of the military in any form is quickly quashed by nationalistic fervor and patriotic ramblings, and sometimes, personal attacks.
I am well-educated, come from a modestly wealthy family, and I was lucky enough to be afforded great opportunities. It is people like myself who shun or even despise the idea of serving in the military. Although I never served, through my time roaming the streets of Cairo, Erbil, Hatay, Tehran, Ramallah, Mosul, etc. I have met many soldiers and others associated with the military. These interactions have shown me that the job is difficult, it is important, and it is crucial, for our soldiers are our country's most accessible ambassadors in regions of the world where our dominance is questioned, tenuous and good will towards our nation dwindles if it is not cultivated. Soldiers are part of a larger culture that must be developed in a thoughtful and democratic manner.
2) What kind of service is "thankworthy"? From another reader who has not been in uniform:
Two quick comments. Nothing profound.
First, my dad was drafted for Vietnam, hated every second of it, and could never stand it when people thanked him for his service—or the pervasive, treacly displays of thanks to others' for their service.
Second, I did an extended volunteer tour in the U.S. Peace Corps (three years, instead of two) in the mid '90s, and nobody has ever thanked me for my service. Not that I really give a damn (I would probably laugh if anyone did.) But it is odd that the military is the only national service deemed "thankworthy" by the public.
It makes me wonder whether Peace Corps (or Americorps, or anything where you don't use firearms) would even "count" if we had compulsory national service.
3) "When you say, 'Thank you for your service,' this is what I hear." From a Marine Corps combat veteran of Vietnam, with later service in the Balkans:
I read your article with great interest.
Things have changed since 9/11 but not the isolation of the military from mainstream America.
And I can’t help it but when I hear someone say to me “Thank you for your service” it sounds more like “Get the hell back in your foxhole.”
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