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.
  • Solving the Chickenhawk Problem: Is It All Up to the Vets?

    A man who has recently left the Air Force suggests that people like him should take the lead in re-connecting civil and military culture. No. 15 in our Chickenhawk series.

    The Atlantic

    An interesting reply from a reader who has just left the Air Force after six years as an officer:

    You wrote your article to talk about the importance of an engaged citizenry that thought and talked about the military past the simple "thank you for your service," and gave examples of the consequences that have followed from not putting a critical eye on the professional military.

    The follow-up discussion seems to have been dominated by veterans who are critiquing the internal culture of the military.

    Speaking about the problems we have with the organization we left is a good thing, since we are now civilians. And I think it's only natural for veterans to dominate the discussion - active duty service members will hesitate to speak out against a culture and organization they're still in and have not decided to step away from, whereas civilians do not feel comfortable speaking about an organization which has been deified and which they know little about.

    I guess what I'm getting to is (at the risk of sounding self-important) - are veterans the key to breaking the "chickenhawk" dynamic?

    The messages I've quoted in this and previous installments (see index after the jump) accurately reflect the huge volume of mail I've received. That is, mainly I've heard from people with current or past military experience, who are mainly concerned about cultural problems inside the military and its unnatural relationship with mainstream politics, media, and daily life.

    On the possible role of recent vets: In my article, I noted that the new 114th Congress actually has a much higher proportion of Iraq-Afghanistan veterans than does the population as a whole. People who served at any point in those wars represent about 3/4 of one percent of the U.S. population—and at least five percent of the new Senate and House.

    That shared experience won't make them any likelier to agree on policy: New Sens. Joni Ernst and Tom Cotton were gung-ho for the Iraq war, new Rep. Seth Moulton, who also served there, was against it. Similarly, John McCain and John Kerry were both Navy veterans of the Vietnam war but have usually disagreed on military policy. (And, a theme for another time, there is a long political tradition of candidates hyping a military record when running for office.) Still, this could mean progress on one front I discussed: toward taking the military at least as seriously as we do other major public institutions, from the school system to the medical system to the courts and police.

    More »

  • A Generation of Lions, Led by Lambs: The Chickenhawk Chronicles

    Reports of "a general, quiet dissonance between the younger and older officers in the military."

    Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom, 1826 ( Wikimedia commons )

    A recurring theme in responses I have received about my "Tragedy of the American Military" article involves generational rifts. Today's young officers and enlisted troops, those who came of age in the era of open-ended war, have often written to describe the distance they feel from commanders half a generation older — those who joined the military before the invasion of Iraq, and who plan to stay for the long run.

    Here is an example, from a USMC veteran who asks that I not use his name. He is responding to a message yesterday from Z.K. Rosson, who left the Air Force after service as an A-10 pilot.

    I was an officer in the Marine Corps from 2004 until 2012 when I resigned. I served with artillery batteries and forward observation and close air support units in that time. I deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan, and I have given a lot of thought to the issue of careerists that Mr. Rosson raised and how it came to be.

    Your mentioning of Once an Eagle was particularly poignant and helpful in crystallizing my thoughts, actually. In that book Mr. Myrer rails against "box checkers." His antagonist, actually, epitomized these individuals. More concerned with their career than the success of the organization. I believe this mindset thrives between wars, in times of relative peace. Times such as the 90's when the current military's colonels and generals were coming up. As those individuals became majors and lieutenant colonels, Iraq and Afghanistan kicked off and they were ushered along by a growing military.

    This has now become a larger problem and, I think, the cause of the general malaise you speak to among those in the military. Speaking frankly, there is a generation of lambs trying to lead a generation of lions. Senior captains and junior majors have done nothing but fight wars for more than a decade. So, naturally, when someone who grew up "checking boxes" tells them they are doing it all wrong, offense is taken. I don't think this is overtly recognized as a problem. Rather, I think there is a general, quiet dissonance between the younger and older officers in the military.

    This, among many other reasons, some you covered and still more, is the cause of a certain malaise. It is also, I believe, the reason for an exodus of junior officers books like Bleeding Talent highlight.

    The tensions between yesterday's generation and tomorrow's are of course an evergreen theme. But I have heard from enough younger veterans, still in uniform or having left, to think we should pay attention to this divide. Many of its implications are positive, in suggesting a rising generation of soldiers and citizens determined to make changes based on the real-world struggles they have lived through.


    Here is a running index of previous installments:

    "The Tragedy of the American Military," my article in the Jan-Feb issue. A C-Span interview is here; an NPR "All Things Considered" interview is here; a PBS News Hour interview and segment is here.

    1) Initial responses, including an argument for the draft.

    2) Whether Israel comes closer to a civil-military connection than the U.S. does.

    3) "Quiet Gratitude, or Dangerous Contempt?" How veterans respond to "thank you for your service."

    4) "Actually We Keep Winning." An argument that things are better than I claim.

    5) "Get the Hell Back in Your Foxhole." More on the meaning of "thanks."

    6) "Showing Gratitude in a Way that Matters." What civilians could do that counts.

    7) "Winning Battles, Losing Wars." A response to #4.

    8) "The Economic Realities of a Trillion Dollar Budget." What we could, or should, learn from the Soviet Union.

    9) "Meanwhile, the Realities." Fancy weapons are sexy. Boring weapons save troops' lives.

    10) "Chickenhawks in the News." The 2012 presidential campaign avoided foreign-policy and military issues. What about 2016?

    11) "A Failure of Grand Strategy." Half a league, half a league, half a league onward ...

    12) "Careerism and Competence," including the testimony of an A-10 pilot who decided to resign.

    13) "Vandergriff as Yoda." A modest proposal for shaking things up.

  • Chickenhawk, No. 13: Vandergriff as Yoda?

    A 93-year-old steps aside, and the choice of his successor will send a signal.

    MAJ (Ret) Donald Vandergriff, the next Yoda? (Donald Vandergriff)

    Background: 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, No. 10, No. 11, and No. 12. Also as background, last night Margaret Warner did a very good piece on the PBS News Hour about my argument and possible rebuttals.

    Today, for a lucky-No. 13 installment, a thought-experiment solution. In previous episodes, I've quoted present and former officers on the perils of group-think and risk-avoidance as aspirants make their way up the military promotion ranks.

    Suppose Barack Obama, still-SecDef Chuck Hagel, or his successor-designate Ashton Carter wanted to do something to shift this culture. There could be few clearer signs of an intention to shake things up than appointing Donald Vandergriff as the next Yoda.

    Yoda? This very good review by Carlos Lozada in the Washington Post explains why the name has been attached to Andrew Marshall, who at age 93 is just now stepping down as director of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment and all-purpose eminence grise in the military world. I was going to compare Marshall's influence to that of Admiral Hyman Rickover, until I realized that Rickover was on active duty only until age 82 and died at 86. Lozada's article will tell you more about the ups and downs of Marshall's tenure.

    Now the Pentagon is advertising for his successor—literally, there's a job description and application form online. Want to signal a change? My candidate, until someone has a better idea, is Donald Vandergriff, who has in fact applied for the job.

    Vandergriff spent 24 years on active duty an enlisted member of the Marine Corps and an Army officer. When he retired ten years ago as a major, a relatively junior rank, he exemplified the tensions between an independent-thinking, irrepressible, let's-rock-the-boat reformer and the "don't make waves" normal promotion machine.

    Because of his writings and advocacy, near the end of his active-duty tenure Vandergriff was described as "the most influential major in the U.S. Army." I did an Atlantic-online discussion with him and Robert Coram, author of a popular biography of the late Air Force colonel John Boyd, a dozen years ago. He has written many well-received books about working fundamental change in the training and promotion of officers, including The Path to Victory; Spirit, Blood, and Treasure; and Raising the Bar. If you want an illustration of someone willing to take (and suffer) career risks in the cause of telling unpleasant but important organizational truths, he would be your man.

    Is this going to happen? I'm not holding my breath. It would be like appointing the (pre-Senatorial) Elizabeth Warren to run the SEC, or my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates to head a police review board. But just as in those cases, such an appointment would be a sign that you were serious about changing an organization's course, plus recognizing and rewarding those who had taken risks for the right reasons. Despairing about where even to start in signaling cultural shifts in the military? Please consider the potential of this move.

  • Chickenhawk Chronicles, No. 12: Careerism and Competence

    "Upon redeployment from combat, our squadron was greeted by a new commander who proceeded to tell us that none of us were going to get promoted if we didn't get our masters degrees finished." Veterans discuss the internal tragedies of the military.

    The underside of an A-10 as it rolls away from a fuel-tanker plane over Afghanistan. The pilot of such a plane writes about command dysfunction. ( U.S. Air Forces Central Public Affairs Photo by Master Sgt. William Greer, via Wikimedia )

    Background: 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, No. 10, and No. 11. Today's theme for No. 12 is the question of competence and careerism in the professional military.

    My article argued that our military failures through the "long wars" were mainly failures of grand strategy, of the nation as a whole. But one consequence of America's chickenhawk view of the military—we love the troops, but we'd rather not think about them—was an incentive and promotion system within the military less tied to win-or-lose measures of success than in some other eras. From the Civil War onwards, generals or admirals were sometimes removed from command for mistakes on the battlefield, not just for what we now (sadly) call Gen. Petraeus-style cases of personal indiscipline. That has not happened in our recent wars. Today, three shorter reader messages on the question of competence, and then one quite long and powerful report from an Air Force veteran that I hope you will read all the way to the end.

    1) The Lake Woebegone Effect, or all our leaders are above average. The fancier term for a world in which everyone is special is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Many readers wrote in to mention it, for instance:

    In their paper, "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments," professors Justin Kruger and David Dunning write that, "People tend to hold an overly favorable view of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains."

    They suggest, "overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunates choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it."

    This, the reader went on to argue, could explain a view of a military in which all members were heroes and all leaders were outstanding on every measure.

    2) "The culpability of the general officer corps." An Army veteran argues that senior officers should have resigned rather than undertake campaigns they knew would fail.

    I am a reserve Army captain, having left active duty last year. I spent a year in Afghanistan (2011-2012). I left the active Army for several reasons, but foremost among them was an inability to lead soldiers into strategically incoherent wars.

    I’d like to focus on one point that I do not think has been adequately or candidly discussed—the culpability of the American general officer corps.

    You discuss the lionization of the military in general and of its leaders in particular, and touch on modern Presidents’ aversion to confronting their generals. I would go farther, and lay both the failure in Afghanistan and the spectacular blunder into Iraq squarely upon the general officer corps.

    Beginning in my cadet days, I was taught that officers were duty-bound to refrain from overly political recommendations. I believe this overdeveloped ethos has contributed to the strategic blunders we have endured over the past 15 years. Specifically, the general officer corps had an obligation not only to state honestly what it would take to invade Iraq (see Gen. Shinseki) but to articulate, whether it was asked to or not, whether this was a reasonable idea. I think the invasion of Iraq, and the concomitant failure in Afghanistan, foreseeably weakened American security. I think the chiefs had an obligation to resign before they executed orders they reasonably knew would be to the detriment of American security.

    LTG McMaster, a lesser-known but key Army leader, wrote a book about the phenomenon as it related to Vietnam—‘Dereliction of Duty.’ Unfortunately, I think McMaster’s thesis applies to our wars today. [JF note: Yes, McMaster is lesser-known to the public but very prominent in defense-reform debates. I have written about and recommended this book before.] The general officer corps’ facilitation of incompetent politicians’ bad ideas is a dereliction of their duty to the American public. Generals are always subordinate to the civilian leadership, but they should resign before executing strategically incoherent wars. I would emphatically put Afghanistan, Iraq, and the current campaign against ISIS in this category.

    3) "I have been shocked by the scandals recently." From an American who lives in Asia:

    I am a Navy veteran (LT USN), resigned in 1989. I completely agree with many of the sentiments expressed in article, although I am not a professional in defence or military matters any more.

    What really hit home for me was: "military’s career structure “corrupts those who serve it; it is the system that forces out the best and rewards only the sycophants.”

    Thats why I resigned many years ago.

    I have been shocked by the scandals recently, that seems to have sunk under the radar - Glenn Defense Marine Asia scandal in Asia was particularly shocking to me, as the 7th Fleet staff fleet scheduling officer was corrupted to schedule ships into ports to please his contractor.

    I also attended [a Navy event in a major Pacific Rim city] a couple of years ago where Rolex watches, donated by defense contractors, were raffled off to military personnel. I felt shame for that to happen in front of our allies from other southeast Asia nations.

    * * *

    4) Now, the account by Z.K. Rosson, a former A-10 and MQ-9 pilot. I am setting it off separately because of its length and detail, and because he has agreed to be quoted by name. I hope you will read this all the way through.

    By Z.K. Rosson

    As a 2002 West Point graduate, who spent 12 years in the Air Force flying A-10s and MQ-9s, I saw firsthand a lot of the issues you describe in your article. I think you are spot on with your assessment that the general public's lack of desire to hold military leaders accountable has been a major factor in our 14 years of failed combat.

    Your quote from William S. Lind as he condemned the "utter silence in the American officer corps" was especially powerful. I also believe Congressman Moulton was correct when he said that the military has "become populated, especially at the highest ranks, by careerists, people who have gotten where they are by checking all the boxes and not taking risks."

    I'll give you a couple examples from my time in the service as support to the points you made in the article.

    In 2009, I was deployed to Afghanistan flying the A-10. Back then, we referred to our missions as "TIC-hopping." We would take off with our pre-planned tasking in hand, only to be immediately re-rolled to one "troops-in-contact" situation after another.

    While the amount of fire fights that our ground forces were still engaging in after five years of conflict speaks volumes to our lack of progress, the amount of personal satisfaction I got from being there for them is difficult to put into words.  Many times, we didn't even need to employ our weapons, as a simple low pass over the enemy position was often all that was needed to save the day. I would return from those missions knowing I was getting to fight and walk amongst the best fighter pilots on the planet.

    Unfortunately, upon redeployment from combat, our squadron was greeted by a new commander who proceeded to tell us that none of us were going to get promoted if we didn't get our masters degrees finished. He said we should feel proud of our contribution to the fight, but should realize that the Air Force doesn't care about that stuff. He said we needed to get busy checking boxes, and fast, if anybody wanted to be a commander someday.

    After the proudest experience of my life, I went on to lose all faith in my branch of service.

    Fast forward to 2012, and the box-checking careerist mentality that I had first become aware of in 2009, had grown like cancer into an unmanageable sickness. I was now flying the MQ-9 [Reaper] (transferred from the old redheaded stepchild--the A-10--to the new one--the "drone"). I was back in Afghanistan launching MQ-9s and handing them off to crews back in the states. We ended up with more people deployed than we needed, so I was able to launch and land a few missions, then spend the remaining hours of my days flying close air support missions.

    Our volunteer mission quickly became highly regarded at the lower and intermediate levels because we were able to provide highly-needed kinetic support to ground troops in southern Afghanistan, while freeing up a lot of Kandahar-based F-16s to move to higher priority areas in northern Afghanistan. Our single mission improved "CAS status" throughout all of Afghanistan.

    The war-fighters all loved us, but that didn't stop our self-serving group commander from shutting us down. On one mission, we were able to take out six insurgents planting an IED and preparing an ambush against coalition forces. We found out shorty after the strike that we had taken out the only IED-maker in that particular AO. Intel analysts assessed that it would take at least a month before insurgents would be able to go back to planting IEDs in that area, because it would take at least that long to get another skilled bomb-maker in from Pakistan.

    We had effectively provided a month of "freedom-of-movement" for our ground troops in one engagement. That didn't stop our self-serving careerist group commander from removing us from the fight, though. After he saw our engagement video he stated that he was only tracking two metrics: hours and numbers of aircraft flying "base-defense" sorties overhead Kandahar, which is the only thing he said his boss cared about. We were to stop flying CAS missions immediately and begin scanning for rockets being set-up around Kandahar. It only mattered that his metrics went up and made him look good to his boss.

    I returned from that deployment more cynical than ever. It only got worse, though, as I attempted to put two of my NCOs in for quarterly awards and was told that "nobody looks at the job related bullets--you need to make sure their volunteer bullets look good to win the award." This was in a wing that performed a 24/7/365 combat mission.

    The Air Force (probably the other services as well) is completely inundated with a careerist/self-serving culture in both the officer and enlisted corps. I was once told that the key to success in the Air Force is to check all the right boxes without being the "tall blade of grass."

    Though many at the field-grade level and below will tell you this, nobody in the flag ranks will admit this because they are direct benefactors and creators of the current culture. A careerist culture is incapable of critical thought. Therefore, I believe the military services are incapable of fixing this problem on their own. It requires public involvement, debate, and ACCOUNTABILITY. American citizens cannot shirk this responsibility just because they haven't seen combat themselves. I applaud [the Atlantic and me] for bringing this issue to the forefront. Though, I wonder if Kim Kardashian would have been a better messenger to keep this in the public sphere (but that is just the cynicism in me). [JF note: Of course!]

    So I don't run afoul of Mr. Lind, I will continue to speak out within my sphere of influence, including at my blog:

    http://www.zkrosson.com/blog. This is but a small pebble against a mountain to be sure, but I will do my best to do my part.

    * * *

    This is JF again, to add a final point. In all our previous wars, popular culture and mainstream journalism were full of accounts of the sort of careerist-vs-competence choices that Z.K. Rosson describes. This was a theme of Catch-22, of South Pacific, of The Caine Mutiny and From Here to Eternity, of The Bridges at Toko-Ri by James Michener, of The Hunters by James Salter, of that perennial military favorite Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer, even of Apocalypse Now. But current public culture seems almost afraid of this "some of them were good, some were not" assessment of military leadership in the recent wars. The closest we come is the more familiar terrain of bureaucratic scheming in Homeland and, to a degree, Zero Dark Thirty.

    Next in the series: a person with an idea about shaking up military culture.

  • The Glamorous Life of a Journalist, Collaboration Edition

    "You may contribute to the ideas for this article if you wish." Now you've got my attention!

    "The Art and Mystery of Printing," Grub Street Journal, 1732. ( British Museum/The Grub Street Project )

    From the email inbox this morning, quoted in full except for the sender's name:

    To: James Fallows

    From: J .....

    Subject: Are you interested in article collaboration? theatlantic.com


    I am just contacting you to ask if you would be interested in an article collaboration for your website, theatlantic.com. I do apologise if you have received a similar email from me.

    I am running a new and exciting campaign, and I am looking to provide you with an informative article which for your website. You may contribute to the ideas for this article if you wish.

    We are keen to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with you. Could you please let me know if you would be interested? I would be glad to send you more detailed information about this.

    I look forward to hearing back from you and thank you for taking the time to read this email.

    Kindest regards,


    Digital Outreach Agent


    Full "glamorous life" archives here. A few guideposts:

    From 2009, on adventures in cosmetic dentistry.

    From 2010, "experts delivered" right to my doorstep. Also, a personal message "to (outlet name)" and "thanks for your great piece on (country name)."

    From 2011, on spin control from then-Rep. Anthony Weiner making its way straight into news stories.

    From 2012, opportunities to learn about "the Father of Fat Grafting" and the "Hottest CBS Personality."

    Where your articles come from: the floor of LAX.

    From 2013, who else but the Amazing Kreskin, plus racy "fan fiction" starring the First Family. Also, the glamour of working on the road.

    From 2014, the couples-getaway edition, and an offer for a free drink from the PR person of a country that wants to clear up all that messy talk about rampant human rights violations.

    Glad to keep the tradition alive this year.

  • Our Diverse Land, Chapter 93,271

    East is east, west is west, and right at this moment west is a nicer place to be.

    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.

  • The Chickenhawk Chronicles, No. 11: A Failure of Grand Strategy

    What Alfred Lord Tennyson could teach us about civil-military relations. Plus, the simple lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, from a naval veteran's point of view.

    The Atlantic

    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.

    Charge of the Light Brigade, by Richard Caton Woodville Jr (Wikimedia)

    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.

  • California High-Speed Rail: The Collector's Edition

    An index to the arguments pro and con about the most ambitious infrastructure project in the United States

    Chugging ahead toward the future ( Calisphere )

    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.

    3) Update: "Five times as many passengers using China's HSR network than in 2008."  Rocky grammar, interesting data point.

    * * *

    California High-Speed Rail Authority

    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.

    2) "The Critics' Case." Cost-overruns, impracticality, and other drawbacks.

    3) "Let's Hear from the Chairman." Dan Richard, chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority, gives a detailed reply to some of the critics' contentions.

    4) "7 Ways in Which High-Speed Rail Would Help California, According to its Chairman." Richard goes on to make the positive case.

    5) "10 Readers With 10 Views." Voice of the public.

    6) "Some Views From the Valley." Readers from the state's low-income, high-unemployment Central Valley comment on the project.

    7) "The Courts Speak Up, and So Do Some Readers." A major court ruling last summer that removed an impediment to proceeding with the plan.

    8) "More Questions and Concerns." Reader concerns mainly about ridership estimates, earthquake safety, cost overruns, etc.

    9) "The Chairman's Turn Again." Dan Richard responds to the issues raised in #8.

    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.

    13) "Let's Look at Maglev and Other Alternatives." On whether the "futuristic" high-speed rail network is already out of date.

    14) "Why You Shouldn't Get Your Hopes Up for the Self-Driving Car." On one popular futuristic alternative to rail systems.

    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.

    14 3/4) "Is the Winning Bid Suspiciously Low?" The first bids for system construction came in far under estimates. Is that a problem?

    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.

    * * *

    A previous big-infrastructure bet in California (Wikimedia)

    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.

    Screenshot of projected route (UC Davis and Esri)

    All aboard.

  • There Will Always Be a Chinese State Media

    The government is very conservative about some aspects of expression. When it comes to others...

    China expands its high-speed rail network. (People's Daily online)

    I find this constancy oddly soothing. From today's People's Daily report on a new northern-China bullet-train rail line:

    Somehow I don't see the California High-Speed Rail authority matching this PR approach.

    And a few days ago in the also state-run China Daily:

    For background on this proud tradition in Chinese state-run journalism, please see "The Chinese State Media Celebrate International Women's Day," "For the Chinese State Media, Every Day is Women's Day," and "Attractive Females at NPC, CPPCC Sessions."

    Since my recent theme has been military preparedness, no doubt I should end with this 2012 People's Daily report on the People's Liberation Army Air Force:

    That is all.

  • Chickenhawk America, in Today's News

    Might the next presidential race shift attention back to long-neglected military questions?

    The Atlantic

    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 The Atlantic'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.

  • California High-Speed Rail: A Minor End, an Important Beginning

    Who should get the benefit of the doubt when we consider the unknowable future?

    Infrastructure moves the world (from Hiroshige's watercolors of the Tōkaidō) (Wikimedia)

    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.

    Aspirational High Speed Rail network by 2030

    For reasons I described in this 2013 article, I think it's good for California, and good for all Americans' understanding of politics, that Brown has been returned to office for these four last years. For reasons I have laid out in, um, copious detail, I also think that it is good for the state and the country that this project go ahead. (For the details, see episodes No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, No. 10, No. 11, No. 12, No. 13, No. 14, No. 14 1/2, and No. 14 3/4. Today's item is officially No. 15, and is The End of the Line.)

    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 ...

    Poverty and environmental-stress rates in California's Central Valley. The interactive version of this map is here. (UC Davis and Esri)

    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.

    A comparison of American and Chinese pollution levels (The Washington Post)

    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.

    The Panama Canal: What a crazy idea this was! (J. Saxon Mills)

    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.

    Photo of the corner of Tulare and G in Fresno, where today's groundbreaking will occur. (Google Earth)
  • Chickenhawk Responses No. 9: Meanwhile, the Realities

    "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?"

    The Atlantic

    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 for previous reader responses see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8.

    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.

  • The West Wing on the Music of Oratory

    Mrs. Bartlet: "You are an oratorical snob." President Bartlet: "Yes, I am. And God loves me for it."

    Thomas Cranmer would probably not have done well on TV, but he knew something about effective persuasive prose. (Wikimedia)

    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.

    More »

  • A Question About Cuomo: How Did He Do It?

    "But the spoken phrasing? The timing? The timbre and oratorical glory???"

    Mario Cuomo listening to a question after his speech on "Religious Morality and Public Morality" at Notre Dame in 1984. ( C-SPAN )

    [Please see update below.] A note just now, from reader Allison B., raising a question about Mario Cuomo's performance as orator:

    I read your quick Cuomo obit and last night watched the Notre Dame video. [Full C-SPAN video of the 1984 Notre Dame speech is here.]

    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.

  • Chickenhawk Response No. 8: The Economic Realities (and Unrealities) of a Trillion-Dollar Budget

    "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.

    The Atlantic

    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, No. 6, and No. 7. Today's is No. 8.

    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.

    Thanks to all, more to come.


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