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.
  • Readers on the 'Tragedy of the American Military,' No. 1

    "It is a dangerous slope we are on where we worship the troops, have no clue what they do, or why, and as along as we don't need to know, we are happy," a West Point graduate writes.

    The Atlantic

    Last night my article on "The Tragedy of the American Military" went online. The article is here; an accompanying reading list is here; the "Gary Hart memo" that I mention in the article is here. And a video on how the troubled F-35 fighter plane exemplifies larger Pentagon problems is here.

    Rather than wait a few days to quote reader mail, I'm going to dig right in and start doing so now, since so much has arrived with such range and intensity of argument. I'll do two or three per installment.

    From a West Point graduate who became a successful business executive:

    I am an [post-Vietnam era] West Point grad. Resigned after 5 years.

    Your article is spot on. I often wonder what the rest of the world thinks of us when at each major sporting event, we have fly overs of fighter planes, B-52s, Apache helicopters and legions of troops getting awards at halftime.

    I see in my classmates a total divorce from civilian reality. They live in a rarefied world where they are the only ones who are honest, law abiding, and religious.

    They totally disdain social welfare programs as they receive health benefits to death, commissary privileges, and pensions. In their view, civilians are not worthy of these programs.

    It is a dangerous slope we are on where we worship the troops, have no clue what they do, or why, and as along as we don't need to know, we are happy.

    I hope your article stirs discussion. I fear it won't. The coup may in fact be coming.

    From a reader in the West:

    I am Vietnam Vet of two tours ('68-70). I strongly believe at least some of the issues regarding  present day military-civilian interactions is ownership. There is none.

    As you stated at the beginning of your article: Having another war is OK as long as someone else is going to do the fighting. If a draft had been in place at the beginning of the Iraq War, the war might not have started or not have gone on as long as it did and the same would hold true for the Afghan war.

    In this last midterm elections only 33.6 percent (nationally and some states were as low as 22 percent) of the electorate showed up to vote. In my mind that is total disrespect towards those whom the fans cheer for at any of the respective sporting events.

    The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were sold to the American populace stating these military actions are being fought to preserve American Freedoms and way a of life, yet the electorate throws their right to vote in the circular file.

    From Jamie Dodson in Alabama:

    As a retired Army officer I concur with your overall assessment and see Gary Hart’s three recommendations as key. Of the three, I see restoring the military-civilian relationship as the most vital.

    I strongly support the return of the draft and the citizen soldier. That’s a tall order considering our high tech military. It takes a great deal of time to train soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen/women. So how long would our new draft have to be—three years?

    The draft changed my life for the better, and I rose through the ranks to retire as a field grade officer. I feel certain that it could also do wonders for many of our nation’s youth—especially those of the elite. And perhaps by extension, keep us out of unnecessary conflicts.

    On this last reader's point, I agree in principle that a broadly based draft might rebuild a connection between the citizenry and its military, as well as creating additional drag against launching "wars of choice." In the current issue, Joseph Epstein writes about what such a draft meant for the America of the early Cold War era.

    But as a practical matter, I think there is simply zero possibility that the United States will adopt compulsory service of any sort, absent some change in world circumstances no one can now foresee. Therefore I view this as a thought experiment rather than as a real option.

    * * *

    Three process notes:

    1) Comments. For reasons explained here and here, I've never allowed comments on my portion of The Atlantic's site, although comments are enabled on my article itself. Instead I enjoy receiving, quoting, and learning from reader emails, as I am doing here and will in coming days. For me this approach offers most of the benefits of a comments section, including exposing a range of informed (or sometimes only passionate) response, without the drawbacks that are on display in many unmoderated comment sites.

    A carefully moderated comments site, like the one that Ta-Nehisi Coates has operated over the years, is in principle the best solution of all. But I've never been willing to commit the time to run a site that way.

    2) American Futures. I'm tagging this post as part of our American Futures series, because we're really talking about another part of our ongoing question about the civic fiber of the country. It's different in nature from the other entries but it meant to get at similar long-term themes.

    3) Editing. Some messages I quote originally began with something like "Great story" or "I'm glad you wrote this!" On principle I edit most of this out. Although I crave compliments as much as the next person, it just seems creepy to quote them about yourself. Thus when I leave in positive comments, as I have in a message here, it's either because they're addressed at some criticism I've posted, or because they seem germane to the larger point the reader is making. I realize that it is a form of humblebrag to raise this point at all, but it seemed part of explaining the reader/writer interaction on which online forums rely.

    Thanks for these reader messages. That's all for the process notes. More comments on the substance of civil-military issues coming shortly.

    * To read about and sign-up for our new American Futures email newsletter, see here. Or just go straight to the sign-up here.

  • The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

    The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

  • My Story on 'Chickenhawk Nation'

    "We love the troops, but we'd rather not think about them." What happens when a nation's view of its military is both reverent and disengaged.

    The Atlantic

    Several times this past fall, I've mentioned that I was concentrating on a big project for the magazine and thus was deferring most other commitments, from our ongoing (and soon-to-be-revamped) American Futures saga to the daily fray of news about politics, China, aviation, etc.

    The article I was working on has now come out in the new January-February 2015 issue of the magazine (subscribe!) and has gone online this evening. In the days to come I'll say more about the themes I emphasize in this article, and the ones I decided to leave out. Also about some of the ramifications for policy and politics, plus the reactions I've begun receiving from people who have read the print magazine.

    My purpose right now is simpler. It is to point you to:

    1. The article itself, which you can find here, "The Tragedy of the American Military."

    2. The article above includes some powerful interactive graphics, plus a video The Atlantic's online team has created to accompany the online version of the article, which you will see as you read through it. The graphics are meant to underscore one of the "Chickenhawk Nation" themes, which is the stark contrast between the relative handful of Americans directly involved in the country's ongoing wars and the huge majority of politicians who are dealt into what Dwight Eisenhower called the "military-industrial complex" through supply contracts to their home districts. The video illustrates the difference between civilian technology, which grows ever cheaper and more reliable, and military technology, which does the reverse.

    3. The brief background on and text of "the Gary Hart memo" that I mention in the article. When I first began reporting on the post-Vietnam War "military reform" movement, in a 1980 Atlantic article called "The Musclebound Superpower" and then in my 1981 book National Defense, Gary Hart was a rising young Democratic senator from Colorado who was assembling a network of historians, technologists, combat leaders, weapons designers, and others to think about how the United States could take a more flexible, realistic, and sustainable approach to defending itself. His main Republican counterparts were the then-young and rising Representatives Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Dick Cheney of Wyoming.

    We know about the subsequent paths of Gingrich and Cheney. What many people don't realize about Hart's career since then is how seriously he has maintained his interest in the tactics and strategy of national defense. Because of this background, in 2011 President Obama privately asked Hart to formulate advice on what Obama could do, if he won a second term, to make a difference in long-standing military problems. This memo, published here for the first time, was the result.

    4. A collection of arguments pro and con about two controversial military aircraft, the A-10 "Warthog" attack plane and the F-35 "Lightning II" fighter. My article takes a hard line in arguing that the A-10 illustrates some of the best practices in weapons-design, and the F-35 the reverse. Thus I argue that the current policy of phasing out the A-10 while pouring money into the F-35 is a costly and illustrative mistake.

    The civilian and military officials in the Pentagon who have been pushing for the F-35 and against the A-10 obviously disagree. The links on this page will allow you to explore the claims and responses and see which you find most convincing. And since the main argument of my article is that the hollow practice of "honoring our heroes" at halftime ceremonies and through priority boarding at airports has become a cheap substitute for serious engagement with the real problems of our defense establishment, whatever you conclude about specific weapons or policies, wading into the issues is important in itself.

    * * *

    The memo from Gary Hart's small group was meant to be terse and suggestive rather than encyclopedic. Knowing how fiercely competed-for a president's time and attention are, Hart insisted that the memo be kept under 2,500 words in length.

    My article, as you might notice, is not quite that short. Even so, with about 10,000 words to work with, there are a lot of themes and discussions we decided to save for another time, in the interest of concentrating this one on its central chickenhawk theme. For instance, the "Air-Sea Battle" concept, which could loom large in future tensions between the United States and China, is important. So, obviously, are the future of the nuclear deterrent, and the implications of cheaper, widely dispersed drones, and the ways in which the military trains and promotes its officers. But we decided to deal with those later.

    This article, plus its accompanying material, is meant to raise questions rather than resolve them all, begin a discussion rather than conclude it.

  • How Gary Hart Tried to Change Military History

    In 2011, the former presidential candidate and four others—including me—prepared this memo for President Barack Obama. The president has yet to respond.

    AP Photo

    In his January/February Atlantic cover story, I write about politicians' reluctance to reform the military:

    In the spring of 2011, Barack Obama asked Gary Hart, the Democratic Party’s most experienced and best-connected figure on defense reform, to form a small bipartisan task force that would draft recommendations on how Obama might try to recast the Pentagon and its practices if he won a second term. Hart did so (I was part of the group, along with Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University, John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School, and Norman R. Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin), and sent a report to Obama that fall. He never heard back. Every White House is swamped with recommendations and requests, and it responds only to those it considers most urgent—which defense reform obviously was not.

    That memo, which was titled “Bending the Arc of Military History,” can be read below.

    Twenty-first Century Directions for America’s Defense. War has changed and we have not kept pace. The potential for traditional nation-state wars is decreasing. Unconventional, irregular conflicts are increasing. Rather than traditional, hierarchical command systems managing concentrated, large-scale force structures designed for major global wars, 21st century conflicts require networked, smaller-scale combat units configured for maneuver, mobility, flexibility, and surprise operating under a modern, faster, cohesive command structure.

    Major recommendations:

    1. Combat units must become smaller, faster, and more lethal. Unlike the 20th century when size meant power, today smaller combat units have much greater power due to technology, weapons precision, and networked communications and information systems.  Brigade, regiment, and company size units seamlessly networked will be much more effective on the 21st century battlefield. These more powerful and effective combat units can be “scaled-up” into larger, more traditional formations if required by larger-scale conflicts.

    2. Conduct a critical review of the U.S global posture. Our foreign “footprint” is represented by our current legacy regional commands heavily layered since the end of World War II. This review should determine which foreign headquarters and bases may be consolidated,  reduced, or replaced by maritime assets.

    3. Streamline the Cold War national security apparatus. Replace it with a smaller, more compact system designed to provide the commander in chief with focused, precise, and timely advice based on refined real-time intelligence. This new national command authority support structure should be augmented with a small senior Defense Council composed of seasoned national security experts free from institutional responsibilities who would report directly to the President.

    4. Clarify the decision-making process for use of force. Such critical decisions, currently ad hoc, should instead be made in a systematic way by the appropriate authority or authorities based on the most dependable and persuasive information available and an understanding of our national interests based on 21st century realities.

    5. Appoint a Commission to Assess the Long Wars. This commission should undertake a dispassionate effort to learn lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq concerning the nature of irregular, unconventional conflict, command structures, intelligence effectiveness, indigenous cultural factors, training of local forces, and effective combat unit performance. Such a Commission will greatly enhance our ability to know when, where, how, and whether to launch future interventions.

    6. The Commander in Chief as military reformer. Major political and technological changes require the President once again, as in previous instances in U.S. history, to become a bold military reformer. Under differing circumstances this role has been played by Presidents Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan.

    7. Restore the civil-military relationship. The President, in his capacity as commander-in-chief, must explain the role of the soldier to the citizen and the citizen to the soldier. The traditional civil-military relationship is frayed and ill-defined. Our military and defense structures are increasingly remote from the society they protect, and each must be brought back into harmony with the other.

    Supporting discussion:

    Purpose of this memorandum: Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, and after a decade of experience in a different kind of warfare brought on by new kinds of threats, our military remains fundamentally unchanged from its Cold War organizational schemes. We inherited and continue to maintain a military structure, spending patterns, and habits of thought that owe too much to threats and technologies of a bygone age and reflect too little the strategic challenges and technological opportunities of the decades ahead.

    Over time, we cannot continue to outspend the rest of the world, combined, on military forces when our economy represents one quarter of the world’s output and requires sustained domestic investment to preserve and increase economic leadership and opportunity for the American people. A restructured 21st century military should cost no less nor no more than is required to defend our country. But savings in lives and money will result from making that military more effective.

    We face a security environment increasingly mismatched to our legacy national security systems. Evolving threats are specifically designed to avoid our fortified points. Opportunities for strengthening American economic and political power are being sacrificed to the maintenance of a military system from the last century.

    At critical historical moments, such as following World War II and the Vietnam War, our nation has adapted its security resources to the realities of the age. In these and other cases we learned from experience and profited by correlating our strategies and military resources to the realities of changing times. Lessons learned from two current long wars must guide us in undertaking long overdue post-Cold War reforms.

    1. Smaller combat units have much greater power due to technology, weapons precision, and networked communications and information systems. These more powerful and effective smaller combat units can be “scaled-up” into larger, traditional formations if required by larger scale conflicts. Technology, especially high technologies such as robotics, now enable us to reverse the recent pattern of “scaling down” and, instead, make our baseline forces the brigade, regiment, or company which can be “scaled up” in the event of a major nation-state war.

    Scaling-up, fitting smaller combat units into larger division, carrier task group, and bomber wing formations, can be accomplished in a timely fashion, when required, through training, equipping, and exercising, to achieve combat presence in the case of threatened conflicts at the nation-state level.

    However, about two dozen wars are presently underway around the world, all of them irregular, attritional and protracted. We are presently militarily involved in three of them. This memorandum recommends changes designed to enable us to engage with smaller, nimbler, more networked forces. This will in turn make it possible for us to sustain combat presence, when our interests or our ethics demand, without exhausting our military in the process of endless repeated deployments of large combat and support contingents.

    Networked intelligence systems constructed laterally will increasingly erode the traditional intelligence hierarchy accustomed to secrecy hoarding. The National Directorate of Intelligence is a layer of hierarchy that makes networking (lateral information sharing) harder. Advanced technologies both enable us and require us to must transition from centralized intelligence to networked intelligence. Serious consideration should be given to the elimination of the NDI structure.

    The U.S. should, finally, declare a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. A world without large strategic arsenals is one in which American air power, naval mastery and incomparable ground forces would have their advantages sealed into place. Nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue nations or terror networks pose a terrible threat. Denuclearization – even eventual abolition, carefully and verifiably pursued – should be our goal. It is our obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both measures make practical national security sense. And it is the right thing to do for future generations.

    2. Review the U.S. global posture. Since the end of World War II, every conflict has produced far-flung, permanent foreign deployments now controlled by regional commands top-heavy with bureaucracy. New conflicts produce new commands and sub-commands and those produced by old conflicts are seldom reduced or eliminated.

    It is now necessary to liquidate unnecessary foreign deployments and commands, consolidate others, and, where strategically logical, consider replacement of them by maritime assets. Produced by accretion and the reluctance to surrender an established “presence”, our global posture manages to avoid critical examination and proliferates without a rational strategy. A critical review of this crazy-quilt system will produce a much more rational and relevant global posture for the nation, one attuned to the realities of the current new century.

    3. The national command structure. The National Security Act of 1947 provides the statutory framework upon which a vast and growing defense structure has expanded by accretion. Layer upon layer of civilian and military command structures and inter-departmental committees and bureaus overlap to a degree that makes focused, well-informed, and timely decisions increasingly difficult. This system must be simplified, rationalized, and made relevant to a newer, faster-moving age. Warning times and therefore reaction times are dramatically more compressed.

    A thorough, top-down review by disinterested and experienced advisors can provide a blueprint for achieving this too-long delayed objective. The national command authority is not well served by the present security super-structure. It is more elaborate than necessary and increasingly irrelevant to the realities of the 21st century.

    A 21st century support structure for the national command authority should be augmented by a Defense Council composed of those with superior experience in national security affairs who are not encumbered by current institutional responsibilities or allegiances and who are available to give the President their best advice.

    4. The use of force. Current practices for determining to commit U.S. military forces are irregular, uneven, and ad hoc. Though the circumstances of conflict will always and inevitably vary, it is possible to produce a regular order for deciding when, where, how, and most importantly whether to apply military resources. This system can and must be superbly informed, based on an agreed data base (and not contradictory intelligence reports and confused and conflicting information), involve a predetermined and established set of senior civilian and military commanders, be based on timely communications, and be premised on an established set of guidelines as to both the advantages and costs, financial and political, of engagement.

    A streamlined and effective command structure and decision-making process must also consider projected loss of life among both indigenous populations and U.S. forces and projected time commitments based on realistic, not fanciful, estimates. Future force deployments should take place only after a thorough understanding of the historical and cultural conditions in the theater and their implications for long-term commitments

    5. A Commission to Assess the Long Wars. An unprecedented effort to learn the lessons of modern conflict, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, is required. Traditionally, our society is sufficiently relieved by the suspension of hostilities that we choose not to look back. This reluctance sacrifices invaluable knowledge shared among those who participated in the conflict and those who commanded.

    Lessons learned are imperative if we are to prosecute future conflicts more effectively and if we are to know more clearly whether military intervention makes sense. We must assess the nature of unconventional, irregular warfare, indigenous cultural factors, training of local forces, coordination of allied efforts, and effective combat unit performance.

    A precedent for this commission may be found in the 9/11 Commission.

    Such a commission will greatly enhance our clarity in knowing when, where, how, and whether to commit American military forces. It will help us anticipate when we are committing ourselves to long-term nation building. Most of all, this full-scale review represents a moral duty to those who have sacrificed their lives in these current protracted conflicts.

    6. The Commander in Chief as military reformer. A number of previous presidents have influenced major strategy changes, usually in advance of established military theory and doctrine and traditional military institutions. The combination of three on-going conflicts and new national security leadership, provide the platform for the commander in chief to articulate the US approach to conflict in the 21st century.

    Abraham Lincoln understood, in many cases ahead of his senior military commanders, the strategic revolutions represented by the railroads and the telegraph. His appreciation of these revolutions directly impacted the Union’s military strategy throughout our Civil War.

    Franklin Roosevelt modernized mass mobilization and skillfully allocated resources between two major global combat theaters. American forces at the end of World War II were radically different from those that went to war in December 1941. A decade after 9.11, the U.S. military still looks structurally as it did the day the twin towers fell.

    Dwight Eisenhower rejected advice to eliminate adversaries by pre-emptive warfare, including the use of nuclear weapons, and instead established the doctrine of containment and nuclear deterrence that guided us successfully through the Cold War.

    John Kennedy managed the Cuban missile crisis, often in contradiction to the wishes of senior military commanders, and is credited with avoiding nuclear confrontation and potential exchange by instituting the quarantine of Cuba.

    Ronald Reagan instituted arms control breakthroughs by imagining an exchange of highly advanced space technologies with the Soviet Union adversary. This innovation was resisted strongly by senior military commanders and political advisors alike. He also instituted a maritime strategy and presided over the introduction of technologically advanced precision-guided weapons.

    7. Restoring a healthy civil-military relation. National security education must be increased in two dimensions: the military academies and officer training schools must be more widely focused in terms of involvement in civilian instructors, such as historians; and the commander-in-chief must play a larger role in educating the public at large concerning national security issues.

    Greater attention must be paid to the implications of a widening chasm between civilian and military sectors of society and the increasing detachment of the military from the society it serves. Americans in general and the soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women who protect them must be more closely linked. This may be achieved via educational programs that can give all Americans a deeper appreciation for military and security affairs.

    Citizens, especially those who have no family member in the military, see our military as a distant and little-understood system somewhere on the outer edges of our society. Military professionals continue to be respected but do not engage the public’s interests on any immediate basis. Very few members of Congress have any military experience whatsoever and most take little interest in military affairs.

    An age in which our military is constantly engaged and our public is not is a potentially serious challenge to American democracy.

    Summary. Twentieth century conflict involved traditional nation-state wars with formal declarations of war, direct involvement of the public, conscription and mass mobilization, often increased taxation, and even rationing. These wars had a beginning and an official end.

    Late 20th century and early 21st century conflicts have been irregular and unconventional with less Congressional involvement and oversight, much less involvement of civil society and without an official beginning and end. Victory is increasingly elusive and difficult to define.

    There are three fundamental reasons to pursue military reforms. First, every period of technological change implies the adoption of new, oft-times radically different, military “tools and practices.” Second, our stressed economic situation and consequent fiscal constraints require us to invest in our military with far more circumspection than in the past. Last, the external security environment, filling up with rising regional powers – and ever more potent networks – should spur us, in our straitened economic condition, to pursue innovative approaches that will restore our somewhat blunted “edge.”

    Resistance to change must be confronted from the outset. Militaries practice a dangerous, complex business, and are loath to risk changing from tools and practices that have worked in the past and that they believe may still work. But sometimes the risk of not changing is greater, as was the case a century ago when the great powers marched their armies off into battle, massed shoulder to shoulder, against machine guns and high explosive artillery. Millions were slaughtered needlessly because of the reluctance to embrace change when it was clearly necessary.

    Post-Cold War military reform is twenty years over-due.

  • A Reading List on the Tragedy of the American Military

    Additional reading on the subject of The Atlantic’s January/February 2015 cover story

    U.S. Air Force via Reuters

    In the January/February 2015 Atlantic, James Fallows argues that a specific example of flawed defense decision-making, under what he calls "Chickenhawk Nation" circumstances, involves the contrasting fates of two military aircraft. One is the Air Force's A-10 attack plane, nicknamed the "Warthog." The other is a multi-service airplane that was originally called the "joint strike fighter" and now is known as the F-35 "Lightning II." The A-10—which is relatively cheap, highly reliable and battle-tested, and designed for the specific task of flying low and slow over a battlefield so as to support U.S. and allied troops—is being phased out. Much of the money is going to what the article describes as the over-budget, past-schedule, too-complex, problem-plagued F-35.

    The article points out that the Department of Defense strongly disputes these views, and says that we will offer links to documents pro and con about these airplanes and other relevant defense issues. Here they are:

    I. The Gary Hart Commission memo. As the article discusses, in 2011 Barack Obama asked former Senator Gary Hart, who in the 1980s had been a leader in the “defense reform” movement, to convene a small group and offer recommendations on how a reelected President Obama might work lasting changes on the Pentagon. Read the summary memo, “Bending the Arc of Military History.”

    Hart remained in contact with the administration and in 2014 was appointed a special negotiator for Northern Ireland. But, as the article says, he heard no follow-up on these points.

    II. Official arguments in favor of the F-35 and against the A-10

    III. Arguments and analyses on the other side, about the importance of the A-10 and the ongoing failures of the F-35

  • The Tragedy of the American Military
    Adam Voorhes
    Atlantic Features

    The Tragedy of the American Military

    The American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously. The result is a chickenhawk nation in which careless spending and strategic folly combine to lure America into endless wars it can’t win.

  • Travel Chronicles, From East to West

    How the city that gave the world the very first McDonald's hamburger is trying to remake its economy, and other tales

    The very first McDonald's in America, on E Street in San Bernardino, California. I came here as a teenager, when the burgers really did cost 15 cents. This is how it looked yesterday, under rare Southern California lowering skies. (James Fallows)

    Everyone has got lots of things to think about at the end of a year. But I wanted to note things we've seen, have reported on, and are about to cover in our ongoing travels across the country.

    1. This Past Week: Deb Fallows completed her four-installment chronicle of what it is like to cross the continent at low altitude, with various surprises, rewards, and challenges along the way. If you missed them, they are:

    More »

  • The Diplomatic Life: It's Not All Striped Trousers and Sips of Tea

    "The students, I don’t know how many there were, several thousand, surrounded the cars and began to pelt them with eggs and rocks and to jump up on top of the cars and stamp on the roofs." When Warren Christopher had to deliver bad news in Taiwan.

    From the wall of the Grand Hotel in Taipei, a news photo of Warren Christopher's egg-pelted official car ( Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training )

    Yesterday I did a brief compare-and-contrast on the U.S. decision to normalize relations with the People's Republic of China, under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter in the 1970s, and Wednesday's announcement by President Obama that the U.S. will begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba.

    The normalizations were similar in both being sensible, realistic, and in America's interest—or so I contend. One difference, I said, was the level of rancor the two decisions generated.

    In the Cuban case, we've seen some protests in Little Havana (below) and heard Senator Marco Rubio's undoubtedly heartfelt (if in my view wholly misguided) avowal that "I don’t care if polls say the 99 percent of the people support normalizing relations with Cuba," he is still against it. But all signs are that this long-overdue change will soon be an accepted part of reality every place except some parts of southern Florida.

    Yesterday in Miami (Reuters)

    But 35 years ago in the Chinese case, the admirable but in this case unfortunate Warren Christopher, in his role as deputy secretary of state, was dispatched on a mission for which there is no current counterpart. He had to fly to Taipei and there inform the leaders of the Republic of China on Taiwan that the U.S. was switching its recognition to their bitterest adversaries, in Beijing, and would no longer deal with the ROC as an official country.

    Warren Christopher as secretary
    of state (Wikipedia)

    I'd paid attention to that episode because I was a junior staffer in the Carter White House at the time— and because Warren Christopher, later Bill Clinton's secretary of state and a lifelong example of steady, understated public service, was a contemporary of my parents and by chance a friend of theirs from Southern California. From all accounts I'd heard then and later, the Taiwan trip was an episode that called for sangfroid on Christopher's part, as crowds surrounded his car.

    A reader who had been in Taiwan back then said, let's keep it in perspective. He said he agreed with me on the welcome change toward Cuba. But:

    The line about "...nothing compared with the riots in Taiwan after the U.S. announcement..." did catch my eye, however.

    I was living in Taipei at the time and that feels overstated. There were some demonstrations, and yes, a smallish group roughed up Christopher's motorcade (without hurting anyone), and in a separate incident an unlucky Colombian diplomat was dragged out of his car and beaten up. But nothing you would call widespread rioting.

    Considering the suddenness and significance of the U.S. de-recognition, I thought the popular reaction was pretty restrained. Typically sothe Taiwanese can get unruly, but they're violence-averse (except for gatherings of politicians, apparently, but these were pre-democracy days). [JF note: fist fights have broken out surprisingly often in the modern, democracy-era Legislative Yuan of Taiwan.]

    None of which has much to do with the Cubans, who would probably appreciate a little less recognition from the U.S. government.

    Because I'd heard of the Christopher trip as such a dramatic moment, I went prowling around for further accounts of it. It turns out the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, based in Arlington, Virginia outside Washington DC, has a riveting account by Neal Donnelly, who was public affairs officer in the U.S. Embassy in Taipei at just the time it was downgraded to a non-Embassy. You can read the whole thing here. Here are two samples.

    When the then-ambassador in Taipei got word of the impending change:

    That night, Ambassador Leonard Unger went to the American Chamber of Commerce Christmas party. ... A cable came in late at night saying that Carter was going to announce the normalization of China and the de-recognition of Taiwan. [An embassy staffer] immediately got a hold of Unger at the Christmas party at I think about 11:00 pm and then Unger started the wheels in motion to contact Chiang Ching-kuo who was the President of the country [and son of Chiang Kai-shek].

    Now you don’t just go to the President of the country’s house and ring the bell and talk to him, so it took a while to go through the several people that they had to and then they got Chiang Ching-kuo at, I think, slightly after two o’clock in the morning. Unger told him that we were de-recognizing Taiwan.

    I’m told that he was in shock, shocked into inaction, and really didn’t do anything until the following morning. At six o’clock in the morning I was called by the duty officer and told to get down to the office. I got there, I guess about 8:00, and the country team was in the bubble [secure meeting room]. ...

    We got there and Unger, still in his tuxedo and red bow tie [from the previous night's party], told us what Carter was going to do and we should call our families and tell them to listen to the radio, the armed forces radio station in Taiwan which would broadcast the message. And to tell our families to keep the kids home from school and things like that. So we did.

    Then the announcement came and, of course, people were very upset.

    After Warren Christopher arrived, he addressed the people of Taiwan. A senior Taiwanese diplomat, Chen Fu, introduced him at a press conference:

    Chen's introduction was not “Ladies and gentlemen of the press, this is the Deputy Secretary of State. He has a short statement and then he’ll take your questions.” It was nothing like that at all. It was a condemnation of the act of normalization, and the Taiwan government negotiating position on normalization, from which they would not retreat. ...

    It went on for about five minutes, after which, Warren Christopher read this very bland statement ... [in which he said he was] “look[ing] forward to meetings which will reflect the goodwill and understanding that has existed between us.”

    Obviously there wasn’t any goodwill or understanding. (laughs) …

    We went out then and got in the motorcade and started out. By the time that we got outside the gates, the students, I don’t know how many there were, several thousand, surrounded the cars and began to pelt them with eggs and rocks and to jump up on top of the cars and stamp on the roofs. …

    A student came with a flag pole and shoved it through the window and broke the window. I was covered with glass and cut a little bit. Ambassador Unger was driving with one of the admirals, I think. He was mildly cut and his glasses were knocked off. He had the Seventh Fleet commander with him, I think. ...

    Our car was badly damaged. They kept us for a long, long time in that motorcade; wouldn’t let us go through. Just pounded the cars and breaking the windows. No one was hurt badly and I’m told by a young friend of mine who was a military officer — a young Chinese friend — that the soldiers were told to don civilian clothes and make sure that none of the students got too wild. He said he himself wrestled down a student who was going after the Ambassador’s car with a hammer. So they were prepared.

    To round this out, two other reader notes. First on the longer-term politics of Cuban policy, from a reader in California:

    By beginning the process to normalize relations with Cuba, Obama may have actually helped the GOP in one small way with the Hispanic community.

    Many Mexican-Americans that I've talked to over the years resent the way Cuban-Americans have always been given a special status as refugees. So while Cuban-Americans are definitely part of the larger American Hispanic community, many Mexican-Americans feel Cuban-Americans are treated better.  Normalizing relations with Cuba removes the refuge aspect.

    Of course, if Cuban-Americans no longer provide any particular influence, the GOP could start ignoring them as well. Maybe Marco Rubio becomes just another GOP Senator.

    And on comparing U.S. policy toward the one-party Communist government in China with policy toward the one in Cuba:

    The spring after 9/11, I spent several weeks traveling around the back roads of the U.K. by myself, and almost invariably in chatting with people I met along the way, after they realized I was an American and we'd agreed on George Bush (bad) and Bill Clinton (good), the next question would be something along the lines of (imagine a rural northern Scottish road crew member leaning on his shovel), "Can ye tell me then, wot's it with you people and Cuba?"

    A standing joke when I was living in Beijing is that there was exactly one steadfast, true-believer Marxist among the billion-plus residents of China. That was the Cuban Ambassador in Beijing. We'll see how long that goes on.

  • Obama Just Ended the Stupidest Part of U.S. Foreign Policy

    Turns out "don't do stupid shit" is an underrated guiding principle for a president

    Some residents of Little Havana are upset about President Obama's decision today to begin normalizing relations with Cuba. Tough. (Reuters)

    For at least 35 years, the U.S. embargo on diplomatic or commercial dealings with Cuba has been the single stupidest aspect of U.S. foreign policy.

    Not the most destructive: that title would go to the decision to invade Iraq, plus the ongoing ramifications of the age of torture, open-ended war, and the security/surveillance state.

    But the Cuba policy has been the stupidest, because there have been absolutely zero rational arguments for its strategic wisdom or tactical effectiveness. Jeffrey Goldberg, who has traveled in Cuba and interviewed Castro, more tactfully calls it "ridiculous." In my impetuous youth a few years ago, I called it not the stupidest part of U.S. policy but the "most idiotic." Take your pick.

    I choose "at least 35 years" as the demarcation point for undeniable irrationality because that is when the U.S. fully normalized its relations with mainland China. If successive Republican and Democratic administrations could see the merit of trying to engage (rather than exclude) a one-party repressive communist-run state, even when that state had four times as many people as the U.S. did, and is nuclear-armed, and is a regional rival of several U.S. allies, how much more obvious is the case for a tiny little island practically within eyesight of the American mainland and certain to fall under the sway of U.S. cultural and economic influence if given a chance?

    Not to mention that recognizing the People's Republic of China meant cutting off America's relationship with the people and government of the Republic of China on Taiwan, which itself has twice the population of Cuba and nearly 10 times as large an economy. There is no comparable tit-for-tat cost for the U.S. in normalizing relations with Cuba. As shown by the photo above, there are protests in Little Havana today. That is nothing compared with the riots in Taiwan after the U.S. announcement, which Warren Christopher braved when traveling there in 1978 to deliver the official news that the U.S. no longer considered Taiwan a real country.

    The stupid policy persisted because of inertia, and because there actually was a counterpart to the Cold War-era "China Lobby" that pressured against dealing with Mao's Beijing government and in favor of Chiang Kai-Shek's Taiwan. This was of course the emigre Cuban community concentrated in Florida. Let's round up to say that perhaps 1 percent of the U.S. population has modern family ties to Cuba. That's not many people. But enough members of that 1 percent would work hard enough, in a concentrated enough political sphere, with enough resources and intensity behind them, that they were able, NRA-style, to make this a line just not worth crossing for most politicians. Very few members of the remaining 99 percent of the electorate were going to switch their votes based on Cuba policy. Why should politicians take the risk of infuriating the minority that cared?

    Thus even though people out of electoral office—Richard Nixon as an ex-president, William F. Buckley, even (bravely!) Paul Ryan before his vice-presidential run—have urged opening up to Cuba, for people in office, or considering a run, the ramifications in Florida have made such a move not worth the risk and bother. Every sane person knew the Cuba policy "would" and "should" change. But it didn't.

    Until now. It is unwholesome for U.S. democracy that so little now happens through normal "bill becomes a law" procedure, and so much depends on executive action. But in this case the executive is doing manifestly the right thing. Congratulations, thanks, and it's about time. "Don't do stupid shit" may have limits as a worldview, but it is an improvement over continuing a path of folly.

  • Fascinating New Ways of Depicting the Motions of the Air and the Seas

    Modern data-based graphics meet the timeless mysteries of the globe.

    If you'd like to see a moving version of these ocean currents, go to NASA's site. ( NASA )

    Yesterday I mentioned a fabulous site for envisioning the swirl and flow of winds around the world. Seriously, if you haven't seen it, and if you have any interest in the geophysical world, take a minute now to check out the Czech-originated site Windyty.

    Okay, glad to have you back. Here are several followups:

    1) Oceans have currents, too. From a professor at a major state university who specializes in fluid dynamics:

    As a working scientist whose curiosity was sparked by the New York Times science section in high school, I greatly appreciate seeing more science-related content in venues read by “laypersons."

    NASA has done a similar thing with the ocean currents that is truly amazing. It may be worthwhile to share with your readers.

    Indeed it is! This NASA project is the source of the image at the top of this post. I don't see a way to embed its videos, but if you go to the NASA site here, you'll be able to see a range of fascinating high-res, high-amazement representations of ocean flows.

    2) Flows go up and down, not just side to side. From a Ph.D. meteorologist with NOAA:

    With respect to those visuals of rivers of air, it's worth being aware that there is one dramatic simplification at work in such figures, namely that the motion is portrayed as only horizontal. It is, of course, not just horizontal, and not just because of the flow over mountains.

    At any given time, there is probably 1 cm/sec large-scale vertical motion on average a few thousand feet above the ground. While that may not seem like a large quantity, suppose the typical wind a few thousand feet up is order 10 m/sec. This means that for every 1000 m (1 km) traveled, that air will change in height by 1 m, and thus for every 1000 km the air will change in height by 1 km, if the vertical motion is consistent along the trajectory of that air.

    So, on a diagram like the ones you showed, in actuality an air "parcel" that you might be tracking from Hawaii may end up whisked away at 10 km altitude, with a very different speed and direction than at the surface, by the time it reaches the west coast of the U.S. And similarly, the surface air along the West Coast may have come from somewhere very different than implied by such a diagram.

    And thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for those vertical motions, for that's what brings us the rains and snows (on ascent) or what clears out the smog after the passage of a cold front (the descent of clean air from high aloft).

    3) Envisioning the layers of the atmosphere. The weather is way more interesting to me now than it was before I was spending time planning flights through it. Not weather as in, "Nice day today," or, "Hot enough for you?" But weather as in, "How low will the ceiling be?" Or in the wintertime, "Where is the icing risk?" Or in the summer, "Where are the thunderstorms?"

    A radically useful tool for answering these questions is something known as a Skew-T Log(p) chart, a sample of which you see below. It represents soundings from weather balloons, which measure changing temperature, dew point, wind speed etc. as they ascend toward the stratosphere. As I say, these charts are very useful, but to put it mildly they take some getting used to. You can find introductory material here and more advanced material here The Skew-T chart below basically tells you: If you fly between altitudes of about 10,000 and 20,000 feet, you're likely to be inside a cloud at temperatures just below freezing, and therefore in danger of airframe icing.

    What this charts tells you is that clouds are likely starting at an altitude of about 10,000 feet—and that the temperature will be below freezing there, so airplanes between that altitude and around 20,000 feet are in danger of icing conditions.

    One of the features of the great Czech Windyty site mentioned earlier is that it presents some of the same underlying information on a local basis (with analysis from meteoblue in Switzerland). For instance, here's the way it shows likely cloud layers over Chicago this week. The middle row, which I've highlighted, shows likely altitudes of cloudy and clear layers, as the week wears on. The Skew-T has its function, but so does this.

    Windyty and meteoblue

    4) Your tax dollars at work. David Ryan, who under his nom de blog Tony Comstock was a guest blogger here back in 2011 and who in his role as charter-boat captain pays attention to the weather, writes:

    It might be worth mentioning that the data for that and (nearly) all other private weather outlets comes from government sources. Here's the one I use: https://www.fnmoc.navy.mil/wxmap_cgi/index.html. And here's the European consortium:

    The visualizations are cool, but they aren't possible without the data!

  • Envisioning a River of Air

    Prediction: If you spend a little time on these sites, you will start looking at weather forecasts in an entirely different way.

    Surface-level wind flow around the world this morning, color progression from magenta to green showing increasing speed. In case you can't make it out, that's the North American continent in the center of the view. ( WIndyty.com )

    By the classification rules of the world of physics, we all know that the Earth's atmosphere is made of gas (rather than liquid, solid, or plasma). But in the world of flying it's often useful to think of air as a fluid.* Landing with crosswinds in an aircraft has some similarities to tacking in a sailboat. The turbulence created by high winds over rough terrain is easiest to understand if you think of it as the counterpart to the whitewater rapids created when water flows over stones. [*Thanks to physics-world friends who have written in to emphasize that both gases and liquids can be fluids. I'm meaning to emphasize the visible-flow nature of air streams that these sites highlight.]

    This is my way of introducing an absolutely fascinating site that depicts wind flows around the world as visible currents. It's called Windyty, it is a non-commercial project by an avid kite-skier and pilot in the Czech Republic, and the link is here.

    The image at the top of this item is a static screenshot. If you play around with the site, as I predict you'll want to, you will see that you can pan and zoom all over the place, you can choose different color overlays to show different values—wind speed, moisture etc.—and you can see how things look at different altitudes. For instance, the opening image shows surface-level winds. Here is the view at 20,000 feet, dramatizing the increase in wind speed as you go up (with North America still at the center of the shot):

    Wind flows at 20,000 feet, also giving an idea of how the jet stream works. (Windyty.com)

    The real breakthrough of this site, for non-weather-professional viewers like me, is depicting atmospheric flows as if they were movements of liquids. Once you see the movement and currents depicted here, you'll think of the big H's and L's on weather maps in a new way. You can also click on specific locations on the map to get very interesting-looking local forecasts. Here is a video from Ivo, the adventurer and programmer in Prague who has created Windyty:

    Windyty, wind forecast from Ivo on Vimeo.

    And one more: If you'd like to see a similar animation presented on a globe, try this site, from the Earth community. Here's a sample:

    Storm brewing right now in the northern Pacific, near Alaska (Windyty.com)

    Thanks to Mike McCoy, of UC Davis and the California Strategic Growth Council, for pointing these out.

  • That Winning Bid for California's High-Speed Rail: Is It Suspiciously Low?

    "No one should have the illusion that this phase is going to be completed for $1.2 billion. This is a political number." So says a critic of the surprisingly low successful bid. The rail system's chairman begs to differ.

    What they're trying to build ( Esri and UC Davis )

    Yesterday I noted two seemingly positive developments in the California High-Speed Rail saga. That was installment No. 14 1/2 in the series. For previous episodes see 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, and then No. 14 1/2. Today's item is officially No. 14 3/4. Number 15 is still to come!

    The two bright spots were that reelected Governor Jerry Brown will spend the first full day of his fourth and final term at a groundbreaking ceremony in Fresno for the first leg of the system, indicating both that the project is getting going and that he remains committed to it; and that the winning bid for construction of the second leg had come in substantially under estimates. The high-speed rail authority's estimate had been $1.5 billion to $2 billion for this leg. The winning bid was $1.2 billion.

    More »

  • California High-Speed Rail: It's Happening

    Three weeks from now, a groundbreaking ceremony on the most important infrastructure project now underway in the United States

    I've used this image before and will probably use it again. (Wikimedia)

    This doesn't count as the long-awaited No. 15 Finale in the California High-Speed Rail series. (For previous episodes see 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, and No. 14.) All readers will be relieved to hear that No. 15 is still to come. Instead this is to announce, as No. 14 1/2 in the series, some actual news. It's best understood in this sequence:

    1) A little more than a month ago, Jerry Brown won his (unprecedented) fourth term as governor of California. One of the campaign issues was Brown's commitment to build a north-south high-speed rail (HSR) system as his signature project for the state.

    More »

  • A Vibrant American Musical Career, far From America's Cultural Capitals

    What Larry Groce discovered by launching a national radio program from an out-of-the-way location

    A program with one host since its debut in the 1980s ( Mountain Stage )

    In the early 1970s, a young singer-songwriter named Larry Groce was launching his career in the music business. He had grown up in Texas, moved to Los Angeles, started recording albums, and in 1976 had a Top Ten hit with the novelty song "Junk Food Junkie."

    After that song came out, Dick Clark invited Groce onto his American Bandstand show. You can see a clip from that below—and down at the very bottom of this item, a different clip of Groce singing the "Junk Food" song. But what Clark mainly asks about in this clip is Groce's recent role as a "musician in residence," sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, in rural areas of West Virginia.

    More »

  • The More Americans Who Read the Torture Report, the Better

    U.S. policy has often shifted in the wake of big reports from official bodies. Let's hope the new Senate report has that effect.

    President Lyndon Johnson receiving copies of the "Warren Commission" report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy from Earl Warren and other commission members. ( Government Printing Office )

    Thick, footnote-laden reports from official government bodies have played a surprisingly important role in shaping American policy and public opinion. To give a few examples from my conscious lifetime:

    • The Warren Commission report in 1964, on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, argued strongly that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and without any outside guidance or collaboration. Agree, disagree (to me it's always seemed implausible, but I have no convincing other interpretation), it remains the central document for discussions of the topic.
    • The Kerner Commission report in early 1968 examined the race riots of the previous few years and concluded that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." It was an immediate national bestseller. Martin Luther King said that the report was "physician's warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life." Six weeks later he was shot dead.
    • The Church Committee reports of 1975 and 1976, which were technically reports of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, laid out a wide range of abuses and excesses by the CIA and U.S. intelligence agencies. These included targeted assassinations of foreign leaders and widespread and previously unknown surveillance programs. Afterwards some intelligence officials claimed that their hands had been tied, etc., but it was a mammoth and necessary airing of excesses.
    • The Hart-Rudman Commission in 2001, technically the Commission on U.S. National Security/21st Century, was the one that warned the incoming George W. Bush administration of the likelihood of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
    • The 9/11 Commission report of 2004, technically the "Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States," was another immediate bestseller that examined the sins of omission and commission that predated the worst-ever terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

    There have been others that made news and focused attention: the Grace Commission, the "Nation at Risk" Commission, the report on the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the Moynihan report, plus more early in the 20th century (e.g. this). The point is, these big, ponderous official studies are often the way the United States has dealt with big, ominous issues.

    The Torture Committee report of 2014 should have the same effect. I say "should" in an exhortative rather than necessarily predictive sense, though I hope both apply. You should read this document, and you should demand changes and accountability.

    Technically the report is known as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program. You can read the 500-plus pages of the "executive summary" and other working papers at this WaPo site or this from the NYT or elsewhere. It should—and I say this in the predictive sense—henceforth be known as the Torture Committee report.

    One way to put its findings is: Whatever you thought was out of control and abusive about the all-fronts approach to the "global war on terror," it was worse than that. Another way is: Whatever damage you thought the United States was doing to its own values, its standing in the world, and its system of checks and accountability, it was doing more.

    Read it yourself. There is no other way to absorb the scale and relentlessness of the abuses it chronicles. And this is from the heavily "redacted" version, with working papers presumably to follow. Start reading.

    The architects of America's self-destructive over-response to a shocking and unprecedented attack will always bear the responsibility for the path they set the country on. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Rice, Tenet, Bremer, Franks, and others including, yes, Powell will always be the ones who launched America into a war it should not have fought and who embraced tactics that, in the long run, have damaged America more profoundly than the original, profoundly damaging assault did. (Before you ask, these are not convenient retrospective judgments on my part but points I was arguing at the time. For instance in 2002, in early 2004 and in late 2004, and in 2006.) Although the 2000 presidential election was more an affront to the norms of democracy, as five Supreme Court justices stepped in to declare a winner, the 2004 election was more consequential for the United States internationally. By the margin of fewer than 120,000 votes in Ohio, the world's oldest democracy decided to return to power the leaders who had started the Iraq War, the results of which were already in ashes, and had run Abu Ghraib.*

    Democracy depends on accountability, and accountability depends on knowledge. The Torture Committee report is potentially an enormous step forward. But only if people read it.

    * This post originally stated that the margin in Ohio was fewer than 100,000 votes. We regret the error.


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