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.

James Fallows: Reader comment

  • The Scandal of the Anti A-10 Campaign: Chickenhawk Chronicles Resume

    What a spending battle over military aircraft reveals about our moral priorities

    A-10 Warthogs doing low-altitude drills at the Barry Goldwater range south of Phoenix ( USAF Senior Airman Christina D. Ponte, via Aviation Spectator )

    A week ago, my wife Deb and I were driving down Highway 85 in Arizona, toward the southern town of Ajo (which we'll soon be writing about) through the military's very active Barry Goldwater Range. Right above our car, A-10 "Warthogs" swooped back and forth over the highway in training drills. I mentioned last month that to fly a non-military plane along this route, as I had once contemplated, you have to fly right over the highway, stay within 500 feet of the road's surface level, and maintain radio contact with a military controller called Snake Eye. I didn't try it last month and am glad I didn't now, because on their mock strafing runs the Warthogs came impressively/alarmingly low. The picture above, from the Air Force, is a clearer version of what we saw as we drove.

    But of course I'm glad to see the A-10s in action and their pilots maintaining proficiency, for reasons I laid out in my article "The Tragedy of the American Military." Let's consider the evolving fates of the A-10 and its ill-starred sibling, the F-35, for what they show about the modern military.

    * * *

    In my article I argued that the importance of the A-10/F-35 story had relatively little to do with the comparative virtues of either airplaneone relatively cheap but battle-proven and very effective, the other increasingly expensive and also fragile and increasingly difficult to keep out of the repair shop. Rather the real significance was what their stories showed about the cultural and even moral characteristics of the way we think and act on national defense.

    Moral?  Yes, moral. In public we generally talk about defense as if it were mainly a matter of bombs, machines, and the dollars that buy them. Of course those matter. But from Napoleon ("in warfare the moral is to the physical as three is to one") to Air Force strategist John Boyd (what counts in combat is "people, ideas, and hardware — in that order!"), students of conflict have emphasized the crucial role of character and integrity.

    Character and integrity are involved in this battle-of-the-warplanes in the following way (as sketched out in my story): The A-10, which is flown by the Air Force, has always had a strange stepchild status there. It is truly beloved by the Army, whose ground troops the A-10 has saved or protected in so many engagements. To the Air Force, in contrast, this mission of "close air support" has never been a budgetary or cultural priorityas opposed to bombing, aerial combat, "air superiority" in general, and even transport.

    In a rationally organized defense system, the A-10 would belong to the Army, which needs and loves it. The Army could include it in its budgets, keep as many flying as possible, make it the center of its close-air-support arsenal. But for bureaucratic reasons known in shorthand as the "Key West agreement," the Army directly controls armed helicopters but not many fixed-wing aircraft. Thus through the decades we've seen a long push-pull struggle between the Air Force, chronically eager to dump the A-10 and make way for other models, including now the troubled F-35, and the Army, which wants the A-10 but has no direct way to keep it in the budget.

    Several weeks ago I mentioned the truly alarming news that a three-star Air Force general had warned his officers against speaking up about the A-10's (very strong) combat record. As the Arizona Daily Independent reported, Air Force Maj. Gen. James Post told officers that if word of his views ever got out he would deny it, but he wanted them to know that passing information to Congress about the A-10's effectiveness constituted "treason." When that news leaked, the Air Force didn't even deny Post's comments; a spokesperson just called them "hyperbole."

    Since then, news continues to emerge of the institutional militarysome people in uniform, others in the contractor diasporatrying to make the A-10 look worse than it really is, and the F-35 look better. For what these episodes show about military-industrial-political culture, here is a reading list:

    "Lying to Win: Air Force Misrepresents Combat Records In Campaign to Retire A-10." This is a report last month from a retired Air Force officer named Tony Carr at his John Q. Public blog.

    "The Little 'Fighter' That Couldn’t: Moral Hazard and the F-35," a John Q. Public update by Carr yesterday on the mounting bad news about the F-35 and military efforts to contain it.

    "Not Ready for Prime Time," a report by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) on problems, failures, and deception involving the (favored) F-35.

    "Now the U.S. Air Force Wants You to Believe the A-10 Is Too Old to Fight," by Joseph Trevithick this week for the War Is Boring site on Medium. From the headlines alone you may be getting the drift of these news reports.

    "The F-35 Is Still FUBAR," by A.J. Vicens yesterday in Mother Jones.

    "Operation Destroy CAS Update," by the Arizona Daily Independent, which has been all over the A-10 story. CAS is, again, close air support, the mission at which the A-10 has been unexcelled, and the story details Air Force efforts to blunt the fact of the A-10's success.

    "U.S. Rep. McSally Urges Halt to 'Disproportionate' A-10 Cuts." Martha McSally, a first-term Republican Representative from Arizona who is herself a former A-10 pilot (and was the first woman in U.S. history to fly combat missions), writes to the new Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, to complain about the anti-Warthog effort.

    The Monthly Newsletter, by Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group.  My friend Richard Aboulafia is an always-quoted expert on aircraft issues both civilian and military. He devotes his latest newsletter to putting the A-10 debate in strategic perspective.

    As I say, it's a debate that matters in the short- and medium- term for the aircraft the military uses, and in the long term for the way the country thinks about its defense. More links after the jump

    More »

  • Why 'Turd Blossom' Is Metaphor but Not Metonym

    The same is true of "blood-sucking leeches."

    wall-street-sign.jpg

    Let's have fun with metonymy! I got into this thicket with an early scene in my new profile of Jerry Brown. Here I was trying to convey the interesting/odd experience of talking with the man:

    "Do you know what 'metonym' means?" [Brown] asked out of the blue one time. Unfortunately, I didn't. (To spare you my embarrassment: it's a name used as a reference for something else, like "K Street" for Washington's lobbying culture, or "Silicon Valley" for the tech industry.) The surprise, coming from a politician, was that he was actually asking for information rather than testing me or pretending he already knew. "Me neither," he said after my admission, "but I know it's very big with the deconstructionists." I did better when he asked whether I knew where the phrase "no country for old men" had come from. Yes! It's the first line of Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium," which became the title of a novel by Cormac McCarthy, which was in turn the basis for a 2007 movie by the Coen brothers. Brown said that he was wondering because he'd just talked with a Washington media grandee* who used the phrase without knowing that it had any history. "Jerry didn't know there was a movie," his wife [Anne Gust Brown] said.
    Now the readers weigh in. First, from Graham Culbertson of the department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC - Chapel Hill. He said he liked the piece, but:
    I thought I'd take a moment to explain metonym a little more, in case you were interested. Your definition is right but might be a little misleading, while your examples are perfect.

    It really only makes sense to talk about metonymy in reference to metaphor. You say a metonym is "a name used as a reference for something else."  That's true, but only part of the story. A metaphor is also a name used as a reference for something else. The difference is that a metonym has a real connection to the thing being referenced, whereas a metaphor has only an imagined connection.

    If I call the lobbying industry "K Street," that's metonym, because K Street has a literal connection to lobbying. But if I call the lobbying industry "the blood-sucking leeches of American democracy," that's metaphor. They are symbolically connected to blood-sucking leeches, but there is no literal connection. A Karl Rove example: Calling Rove "Turd Blossom" is metaphor - he's not actually a flower. Calling him "the Brain" or "Bush's Brain" is metonymy - he is famous for his use of his brain. That last example is the most common type of metonym, synecdoche, when something is referred to by one of its parts. When you say "we need ten head of cattle," or "they need more arms in the bullpen," or "that movie got asses into seats," you are taking a full thing (a cow, a pitcher, an audience member) and using a part of it as its name (head, arm, ass). (Hopefully "ass" is ok to use if you quote this in your blog, as long as no children are forced to read it in-flight).

    Finally, the reason why deconstructionists were obsessed with metonymy is that they were obsessed with how language tried to but failed to capture reality. Metonym, which seems to come closer to capturing the "real" thing that metaphor, was thus particularly interesting.
    Noted! And now, from Dean Rowan of UC Berkeley Law School (Dean is his name, not his title):
    Thumbnail image for Metonym-Release.jpgI suspect mine will not be the only comment you receive about the metonym passage in your Brown profile. There are at least a couple problems with your account.

    First, your definition is essentially correct, yet meaninglessly so. A metonym does indeed involve substitution of one word or phrase for another, but its significance is in how the two terms are related. From OED's entry for "metonymy": " the action of substituting for a word or phrase denoting an object, action, institution, etc., a word or phrase denoting a property or something associated with it; an instance of this" (my emphasis). K Street is a metonym for DC lobbyists, because many of lobbying firms reside there and, consequently, the street is commonly associated with the practice. Similarly, Silicon Valley and the tech industry. Neither of these involves mere substitution of one phrase for another.

    Second, Gov. Brown's reference to "deconstructionists" is misleading. Indeed, some scholars associated, for better or worse, with deconstruction as an approach to literary theory did enjoy parsing tropes in texts, and metonymy is a widely deployed trope. Paul de Man was perhaps the most famous example of such a scholar. But having more than a passing interest in rhetorical analysis does not make one a "deconstructionist," and, conversely, many "deconstructionists" don't especially care about it at all.
    I wrote back saying thanks for the clarification -- and offering a clarification in my own defense. I hadn't said that metonym was a "substitute" for a real name. Rather, I'd said it was a "reference." In reply Rowan writes:
    Well, yes, "reference" affords a degree of wiggle room. But my point is that "metonymy" specifies a particular referential relationship of association or adjacency not precisely indicated by other tropes, such as synecdoche, which specifies part-for-whole or vice-versa. We refer to judges as "the bench" (an adjacent object) and sometimes to the President as "the White House" (also related by adjacency), but (because I'm at a loss just now for an example, I choose one from Wikipedia) a "wood" as a particular golf club (referring by synecdoche to the wooden part of the club). Each is indeed a reference, but if you're going to ask, "What is a 'metonym'?," you're not looking merely for the aspect of reference. You want to know how that reference is effected. (A shoelace is a thing, but being told as much doesn't really help one define the object. Similarly, metonymy involves reference, but being told as much doesn't tell one how metonymy refers.) 

    This is longstanding technical jargon, not by any means exclusively deployed by those literary theory folks from the '60s through the '80s or '90s who went a little nuts pitting metonymy against metaphor against synecdoche, and so on. (Don't even get me started on chiasmus.) Systematic rhetorical analysis harkens back at least to medieval thinkers,who were determined to classify these modes of reference, and far more ambitiously than "deconstructionists."
    At least I know about chiasmus! I've even written about it right here.

    * I am feeling particularly big-spirited in not naming the "Washington media grandee" in the No Country episode, whose identity I learned in off-the-record circumstances. Or maybe I am just feeling canny. (Top picture from here; other one from here.)
  • "Stupidest policy ever" contest update

    Thanks to all for many good entries in the search for the stupidest moment of bi-partisan policy in the last 50 years. The search was of course inspired by this moment's stupidest idea, the John McCain/Hillary Clinton support for a temporary gasoline tax "holiday" during the summer driving season.

    Update points:

    - Remember, the 50-year cutoff excludes some otherwise deserving suggestions, like Prohibition, or slavery.

    - Most popular nominee so far is the mandate for Ethanol use plugged into last year's energy bill, just before the Iowa caucus. But also remember that, as with the Electoral College and the Democratic primary process, mere popularity does not ensure victory.

    - Results tomorrow; still time to vote.

    - And while I'm at it, what happened to the usually-skillful Don Gonyea of NPR, in his treatment of this question just now on All Things Considered??? He took the traditional "one side claims, the other side responds" approach -- as if there were any identifiable economist or energy expert, from any political camp, who thought that the "tax holiday" proposal made sense. Maybe he missed the previous night's All Things Considered broadcast, which contained a very good segment about the pointlessness of the plan? And he presented the whole issue as a matter of campaign tactics: the Hillary Clinton campaign had been hitting Obama hard with a crisp attack ad about his refusal to give American motorists "the help they need," while Obama had come back only with a woolier, more "complicated" reply about why the plan was mad. Yes, this episode shows us something about the two campaigns, but it's not mainly about their relative skill in attacking each other.

  • Reader updates on three points

    After the jump, updates from readers on three points: the etymology of "Suntime" wine and the Uighur Autonomous Region in general; a critique of my wife's feather-light Sherpa haul from the U.S.; and, about that battered ThinkPad T60 keyboard.

    Procedural note: I appreciate hearing from readers via the "email" button to the right. I will try to be less slothful about posting interesting responses and elaborations. Toward that end, I announce this policy: Unless a writer says otherwise, I will assume that I am free to quote the comments and attribute them to the writer by name. If you say "Please don't quote" or "Don't use my name," no problem! But to avoid having to email each person for permission, I'll assume from now on that a comment is on the record unless otherwise stated.

    More »

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