Letters to the editor

By
Peace Is Hell

My only disappointment with William Langewiesche's otherwise excellent article "Peace Is Hell" (October Atlantic) is that he did not discuss the disastrous ripple effect that our open-ended peacekeeping missions have had on the rest of the military. As a former U.S. Army officer, I have experienced those problems firsthand.

Throughout the 1990s deployments for operations other than war increased significantly even as the defense budget was cut and personnel were eliminated. Even units that did not deploy suffered from critical cuts in their operations and training budgets to pay for the operations of those that did. The result was a marked decrease in training and spare parts which left many of us unfit to perform wartime missions if necessary.

When I arrived in Germany, in early 1991, for my first assignment, I joined a unit that could count on going to the field for gunnery and maneuvers no fewer than four times a year, not including smaller training deployments. In my first year I spent nearly five months on various gunnery and maneuver training deployments. By the time I left the Army and my unit, in 1995, it had been more than two years since our last field deployment and we had dozens of vehicles sitting unused in our motor pool because we lacked the necessary parts to fix them. Peace was hell for all of us.

By the way, in the photograph on page 57 the vehicles parked in the motor pool are Bradley Fighting Vehicles, not tanks.

Alan Smith
Converse, Texas

William Langewiesche is surprised that sending 4,000 soldiers to Bosnia and sustaining them there could overburden the U.S. military. Indeed, in relation to total Army size the numbers are fairly insignificant—but the numbers do not tell the whole story. Consider just the following two points.

First, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent end of the Cold War, the U.S. military has consistently sought to maintain and even to expand its Cold War influence by volunteering armed forces for any role in the "new world order." As a result, the military has persuaded too many Americans with too little combat experience that the U.S. military is the only organization suited for any role remotely related to violence or the application of force. Yet that military is organized, educated, trained, and equipped to wage only the high-intensity wars of attrition that it was specifically designed to fight.

Second, peace operations are troubling to military professionals because they upend basic military principles. By their very nature peacekeeping operations demand operational, organizational, and even philosophical changes that are both difficult and disturbing for combat troops. Military professionals are taught that keeping the initiative is an essential operational principle. Peace operations not only foreclose the unfettered use of force but also expect the soldier to surrender the initiative at the outset. When peacekeepers interpose themselves between armed factions, they necessarily become reactive instead of proactive.

David Isenberg
Arlington, Va.

Perhaps the most striking fact reported by William Langewiesche is that the Department of Defense, with 1.4 million active-duty soldiers plus some two million reservists and civilians, "serves 41 million meals a year." Even if all those meals go to active-duty personnel, that works out to about thirty meals per soldier per year, suggesting that the department has gone a long way toward resolving some of the logistical problems Langewiesche elsewhere describes. Here, at last, is an army that doesn't march on its stomach.

Lyman G. Sandy
Albuquerque, N.M.

William Langewiesche asserts that the U.S. Army in Bosnia has serious morale problems. Grumbling has been a soldier's right since there have been armies, and the truth of the matter is that unhappy soldiers vote with their feet. Simply put, they leave the Army when their term is up. This is clearly not the case in Bosnia. Army units there routinely post the highest re-enlistment rates in the entire U.S. Department of Defense.

Thomas W. Collins
Major, U.S. Army
Washington, D.C.

The Editors' reply:

The error in the photo caption pointed out by Alan Smith was ours, not William Langewiesche's; apologies all around.

According to the Department of Defense, 41 million is indeed the number of meals served annually; the vast majority of service members use their "basic allowance for subsistence" to buy food elsewhere.

JFK's First-Strike Plan

Fred Kaplan's account of John F. Kennedy's first-strike plan (October Atlantic) makes a valuable addition to public understanding of the quandaries of nuclear weaponry. Kaplan's piece was based largely on a recently declassified top-secret memorandum I wrote to General Maxwell Taylor, then the military adviser to the President, on September 5, 1961, a copy of which Kaplan was kind enough to send me. The article is in the main accurate, but it may leave your readers with the impression that I was recommending a nuclear strike in the Soviet Union. The document makes plain that I made no such recommendation; I asserted that we should prepare to execute such a strike by doing the appropriate planning. The point of the paper was to call to the attention of the President and of the top military commanders what could happen under then existing military plans should the President decide he was forced to the nuclear choice as the alternative to abandoning West Berlin. The consequence of such a choice would have been horrible beyond contemplation. Even with the kind of alternative plan that Harry Rowen and I had sketched (which was presented in the document), the result would have been horrible, though less so by several orders of magnitude. But it is clear that it was vital for the President to know that an alternative strike plan was possible.

Carl Kaysen
Cambridge, Mass.

I find highly questionable Fred Kaplan's suggestion that John F. Kennedy learned that his major campaign issue—the missile gap between the Soviet Union and the United States—needed to be reconsidered only as a result of "startling news" in the summer of 1961 from William Kaufmann's study at Rand. During the summer of 1960, long before the election, President Eisenhower had arranged for Kennedy to receive a classified briefing based on U.S. intelligence, including the high-resolution reconnaissance-satellite photographs of the Soviet Union that appear to have startled Kaufmann. The photographs showed that the missile gap was, in fact, overwhelmingly in favor of the United States: their eight ICBMs against our hundreds. That Kennedy continued to use the issue, despite having learned the truth from Eisenhower, made Ike believe that Kennedy was dishonest and damaged the relationship between the two men, though Kennedy continued to call on Ike for advice until his assassination.

Gordon Louttit
Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Ethiopia and the IMF

We are in no position to judge Joseph Stiglitz's private conversations. But being very close to the authorities in Ethiopia, I know that they were as surprised as I was by some of the views in his article ("Thanks for Nothing," October Atlantic). We at the International Monetary Fund welcome constructive criticism, and we have great respect for Mr. Stiglitz, especially for the work that brought him his Nobel Prize in economics. But his country-specific policy discussions too often degenerate into misdirected and ad hominem attacks—for example, the insinuation that the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea was caused by the termination of an IMF-supported program.

Mr. Stiglitz should have known, in the context of his previous responsibilities, that the IMF's program with Ethiopia was not interrupted in 1997 for the reasons he claims. The decision was made mainly because of the failure to meet key program objectives, as manifested in the government's excessive borrowing from the domestic banking system. This borrowing was squeezing private-sector activity.

The current program in Ethiopia, supported by the IMF's Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility arrangement, is strongly grounded in the Ethiopian authorities' own poverty-reduction strategy, which reflects contributions from civil society in Ethiopia. Ethiopia's implementation of this program has so far been very successful, with real GDP growth reaching eight percent in fiscal year 2000-2001. We commend the Ethiopian authorities for this achievement.

G. E. Gondwe
Director, African Department
International Monetary Fund
Washington, D.C.

Joseph Stiglitz replies:

I am glad to know we all share a concern for Ethiopia's well-being, and G. E. Gondwe is right to commend the Ethiopian authorities for their good work in managing the country's economy. But as far as I can tell, Gondwe's letter actually backs up my article. The point I was making was that IMF officials did not judge Ethiopia on the basis of its overall macro-economic performance—on its results on unemployment, inflation, or GDP growth, or even on the soundness of its overall budgetary stance. On these grounds Ethiopia deserved an A+. The program should not have been suspended because it failed to meet one of the numerous arbitrary targets that the IMF imposes on a country, including what the IMF termed "government's excessive borrowing from the domestic banking system." If this so-called excessive borrowing really was a problem, why didn't it show up in the economy's excellent macro-economic performance? The IMF failed to make a convincing case that this target and the peculiar budgetary target that excluded foreign assistance were essential to sound performance, and for a reason that was obvious to me and to other experts on Ethiopia's economy: they weren't essential.

Confessions

"Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor" (September Atlantic), the excellent article by Caitlin Flanagan, missed one sorry fact—academics alone aren't enough.

At one very prestigious university the director of admissions told a group of parents of gifted students that even if an applicant were Einstein reincarnate, he or she would have to have a transcript showing community service, sports, and other community and school activities. Is it any wonder that average students and their parents become frantic? A truism of behavior modification is that a rat, a student, or a parent—any individual—who doesn't know why he or she is rewarded or punished will become very anxious. In the search for a well-rounded student body one minority has thus been slighted—those who want only to study or do research.

Peter N. Munsing
Wyomissing, Pa.

Caitlin Flanagan replies:

Once again a director of admissions at a "very prestigious university" gets it wrong: Einstein would not make a poor candidate for a spot at such an institution because he lacked ability on the volleyball court. It would be because of his poor grades in geography, languages, and history, because of the interlude he spent as a high school dropout, and because of the insufficient scores he received on his first set of university entrance exams. Everyone knows that the majority of America's scary-smart kids are congregated at the second-tier schools, and they tend to have the last laugh. Poor Albert, after all, might not have qualified for a spot in Princeton's freshman class, but his legacy is more intrinsically connected to that magical corner of New Jersey than are the legacies of any number of squash-playing dingdongs who sailed in on early admission.

Help Wanted

Daniel Goldin's argument ("Help Wanted," September Atlantic) that the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander was due to a lack of experienced engineers is specious. The Apollo mission was carried out by a group of engineers who were largely under thirty and had no prior Moon experience. If published reports are correct that the demise of the Mars Polar Lander was caused by an inconsistency in units used, a more basic problem is exposed. This is a failure of good engineering practice. I am sure that the people working on the project could have caught the error if they hadn't been distracted from engineering by other demands on their time.

The real problem here, especially in government laboratories, is that people responsible for overhead functions are driving the technical staff. Every one of those overhead people requires some slice of time from the engineers and scientists doing the work or else places constraints on them that need to be worked around. Each of those demands is small and can be justified, but the cumulative burden is overwhelming. Engineers and scientists are being asked to spend increasing amounts of their time and energy supporting ever increasing overhead staffs whose concerns with marketing, diversity, sexual harassment, accounting, and other functions are far removed from any real engineering work.

To his credit, Daniel Goldin has cut the NASA infrastructure and moved money into projects such as the Mars missions. But he still has not solved the real problem: making sure that engineers and scientists are able to do their jobs correctly. Top high school students are better educated than ever before, but they are not being attracted to science and engineering, because the people doing it are demoralized.

Jeff Hylden
Washington, D.C.

Daniel Goldin's appeal for NASA may fall on deaf ears, because NASA has not articulated any long-term goals or visions of where it wants to go. Like its aging shuttles, NASA is locked in low-Earth orbit. The only difference between John Glenn's 1962 flight and his 1998 flight was the availability of a space toilet on his second trip. NASA had a roomy, functional space station in the 1970s. Now, a quarter of a century later, it is building another one, piecemeal, as if with a giant Erector Set. NASA officials occasionally talk about a three-year mission to explore Mars, but the talk seems pointless when the agency lacks the machines and personnel to make a three-day trip to the Moon. Unless NASA can develop some exciting long-term goals to attract the kind of people it had four decades ago, it risks the fate of all things in low-Earth orbit: continued decay and a fiery demise.

Edward McSweegan
Crofton, Md.

Daniel Goldin expresses concern that "we are losing talented young people from an industry critical to our global competitiveness and national defense." As he says, "These problems, of course, are not confined to NASA."

Major corporations, which employ a large fraction of the nation's scientists and engineers, are also losing talented young people. A decade of restructurings, downsizings, and hiring freezes has resulted in an aging of the technical work force. As necessary as some of these changes may have been to create more-competitive corporations, they have led many scientists and engineers to feel that their contributions are not appreciated.

Another thing driving young people from the field is the complexity of modern technology, which makes it more difficult for do-it-yourself home experimenters to experience the joys of discovery. A youngster of today cannot repair a neighbor's radio, containing integrated circuits, the way young Richard Feynman could repair radios containing discrete components. Similar observations could be made about automobiles and many other mechanical devices that in older forms launched youthful tinkerers into technical careers. Computers do not appear to have played the same inspirational role; one can write a great many Web pages without knowing anything of science or mathematics. Life and earth sciences attract curious youngsters, as they have for generations, and are as accessible as ever. I'm not surprised that the number of people choosing careers in computer, earth, and life sciences has expanded, while the number choosing the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering has declined.

K. G. Hellyar
Rochester, N.Y.

Advice & Consent

I am writing to clarify a passage in "The Curse of the Sevso Silver," by Peter Landesman (November Atlantic). In describing the Sevso-silver trial before Justice Beatrice Shainswit in the New York State Supreme Court, the article states that Lord Northampton sued his lawyers after the trial and obtained almost $40 million in an out-of-court settlement.

This statement may leave the reader with an inaccurate impression of who was sued and why. It is important to note that as lead counsel in that trial, Dewey Ballantine won a jury verdict leaving Lord Northampton in possession of the silver, and that the verdict was affirmed on appeal. Lord Northampton was quite pleased with the result and with Dewey Ballantine's representation.

However, Lord Northampton did sue the firm of Allen & Overy, the English solicitors who had originally advised him on the acquisition of the treasure. A reader could conclude from the wording in your article that the firm that represented Lord Northampton in the New York State Supreme Court was the firm he sued, which was not the case.

I appreciate the opportunity to clarify this point.

Harvey Kurzweil
Dewey Ballantine LLP
New York, N.Y.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/01/letters-to-the-editor/302386/