Contents | September 2002

In This Issue (Contributors)


The Atlantic Monthly | September 2002
 
Letters to the Editor
.....
 
The Joint Strike Fighter

s a Lockheed Martin employee, I read with interest James Fallows's article "Uncle Sam Buys an Airplane" (June Atlantic). However, as an ex-Marine Harrier pilot, I must correct his statements concerning the JSF's "tour de force called Mission X," in which he claims that the JSF is the first airplane to make a short takeoff, go supersonic, and then land vertically.

In late 1970, as an exchange pilot, I joined the British Royal Air Force's No. 233 Operational Conversion Unit, first as a student and then as an instructor, training pilots in the Harrier. Although the Harrier was classed as a subsonic airplane, because its normal operating mode did not call for supersonic operations, it was capable of supersonic flight. One training flight called for a short takeoff, a supersonic run out beyond the Midlands coast, and a return to the field for vertical takeoff and landing practice. So the "tour de force called Mission X" was routinely being flown more than thirty years ago.

Jon R. Gibson
Robstown, Texas


ames Fallows portrays the Washington bureaucrat Darleen Druyun as a clever, almost heroic defender of the taxpayers' money. I think the reverse is true. During the middle 1990s Druyun was the driving force behind "acquisition reform" and TSPR ("total system performance responsibility"). These were innovations in which contractors essentially had carte blanche to run programs as they pleased. The Air Force program offices watched from the sidelines, together with the nonprofit system-engineering organizations that supported them (Aerospace Corporation, MITRE).

The first guinea pig (later the poster child) for this approach was the Space Based Infrared System program, a missile warning and surveillance system. Today that program is $2 billion over budget and two years behind schedule. Air Force Undersecretary Peter Teets told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 20 that poor contracting methods were responsible for this disaster and that TSPR caused the taxpayers to assume too much risk.

Len Winner
Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.


ne thing that was missing from James Fallows's otherwise excellent piece on the Joint Strike Fighter was any historical perspective on the size of the defense budget. The sharp drop in defense spending since the end of the Cold War has made the Pentagon's current replacement cycle that much more difficult. Outlays for "procurement" (equipment and material) for the ten years ending with fiscal year 2002 dropped by 42 percent in constant dollars compared with the prior ten years: $580 billion versus $1 trillion. Although plans call for the procurement budget to increase over the next five years, at the end of that time it will still be less than three quarters of what it was in the 1980s.

Fallows also points to the steady decline in the numbers of aircraft bought since World War II and the steady rise in the price per plane. Certainly, as he notes, some of this price increase reflects the well-known tendency of the bureaucracy to gold-plate specifications. But most of the higher cost reflects the strategy of making the planes more competitive (that is, more lethal and safer to operate): the replacement of simple piston engines with costlier but more capable jet engines, the greater sophistication of the avionics systems, and so forth. Similar trends can be seen in the civilian economy. Since the 1940s houses, farm tractors, and even private planes have grown in size, features, and functionality as incomes have grown.

Yet a third factor behind the more limited production has been the decline in defense spending relative to the economy over this period. Defense accounted for 36 percent of GDP in 1944, when all those P-51s were being built. It was 11 percent during the Korean War, when the F-86 was on the front line; eight percent in the early 1960s, when the F-4 was first deployed; five or six percent in the 1980s, when the F-16 entered production; and is currently three percent. In the post-Cold War era, "How much is enough?" is a critical question for defense spending and for programs like the JSF. If our military strategy is to include manned fighter aircraft, their affordability should be debated with an eye to the total cost to the economy.

Robert Kugel
Burlingame, Calif.


James Fallows replies:

Jon Gibson is correct in saying that Harrier pilots have for years combined short takeoff, supersonic cruise, and vertical landing in the same flight. What made Mission X unusual is that it combined the short takeoff and landing with supersonic cruise in level flight. Every airplane goes faster when descending, and the Harriers had achieved supersonic speed while diving toward the ground.

As for Len Winner's complaint, I tried to stress in the article that many things could still go wrong with the JSF. But if Darleen Druyun and her colleagues are judged by results, particularly in cost control, so far they've done surprisingly well.

I agree with Robert Kugel that there are larger questions to ask about the defense budget.


Case Against Europe

alter Russell Mead pooh-poohs the notion that Americans are "too stupid to make good decisions" ("The Case Against Europe," April Atlantic).

Allow me to provide a few real-life facts that Mead omitted: Western European workers enjoy six-week to three-month vacations, whereas Americans are lucky if they get two weeks. Americans are working longer hours than they have since the Depression, while the French are being lauded for the success of their thirty-five-hour work week. Europeans have national pension plans generous enough to allow retired citizens to maintain dignity and independence. We've got puny Social Security, slated by both Republicans and Democrats for slow destruction. Of the world's industrial nations only America lacks a national health plan. Our private health plans are justifiably ridiculed. According to the UN, the World Health Organization, and other universally accepted sources, seventeen nations have a higher standard of living. We're twenty-fourth in overall health. More than 50 percent of our population is obese. In the States it's "normal" for a college student to graduate heavily in debt—an idea rightfully abhorrent in Western European nations, where higher education is free. Believe me, I could go on, covering areas such as food quality (in Europe genetically altered foods are discouraged and clearly identified on packaging; not so in America), the growing prevalence in the United States of polluting SUVs (as our air quality drops and our asthma rates reach epidemic levels), and so on.

Does Mead actually believe that the quality of life in the United States is superior to that in France? When is the last time he visited France—1945? Beep beep, indeed.

Ken Weiss
New Rochelle, N.Y.


hoa. Walter Russell Mead sounds as if he just got back from a European vacation on which a teenaged waiter publicly embarrassed him for not knowing the difference between a Bordeaux and a Burgundy.

I would say that Americans have learned little if anything about nationalism but have only benefited from the isolation provided by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. European social policy and labor movements are a true reflection of democratic states, providing the most good for the most people, whereas Americans support government policy that provides for the wealthy few and abandons those most in need. Having lived through every prejudice and injustice of Christianity, Europeans are aghast at the hypocrisy of American religion.

I am not surprised that Americans don't choose the difficult path to enlightenment that comes with the study of European culture and, especially, history, as they purchase their university education. More fun to take TV studies, so that they can be as well versed as Mead on the lessons of life provided by that great sage, Andy of Mayberry.

Most European countries have had a turn as the bully, at one time or another, in the playground of the world, so they know that what goes around comes around. I would venture that many Europeans watching Americans prepare to expand their crusade against the whole Muslim world are saying, "Haven't they learned anything?"

Martin Gagné
Toronto, Ontario


Walter Russell Mead replies:

Ken Weiss and Martin Gagné should stop shooting the messenger. My article tried to describe the populist American case against Europe, not to summarize my personal views.

The greatest danger to good transatlantic relations, however, is not the rise of populist anti-Europeanism in America. It is the European tendency to blame the United States for the continuing decline in Europe's world power. With a shrinking population, a relative decline in its military capacities, and an economic model that, however dolce the vita it produces today, undermines the region's potential for long-term growth, Europe is bound to see its influence in the world and on the United States continue to diminish. Faced with this prospect, it has two realistic alternatives. It can seek to reverse the decline—primarily by shifting to the kind of cutthroat capitalism that would get its growth rate up and also by ramping up its defense expenditures to near U.S. levels. Or it can gracefully accept a diminishing role in world politics and take six-week vacations while sipping delicious wines on the banks of the Seine. Speaking personally, I wish it well either way.

Unfortunately, so far Europe seems to be opting for a third choice: aspiring to be a major player in world politics, refusing to make the difficult policy decisions that would make this course viable, and then blaming the United States for its lack of world power.


Richard Posner

ichard A. Posner's criticism of academics who exceed the limits of their expertise with "off-the-cuff commentary on matters about which they know nothing more than the average newspaper reader" (Letters, May Atlantic) could not be better illustrated than by the letter that followed it (commenting on Bernard Lewis's "What Went Wrong With Muslim Civilization," in the January Atlantic).

According to the Harvard astrophysicist David Layzer, Christendom in the Middle Ages was less free, prosperous, civilized, and tolerant than its Muslim counterpart. In those same Middle Ages armies of men carried wicker baskets of mortar to build Romanesque cathedrals that have stood for a millennium. The eleventh-century Domesday Book records nearly 6,000 water mills operating in Britain, representing a technological revolution unmatched for eight centuries. The unparalleled intellect of Saint Thomas Aquinas was mining the riches of pagan, Jewish, and Muslim philosophy (the last courtesy of Latin translations of Arabic works that began to appear in Europe in the eleventh century, not the sixteenth). "Newton's" First Law of Motion was articulated and disseminated throughout the Western world, courtesy of Jean Buridan, of the Sorbonne, in 1330. And women of the thirteenth century reached a zenith of status within their respective "estates" (in terms of scholarship, ownership of property and business, participation in the trades, ecclesiastical power and influence, and even a vote on the odd rural town council) that would be slowly eroded and finally buried during those humanist centuries so dear to Professor Layzer.

The Monty Python-esque vision of the magnificent Middle Ages is a comfortable couch for the scientist's sense of self-importance, but it has nothing to do with reality. Score one for Judge Posner.

Claudia Sommers Brown
Toronto, Ontario


n his analysis of the ways in which universities make themselves attractive to students, Richard Posner surprisingly omits grade inflation ("The University as Business," June Atlantic). As long as students are regarded as customers first and foremost, they will get what they want. And what they want most of all is As. Giving low grades might drive tuition-paying customers off campus. That's a risk that few schools are willing to run today. By allowing grade inflation to continue, however, institutions are placing survival ahead of excellence. The trouble with this policy is that in the long run grade inflation causes degree deflation. When that happens, everyone loses.

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles, Calif.


Cloning

yla Dunn ("Cloning Trevor") and Robert A. Weinberg ("Of Clones and Clowns") chastise many scientists and others involved in the cloning debate for exaggerating their claims and causing harm by misleading the public and probably legislators as well. They are right in their evaluation, and it is only unfortunate that whoever designed the cover of the June Atlantic Monthly did not heed their warning. "Cloning Trevor" in inch-high red letters is really misleading and could cause harm, especially when nobody talked about cloning Trevor, nobody is cloning Trevor, and nobody is planning to clone Trevor.

Davor Solter
Department of Developmental Biology
Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology
Freiburg, Germany


Kyla Dunn replies:

Actually, "cloning Trevor" is exactly what Advanced Cell Technology was attempting. So although I agree with Davor Solter that the cover of the June issue was designed to catch a reader's eye, I do not agree that it is harmful or misleading. That same cover text states (albeit in smaller, green letters) that the story is about two parents exploring "radical new therapies that might save their son's life." It sets readers up for a discussion of the difference between "reproductive cloning," whose goal is to produce a baby, and "therapeutic cloning," whose goal is to produce stem cells and advance medical research (ACT's goal for patients like Trevor).

Both forms of cloning start out with a laboratory procedure known as somatic-cell nuclear transfer, whose product is a cloned human embryo in a petri dish. All that is left is to decide what to do with that microscopic ball of cells: attempt to derive stem cells from it, or attempt to implant it in a woman's uterus, where it might grow into a baby. Once the embryo exists, "cloning" has already taken place.

Solter, however, does raise a concern common among scientists—many of whom argue that the term "cloning" should be reserved exclusively for attempts to produce a living, breathing genetic copy of an existing individual. They want to abandon the term "therapeutic cloning" altogether. It's a campaign made all the more urgent by the fact that irresponsible would-be reproductive cloners like Panos Zavos have hijacked the term "therapeutic cloning," arguing that their work is a "therapeutic" treatment for infertility.

It's pretty clear why mainstream researchers are concerned. Last February, in fact, three prominent scientists—including the president of the National Academy of Sciences—published an article in the journal Science titled "Please Don't Call It Cloning!" in which they suggested an alternative moniker for therapeutic cloning: "nuclear transplantation." Some politicians have started to use this term as well.

I hardly need point out how poorly chosen this language is. While trying to avoid the inflammatory word "cloning," these advocates of medical research have opted for an equally inflammatory and misunderstood word— "nuclear"—and have crafted a phrase that conjures unfortunate (if irrelevant) images of nuclear weapons and nuclear waste.

What's more, removing the term "cloning" from the discussion might backfire—because it may not be clear to the public that cloning technology has important medical applications. Who, then, among laypeople will be likely to object to a bill like the Human Cloning Prohibition Act (co-sponsored by Senators Sam Brownback, of Kansas, and Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana), which would do unprecedented damage to medical research by banning all forms of human cloning—including therapeutic cloning ( ... But medical research has nothing to do with "cloning," right? It's "nuclear transplantation" we need to protect ... ).

And if the public doesn't understand the precise relationship between cloning and stem-cell research, who will know enough to object to Senator Landrieu's misleading assertion "This is not an anti-stem-cell-research bill. It's an anti-human-cloning bill ... [and] does not have anything to do with stem-cell research."

Some scientists and bioethicists have gone even further in their attempts to reshape the language of this debate. To avoid the knee-jerk reactions inevitably evoked by the word "embryo," they have suggested such alternatives as "activated egg" and "ovasome." And they argue that embryos created through cloning are not truly "embryos," since they do not result from the traditional fusion of sperm and egg. Leon Kass, an ardent foe of therapeutic cloning and the head of President Bush's new Council on Bioethics, is among those who are impatient with these efforts. "Let's call things by their true names," Kass told The Washington Post. "If you're going to sin, let's sin bravely." The word "embryo," he says, works just fine.

This may be the one point on which Dr. Kass and I agree. The word "embryo" does work just fine. So does the word "cloning." Why? Because nothing about the procedure of therapeutic cloning is a "sin"—not the creation of cloned human embryos for research, and not their destruction to advance medical therapies. So let's call this procedure by its right name, and stand by it bravely.


obert A. Weinberg's piece incorrectly states that the Sierra Club signed on to a letter opposing therapeutic cloning. Although a few individuals who signed the letter in question used their affiliation with the Sierra Club for identification purposes, they were speaking for themselves only. Our organization has not yet examined the question of human genetic engineering, and it has no policy or position on therapeutic cloning.

Carl Pope
Executive Director
Sierra Club
San Francisco, Calif.


obert Weinberg's essay incorrectly states the position of Friends of the Earth on the topic of cloning. We support research that would help determine the therapeutic potential of human stem cells. We also call for a moratorium—not a ban—on embryo-cloning research until strict government regulation is established to prevent abuses of this technology.

Mark Helm
Friends of the Earth
Washington, D.C.


Robert A. Weinberg replies:

I was misled by a newspaper article attributing endorsement of an anti-cloning letter to the Sierra Club and the Friends of the Earth, and I apologize to Carl Pope and Mark Helm and their organizations, whose names were inappropriately associated by my article with this letter.


Tales of the Tyrant

ark Bowden's "Tales of the Tyrant" (May Atlantic) details Saddam Hussein's relationships with civilian and military leaders in Iraq and the struggle between the "city" and "tribe" mentalities that so accurately describes the dilemma of many Iraqis.

However, Bowden cites the fate of my grandfather, the former Prime Minister Tahir Yahya, as an example of Saddam's enduring cruelty. The article states that my grandfather "was assigned to push a wheelbarrow from cell to cell, collecting the prisoners' slop buckets ... until the day Yahya died, in prison." I cannot corroborate or deny the first half of this story, because my grandfather would not discuss his time in prison with his children. However, I do know that my grandfather was released from imprisonment in November of 1970, and that he lived under house arrest until he passed away, in April of 1986, at home with his family at his side.

Aous Araim
Duluth, Ga.


Mark Bowden replies:

I am very pleased to learn that Mr. Yahya's end was not as bleak as I described, and I apologize for the error.


Innocent Bystander

ullen Murphy ("The Great In-Between," June Atlantic) provides an amusing tour of limbo, both the metaphysical and the here-and-now variety, but he gets the inhabitants of Dante's limbo in Canto 4 of the Inferno a bit confused. He correctly identifies the three Muslim souls Dante sees (Avicenna, Averroës, and Saladin), and he mentions some worthy pagans down there (Socrates, Plato, and Aeneas), but his inclusion of Brutus, without specifying which one, is misleading. Most readers would think this is the Brutus (Marcus Junius) who led the conspiracy against Julius Caesar, whereas the Brutus in Dante's limbo is Lucius Junius, who lived half a millennium earlier and overthrew the last Roman king, Tarquin the Proud. Dante does see Caesar's assassin in the poem, but this later Brutus, who is one of the three worst sinners in hell, is being chomped on in one of Lucifer's three mouths. (Cassius and Judas Iscariot are in the other two.)

Murphy also mentions "luminaries from the Hebrew Bible" as populating Dante's limbo, but these figures—Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and others—are mentioned as having been liberated from limbo when Jesus Christ harrowed hell after the Crucifixion. By the fictional date of Dante's poem (spring of 1300) they had already been relaxing in paradiso for almost thirteen centuries.

Peter D'Epiro
Ridgewood, N.J.


ullen Murphy refers in the June Atlantic to the Canadian poet Irving Clayton. I think he meant to say Irving Layton.

Edward Collister
Québec City, Québec


Common Ancestors

fter reading "The Royal We," by Steve Olson (May Atlantic), I was ready to let my cousin Queen Elizabeth know what I thought about the British branch of our family. Before doing that, however, I thought it would be prudent to consult the article on which "The Royal We" is based—namely, Joseph T. Chang's "Recent Common Ancestors of All Present-Day Individuals."

Unfortunately, Chang makes it clear in his article that his model does not apply to the real-world situation posited by Steve Olson. Specifically, the Chang model assumes not only that mating is random (no geographic barriers) but, even more important, that population size is constant. His model would be closer to reality if the current population of the world were about five million (or whatever the best estimate is for the world population in 1400). This is why Chang states in his discussion that "it is doubtful that anyone would seriously entertain the two-parent answer" he proposes "in the context of the evolution of mankind." That seems to be what Steve Olson is seriously entertaining in "The Royal We"—wrongly.

I am sorry to point this out, because it cuts down my roster of illustrious ancestors. I am only consoled that the world's worst criminals are also unlikely to be my relatives.

Gustav Magrinat
Greensboro, N.C.


Steve Olson replies:

I'm glad Gustav Magrinat wrote his letter, because it gives me a chance to elaborate on the incredible recentness of our common ancestors. Population growth is not a major factor, as Joseph Chang explained to me when I was writing the article. The time to the most recent common ancestor for a constant population of 50 million is about the same as for a population that grew from 50 million to 500 million (as Europe's did from 1400 to today). The more serious issue is non-random mating. Human beings tend to divide themselves into groups—classes, races, ethnicities, castes—and to marry and have children with other members of their own group. But no group is an island. Even groups that would seem to be completely isolated—such as doctrinaire religious sects, or the occupants of the New and Old Worlds before Columbus—have been known to exchange mates with their neighbors (across the Bering Strait in the latter case).

Thus the world more closely resembles clusters of randomly mating populations linked by occasional migrants. Mathematically, this is equivalent to a small-worlds network. Research in the past few years has shown that the shortest path from any individual in such a network to any other individual is not much longer than in a totally random network. Translated into genealogical terms, the most recent common ancestor in such a world would have lived just a little earlier than such an ancestor in a world of random mating.

This result seems less amazing if you think about the huge number of ancestors we have. If we count back ten generations, each of us has 1,024 ancestors (this figure ignores inbreeding). Go back twenty generations, or about five hundred years, and each of us has more than one million. Mr. Magrinat is indeed descended from many thieves, murderers, and scoundrels—but so am I. So is everyone.


Who Says?

n his replies (June Atlantic) to letters about his article on adolescent murders ("The Apocalypse of Adolescence," March Atlantic) Ron Powers erroneously attributes the quotation about "lies, damn lies, and statistics" to Mark Twain. This is a common error. Although it's something Twain might have written, it was in fact Benjamin Disraeli who said it.

Charles-Gene McDaniel
Chicago, Ill.


Ron Powers replies:

Charles-Gene McDaniel is sharp-eyed and partly right: Mark Twain himself attributed the quotation to Disraeli, but it doesn't appear in Disraeli's writings, only in Twain's autobiography.


Advice & Consent

alter Kirn makes excellent points against a national identification card ("The Mother of Reinvention," May Atlantic) and rightly concludes that identity schemes are inherently dangerous slippery slopes that threaten liberty. However, he errs when he implies that U.S. citizens currently have a legal duty to have and show an ID to fly on a "federally regulated aircraft." No federal law or regulation imposes any such duty. As the FAA's Web site advises in its question-and-answer section (see cas.faa.gov/faq.html), "The FAA does not prohibit the airline from transporting any passenger who does not present a photo ID. Airlines have available to them alternate procedures that allow them to transport passengers without ID. However, some airlines choose not to use such procedures, which is their prerogative."

And "The FAA does not require all passengers to present ID. The FAA requires that airlines apply additional security measures to passengers who are unable to produce ID upon request."

A legal duty to have an ID for domestic interstate travel would be unconstitutional, but the mere existence of photo IDs led to socially acceptable mission creep such as de facto demands for their use at airports. This creates a market for false IDs, and a market for borrowed or stolen Social Security numbers, which are required to obtain most IDs, thus lowering the value of all IDs and Social Security numbers. The real tragedy, however, is that after the terrorist attacks last September airlines and the government continue the ruse that possession of an ID has any security value at all.

Mike Stollenwerk
Marina del Rey, Calif.


hough I was a friend and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King during the last year of his life, I agreed to become James Earl Ray's attorney after becoming convinced of Ray's innocence. I spent the first ten years of a twenty-five-year investigation of the assassination in arriving at this determination. Consequently, over a twenty-year period I probably came to know James better than anyone except perhaps his brother Jerry.

With this background, I am compelled to take exception to some of Douglas Brinkley and Anne Brinkley's characterizations of James and also certain of their interpretations of events that are outside the contents of the letters ("Lawyers and Lizard-Heads," May Atlantic). These accounts are flawed because they are based on a secondary source, and an unreliable one at that.

For example, Brinkley states, "Ray was, of course, a racist." Well, he was not. Ralph Abernathy and I confirmed this impression after I vigorously interrogated James in an initial five-hour meeting. It was subsequently strengthened after I spent hundreds of hours with him. My view aside, Ralph Abernathy knew something about racists, and he agreed. James picked no fights with blacks, anywhere, but in fact shot dice with black fellow workers after work in a shoe factory. He refused to go to the prison farm not because blacks were there but because marijuana was widely used there and he was afraid that he could be "set up" and lose his privileges. Also, contrary to the Brinkleys' assertion, he never attempted to go to Rhodesia but, rather, sought a way into Angola, a former Portuguese colony—hence his trip to Portugal, which would have been a useless point of departure for British Rhodesia.

The Brinkleys' source for portraying James as a racist is Gerald Posner, whose book is described as "the most respected ... on the assassination." I advised the Brinkleys that Posner had not interviewed 90 percent of the witnesses who testified at the trial (whose identities he may not even have been aware of); neither did he attend one minute of the proceedings.

The Brinkleys express astonishment at the support for James by the civil-rights community. I suggest that this support could result from concerned individuals' having informed themselves about the facts and the evidence.

William F. Pepper
Wolfson College
Oxford University
Oxford, England


Editors' Note:

In Part One of "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center" (July/August 2002), William Langewiesche noted that the words "Kill All Muslims" were scrawled on a wall in the Bankers Trust building and were followed by the initials B.F.D. He wondered in passing whether "maybe someone" from the Boston Fire Department had written the words. Langewiesche's comment was presented as the momentary speculation of someone reporting his first thoughts at the scene. He realized that "B.F.D." may well have indicated a fire department in some city other than Boston, and that lack of information obviously makes any determination impossible. We assumed that readers would realize this too.

For the record, the Boston Fire Department rejects any inference of involvement.


Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 2002; Letters to the Editor; Volume 290, No. 2; 8–14.