• America's Maginot Line
  • Verbs in Place
  • Ready, Read!
  • Advice & Consent

    America's Maginot Line

    Paul Bracken's recent article "America's Maginot Line" (December Atlantic) left me asking myself one question: Is this 1999 or 1923?

    Bracken claims that forty-five conventionally armed Chinese missiles "could virtually close Taiwan's ports, airfields, waterworks, and power plants, and destroy the oil-storage facilities," thus shutting down the world's nineteenth largest economy. I don't know, and Bracken didn't tell us, the precise technical characteristics of these miracle weapons, or the quality of the troops that would target and fire them, but assuming that both are the best in the world, could that few missiles possibly bring Taiwan to its knees? A few months ago we launched nearly that many missiles just to kill some Afghan peasants and their Saudi paymaster, but when the dust settled, most of the peasants, and certainly the paymaster, were still standing. What reason do we have to believe that the results would be any different on Taiwan?

    Thomas Lasater Allensworth

    Paul Bracken correctly notes that the fixed, nonhardened, and undefended bases essential to the U.S. military posture in Asia are untenable when threatened by credible ballistic-missile forces. He expresses disdain for U.S. foreign-policy planners and military strategists and for the course (active missile defense) he imagines they will select as a counter to Asian missile development. Bracken recommends no explicit course, instead closing his piece with the advice that the United States should learn to adapt to, rather than counter directly, the initiatives of Asian powers. He trots out the decades-old (but still as illogical as ever) assertion that an active defense of U.S. lives and property will be interpreted as a threat by our ballistic-missile-armed adversaries. Why shouldn't we defend ourselves, and encourage all others to do likewise? Although Bracken is correct to point out that the offense has most of the advantages against the defense in ballistic-missile warfare, he attempts to perpetuate the similarly decades-old but decidedly untrue objection that only a perfect defense is of any benefit against ballistic-missile attack. Given a choice between no defense at all and a costly but imperfect defense, I suspect our troops would select the latter.

    Bracken argues that China, though not really eager to attack U.S. forces, will checkmate our use of forward bases in Asia with an implicit threat of subjecting them to ballistic-missile attack. One could just as easily argue that in such a scenario the United States could ignore any such threat and proceed to reinforce these bases in a crisis, confident that China would think twice before stepping on Superman's cape. Brinkmanship works both ways.

    In the absence of a scenario that Bracken might have provided to illustrate his ideas for the ideal U.S. future posture vis-à-vis potential Asian adversaries, I can only infer that he advocates U.S. disengagement, leaving the Chinese, the Japanese, the Indians, and perhaps the Russians to slug it out among themselves for dominance of their continent. Disregarding the damage that would be done to the global economy in such a conflict protracted over the next century or so, the United States would still be left with the same problem: one or more missile-armed Asian adversaries threatening our high-value economic assets. The difference is that in the Bracken future those assets would be domestic, not forward-based. At that juncture no one would be crowing about the money we saved by abandoning a military role in Asia and by forgoing a ballistic-missile defense. Is this a preferable future for U.S. citizens?

    James A. Wooster

    I would like to highlight some issues overlooked in "America's Maginot Line."

    In essence the article argues the following main points:

    1. East Asian militaries threaten U.S. forward bases with ballistic missiles.

    2. This development makes U.S. forward-deployed bases in East Asia a de facto "American Maginot Line" that is vulnerable to attack.

    3. Ergo the U.S. claim to superpower status in twenty-first-century Asia is in serious jeopardy.

    I would argue that all three points are either invalid or not as significant as the article claims.

    Great powers have always maintained forward bases on foreign soil. These bases, in one way or another, have always been vulnerable to various kinds of threats. However, the existence of such threats does not mean that the great power ceases to be great -- a major implication of Bracken's argument.

    In 1941 Pearl Harbor, Clark Field, Wake Island, and Guam were all vulnerable to Japanese attack. Japan successfully attacked all four U.S. bases. Yet Japan gained no long-term strategic benefit from U.S.-based vulnerability. Indeed, by exploiting that vulnerability, Japan sowed the seeds for its own destruction. I can assure you that Asian military and political leaders are fully cognizant of these facts, and they have drawn the appropriate conclusion: attack a U.S. base -- be it with Zero, Val, and Kate aircraft or with ballistic missiles -- and suffer the inevitable consequences.

    U.S. credibility is not -- contrary to Paul Bracken's assertion -- eroded just because a potential aggressor can lob a few ballistic missiles at U.S. bases. The fact of certain American retaliation is far more relevant to any strategic or foreign-policy calculation in Asia.

    Gregory J. Walko


    The targets of Chinese missiles against Taiwan would be commercial airports, electric-power plants, oil stocks, and ports. The United States did not target such things for permanent closure in its attacks on Iraq or Afghanistan. The United States could easily shut down the Baghdad electric system, throwing Iraq into chaos, but chooses not to do so.

    James Wooster confuses national missile defense of the United States with forward missile defense of overseas bases. I do not believe it is politically possible to defend forward bases but not American citizens. No one seems to have realized this connection yet, but it is a multibillion-dollar one. Defending forward bases means a national missile defense for the United States. Being a superpower on the cheap, as we have been for the past decade, is over with.

    Finally, the issue is not U.S. bases on foreign soil but rather the freedom to use them and the benefits they provide. By paying enough money and accepting enough restrictions, we can keep bases forever. Mr. Wooster fails to note the case in which the French blocked British use of air bases in France in 1940 for fear of reprisals. In the December, 1998, air strikes on Iraq the United States was not allowed to use bases in Turkey or Saudi Arabia. I agree that brinkmanship works both ways. Being the world's superpower through brinkmanship is a far cry from staying on top because of an overwhelming conventional advantage, as the United States did in the 1990s. This is an enormous change. Brinkmanship is bound to accelerate the move toward weapons of mass destruction; it already has, as the logical trump card against forward bases. "Thinking about the unthinkable" is returning to international politics after a brief absence following the Soviet collapse, and it is not clear to me that this is good for the United States.

    Verbs in Place

    Stephen Budiansky's "Lost in Translation" (December Atlantic) began humorously enough with an apt Monty Python reference, but I figured that the initial laughs would eventually be supplanted by a thoughtful and rigorous treatment of the issues related to electronic translation. However, the author continued to cause a chuckle when he made this assertion in the middle of the article: "In Japanese -- as in most languages, with the notable exceptions of English and the Romance languages -- verbs regularly come at the end of the sentence."

    This is simply not true. Most of the world's 6,000 or so languages are classified as subject-verb-object (SVO) -- English, yes, being one of them. But languages with verb-final sentences (usually SOV) are actually quite rare. In fact, Japanese and German are the only major verb-final languages that spring readily to mind (though with regard to German, given all its recent permutations, who knows where the verb is ending up these days).

    Dan Dillon

    Being funny on purpose is so hard that I usually settle for being funny inadvertently. But I think the joke is on Dan Dillon this time. Though the matter is admittedly controversial, the sampling surveys that have been done suggest that verb-final is indeed the largest category, with just about half the world's languages; verb-medial is a close second; and verb-initial (as in Arabic) a distant third. Verb-final languages include Japanese, Korean, German, Dutch, the Turkic languages (Turkish, Uzbek, Kazakh, and others), the Iranian languages (Persian, Kurdish, Tajik, Pushtu), most of the Indic languages (Punjabi, Tamil, and many others), most of the Tibeto-Burman languages (Tibetan, Burmese, and several hundred others), Slovene, Basque, Eskimo, and many Native American languages.

    Ready, Read!

    Nicholas Lemann's ideas on how to fix America's worst public schools ("Ready, Read!," November Atlantic) are attractive and destined to fail, both of which characteristics stem from his oversimplification.

    We can even leave aside such important but contentious issues as what schools are for and whether standardized tests are good measures of school performance. Lemann's proposal won't even achieve success for that subset of people who believe that schools should focus on imparting basic skills and knowledge and that standardized-test scores are a good measure of how well they are achieving this.

    Lemann proposes that "nonperforming schools be put into the hands of higher authorities" who would "institute a prescribed curriculum that has been carefully researched and field-tested and has been proved to work." There are five serious oversimplifications here.

    First, no such program exists. Lemann quotes Success for All's founder, Robert Slavin, as saying, "There's nothing on most of these programs. No data! Organized research with control groups and reports every year, no matter what the data show -- that just doesn't happen." The exception is Success for All, but that program's proven success is in reading -- not writing, math, science, or any other subjects normally part of the curriculum.

    Second, Lemann offers no evidence for his conclusion that despite the many factors he acknowledges to have been at work at P.S. 114, the key to the improvement there "was the imposition of a tightly defined, proven reading curriculum." If factors outside the Success for All design were important, such as "a good new principal, a higher budget, a turnover in the teaching staff, a cooperative union," then simply imposing Success for All on nonperforming schools will not work.

    Third, Success for All is not simply a prescribed curriculum. Beyond changing a school's entire approach to teaching reading, Success for All includes intensive professional development for teachers, a family support team in each school, and specially trained teachers who immediately and intensively tutor students who are falling behind. Slavin has been quoted as saying, "If you left out one of the elements, it would leave a hole through which the gains of the other two elements would leak out." Success for All's outcomes research is for the program as a whole, not for the curriculum in isolation. Stripping out and replicating but one element of a successful program has a distinguished record of failure that crosses all fields of public policy.

    Fourth, Lemann's prescription ignores his own statement that "Success for All can't work unless a school's principal and teachers cooperate." How this is to be achieved when the program is imposed on the school by higher authority is apparently left as an exercise for the reader. Slavin's secret ballot, whereby 80 percent of teachers must choose the program before it comes in (though a basic part of the Success for All design), is incompatible with Lemann's prescription. So are the education, field trips, and multiple ballots that preceded the program's introduction at P.S. 114.

    Finally, not every subject can be made a priority. Lemann describes well how P.S. 114 has achieved success in reading by focusing the bulk of its time, money, space, and energy there. I hope it is obvious that the bulk of an institution's resources cannot simultaneously be devoted to reading, to math, to writing, and to science. The strategy of focusing on reading cannot be scaled up to the entire curriculum.

    H. L. Mencken once observed that "for every complex social problem, there is a simple solution that's wrong." It seems a prescient epitaph for Lemann's proposal.

    Kennard T. Wing

    Nicholas Lemann makes a persuasive case for imposing on failing schools a centralized curriculum, which by definition limits the flexibility and creativity of individual teachers, schools, and school districts. If this trend toward centralization of authority were occurring solely in failed schools, Lemann's argument would be not only persuasive but also convincing. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Throughout our country, state governments are promulgating highly defined education standards and forcing compliance through comprehensive statewide testing programs. The results of these tests are then publicly disseminated in a comparison among the state's schools. Those of us in education know that "what is tested will be taught." Thus the common test creates a common, statewide curriculum. Moreover, President Bill Clinton's proposal for national testing in the areas of mathematics and reading for all fourth- and eighth-graders moves this centralization of authority beyond the state level to the national. And, as Lemann wrote, this centralization of authority is occurring with little discussion or debate. The long-term effects on our children's education are unknown, though research on similar efforts in Britain raises serious questions about the efficacy of such an approach.

    Marc F. Bernstein


    Kennard Wing seems on the verge of saying that education problems are so complex that they can't be meaningfully dealt with through any policy other than localism. In his letter he's trying to make Success for All appear more particular and unknowable than it really is: the quotation from Slavin about the lack of good data was meant (as my article made clear) as a criticism of other programs, not of Success for All, and although I did say that teacher cooperation is important, my article also clearly showed that P.S. 114 adopted Success for All because central administrators, not teachers, wanted it. I came away from P.S. 114 with the strong impression that the prescribed reading curriculum was the main reason for dramatic improvement in teaching students to read.

    Marc Bernstein is right. It isn't just in failing schools that centralization is taking place, and there isn't enough public discussion about the issue. I wrote my article partly in the hope of encouraging such discussion. But, not to be coy, I'm much more in favor of centralization, especially in curriculum, than he seems to be. Other advanced countries have national curricula, and because the U.S. economy requires some means of directly comparing people's skills, the lack of a national curriculum here has led to an unusually heavy reliance on IQ-style tests like the SAT. Better, I think, to have everyone cramming for tests of mastery of basic skills.

    Advice & Consent

    Douglas Brinkley's "In the Kerouac Archive" (November Atlantic) is a welcome beginning to the process of opening up the study of Kerouac's papers and granting Kerouac his proper status in our literary culture. Brinkley's excerpts and commentary correct a number of mistaken ideas about Kerouac that were promoted by the conservative critics who dismissed his work as anti-intellectual, violent, and un-American. But I would take issue with Brinkley's implicit assertion that because Kerouac outlined chapters of On the Road, and made use of journal entries and notes in composing the novel, somehow we should not consider the form of the novel revolutionary, since the stories about its spontaneous composition are "myths." More than ten years of teaching On the Road, and other Kerouac novels has taught me that the key to understanding Kerouac's theory of Spontaneous Prose is its parallel with jazz, especially bop. If we think of chapter outlines, journal entries, and other preparatory material as a first draft of the novel, this implies that Kerouac was working like a modernist writer focused on craft and revision, doing nothing new. That is not the case: for Kerouac, the performance of writing spontaneously mattered most. His notebooks, journals, outlines, and other preparatory material should be understood as a form of rehearsal -- like a jazz musician practicing improvisation -- building up to the performance of composition, preparing mentally for the textual re-creation of the subject matter being written about. In order to get published, Kerouac of course had to revise On the Road; but in The Subterraneans, Desolation Angels, Big Sur, and other works, Kerouac's aesthetic was fully worked out, and should receive due credit as a revolutionary change of direction for American prose.

    William J. Savage Jr.

    In "Should Election Day Be a Holiday?" (October Atlantic), Martin P. Wattenberg states that Saturday would probably not work as Election Day, in part because of objections from "Orthodox Jews and Mormons to putting Election Day on their Sabbath."

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) worships on Sunday, not Saturday. The Seventh-day Adventist Church celebrates the Sabbath on Saturday.

    David E. Monsen

    Mr. Monsen is correct. The mistake was caused by an editing error.

    The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; March 1999; Letters; Volume 283, No. 3; pages 10-15.

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