The Commons

Readers respond to our November 2019 issue and more.

General Chaos

In November, Mark Bowden reported on what top military officers really think about President Donald Trump.

There is a common misconception, which Mark Bowden repeats, that a military officer swears to obey all orders that descend to him or her from the president as commander in chief.

Military officers are not so sworn. The only completely binding oath of office taken by an officer of the U.S. military upon the occasion of her or his commissioning is the following:

I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

Therefore, no military officer is under a legal obligation to obey any order from the commander in chief if he or she considers that order to be constitutionally null and void.

Of course, the officer in question may have to deal with the consequences of her or his resistance under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but that does not mean a military commission annihilates individual responsibility. We know from the Constitution, as well as from the principles established in Nuremberg, Germany, in the wake of World War II, that it does not.

Larry Hedrick
Washington, D.C.

Frightening. That is the only word to describe Mark Bowden’s article. President Trump’s inability or unwillingness to follow normal decision-making protocols has created chaos in our foreign policy and put our country at risk.

The article also helped me with respect to the 2020 election. I had been flummoxed. I will now have to consider voting for a Democrat: High unemployment, a stagnating economy, and massive debt for a few years are better than alienating the rest of our allies, getting into a nuclear war with Iran, or allowing 10,000 Islamist soldiers to be set free in Syria.

Trump is psychologically, morally, intellectually, and emotionally unfit for office. We can only hope Congress impeaches and removes him so we have a choice between two adults in 2020.

Dave Trott
Former Republican Member of the House of Representatives
Birmingham, Mich.

Mark Bowden replies:

Regarding Larry Hedrick’s quibble: All uniformed military officers are duty bound, under penalty of prosecution, to obey lawful orders from their superiors. Because the Constitution names the president commander in chief, obeying his orders, unless they are unlawful (not just ill-considered), is required under both military law and the founding document.

Bovine Friends Forever

Cows have specific platonic companions that they prefer over others. Rebecca Giggs wrote about these relationships in the November issue.

Courtesy of Rachel McCrystal

Thank you for the article on cow friendships. I am lucky enough to work at a farmed-animal sanctuary, where we have seen incredible and complex relationships develop over the years. Cows show a capacity for affection and mutual emotional dependence that should require us to rethink the ethics of animal farming. Kayli and Maybelle are two cows that live at Woodstock Farm Sanctuary. Kayli ran from a slaughterhouse when she was very young, and Maybelle was abused for years as a dairy cow before being given to us. They are best friends—standing by each other, grooming each other, checking in when one of them is not feeling well. They have even become co-parents of two calves that we rescued from the dairy industry. If they were to lose each other, they’d be heartbroken.

Rachel McCrystal
High Falls, N.Y.

Behind the Cover

Taking inspiration from mid-century documentary photographers such as Herbert List, we commissioned Anthony Blasko to create imagery for Peggy Orenstein’s cover story. Blasko’s work has a quiet drama; his sports photography captures drive and emotion.

Blasko documented six young men spending a day on the dusty fields of Palmdale, California—roughhousing, skateboarding, playing basketball, talking about their likes and dislikes. The resulting cover casts the physicality and vulnerability of boys in stark relief.

Luise Stauss, Director of Photography

Q & A

In the November issue, Franklin Foer wrote about Jeff Bezos’s master plan, and what it means for the rest of us. Here, Foer answers questions sent in by readers.

Q: What would failure look like for Bezos at this point? Or is he too big to fail?

A: The prospect of failure haunts Jeff Bezos and motivates his relentless pursuit of growth. In fact, the word that seems to best capture his anxieties is stagnation. At this stage, he fears standing still. He worries that if his mind stops moving or his company fails to find the next new thing, a competitor will overtake him. His ambitions keep swelling, because the alternative is too terrifying for him.

Q: Given Bezos’s preoccupation with space, why hasn’t he gone there already? And what are his personal plans?

A: Over the years, Bezos has gone from being a doughy engineer to a chiseled mogul. Why has he beasted out? According to one friend, he is preparing for the day when he’ll journey into space. But space travel is hard. There are reasons that this is a pursuit left to governments. It takes the resources of the state—at least it has in the past. The engineering challenges are mind-bending. My guess is that it will happen eventually, but not as quickly as Bezos would like.

Q: Is Amazon really that powerful? Retail is, after all, a low-margin business. Sears, Roebuck looked like a tenacious powerhouse too, once upon a time.

A: Standard Oil was that powerful; so were U.S. Steel, IBM, and Microsoft. There’s nothing new about Amazon’s size and strength. But in the past, government loomed over these companies. The Department of Justice broke up these Goliaths, or at least threatened to smash them to pieces. It seems like we’re in the early days of a resurgence of anti-monopoly sentiment. And that resurgence will pose a serious challenge to Amazon.

The Facts

What we learned fact-checking this issue

In this issue, John Hendrickson sat down with Joe Biden to discuss the former vice president’s experiences with stuttering. In the article, Hendrickson dispels a common myth: that stuttering is caused by anxiety or fear.

This idea has not gone unexamined over the years. In a particularly radical experiment, the influential speech pathologist Wendell Johnson attempted to induce stuttering in a group of orphans by criticizing their speech. (The late University of Iowa professor, who stammered himself, believed that stuttering must be the result of parents disparaging kids for small speech mistakes.)

The 1939 inquiry, dubbed the “Monster Study,” didn’t confirm Johnson’s hypothesis, nor was it ever published, but it did result in a lawsuit. After a 2001 San Jose Mercury News investigation thrust the decades-old experiment into the spotlight, a few of the study’s subjects sued. In 2007, the state of Iowa settled for $925,000.

Researchers still aren’t sure what causes people to stutter. Despite Johnson’s belief that the neurological disorder was not hereditary, it has since been found to have a strong genetic component.

Will Gordon, Assistant Editor