The significant constitutional, political, intellectual, economic, and foreign policy trends and issues that have shaped the course of American history; and the key episodes, turning points, and leading figures involved in the constitutional, political, intellectual, diplomatic, and economic history of the United States.
The death of Matthew Perry made me reflect on my emotional response to a stranger’s passing. I found intriguing research that explores the psychological concept of parasocial relationships and cybermourning to help me understand why I experience a sensation of loss when an entertainer’s final curtain is lowered.
tl;dr Using thematic analysis, the researcher studied 1,299 condolences posted on the obituary website Legacy.com to come up with themes that opened the window to cybermourning and parasocial relationships on the night worldly-famous comedian and actor Robin Williams hanged himself, August, 11, 2014. In addition to the themes that emerged, loss, appreciation and celebration, the study revealed that a majority of cybermourners had developed a deep parasocial relationship with Williams and viewed him as more than a comedian. They saw him as a close friend or relative who had died. The deeply emotional posts outnumbered two to one the posts from cybermourners whose condolences were respectful, short and generic. Fans also shared intimate life struggles associated with drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness with their virtual “close” friend Williams who was also struggling with the same demons. This paper discusses cybermourning, parasocial relationships and the pros and cons of such online relationships.
On October 28, 2023 news broke about the passing of television actor and “Friends” star Matthew Perry. The Hollywood Reporter described his passing feels like “when a Beatle dies”. Perry struggled with alcoholism his entire career and he was outspoken about mental health. I can’t remember when I first watched the show Friends. When I watched it, I never reached a level of binge-watching episode after episode. Yet the writers delivered a storyline so universally applicable that we, as the audience, really bought into a group of friends just trying to grow up and find their place in this ever-expanding world. It was my story. It was your story. It was our story.
Perry’s passing reminded me of the deaths of other celebrities: Steve Jobs, Anthony Bourdain, Chester Bennington, Sean Connery, Paul Walker, Carrie Fisher, Kirstie Alley, Betty White, and many more. But perhaps most notable among them is Robin Williams. The paper starts by explaining the concept of cybermourning as a process to take grief to social media and immortalize it in cyberspace. Facebook will become a place where more deceased than alive profiles make up their account statistics. Websites like legacy.com offer a last farewell that can be revisited at all times. It is a collective experience as others are allowed to share their condolences. The concept of our human response to death itself is complex. Mankind has always mourned the passing of one of us. Mourning can be described as an elevated emotional grief induced by the outside event of the passing of a loved one. It does help to reunite those left behind, but it also serves as a healing period. On the other hand, parasocial relationships are a concept almost entirely tied to the onset of audiovisual communication technology, e.g. cinema, television, and streaming. It describes the identification of the viewer with the portrayed character. People seek out similarities, similar behaviors, and other personality traits. In extreme cases, people want to be that person (even when they know it is a fictional character that only exists in a Hollywood storyline). The internet and relentless news coverage impact the intensity of a parasocial relationship.
Against this backdrop, the author designed two research questions to study the public’s emotional response when actor Robin Williams died.
What themes explain how cybermourners mourned the night Williams died?
What happened to cybermourners who developed parasocial relationships with Williams?
The research reviewed 1,299 responses posted to the obituary page of Robin Williams on legacy.com. His page continues to receive postings to this day. They identified three themes among the posts: loss, appreciation, and celebration. Most strikingly, they found people had developed a near-intimate relationship with Robin Williams because of the shared emotional struggles, alcoholism, and humor that get us through the day. The internet’s permanent access and appearance of a “personal space” that lives on our computers or in our phones lowered inhibitions to share fears, secret desires, and vulnerable emotions associated with the career of Robin Williams.
Early psychological research suggested these types of parasocial relationships are linked to fears, isolation, and diminished social experiences. More recent research, however, found that parasocial relationships, and their natural end, may invoke cathartic effects that help people to develop a better understanding of themselves and the world around them. Cybermourning can provide a therapeutic relief that is shared by thousands or millions of others online. Therefore it can neutralize the experience of grief and sadness that commonly occur with learning about someone’s death. Lastly, it can raise awareness of the universal human struggle that we all experience – from addiction to mental health.
Matthew Perry playing Chandler on Friends helped millions of non-English speakers to learn English. The show introduced everyday cultural norms, although exaggerated, to an audience unfamiliar with American customs and traditions. This helped shape the social fabric of the United States. Anyone lucky to watch Friends during their late teenage years may look back fondly on the curiosity that surrounded social experiences, your first relationship, your first disagreement, your first job loss, your first financial struggle, and all these other experiences that we all universally endure and overcome.
Perhaps learning about Chandler’s passing made me reflect on my mortality and how fleeting this experience that we call life really is (loss). It is a stark reminder of the importance of healthy relationships, compassion, and compromise (appreciation) – but really that these things are worth working for because they are so rare and the cast of Friends made us whole showing us that (celebration).
Thoughts on Arthur Miller’s classic Americana drama “Death of a Salesman.”
I keep a stack of classic American literature near my desk. It’s my way to pay tribute to those who walked these United States before me. It’s also a means to expose myself to different genres and writing styles.
“Death of a Salesman” is written as a script for a theater play by infamous playwright Arthur Asher Miller. It centers around a middle-aged traveling salesman, Willy Loman, who is mentally disintegrating over his failed attempts to achieve the American Dream. The play’s structure is fluid and shifts abruptly between past, present, and ongoing or concluded stages of his life. I understand this to be used as a stylistic technique to demonstrate the mental breakdown of the main protagonist, Willy Loman, as the play unfolds. While this style is potent to make a point, it struck me as disruptive to my reading flow. Scripts require the reader to factor in the playwright’s scene interpretations, which adds a layer of complexity that I didn’t particularly enjoy.
The play is divided into two acts. Neither act has a headline, so bear with me as I label them:
Willy appears to suffer from burnout after a failed business trip. When he seeks to alleviate his pain by scaling back on work-related travel, he fails to convince his boss and gets himself laid off. This fuels his deteriorating mental state, which clings to the illusions of material success and his lack thereof. His overwhelming nostalgia makes him compare his children’s failures with his own, creating a deeply strained relationship with his sons that eventually culminates in confrontation and disappointment. It ends, of course, in tragedy.
This was a challenging read. Piecing together the puzzle that is Willy Loman’s mind is no easy feat, but, I think, it’s an analogy of the challenges we face in our own lives. The play reminded me of the actor Jim Carry’s father, who took a job he didn’t like to support a life he didn’t enjoy only to be let go at the age of 51. Arthur Miller described, in quite a similar fashion, this tragedy of our society that most of us live sad lives of quiet desperation to emulate, integrate, and do as we are told. It’s a cautionary tale and a bleak reminder of the stoic truth that death isn’t in the future but we die a little bit every day. Is it really worthwhile to spend your life living other people’s dreams? Death of a Salesman, like it or not, is an impetus to shift your thinking towards finding and pursuing your values and prioritize meaning over comfort.
This is my personal shortlist of classic and modern Air Force literature. Titles are selected by Air Force history, ongoing conflicts, and their relevancy to the future of aerial warfare, as well as leadership lessons, strategy, and tactics in aviation. Titles are ordered by their original publication date.
Ballistic Books is a series to present literature of interest. Each edition is dedicated to a specific topic. I found it challenging to discover and distinguish good from great literature. With this series, I aim to mitigate that challenge.
(2021) The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War by Malcolm Gladwell
“In Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell weaves together the stories of a Dutch genius and his homemade computer, a band of brothers in central Alabama, a British psychopath, and pyromaniacal chemists at Harvard to examine one of the greatest moral challenges in modern American history.
Most military thinkers in the years leading up to World War II saw the airplane as an afterthought. But a small band of idealistic strategists, the “Bomber Mafia,” asked: What if precision bombing could cripple the enemy and make war far less lethal? In contrast, the bombing of Tokyo on the deadliest night of the war was the brainchild of General Curtis LeMay, whose brutal pragmatism and scorched-earth tactics in Japan cost thousands of civilian lives, but may have spared even more by averting a planned US invasion.
In Bomber Mafia, Gladwell asks, “Was it worth it?” Things might have gone differently had LeMay’s predecessor, General Haywood Hansell, remained in charge. Hansell believed in precision bombing, but when he and Curtis LeMay squared off for a leadership handover in the jungles of Guam, LeMay emerged victorious, leading to the darkest night of World War II. The Bomber Mafia is a riveting tale of persistence, innovation, and the incalculable wages of war.” I read this book when it was first released. It still ranks high on my list of favorite books.
(2021) Call-Sign KLUSO: An American Fighter Pilot in Mr. Reagan’s Air Force by Rick Tollini
“Eagle pilot Rick “Kluso” Tollini’s life has embodied childhood dreams and the reality of what the American experience could produce. In his memoir, Call Sign KLUSO, Rick puts the fraught minutes above the Iraqi desert that made him an ace into the context of a full life; exploring how he came to be flying a F-15C in Desert Storm, and how that day became a pivotal moment in his life.
Rick’s first experience of flying was in a Piper PA-18 over 1960s’ California as a small boy, and his love of flying through his teenage years was fostered by his pilot father, eventually blossoming into a decision to join the Air Force as a pilot in his late twenties. Having trained to fly jets he was assigned to fly the F-15 Eagle with the “Dirty Dozen,” the 12th Tactical Fighter Squadron, at Kadena AB, Japan before returning Stateside to the 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron “The Gorillas.” Throughout training, Reagan’s fighter pilots expected to face the Soviet Union, but Rick’s first combat deployment was Desert Storm. He recounts the planning, the preparation, and the missions, the life of a fighter pilot in a combat zone and the reality of combat. Rick’s aerial victory was one of 16 accumulated by the Gorillas, the most by any squadron during Desert Storm.
Returning from the combat skies of Iraq, Rick continued a successful fulfilling Air Force career until, struggling to make sense of his life, he turned to Buddhism. His practice led him to leave the Air Force, to find a new vocation, and to finally come to terms with shooting down that MiG-25 Foxbat in the desert all those years before. Most importantly, he came to a deeper understanding of the importance of our shared humanity.”
(2019) Top Gun: An American Story by Dan Pedersen
“When American fighter jets were being downed at an unprecedented rate during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Navy turned to a young lieutenant commander, Dan Pedersen, to figure out a way to reverse their dark fortune. On a shoestring budget and with little support, Pedersen picked eight of the finest pilots to help train a new generation to bend jets like the F-4 Phantom to their will and learn how to dogfight all over again.
What resulted was nothing short of a revolution — one that took young American pilots from the crucible of combat training in the California desert to the blistering skies of Vietnam, in the process raising America’s Navy combat kill ratio from two enemy planes downed for every American plane lost to more than 22 to 1. Topgun emerged not only as an icon of America’s military dominance immortalized by Hollywood but as a vital institution that would shape the nation’s military strategy for generations to come.
Pedersen takes readers on a colorful and thrilling ride — from Miramar to Area 51 to the decks of aircraft carriers in war and peace-through a historic moment in air warfare. He helped establish a legacy that was built by him and his “Original Eight” — the best of the best — and carried on for six decades by some of America’s greatest leaders. Topgun is a heartfelt and personal testimony to patriotism, sacrifice, and American innovation and daring.”
(2019 Tomcat Fury: A Combat History of the F-14 by Mike Guardia
“For more than three decades, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat was the US Navy’s premier carrier-based, multi-role fighter jet. From its harrowing combat missions over Libya to its appearance on the silver screen in movies like Top Gun and Executive Decision, the F-14 has become an icon of American air power. Now, for the first time in a single volume, Tomcat Fury explores the illustrious combat history of the F-14: from the Gulf of Sidra…to the Iran-Iraq War…to the skies over Afghanistan in the Global War on Terror.”
(2017) Desert Storm Air War: The Aerial Campaign against Saddam’s Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War by Jim Corrigan
“The air campaign that opened the Gulf War in January 1991 was one of the most stunning in history. For five weeks, American and other Coalition aircraft pounded enemy targets with 88,000 tons of bombs. Sorties—more than 100,000 of them—were launched from bases in Saudi Arabia, from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, and even from bases in the United States. The skies over Iraq and Kuwait were filled with a dizzying array of new and improved weapons—Tomahawk and Hellfire missiles, stealth aircraft, and laser-guided smart bombs—and the results were impressive. The Coalition swiftly established air superiority and laid the foundation for the successful five-day ground campaign that followed. The results were also highly visible as the American people watched the bombings unfold in grainy green video-game-like footage broadcast on CNN and the nightly news.
The overwhelming success of the Desert Storm air campaign has made it influential ever since, from the “shock and awe” bombing during the Iraq War in 2003 to more recent drone operations, but the apparent ease with which the campaign was won has masked the difficulty—and the true achievement—of executing such a vast and complex operation.
Using government reports, scholarly studies, and original interviews, Jim Corrigan reconstructs events through the eyes of not only the strategists who planned it, but also the pilots who flew the missions.”
(2012) Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat by Dan Hampton
“First into a war zone, flying behind enemy lines to purposely draw fire, the wild weasels are elite fighter squadrons with the most dangerous job in the Air Force
One of the greatest aviation memoirs ever written, Viper Pilot is an Air Force legend’s thrilling eyewitness account of modern air warfare. For twenty years, Lieutenant Colonel Dan Hampton was a leading member of the Wild Weasels, logging 608 combat hours in the world’s most iconic fighter jet: the F-16 “Fighting Falcon,” or “Viper.” He spearheaded the 2003 invasion of Iraq, leading the first flight of fighters over the border en route to strike Baghdad. Earlier, on 9/11, Hampton’s father was inside the Pentagon when it was attacked; with his dad’s fate unknown, Hampton was scrambled into American skies and given the unprecedented orders to shoot down any unidentified aircraft.
Viper Pilot is an unforgettable look into the closed world of fighter pilots and modern air combat.”
(2002) Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram
“John Boyd may be the most remarkable unsung hero in all of American military history. Some remember him as the greatest U.S. fighter pilot ever — the man who, in simulated air-to-air combat, defeated every challenger in less than forty seconds. Some recall him as the father of our country’s most legendary fighter aircraft — the F-15 and F-16. Still others think of Boyd as the most influential military theorist since Sun Tzu. They know only half the story.
Boyd, more than any other person, saved fighter aviation from the predations of the Strategic Air Command. His manual of fighter tactics changed the way every air force in the world flies and fights. He discovered a physical theory that forever altered the way fighter planes were designed. Later in life, he developed a theory of military strategy that has been adopted throughout the world and even applied to business models for maximizing efficiency. And in one of the most startling and unknown stories of modern military history, the Air Force fighter pilot taught the U.S. Marine Corps how to fight war on the ground. His ideas led to America’s swift and decisive victory in the Gulf War and foretold the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
On a personal level, Boyd rarely met a general he couldn’t offend. He was loud, abrasive, and profane. A man of daring, ferocious passion and intractable stubbornness, he was that most American of heroes — a rebel who cared not for his reputation or fortune but for his country. He was a true patriot, a man who made a career of challenging the shortsighted and self-serving Pentagon bureaucracy. America owes Boyd and his disciples — the six men known as the “Acolytes” — a great debt.
Robert Coram finally brings to light the remarkable story of a man who polarized all who knew him, but who left a legacy that will influence the military — and all of America — for decades to come”
(2001) The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security by Grant Tedrick Hammond
“The ideas of US Air Force Colonel John Boyd have transformed American military policy and practice. A first-rate fighter pilot and a self-taught scholar, he wrote the first manual on jet aerial combat; spearheaded the design of both of the Air Force’s premier fighters, the F-15 and the F-16; and shaped the tactics that saved lives during the Vietnam War and the strategies that won the Gulf War. Many of America’s best-known military and political leaders consulted Boyd on matters of technology, strategy, and theory.
In The Mind of War, Grant T. Hammond offers the first complete portrait of John Boyd, his groundbreaking ideas, and his enduring legacy. Based on extensive interviews with Boyd and those who knew him as well as on a close analysis of Boyd’s briefings, this intellectual biography brings the work of an extraordinary thinker to a broader public. The paperback will retain the original publication date as it is the same book but different format.”
(1999) Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War by Mark Bowden
“On October 3, 1993, about a hundred elite U.S. soldiers were dropped by helicopter into the teeming market in the heart of Mogadishu, Somalia. Their mission was to abduct two top lieutenants of a Somali warlord and return to base. It was supposed to take an hour. Instead, they found themselves pinned down through a long and terrible night fighting against thousands of heavily-armed Somalis. The following morning, eighteen Americans were dead and more than seventy had been badly wounded. Drawing on interviews from both sides, army records, audiotapes, and videos (some of the material is still classified), Bowden’s minute-by-minute narrative is one of the most exciting accounts of modern combat ever written—a riveting story that captures the heroism, courage, and brutality of battle.”
(1995) Fighter Wing: A Guided Tour of an Air Force Combat Wing (Tom Clancy’s Military Reference) by Tom Clancy
“Tom Clancy’s explorations of America’s armed forces reveal exclusive, never-before-seen information on the people and technology that protect our nation. Here, the acclaimed author takes to the skies with the U.S. Air Force’s elite: the Fighter Wing. With his compelling style and unerring eye for detail, Clancy captures the thrill of takeoff, the drama of the dogfight, and the relentless dangers our fighter pilots face every day of their lives- showing readers what it really means to be the best of the best. This is the ultimate insider’s look at an Air Force combat wing-the planes, the technology, and the people…with Tom Clancy behind the stick.”
(1994) Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed by Ben R. Rich
“From the development of the U-2 to the Stealth fighter, Skunk Works is the true story of America’s most secret and successful aerospace operation. As recounted by Ben Rich, the operation’s brilliant boss for nearly two decades, the chronicle of Lockheed’s legendary Skunk Works is a drama of Cold War confrontations and Gulf War air combat, of extraordinary feats of engineering and human achievement against fantastic odds. Here are up-close portraits of the maverick band of scientists and engineers who made the Skunk Works so renowned. Filled with telling personal anecdotes and high adventure, with narratives from the CIA and from Air Force pilots who flew the many classified, risky missions, this book is a riveting portrait of the most spectacular aviation triumphs of the twentieth century.”
(1992) Cleared Hot! The Diary of a Marine Combat Pilot in Vietnam by Col. Bob Stoffey
“Many pilots never made it out of ‘Nam. This one did. Highly decorated Col. Bob Stoffey– a Marine Corps pilot for over twenty-five years, who served multiple tours in Vietnam– has seen and done it all. Cleared Hot! is his story– a fast-paced, high-casualty flight into heart-stopping danger.
Full of vivid detail, this combat diary uncovers the real heroes of the Vietnam War, the behind-the-scenes Marine Corps pilots who helped our boys return home…then went back for more.”
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis viewed big government and big corporations as symptoms of a “curse of bigness”. Their sheer size places a stranglehold around the democratic neck of economic freedom, or, to put it in simple terms: it takes away choice. Tim Wu, who is a law professor at Columbia University, argues in his most recent book “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age” to break up modern, large trusts of the digital age to immediately boost free market competition. But, in order to understand how he got to this conclusion, it is necessary to take a closer look at the historical context and how antitrust law and economic policy developed throughout some of the most impactful years for the United States of America.
This paper is a supplement to the book “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age.” It covers the years between 1920-1945, with a focus on the New Deal, and represents material left out of the original book.
In this supplement, Wu covers how the United States experimented with central planning and policies resulting in a state-managed economy similar to communism in the Soviet Union or state-sponsored socialism in Italy or Germany only to fail catastrophically. He goes on to detail large chain retailers’ quest against the Robinson-Patman Act. The J.C. Penneys, Sears, and Woolworths of the era. Lastly, he takes a look at Alcoa and the question of the benign monopoly. Is it beneficial to allow a single player to dominate a market segment when it offers fair prices without any apparent economic harm? To this, Federal Appellate Court Justice Billings Learned Hand had to state:
“The Sherman Act has wider purposes. Many people believe that possession of unchallenged economic power deadens initiative, discourages thrift, and depresses energy; that immunity from competition is a narcotic, and rivalry is a stimulant to industrial progress; that the spur of constant stress is necessary to counteract an inevitable disposition to let well enough alone.”
Perhaps what makes this supplement great and worth a read is Wu’s historical account of Thurman Arnold. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed little-known Arnold from Wyoming to become the U.S. Attorney General for the Antitrust Division in 1938. Unlike any other antitrust enforcer before or since, Arnold went on to file 1,375 complaints in 213 prosecutions involving 40 industries, while pursuing 185 investigations – all by 1939. Arnold went after the car industry, the film industry, big pharma, big banks, and so many more. His strategy would become known as “shock treatment” whereby a lawsuit would target not just one monopolist, but all its vertically and horizontally integrated co-conspirators. It was as simple as “hit hard, hit everyone, and hit them all at once.”
This supplement is a must-read if you are about or in the process of reading the curse of bigness. If you have ever seen “The Men Who Built America” the historical context of the supplement will serve as valuable knowledge. If you rather watch Tim Wu talk about his book and his learnings, watch this.
Linda Hunt was the first writer to file multiple Freedom Of Information Act requests with different military organizations to access the classified documents pertaining to Operation Paperclip. After more than a year, two lawyers and a threatened lawsuit the U.S. Army finally released the records and billed her $239,680 in so-called search fees (significantly more than $500,000 in today’s money). Annie Jacobsen’s book builds upon Hunt’s revelations and adds hundreds of hours of interviews and declassified intelligence documents. Her paperback stands at 445 pages. It is segmented into five parts. It takes the reader to the end of WWII when the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA) and the US Army’s Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) come across the Osenberg List. This document was the equivalent to a LinkedIn for scientists and engineers employed by the Third Reich. It served as a target list during Operation Paperclip with rocket scientist Wernher von Braun at its top. Jacobsen describes the bureaucratic and moral challenges of a democratic nation when recruiting Nazi war criminals. For example, the case of Walter Schreiber illustrated a nauseating calculus by the US military to contract the former surgeon general of the Third Reich under Operation Paperclip despite tacit knowledge of his contributions to war crimes. Another example is the case of Hubertus Strughold. He rose to academic fame and received the nickname “Father of Space Medicine”. A San Antonio library bore his name and a plaque was put on display to honor his scientific work in complete ignorance of his human experiments on concentration camp inmates. Needles to state that in both cases, the inconvenient, dark truth of their participation in Nazi war crimes eventually imbued and drowned these men’s careers. Although they were never held accountable.
The Paperclip extractions surrounding medicine and chemistry appear to dominate Jacobsen’s book. However the lines are blurred between the different areas of expertise of the German scientists. And the density of information opens a many rabbit holes for the curious history buff. One of the more captivating things about the entire program is its historical impact that can still be observed today. For example, the program went from its original call sign “Overcast” to “Paperclip” to “Defense Scientist Immigration Program” whereby the CIA renamed its involvement the “National Interest” program. This particular terminology recently reappeared in the Military Accessions to the Vital National Interest (MAVNI) program and later slightly amended during the State Department’s effort to facilitate travel for highly qualified applicants during COVID-19 pandemic imposed travel bans. Furthermore, Operation Paperclip created the foundation for other highly classified, ethically and morally obscure intelligence operations such as “Operation Bluebird/Artichoke” or “Project MK-Ultra”. Another interesting facet to this entire program that is not discussed in the book is the difference in educational systems between the United States and Germany. To this day, I believe the state-sponsored approach to afford all citizens free access to education in Germany is advantageous over the American tuition-based approach that requires substantial financial support. It was a dominant factor to allow the early 20th century Germany to develop intercontinental rockets, advanced nerve agents and other ground-breaking technology. Then, the United States was not only lacking a competitive educational system but it lacked advanced military technology to keep up with the more progressive nations of the time.
Annie Jacobsen masterfully presents the moral dilemma the United States government had to resolve in the quickly evaporating environment following the allied victory over Nazi Germany. The well-reserached book is packed with historical facts, contemporary interviews, and portraits of person’s of interest, each material for a separate book or movie. While her writing style is concise and captivating, I found myself progressing slowly due to the aforementioned density of intriguing characters and circumstances that populate each page. This book sheds light on some of the toughest moral and ethical questions. Some of which are still unanswered today. How was it possible that our democratic government looked past the former commitment to Nazi Party ideology of countless scientists, a few even awarded the NSDAP’s Golden Party badge honoring their outstanding services to the Nazi Party or the Third Reich. Can US citizenship be bought by saving the nation millions in research? Was WWII all about extracting scientific and technological advantages at the price of admitting Nazi ideology to our educational and scientific institutions?
I think the most uncomfortable takeaway from this book is the arbitrary character of the US government. An old German adage goes “Wes Brot is ess’ des Lied ich sing’” (who pays the piper calls the tune). Throughout history this arbitrary character of different US governments casted a shadow on American democracy and the price of freedom.
On August 6, 1945 at 8:15 AM the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber named after its pilot’s mother, was well above the city of Hiroshima in Japan. Its bomb bay opened and it released the infamous payload codenamed “Little Boy”. 53 seconds later and the city of Hiroshima resembled hell. This first ever wartime use of a nuclear weapon arguably expedited the Japanese decision to surrender the war. Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book “The Bomber Mafia” chronicles the renegade group of pilots who went well beyond the call of duty leading up to this point in history. They redefined military strategy that would become the foundation for the Air Force to eventually separate from the Army as an independent military branch. They utilized precision bombing tactics and creative strategy to attack the enemy from ever-changing angles at breathtaking casualty and destruction rates. While the nuclear attack on Hiroshima resulted in about 4.7 square miles of damage, the Bomber Mafia devised and executed incendiary air raid missions that destroyed ten times more enemy infrastructure and killed hundreds of thousands more. During Operation Meetinghouse, the single most deadly bomber attack in human history, as much as 16 square miles of Tokyo were destroyed. More than 100,000 civilians were killed and over one million left homeless. Gladwell presents the impossibility of choice these men were faced with in a page-turning fashion.
The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World Waris unlike his previous books. He doesn’t introduce unknown facts or thought-provoking theories but instead zooms in on a specific moment in WWII history. Gladwell tries to answer the question what does it mean when technology and best intentions collide in the heat of war? All wars present a moral conflict. What allows Bomber Mafia to stand out is the impossibility of choice that these US military officials and soldiers were faced with: invasion by land, timed-precision bombing of high-value targets or relentless sorties dropping an inferno on enemy cities? Win at all cost versus a more humane approach to war. Like most of Gladwell’s books, its insights are easily transferable into our modern times. The Bomber Mafia takes place in the context of WWII but the moral dilemma it describes is relevant for 21st-century technology, for example when we think about artificial intelligence and human medicine or algorithm structure and social media.
“Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.”
The paperback’s metrics are 9 chapters plus author’s note and conclusion divided into two parts and spread across 206 pages. Apparently this book was conceived as an audiobook. The paperback only functions as a second addition. I didn’t miss anything noteworthy, but I have read the audiobook has more flesh to it.
Operation Rolling Thunder was a highly controversial aerial assault on key infrastructures under control of North Vietnam. Notwithstanding its failures, the bombing campaign offers important lessons on the concept of coercion. A recent UCLA research paper shows that an escalating exercise of airpower can unlock vital information to inform and revise coercive military campaigns.
Operation Rolling Thunder’s failure has been widely blamed on the strategy of using force to send “signals.” It discredited the associated theory of coercion among a generation of military officers and scholars. In this paper, I show that whatever its other failures, Operation Rolling Thunder did successfully signal a threat. I rely on the latest research to demonstrate that Hanoi believed the bombing would eventually inflict massive destruction. I also show that Washington accurately ascribed the failure of the threat to North Vietnam’s resolve and continued the operation for reasons other than signaling. These findings show that Operation Rolling Thunder can be productively understood as an exercise in both signaling and countersignaling. Rather than discrediting the theory of coercion, these findings modify it. They show that failed threats can be informative and that coercive campaigns can become prolonged for reasons other than a lack of credibility.
Operation Rolling Thunder was an aerial assault during the Vietnam War designed to gradually escalate in force. It started on Mar 2, 1965 and ended on Nov 2, 1968. Rather than to pursue a shock and awe strategy then commander-in-chief and 36th President of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson opted for a limited-force strategy to signal the enemy American resolve and to coerce a truce. From the American perspective, the Vietnam War was a war with limited objectives, so it made sense to use limited means. North Vietnam, however, viewed it as a total war, so it made sense to resist any military strategy. Its failure to achieve a truce by compelling a cease of supplies to the Vietcong or stop infiltration into South Vietnam created a narrative among military strategist that the airpower was misused or misapplied.
The theory of coercion directs to “influence the enemy’s behavior to compel a certain outcome by means of anything short of brute force”. Applied to the Vietnam War, Operation Rolling Thunder was a means to influence North Vietnam’s behavior, notably to cease support of the Vietcong. It signaled a threat of grave devastation to North Vietnamese infrastructure and potentially civilian lives. Continued fighting does not contradict this conclusion, but indicates that North Vietnam understood the American approach of restraint, adapted to it, and accepted the threatened consequences. These actions taken by North Vietnam acted as a sort of countersignal. Furthermore, The United States recognized the effects of its signals early on, but nevertheless continued the bombing campaign under the calculus that a gradually escalating bombing campaign would erode North Vietnam’s resolve until it would reach a breaking point where the threat of heavy bombing would meet a vulnerable North Vietnamese leadership. Therefore coercing them to consider ceasefire, truce or pursue non-military alternatives such diplomacy.
As history tells, LBJ’s bomber diplomacy would not bode well for the United States. Nevertheless, the US military sent and received vital signals to inform and revise military strategy. Even though the threat of total destruction was accepted by the North Vietnamese, this countersignal was correctly interpreted by the United States as a willingness to accept consequences rather than a lack of credibility. So, why did the United States continue to gradually escalate rather than turn brute force when it became clear that North Vietnam was willing to accept heavy bombing? Coercion may benefit from restraint because an instant destruction of critical infrastructure would have left nothing to protect but also set back Vietnam’s faltering economy hundreds of years. Furthermore, coercion may benefit from restraint because the longer the bombing campaign lasts, the more it wears down the enemy’s will. The takeaway for military strategists may lie in the finding that signaling and restraint in warfare to allow for a gradual escalation will remain powerful alternatives to a blitzkrieg strategy. Sending and receiving signals has the power to inform and revise coercive military campaigns.
PBS offers an intriguing learning series on Operation Rolling Thunder and its wider impact on the Vietnam War. C-Span recorded a class by Douglas Kennedy of the U.S. Air Force Academy on Vietnam’s War’s “Operation Rolling Thunder” air campaign. Both complement and support the findings in Gurantz’ paper.
Molly Ivins collection of political commentary for there are nothin’ but good times ahead.
When I think of a strong and independent woman I think of Mary Tyler “Molly” Ivins. Her inimitable talent of writing political commentary that combines both, lighthearted humor and serious critique, is dearly missed in times when the fourth estate of our great nation seems to lack identity and direction. “Nothin’ But Good Times Ahead” is a compendium of her political columns published between circa 1991 and 1993. While the early ‘90s seem to be a world away, her writings could have been published today without missing the mark. In a way, this says a lot about the never-changing political theatrics that is American politics. That being said, this book has no beginning and no end. Each chapter stands alone at a perfect length for your daily commute. The occasional laugh is guaranteed. In the chapter “Gibber An Other Misdemeanors” Ivins describes the former Speaker of the House of Texas Representatives Gib Lewis as
“The Gibber gave us so many moments to remember. Both his tongue and his syntax regularly got so tangled that his language was dubbed Gibberish and provided the state with wonderful divertissement. He once closed a session by thanking the members for having extinguished theirselfs. Upon being reelected at the beginning of another session, he told members he was both grateful and ‘filled with humidity.’”
Of course, it’s not all about making fun of elected officials. Her subjects receive an equal amount of praise if they did live up to their political mandate. Another feat of Ivins’s writing style is her subconscious hook with which she provokes the reader’s reflection and encourages political awareness.
“It’s all very well to dismiss the dismal sight of our Legislature in action by saying, ‘I’m just not interested in politics,’ but the qualifications of the people who prescribe your eyeglasses, how deep you will be buried, what books your kids read in school, whether your beautician knows how to give a perm, the size of the cells in Stripe City, and a thousand and one other matters that touch your lives daily are decided by the dweebs, dorks, geeks, crooks, and bozos we’ve put into public office.”
Nowadays, our media spews out and distributes divisive messages of the nature of “Don’t California my Texas”. Rachel Maddow and Tucker Carlson are relentless in pointing fingers at the other side. Ivins’ column, her legacy really, is about critical thinking. It’s about the essence of democracy – participation. If we, the people, fail to critically reflect on who we vote into public office and check their decisions once in a while, then we’re headed nowhere. Her contributions carry an optimistic message that it’s not all dark and gloomy. There are honorable folks out there, who have integrity and dedicate themselves to serve the public without ifs or buts. In her own words
“The people I admire most in our history are the hell-raisers and the rabble-rousers, the apple-cart upsetters and plain old mumpish eccentrics who just didn’t want to be like everybody else. They are the people who made and make the Constitution of the United States a living document”
If only she were around today. Rest in peace, Molly Ivins.
A pocket guide for civil disobedience to safe democracy.
Democracy requires action. Timothy Synder’s “Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century” inspires action. In his short pocket guide, Synder offers civic lessons ranging from taking responsibility for the face of the world to political awareness all the way to what it really means to be a patriot. His theme is ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’. It struck me as an ideal guide to give out at demonstrations or town hall meetings. His ideas for civic measures are worth recounting for they aim to protect the integrity of democracy. That being said, most of his lessons should be working knowledge for every citizen.
There are few books that taught me more about the strategic decisions behind U.S. foreign policy than the Back Channel. Bill Burns’ account is both a history lesson and an upbeat reminder of the value of diplomacy.
The Back Channel by Bill Burns is a well-written, historic memoir of one of the finest career diplomats in the foreign service. Exceptionally clear-eyed, balanced, and insightful in both voice and content, Burns walks the reader through his three decades of foreign service. Starting out as the most junior officer of the U.S. embassy in Jordan under then Secretary of State George Shultz, Burns quickly made a name for himself in the Baker State Department through his consistency, ability to mediate and deliver, but also his foreign language skills including Arabic, French, English and Russian. In describing “events” at the State Department, Burns strikes a perfect balance between the intellectual depth of his strategic thinking against the contours of U.S. foreign policy. He offers a rare insight into the mechanics of diplomacy and the pursuit of American interests. For example, Burns illustrates the focus of the H.W. Bush administration in Libya was on changing behavior, not the Qaddafi regime. Sanctions and political isolation had already chastised Qaddafi’s sphere of influence, but American and British delegations supported by the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) interdiction in the Mediterranean were able to convince Qaddafi to give up the terrorism and WMD business. “He needed a way out, and we gave him a tough but defensible one. That’s ultimately what diplomacy is all about – not perfect solutions, but outcomes that cost far less than war and leave everyone better off than they would otherwise have been.”
I was too young to remember the German Reunification, but I vividly remember the Yeltsin era, its mismanaged economic policy, and the correlating demise of the Russian Ruble sending millions of Russians into poverty. When Al-Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, I was glued to the news coverage for days, weeks on end – forever changing my worldviews and national identity. Burns memoir offers a new, liberating viewpoint for me about these events; it helped me to connect their impact on the foreign policy stage and subsequent decisions by world leaders. This really manifests in his description of Obama’s long-game in a post-primacy world:
“Statesmen rarely succeed if they don’t have a sense of strategy – a set of assumptions about the world they seek to navigate, clear purposes and priorities, means matched to ends, and the discipline required to hold all those pieces together and stay focused. They also, however, have to be endlessly adaptable – quick to adjust to the unexpected, massage the anxieties of allies and partners, maneuver past adversaries, and manage change rather than be paralyzed by it. (…) Playing the long game is essential, but it’s the short game – coping with stuff that happens unexpectedly – that preoccupies policymakers and often shapes their legacies.”
But aside from candid leadership lessons and rich history insights, what makes the Back Channel so captivating is the upbeat and fervent case for diplomacy. Burns goes out of his way detailing the daily grind that is required to serve and succeed in the State Department:
“As undersecretary, and then later as deputy secretary, I probably spent more time with my colleagues in the claustrophobic, windowless confines of the White House Situation Room than I did with anyone else, including my own family. (…) Our job was to propose, test, argue, and, when possible, settle policy debates and options, or tee them up for the decision of cabinet officials and the president. None of the president’s deputy national security advisors, however, lost sight of the human element of the process. (…) We were, after all, a collection of human beings, not an abstraction – always operating with incomplete information, despite the unceasing waves of open-source and classified intelligence washing over us; often trying to choose between bad and worse options.”
Moreover Burns offers lessons for aspiring career diplomats:
“Effective diplomats (also) embody many qualities, but at their heart is a crucial trinity: judgment, balance, and discipline. All three demand a nuanced grasp of history and culture, mastery of foreign languages, hard-nosed facility in negotiations, and the capacity to translate American interests in ways that other governments can see as consistent with their own – or at least in ways that drive home the cost of alternative courses. (…) What cannot be overstated, however, is the importance of sound judgment in a world of fallible and flawed humans – weighing ends and means, anticipating the unintended consequences of well-intentioned actions, and measuring the hard reality of limits against the potential of American agency.”
All taken together make the Back Channel a must-read of highest quality for anyone interested in U.S. foreign policy or diplomacy. I would even think the shrewd political observations captured in the Back Channel make for a valuable read with regard to domestic policy or current affairs, but a modicum of international policy awareness is still required. The Back Channel’s only drawback is its predominant focus on American interests in the Middle East and Europe. I can’t help but wonder how the United States would look like today had its political leadership opted for a strategy of offshore-balancing instead of a grand strategy of primacy; more focused on pressing domestic issues such as trade or immigration with our immediate neighbors Canada, Mexico and northern Latin America. I’m curious to hear Burns’ thoughts on this. Perhaps he’ll cover this arena after finishing his term as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.