Splinterlands: A Dystopic Novel for Our Trumpian Age

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W.J. Astore

Equal parts amusing and alarming, John Feffer’s dystopian novel, Splinterlands, begins with Hurricane Donald, which floods Washington DC only five years from now.  You may deny climate change, Feffer suggests, but Mother Nature will have the last word.  She will unleash catastrophes and chaos that, combined with political fragmentation driven by hyper-aggressive capitalism and myopic nationalism, lead to a truly New World (Dis)order, characterized by confessional wars, resource shortfalls, and, within two generations, the end of the world as we know it.

Can “prophets of disintegration” like Donald Trump, driven by “market authoritarianism” and their own hubris, remake the world in their own chaotic image?  Feffer makes a persuasive case that they can.  Instead of seeing “the end of history” as a triumph of liberal democracy and a beneficial global marketplace driven by efficiency and technology, Feffer sees the possibility of factionalism of all sorts, a rejection of tolerance and diversity and the embrace of intolerance, identity politics, and similar exclusionary constructs.

Coincidentally, a cautionary letter from the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film just crossed my desk; its words encapsulate what Feffer is warning us about.  The film directors denounced “the climate of fanaticism and nationalism we see today in the US and so many other countries.”  The letter goes on to say that:

“The fear generated by dividing us into genders, colors, religions and sexualities as a means to justify violence destroys the things that we depend on – not only as artists but as humans: the diversity of cultures, the chance to be enriched by something seemingly ‘foreign’ and the belief that human encounters can change us for the better. These divisive walls prevent people from experiencing something simple but fundamental: from discovering that we are all not so different.”

The problem, of course, is that many people prefer divisive walls, while finding meaning in fanaticism, nationalism, and the politics of difference.  We are now, Feffer writes, in a period of Great Polarization. His book is about what will happen if that polarization wins out.  He writes:

“The middle dropped out of the world.  Extremes of wealth and ideology flourished.  Political moderates became an endangered species and ‘compromise’ just another word for ‘appeasement.’  First came the disagreements over regulatory policy, then sharper political divides.  Finally, as the world quick-marched itself back through history, came the return of the war of all against all.  The EU, committed to the golden mean, had no way of surviving in such an environment without itself going to extremes.”

The result?  By the 2020s, the EU “evaporated like so much steam.” With Brexit ongoing, with the EU under increasing stress daily, Feffer’s scenario of an evaporating EU seems more than plausible.

Meanwhile, another breaking news item just crossed my desk: President Trump is seeking a $54 billion increase to America’s defense budget, to be funded by deep cuts to other federal agencies such as the EPA and Education.  Trump and his team see the world as a dangerous place, and the military as the best and only means to “protect” America, as in “America first.”  But by its nature the U.S. military is a global force, and more money for it means more military adventurism, driving further warfare, fragmentation, and chaos, consistent with Feffer’s vision of a future “splinterlands.”

As one of Feffer’s characters says, “There’s always been enormous profits in large-scale suffering.”  Feffer’s dystopic novel — like our real world today — features plenty of that. People suffer because of climate change.  Energy shortages.  Wars.  Water shortages.  Even technology serves to divide rather than to unite people, as many increasingly retreat into virtual “realities” that are far more pleasant than the real world that surrounds them.

Feffer’s book, in short, is provocative in the best sense.  But will it provoke us to make wiser, more inclusive, more compassionate, more humane choices?  That may be too much to ask of any book, but it’s not too much to ask of ourselves and our leaders.  The dystopic alternative, illustrated so powerfully in Feffer’s Splinterlands, provides us with powerful motivation to shape a better, less splintered, future.

 

The F-35 Fighter: Not Invisible to Trump’s Radar

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You can hang a lot more weaponry from an A-10 Warthog (vintage 1970s) than you can from a modern F-35

W.J. Astore

Is Donald Trump putting coal in Lockheed Martin’s Christmas stocking?

Trump has sent another tweet about the F-35 jet fighter (Lockheed Martin is the primary contractor), this time asking Boeing to price out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet as a possible replacement for that jet.  Trump’s tweet caused Lockheed Martin shares to dive even as Boeing shares climbed.

Trump is right to pressure Lockheed Martin on the F-35, though I’m not sure tweets are the best way to do this.  I remember planning for the F-35 twenty years ago when I was on active duty in the Air Force.  The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was supposed to be a relatively low cost fighter/attack aircraft that would meet Air Force, Navy, and Marine needs.  Back then, the flyaway cost was estimated at $40 million per plane, more expensive than the F-16 but roughly equivalent to the F-15E “Strike Eagle.”  The current flyaway cost is roughly $200 million per plane,* and even higher for the Marine Corps version with its vertical landing/short takeoff capacity.

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The F-35: Stealthy but expensive, with a long history of cost overruns

What happened?  Everything went wrong as each service piled requirements onto the F-35 and all kinds of exotic features were added to it.  Stealth capability.  Loads of special software featuring millions of lines of code.  Unique (and expensive) helmets for its pilots. Vertical landing/short takeoff capacity for the Marines, which drove an airframe configuration that made it less maneuverable for the Air Force.  In short, the F-35 became like a Swiss army knife, featuring lots of tools and moving parts.  Sure, in a pinch a Swiss army knife can be used as a screwdriver or what have you, but most of the time what you really need is the best screwdriver for the job.

The F-35 is reminiscent of another ill-fated effort to build a jet acceptable to all the services: the F-111 “swing-wing” program of the 1960s.

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Big and ungainly, the F-111 was mainly used as a bomber and electronics warfare plane

The Navy never deployed it, and the Air Force was never that happy with it, converting it to a fighter/bomber and an electronics warfare plane.  The Navy went on to build its own fighter jet, the F-14, even as the Air Force built its fighter jet, the F-15.  Then the Air Force and Navy got two decent fighter/attack jets, the F-16 and F-18, out of the lightweight fighter competition.**

Here’s the thing: Although jets like the F-15 and F-18 are not stealthy, they are very effective, especially when updated with the latest weaponry and avionics and flown by skilled pilots.  Meanwhile, highly effective UAVs (drones) have emerged, e.g. Predators and Reapers, with long loiter times and no risk of U.S. casualties.  To put it bluntly, does the U.S. really need the F-35, especially given its high cost and underwhelming performance?

Back to Donald Trump.  Is he bluffing when he threatens to buy Boeing-made F-18s instead of the F-35?  Is he posturing to get Lockheed Martin to cut the price of the F-35 (which, at this late stage of its development, may not even be possible)?  One thing is certain: A lot of good American jobs are riding on Trump’s tweets.  Expect Lockheed Martin to rally its Congressional allies to defend the program.  The plane’s multitude of contracts were deliberately spread throughout the 50 states to gain as much Congressional support as possible.

For a little fun, go to the Lockheed Martin website at the following link:

https://www.f35.com/about/economic-impact-map

Let’s put in Pennsylvania.  Here’s what you get: 41 supplier locations, 2100 jobs, $172.5M in economic impact.  How about New York?  77 suppliers, 8160 jobs, $695.2M in economic impact.  How about Bernie Sanders’s state of Vermont?  3 suppliers, 1410 jobs, $124.5 million in economic impact.  Small wonder that even Bernie Sanders during the campaign was an F-35 supporter.

One thing is certain: the stealthy F-35 has not evaded Trump’s radar.  Whether Trump will shoot it down or simply watch it as it soars on by while burning through piles of money remains to be seen.

Note: For a more detailed report on the F-35’s performance issues, see “The F-35 Stealth Fighter May Never Be Ready for Combat: Testing report contradicts the U.S. Air Force’s rosy pronouncements,” by DAN GRAZIER & MANDY SMITHBERGER, available at this link. In short, the plane’s “requirement” to be stealthy is driving higher costs and lower performance. The plane gobbles gas so it has limited combat endurance. It’s a step backwards in effectiveness, at a much higher cost to the American taxpayer than previous planes such as the F-15, F-16, and A-10.  Meanwhile, many of its missions are now filled by drones.

For a counterpoint in favor of the F-35, see this link.  The F-35 has unique capabilities; it should, given its price tag.  Leaving aside high cost and questionable performance, it’s vital to remember the mission.  Are there really missions that only the F-35 can do, or that no plane can do as effectively?  But the real case for the F-35 seems to come down to the fact that the program is simply too big to fail; the “sunk costs” are too high; its rivals are too old; and too many American jobs are dependent on it.  In short, the U.S. military is stuck with the plane — and the American taxpayer is stuck with the bill.

*Estimates vary about the final flyaway cost since it’s ultimately dependent on how many F-35s are produced.  Current estimates for the entire U.S. purchase are $400 billion, with another trillion dollars for maintenance and spares and related costs over the program’s lifetime.

**The most rugged and effective attack jet in the Air Force’s inventory, the A-10, was never much liked by the Air Force; generals have fought to eliminate it in favor of the much less effective F-35, but Congress has actually fought back to keep the A-10, affectionately known as the Warthog, a name and image contrary to the AF fighter pilot mystique of “eagles” and “fighting falcons.”

On Nuclear Weapons, Trump is Nightmarishly Scary

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An Ohio-class nuclear submarine

W.J. Astore

Much of the post-debate analysis I’ve read from last night’s presidential debate has focused on Donald Trump’s crudeness, his threat to prosecute and jail his political opponent, the way in which he stalked her on the stage, looming in the background and crowding her, and finally his non-apology apology about “locker room banter.”  Yes: Trump is most definitely lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable, but that’s hardly the worst of his qualities.

His worst quality?  His sweeping ignorance to the point of recklessness when it comes to matters of national defense, and specifically America’s nuclear arsenal.

This is what Trump had to say last night about the U.S. nuclear deterrent:

But our nuclear program has fallen way behind, and they’ve gone wild with their nuclear program. Not good. Our government shouldn’t have allowed that to happen. Russia is new in terms of nuclear. We are old. We’re tired. We’re exhausted in terms of nuclear. A very bad thing.

This is utter nonsense.  First off, nuclear weapons are not people.  They don’t get “tired” or “exhausted” or “old.”  Second, the U.S. nuclear program has not “fallen way behind” the programs of other nations, certainly not Russia’s.  Third, even if portions of Russia’s nuclear program are “new” (whatever that means), that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the United States.  “New” in this case may mean safer and more reliable systems that are less prone to catastrophic error.

Here’s an undeniable fact: The U.S. nuclear arsenal is by far the world’s most powerful and advanced.  The key aspect to nuclear capability is survivability, and nothing is more survivable than America’s force of Trident nuclear submarines.  Virtually impossible to detect, America’s Trident force is essentially capable of destroying the world.  One submarine carries enough missiles and warheads to devastate every major city in Russia (or any other country, for that matter).  What more is needed as a deterrent?

Specifically, an Ohio-class Trident submarine can carry up to 24 nuclear missiles, each with up to eight nuclear warheads, each warhead equivalent to roughly six Hiroshima bombs.  That represents a potential for hitting 192 targets, each with six times the impact of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 (which killed up to 200,000 people). That’s 1152 Hiroshimas from one submarine — a rough calculus, I know, but accurate enough to show the awesome might represented by a small portion of America’s nuclear force.

The Trident missiles are also incredibly accurate, with a circular error probability of less than 150 meters.  And the U.S. has 14 of these submarines.  (Not all are on patrol at any one time.) These highly sophisticated and ultra-powerful submarines are further augmented by land-based ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and bomber planes (the “air-breathing” element), forming the other two legs of the American nuclear triad. Again, when it comes to redundancy, accuracy, and survivability, no other country comes close to America’s nuclear capability.

This awesome nuclear force is not a sign the U.S. is “old” and “tired” and “exhausted.” It’s a sign that the U.S. is incredibly powerful, and, if you’re a foreign leader, incredibly dangerous, especially if America’s next commander-in-chief is undisciplined, thin-skinned, and in possession of a scattershot knowledge of military matters.

Back in March of this year, Trump boasted at a debate that the U.S. military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality.  In this latest debate, he yet again revealed that he has no real knowledge of America’s nuclear capability and how modern and powerful (and scary) it truly is.

Sure, Trump is crude, lewd, and sexist, but those qualities won’t destroy the world as we know it.  Ignorance about nuclear weapons, combined with impetuosity and an avowed affection for he-man wild-card generals like George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur, is a recipe for utter disaster.

Ignorance and Dishonesty: Trump, Hillary, and Nuclear Genocide

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Some honesty, please!

W.J. Astore

Should the United States reject the “first use” of nuclear weapons?  That question was put to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during their first debate.  Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich asks us to take their answers seriously in his latest insightful essay at TomDispatch.com, which I urge you to read here in full.

Trump was asked to respond first, and his rambling answer, I thought, showed the evidence of someone who had crammed for a test.  He was desperate to show he knew something – anything – about America’s nuclear forces (here some may recall how Trump obviously knew little about America’s nuclear triad during the Republican primary debates).  So Trump rambled on about obsolete B-52s flown by the sons and grandsons of previous pilots, a non sequitur since the B-52 has been continuously upgraded with new engines, advanced avionics, the latest in high-tech weaponry, and despite their age they’re still more than capable of doing the job.  But somebody must have told Trump to use the B-52’s age as a talking point, and he was determined to get it in.

As confused and incoherent as Trump’s reply was (read more about this at TomDispatch.com), at least he tried to grapple with the issue.  Trump did reject First Strike.  He did refer to the terror of nuclear war, even as he got lost in other talking points about North Korea, Iran, and allegations about how weak on national security Obama is.

By comparison, Clinton’s response was classic Hillary.  Avoid and evade.  Try to be all things to all voters.  Bloviate, in other words, as Warren G. Harding did in 1920.  In essence, Hillary ducked the question.  She refused to address the issue of first use of nuclear weapons; indeed, she didn’t address nuclear strategy and policy at all.  Instead, she drew a contrast between her experience and predictability versus Trump’s inexperience and unpredictability.  Her message was clear: I’m not talking about nuclear weapons or policy, except to say you shouldn’t trust Trump with the nuclear launch codes.

Who won on this question?  Bacevich is right to say neither candidate won, but it’s clear who lost: the American people.  And the world.

It’s shameful that this country hasn’t rejected the first use of nuclear weapons.  It’s also shameful that instead of working to eliminate nuclear weapons, the U.S. is actually planning to spend nearly a trillion dollars over the next 30 years to upgrade that arsenal.  For what possible strategic purpose, one must ask?  America’s current nuclear deterrent is the most powerful and survivable in the world.  No other country comes close.  There’s no rational reason to invest more money in nuclear weapons, unless you count the jobs and money related to building new nuclear submarines, weaponry, bombs, and all the other infrastructure related to America’s nuclear triad of Trident submarines, land-based bombers, and fixed missile silos.

Neither Trump nor Hillary addressed this issue.  Trump was simply ignorant.  Hillary was simply disingenuous.  Which candidate was worse?  When you’re talking about nuclear genocidal death, it surely does matter.  Ignorance is not bliss, nor is a lack of forthrightness and honesty.

Next time, Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton, let’s have some rigor, some honesty, and some wisdom on the issue of nuclear weapons.  Not only America deserves it – the world does.

Send in the B-52s

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Sixty Years of B-52s (U.S. Air Force photo)

W.J. Astore

Perhaps there should be a “new rule” on the American military scene: When the B-52s are called out (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), it means America has well and truly lost.

Unbeknownst to most Americans, since April of this year, B-52s flying out of “Al Udeid airbase in Qatar … have conducted more than 325 strikes in almost 270 sorties, using over 1,300 weapons” against ISIS and now in Afghanistan, notes Paul Rogers at Open Democracy.

For those of you unfamiliar with B-52s, they are huge long-range bombers, originally deployed in the 1950s to carry nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union.  In the 1960s and early 1970s, they were called upon to carry conventional bomb loads during the Vietnam War.  Their enormous bomb tonnages did not serve to win that war, however, nor has the subsequent use of B-52s in places like Iraq and Afghanistan served to win those wars.  They have become a sort of stop-gap weapon system, their ordnance called upon to stem the tide of American military reversals even as their presence is supposed to demonstrate American resolve.

In a way, America’s B-52s are like the Imperial Star Destroyers of the “Star Wars” universe.

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An imperial star destroyer loses yet another chase

Big, lumbering ships that never seem to provide a winning edge vis-a-vis the smaller, “rebel” forces against which they’re deployed.  But the empire, which never seems to learn, keeps using them, even as it seeks even bigger, “Death Star” weaponry with which to annihilate the resistance.

Of course, when Americans think about air power, they don’t think of “Star Wars” battles or B-52s on bombing runs.  They think of audacious and cocky fighter pilots, like Tom Cruise’s “Maverick” in the highly popular movie, “Top Gun.” For me, the most telling scene in that movie is when the flashy, undisciplined, and self-centered Maverick puts his F-14 Tomcat jet into an irrecoverable flat spin. That wouldn’t be so bad, except Maverick has a backseater, “Goose,” who dies during the ejection.  Maverick, of course, ejects safely and lives to fight another day.

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It’s too late for Goose, but Tom Cruise lives on to make more bad movies

Again, most people probably remember the cheesy ending to this movie where Cruise is shooting down MiG after MiG.  But take another look at the flat spin scene.  America, like Maverick and Goose’s jet, is dropping from the sky, spinning wildly and uncontrollably all the way.  And while a few Mavericks may be lucky enough to get away unscathed, many Gooses in the process are going to end up dead.

Goose didn’t deserve to die in “Top Gun,” and neither do the many “gooses” around the world caught in the violent and all-too-real backwash of America’s jet-fueled wars.

Hillary and the Earth Wreckers

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Nothing to see here … move along

W.J. Astore

News that Hillary Clinton has selected Ken Salazar to head her transition team should give pause to anyone who believes Hillary’s claim that she’s a “Progressive.”  Assuming Hillary wins the presidency, Salazar will chair the team that helps her to fill more than 4000 appointments.

What do we know about Salazar?  According to a report at The Intercept,

As a senator, Salazar was widely considered a reliable friend to the oil, gas, ranching and mining industries. As interior secretary, he opened the Arctic Ocean for oil drilling, and oversaw the botched response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Since returning to the private sector, he has been an ardent supporter of the TPP, while pushing back against curbs on fracking….

“We know that, from everything we’ve seen, there’s not a single case where hydraulic fracking has created an environmental problem for anyone,” Salazar told the attendees, who included the vice president of BP America, another keynote speaker at the conference. “We need to make sure that story is told.”

Really, Mr. Salazar?  I lived in Pennsylvania for nine years, during the height of the fracking boom.  A friend of mine lost his family farm and land due to poisoned water caused by fracking.  Earthquakes have been traced to fracking.  Methane seepage and burn-off contributes to global warming.  Fracking chemicals are highly toxic and wastewater from fracking is radioactive.  And these are just a few of the dangers associated with fracking.

It’s one thing to argue that fracking is hazardous but that those hazards can be controlled through rigorous practices that emphasize environmental safety.  It’s a defensible position, though I believe the hazards are not fully known, therefore they can’t be fully controlled, let alone minimized.  But Salazar is arguing fracking has not caused a single environmental problem!  For anyone!

Yes, Hillary now claims she’s against fracking (when she led the State Department, she was strongly for it).  But how does that flip-flop square with her decision to appoint yet another earth wrecker to a key position in her government-to-be?  Just what the planet needs: a pro-fracking, pro-industry, corporate shill who will help to ensure that people like himself will occupy key positions of authority in a Clinton government.

I’ve witnessed enough earth wrecking.  Count me out of Hillary 2016.

“People Who Cherish the Second Amendment”

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Worthy of being cherished?

W.J. Astore

The U.S. Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights is the foundation of our democracy.  If you had to pick a right to celebrate, perhaps even to cherish, which would it be?  There are so many important ones, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, our right to privacy (the fourth amendment), and so on. There are other amendments that righted old wrongs, including prohibitions against slavery and the granting of the vote to Blacks and women.

Yet which right/amendment is the best known in U.S. politics today?  The second amendment, or the right to bear arms, which Mike Pence referred to yesterday when he noted, “people who cherish the Second Amendment have a very clear choice in this election.”

Uneducated Voters

OK, I’ve owned guns and enjoy shooting, but I hardly “cherish” my right to spend thousands of dollars on lots of guns.  I have friends who hunt and friends who collect guns and I wouldn’t deny them their rights to do both, but again why is this the one right that deserves to be singled out as worthy of being “cherished” in a democracy?

I know: the NRA and its followers claim that an armed citizenry is the best guarantor of all the other rights, a position that is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Believe me, your personal collection of guns is not going to stop a trained military using tanks and artillery and all the other heavy weaponry of war. And no: this is not an argument for you to have the right to purchase your very own M-1 Abrams tank!

Look: No political candidate plans to take away anyone’s guns. Nevertheless, the NRA and Trump/Pence persist in scaring gun owners while encouraging a “cherishing” attitude toward guns.  And here’s the telling part: Even as the gun cherishers bloviate about the extreme importance of gun rights, they virtually ignore all the other rights that do need protecting in America, especially our rights to speech, assembly, and privacy.

Stop fixating on guns, America, and start cherishing what really matters: your rights as a citizen to have a real say in politics and the running of this country. Those are the rights that truly need protecting.