Wednesday, June 08, 2016

They Died of Progress

I'd intended this week’s post here on The Archdruid Report to continue the discussion of education that got started two weeks ago, but that’s going to have to wait a bit. As my readers have doubtless learned over the last ten years, whichever muse guides these essays is a lady of very irregular habits, and it happens tolerably often that what she has to say isn’t what I had in mind. This is one of those times.

In last month’s installment of my ongoing Retrotopia narrative, one of the characters summed up her position in a bit of intellectual heresy that left the viewpoint character flummoxed. Her argument was that progress has become the enemy of prosperity. That’s something you can’t even suggest in today’s society; the response of the viewpoint character— “With all due respect, that’s crazy”—is mild compared to the sort of reactions I’ve routinely fielded whenever I’ve suggested that progress, like everything else in the real world, is subject to the law of diminishing returns.

Nonetheless, the unspeakable has become the inescapable in today’s world. It’s become a running joke on the internet that the word “upgrade” inevitably means poorer service, fewer benefits, and more annoyances for those who have to deal with the new and allegedly improved product. The same logic can be applied equally well across the entire landscape of modern technology.  What’s new, innovative, revolutionary, game-changing, and so on through the usual litany of overheated adjectives, isn’t necessarily an improvement. It can be, and very often is, a disaster. Examples could be drawn from an astonishingly broad range of contemporary sources, but I have a particular set of examples in mind.

To make sense of those examples, it’s going to be necessary to talk about military affairs. As with most things in today’s America, the collective conversation of our time provides two and only two acceptable ways to discuss those, and neither of them have anything actually useful to say. The first of them, common among the current crop of American pseudoconservatives, consists of mindless cheerleading; the second, common among the current crop of pseudoliberals all over the industrial world, consists of moralizing platitudes.  I don’t particularly want to address the moralizing platitudes just now, other than to say that yes, war is ghastly; no, it’s not going away; and it’s not particularly edifying to watch members of the privileged classes in the countries currently on top of the international order insist piously that war ought to be abandoned forever, just in time to keep their own nations from being displaced from positions they won and kept at gunpoint not that many decades ago.

The cheerleading is another matter, and requires a more detailed analysis. It’s common among the pseudoconservative right these days to insist that the United States is by definition the world’s most powerful nation, with so overwhelming a preponderance of military might that every other nation will inevitably have to bow to our will or get steamrollered. That sort of thinking backstops the mania for foreign intervention that guides neoconservatives such as Hillary Clinton on their merry way, overthrowing governments and destabilizing nations under the fond delusion that the blowback from these little adventures can never actually touch the United States.

In America these days, a great deal of this sort of cheerleading focuses on high-tech weapons systems—inevitably, since so much of contemporary American pop culture has become gizmocentric to the point of self-parody. Visit a website that deals with public affairs from a right-of-center viewpoint, and odds are you’ll find a flurry of articles praising the glories of this or that military technology with the sort of moist-palmed rapture that teenage boys used to direct to girlie-mag centerfolds. The identical attitude can be found in a dizzying array of venues these days, very much including Pentagon press releases and the bombastic speeches of politicians who are safely insulated from the realities of war.

There’s only one small difficulty here, which is that much of the hardware in question doesn’t work.

The poster child here is the F-35 Lightning II fighter. It so happens that I’ve faced a certain amount of recent embarrassment with regard to this plane, for a curious reason.  Back in 2013 and 2014, when I was writing my novelTwilight’s Last Gleaming, I worked out what I thought was a reasonable estimate of the F-35’s performance in combat against Chinese J-20 and J-31 fighters. That estimate wasn’t exactly in accord with the dewy-eyed accounts just mentioned; the F-35—called the Lardbucket by Air Force pilots in my novel, due to its short range and sluggish performance in the air—came out decidedly second-best, suffering three losses for every two Chinese planes shot down.

As it turns out, though, my guess at the F-35’s performance was far too optimistic. The more data slips past the Scylla of Lockheed’s publicity flacks and the Charybdis of their equal and opposite numbers in the Air Force, the clearer it becomes that the Lardbucket is an utter dog of a plane, so grossly underpowered and so overloaded with poorly functioning gimmickry that nearly every other fighter in current service can outperform it with ease. For example, if the F-35’s stealth features are to work, the plane can only carry two air-to-air missiles and two bombs—a quarter the firepower of similar planes in other air forces.

Persistent reports, hotly denied by Lockheed and the Pentagon but still not yet disproved by the simple demonstration that would be necessary, claim that the vertical takeoff version of the plane has so little thrust that it can’t even get off the ground with a full fuel tank. Mind you, this embarrassing object is the most expensive military procurement program in history, scheduled to cost the Pentagon some $1.5 trillion by the time purchases are completed. Meanwhile, the Russians and Chinese are fielding fast, heavily armed, maneuverable long-range fighters for a fraction of the F-35’s hefty price tag, and those fighters are going into service while the F-35 lumbers through one production delay after another.

Some of my readers may be wondering if this is simply one bad apple out of an otherwise sound barrel. Not so.  The Navy has an equal embarrassment on its hands right now, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), another high-tech, high-priced failure. The LCS costs $37 billion a pop, and has been marketed as the be-all and end-all of coastal warfare craft. If this sounds reminiscent of the praise lavished on the F-35, it should—and the results are comparable. 

Like the F-35, the LCS is packed to the gunwales with high-tech gimmickry that doesn’t work as advertised, and it’s so finicky to run that after a minor maintenance error, one of the few LCSs in service has been laid up for five months at a dock in Singapore while technicians try to figure out whether there’s any way to repair it short of towing it back across the Pacific to the shipyard. Meanwhile, the Chinese are fielding a new fleet of fast, heavily armed littoral combat ships for a small fraction of the cost.

Two bad apples? Consider the SBX missile defense system, which was supposed to track incoming ICBMs and knock them out of the sky. It’s a $10 billion dollar flop; none of its array of high-tech gizmos—the flying lasers, the antimissile rockets, the gargantuan seaborne radar—does what it’s supposed to do. Consider the Air Force’s Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECCS), a computer system designed to handle logistics for overseas deployments, which ate a billion dollars and seven years before being cancelled as a complete failure. Consider, for that matter, the Army’s new pixellated camouflage uniform, $5 billion in the making, which had to be scrapped when it turned out that it sticks out like a sore thumb against every environment on Earth.

I could go on. These programs, and many others, were sold to politicians and public with lavish claims about their ability to perform every imaginable military mission. As it turned out, they were well designed to carry out devastating raids on the US Treasury, and that’s about it. The US military is certainly the most expensive military in the world, and it’s equipped with a gaudier assortment of high-tech trinkets than any other, but it’s not actually that well prepared to carry out its ostensible purpose—that is to say, warfare. The results can be seen with painful clarity in the last three-quarters of a century of US military history. Ask yourself this, dear reader: since the end of the Second World War, how many wars has the United States actually won?

There are two factors at work here, and both of them unfold from broader patterns in American society. The first is the descent of the United States into overt kleptocracy on a scale that makes Third World dictators drool with envy.  In today’s America, a very large number of government and corporate officials alike overtly treat their positions as opportunities for plunder. Consider the stock-buyback programs that are standard among Fortune 500 corporations these days. The corporation spends its money buying shares of stock to inflate stock prices, boosting the net worth of corporate insiders, who get hige blocks of shares as part of their compensation packages. The expenditure of business funds for the personal benefit of influential insiders used to be prosecuted as embezzlement; now it’s business as usual—and don’t even get me started about the absurd salaries and bonuses currently shoveled into the laps of CEOs and other overpriced office fauna.

On the other side of the coin we have government officials who serve in various positions where they can benefit corporate interests, and then leave their jobs and are hired by the corporations they used to deal with as, ahem, consultants, pulling in very high salaries for very little apparent labor. Corruption? I see no reason to give it any more polite name, and it’s played a major role in providing the US armed forces with fighters that can’t fight, camouflage that doesn’t camouflage, and so on, through the long catalogue of military-procurement failures that have equipped America’s soldiers, sailors, and pilots with embarrassingly substandard gear.

Still, there’s something else going on here. All the most egregious examples of military-procurement failure in recent years have had something in common: they were supposed to be revolutionary new breakthroughs using exciting new technology, and so on drearily through the most overused rhetoric of our age. The cascading failures of the F-35 can be traced straight to that sort of thinking; its designers apparently believed with all their hearts that every innovation must be an improvement, and so came up with a plane that fails in the most innovative ways you care to imagine. The LCS, the SBX, the ECCS, the pixellated camo uniforms, all fell victim to the same trap—their designers were so busy making them revolutionary that they forgot to make them work.

Compare this with the very different approach of another major power—Russia—and it’s not hard to see the flaws in that dubious logic. The Russian approach to military technology has been evolutionary, not revolutionary.  Where the US set out to create an antiballistic missile defense system from scratch, Russia took the incremental approach. They started with the S-300 air defense system, a sturdy piece of Soviet-era equipment designed to shoot down airplanes, cruise missiles, and the like, and built on that foundation in a cautious, step-by-step fashion.

The S-300 thus gave way in due time to the S-400, which had a variety of solidly tested incremental improvements, and then to the S-500, scheduled for deployment this year, which adds in the ability to target incoming ballistic missiles in near space. The Russian logic was as straightforward as it was irrefutable: if you want something to destroy lots of very fast objects at high altitude, start with something that can destroy a more modest number of slower objects at lower altitudes, and then tinker carefully from there. That approach works; ours doesn’t.

What makes the American obsession with revolutionary breakthroughs so dysfunctional isn’t just that it so often yields substandard results; it's that it’s being paid for at the expense of essential military needs.  Here’s an example.  The US Marine Corps has, on paper, a substantial fleet of F/A-18 fighter-bombers—276 of them. In fact, though, less than a third of them can fly. The Marines are so short of spare parts that their mechanics are having to decide which planes to keep airworthy and which ones to strip for parts. The helicopters the Marines use to ferry forces from ship to shore are in the same condition, with 105 of 147 Super Stallion copters more or less permanently grounded. There are plenty of other examples; right now, between high-tech flops that don’t work and working technologies that have been starved of maintenance and spare parts, the US military is in appalling condition

The exception that proves the rule is the nuclear arm, which has been steadfastly ignoring high-end gimmickry for decades. It turns out, for example, that the launch systems for America’s nuclear-armed ICBMs still use8 inch floppy disks to store the launch codes. Those ICBMs, by the way, are Minuteman IIIs, which were introduced in 1970—the missile that was supposed to replace the Minuteman, the MX Peacekeeper, was deployed in the 1980s but turned out to be yet another of the Pentagon’s overpriced white elephants, and was quietly decommissioned between 2003 and 2005.

The other two legs of the so-called nuclear tripod are just as elderly. The Trident nuclear submarine is another 1980s technology, still chugging away sedately at its mission, while the airborne leg still relies on the geriatric B-52, a 1950s design with modest incremental improvements tacked on. There were two attempts to replace the B-52; the B-1, which turned out to be a lousy plane and mostly does ground attack duties these days, and the B-2 stealth bomber, which was so expensive that only 12 of them are in service, and is no longer invisible to state-of-the-art air defense systems. Since nuclear weapons are the one US military asset that must always be ready to function, no matter what, it’s telling that the Pentagon’s planners have quietly allowed old but sturdy technologies to remain in service there—though it’s anyone’s guess how well maintained those technologies are at this point.

That strategy probably won’t be viable in the long term.  Military procurement fraud is as old as war, and overinvestment in the latest fashionable gimmick is tolerably common as far back as historical records reach. Every nation’s political and military establishment has to contend with both, and most manage to keep them within the bounds necessary to ensure national survival. Those nations that don’t restrict them in this manner normally go under, and this mode of failure is particularly common in the declining years of great powers.

Those of my readers who’ve read up on the last years of vanished empires—the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires, Romanov Russia or Habsburg Spain, and so on down the list of history’s obituaries—know the results already: the imperial state reduced to a massive but fragile shell, invincible in appearance but shockingly vulnerable in reality, resting ever more unsteadily on a crumbling foundation of ineffective or broken weapons, decaying or abandoned facilities; a political leadership blithely unaware of the gap between its fantasies of invincibility and the reality of accelerating systemic failure; a high command too busy feathering its own nest and playing political games to notice the widening cracks; and a dwindling corps of servicepeople, overworked, underpaid, and demoralized, who nonetheless keep on struggling to prop up the whole brittle mess until the inevitable disaster sweeps their efforts aside once and for all.

All this is standard. What’s different in the present situation, though, is the all but universal conviction in American society, from top to bottom, that the lessons being taught so insistently by the F-35 and its fellow embarrassments cannot and must not be learned. Yet another round of innovative, revolutionary, breakthrough technologies is not going to solve America’s military problems, since those problems were caused or worsened by previous rounds of innovative, revolutionary, breakthrough technologies. Nonetheless, that’s the conventional wisdom in today’s United States, and in an embarrassingly large number of its allies—and history offers no encouragement at all to those who want to believe that this can end well.


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Marcu said...

Dear Mr. Greer,

I assumed that with our homework I should give a short book report. In order to make sure I was well within the pre-1900 requirement I opted to read the Epic of Gilgamesh. At one point while I was reading I experienced a strange "connection". In that moment I felt a connection across time with this story and its journey to me via clay tablets and cuneiform. I wonder if anything from our culture might survive a few millennia hence? And even so how can a single or even a handful of stories or documents capture the vast diversity in our culture?

On a different note I received my copy of your new book, The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth, today. I can't wait to start reading.


The next meeting of the Green Wizard's Association of Melbourne will be held on the last Saturday in June. All interested parties are invited to attend. For those people who are unsure about the nature of our meetings, imagine a long descent support group with some intentional living discussion mixed in.

If you are interested to join us, meet us on Saturday the 25th of June 2016 at 13:00. The venue is, Vapiano, 347 Flinders Lane, Melbourne Victoria, Australia.

Send queries and comments to limitstogrowth1972[at]

Just look for the green wizard's hat.

P.S. I have created a webpage where I will post the details of the next meeting and any further details for those who don't frequent the comments here. The webpage can be found at

Darren Kenworthy said...

The gravest security threat we face is self deception. Thank you for laboring so diligently to arm us against it.

Jim said...


I've written a short story for the latest Space Bat. Do I just post a link in a comment like this?;postID=5506684929606269611;onPublishedMenu=posts;onClosedMenu=posts;postNum=0;src=postname

Tim Smith said...

Dear JMG,

Interesting, but frightening, post. I have just finished a completely fascinating book that your readers might like: River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit. It is mostly about the 19th century "stop action" photographer Eadweard Muybridge, but Solnit intersperses her comments about him with some very insightful observations on Western man's obsession with progress, and the conquest of time and space. In particular I'd recommend the last chapter "From the Center of the World to the Final Frontier".

Degringolade said...

John Michael:

I am shocked, shocked, that you didn't mention

Kevin said...

Thank you Mr Greer for another well written and timely essay. I can only take one small exception to anything in this week's blog. Ignorance of this situation is not quite universal, but sadly the number of people who are aware is so small as to be statistically insignificant. I would count those people who read your blog and similar ones among the few enlightened citizens. And in a stroke of synchronicity, the author of another of those blogs, Dmitry Orlov has dedicated his column this week to a warning against poking the Russian bear, which we seem to be doing increasingly lately, simply because he doesn't believe we are up to handling the potential consequences, for much the same reasons you stated in this blog.

Matt Holbert said...


Are familiar with the work of John Gray (philosopher, not mars venus dude)? I just finished his book "Black Mass" and have read several of his books in no particular order. (He is a favorite of Nassim Taleb.) The thread of his thinking is similar to that in this post.


Rob Rhodes said...

It seems that the one discipline where the military should be pursuing innovation; strategy, is the one where they are not. Same old lead up to regime change such that anybody but the faithful can see it coming from around the corner. I think you touched on this in "Twilight's Last Gleaming" when the US went straight to tactics and logistics and the young Chinese general began with a strategist.

While some world leaders are using innovative military and political strategies, none seem to have abandoned progress and economic thinking in favour of stability and ecological thinking.

pygmycory said...

Looking at the Lardbucket and the pixelated camouflage gear, it seems to me that an additional issue is trying to make one item that does everything. Since the same item can't do everything well, it ends up doing everything badly.

Sort of like trying to sell one variety of tomato suitable for all uses and able to grow in all climates. It's not going to work.

David said...


My father was a career Navy submariner, a "mustang" if I recall the proper term, as he entered enlisted and about midway through was offered the opportunity to get commissioned an officer. (E3 to O3, all told.) I still remember going down to meet the sub as a child when he returned from sea duty, in the later 70s.

Both this week's post of yours and last week's of Dimitri's have made me aware of how aggressive our foreign policy has become and on what shaky footing that aggression stands. I can only hope that when the moment arrives and the military debacle that we all know (deep down) has to happen finally occurs, that the opponent in question behaves like the Chinese in TLG, utilizing just the needed amount of force necessary to clearly demonstrate our true position and no more. My fear is that we'll end up poking someone who will want to make the point with more vehemence and that many more lives will be lost because of that. The economic toll will be heavy regardless.

As always, however, you are clear-eyed and undiluted in your truth-telling. I wish more of those in power would listen to the Archdruid fringe for its wisdom.

Karl K said...

Of course there is always the possibility that these tales of weapons that aren't, could be a "psyop" to make potential targets for "freedom and democracy" think that they don't work.


Seems unlikely though - and my memories of being on board the USS Nimitz shortly after she went into service in the 1970's square nicely with JMG's assessment.

See Operation Eagle Claw (Iranian hostage rescue mission).


alex carter said...

"Improved to the point of unusability" is a phrase I like to use.

After losing everything in the economic crash, I realized that a street musician I knew, who played banjo at the farmer's markets and who was up to his eyeballs in "conspiracy theory" beliefs that kept him off the grid to the point of not having a driver's license, no credit cards, etc yadda yadda, for fear of The Illuminati or some such, was in actuality the smartest guy in the room. The crash didn't affect him at all. In fact, he broke his record for all-time income in a day after the economy was in the tank, in 2008.

I write from my boss's house, a stock-standard McMansion, big 2-story house on a tiny lot, the requisite fleet of cars (more than one per driver is an ironclad rule here) and well, as orthodox Suburbian as they come. Foods eaten here are "white" foods, mostly actually colored white (white bread, Cheerios in milk, chicken breast, pasta) and overall, "white" culturally. The frozen bag of microwave-ready cut and washed and salt-added veggies are esteemed over "gauche" lower-class fresh ones. I call most of the food (not to my hosts!) "astronaut food".

They are very very nice people, but this culture is as distinct as that of any of the "heredim" (ultra-Orthodox) Jews' and as complex. Let me get this up before the Internet eats it.

Amy Olles said...

At the risk of defending something that I know fairly intimately, and yet have many more reservations about than even you do, but for a cornucopia of reasons other than 'fighting ability', I would like to humbly point out that the Marine version of the F-35: STOVL - short take off, vertical landing, to my knowledge wasn't contractually required to take off vertically. The jets short take off on the LHDs and then land vertically on said boats. I don't mind product bashing, if it's accurate. I will say I don't read press about the jets, or the US military, because what is reported isn't always true - and by that I mean the good and the bad news isn't always true. I have witnessed some of the things you talk about in your article first hand and it deeply worries me. I have also witnessed times when the people and products you're talking about work 'as advertised' and it is thrilling! I am painting a target on my back here, but I wanted to comment to let you know that I both bristle at your statements, and yet have to agree with many of them. That's difficult to admit. Thanks for the reality check. On the one hand the 'cutting edge of technology' and progress had enough appeal for me to pursue as a career furthering the cause after college. On the other hand, as I get older, and read and absorb more of the idea of diminishing returns and what's in store for us in the future...I wonder how much longer the industry I work in will really last.I wonder how many people will be working harder and longer hours to prove they are worthy of being kept employed to keep enjoying their upper middle class engineer status as the funding dries up for the various programs that are currently underway. This post today was a good reminder to me to keep working on my 'out' plan and refocus on the things that will actually matter for the future.
One other thought: I am currently listening to the audio book of Capitol Dames by Cokie Roberts. It's insightful, following the lives, political maneuvers and gopinions of the women whose husbands were involved in ruling the nation right before and during the civil war. The picture that is painted of the national tension, the inability of congress to get along, let alone affect change, the budget issues and social issues of the day are fascinating because I can't help but draw strong parallels to what is going on today. I am encouraged to hear so many stories of brave women who used their position and/or talents to bring good in their local community - I guess times of tribulation can bring out the best in people and spur them to create better ways of doing things (as has been covered in retro-topia). On the other hand, it's a disconcerting because wow, change out a few scenarios and the book could be present day commentary. The book's description of the fear of violence on Lincoln's inauguration day made me immediately wonder how that same day will go in 2017...

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

"since the end of the Second World War, how many wars has the United States actually won?"

Leaving aside expeditions to places like Grenada, here's my count:

Korean War--draw 0
Vietnam War--lost -1
First Gulf War--won +1
Afghan War--ongoing for more than a decade, losing -1
Iraq War--I score this differently than most people.
The initial phase, the invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, would have counted as a win +1, but
The occupation was botched.
Phase II, attempting to establish a friendly government, ongoing, losing. -1

Absent intervention from Divine Providence in the current two wars, USA! USA! will not make it to the playoffs.

alex carter said...

OK well, the "Heredim" live a life of complex ritual, but Orthodox Suburbians do too. For instance, no walking is done other than out to the mailbox. Othewise ... well, we just don't think about otherwise! My boss's wife professes to be musical, and sings in a church group (they're not religious, it's just that churches are one of the few places it's acceptable to sing these days) but she never utters a warble. In fact, it's a profoundly un-musical culture, music being enjoyable and sensual etc. Your Orthodox Suburbian will sing in church, or play in the high school band for football games, and that's it.

They own 256 kinds of spray products, "let us spray" lol.

They each take a handful of pills daily or more than once a day, and refilling all the prescriptions takes up a fair amount of time, worrying, and budgeting.

I've ventured the idea of growing some nut trees, putting in some collard greens, doing something to produce at least a bit of food, and the idea is met with disgust and horror.

It's just a very different way of living compared to most of the world's population, compared with the ways of living of humans over history, and even quite foreign to myself, a child of the "starving 70s" where fishing, foraging, knowing which weeds were OK to eat were important skills.

It's a doomed way of life too. I love these people to death but they're circling the drain. $150k+ a year isn't enough for them and they have no resilience, and are one medical emergency away from ending up in a by-the-week motel.

alex carter said...

And what of the Heredim, and their co-religionists? Well, I won't be joining them, it turns out. I'd been told so many (what turned out to be) myths about my background that I really have to give myself a "brownie point" for simply doing a genetic test. It turns out I'm 0% American Indian, 0% Ashkenazim, 0% well, anything that isn't European with a large chunk of that "English and Irish". The only explanation I can think of for my tan skin is that way back in the past, some people migrated, or were chased, up from the Iberian Peninsula up into Ireland. Hence the phenomenon of "black Irish" - Irish folks with olive skin, dark eyes and hair, etc. My mom probably just picked up the American-Jewish slang she used by growing up around Los Angeles people and probably had some aspirations to get into movies and wanted to talk like a "movie person" - she was fairly good looking when she was young.

So there you have it, just as ordinary a background as a person can have, and my dad for all his Ivy degree and pedigree, ended up dying poor because he didn't have the common sense to become a plumber.

Patricia Mathews said...

From this layperson's standpoint, it sounds as if these things are being rushed into production without the sort of quality checks you'd except even from a cheap car rolling off the assembly line. I read all that and wondered "People.... what's your hurry?"

Oh, I agree about the designers believing their own hoopla, and the sucking down of Pentagon money and all the rest. Even so ... who is rushing into things and why?

Bukko Boomeranger said...

It strikes me that the U.S. has fallen prey to the mindset of Lord Acton's famous quote about how power corrupts, and infinite power corrupts infinitely. For a couple of generations since WW II, the American psyche has thought (probably mostly subconsciously) "We have enough nuclear weapons to kill everyone on Earth. So our country has the power to do whatever it wants." Hence the hubris of "leaders" such as Bush II, realPresident Cheney, Hillary, etc. It also explains the jingoistic attitudes of T-rump and his mob. What results is a corrupt sense of nationalism that's pretty close to its denouement and downfall. The trouble is, when the U.S. goes down, it's going to take a lot of lives with it, including inside its own borders, as the frustrated turn on each other.

fudoshindotcom said...

"failing in innovative ways", Love it. That should be included in the standard definition of revolutionary technology.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have succeeded in progressing to the point where we now have the technology to fail in a wider spectrum, and on a grander scale, than ever before in human history!" sounds suspiciously like "negative growth" doesn't it?

Oh well, what's the saying, Never let a good hypothesis get derailed by an ugly fact?

Superb essay as always JMG. Now I have to get back to studying passive and solar atmospheric water generators. I'll be needing to build one fairly soon. Peace.

Thomas Mazanec said...

You can get a lot by evolution...humans are a result of evolution, one generation at a time, with infinitesimal changes each step, from a protobacterium.

MindfulEcologist said...

Interesting how war was in the air, I went the same unplanned direction in Trumping Nature's God.
Very much enjoyed your tale of tentacles, makes it much easier to wait for the stars to be right...

Misty Barber said...

I find the Russian approach to problem solving to be much more agreeable. From what I've seen their methods balance ideas, objectives, and resources efficiently to create something that works.

In America extreme inefficiency seems to be a key component to status signifiers. We have progressed to stage 4.

Bill Hicks said...

So the best hope to bring down the American empire is endemic corruption. Whatever works, I guess.

rabtter said...

I've been doing some reading lately with regard to the Eastern Front in WWII and its been an eye opener. I can't help but wonder about the F-35s utility even if it worked as advertised. Consider the impact the impressive Tiger Tanks had on the outcome vs the impact the Soviet T-34 had. It appears WWII's lessons with regard to attrition have been forgotten by the War Dept.

Mark said...

Well now laddie, ending well in truth seems to mean, finishing out the anthropocene without exchanging salvos of ICBMs. But having just finished "Jude the Obscure", puts the killing of most life on earth in the perspective of the Victorian Age. Nature is at best a plot device. Mostly it's cruel, corruption, to be restrained, resisted, denied, made to obey. What would one expect?

Interestingly, I left off reading your other blog when it was discussing Victorian matters. There, proof of discretion, if not of not trolling.

Having almost finished the book by ten, I switched to First Voices Radio, and listened to a botanist who is of Pottawatomie decent. About her book "Braiding Sweetgrass", and the view that plants could be teachers, rather than just machines of photosynthesis.

Then back to the last pages of the book, and reflecting on it, in various terms.

No, our upper echelons of American class system understand nothing about war they don't have to. They understand as much as the Edwardians in England did. Perhaps it was the Great War that finished off the age of Victoria. Just not completely enough.

What will it take?


mathprof said...

This all started a while back when the U.S. introduced the M16 while the Soviet Union introduced the AK-47. Although the M16 might be prettier and more accurate, the AK-47 was much cheaper, more reliable and darn near indestructible. Simple is almost always best when it comes to man made machinery. (And those old AK-47s are still working today!)

thenoteswhichdonotfit said...

The 'pseudoliberal moralizing platitudes' looked a lot different to me after I moved to Taiwan. Yes, it would be wonderful if there was never war in Taiwan ever again, but the reality - which the Taiwanese people cannot change - is that Taiwan is next to China, and that China has repeatedly threatened military invasion, and given that the People's Republic of China has launched many military attacks against the buffer islands between mainland China and Taiwan, there is every reason to believe that the PRC is entirely sincere about this stated intent. The main reason why the PRC has not launched a full military invasion already is that they know that it would be so costly that it might destabilize their own government. In order to make sure that the cost of an invasion remains too high, the Taiwanese need to invest a lot of resources in their own military. That is why Taiwanese leftists advocate for increasing military spending! (Also, Taiwanese leftists get mad when the United States Government tries to sell the Taiwanese military overpriced junk, and Taiwanese leftists also favor investment in the local arms manufacturing industry).

I think Lee Kuan Yew once said something like "the only reason why the Tibet is a part of the PRC and Taiwan is not is that the Taiwanese has a better military."

On the flip side, when I talk to a lot of westerners about this situation (regardless of whether they are 'liberal' or 'conservative') a common reaction is 'but how could Taiwan possibly defend itself against China, China is so big and Taiwan is so small.' Which shows that a lot of the westerners I talk to don't understand the concept of asymmetric warfare. The Taiwanese military don't need to a match for the Chinese military in any kind of absolute sense, they just need to make it excessively difficult for the Chinese military to invade Taiwan. Taiwan is a mountain island, which gives a defending military a huge advantage over an invading military.

dex3703 said...

Thanks for an excellent post. Growing up in the 80s, with Ray Gun Ronnie and the constant threat of nuclear war, there was also the constant panoply of reporting about wasteful military spending and graft. Billions down the drain, reported Mother Jones. So this is nothing new.

What is new, as you astutely point out, is that it's accepted as normal. A cost of doing business, because business must be done.

I'm in Seattle and have worked at a certain very large software company you may know. Its mindset is the same. Progress and upgrades galore, but not understanding what problems are being solved, if any. Your link to the IEEE Spectrum article on the botched Air Force procurement system could've come out of any project I've worked on.

Wendy Crim said...

Well, that's not very comforting. Thanks for another week of thoughtful input. (I loved Twilights Last Gleaming, by the way. Read it last year.)

W. B. Jorgenson said...

Well, this applies just as much in life as in the military. The new ways of doing things often don't work as well, or the bugs haven't been worked out yet, but people press ahead anyway. I wonder how many people will come back in ten or twenty years and admit they were wrong about some piece of tech or other being absolutely perfect....

I can't figure out how people can possibly think it a good idea to try to design something completely new without first making sure it works as advertised, but that seems to be the problem.

Justin said...

Canada has its own trouble with its cool new warships too, although we might yet buy some F-18s while you can still get them.

To be fair, the F-35B, the short-takeoff-vertical-landing one is supposed to take off from a teensy helicopter carrier and can do so with a reasonable load, and then is supposed to land 'dry', with about 30 minutes of fuel left.

The funny thing about things like ICBMs or fighter planes or spacecraft that have a significant fuel fraction is that there are hard ceilings to their performance that are limited by physics. No technological wizardry, other than inventing a more energy-dense fuel source can improve their performance will let the technologies perform beyond the fundamental limits of their power sources. Sure, things like better avionics or radar-absorbing coatings or lighter alloys make them a bit better, but it is basically lipstick on a pig.

This is an excellent, short read:

If you do the math, the Apollo capsule that landed on Earth represented 0.2% of the weight of the vehicle that took off for the moon a couple days prior (of course, that includes left-behind equipment, but a lot of that mass was fuel). For Mars, even if you ignore the change in mass due to the life-support requirements, the mass ratio of Earth return capsule to launch would probably be more like 0.02% - probably if you include life support, 0.005% because the Earth-Mars-Earth vehicle would be pretty heavy.

I would argue that war has more than a few things in common with space missions - you need to support a group of people doing something energetic and dangerous from far away from your resource base that requires supplies which cannot be furnished in situ. The more energetic and complicated the process of war is, the more supplies needed to be transported to battle - and to use the space analogy, the costs on the launchpad are 100 times the value of what is delivered to orbit/Iraqstanizuela. Sun Tzu said something to this effect - it costs 1 cart of silver in peacetime, and 7 carts in wartime to maintain a military unit or something like that.

Maybe there's some cosmic justice in this, but it turns out that war carried out with fanatics with AK's, IEDs and suicide bombs is so phenomenally inexpensive compared to drone strikes, tanks and a professional army that the former approach often wins the day. Of course, there is a cost in blood, which is how it perhaps should be. In another (horrifying) example of how hyper-technological war distorts what Conan would say is the natural order of things, one force behind the low official casualty rates from the United States recent military adventures is medical technology.

Every group of Americans who deliberately goes into combat is shadowed by a sophisticated, petroleum powered medevac system. This is often not a bad thing, as there is a subset of war-related injuries that are very dangerous in the short-term but can be recovered from easily enough with few long-term consequences. Of course, this isn't always the case. Although it's technically impressive that it is often possible to save the life of a 20 year old whose legs and genitals (they never mention those, but they're quite squishy) have been blown off by an IED, well, what would Conan say? There is false accounting in everything that Empire does it seems.

Unknown said...

There is a strong sense of urgency in your recent posts. I remember reading your blog posts and feeling a sense of equanimity. After all, we are not the first or the last civilization/empire to go through this social convulsions. Now though, it seems many disparate rivers of long running problems are starting to come together and wash over us.
I went through most of your posts in the past ten years. I appreciate the continuity and the development of ideas by approaching same issues from different angles.
Overall, there is a very good track of successful predictions and expectations. One small criticism I have though is that (like most of us) you overestimated the economic risks and underestimated the climate change impacts.
I would like to see a post on how your thinking in these area have changed.
To bring the discussion back to this week's post, do you think the military will follow the same trajectory to slow bankruptcy like the public infrastructure, or there will be a showdown soon (a small war followed by imperial collapse) as in your series "how it could happen"?

Justin said...


One interesting thing I read during my WW2 geek days, is that until too close to the end, a lot of the moving parts of German war machines were built to very high standards like you might expect civilian construction equipment to be. Of course, civilian war machines don't get blown up by Russians very often and fine manufacturing tolerances don't make a difference then. Compare that to one of the engine variants that powered the Sherman, which was a 20-cylinder monster made from five four-cylinder automobile engines strapped together - if one of the engines failed, as they often did it was perfectly possible to disconnect it and keep going.

The T34 and Sherman (and the original conception of the F-16 and F-18) were perfect examples of a war machine conceived by a society that was comfortable with the idea that to win wars, you sacrifice young men on the altar, and they won wars in exchange for the usual price.

Caryn said...

I remember a few months after 9/11 coming across a newspaper article buried way in the back that caught my attention. It was a report on the budget meetings the top brass at the Navy held with Congress over their bi-annual budget. The Admirals had prepared a budget, but when 9/11 happened they scrapped it and quickly revised a new one appropriate to the new threat.

I can't find the original article and am remembering only the broadest of factors, Hopefully one of our commenters more adept at military issues can correct me or fill in what I'm skimming over- But from what I recall, the admirals asked Congress for a large number of small, older model, very fast patrol boats to cover our 3 coastlines, a handful of larger ships for longer distance and mostly money to recommission, maintain and spruce up older know-to-be-reliable larger warships, aircraft carriers, etc… They were being practical and going with what the knew worked. Congress denied their request and their total budget went to continued development of the monstrosity you detailed in your essay. The monstrosity would not be ready for another decade. The navy would have no benefit from it for that many years even if it did work as planned. And even if it did work as designed, it was too large and cumbersome to be any kind of effective weapon. The Navy had never wanted it. Congress, (or the Congressional Appropriations Committee did.

As I said, I can't recall the details, but I recall that being one of the 'Aha" moments for me in understanding why we were where we were, (and are.) Your essays are always wonderfully clear and concise and illuminating in many ways, but for me, it's also often a solid reasoning, a knitting the threads together of this and many other small glimpses I've gotten over the years. I guess, no wonder I have no problem 'getting' what you are saying.

I can't thank you enough for doing the knitting together and making it make sense. Thank You.

Kevin Warner said...

Just to throw some more shark-chum into these murky waters-

Recently in a readiness exercise, only one of six F-35s were able to boot up their aircraft to the point that it could actually take off. The rest had to sit on the runway - shades of Pearl Harbour in '41. The story is at

The new Zumwalt-class destroyer, which has been optimized for stealth in its design, now has questions raised if it would be stable and not capsize in the rough waters of, say, an ocean. Story at

There is also a good article at which compares how the Russians handle tank design as compared to the American approach. JMG has it right. The Russians and others use a Kaizen approach ( whereas the west wants dramatic, lucrative Big Projects.

This next one gets me. The US Navy introduced a Navy Working Uniform that has a blue digital camouflage pattern which means that if a sailor falls in to the water, he will be perfectly camouflaged. That is bad enough but what is unforgivable is that there is so much nylon in the uniforms that in a fire the plastic will melt to the sailor's skin resulting in terrible burns. The article is at but what floored me there was the statement that "The Navy removed its requirement that all uniforms be flame-resistant in 1996". For God's sake, why?

On a lighter note. The Littoral Combat Ship, as mentioned in this week's essay, has its own problems. The original concept was this ship would have Mission Modules for Anti-submarine warfare, mine hunter, surface warfare, and special warfare missions that could be swapped in and out the hull as needed. After much research I believe that I have discovered the inspiration for this concept. Go to the film clip at and watch what happens from 25 seconds into the clip to about the 1 minute mark.

Pinku-Sensei said...

New Scientist is exploring the end of progress, too: What happens when society crumbles and progress stops. "Would we be better off without economic growth? Can we survive the end of industrial civilisation? And is science itself running out of steam?" I only got a few paragraphs in, but I'm wondering if the authors have been reading you.

Wendy Crim said...

Oh this is so spot on.

John Michael Greer said...

Marcu, good. The connection is important! I hope you enjoy Innsmouth.

Darren, thank you. I'm reminded of a quote -- I think it's from Schiller: "Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain."

Jim, you can certainly post a Blogger URL, but not that one -- that's the one that accesses your account, and I can't get into it (which is just as well!) because I don't know your email and password. If you'll log out of your Blogger account, go to your blog, locate the story, and then post the URL for that, that'll work fine. Many thanks!

Tim, fascinating. I'll put it on the list to look at.

Degringolade, good! I've mentioned it several times in the past, so figured I'd give it a break this time. ;-)

Kevin, oh, I know -- there are some people who are paying attention. Dmitry is quite correct, as it happens; the US is about in the same condition, militarily speaking, as the Russian Empire on the eve of the First World War: apparently mighty, actually brittle and lethally vulnerable.

Matt, I read some Gray several years ago -- I'll make a note to revisit him, as a book by Graham Harman (Weird Realism: H.P. Lovecraft and Philosophy) has revived my interest in modern philosophers.

Rob, excellent! There too, though, revolutionary innovations have a habit of falling flat; what makes a winning strategy is uncertainty, not actual novelty, since most of what works in war has been known since Egyptian times. I recently read a very solid book on cavalry in the Napoleonic wars; the author made the point up front that the same principles that govern tank warfare today governed cavalry warfare in Napoleon's time. Technology changes; war, not so much.

Pygmycory, good. If anybody at the Pentagon ever asks me for hiring recommendations, I'll tell them to take you on as a consultant, for a million dollars a year; your job will be to point out such items of common sense as that.

David, so do I. One way or another, the experience of military defeat is going to be a shattering blow to the American psyche, and the economic consequences of the collapse of US hegemony will be even more so -- once the US has to get by on its fair share of the world's wealth, after all, all of us will take roughly an eighty per cent pay cut. If it could be done without mass death, that would be welcome.

Karl, heh! I like that. Unfortunately, I've seen zero evidence that the current crop of neoconservative fanatics have anything approaching the sense of humor that would be needed to pull off that sort of stunt.

Alex, I grew up in a slightly downscale version of that world, and wild tyrannosaurs couldn't drag me back to the suburbs. Gah.

Purple Tortoise said...

I think a large part of what drives this lunacy is the persistent demand from the political masters (and the people who vote for them) that gold be spun out of straw. I'm in the university world, and we're required to educate more and more students while receiving less and less funding. How can that be done? Say the magic words: High Tech! Disruptive Innovation! Entrepreneurial! Efficiencies! So we suffer through a series of expensive boondoggles that start life as a putative silver bullet for bringing down costs or increasing revenue but end life as utter failures that leave us worse off (but not until after the leaders putting the boondoggles into place have safely moved on to bigger and better things). We'd be better off working incrementally to bring down costs and improve quality and accepting the fact that one must do less with less, but those are forbidden thoughts.

Wendy Crim said...

Oh my goodness, Yes! I can see the picture you painted in my mind. I've been to these places, too. As an outsider. Inside suburban gated communities of white-ness where my inlaws live. I absolutely love them, but their kind is not long for this world- though you could never ever breach this topic with them.
Hang in there!

Justin said...

Karl/JMG, although a lot of new conservative (as opposed to Dick Cheney or Hillary Clinton style neoconservatives) types like Milo Yiannopolous (who is the second coming of Oscar Wilde if there ever will be one) don't really get it, they have one thing going for them - they are sexy, provocative and funny, which cannot be said of any other major political group these days.

Steve Thomas said...

I was looking forward to the book discussion, but postponing it gives me time to do some more reading. I finished Little Women and the Mayan Popol Vuh in the last couple of days. I'm finding the combination of both of those fermenting in my subconscious is having a really profound effect on my imagination, so I decided to continue down the same road by reading Last of the Mohicans along with the Kalevala.

I appreciate this week's topic and I'm glad you brought it up. I've seen a number of online discussions where US military capabilities are brought up, and the belief in American omnipotence is pretty much universal. I remember a thread on one forum in which the question was asked, "How do other militaries stack up against the United States?" What followed was the usual masturbatory recitation of the number of aircraft carriers et cetera that we have compared to everyone else. Which is about as relevant as the number of heavy cavalry that the French had at the battle of Agincourt.

The funny thing is, at the time the conversation was being had, the US was currently fighting two wars, in Iraq in Afghanistan, and failing to win both. In other words, there was no reason to have the conversation-- nor is there now. If you want to see how "strong" the US military is, you don't need to go to Wikipedia and look up how many aircraft carriers we have. In the last 50 years, US troops have fought in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Lebanon, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq again, Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan, Libya, and Syria, and the results in every case are publicly available.

In general there are 3 outcomes. Decisive victories have only been against extremely weak enemies (Panama and Grenada). The only partial exception is Iraq under Saddam Hussein. This was also, as far as I know, the only military to engage the US in the kind of World War II set-piece battle it wants to fight. And it's telling that the second time around, Saddam apparently gave his commanders orders to try to hold off the US military long enough to lay the groundwork for the guerrilla war that bogged it down for the next 7-odd years.

The other two outcomes I see are decisive defeats against apparently weaker opponents (Vietnam, Hezbollah, Somali militias) and, the most common of all, inconclusive disasters that achieve nothing but turning the target nation into a stateless breeding ground for radical Islamists. The latter apparently includes Kosovo, Bill Clinton's signature "humanitarian intervention," according to a recent article in the New York Times.

But I'm sure we'd trounce the Russians, even though we still haven't defeated the Taliban after 15 years of fighting. After all, we have way more aircraft carriers than they do.

Another funny thing is-- both liberals and conservatives seem to buy into the myth of American military omnipotence. I recently had a liberal friend tell me, with a straight face, that Trump could "literally be the next Hitler, only with the strongest military in the history of the world." One of the discoveries that I've made by following the "resolving binaries" practice is that this is usually the case-- one reliable way to find the ternary seems to be to figure out what the two existing sides have in common, and then reject that.

siliconguy said...

"It’s not particularly edifying to watch members of the privileged classes in the countries currently on top of the international order insist piously that war ought to be abandoned forever, just in time to keep their own nations from being displaced from positions they won and kept at gunpoint not that many decades ago."

That is a truly elegant slam. Well done.

Rabtter: as Stalin is reputed to have said, quantity has a quality all its own.

And the littoral combat ships cost $700 million a piece, not $37 billion. The latter number is probably for the entire ship building program. Part of its problem is that the Navy wants the "one true ship" that can do anything anywhere. That is also a big part of the Lard-bucket's problem.

Justin said...

Pygmycory/JMG, it seems to me like camo gear is something that the military would be wise to crowdsource. Imagine if the military just held a contest and had people show up in camo gear of their own invention to participate in some sort of contest judged by fair means. I bet given the incredibly varied terrain available within the United States for field trials and the large, wealthy, educated population, the army could come up with a few camo uniforms that are the envy of the world for an incredibly modest expenditure.

dltrammel said...

I came across this article on one couple's path to Collapsing Now.

"Preparing for a Beautiful End"

The title is a bit deceptive, after all to most people, and probably the writer as well, collapsing to a simpler lifestyle is a kin to the death of civilization. I was struck on how happy the couple seems.

Unknown said...


You mentioned giving the lardbucket too much credit; I'm surprised that you did the same with the LCS. I am a Naval Officer on a surface ship (in fact one that you sunk in TLG!), the running joke in the fleet is that the entire offensive capability of the LCS rests on its flight deck.

The LCS was originally supposed to have vertical launch missiles with a 25 mile range (NLOS/NETFIRES); that procurement program was a joint venture with the Army which they backed out of, and the Navy could not afford to continue by themselves. Now the Navy brass is scrambling to retrofit a variant of Hellfire missiles on it that has a 3.5 mile range.

For a more in depth look at the story that would be hilarious if it was someone else:

As an aside, I was planning to wait a few years and hopefully collecting a $100K severance check to then buy a homestead on a few acres, but now am seriously considering resigning my commission because of the sabre-rattling neocon boneheads that lead our country.

John Michael Greer said...

Amy, since I don't have access to direct sources of information about the Lardbucket or any of the other technologies I discuss, I have to use press accounts; if fewer than half of the criticisms directed at them are accurate, the US military is in a world of hurt. Still, I'm aware that some of the criticisms may be as inaccurate as some of the puff pieces.

Unknown Deborah, that's about my tally, too.

Alex, that's got to have been quite a surprise! Welcome to the Generic-American community. ;-)

Patricia, those are fair questions. Still, they're not necessarily being rushed into production -- the Lardbucket, for example, is years behind schedule and still lurching its way through the process of getting ready for deployment. It's just that it's very hard to get the Pentagon to admit that one of their lucrative darlings is a useless lump of junk.

Bukko, I'm not arguing.

Fudoshin, funny. Thank you.

Thomas, indeed you can. The one requirement is that you allow any unsuccesful mutation to be munched by a predator.

Mindful, thank you!

Misty, the Russians don't have the luxury of thinking they can ignore the real world. We don't either, but a lot of Americans haven't figured that out yet.

Bill, when it's time to write the cause of death of US empire on the examiner's certificate, it's going to take half a dozen spare pages to fill 'em all in. Endemic corruption is on the list, certainly.

Rabtter, excellent! And of course you know perfectly well that the Russians have forgotten none of those lessons -- a point which is being driven home very neatly in Syria right now.

Steve Morgan said...

Funny. When you posted a couple weeks back about flying cars and why we don't have them, you pointed out that the design criteria for cars and planes were opposed in many important ways. You wrote:

"A flying car is thus by definition going to be mediocre both as a car and as a plane, and due to the added complexities needed to switch from one mode of travel to the other, it’s going to cost so much that for the same price you can get a good car and a good plane, with enough left over to pay hangar rental for quite some time."

I couldn't help but think about the F-35. While the air force has been trying to ditch the A-10 for years over the objections of the army (because it works!), the brass keeps shoving billions down the F-35 rathole with nothing good to show for it. Progress must be pursued, no matter the costs.

Meanwhile, my homework assignment has been Gulliver's Travels, as it was on the shelf already but not as long as a Russian classic doorstop. Gulliver's visit to Laputa and Balnibari's academy nailed America's fetishization of innovation half a century before the revolution. In that country, the lives of the peasants were impoverished by the slavish devotion to new ideas - for the sake of new ideas, no matter how ridiculous - on the part of the nation's ruling elite, who lived on an exclusive island floating in the sky. While the elites could crush domestic uprisings - by lowering the floating island onto the uprisers - I couldn't help but wonder how their military would fare against a less "progressive" opponent.

One last note: when you wrote "The corporation spends its money buying shares of stock to inflate stock prices, boosting the net worth of corporate insiders, who get hige blocks of shares as part of their compensation packages." I think you meant YOOOOOOOGE!

Rita said...

One of my former sons-in-law is leaving the Army after 21 years. I lived with him and my daughter for a short while and got a sample of military thinking. An example, the Army PT at his post in Colorado was so poorly designed that it was wrecking soldier's knees. When SIL described it to a friend who was a Marine the reaction was "that's crazy." When the Marines think your PT is crazy . . . .

Both SIL and daughter (who was Air Force) were on an assignment that worked 12 hour shifts 5-5. The shifts were rotated every two weeks with a 3 day weekend before the new shift. No one ever had a chance to adapt. I know the DOD funds a lot of research about exercise, metabolism, sleep patterns and so forth. So why on earth do they allow commanders to ignore everything that is learned from that research? I understand that in battle one may need to stay awake for long and unpredictable hours, but the specialty that my family members were in would never be in battle: they were strictly rear support, so what was the point of giving them schedules virtually designed to wreck their health?

And the camo for the Navy matches the ocean. I'm sorry, if you fall into the ocean don't you want to stand out, and be rescued? Sort of reminds me of a decorator I knew once who wanted to paint the fire extinguishers to match the wall.

All this about huge weapons systems that don't work bring to mind that Swedish ship, Vasa, that sank almost immediately after launching. I have seen it described as "the greatest gunship of its time." Err, no not really.

Steve Carrow said...

I'll second Degringolades comment. "Superiority" was one of my favorite short stories as a sci fi devouring youngster, and so memorable a lesson, that I was already making the connection as soon as you began your dissection of the F-35.

You chose military "progress" as a good example, but in the industry I worked in, and the company I worked for, actual productivity was maddeningly handcuffed by endless IT churn. Upgrades, migrations, lack of coordination causing incompatibility of operating systems and the end of third party support were constant. Before the kinks could be worked out of any new program or system, and actual benefits finally reaped, we were on to the next "better" software championed by some VP rather than the ones who will be using it. A constant learning curve. I've happily left that soul killing morass of endless workarounds and tail chasing, but it still goes on.

I suspect IT churn goes on across all segments of the economy, a fat but hidden leech on productivity. Hidden, since an accounting printout can't see the direct correlation between IT functionality and the lost productivity. Unless a problem can be pointed out on a cost report, it is not a problem.

Bilal Jash said...

Mr. Greer please thank your muse for me, she extended my homework deadline :) As for the post: wow. I knew about the Lardbucket, but there's a whole parade of military subsidy dumpsters here. Far more concerning though, are declining numbers in proven, working aircraft;even the fallback option may fall on its back in a real war!

I don't understand this fascination with revolutionary breakthroughs, though. The myth of progress can do just fine with 'the next evolutionary breakthrough'.

Peter VE said...

I also read The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the connections across the centuries ring clearer the more I contemplate the work. The people of Uruk are kept distracted by the worship of Ishtar, while Gilgamesh the King slaughters the young men, sleeps with the new brides, and goes on a pointless quest to destroy the cedar forest. Heroes are to be watched carefully before they do too much damage. And the tale ends where it began: has Gilgamesh learned nothing?
Mr. Greer, I read of the latest addition to our fleet, the $9, $13, er $17.5 trillion aircraft carrier Gerald Ford. Navy’s new $13 billion aircraft carrier will dominate the seas In Colombia, the drug lords are building semisubmersible vessels capable of carrying several tons of cocaine. Many tons of RDX disappeared from Iraqi weapons depots during our occupation. How long before ISIS builds a $2 million sub for a suicide mission into the Gulf against one of our aircraft carriers?

Wendy Crim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian said...

Your comparison of the American and Russian approaches to the development of military technology reminded of the little story, possibly even true, of the two countries' response to the challenge of finding a pen that would work in space. The Americans allegedly spent millions developing a special ballpoint pen that would work in zero gravity. The Russians decided to use pencils...

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, it'll take what it usually does: decline and, ahem, fall.

Mathprof, a very cogent example.

Notes, exactly. If Taiwan values its independence, it's got to be prepared to fight for it -- and you're quite correct about asymmetric warfare; you might recall the discussion of that in a past episode of Retrotopia.

Dex3703, I've known several other people who worked for that same big software company, and I've also been doing my best to avoid using their products for many years now, because they're buggier than a picnic in August -- thus I have absolutely no doubt that you're speaking the truth!

Wendy, nope. Glad you liked the novel -- of course it wasn't exactly comforting either...

WB, yes, that's pretty much it. Since the current system rewards grandiose promises and never gets around to penalizing those whose promises don't pan out, yes, that's what we're going to get.

Justin, that's a good metaphor! Of course it also raises the question of what happens when your Saturn V booster can no longer get enough fuel to get the capsule off the ground.

Unknown, I'll certainly consider it. The thing is, for most Americans, the economic consequences are hitting very hard right now -- it's just in the media, and among the upper 20% or so, that things seem relatively mellow. That said, you're right that I underestimated the speed of climate impacts; I figured the scientific consensus was too cautious, but misguessed just how much too much cautious it was.

Caryn, thanks for the tip! I'll look into that -- very often it's Congresscritters who are the point men for the military profiteers, of course.

Kevin, the sharks thank you for the additional chum. You're probably right about the real origin of the LCS concept -- that does seem to be about the level of gosh-wowitude that current US military contractors operate at.

Pinku-sensei, okay, now I'm flummoxed. If New Scientist is talking about the end of progress, the concept may actually be getting some traction in the mainstream.

Wendy, thank you.

Nastarana said...

Dear Steve Thomas, allow me to recommend to you a charming essay, "The Literary Sins of James Fennimore Cooper", one of the funniest things Mark Twain ever wrote.

OT, but possibly of interest, my daughter, who normally pays no attention to politics, is hopping mad about the Anointing of Hillary, says she is going to write in Mickey Mouse in November.

Repent said...

As a pacifist, I was somewhat displeased with tonight's topic. Also, I was actually hoping for a recap on the homework assignment from two weeks ago.

I, with great distress, read a book written prior to the year 1900, in this case a component book from the bible, Ezekiel. It was disturbing, and it coincidentally deals with warfare, the subject of your post tonight. Consider Ezekiel 9:

"Go ye through the city after him, and smite: let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity; slay utterly the old man, the young man and the virgin, and little children and women; but come not near any man upon whom is the mark: and begin at my sanctuary. Then they began at the old men that were before the house. And he said unto them, Defile the house, and fill the courts with the slain: go ye forth. And they went forth, and smote in the city"

Such actions from a 21st century perspective are out and out war crimes. Yet, strangely enough, this is still one of the component books of the "Good book". It is hard to surrender the social conditioning of modern civilized time and to view this sort of thing as 'normal'. This is as things were considered normal in yesteryear. Not entirely sure where you were going with this homework thought project??

Still it reminded me of the infamous 90's gangster film 'Pulp fiction' which quotes from Ezekiel 25-17:

Still shocking to modern sensibilities though.

Justin said...

JMG, in Chris Hatfields (decent) book An Astronaut's guide to life on Earth, Hatfield points out that if you're even a little shy of orbital velocity after you run out of fuel, you're going to be either vaporized in the atmosphere or back on earth in short order. Although this is not a true story, it would be valid in a Farley Mowat don't-let-the-truth-obscure-the-facts sort of way to say that we went into the Abyss and realized just how vulnerable we are - the realities of transporting humans through a radioactive vacuum high in the gravity well make, say, life as an Inuit above the Arctic circle look like the land of milk and honey.

EntropicDoom said...

Yes, we are a decaying empire. Yes, there are signs all around us and the points you cite are valid arguments that it's worse than the general public thinks or knows.

So What!

Enjoy the view and have fun on the ride down. An awareness that the tiger is about to eat you will not make it go away. Knowing the signs of collapse, cannot prevent it. We are desperately clinging to the notion that this great (?) nation would be a just and honorable nation, that would last for our entire long and happy lifetime. Turns out it it's just another specimen in the laboratory of failed empires, except the jar is warm and the body politic is still spasming. May you live in interesting times, and we do.

We have done with Hope and Honor, we are lost to Love and Truth,
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung,
For the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth.
God help us, for we knew the worst too young!

The place (Summer 2016) we now find ourselves, is just an amusing part of the final arc of America's history. We see what is before us and it is not just that we are here enjoying the spectacle, it is our good luck to have front row seats. Seats that might get a little hot this summer, but rest assured, we have great views all around.

The evidence is cascading in and America is clearly in steep descent mode. The election between Hillary and Trump is another fine example. Both are spectacular examples of low quality masquerading as quality effort and upbringing through blatant lies.

As Riley would say, “What a revolting development this is!”

A friend went in for false teeth. Mother's false teeth, made in the days of better services and lasting products, lasted for 27-years. They were custom made and well fitting. Made of highly durable material and without any plastic leaking poisons into her mouth. At an affordable cost!

But now false teeth are made overseas, in cheap plastic, in three sizes and after all your teeth are pulled, they immediately fit you with one of the three sizes and out the door you go. Same day service, but not the same quality service as 40 years ago. (Drugs will help with the pain.) Fit is not guaranteed with only three sizes to pick from.

Service is now focused on the provider and the provider's bottom line, not on providing a lasting set of teeth. After a few years the plastic breaks down and you need a new pair. That is, if you can stand to have the plastic fumes bubbling in your mouth, coloring the taste of everything you try to bite. (If you can bite)

Products and services are deteriorating all around us. Standards are reworked and schedules are trimmed. Quality is assured in the ads, but not evident in the final product. Stuff is made overseas to “Our exacting specifications,” but you know it's junk, not like the original, once made in a now vacant manufacturing building, upstate or down river in the the Rust Belt. Or it's “Assembled in the USA from parts made in” (See long list of other countries) meaning the workers here added one insignificant do-dad and sealed the box.

Why can't we get better products made in the USA? Why can't we get better politicians? Why is everything packed with easily broken gizmos and made lighter, cheaply made and crappy.

When Disney's animators decided to name the anonymous seven dwarves of the fairy tale, the created a list of names to go through. One of the left over names was “Crappy.” Around our place we refer to that as the eighth dwarf.

We are haunted by the eighth dwarf. He is everywhere, especially in military gadgets, in quality control and procurement. Look for the signs. The eighth dwarf is all around us.

dragonfly said...

In other words, "Don't believe the hype !"

This seems an opportune time to share the following: Some weeks ago, someone in the comments asked about the IoT (Internet of Things), and self-driving cars. The writer was, I assume, curious about their place in an age of decline. I recently came across this piece, which is pretty much in line with my own feeling, namely that the tech industry is desperately casting about for a new "disruptive technology", or killer-app, to prop up declining chip sales.

Think you're missing the IoT wave? Don't panic.

Note that the author is a VP of sales at a chip maker.

I've lost track of how long I've been reading the ADR, but I wanted to add my voice to the chorus of thank-yous on the 10th anniversary of the blog. Between your weekly posts and my obsessive attempts to keep up with all the comments, I am spending wayyyy too much time on the computer ! Thank you.

Leo said...

Such an approach to military weapons ignores the track record of revolutionary weapons in actual wars.

Tanks when introduced in WW1 were initially highly effective, though hamstrung by the terrible logistics situation which made turning breakthroughs into advances almost impossible, but after there initial success their effectiveness dropped dramatically as everyone adapted to them.

Planes in WW2 had a similar process, it took longer because a lot of technical changes were required (adding radio proximity fuses to shells instead of just re-purposing artillery as for tanks), but the effectiveness of planes had dramatically dropped towards the end of WW2.

Subs also experiences this between wars. WW1 U-boats had a far higher ratio of cargo sunk per sub lose compared to WW2 subs despite vast technological improvements.

People adapt very quickly in when its a do or die situation. And revolutionary weapons tend (are exceptions) not to be a decisive factor when first used except for the very first use.

Dennis Mitchell said...

Reality sucks. I want to go live in the part of Retrotopia that has knobs and switches. I don't want to have to reprogram my washer every time I do laundry. I was raised in the sixties always wondering if we could avoid nuclear war. Now I know we can and it will really suck If we start one knowing we could of had peace. A disheartening time and I'm worried for my grandkids.

Gordon Cutler said...

Many thanks for another excellent post, John. I am also enjoying the info turning up in the comments.

So I'm jumping in with two examples from the Seventies for the 'So What Else is New?' portion of this week's discussion.

I spent 16 of the years 1973-1994 living and working in Scotland's Findhorn Foundation community which was separated from the NATO base RAF Kinloss by eighty acres of barley fields. The RAF crews flew anti-submarine warfare Nimrods built on mid/late Fifties commercial aviation technology. For decades, they more than held their own in NATO competitions with the much more technically sophisticated US AWACS built by Boeing. A constant refrain from the RAF lads was that the Yanks had great gear, but either could not improvise if any of it failed. I gather partial system failures were not too unusual. Thus, the Brits often brought home the winner's cup. They were still doing that in the Nineties when I left.

In the early Seventies, the Pentagon decided to test NORAD's radar detection systems. They arranged for the Brits to test it. The RAF sent three lumbering, delta wing Vulcan bombers. We used to see them a couple of times a year; ponderous craft reminiscent of Godzilla's avian cousin, Rodan. They were already obsolete, but they not only penetrated the radar shield, they flew all the way to Washington DC undetected until they popped up on radar over the center of the city. Of course, news of that never hit the press, but it was a source of quiet pride for the RAF's officer corps. I heard about it several years later from two officers; one retired, the other still on active duty.

One last one from the mid-Eighties that hasn't been mentioned yet: the guided missile cruiser, USS Vincennes, that shot down Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988. A couple of years earlier that same ship played an important role in a Tom Clancy thriller. Of course, its technology and crew functioned perfectly on the page, if not for the Iranians a couple of years later.

If History rhymes rather than repeat itself, then I submit that the Pentagon and the Congressional procurement committees are rhyming in the style of Dr Seuss. I'd have a go but it's late and sleep is by far the sensible option.

Cheers --

Zachary Braverman said...

There's an Isaac Azimov short story (can't remember the name of it, and can't find it online) where humans lose in a war with Aliens because of the humans' overwhelmingly superior technology. The humans begin the war with an economic and technological advantage, but squander it again and again through research on "advances" that don't quite work, causing the humans to ultimately lose the war. It's a perfect description of the phenomenon you describe; I wish I could locate it.

Zachary Braverman said...

Never mind, it wasn't Asimov, it was Clarke, and it was already mentioned in the comments. Delete both my commends if desired.

Ruben said...


What a small world. I am a longtime reader and occasional commenter here on TAR, and the article you linked is about my family.

Furthermore, my wife Carmen produced two podcasts with JMG, which you can listen to here:



Genevieve Hawkins said...

This isn't just happening in a military sense. The USA's increasing reliance on the electrical grid in order to do any type of trade has long had me wondering what would happen in the US in an extended grid down scenario, regardless of what caused it. On that note a German friend of mine who has never been to America messaged me today regarding something he'd heard about the USA building FEMA camps. Part of what I said is the following:
Most Americans don't know how to grow their own food, or even how to prepare it or store it even if they do grow a few things. They don't know how to live off nature or even talk to each other. But more significantly, 90% of Americans are addicted to at least one substance, whether its cigarettes, alcohol, prescription or illegal drugs. Even if that person is not, one close family member is. So I believe if some "disaster" happened that caused grocery stores to close and water pipes to lose water and drugs to stop being sold, a massive amount of the US population would go willingly to FEMA camps. If they didn't starve it would be because papa can't think without his cigarette or little Timmy needs his asthma inhaler or so and so is hoping they can find their junk in the camp....
I think the USA would be near impossible to defeat militaristically. We have some very low tech advantages of geography on our side, though it's not helpful if the USA is the aggressor. But decay from within is happening already....

John Michael Greer said...

Tortoise, that seems like a very plausible analysis to me.

Justin, I'll take your word for it. I haven't really followed the latest crop of conservatives -- as previously noted, I mostly read books by dead people these days.

Steve, excellent! Yes, that's a very good way of getting out from under binary thinking, especially because so many of today's binaries are oppositions between M and N that claim to be between A and Z...

Siliconguy, thank you. Self-righteous moral posturing does tend to make me unsheath my claws.

Justin, but that wouldn't justify multimillion-dollar development budgets for well-connected crony capitalists, which is the whole point of the exercise!

Dltrammel, thank you for the link!

Unknown Naval Officer, I hope you'll accept my apologies for sinking your ship! ;-) I only have media reports to go on, so I have to wait for someone to tell me about the rubber plug in the bottom of the LCS hull, or what have you.

Steve, that's an excellent point -- and the flying car is a very good example of the issue in question. Hmm, and again hmm.

Rita, thanks for the data points. Those are great examples.

Steve, it's certainly been my experience that I get a lot more done by ignoring the latest technology and using old software just as long as it will do the job. (My work computer currently runs Windows 98, for example, and I use a comfortably obsolete version of OpenOffice.) I can well see that constant upgrades would eat a lot of time and effort!

Bilal, you'd think so, wouldn't you? For some reason, though, American popular culture these days is obsessed with revolutionary breakthroughs. I think it's because so much of our technology is so miserably dysfunctional, and our experience of incremental change amounts to "things get worse."

Brian, true -- and the Americans did spend those millions; you can buy the pens from novelty shops, if you're minded to.

Repent, good. Part of the point of reading old books is to be shocked by them.

Justin, no argument there. Space is the opposite of life.

Max Osman said...

> Milo Yiannopolous

Isn't he the incredibly self hating homosexual guy who goes off on odd rants whenever that's brought up?

alex carter said...

JMG - My orthodox suburbian employer and family are very nice people, and although their lifestyle is doomed, it's amazing how long people can keep things going (remember we were supposed to be living in mud huts and fighting off zombies in 2012 lol.

Based on personal experience, I'll take my chances in the city/suburbia over my chances in some sort of survivalist commune, intentional community, whatever it's being called this week. FarFal of "Surviving In Argentina" came to this conclusion also, that while the cities may be bad, the countryside can be far worse. Homesteads get invaded, and there are all sorts of oddballs who "don't play well with others" and I suspect, when the banks are no longer open and CostCo is closed, there will be a lot of rural people shooting each other over a corpsy-tasting poorly stored can of SPAM. Yes, I have no illusions of my doing well in the city or of living any longer than I would in survivalist-land, but I really don't like the dark, misanthropic version of the future the survivalists pine for.

Maybe small towns are a bit less creepy out where you are, and I don't know (probably don't want to know) what you did to be able to afford a place in the small town you live in. Where I live, to be of the land-owning class, you have to have inherited money or done something like sell used cars or be part of the banking industry to become a land-owner. In other words, your parents got rich screwing people over and left it to you, or you screwed people over and got money. Not made money, or earned money, but "got" money. The result is a lot of really mean people - I've been threatened with being shot over picking up some walnuts lying on the side of the road, in the country. Meanwhile people in the city at least have some concept of how to get along with others.

LunarApprentice said...

Yes, our military’s weapons development process and procurement process seems to be in some sort of terminal greedy-delirium phase. However these failed systems do not in fact constitute the bulk of the US fighting force. IIRC, the US has 13,000 total combat aircraft, composed of the F-16, F-15, A-10 and such, and this airforce is capable and formidable. I understand similar quality and capability is true of the Naval fleet as well. I understand the Army is in not-so-good shape after fighting unconventional warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan as their recent combat experience and doctrine do not prepare them to fight a comparably equipped regular army, i.e. Russian.

Reading the tea-leaves of contemporary events (outside of mainstream media of course), one must wonder what is going on. For instance, yesterday 6/7/2016, I stumbled across this:

“Numerous reports have now come in to SuperStation95 that an EVACUATION of military families is underway from Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.  This is usually undertaken ONLY if war is considered "imminent."” See—

And juxtapose the above with this 6/8/16 essay (15-20 pages by an unidentified poster on theSaker) that presents a case that our gov’t is about to stage a false-flag military attack on Estonia, to be blamed on Russia. A salient snippet reads: “[ex-US-ambassador to Russia] McFaul … doesn’t deny that NATO is aggressively preparing for a war. He openly states that the western governments have declared war on Russia…” The essay also states that Hillary, intentionally or otherwise, telegraphed that a false flag is in the works as she is cited: “Hillary Clinton has already made a statement that “Russian aggression” will take place in Baltic countries.” [no source given]. See-

If our military were in fact composed of the worthless hardware that JMG cites, could we perhaps feel complacent? After all, how much trouble could an ineffective military get us into with a wise enemy? But the above tea-leaves, among others, make me concerned that a real shooting war with Russia is being orchestrated.

How else might the tea-leaves be read?

Phil Knight said...

There's another underlying problem with the US conception of war - the tendency to see it as a sport in which the aim is to score the most points. There's a good essay by Fred Reed on this here:

gregorach said...

This post reminds me of an old Soviet-era joke: "the Soviet system is clearly superior, because it can solve problems other systems don't even have."

Mean Mr Mustard said...


We should send our F-35s back to the paintshop for digital camo schemes to be applied... Some more very detailed assessment from Australia here.

Meanwhile, the Royal Navy still has an ongoing technical issue, or as Jellicoe bluntly put it 100 years ago - "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today."

Last year I saw four of these Type 45s moored in Portsmouth Harbour, clad in scaffolding, proudly clad with the banners of their Private Sector Pirates, I mean Partners, boarding parties. There was half the Queen's Navee moored up in varying states of repair. Perhaps the others were at Devonport - or maybe the Royal Navy is now all at sea.

Hopefully the sailors have fireproof garb - a lesson relearned in 1982.



Fred said...

Fwiw - our 14 year old takes classical ballet lessons from two born in Russia teachers now. The teaching is consistent, slowly teaches new skills, and done with a minimum of emotional response. There is no praise given other than an occasional "good" which comes across more as acknowledgment of completion rather than a high level of achievement. There is no progression for a student until they master the current skills. A majority of each class is on foundational basics and mastery of the basics. The entire class is outstandingly good.

Contrast this with her first ballet school. Owner and the lead teacher both Americans - one lived and taught in a dozen different places, the other never lived anywhere else (Americans all seem to fall into one of these two camps). They taught complex fast paced combinations of movements which occasionally one person could do correctly. Girls turned wrong directions, and arms and legs were at different heights and angles as girls tried to keep up with the frantic pace. After everyone completed an exercise, a paragraph of feedback was given about improvements that could be made. Then rather than repeat the combination with the improvements, they moved on to a new combination right away.

Both schools send students to compete in a national ballet competition. The Americans get these custom made costumes and publish 25 different Facebook posts leading up to the competition about how awesome they are. The Russians use costumes they have in storage (girls delight in wearing the costume so-and -so wore years before and got first place) and literally do next to no social media. Russians get all top three spots for soloists including top placement for ensemble. The Americans score dead last and blame the judges saying they favor the Russians.

In passing the Russian teachers say "oh we love it when the Americans come. So funny, so entertaining. We watch and can not believe our eyes. How can anyone do ballet that bad? We wonder." And then they burst out laughing.

And the Amercian school cost more and demanded more time in the studio.

mh505 said...

"since the end of the Second World War, how many wars has the United States actually won?"

And that was in the Pacific only; the war against Hitler was won by the Russians; notwithstanding 70 years of propaganda

Don Plummer said...

John, are you familiar with the writings of Andrew J. Bacevich? He's a retired officer in the US Army and after he retired from the military taught history and international relations at Boston University. He's one of the relatively few people who "gets it." Although his focus hasn't been on military technology per se, his writings expose the vulnerabilities of our military overreach and the failures of our nation's post-World War II national security policies (which he calls reliance on the National Security State). His books are well worth your time to read. If you haven't read any of them, I would suggest you start with The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

On another point, you commented that our military isn't "actually that well prepared to carry out its ostensible purpose—that is to say, warfare." When I was growing up, we were always taught that the purpose for a military was to enable the nation to avoid war unless it became clearly and painfully necessary; that our military would be so well-prepared to prevail if called on to fight that nobody would dare mess with it. How far have we strayed from that ideal.

drhooves said...

Another outstanding essay this week. The debacle of the F-35 program reminds me of two things back when I was an officer in the Air Force back in the early to mid 1980s. When the U.S. analyzed a Mig-25 Foxbat that a defecting Soviet pilot flew to Japan in 1976, the engineers were surprised to find how the "fit and finish", and especially the rivets on the exterior, were not polished and smooth - which did not appear to affect performance much, if at all. The other thing I was reminded of was when I presented a speech at Officer Training School, proposing the procurement of the F-20 Tigershark over the F-16 or F-15 fighters, as they were going to be 1/3 the cost. And fighter exercises of NATO versus Warsaw pact planes always were favorable when engaged one-on-one, but not nearly as successful when engaged with the more real-world ratios of 1 on 3 or 1 on 4.

While I can understand how the F-35 program is such a mess (after all, there's more money to be made in prolonging a problem rather than delivering a solution), but I find the lack of spare parts for existing planes and helicopters quite alarming. If the U.S. actually gets in a real shooting war versus the current staged police actions for political/financial gain, we'll be in serious trouble....

Pinku-Sensei said...

@Justin Chris Hatfield and Farley Mowat are my two favorite Canadian scientist-personalities. Now I wonder if "don't-let-the-truth-obscure-the-facts" is a Canadian story-telling trait.

L said...

As Brian mentioned above, this post also reminded me of the old chestnut about the Russians taking a pencil to space. Really there is no point spending so much on developing new technologies when the ones you have work just fine or even better for much less cost and effort...
Regarding the homework, I've now read A Study In Scarlet (late in the pre-1900 window, I know...) which was very enjoyable, and I haven't read it yet but I've taken Wuthering Heights out of the library. I also read a translation of Machiavelli's The Prince, which is non-fiction, but was a very interesting insight into 15th and 16th century Italy and also into the dynamics of power and the methods of keeping it. I'll probably have to read it again to fully take it in, but I'm certainly glad I read it.
I understand if you don't want to comment on it due to not being from the UK, but I was wondering if you have an opinion on the Brexit referendum that we're holding in just a couple of weeks? I think whichever way we choose will have major consequences on the specifics of the future trajectory of the UK...
Thanks for another enjoyable post,

latefall said...

@Pinku @JMG re New Scientist:
I tried to lightly touch on this in my last couple of posts. If you connect the dots:
New Scientist - Roger Highfield - Martin Nowak - the elits's foot soldiers who Get It (see posts) - the Elite that Gets It (will need vetting I guess).

Also if you are interested in one more perspective on military things outside of M & N I can recommend Sven Ortmann (small wars)

fudoshindotcom said...

No, thank you JMG,

The ADR is a voice of reason in a society that's becoming increasingly unhinged. I do find humor in your essays, not that they're intentionally funny, but because they shine a light on pervasive beliefs and behaviors that teeter on the edge of gibbering lunacy.

Gallows humor is a coping mechanism I learned while working in emergency services. One that engages when I think about such absurdities as a military using pixilated uniforms to hide in natural environments, or climate change denial.

You've asserted, correctly I think, that our workable options narrow as time passes, but rather than ring the doomsday bell you remind us of the inherent power in "A man with a hoe, who knows how to use it."

forgive me if I sound gushy, but your work has a wider influence than you might realize, and becomes ever more valuable the further we get down the rabbit hole.

"I've watched a few of your lectures on YouTube and, like it or not, the extent of your effort will impact on the misery ahead." He predicted while honing his axe.

Tom Schmidt said...

Contrast the overruns with the world painted in the book Skunk Works, where Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich are not only building planes like the U2 and Sr-71 on time, but on budget or even cheaper. Rich tells the story of how it changed in the 70s (maybe after losing Vietnam), and how the low-budget, low-bureaucracy culture was updated to add bureaucrats and cost controls. Costs soon spiraled out of control, as the bureaucrats, being people who needed a paycheck but didn't build planes, built in billion in costs for people like themselves.

Rich doesn't say it, but what happened is that the high-trust all-white world of the post-WW2 era couldn't handle cheaters well. That same dynamic has played out throughout our over-centralized society where different groups don't trust and win up using the heavy hand of law and process to maintain order.

trippticket said...

Disarming angles, leaky roofs, user-unfriendly dysfunctionality...

Is Le Corbusier designing American war machines now too??

Mary said...

A dramatic weather shift ended my local drought;, pasture emergency has shifted from 'severe lack' to 'how fast can I scythe it down', lol. I was able to squeeze in a de Balzac story from a book on hand, which I'd read so many decades ago that no recollection remained. Less on culture than human nature, which I found is unchanged. People create narratives around each other that tell us more about the observer than the person they're observing. True dat.

And on this week's topic, my high tech mobile hutch design failed due to a single stoopid (lazy, really) last minute change. As a result, last Thursday my angora rabbit population exploded. 8 babies, all healthy so far. Laziness now replaced with high energy as I clean out the garage and design large, indoor hutch. Design is simple, been done many times before and low tech; some replacement materials (pvc pipes instead of wood frame) will keep cost and weight down.

Pics and day-by-day details of care, development, hutch designs, etc. can be seen at my blog: Just be forewarned; angora bunnies are wicked cute, so prepare for hyperglycemic spikes!

David from Normandy said...

Another example of an ongoing military project I'm sure you're aware of:

I can't help to think "wow, if this works these soldiers will be invincible... but what kind of backup will they need to keep these ultra high-tech stuff working?".

Tat Loo said...

Worth remembering that the USA only won half of World War II - the war in the Pacific. The Soviets won World War II in Europe - at the cost of 27M of their own dead.

The Soviets did have a lot of logistics and materiel help from the Americans. But they did all the fighting and dying against the Germans that really mattered in winning that war.

Damaris Zehner said...

Well diagnosed, Mr. Greer -- and this is not a new problem. The failure of King Gustavus Adolphus' ultimate weapon in 1627 ought to have taught us and, of course, didn't. I highly recommend an essay by Evan S. Connell called "Gustav's Dreadnought" to add to the point you're making.

I appreciate what you are saying about the Russian approach to technology, and I expect it's more effective in military matters than in the private sphere, but I'll add a view from the ground, as it were. During my years in ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, I learned to view all Russian technology, especially cars, with scorn and frustration. Yes, the cars were easy to repair, since they were simple, but they also needed repair constantly. When my husband, four children, and I were heading to the capital city in a Russian Niva (like a little Jeep), we heard a clunk and found that the brakes had FALLEN OUT into the road. We still had over a hundred miles to go, all downhill, with no brakes. My husband managed to roll into a repair yard on the outskirts of Bishkek by downshifting and turning off the engine -- but this experience was typical until we bought a used German car. I don't speak Russian much -- I learned Kyrgyz -- but I do have a solid vocabulary of Russian names for car parts. If we are considering the greater reliability of tried-and-true technologies, then the Kyrgyz horses and Bactrian camels are infinitely superior. And yet sadly, because of how they had been taught, Kyrgyz farmers would let their grain rot in the field if the village tractor wouldn't work, even with all the horses grazing nearby.

Did you see that the Vermont Legislature passed a resolution in favor of a steady-state versus a progress-based economy? A symbolic gesture only, perhaps, but an interesting one.

John East said...

As a foreigner, appalled by the decision by the military industrial complex to reinstate the cold war, I consider the one saving grace for the planet is that they get to play with their expensive toys while the rest of us get to live a bit longer, knowing that the more useless the toys are, the less likely they are to be used in deadly earnest.

Kyoto Motors said...

long time it has been since I posted here... haven't even got past the first paragraph (yet!) but I just gotta say : YES! I remember thinking not too long ago in terms of "death by freedom" as industrial society consumes itself silly... not too far off the mark. Looking forward to the read. My hunch is that this "progress" that we celebrate and pursue with zeal is more like the illusion of progress, generated by so much regress out of view from the mediated consciousness. As with "democracy" which has become the shell of its former self, people tend not to put in the effort required to achieve the real thing... Same goes for enlightenment.
All the best, Mr. Greer!


. josé . said...

It may not be necessary for the US Military to confront a [moving / active] oponent to receive some comeuppance. This video is about a year old, but it's currently making the rounds in various translations (I first saw it in Portuguese), as an example of US arrogance.

Arrogance does not work well with the situation you describe in this post.

Twilight said...

As you've noted before our society is blind to the costs of complexity, and engineers are no exception. It is the one solution to every problem. It appears that those costs are not linear in proportion to complexity increases, rather exponential, as are the opportunities for failure and vulnerabilities. Passive devices which once performed fewer functions based on shapes of parts and basic properties of materials are replaced by active, highly complex and interconnected systems.

Even in my industry I see that people gravitate to more complex solutions even when it is not necessary. At this point it is partly just cultural conditioning, but in some cases it is driven by the inability to make the more expensive investments that would really be required and the attempt to push old systems further by overlaying complex control schemes. That this will lead to catastrophic failures is lost on the proponents.

Also, I noted in a recent article by The Saker that cruise missiles in shipping containers made an appearance, and couldn't help recalling your story.

Jamie Mason said...


Thanks you for another excellent essay. However, I must confess that I feel much like Amy Ollie above. I am in a position where I regularly talk to and hear briefings from Navy Acquisition Program Managers and Program Executive Officers (which are just under the Secretariat level) and their feelings about program performance are not nearly as bleak as yours. Now, they are generally motivated to present their programs as positively, but the forum I sit in is a non-attribution, tell-us-how-you-really-feel environment (and they do share many things they wouldn't not want others to know they said).

I don't have much knowledge of the F-35 (other than Navy PMs are happy it's absorbing John McCain's attention!), but I do know something of LCS, for example, and it is far less expensive than you say. The cost you suggested must be amortizing the R&D costs over the few ships that have been built. The navy is actually rather pleased with the unit cost reductions they have achieved so far. Some do not think it packs enough punch, which is why they are coming out with a Frigate variant that is much better armed. If you want to find a Navy boondoggle, the DDG 1000 is a much better example. It is shaping up to have a $2B unit cost (The DDG 58 class which we are also still building has a unit cost of something like $600M) and has all kinds of new technologies (new in the 80s anyway) and the Navy doesn't really know how to employ it well. They Navy learned a big lesson from that ship which was that we are better off using the evolutionary approach than the revolutionary approach. That is why we are continuing to build more DDG 58 class with incremental improvement. That is also the way we are approaching LCS procurement (buying in blocks, each block having new features introduced instead of all at once as in DDG 1000).

The SSBN submarines you mentioned are still in service because they haven't yet reached end of life yet. They look nothing like they did when they were built though as they have been modernized many times. They are approaching end of life, which is why we have the Ohio Replacement Program, which is going to suck up a lot of the Navy's budget. They know it will be a must-do, so they are trying to save as much as they can on other programs so we can afford it.

Finally, I have to emphatically disagree with the culture of corruption, at least below the political appointee level. I just don't see it. Our Navy Acquisition Executive, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research Development and Acquisition strikes me as incorruptible and is always grilling the program managers over getting costs down. Also the program managers I know are all doing everything they can to keep costs down. And believe if or not, the contractors aren't getting very much margin. Our contracts average 12% profit for the contractors. The problem is that these systems are complex and we operate in a huge bureaucracy, which is expensive to feed.

Just my perspective from the inside. I may be drinking some cool-aide, but not too much I think.

Wendy Crim said...

I was raised in the 80s and 90s and I desperately want to live in the Lakeland Republic!

Wendy Crim said...

Oh! I listened to both of those on a road trip. Thank you to you and Carmen for those. I also loved the one with Nicole Foss. Saved the article that was posted to read later. Neat!

escapefromwisconsin said...

This brings to mind the old saw from the space race:

When NASA started sending astronauts into space, they quickly Discovered that ball-point pens would not work in zero Gravity. To combat this problem, NASA scientists spent a Decade and $12 billion developing a pen that writes in zero Gravity, upside-down, on almost any surface including glass And at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300 C.

The Russians used a pencil.

That story isn't true, but it seems like the content of this article describes almost the exact same scenario, albeit with more complexity.

It also brings to mind these lines from the 1959 "kitchen debate" between Nixon and Krushchev:

Khrushchev: ...Your American houses are built to last only 20 years so builders could sell new houses at the end. We build firmly. We build for our children and grandchildren.

Nixon: American houses last for more than 20 years, but, even so, after twenty years, many Americans want a new house or a new kitchen. Their kitchen is obsolete by that time....The American system is designed to take advantage of new inventions and new techniques.

Khrushchev: This theory does not hold water. Some things never get out of date--houses,for instance, and furniture, furnishings--perhaps--but not houses. I have read much about America and American houses, and I do not think that this is exhibit and what you say is strictly accurate.

A difference in cultural mentality, I guess.

RPC said...

There are glimmers of hope. My family recently attended the WWII weekend in Reading, PA. The event was overflown by a pair of A-10s. The pilots were overheard saying that after the threat of mutiny by the A-10 pilots, the Warthogs were going to be kept operational another half decade or so while a purpose-built replacement is developed and fielded, completely bypassing the F-35.

Professor Diabolical said...

There's the possibility you're arguing against your own case. The argument is that increasing technology-progress runs counter to prosperity. However, by thinking intelligently about how to apply technology Russia has created successful advances at a fraction of the cost -- a useless overhead driven by the U.S. arms race, but nevertheless doesn't cripple Russia, it cripples us.

So apparently it's still possible to continue with progress and allow prosperity, which argues that it may be the problem isn't technology or "progress", but the way it's being implemented by a narrow slice of declining nations. This makes sense: we can probably all imagine an environmentally-minded, sustainable, primitive-seeming sci-fi culture where technology is so advanced it is indistinguishable from magic, and such a thing is probably possible. So if technology can be self-sustainable, can be compatible with happiness, then it's just some technical thing we're doing now that needs to be implemented differently. (at a far lower energy cost, 'natch)

Of course that may require something like higher morality, refusal to abuse and extract others, so that yes, with low thinking additional technology and power will probably backfire, but our application and intent could be applied to using technology beneficially, even if in all likelihood it will fail us for this civilizational cycle. Just saying, IS progress, higher technology, i.e. application of new knowledge, inherently opposed to happiness or prosperity? Or just to us being idiots right now?

Won’t matter because nobody’s going to fix anything, but I’m just saying that’s a social choice, not a technical limitation.

For the technical failures in military and elsewhere, it’s easy: there are no consequences for failure. That’s the whole point of rigging the system, to prevent priviledged insiders from having the risk of competition, and also it's downfall. The downfall for us at the bottom is, so long as the rigging goes on, there are no rewards for success either: they're stolen by the top, as part of the rigging. But nothing lasts forever.

barrymelius said...

Concisely put Mr. Greer Years ago reading a respected source I came across the phrase "overburdened by technology". Resonated with me and slowly,gradually(moderate and incremental)I began to apply it to my life. After quite a bit of decluttering I learned to ask this question when evaluating a habit or possession-will this simplify my life,make it easier or significantly improve the quality of my life? Being brutally honest helps but it also calls for good judgement. Some might find an iPhone is necessary,others might be able to dispense with electricity. Its a different call for each of us. For me the honesty is a constant challenge and I continue to work on the judgement part.

Eric S. said...

I finished Vril, and found it fascinating. There were some very useful concepts woven into it (the concept of “Glek-nas” was particularly resonant with some of the themes we’ve been exploring lately in this blog.) I definitely felt harbingers of early 20th century thought, with the Vril-ya’s political slogan “no happiness without order, no order without authority, no authority without unity” being particularly chilling after some historical perspective, as did the theme of achieving racial superiority through generations of selective breeding. Overall, it felt way ahead of its time, with science fiction tropes, visions of advanced technologies and social institutions that felt much more like products of the ‘20s than the 1870s (the electrically powered mechanical robot servants particularly weren’t something I thought showed up until much later in science fiction). Reading it also put in context huge swaths of some of the more confusing side-tracks in Theosophical literature which borrowed terminology and concepts from this book (now I know where Theosophists got all their talk about ancient Atlantean machines powered by crystals fed with Vril force.). It also shed light on the origin of some of the odd diversions in pop occultism of the early 20th century (such as the attempts to find a material explanation for Nwyfre in electricity, which was kind of that era’s version of late 20th century parapsychology or early 21st century quantum mysticism).

I think one of the most interesting things to me about the book, though, given that I’d known a little about its influence but never read it, was the difference in tone from what I’d have expected. I was expecting conventional utopian fiction, and it definitely adopts the structure, trappings, and language of a classic utopian novel, but it slowly starts introducing things that make the narrator (and the reader) at first uneasy, and eventually horrified. Upon reading it, I actually think Lytton was deliberately subverting and satirizing the utopian genre (there are even visual elements in it that serve that effect… the Vril-ya wear the wings of angels, but live near the molten core of the earth like devils… which are they?). So it feels to me like he’s taking popular concepts from his culture, such as the emergence of a master race and of a perfect society, and then turning them on their head to show the horror that comes in the complete absence of flaws, and thus remind the reader that flaws in our bodies and societies have a necessity… And so, in his society everyone is happy, everyone is prosperous… but they can’t co-exist with other societies and cultures without exterminating them, they avoid war through the assurance of mutual destruction through their vril-staffs; without struggles or sorrows art and imagination have atrophied; and order is only retained through dictatorship and absolute conformity...

It feels like he’s attempting to criticize the utopian ideals of the dawning progressive era by highlighting the implications of those ideals, much like a modern author might write a novel about the Singularity that draws attention to the sterility and lifelessness it would bring… I may be projecting my own mind onto the novel, but that’s definitely how I read it. In which case, there’s an irony to the fact that audiences (including Blavatsky) re-interpreted the Vril-ya as saviors, when they were first written as destroyers… and so the book became a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the Vril-over the next century “emerge into sunlight as inevitable destroyers” just like the narrator warned they might one day.

As for this week’s essay: I don’t know enough about military technology to comment coherently, but I will play with your “how many wars have we won since WWII” question: Don’t you know that we haven’t had a war since WWII? The invention of the atom bomb and the rise of the UN put an end to all wars and we’ve been living in an unprecedented era of perfect peace. There have been a few police actions and peacekeeping missions but war? That’s a thing of the past. ;-).

over the hill and down the other side said...

Thank you, once again, for a thought (and memory provoking) piece.

Years ago, I read a book, whose title and author I have forgotten, about the Korean War. The author was a military historian, a member of the military. He described the Korean War as the first modern encounter of the US military tech-machine against guerrilla fighters--who would not fight "according to the rules." Rules we insisted on--direct combat in which we could win by our "superior fire power." Instead, the North Koreans, following Mao's "little red book" infiltrated the countryside--disappeared and re-appeared--did not follow our rules of warfare!

The reaction of the US generals was outrage. How dare they! Plus a contempt for the enemy. The response was to "double down" on a failed strategy.

Then the shame of defeat.

The Vietnam war, in this view, was fought in a manner to demonstrate FINALLY , the superiority of our technical warfare. A tech "Blitzkrieg", if you will. Which failed again...

The shame of the Vietnam War, I believe, still haunts the military. Hence, no more war journalists televising from "on the ground." No more possibility that Congress will "pull the plug" on bottomless funding for failure.

Winning may not be the issue, anymore. But covering one's backside...

Milind Sohoni said...

dear jmg

this is in connection with this post, an earlier post about education and erasing the past.
i think how it plays out here in india is quite different. the elite university in india is based on (i) a rigour borrowed from western science, (ii) a new and "mathematical" version of western science called 'big science" or WB sponsored science, of branded scientists and experts who will eventually have all the answers and who will supervise our (3rd world) knowledge formation. you should see, e.g., the list of editors of the elite journal Development Economics (

i teach at such an elite university (called IIT Bombay). i used to do maths but now i work on drinking water. its a tough job convincing people the the present is more important than an imagined future and that the past (i.e., culture, practice and empirics) is the key to understanding the present and bettering our material outcomes.

my attempts are available at:

the first is on how does the elite university really function. the second is the role of culture in the conduct of science.

these are voices from a different culture but i hope they help us unite and understand each other as people. comments are welcome.

milind sohoni
IIT Bombay

pg said...

Perhaps you might find this long interview by Mark Ames and The War Nerd with Kelley Vlahos on "Washington DC's war contractor pig trough" enlightening/infuriating: dated 6 June 2016.

Isaac Hill said...

I don't know if this is appropriate, but my band The Hills and Rivers is finishing up our new album and have rolled out an indiegogo campaign to fund printing it on vinyl. We're a contemporary diy folk band, and many of the songs are influenced by themes in the Archdruid report. I hope you check it out!

onething said...


My answer to your spiritual distress is Isaiah 5:20. This succinctly points up the problem - people in general (not necessarily in particular) do not know the difference between good and evil, bitter and sweet, light and darkness. Therefore whom do they really worship? Does it matter if they call their god good no matter what that god does? Can they judge a conglomeration of ancient writings and put them all together under one name when the writings do not speak with one voice?

But it was not really considered normal. To kill the men is one thing, but women and children were regularly spared, thus the necessity to repeat over and over that they were not to have pity, to kill even that which they would not want to kill.

Anthony DuClare said...

Long-time reader of the blog and your printed works, but first time poster here.

Great analysis as usual, Mr. Greer, and I thought the same thing when I read the "exposé" of our ICBM control systems. Here's another example of idiotic and techno-grandiose military procurement that was put out of its misery a few years ago: the OICW ( It had a nasty habit of literally blowing up in soliders' faces, and like the F-35 and the LCS, it was also a perfect example of what happens when someone forgets the maxim that all weapons are specialized weapons: trying to make one weapon to do everything means it does nothing well.

On an unrelated note, how is the Star's Reach universe short story project doing? Until yesterday, I somehow missed the fact that it was going on. If there's another deadline change or a second collection, I might submit something.

librarian@play said...

Maybe the US military would have more success training a corps of fighting space bats!

Joshua said...

Great post. Oddly, it made me think of a new book by Kevin Kelly, the former editor of Whole Earth Catalog back when the "appropriate technology" movement was alive and well, and now bizarrely, editor of Wired magazine who seems to believe that in fact progress does lead to prosperity.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Coordinated Universal Time (= UTC = EST+5 = EDT+4): 20160609T155542Z

Thanks, Pinku-Sensei ("6/8/16, 7:52 PM") for reference to New Scientist, including a discussion there of the question whether science is running out of steam. I hope to read this magazine article in due course, either in our local municipal library or on campus. The short foretaste which the New Scientist offers on its Web server, to persons not paying for a subscription, is appetizing.

I now have the essentials of my discussion of this same question up on my blog, at, in an essay called "Is Science Doomed?" My essay is itself meant to build on a line of discussion taken by JMG in his 2014-11-26 ADR blog posting "Dark Age America: The Suicide of Science", at

Since JMG will soon be taking us back to the topic of education here at the ADR blog, he or others might find themselves also soon taking up the question posed by New Scientist.



peacegarden said...

@Kevin Warner

My husband recently retold the story of the Navy’s first attempt at nylon uniforms…he isn’t sure of the exact year, but he served on subs after the Academy, he’s guessing between 1975 and 1980…all enlisted men got them for free, but officers had to pay for them. Long story short, the Navy quickly pulled the plug on the nylon uniforms because of the melting quality of the fabric in case of steam leaks (as well as fires). I just read your comment to him, and he shook his head sadly…”they have to learn again…sigh” but I replied, “no, never learn”.



sv koho said...

I am an ex military officer(Viet Nam Era) and utterly concur with your criticisms of current(and PAST) weapons procurement, cost benefit etc as well as your statement of how many wars has the US actually won since WW2. Answer: NONE. We had a similar heated discussion in the 70's when the question then was whether to replace sturdy fighters such as the Phantom with newer zippier and vastly more expensive designs like the F-15/ The argument was identical to the one involving the B-52 fleet. For a tiny fraction of the money, the older slower but durable Phantoms could be retrofitted with better armament and defense and electronic capabilities and could be kept in service or even kept being manufactured in huge numbers vs a limited number of new untried expensive designs. The B-52 advocates prevailed but the cheap abundant overwhelming numbers of retrofitted fighter fleet argument failed. So now for example, we have in the Navy a few huge Nuclear carriers packed with fabulously expensive limited range fighters who can almost certainly be utterly destroyed by the type of supersonic cruise missiles such as the NATO designated SUNBURN , an amazing weapon in the arsenals of not only Russia but Iran and China. Battleships were proven vulnerable to aircraft in the 1920's but the battle ship lobby prevailed for decades just as the Carrier lobby has prevailed to this day. Despite what the military says, there is almost no way that a carrier group in the confined waters of say the Strait of Hormuz would stand a chance against SUNBURNs which can be launched from any number of platforms in swarms. In a matter of minutes the US could see all its carriers with their aircraft at the bottom of the Persian Gulf. It is all just another illustration of increasing complexity facing diminishing returns. The lesson I thought we learned in Viet Nam by being decisively defeated by a determined foe armed with handheld cheap weapons has been completely forgotten. We lost 50,000 Americans, some of them my friends, for what?
They died for what? Nothing. Thats's what. The Military industrial complex still rules supreme. The defense Department used to be called the War Department and was well named. It should revert to its old name or perhaps a more logical name like the Offense Department. The current military is staffed by a relatively small number of relatively low paid and generally lower social strata mercenary soldiers being asked to invade countries posing no risk to our motherland and who are then dumped back home and abandoned, often traumatized, with no marketable skills. They are thanked by empty vapid comments like "Thank you for your service."

Stuart Cram said...


Great entry this week. To second Gordon Cutler's remarks I remember as a kid being told about how the Canadian Forces outdated Centurion tanks would win accuracy contests against their NATO counterpart's higher-tech tanks due to their manual target acquisition system and the ability of the crews to fine tune the shots for that day's weather, windage, elevation, etc.

One online message board that I peruse often on the internet is the 4channel /k/ weapons board. As a former mech. eng. and a inept hunter I enjoy firearms. I really like 'sporterized' military rifles; that is military rifles that have been converted to hunting use. A sort of modern version of swords into plowshares. There's some helpful people on there, although they generally poo-poo such conversions as destroying a historical object.

The belief in high tech military gizmos there is unbelievable. I sort-of want to troll them with your article but god forbid some of them come here and fill your inbox with non-sense. The F-35 fanboys are amazing in their suspension of disbelief. What is so dangerous is their psychological vulnerability. If the US Military was ever to lose against a 'unworthy' foe I think they'd be psychologically crushed and who knows how they'd lash out. I think of the poor Sikhs who were killed in retaliation for 9/11, even though the reason they wear turbans is to contain the hair they can't cut due to Muslim control of their former lands.

Mike Tyson for all his failings has a great youtube video where he explains the secret of his success: the fear of failure. The fear he had of being beaten was so great that he would train himself beyond the breaking point. It's a great reminder that the key to winning is not wanting to lose. And regardless of what you have to do or sacrifice (esp. your beliefs) you will do that.

Steve Thomas said...


Twain's essay is funny, but not really relevant to me. For Twain, Fenimore Cooper was a contemporary or near-contemporary, and it certainly makes sense to judge our contemporaries by our own standards. For me, Fenimore Cooper's 18th century is as remote as the Middle Ages, and the absurdities of his woodsmen and Indians are certainly no worse than Malory's knights and villeins.

I read older works of fiction, legend and myth for two reasons. The first is to discover alternate ways of looking at the world; the second is to produce a particular mood or feeling in myself. Last of the Mohicans calls to mind-- woodsmoke, autumn leaves in the Pennsylvania woodlands, learning "Indian lore" from aged scoutmasters in a less politically correct era. The feeling I get from Twain, underneath the humor, is one of irony and disdain; I picture myself sitting in a hipster bar in Pittsburgh, smoking a cigarette and pretending to enjoy reading Derrida. Give me Natty Bumppo any day.

Clay Dennis said...


This weeks post reminds me of some of the recent stories involving Senator John Mccain and his quest to ween NASA and the Pentagon off the Russian Made RD-180 Rocket Engines. Apparently the U.S. Defense and Space industrial complex stopped building such engines back in the Space Shuttle days so they lost the path of slow development that the Russians traveled on. They have not even been able to copy the Russian engines because the Titanium Alloys used in the RD-180 require old fashioned metalurgy skills that are lacking in the U.S. and can't be substitued with software or gizmos. One of the U.S. defense contractors offered to build one if the U.S. government would come up with $5 billion in R&D funds and then agree to pay 25 Million dollars per copy sometime in the future. Today they can buy the RD-180 from the Russians for 12 million per copy and the have a record of 100% reliability. The pentagon in one of its rare nods to practicality ( such as the floppy discs) favors the RD-180s because the satelites that they put in to orbit cost one billion dollars each and they can't afford to lose any testing the latest breakthrough product from the U.S. defense industry.

GW said...

This fascination with the latest super technology is hardly limited to the military. In my first career I was a police officer. I left the field in the first years that Tasers were becoming all the rage. In the ensuing decade and a half this new technology, which promised to eliminate injuries on the part of both cops and perps and to usher in a new era of less-than-deadly interventions has proven to be a lie. The number of civilians injured and killed as a result of the technology is immense, while scared, bully cops feel empowered to Tase people in situations where a previous generation of LEOs would have either talked to the person or decided to employ some level of physical intervention. The deniability of accountability was less present in those types of encounters. As a result of this "miracle" technology people are dead and injured, cops are more divorced from their communities than ever, and a culture of Tase first, ask questions later has matured in a generation of law enforcement officers who are too scared to either talk to their communities and too scared to actually physically intervene when duty calls. Good news though, Taser International has made bank.

Randy Darrah said...

JMG, love reading your sanity in this world of insanity.
Am firmly convinced that all progress is change, but not all change is progress. Reading about the latest batch of wonder weapons reminded me of several things. First, even though these weapons and their systems are obscenely expensive, their companies are the lowest bidders. So, we get what we pay for. Second, no nation or nation state in history can remain on a war footing indefinitely and we have been on one since WWII. Third, the supply and support system for much of the equipment in the military is inadequate.
I was a telecommunications electronic maintenance technician in the U.S. Marines from '74-'82 and rather than wait months for something as simple as a diode or transistor from supply we often went to local electronics stores. The parts may not have been MILSPEC, but the equipment stayed working and for far less money.
The F-35 and the LCS are not new studies in absurdity by any means. During the years leading up to the Second World War, much of say Frances' armor was adopted and ordered even with major flaws. The political connections to the manufacturers were just too great.
Graft and corruption in the military are nothing new either. Here's a link to a current investigation that has been quietly overlooked in favor of Herr Trump by the media.

I wonder if I can find about a 50 pound bag of popcorn....

peacegarden said...

Another great essay…thank you!

I second Caryn’s praise of your work in “knitting together” the pieces and making the big picture more visible.

All throughout my childhood, we had the Civil Defense drills, all of us huddling under our desks or along the walls in the hallways, waiting for the bombs to drop. I was convinced we would all be lost in a nuclear winter.

As an adult, the fear and conviction of doom faded; I was lulled into a feeling of safety, and went about my life without the “looming mushroom cloud” (a recurring dream).

Now we are prodding and threatening not just Russia, but China as well. The threat of nuclear attack is looming again…I feel helpless to change the big picture…so I’ll go see if the garlic is starting to dry down, and examine the duck pasture fencing for spots that need repair.



Dammerung said...

Seems there's one second obvious consistency in US military failures along with a blind faith in new automatically being better - an attempt to be a jack of all trades. They want a fighter that can fulfill ALL combat roles instead of a dedicated bomber; a dedicated interceptor; a dedicated reconnaissance plane. Camo that works in ALL natural environments turns out to work in precisely none. This is symptomatic of a deeper cultural sickness - the out-of-control cancer of collectivism and centralization. Looks like the USA is dead set on repeating every mistake of the USSR to the letter.

jph said...

The US medical system falls into the bucket as the military when it comes to value for money...

LewisLucanBooks said...

Dear Mr. Greer, et all - Well, I generally don't read stuff like this, but given the current topic of conversation ...

I spotted an article on the internet. "Tech pioneer's secret flying car factories." Wow. That's a lot of money down a rat hole. I noticed the author of the article was at least skeptical, and used words like "childhood dream" and "fantasyland." For a fairly short article, it's a pretty good overview of the history of flying car attempts.

I also noticed that there's very much an atmosphere of intrigue. Secret passwords, handshakes and decoder rings are probably involved. Not coming to a garage, near you, anytime soon. Lew

Unknown said...

" I have to wait for someone to tell me about the rubber plug in the bottom of the LCS hull, or what have you."

Also not far from the truth. Aluminum ships make firefighting quite difficult as the metal conducts heat much more readily than steel, and things inside those spaces can sometimes catch fire when they get too hot. In the Navy we're trained to cool the walls surrounding a burning space, but with the skeleton crew the LCS is designed for, good luck finding enough personnel to keep the ship afloat much less continue fighting the enemy.

Clay Dennis said...

I once managed a machine shop which was staffed mostly with American Machinists running high-tech cnc machines. But I also had one skilled Russian machinist who operated an old fashioned manual milling machine and lathe and next too him a Vietnamese fellow with a large German Drill Press. I was offered a job by a customer to drill holes for the stems of casters in to an aluminum casting that would become part of a medical cart. They were frustrated because all the bids they got from other machine shops were very high. That is because the castings varied in size and the holes had to be right in the center of a little round boss on each corner of the casting. To do this all the other machine shops were proposing that they build a special fixture to the casting in a fancy cnc milling machine then use a digital probe to measure the casting and adapt the machining path to fit each specific casting in real time. What they missed was that the holes had to be accurately centered on each boss, but the spacing between them did not matter. So, on the spot, I bid the job for half the price of the other shops. I took a crate of parts back and gave one to my manual machinist and said " do this the Russian way." He made a little steel bushing to drop over the round boss with a hole in the center just the right size for a drill bit. He then handed to the Vietnamese guy with the drill press, showed him how to use it and in no time the entire crate of parts was done, and they worked perfectly for my customer. Watching the Russian machinist show the Vietnamese fellow how his simple piece of tooling worked, then standing back as the chips flew gave me some insight in to why the US had lost the Vietnam war.

Grim said...

"The US military is certainly the most expensive military in the world, and it’s equipped with a gaudier assortment of high-tech trinkets than any other, but it’s not actually that well prepared to carry out its ostensible purpose—that is to say, warfare."

Just like the USA's medial industry.

I see a trend emerging.

1ab9a86a-8991-11e3-899b-000bcdcb8a73 said...

JMG, at some risk of shorting out your excess flummoxitude safety bypass systems, I will mention two items from rather different segments of contemporary culture, one laying out the idea that progress may not be in very forward-like direction and the other simply assuming that progress (as with software upgrades) can only mean "worse".

(1) From the No. 1 scientific journal, Nature

'The number of publications continues to grow exponentially ... But what if more is bad? In 1963, the physicist and historian of science Derek de Solla Price looked at growth trends in the research enterprise and saw the threat of“scientific doomsday”...
Current trajectories threaten science with drowning in the noise of its own rising productivity, a future that Price described as “senility”... '

(2) Bill Maher begins a piece with a suitably cynical take on higher ed, then softens the blow with

"if you think it's bad now, take solace in the thought that in 25 years it's gonna be so much worse"

... and proceeds to give a commencement address for the class 2041 at the "University of California Goldman Sachs". Notably, futuristic gizmology is played strictly for laughs...

jessi thompson said...

My cousin wrote in Mickey Mouse in a previous election and got in a bit of trouble. I guess it's illegal now. There are some great 3rd party candidates, though. They come in all flavors.

WW said...

The F-35 was being heavily advertised in the DC Metro when I lived there, 2000-2003. Without undue cynicism, it would seem products which are paid for upon delivery are rushed, but where development cost overruns are possible, they quickly become the primary profit opportunity.

At thie time I found the advertisement business hillarious, assuming that one does not sell jet fighters by putting up posters in the subway. At that time I was reading a lot of Jerry Pournelle's blogging about how he and his colleagues had engineered various NASA projects. A decade later I sat through the Wharton marketing 101 curriculum. The Marketing approach to product development is that you have three axes; price, product features, and quality. Then you pick one you want to compete on, and on the other two you try for the absolute minimum that your customer will accept. Basically everything Vance Packard worried about in The Waste Makers in 1959 is now doctrine. We don't like others doing it, however, c.f. "Poorly Made in China."

As nearly as I can tell, there isn't some start date to be pinpointed, really. The origin is probably in the imperfect correspondance between language, ideas, and the physical universe. It's like that joke about what happens when you ask the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines to "secure" a building. In any given project or situation, there are an infinite number of ways of getting it wrong, and the more stakeholders are brought into the process, the more varied and contradictory ideas about the desired end state they bring with them.

I experienced an aspect of this phenomenon myself witht the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, which is the first vehicle in our work fleet ever to require a firmware update to correct a vulnerability to malicious hacking. It's also subject to recall due to bad design of the electronic gear shift lever (athough there is currently no fix available.) The electronic shifter is apparently just new because innovation is grand, but the computer is in the car mainly to give you the opportunity to purchase a subscription to satellite radio.

I understood more when I came across a quote from Peter Coffee, VP for strategic research for Salesforce, "GM has become a data company that sells you a car to create an environment in which a curated merchant community can identify you as a customer and deliver services to you based on knowing where you are and where you're going."

That also completely redefines what constitutes a "good" car. Basically the glorification of Mammon is now the primary consideration in design. The goal on all the other factors is to be just barely good enough.

Jim said...

@nd try I hope thois works:

Space Bats Entry:

pygmycory said...

On the theme of pointing out the obvious to the US military:
-having only one type of plane or ship makes it easier and more imperative for opponents to find the greatest weakness of that type and come up with methods to combat it specifically.
-a weapon that works wonderfully in optimal conditions and not at all in poor conditions is not worth building because war often happens in suboptimal conditions. ie, one or more of cold, hot, wet, windy, stormy, dark, sandy, miles from the nearest repair shop etc.
-A poorer weapon available now is more useful if you are fighting now than a better weapon that won't be available for the next ten years.
-Sometimes more weapons are better than fewer better weapons.
-A weapon that is so expensive it must not be risked by using it is of very limited worth.
-The most critical weapon of all is the human being. If they mutiny or desert, all the high-tech weaponry in the world won't save you.
-The total amount of force available is of less importance than the force that can be brought to bear at the decisive point. This is why fighting multiple wars spread out across the planet is a very effective way to lose wars and your empire.

weedananda said...


Verschlimmbesserung. I learned of this German word a while ago (probably right here) and it has remained very much at the forefront of my social/cultural awareness ever since -- highly applicable to the burgeoning clusterfrack which is the US military. It means "a supposed improvement which actually makes things worse". Smartphones would be at or near the top of my list of other prime examples. We have become a nation of phoneys and twits (my pet names for Smartphone and Twitter addicts) with the attention spans of ADD toddlers.

Fingerspitzengefühl. Another superb German word denoting the ability to think clearly about many individual complex events and treat them as a whole. To have an understanding of something on multiple levels and how they all mesh. Certainly a quality I strive to cultivate and which you, esteemed Archdruid, have admirably exemplified. Many thanks.


P.S. For perhaps the 4th or 5th time in my entire student existence, I finished the homework from the May 25 post in advance -- maybe I'll try to read another this week!

Alex Blaidd said...

One of the many, most obvious parallels here, is health and medicine. Every year we spend more money on 'fighting cancer' and yet every year more and more people get cancer. The same story goes for diabetes, heart disease, and probably whatever other disease you care to mention. Of course, 'skeptics' will tell me it's because of improved diagnostic techniques, yada yada, but thankfully I know more than enough to smell something iffy. And our entire culture buys into it. More money on research - just has to be the answer to all of our health problems. All the time someone is doing a charity run for yet more cancer research.

I mean, actually sorting out our lifestyles (even the WHO say pretty much all the major chronic diseases could be prevented be lifestyle changes) - well that could never possibly work could it?! Where's the progress, technology, and innovation in that?! Doing what has worked for thousands of years obviously isn't 'cool' enough. And the more something costs the better it's got to be isn't it?! Etc. Etc. Could say the same for agriculture, architecture, transportation or almost whatever you want really...

Had to laugh about the whole 'upgrades' thing as I've been clicking 'remind me later' now to the insistent prompts to update my OSX for well over a year... The last time I did finally give in to 'upgrading' everything got much worse, so I won't be falling for that one again.

Finally, I really need to catch up on some of the Retrotopia posts, hence why I haven't commented on them for a while! I must do it soon!

Alex Blaidd said...

Oh and an appropriate quote from my homework piece perhaps, "Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.” Walden, Henry David Thoreau

Jason Heppenstall said...

It turns out the British Navy's band new warships have a bit of a problem: they don't work in the warmer parts of the world.

Oh well, either we'll have to content ourselves with fighting only in cold waters, or else the wars will have to come to us.

Randy Darrah said...

Have read numerous examples of older, sturdier tech/weapons that have proven to completely "spank" our current tech. Here is another example: There are two brothers that live in Wisconsin, The Paulsens, and they specialize in making and competing in black powder artillery. On the way to the 125th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1989, they decided to stop at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. Ft. Sill is the artillery training school for the U.S. Army. After about a week on base, using open sights and black powder against the 'modern' artillery of that time, they left for Gettysburg almost $5000.00 richer. The instructors there could not fathom the idea that their newest wire-guided, computer controlled weapons could be beaten by such "ancient" technology or something not hooked up to a computer. The Paulsens must have cried all the way to the bank.

Thomas Mazanec said...

Arthur C. Clarke's classic short story "Superiority" is an excellent parable of a military which lost a war because of its "superior" technology.

Eagle '68 said...

Mr. Greer, thank you for remaining the voice of reality. The issues regarding the F-35 remind me of conversations we had in the ready room back when I was much younger and was the Commander of an F-4 USAF Reserve fighter squadron. At that time, the F-22 Raptor was the next generation jet and it was impressive. Stealth technology, outstanding power to weight, supersonic cruise without the need to stroke the afterburners,etc., etc. Any fighter pilot would love to strap one of those on and go for it.
The only problem, and it was a big problem in my estimation, was the cost of the beast. The F-22 ended up costing around $339 Million per aircraft, and operating costs are a mind numbing $68,000 per flight hour. At the same time, an F-15 Strike Eagle cost around $31 Million per aircraft, and costs $42,000 per flight hour.
Our contention at the time was, for the price of (1) F-22, you could have almost (11) F-15's, which at that time were the premier fighter of the day.
As you have so often pointed out, the decision to go with the Raptor was political, in that a large number of states benefited from its production, and was also the product of our belief that greater technology equals superior results on the battlefield.

Dennis Mitchell said...

Reading Clay Dennis's post has me wondering how much our colleges have warped our problem solving. Engineers use to be trained on the job. They were often doing the actual work. I know the thinking is a whole different process using a Cad system rather then the longer process of using pencil and paper.
I remember being asked to bid a suspended ceiling for NASA. The specs required aluminum wire hung from the structure above. First we use steel for wire, just a little stronger. Second the structure above was an airplane (spaceship) hanger. Hundreds of feet high. I could not get the contractor to accept any other design. Yes it was one of the first Cad drawings. I didn't get the job. I sure hope they didn't build it that way. You need a college degree to design like that.

Patricia Mathews said...

alex carter - I agree with you that towns and cities would be safer than the countryside when things go bad. You all know I've been reading the Icelandic sagas, and one thing that comes through loud and clear, even above and beyond the various feuds, is that a mean, vicious, malevolent neighbor is something every household in every generation runs into and has to deal with. In at least one case, one of them was a sorcerer. (In that culture, by definition, evil. Women took up magic for good or ill, but no man would except to go to the dark side.)

Although, thanks to UNM's Medieval Studies Department, I also had the pleasure of being able to watch a movie based on one of those sagas. "Utlaggin" - in English, "The Outlaw." Its most over-the-top moment, and totally true to history, was watching the evil sorcerer in action. A big, burly graybeard, on some sort of potion, rolling around on the ground in a lady's gown, jumper, apron, and gauzy headgear. Unlovely, incredibly funny - and to any Norseman, totally disgusting.

Well, at any rate, I am a city gal from Day One, and looking forward to the day when I can walk far enough to go back to the local park and watch the birds and squirrels - and dogs and picnickers.

Unknown said...

in a stroke of glorious co-incidence Australian ex prime minister John Howard has been reported as, last night, pronouncing that "America will remain the worlds predominate power for the indefinite future"

I think the use of the "indefinite" is correct, but I doubt that is what he actually meant.

eagle eye

ps, 12 inches of rain over 25 hours in the catchment I live in. I live on a big ridge with rivers either side and was spared the worst of the damage but I know of farmers who lost hundreds of cows because the water rose so fast they could not move them from paddocks that had never flooded before. On the farm I work on whole hillsides are on the move, and cracks are appearing on the road to my house. And it is warm, Strahan on the West coast of Tasmania was 20 deg c on Monday, in June!

Cortes said...

At one time properly run bureaucracies administered by realists aware of the foibles of desk jockeys - including but not restricted to empire building or accretion of responsibility - made sure that regular rotation occurred to minimise the risk of the development of unhealthy and organisationally unhelpful relationships between placeholders and external agencies. Rotation appears to be a thing of the quaint past and now we are in Quartermasterland where the governing principle is to feed the participants in The Procurement Ball. The nominal purpose is for the rubes.
One element you may wish to consider is the deliberate introduction of error by preferred suppliers who are so confident of their indispensability that the building in of a "sleeve " becomes second nature, a custom of the trade. And all the sweeter in fact.
In the best tradition of serendipity, the following linked item appeared on "The Saker's " blog today and illustrates quite well the point you made about "organic " system development:

rapier said...

No person who would say out loud to anyone, even probably their wife or husband, that the F35 is junk could possibly have a job in the management of the program, civilian or military. In order to rise within any organization today one must have absorbed an entire complex of attitudes that amount to being absolutely loyal to the organization. They must as a matter or course never openly question the organizations work, methods, principals, or goals.

This selection process is at least half self selection besides of course carried out by the organization. If someone is prone to speak their own mind or is less than happy to go along with any kind of BS they are very unlikely to even want to rise in an organization. The ones who do seek to rise yet give away their skepticism or less than enthusiastic embrace of the organization are soon weeded out.

This sort of thing is surely as old as civilization but it does go against one of the core ideas that supposedly defines America. Americans are supposed to be, above all people, individuals. However as it turns our Americans are often just as if not more likely to seek the safety, comfort and protection as a member of some group as anyone in the world.

Combined with the ascendancy of the modern business corporation, which epitomizes or maybe should be said to have developed the structure of modern organizations, we have the prescription for producing the F35.

Even into the 1950's the 'organization man', the 'company man' was held in some degree of contempt by ordinary citizens. This was a common theme of fiction and even popular movies. Then, somehow, in the 60's the organization man, the corporate man became cool. Not to the hippies but the hippies who were not simply hedonists, which many were, became a joke while the hedonists happily joined the corporate world after their youthful fling at individuality. If the motivation was at first mostly financial soon enough it became deeper.

I urge everyone to reread Catch 22 or even see the movie again and see it as an allegory about organization men, the Cathcart's Korn's and Minderbinders, then those stuck helplessly in the maw of the organization, which was the army, the Major Major Major's and Daneeka's and the one true individual, Yossarian.

Glenn said...


As I remember the "Secure a building" joke:

Army: Set up checkpoints, guardposts and passwords.

Navy: Lock it up for the night, set alarms.

Marines: Assault with artillery support until all resistance stops.

Air Force: Go on line, check MLS and compare lease rates.

Coast Guard: Tie down with all line, chains, etc. you can locate so even a tornado and earthquake combined can't budge it.

It's a humourous way to compare the core values of each Service by how they interpret the concept of "secure".


BMC, U.S. Coast Guard, Retired

in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

David said...

@Unknown (et alia) re the pronouncement of the Australian exPM that "America will remain the world's predominate power for the indefinite future."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that when such things are true, they remain unsaid b/c they are obvious, whereas when they begin to be spoken, it is generally evidence that the statement is no longer true and must therefore be explicitly insisted upon...

DaShui said...

No comment needed:

Leo Knight said...

Thanks for this. I had heard of the F-35 and LCS, but not the others. I sometimes watch the TV show NCIS, which sometimes investigates crimes on naval vessels. I often wondered why sailors needed camouflage. I still don't. Cathy thinks they use it to hide from the captain.

Yellow Submarine said...

@ Eric S and JMG:

I read "The Coming Race" for the first time not too long ago. It was one of the scariest and most disturbing stories I have read in a long time. I loved how Bulwer-Lytton starts the story as a conventional 19th century adventure story and the true horror only appears as you read through the story and start to think about the implications. Very creepy.

I thought it interesting that the Glek-Nas were essentially modern industrial democracies equivalent to the most advanced nations of the 19th century. Yet to the Vril-ya, they are hopelessly backward barbarians to be shunned or exterminated. Sounds like Bulwer-Lytton was calling into question the 19th century worldview that saw industrial democracy as the pinnacle of civilization and progress. I was also struck by the way he subverts traditional assumptions about gender.

John Michael Greer said...

EntropicDoom, a sense of humor is certainly a crucial thing to have in times like these -- or for that matter, times of any other sort. Still, choices made here and now can determine whether you get eaten by the tiger or whether the tiger dines heartily on Wall Street executives and then, with a comfortably full belly, sniffs incuriously at your scent and decides to take a nap instead of hunting you down. Thus I think it's not out of place to do something other than giggle!

Dragonfly, many thanks for the link -- that's worth knowing. The Internet of Things has always struck me as unintentional self-parody anyway.

Leo, good. You're quite correct, of course; I can think of one other regime that depended on revolutionary miracle weapons based on high technology to save its bacon, and -- cough, cough, Berlin 1945, cough, cough -- that didn't work too well.

Dennis, you can move to Retrotopia right now. All you have to do is start building it. Choose the tier you want to live at, draw up a six month plan for getting rid of every technology that's above your chosen tier level, and put that plan into action. Interact with other people who are doing the same thing, and away you go.

Gordon, thank you for the stories! Those are great examples.

Zachary, for what it's worth, you're not the only one who mixes up Clarke and Asimov from time to time!

Genevieve, maybe so, but I don't agree that the US would be impossible, or even difficult, to defeat militarily. All a rival power would have to do would be to lure the US into launching a major military intervention somewhere far from US soil. wait until we'd committed a large fraction of our available deployable forces there, and then hammer them with massed swarming attacks using less failure-prone technologies than we use. If it was done well, the US would suffer a crushing defeat, and since we'd be in no position to build new carriers, fighter planes, etc. in a hurry, the US government would have to choose between a disadvantageous peace treaty and mutual nuclear annihilation -- a lose/lose situation.

Alex, I've been saying for years now that a well-chosen city is a very good place to be in hard times. I live in a city of 20,000 people, not a small town, and one of the reasons I chose it is that real estate prices are very cheap here -- my wife and I bought a 4 bedroom Craftsman bungalow, built in 1925, with full basement and a backyard well suited for gardening, for $67,000. (No, I didn't leave out any zeroes, it cost less than many SUVs.) That sort of bargain can be found all through the so-called flyover states, where there are few jobs and the urban population has dropped by half or so since 1970. I'm not sure where you live, but there are many cheaper places to be!

LunarApprentice, one of the difficulties with reading those tea leaves is that some of the teapots in question are pretty clearly cracked. How many similar claims of imminent war have come from the same sources over the last ten years, say?

Phil, true enough. I tend to think more in video-game terms -- that certainly seems to be the Obama administration's attitude toward drone strikes. "We got a commander! Isn't that worth another 500 points?"

WW said...

Glenn, in the version I heard, the Air Force turns out the lights and locks the doors when they leave. The Navy takes out a 99 year lease with an option to buy. The Coast Guard probably does it all closest to right except in wartime, when they stop that and do whatever the Navy does.

I think this is a really daunting systems thinking problems, maybe THE problem, where once you stop approaching it with linear thinking, it just skips some grooves to apprehend that the system as it exists is way beyond any mental model of it. When you zoom out, it's all one thing, and there's no place to grab a handfull of its Gi an toss it across the room.

John Michael Greer said...

Gregorach, funny. Thank you.

Mustard, I'm delighted to hear that the Royal Navy is still competitive with the US Navy -- at least in its ability to field dysfunctional ships. Hrrmph! (I recall Churchill's famous toast: "To the traditions of the Royal Navy--rum, buggery, and the lash.")

Fred, I wish I could say I was surprised. America has a lot of unlearning to do.

mh505, I ain't arguing.

Don, no, I'm not, and thanks for the recommendation!

Drhooves, yes, that's exactly what I was thinking. If we've reached the point that we no longer have enough spare parts on hand to fly more than a small fraction of our planes, and an actual war happens, this country is toast.

L, I do have an opinion, though please do note that it's the opinion of an ignorant Yank who has only three short visits to Britain to make up for an otherwise very limited knowledge of the place! That said, I hope the pro-Brexit side wins. The EU is a profoundly undemocratic monstrosity that's already run half of Europe into the ground and will get to the other half in due time. Like most things, the project of European integration has a point of diminishing returns; the Common Market was arguably a good idea, but beyond that? Not so much. If Britain leaves, other nations will follow suit, the Euro can be scrapped, currencies can adjust in value to deal with systemic imbalances between nations, and some less intrusive and domineering arrangement for international cooperation in Europe can be constructed to take its place.

Latefall, so noted!

Fudoshindotcom, the humor's quite intentional. Deadpan gallows humor is an essential coping skill these days, as you've pointed out, but it's also a literary effect I enjoy and try to use wherever appropriate -- not least because there are so many people on the political scene these days who had their sense of humor surgically removed at some point!

Tom, fascinating. Yes, that makes sense.

Trippticket, good! It's the same mentality -- grand abstractions applied with too little practicality to the grubby realities of life on earth.

Mary, congrats on the new arrivals. I trust you have your spindle or spinning wheel ready to handle all that high quality bunny-wool!

David, it sure looks neat in the videos, doesn't it? In practice, it'll make so much noise that enemy soldiers will be able to shoot rocket-propelled grenades at it in the dark and score hits more often than not, its machinery will jam fatally when exposed to sand or mud, and the batteries will need to be swapped out for charging every thirty minutes. Oh, and it'll have eleven other fatal vulnerabilities that every single jihadi in the Middle East will know by heart six hours after they're first deployed. Ain't technology grand?

JacGolf said...

dtrammell, thank you for the link. The end of civilization meme can be seen as a practice round for our own death, or vice versa. Either way, as one of the folks in the story said, everything comes to an end, so how do we deal with it? That is the only real question facing us. Do we bury our head in the sand and hope for progress, being stunned when the water laps up on our shore? Or do we live the life we know we can, feeding OURSELVES, getting EXERCISE when we need it, and loving those around us and avoiding the 'we are all responsible for every freaking person on the planet's happiness but ours mentality...geez, I think I just backdoored into The Galt Speech. Ah well, we are all facing the same end.

John Michael Greer said...

Tat Loo, I'm not arguing.

Damaris, no question, Soviet consumer goods were a piece of work. I've heard people talk about the Trabant auto in, shall we say, colorful terms! The Soviet system paid too much attention to Marx's fantasy-island notions about economics and too little to human nature, and that was one of the results; Soviet weapons systems tended to be better, if only because those who screwed up too badly on those tended to get nice all-expense-paid trips to Siberia for extended periods. Based on what I've heard, post-Soviet Russia seems to have gotten a better grasp on basic product quality -- though I'll accept correction if offered by people who live there or have been there recently.

John, I'd agree with that if the US were the only country that was likely to start a war. Not so.

Kyoto, welcome back! Well put -- the question of what progress is, and what does and doesn't count as progress, is going to receive further discussion as we proceed.

Jose, funny! Many thanks for this.

Twilight, no argument there at all. The fixation on complexity for its own sake -- cough, cough, Internet of Things, cough, cough -- is a one-way ticket to cascading systems failures.

Jamie, the thing that interests me is that officers and enlisted personnel in the Navy, as well as other US services, have been posting here and emailing me to let me know that they agree with my assessment. I wonder whether you and the officers you know are spending too much time inside the Beltway bubble, where everything looks bright and shiny, and too little time out in the field, listening to the deck officers and swabbies who actually have to make this stuff work. Certainly the comments I've received suggest that there's a pretty fair disconnect between the world as it appears from a Pentagon desk and the world as it appears from the engine room of a badly designed warship!

Wendy, sure thing. All you have to do is start helping to build it, beginning now.

Escape, very likely, yes -- Americans since the Second World War seem to have lost any capacity to imagine the future. I wonder if that's because at some level, we know that this country may not have one.

RPC, that's a step in the right direction. Still, I'd be more impressed if the Air Force decided to simply upgrade the A-10, or go to an off-the-shelf option such as the Super Tucano -- both of which would save money and build on a successful airframe rather than buying one more pig in a poke.

Professor D., a great deal depends on how one defines "progress." The incremental approach embraced by the Russians is to my mind less a matter of progress than of adaptation -- nobody's marching boldly into the future, they're just tinkering with existing machines to fit the changing requirements of the battlefield. In the same way, there might be quite a bit of modification to the Lakeland Republic's streetcars over the years ahead -- not "progress," simply responding to the needs of customers and to changes in the available technologies.

A lot of what gives the mythology of progress its glamor is the deliberate identification of progress with any kind of change whatsoever. If the US were to scrap the F-35 and replace it with a larger fleet of simpler, cheaper planes, each designed to fill one of the necessary niches, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will label that "progress," too!

Castus said...


As a member of a military whose country is allied to the United States of America, I can tell you that without getting into too much detail, thinking both within the USA and without is far more realistic than perhaps is portrayed in the popular media and press releases.

We (Western militaries) tend to know what works and what does not. We definitely know that we are not invulnerable to simpler and more robust enemy forces. That being said, while you are definitely on point with the latest round of technology (F35 et al), I do think you're making a bit too much of the competition. Just because the new generation of Western high tech doodads are duds, does not mean that their competition is good.


Fred said...

And today there is this news of corruption in the Navy

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

Back when space travel was new the US need a way to write in zero gravity. They came up with a pressurized ballpoint, the Space Pen. The Soviets used a pencil. The space shuttles are all wrecked or in a museum somewhere, Soyuz is a '60s design that keeps flying.

On a more mundane level, lets have a look at new cars...

whomever said...

Hi JMG. Suprised you haven't brought up some of the other military elephants. For example, that Aircraft Carriers are sitting ducks to modern submarines: See, and lots of other articles. Interestingly, a similar lesson happened in WW2 when it turned out battleships were sitting ducks to planes, but we never learn.

team10tim said...

Hey hey Jose and JMG,

RE: US Military to confront a [moving / active] oponent

Apparently this is a fabrication, a variation on an urban legend from at least the 1930 of self important captain vs lighthouse.

It was, however, hilarious.


siliconguy said...

Lest you think it is just the US military that can't make working hardware, there was an article today about the British Type 45 destroyer. The power goes out when the seawater intake gets too warm, as in the Persian Gulf. It appears they designed it for the North Sea.

Eric S. said...

@Yellow Submarine: Koom-Posh was their word for Western democracy, and meant "hollow absurdity," and was seen by the Vril-ya as a messy bureaucratic form of government built on mob rule that glorified conflict and rampant individualism. It was seen as particularly barbaric because it gave rise to Glek-nas, or "eternal strife-rot" which was equated to the final years of the Roman Republic or the French Reign of Terror, and was the state of tyranny and anarchy that rose up when a Koom-posh failed. So Glek-nas involves the periods of revolutionary violence, demagoguery, and Caesarism that have been a major theme here of late, and was an analysis extremely reminiscent of the observations Spengler would make 50 years later. Of course... The Vril-ya's answer was to establish an eternal state of totalitarianism under the leadership of the Tur, in which people were happy and society was stable due to absolute compliance and agreement. It felt to me like he was warning the reader that absolute perfection in society would mean getting rid of difference and dissent and abandoning personal liberty and therefore might not be as desirable as one might think... The irony is that over the course of the next century half the world ran off and tried that experiment anyway... And rather than bringing them closer to perfection, it led to Glek-nas all on its own.

Zachary Braverman said...

Just thought I'd let you know that I read this piece listening to music on a vacuum tube amp, using vacuum tubes produced in WWII, that does a much better job of producing music than any solid state amp I've heard, and I've heard some very good ones.

YCS said...

Hi JMG and all,
Two years ago the chief-design engineer of the F-35 came to my university to give a talk, which I attended. By then news of the masive flop had come out but they were still in damage control, churning out propaganda.

The head of the Lockheed Martin 'Skunkworks' division, as its known, talked about their main philosophy which was a Pareto Principle (aka 80/20 rule) which seemed fair considering Skunkworks is known for developing technologies fast.

What seemed ridiculous though was that there were 3-5 variants of this plane, all with kitset modifications for the Air Force, Navy, Marines etc. It's like they tried to cram every gadget possible to maximise possible profits from selling the product, failed to get any of them working well (80% would be too generous) until all the problems compounded and they ended up with something that works almost 0% of the time. 80-20 rule misapplied to maximum extent.

Its telling that in 2014, they were 'about to enter production' before they got recalled twice. Meanwhile the Russians are already producing the Su-35, with the PAK-FA close to finishing. The world's 2nd, 3rd and 4th largest Air Forces (Russia, China and India) will have these cutting-edge planes while us idiots in western countries are buying overpriced junk. What a recipe for disaster.


Glenn said...

josé . said...
"It may not be necessary for the US Military to confront a [moving / active] oponent to receive some comeuppance. This video is about a year old, but it's currently making the rounds in various translations (I first saw it in Portuguese), as an example of US arrogance."

Very funny, but not the least bit true. It is a joke as old as lighthouses and semaphore signals. I first heard it as carried out by flashing light between a Navy Battleship Captain and a Coast Guard Seaman manning a lighthouse. It has antecedents featuring Royal Navy ships of the line and Trinity House lights.


BMC, U.S. Coast Guard, Retired

in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

jessi thompson said...

Someone needs to promote that guy.

John Michael Greer said...

Barrymelius, good. I do a variant of the same thing -- when a new technology shows up, I ask myself, "Is there actually any unmet need in my life that this thing can fill?" The answer is almost always no, and I spend the money on books instead. ;-)

Eric, good. I took The Coming Race as a satire, and I recall several other authors who discussed it and read it the same way -- Bulwer-Lytton was an old-fashioned and distinctly Burkean conservative, and put a scathing criticism of Rousseau's educational theory into Zanoni, so a sustained parody of utopian thinking would have been right up his alley.

Over the Hill, yep. The US military is still, despite gestures in other directions, constantly gearing up to fight the Second World War all over again -- AirLand Battle Doctrine (or whatever they're calling its latest iteration) is pronounced "Blitzkrieg" in German -- which is why they've had their backsides handed to them over and over again. As a rule, when avoiding blame becomes more important than winning wars, military defeat and collapse are not far off.

Milind, thanks for this! That fixation on an imaginary future is of course just as common here in the US as it is in India, but it takes different forms. Many thanks for the links; I'll make time to read them shortly.

PG, possibly, but I prefer reading to listening -- do you happen to know if there's a transcript available?

Isaac, I'll take that as a compliment. I've had an industrial metal band record an album based on The Long Descent, and a dance company do a very elegant performance piece based on The Ecotechnic Future, but yours is the first folk band to pick up some of my ideas and run with them. Thank you!

Anthony, I hadn't even heard of that one. Thank you! As for the Meriga Project, I've got the raw material for a first book -- simply haven't had time yet to put it together and get things under way. If you'd like to write a short story or novella, I can't promise that there'll be a second anthology but if there is one you'll be in the running; if you want to write a novel, on the other hand, there's no need to wait -- there's at least one novel set in the Star's Reach universe under way, and I'm delighted.

Librarian, funny. The space bats would probably giggle hypersonically and go fluttering off to Neptune, where the locals are less absurd.

Joshua, yeah, I know. A lot of the old Whole Earth Catalog brigade ended up cashing in their ideals and becoming cheerleaders for ecocidal technologies the moment the Reagan revolution made that fashionable; Stewart Brand's pimping for the nuclear and GMO industries is par for the course. I used to read each issue of Coevolution Quarterly eagerly, as a guide to how we could build a better, greener future; these days, those memories are bleak ones.

SV Koho, I hear the same thing from pretty much all the vets that I know. I have to wonder sometimes if the people inside the Beltway who are responsible for all this have any idea just how much bitterness and contempt they've earned from the people who served this country and then got dumped in the trash.

Stuart, agreed. When the US finally loses a war -- not just "fails to win" one, but has its backside handed to it and has to accept the terms of a disadvantageous peace -- this whole country is going to have a world-class nervous breakdown, and the frankly fetishistic obsession with high-tech toys is only going to contribute to that.

Clay, the fact that the US can no longer build a working rocket engine is a very good measure of just how far in decline we are.

GW, that's an excellent point.

John Michael Greer said...

Randy, it's definitely popcorn time!

Peacegarden, ultimately, that's what you can do.

Dammerung, that's a very good point.

JPH, we could talk about that for a very long time...

Lewis, oh man. Yeah, "fantasyland" is about the right term. "Hubris" also comes to mind -- or, shall we say, the awkward interaction between a wildly overdeveloped sense of entitlement and the hard facts of gravity!

Unknown, I didn't know the thing was aluminum. Sheesh. What a bright idea.

Clay, thank you -- that's a great story, and a telling one, too.

Grim, by "medial" do you mean "medical" or "media"? Either way, square on target.

1ab(etc.), Isaac Asimov many years ago (as in sometime in the 1960s, I think) wrote an essay on the fact that the literature on managing information had gotten too extensive to manage. At this point I could readily belief that the answers to all our problems are out there, but nobody will ever find them because they're buried beneath near-infinite masses of irrelevant publications.

WW, I also saw ads for the F-35 on the Washington subway when I first started going to DC. It struck me as absurd, until I realized they were aimed at the armies of political and military flunkeys who commute to government offices and the Pentagon every day, many of them using the Metro. Convincing them not to pay attention to the first wave of really bad news was essential to keeping Lockheed's snout safely wedged into the feed trough.

Jim, it did indeed -- you're in the contest. Please put through another comment marked "not for posting" with your email on it, so I can contact you if your story is selected for the anthology.

Pygmycory, your general's stars are in the mail. That sort of basic common sense ought to be standard issue for officers!

Weedananda, "phoneys and twits" -- hah! That's a keeper.

Alex, exactly -- the point of modern medicine is to make money, not to cure illnesses or restore health. A healthy person isn't paying the medical industry -- and that's why they "manage" illnesses rather than curing them.

Jason, I'm sure the wars will be happy to oblige.

Randy, I'm beginning to wonder if the key to successful warfare on the downslope of the industrial age will involve deliberate technological regression. Can you point me to an article on the Paulsen brothers? I'd like to be able to footnote that.

Thomas, true enough.

Eagle, as Stalin pointed out, in some contexts quantity has a quality all its own. Forego the F-22 fleet and flood the sky with 11 times as many F-15s, with avionics and weapons systems upgrades as needed, and you've got a formidable fighter force.

Unknown Eagle Eye, that's choice! I hope you're watching the foundations of the place where you live, and have other alternatives once the road washes away. Rains like that will be business as usual for a good long time.

John Michael Greer said...

Cortes, exactly. Once kleptocracy becomes the order of the day, the only cure seems to be a thumping military defeat; then, if the nation survives, things usually get cleared up. Thanks for the link; once again the Russians are doing things incrementally, with good results for them and bad results for Daesh...

Rapier, another very good point. America these days is a nation of timid conformists terrified that anyone will catch them having an unpopular thought.

DaShui, now there's a general who deserves his stars.

Leo, hiding from the captain is about the only reason I can think of!

Submarine, Bulwer-Lytton was a tolerably subtle thinker with a good solid grasp of the occult philosophy of his time. There's much to be learned from him!

Castus, I'm quite sure that active duty officers and enlisted personnel out there in the field have a very, very good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the hardware they're expected to use! It's the high-ranking desk jockeys who don't -- and unfortunately those are the people who make purchasing decisions and advise governments about the prospects of the next war.

With regard to the other side's hardware, we've just had a very solid demonstration of that in Syria. When the Russians first went in, there were articles all over the US foreign-affairs media -- not the mass media, which is a waste of oxygen, but magazines such as The National Interest and Foreign Policy -- insisting that there was no way they could maintain an effective operational tempo or have a serious impact on the battlefield. The world promptly learned otherwise, and I've been told by US servicepeople that the US air force can't sustain the kind of optemp the Russians did even for a week, much less for months at a time. Clearly Russia today is not the Soviet Union of 1960; nor, to judge by the success of Chinese diesel-electric submarines at popping up in the middle of US naval maneuvers, are the Chinese behind the times at all. I'd suggest that it would be prudent to act as though the other side's hardware can do most of what it's supposed to do, rather than find that out the hard way.

Fred, another day, another scandal. Ho hum...

Greg, I don't know the first thing about new cars; there are many times, and this is one of them, when I consider my decision not to get a driver's license to be one of the better choices I've ever made.

Whomever, I've discussed that in an earlier post, and also in my novel Twilight's Last Gleaming, where the vulnerability of a US carrier group to a swarming attack by massed supersonic cruise missiles is a major plot point. Of course it's relevant, but then so are scores of others!

Siliconguy, I bet the Argentinians are smiling; to get those to the defense of the Falklands, the Brits will have to sail them across the Equator...

Zachary, there you are. The best technology is not necessarily the latest or most complex technology!

YCS, exactly. Even if the F-35 was a wonder weapon and the Su-35 was a lot less capable than it apparently is, that won't help if the F-35 is still a couple of years from full deployment when war comes!

Mean Mr Mustard said...


Regarding 'Rum, Sodomy and the Lash' - Churchill is also quoted: “I never said it. I wish I had.”

And my quote about there being 'something wrong with our bloody ships today' should have been attributed to Beattie, not Jellicoe...

Regarding the F-15 being $40k per flying hour, and as such, a relative bargain compared to a F-22 - never mind a F-35 hangar queen stuck on Pirate Sector trestles - for much less money you can call in precision attack, at much shorter notice, and with much greater endurance and flexibility over the battlefield from one of your many forward deployed Super Tucanos. All at a fraction of the price, not least because of the minimal logistic tail.

In March 2010, USMC General James Mattis told legislators the use of Strike Eagles (with tanker refuelling) to support troops patrolling Afghan villages amounted to 'overkill'. (Super Hornets were on the same mission profiles too, operating from carrier battle groups. Combine the cost per flying hour of the jet and tankers, and the carrier and supporting fleet deployment cost, and it's abundantly clear the insurgent has already won.)

Regardless, a year later, following the 'Imminent Fury' assessment, the 'Combat Dragon II' light COIN operational trials were closed down by the House of Representatives Appropriations and Senate Armed Services Committees - for the want of $17M.



Unknown said...


Had a discussion about this post with my 30 something boss today and he mentioned a discussion he had had with a Swedish dairy farmer about robot dairies which are the latest fad here in Tasmania. The Swede was operating two farms with robots and stated that the next dairy he built would be a manual herringbone. The reasons were cost, the annual service was well over $20,000, and was unavoidable, and that did not include replacement rubberware. The absolute deal breaker though was that he was absolutely sick of being the robots slave!. They would dial his phone every time something went wrong and it was frequently. At least with a manual shed you only had to be at the dairy twice a day.

The conclusion my young boss reached was that robots were more trouble than they were worth, and that I looked bloody cheap in comparison.


eagle eye.

ps, my house foundations are ok, but I will be putting a couple of swales across the hill behind the house and repairing the table drains on the access road more often from now on.

rapier said...

RE: Rapier, another very good point. America these days is a nation of timid conformists terrified that anyone will catch them having an unpopular thought.

A larger point of my post was the social/cultural embrace of let's call it loyalty or dedication to organizations be they company, corporation, governmental, NGO, party or any other one can think of. Also I stressed that it was in the management where this prevailed so only those willing and even eager to surrender their individuality right down to what and how they think which is a prime driver of our dilemma from the F35 to selling absurd financial instruments like mortgage CDO's.

Rebecca Brown said...

Hey JMG,

Thanks for another great post. Regarding the Russian's use of pencils in space, there's several posts and a video going around the Internet dedicated to defending the waste of millions of American dollars on developing that pen. The whole point of the video boils down to NASA was afraid the carbon from the pencils would get into the air filters and cause a fire in the pure oxygen atmosphere of the space capsule. My only comment is always "the Russians didn't use pure oxygen...they weren't that stupid." That tends to shut down the conversation quickly, though I wonder how many other defenders of progress will come up with similar things over other stupid technologies?

I got stuck in a car dealership for two hours this week waiting for not one, but three, recall-related repairs on our car to be completed and got "treated" to non-stop political coverage on a wall-filling tv. The interesting thing was the conversation among the others in the waiting room. Of six people who engaged in this conversation, three aren't voting this November and the other three are voting for Trump. It should be pointed out that two of these three were non-white for those who believe the media. I kept my mouth shut other than asking why. One older Latino man summed up the beliefs of them all "because he's not bought and paid for like the others...he says what he actually believes."

I was also bullied mercilessly in a conversation about Hillary Clinton by rabid supporters who apparently think a woman can't be a feminist if she points out the blatant hypocrisy of anyone wearing a $13000 coat while giving a speech on income inequality. I got called more times than at any point since middle school.

This is what politics in America has become these days.

Eric S. said...

"I took The Coming Race as a satire, and I recall several other authors who discussed it and read it the same way -- Bulwer-Lytton was an old-fashioned and distinctly Burkean conservative, and put a scathing criticism of Rousseau's educational theory into Zanoni, so a sustained parody of utopian thinking would have been right up his alley. "

And so for the audiences, particularly the Theosophists, it flew right in one ear and out the other and they couldn't get past the Atlantean remnants, images of superior wise races from the deep past, and the Vril power. It's interesting how attempts to challenge and subvert the more dysfunctional aspects of conventional wisdom when they're not outright ignored almost always seem to get picked up and hammered into the Procrustean bed of the conventional wisdom anyway. I've noticed that you've faced the same challenge over the years with some of the directions people have tried to take the ideas of this blog... Or the guy who wanted to make a space opera Star's Reach sequel. Let's just hope someone doesn't read Retrotopia and wind up having their only takeaway be that the best way to make the world a better place is to rend scientists and rich people limb from limb.

Sven Eriksen said...


Since you've already mentioned the U.S.' insistence on "blitzing" even when fighting an enemy that simply isn't going to play by the rules, and the sound beating it reliably gets from pursuing that, it is fair to point out another Wermacht parallell: When defeat was looming, in addition to the pursuit superweaponry such as the V-2 rocket system, Hitler put his remaining hopes in a new fighter plane design that was supposed to be able to do "everything at once" - Do you recall the Messerschmitt Me-262? Resounding flop, that was. Rings a bell, doesn't it?

micpri said...

Thanks for this, and for the extension; gives me another week to finish the Dickens novel I'm enjoying :) .

Alex Blaidd said...

And likewise it would seem a modern military (at least for Western states) is to make money for the defence companies and not actually provide defence.

Philip Hardy said...

Hello JMG

You brought up the Falklands conflict in comments. I have three mates who served through that. One was on a ship that was bombed, the bomb ended up in the forward heads (Toilets) after passing through a missile system. The bomb did not go off, guess where the bomb was made? USA. If all the bombs that hit Royal Navy ships had exploded the recapture of the Falklands would have failed, as the task force was close to the minimum number of ships needed for the job. Another mate was on one of the carriers, he's sure they got hit by a torpedo (same day as the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano was sunk) which did not explode (or do so properly). The carrier in question had to go in for below the water line repairs for several weeks after the return to the UK, but the story has always been denied officially. USA technology again, as the Argentinian submarine was Ex US Navy, as were its torpedos. The third mates ship came through unscathed if you were wondering. On the other hand sometimes weapons out perform their expectations. The Harrier aircraft originally designed for ground attack on the cold war front line in central Europe, turned out to be a capable naval carrier air superiority fighter, fighting in the middle of a south Atlantic winter, who knew! I'm not trying to do down USA tech in this comment compared with UK tech, its just that they are the examples I have from people who were there. I have enough friends and relatives that are Ex military or defence industries to know that UK military procurement suffers just as much from panglossian thinking as the USA's.

Best regards JMG
Philip Hardy

latheChuck said...

One more comment on writing instruments for the space program: As says, both US and Russian programs started with pencils, but were concerned about electrically-conductive graphite flakes contaminating sensitive equipment. The US response was to adopt the Fisher space pen; the Russian response was to adopt a non-graphite pencil (variously called a china marker, or grease pencil). It's been a long time, but I think I recall seeing an actual work schedule from a Russian project, all marked up with different colors of china marker, possibly at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

Cherokee Organics said...


I don't really know much at all about weapons systems. The human condition on the other hand is a whole other matter. Such matters as you wrote about this week were covered quite thoroughly in Sun Tzu's treatise on The Art of War, who was quite forthright on the subject, so clearly you are in good company! His tale about the Prince who set aside his armies in order to contemplate philosophy was a solid object lesson and one that was not lost on me. The tale concludes that the prince was eventually over run, by another neighbouring and more war like prince, looking for an easy victory.

I mentioned to you that I was reading Michael Lewis's most excellent book: "The Big Short". No doubt, you have read it too. One thing that struck me upon reading that book was that there was a time of delay between one event happening and then the consequences occurring. That level of inertia (do you reckon that is the correct term?) is interesting and it speaks much about the sort of resilience that is part of the many systems we have supporting us in developed countries. Eventually, the sort of smoke and mirrors used to produce that inertia fail and the ugly truth gets shown. I reckon your essay this week touches on those matters.

As I read your essay, I had a feeling that that sort of rubbish going on that you describe is a smoke and mirror attempt to maintain business as usual. All it takes is a bit of poking...



Ray Wharton said...

I remember being a little kid, 6 maybe 8 years old, designing 'super fighters' on dot matrix scrap paper. I would draw an out line of a jet (roughly) doodle in tons of missals and rockets, and gadgets, and guns, and extra jets. Then write in the corner of the page how long it would have to be to fit it all. The drawing I can still recall was supposed to be at least 90 feet long. It would be the F-999, because that was a big number. My talents were wasted in school, I could have been leading a whole design team at Lockheed Martin!

In high school I remember learning about liberty ships, which were the easiest to produce boats the navy figured they might get across a ocean, made in vast numbers. I have been told they were most useful, specifically at Normandy.

@Alex & Patrica

I have been studying family history from my ancestors who homesteaded in the Rocky'. Yeah rural areas were historically rough, but based on the stories from the depression they had their virtues. It seems like where my family was most of the tension got redirected in to pranks. Pulling off a good prank that is funny and clever made you a person not to upset.

Ruth's cat would crawl into bed with her, so when cleaning stove pipe George threw a piece of fish into the stove. In an area where out of towners would sometimes try to illegally hunt Roy dressed a large bell as an elk.

But, today rural areas are in brutal trouble John Roth shared in the comments last week
Learning the stories I have about my rural family history, and knowing of relatives and friends dying in the despair hole the collapse of this culture is tragic. But, I still think there is hope, but in the mean time areas are starting to depopulate or rot away. Still a community could live in remote and rough mountain areas with little resources except what they themselves produced, and alot of these folks came from back grounds where that had to completely reskill to make it.

Unknown said...

John Dolan ("The War Nerd")'s voice, like JMG's, is one I look to regularly for sense and sanity these days, and it often happens that their themes are in sync. His latest episode of Radio War Nerd is an interview with Kelley Vlahos about her article "How Wartime Washington Lives in Luxury" in The American Conservative.
"Pierre Sprey, who's been around since the '60s...he's an engineer who went rogue during the Vietnam period because he was working for McNamara and he realize that the machine was overtaking the purpose, the machine was overtaking the mission..."
"[the F-35 is] designed first with contractors and politicans' districts in mind. I mean, every little part is built in a different district or in a different NATO country which we want to also buy a plane... so that they can collect the votes to get this mess of an airplane built, and the more expensive it is, the more politically favorable it is. I mean, it's the craziest airplane ever." (Vlahos said she didn't have her notes with the exact number, but there are suppliers in some number of hundreds of congressional districts.)
"[The public] got a quick little glimpse of that attitude...when General James Post of the Air Force, who's in charge of trying to get rid of the A-10, an effective and cheap plane that does counterinsurgency, in favor of the F-35, a bad and expensive plane that's designed for an imaginary replay of World War II ... told an Air Force officers' meeting, 'If you say anything good about the A-10 or anything bad about the F-35, that's treason.'"
Vlahos also repeatedly recommends Mike Lofgren's book The Deep State for more.
I realize military procurement is an example of the point being made this week, not the point itself. Still, all this contributes to the example.


Randy Darrah said...

No real article on the Ft. Sill event. I do Civil War Reenactment and a friend of mine, in artillery, was at that Gettysburg event. He is a friend of theirs and relayed the story to me. He also told me that at the military ranges in MN, they know better than to think about betting against these two gentlemen. Ah yes, the elegance of simplicity!
However; here are several links to the Paulson brothers.

Many of the current brass for our military have forgotten the KISS principle---Keep It Simple Stupid!

JebB said...

JMG - As regards moving toward Retrotopia in our own lives, I have meant to ask you for some time now about your research sources and practices. I've checked my local library for books about how people lived in 19XX, but those mostly talk about fashions, hairstyles, cars and who was in office. I'm having a really hard time answering questions like - how did people do their laundry, feed their pets, get their groceries, cool and heat their houses, etc.

Where did you find out about the old rules for stock markets and corporations, or how doctors were trained and hired, etc.? College was quite a few years ago for me, and unfortunately didn't really teach me much about how to research more than obvious surface information.

If you (or any of my fellow commentariat) have any advice about resources and acquiring long-neglected research skills, I'd be incredibly grateful for a boost in that direction. As always, thank you for the energy and time you share with us, and for your meta-skills in weaving together disparate threads into a coherent whole.

Best Regards,

Somewhatstunned said...

(164 comments already!)


The modest disclaimers with which you give your opinion on the UK's forthcoming referendum is noted gratefully. Nevertheless I feel strangely compelled to explain why I disagree with you and will be voting to remain. All the negatives about the EU are agreed with. I also agree that the EU is going to fragment soon - but I disagree with you about the size of that "soon" and I consider that to be important.

In a limited, nature-conservation, clean air and beaches, kind of way, the EU *has* improved the UK's quality of life. If we leave, there will be precious few checks on the government desire to rip the place up and return to us to a state of spoiled grubbiness – redefined as “vigorous and entrepreneurial” – and anything that stands in the way will be sneered at as “red tape” and “a burden on business”. I do not think collapse is so imminent that there isn't time for a lot of real damage to be done - I think there is more resilience in the current system than we expect.

Now, you could say that in a way this is trivial - the natural world is resilient, we can't "save nature", to think otherwise is hubristic. Yes, fine - but think about timescales of an individual. This is one reason why it is worth fighting environmental battles even if you eventually lose: for example if you manage to postpone the destruction of a woodland for a few years that is enough time for people to grow up having it as part of their experience - and that experience is then theirs and cannot be destroyed.

So basically, on the national scale, I don't think we should be the first to jump (even though I do argue for that on the personal scale)

alex carter said...

Jamie Mason - knowing too much about submarines as I do, I'd like to mention that in WWI, "unrestricted submarine warfare" was considered as ethical as poison gas was, or even less so. By the time WWII rolled around, submarines were "on the table" and everyone had come up with subs of their own, or improved their subs, and had come up with countermeasures.

alex carter said...

pg - Oh, how I miss The War Nerd and Pando dot com. It's all behind a hefty paywell now and hearing The War Nerd mentioned is like hearing a name back from the dead.

Likewise, the excellent "The Hipcrime Vocab" web site has gone over to Wordpress from Blogger, and now you have to register to even comment on there. I go to other Wordpress hosted sites that are not that restrictive and leave comments, it's just that the guy's decided to "exclusivize" themselves.

Likewise the increasing number of hoops I have to jump through to simply check my Gmail.

The whole Internet is pinching down. Excellent sites are going dark or going pay-only-for-elite. Pando's a classic example of this. They were the latest incarnation of a Russian gadfly newspaper started up by some US expats, that got kicked out of Russia and kept their paper, now online, going once back here in the States. The writing was excellent and the topics relevant. Then they became Pando and apparently got bought by some deep-pocketed corp. or another. No longer viewable by proles.

This is why it's so good to hear of Lakeland's numerous printed newspapers. Chances are they're also available on those wooden spool things in the library so even the most impecunious can keep up with the Lakeland news.

Laura said...

As some people have pointed out, *some* members of the military have their heads on straight:

On the other hand, we had *stopped* training our soldiers this stuff?!?! ::headdesk::

alex carter said...

JMG - I'll have to make a note to myself to buy in "flyover" country 20 years ago, just step into the ol' time machine here...

I've lived in flyover country and it's great as long as you have a magical source of money. That magical source of money can be social security, disability, a military pension, or simply a ton of savings. Making enough to live on the local economy is just about impossible unless you downgrade your lifestyle to living in a hole in the ground and eating out of the local dump and/or roadkill.

You've mastered this last bit in that you're apparently getting paid to write your books, somehow. Two minimum-wage jobs can generally make it, but minimum-wage jobs are like finding gold in flyover country.

Congrats on being able to make it work. Unfortunately the reason flyover country is depopulating is that for most people it's leave or starve.

over the hill and down the other side said...

Ten years ago, a plumber came to our house. Very talkative! He had recently left the military where he had served as foreman of 25 specialized, highly trained mechanics. Their sole duty was the maintenance of one ultra hi tech airplane. The maintenance had to be conducted in a completely dust free environment.

So I asked, "What good would it be in Iraq or Afghanistan, which are very dusty?"

"No good at all." He replied.

"Then it's just a 'boy toy."

"Yes, but so much fun!"

He left the military as a new version of the plane was coming out which would require him and all the other techs to retrain.

william fairchild said...


A great essay. I could go on and on about boondoggles such as the F35. Anyone remember the Sgt. York?

When I was a young lad, I had a high school teacher who was just brilliant. He taught western civ. The first day of class he had us read the intro chapter to the text book. Then he said "Put it back in the basket under your desk. We won't be opening it again this year." He taught western civ through the lens of military conquest. He had a theory of a superweapon, a weapon or tactic that undermined the enemy and exploited their weaknesses. The Phalanx, Roman Legion, Mongolian short bow, Viking longship, and English longbow come to mind.

Then I took his current events class. Again, he dumped the textbook. Really the class should have been called Soviet American relations. When we examined SDI (star wars) in the light of the previous class, it became clear that artillery always defeats armor. The mongolian bow could pierce a breast plate, the trebuchet break a castle wall, etc. So equip one warhead out of ten on a MIRV (say an SS18) with chaff, and you defeat a radar based targeting system. Not to mention, SDI undermined nuclear stability, which is defined as no first strike capability, but a secure second strike.

So we have been on the military gizmo wagon for a long time.

My Dad once said, the most dangerous weapon in the world is a Marine with an M1.

As as Malcom Gladwell said at the end of his Ted talk:

Giants aren't always as powerful as they seem and sometimes the shephard boy has a sling in his pocket.

Unknown said...

JMG - Didn't you have the missiles in Twilight's Last Gleaming come out of shipping containers as well?

I read another article that I can't manage to find again now saying that the Russian plan in case of a frontal attack by the US is to hide a bunch of missiles in shipping containers that would be seeded into regular cargo ship traffic, which would then engage (autonomously or through spies on the container ships) in coordinated attacks on US ports.

I...can't think of any defense we'd have to that attack, can you?

- Rachel

Vadim said...

As taught provoking the main text and comments are, some accents are quite wrong.
Not that Russians have it right, they just can not afford the same level of spending as US is.
Corruption, incompetence and push to keep spending on military are not even hidden there.
Comparing a potentially crumbling empire to a "Wanna Be" empires of Russia or China could lead us to miss a point. We all are facing a very uncertain future.
They "do not get it" in DC, it is obvious. How bad they get it in Moscow or Beijing is striking.
In North America it could be needed to work the golf courses with shovels, in most of the world that is not even an option.

mgalimba said...


this might fit better over at your other blog, and is definitely off-topic for this weeks post (but relevant to everything I surmise you care about intellectually)

Glenn said...

"Why do Sailors need Camouflage?"

Why do Navy Officers and Senior Enlisted personnel wear Khaki Uniforms?

Why do Naval Aviators wear brown shoes?

Why did the Coast Guard do away with beards in the mid '80's?

Why did the Coast Guard change the style of it's Working Blue uniform to resemble BDU's by tucking in the trouser cuffs and replace a tucked in shirt with an untucked blouse with the sleeves rolled up in Summer time v.s. the old long and short sleeved shirts?

The Army pioneered Aviation in the U.S. Services. Naval aviators borrowed their uniform. Other officers liked it; only the aviators kept the Army brown shoes, while non-aviators wore traditional black Navy shoes. In the '80's the Coast Guard was trying to get National Security funding, and tried to imitate the Navy. When the Coast Guard was moved from Dept. of Transportation to Homeland Security they modified the uniform to look "more military". In each case I've listed, the imitating service is taking on the appearance of whichever branch has the most publicity and funding du jour.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Patricia Mathews said...

JebB - I'd say your best bet was to go through novels written in period with a microscope and pick out such details, usually just mentioned in passing. Or, handbooks, cookbooks, etc written in period.

For example, that much-filmed novel about the little boy Ralphie in Indianapolis in the early 50s - actually an autobiography - has it right. I know that because I lived there during that period. I can tell you, frex, that homes were heated with coal-burning furnaces, which a delivery truck would bring by and send down a chute that went into your coal bin in the basement, to be shoveled into your furnace by the homeowner. And the heat would come up either through a floor register or, in some buildings, a steam radiator. Which makes the most interesting noises!

Or that his mother wore a cardigan sweater in the kitchen, since the story is set in midwinter.


Roger said...


I heard that Soviet and Russian military hardware was/is serviced by nineteen year old conscripts with ball peen hammers. A joke, surely.

Or maybe it's not a joke as I heard a combat veteran say that nothing more complicated than a can-opener actually works on the battlefield.

This is because:

1) you're scared out of your mind and so you couldn't MAKE things work,

2) that is even if they DID work because, in combat, they don't.

He said you're too busy filling your pants anyway. He said he did a fair bit of that himself in WW2. He was a real comedian.

Canadian military procurement is a shambles. They say that simple institutional incompetence is to blame. That sounds plausible.

But then there's the problem of complexity. Here people always wonder if their province isn't better off seceding so there's the near impossible calculation of dividing money among vociferously competing jurisdictions.

Then there's contending government bureaucracies involved, all of which have diverging agendas.

There's also the near impossibility of administering contracts that defy human comprehension given the technology and the legalese employed.

I read that our 60,000 man military has a government procurement dept of 6,000. Such is the mire that they can't finish an order for combat boots. Same with an order for trucks. Can you imagine?

There's something more ludicrous still (because it involves a lot more money). A multi-billion dollar naval ship-building program was announced about five years ago. There were whoops of joy and sounding of horns.

However, to date, not a scrap of steel has been cut. It's been a generation since we built the last ship so, in this place, nobody remembers how. No boat REMOTELY in sight.

Oh, and we're neck deep in the F 35. Companies involved are threatening to leave the country if the government bails. Nevertheless, "out" of this contract seems to be the only way "forward".

Barring a miracle, and I doubt any deity is interested enough, my prognosis is no new ships, no new planes. The ones we have will be allowed to rust until they're gone.

Maybe no new combat boots even. Soldiers will be required to get their own. Do you think I'm kidding? I'm not. The mountains of absurdity and corruption are just too tall.

pg said...

Is the WarNerd podcast available in transcript form? Sadly, I see no such option on the site.
Unknown Jonathan has given the link to Vlahos' article that prompted this subsequent interview. Two additional insights that seemed new:
--The extent to which all that contractor money has changed the physical landscape, the real estate market, the way people live,
-- How this military-industrial-intelligence complex has become a new kind of family business, a kind of enclave where parents move through the various revolving doors, send their offspring to "in" higher ed institutions, to have said offspring fed back into the complex....
BTW, the WarNerd occasionally unlocks access to some podcasts. This Vlahos interview is one of the unlocked podcasts.
I find out about such via Twitter (which I use as a news aggregator).

Patricia Mathews said...

JMG - I know that homework belongs to last week's column, but I have just ordered Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days, Oxford University Press translation. I dipped into it long ago and came away with a sour taste in my mouth. He reminded me of the unreformed Ebenezer Scrooge, whom, if you place him in historical context, was the Victorian equivalent of a Depression survivor.

So -- a reread is in order, with especial attention to the sort of times he lived in.


mh505 said...


" I've heard people talk about the Trabant auto in, shall we say, colorful terms"

Hate to correct you - no really! But the Trabant was an East-German car; and was not produced in the USSR.

As to the comments by Damaris, these are not depicting the full picture. I have lived and worked in Russia on & off for close to 20 years, from the early 90s; and although in my early days as a then-government adviser I usually had a car with driver, this changed later on when I started my own business. And my experience with local cars was far less dramatic than mentioned by her (admittedly, the roads in Western Russia are or were probably better than where she lived). Most importantly - if these cars did break down, they were easily repaired, even by myself. And one more thing: If I ever by a new car again - not likely - it will be one without electronics. And the only one around - you guessed - is the Lada Niva, imported by a guy in Hamburg, Germany and sold for less than € 12000.

Finally, let me support you in your assessment of the Soviet / Russian military. I must have visited in my time more than 150 production facilities, some of them - based on Stalin's verdict of absolute vertical integration - produced everything from the smallest rivet to the final product - say tractors. The conditions we found the workshops and machinery in were appalling more often than not, to talk of museum pieces would be a compliment. However, this was for non-essential stuff - such as consumer goods. The moment you entered a former military plant, the change was amazing. Clean and light facilities; good - if Soviet-style - machinery and above all excellent engineers and R&D people many if not most of which are now working in the US or Western Europe.

And today, the Russian military complex - all of which still state-owned - is in excellent condition.

234567 said...

This entire military debacle is just another facet of hypercomplexity - a push mower, built right, can easily last a decade or two. My family had an old Yazoo mower that lasted 40 years, with one motor transplant. Today, it is electric start, self-propelled, grass catching system with laser guidance. The points of failure multiply like rabbits, and combining this with global (lowest price) production, one is guaranteed to have expensive parts and repairs and more of them.

Today, cars have up to 10 airbags, wi-fi, bluetooth, televisions for every occupant, electric windows, seats, heated steering wheels, self-parking and self-braking. Consequently, repairs average a minimum of $500 for something simple, and the price of the cars has risen to a level equal to a small 30-50 year old home. Progress??

The only fix for this a much needed reset/crash/unwinding of much of what currently passes for normal - bring it on. I am so tired of having to select from Crappy Brands A-B-C and nothing actually designed for long term use. I am weary of replacement being more affordable than repair on items that cost hundreds of dollars.

It's not that I am a Luddite, but fixing what isn't broken is stupid. Upgrading to more complexity just doesn't work out - ever.

There is a reason I carry a small toolbox rather than one of those cool-looking-but-never-functional multi-tools....

Varun Bhaskar said...


I wonder if it'll break down the same way once we start fighting each other inside the country. On one side the people who've recognized the near uselessness of high tech, on the other the people who think high tech always wins?



sgage said...


"A lot of the old Whole Earth Catalog brigade ended up cashing in their ideals and becoming cheerleaders for ecocidal technologies the moment the Reagan revolution made that fashionable; Stewart Brand's pimping for the nuclear and GMO industries is par for the course. I used to read each issue of Coevolution Quarterly eagerly, as a guide to how we could build a better, greener future; these days, those memories are bleak ones."

Like so many at that time, including many people that I knew, the Whole Earth gang definitely sold out. I put it at an earlier date, when Stewart Brand was gushing about space colonies, with an article titled "Apocolypse... Over?" There was a great back and forth between him and Wendell Berry over the next few issues. That was in '76/77.

The Whole Earth Review was just a technocornucopian happy-fest, but I stayed subscribed to it for old times' sake for as long as I could stomach it. Kevin Kelly is in my opinion not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. He also tended to be annoyingly moralistic in a way that just left me cold.

I have a box right here (taps it with his foot) full of the entire publishing run of the CQ (except for #1, which I loaned to a 'friend' who absconded with it, along with a nice guitar I'd loaned him), plus quite a few numbers of the WER. I should open it up and have a look one of these days. Though I'd probably just get depressed...

Cherokee Organics said...


I had an "ah ha!" moment - in the middle of the night. I woke up to find that my brain had clearly been processing upon your essay - you are a bad influence as I love my solid sleep and resent it being disturbed! ;-)! - and the insight is so obvious as to be, well obvious... Blind Freddy to the rescue again!

The process that you describe is much like the gambler who won the lottery in the past and yet can't shake the feeling that someday soon they'll win again, if only they keep gambling. All of the techniques you described in the essay were a form of speculation (in the financial meaning of that word) where the powers that be gamble everything on the hope of making another big technological game changing break through.

Now in the real world, in which I live, you also describe the alternative strategy of investment (i.e. incremental returns and slow changes) on technological developments. I tend to favour investment over speculation and I really annoy other people by living my life with that strategy in mind. It really does annoy some people, you would be amazed.

You see, I know that the gambler can only ever win once, and then they have to walk away and do something different, otherwise, eventually they'll lose. Technology and science simply suffer from the same boring old diminishing returns that we all have to deal with. That's life. If I was twelve years old, I'd probably say: Too bad, so sad, dude.

Yet, we live in a world where the gamblers have their time in the sun and the powers that be are calling the shots, and to me those shots look an awful lot like: Roll the dice again, matey!

It is very uncomfortable for me to watch such things in practice, but I hear that story told over and over again. I tend to tell a very unsexy story of investment and hard work and slow and incremental changes and returns. Not many people want to hear that story, I can assure you. But it delivers.

A sane society would embrace that story, but also allocate a small portion of income to the occasional gamble in a crazy idea, but then withdraw the funding, when they don't deliver the goodies as promised. Hashtag: Just sayin... :-)!



MawKernewek said...

The central Atlantic is about 27°C versus the Persian Gulf's 32°C. Is it still possible for the Royal Navy to cross the equator to get to the Falklands?

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