The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
. . . still studying and learning how to live

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Saturday, October 1, 2011
History ... Personal Reflections ...

By the time most of us reach our late teenage years, we usually take up some sort of rebellious cause, something to distinguish ourself from the life that our parents and all their friends lived. You want to make it clear that your world is going to be better, that you aren’t going to make the same mistakes and fall into the same traps that they lazily fell into over the course of their lives. I was no different. My cause was pacifism; not exactly a surprise choice for the time, i.e. late 60’s and early 70’s. Me and my generation were going to show the world that you didn’t ever need to kill another human being in order to have a good society where everyone can have a good life.

How did that all turn out for me? I don’t want to talk about it right now. Let’s just say as I proceed through my adult years, I fell into many of the same traps and have made many of the same compromises that my parents and their generation made. Oh well. But I still try to keep the violence and killing to a minimum. In my case, that would be “agentic killing”. I have never directly killed anything larger than a mouse, but I cannot say that I am entirely pure when you ask if anyone has to die in order to maintain the lifestyle that I have become accustomed to. I am a 99% vegetarian (and loving it – just eliminated eggs from my cooking and baking routine). Thus, I don’t take too many animals down to maintain myself, although admittedly I occasionally buy leather shoes or belts (but try to get by as much as possible with faux-leather items from Payless).

However, I do depend upon a car powered by gasoline to get to work, to buy food and clothing, and to maintain my social life. I also live in a house heated by natural gas and depend greatly upon electricity generated by burning coal. The extractive and production systems for all of those fossil fuels kill people, in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most egregious form of “agentic killing” regards the various wars that my country has to carry out in order to maintain my community’s access to petroleum. E.g. the various wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the present means of taking coal and gas from the earth kill and maim people in a variety of ways (accidents, sickness caused to workers and the surrounding communities, etc.); it’s required in order to be economically feasible.

So yes, I haven’t done all that much better than my parents in terms of living a purely pacifistic life. All I can say is that the next time I start my car, I’ll think a thought for all those innocent and not-at-all-innocent Iraqis and Afghans that we had to snuff out in order to keep me tapped into a cheap-enough source of transportation energy. Pretty lame, as the kids today might say (or might not; I’m not sure just what they say these days).

This is all to say that I still feel some twinges of pacifistic idealism (though not that many at my age). Aside from the huge compromise of fitting in with suburban New Jersey society and trying to get done whatever I can get done in the context of the life I was born into, there are some other sources of conflict in my brain involving lethal force and ‘thou shall not kill’. One of those minor conflicts regards the interest and admiration that I have had from boyhood for jet fighter planes. My main boyhood interest was in trains, a commercial endeavor. However, my “other lover” was those modern warbirds; I would buy every plastic fighter jet kit I could find in the department stores and spend my after-school hours and weekends gluing them together and painting and decaling them.

I definitely had my own air force in my room; there were some bombers, a transport plane here and there, a KC-135 refuel plane, maybe a helicopter or two. Even a U-2 spy plane. But my heart was with those fighter jets, both Air Force and Navy versions. I had the F94, F100, F101, F104, F106, F4 Phantom, A6, A8, YF12 (the proposed but never built fighter version of the SR71 spy plane). I pretty much got rid of all of them all by the time I went to college and took on my new identity as a conscientious objector to military service. But I still occasionally perused Aviation Week in the school library to keep up with the new F-14 and F-15 fighters and the development of the F-16 and F-18. And then I got into the working world with a job that had absolutely nothing to do with jets and military systems. But now and then I gave into “air killers pornography”, pleading guilty to reading newspaper or magazine articles on the suspected new stealth fighter (eventually revealed as the F-117), the long-range air to air missiles being developed for the Navy’s Tomcat, and the continuing roll-outs of new Soviet MIG and SU models. Ah, the shame of being seduced by those beautifully designed, increasing curvy and incredibly powerful killing machines in the sky with their heads-up displays and discreet radar systems and laser targeting mechanisms.

But the one that I kept my conflicted eye on the most was the F-111, the realization of Robert McNamara’s dream from the early Kennedy administration to come up with a super-fighter plane that would be designed and built using modern scientific management techniques, so as to give taxpayers the maximum bang in the skies for the buck. In a nutshell, McNamara thought that the existing system for designing and building fighter jets for the Navy and Air Force in the late 50s and early 60s was wasteful. McNamara came from Ford Motors, a holy temple of modern scientific management wisdom, and vowed stop the generals from their wasteful practice of custom-designing and building new fighter jets based around their latest whims.

With Kennedy’s support (and later from LBJ too), McNamara rammed through the “one plane fits all” philosophy under the “TFX” program. By the end of the decade, the TFX morphed into the swing-wing F-111 fighter-bomber, a somewhat odd but still sleek looking aircraft meant to serve a good portion of the collective needs of the Navy and Air Force (including dropping nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union in the event of the Big One). Unfortunately, the “Ardvark” as it was called turned out to be a troublesome machine. Looking back now, aviation experts say that the F-111 made too many technology advances at once, and at the same time tried to do too many things at once. It took much longer and cost much more to finally get it to work than expected. And even when that finally happened, it couldn’t do everything it was planned for; after testing the F-111, the Navy found a way to wiggle out of the McNamara deal so as to custom develop the Tomcat, made famous by Tom Cruise in Top Gun. (Actually, the F-14 Tomcat in the end wasn’t all that different from the F-111B designed for aircraft carrier service. The admirals said the F-111B was a plane from hell, whereas the Tomcat was truly Top Gun – but I still don’t see the big difference).

The F-111 finally gave the Air Force some decent performance in the final years of the Vietnam War, and then in the first Iraq war (invasion of Kuwait). It was also famous for the bombing of Umar Qaddafi’s compound in Libya in 1986, a mission that went according to plan but didn’t get Qaddafi (something we are still trying to do). And it gave good service as a strategic nuclear bomber and also as a radar intelligence plane; it made good on the WW3 threat and thus helped to keep the Big One from happening with the Soviets. I recently read an article on how the Australian Air Force kept F-111s in service many years after the US retired them (in the late 90s), and only recently retired the last one. And yes, I still feel a little guilty about my interest in an aerial killing machine like the F-111, despite the interesting lessons that it provides about ambitious government high-tech projects. And also about all the “agentic killing” that it was involved in or threatened, in order to maintain my accustomed lifestyle.

Not long ago, I gave in to the guilty urge once again and read some internet articles on the next generation American fighter, the F-35 Lightening. Some years ago I watched a PBS special on the development of the F-35 (the fact that it was PBS assuaged my guilt just a bit), and all seemed well. According to the show narrator, the F-35 was rolling along towards deployment as a cheaper and better fighter jet, one that can be used in a wide variety of roles and provide excellent performance while maintaining stealth from enemy radar tracking. Unlike the F-111, the Navy was on-board with the Air Force and will make the F-35 its next-generation plane to eventually replace the F-18 (which replaced Tom Cruise’s F-14 Tomcat). So, is the F-35 going to avoid the bureaucratic curses that made the F-111 situation so messy?

I would have thought so after watching that PBS show, but now I read that the F-35 is behind schedule and over-budget, and there are questions as to whether it can do all that it set out to do. Oh goodness, history may well be repeating itself, despite everyone’s protest that “this time it’s different”. I believe that Robert McNamara tried to say that too back in his early days with JFK. The patterns of human activity seem fairly constant. Big ideas like the F-111 (and now the F-35) come along, and they get many people upset when they don’t quite work out as promised. But they do eventually give some return on the great effort invested in them; and they quietly set the stage for better developments in the future. One is tempted to call the F-111 and now the F-35 another big government boondogle (as the Huffington Post does, not surprisingly). But maybe this is just something that we just have to go through; it’s just the way the world works.

And yes, I still feel a bit guilty about my interest in the F-35. That doesn’t change either. Today, in my waning years, kids today look at people like me and swear that they will be better and bolder, they won’t accept the weak cup of life that I settled for (albeit with some residual idealistic guilt). This is just as I did with my parents. And guess what? They will eventually make similar compromises (most of them anyway). They look at my life today as a big boondogle – but maybe what they are now doing, and what I did with my life, is just something that has to happen in order for positive change to someday occur. That positive change won’t attract big headlines when it happens, just as the successful jet fighters that succeeded the F-111 didn’t make the papers like it did. But it hopefully will occur.

Unfortunately, organized killing and wars over resources will go on for quite a while. The F-35 will probably be replaced eventually with high-capacity pilotless drones, packing all the super-killing performance as today’s “fifth generation” fighters but without endangering human pilots. The killing will go on and on (even if done mostly by proxy machines).

But I can dream, can’t I? Dream that the whole concept of flying machines designed to destroy other things in the air and on the ground will be done away with. Dream that someday, geeky kids like I was can look back with admiration at the amazing technologies and designs used on late 20th and early 21st Century war jets, knowing full well that they are no longer needed; that they have become just a remnant of earlier, more barbarian times.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:11 pm      

  1. Jim, Rather than make any comment on your blog as such, may I tell you my own dream when it comes to such things as you mention. (Notice the rhetorical question here.)

    I wonder what kind of world we would have if there were a whole different approach to living together on this planet–cooperation instead of competition. What if rather than competing with each other for land, oil, power (usually that’s the main one and should be mentioned first as most problems in this world boil down to a struggle for power), whatever it is someone wants…what if nations decided to cooperate together so that all could share.

    Now I mean REALLY cooperate–not the fake “cooperation” of Communism, whether the Russian style or the Chinese style. (Regarding which: I see in today’s paper that in China recently food production is so contaminated that organic farms are surrounded by spiked fences, no “ordinary” person is allowed inside, and all produce from these “special” farms goes to high members of the Communist party. The ordinary person doesn’t get any non-contaminated food. So much for everybody sharing in Communism.)

    I think often that as a start to a world of cooperation, I would first take ALL oil away from the military of ANY country in the world, not allow anybody in any country in the world to have *anything* that could kill a person. Then, let’s say, if there is a dispute, have a big argument, yell at each other, if necessary. (We do this anyway. Why not get some real, useful effect from it.) Without any guns of any kind, fighter planes, bombs, anything to harm another, somehow disputes would be solved eventually in some more or less, hopefully, congenial manner. Each side seeing the point(s) of the other side! Wow! Wouldn’t that be a new approach.

    This is my fantasy when it comes to contributing to the world. But then, of course, I also have my secret, guilty thoughts too that certainly don’t match up with that fantasy.

    But someday I wonder just what the faults of a world that cooperated instead of competed would be. I’m sure there would be some. But somehow I can’t quite think of any. I know I must be missing something as there have to be some kind of faults in such a fantasy world, but that’s just the joy of a fantasy: Can’t think of any problems concerning it. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 2, 2011 @ 11:06 am

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