Tortured Or Obedient?

My father, a veteran of the Second World War, spoke very infrequently about his experiences in the war. The engine room of a ship in combat was simply a place I don’t believe he much wanted to revisit. Memories of one of his stories, however, still gives me chills.

His ship was assigned to pick up surviving Marines after the horrific battle for the South Pacific island of Peleliu. My dad described the Marines as, in his own words, living ghosts: withdrawn and disconnected, starving and thirsty, filthy, wandering aimlessly about the ship, unable to speak, shaking, staring blankly into the air.

It didn’t help that Peleliu was a complete disaster: a ‘victory’ that came with a very high cost in lives and, as it happens, no real military value.

I’m reminded of my dad’s story whenever I think about our nation’s recent military actions in Afghanistan, a mission that is literally bleeding away our nation’s resources, cannot hope to succeed (whatever that would even mean in this context) and is of dubious military value in any event.

It doesn’t help, of course, that Afghanistan has been repelling and outlasting invaders for millennia. Most recently before our arrival, Afghans bled the army of the Soviet Union to near-death during its 10-year occupation. Today, Afghans are already preparing for the day American forces depart by arming themselves and their militias to the teeth and setting up militia-led and, in some cases, Taliban-led de facto local and regional governments. In many cases, according to recent reports, these governments are more accepted and more efficient at providing services than the elected Afghan national government.

Over the long term then, what, exactly, have we accomplished through our sacrifice of blood?

Understand, I’m not in any way criticizing the men and women of America’s armed forces. The problem lies considerably higher in the chain of command. Our soldiers, sailors and Marines were put into an untenable and dangerous situation because our leaders lacked firm goals and adequate knowledge and understandings of the context. Further, they continue to be sacrificed because our leaders are more concerned with their own egos than the lives of our service men and women.

Those in our armed forces pay the price, sometimes the ultimate price, for the stupidity, fecklessness and ego of their masters.

As he contemplated the cost of war, author and scientist Jacob Bronowski mused:

‘There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.’

Just like their predecessors on Peleliu, the men and women in our armed forces are being turned into ghosts, whether obedient or tortured, for nothing of real value.

Our leaders should be ashamed.

Big Brains

Over an entrance gate at Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania is the inscription ‘We will find a way, or we will make one;’ that’s the English translation of a quotation from the Roman general Hannibal, who would neither be turned back by enemies nor terrestrial boundaries in pursuit of his goals. [For all those Ivy League intellectual showoffs, however, the Penn inscription is actually in the original Latin ‘Inveniemus viam aut faciemus.’]

And so the inscription remains, since it inspired the great Benjamin Franklin, who founded the university in 1740, and it has continued to inspire work at the university since.

There’s a very big room in an engineering building on the University of Pennsylvania campus that houses an artifact. And, as is frequently the case with so many tools built for war, its most significant and lasting contributions have been toward peaceful purposes.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the 1930s and into the first years of the Second World War, it became very clear the military desperately needed more of what would now be called computing power to better complete the increasingly complex tasks of using even the contemporary technology of war.

To illustrate the importance and challenge of accurate calculations in wartime, just imagine, if you will, the number of computations it would take to fire a weapon at a target. Now, imagine how many it would take if the target were moving. Imagine if the weapon itself was moving. Imagine if the motion of both weapon and target were irregular. A concrete example? One ship firing at another, both making evasive movements in a rough ocean with lots of wind.

So, in response to these sorts of challenges, military engineers built what is widely thought of today as the world’s first super-computer, ENIAC [Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer].

The machine itself is huge; it literally takes up every inch of a very large room about the size of a fair-scale lecture hall. ENIAC was programmed by physically connecting cables between ports in the machine’s exterior structure. Programmers rolled heavy rubberized cables on large wheeled carts around the room and plugged them in as directed by sheets on a clipboard.  New problem? Better give it a little time. New sheet, new alignment of cables.

Still, ENIAC was thought of as a marvel, as it was a huge improvement over what preceded it. Many subsequent calculating machines followed ENIAC, each with greater capacities and higher levels of computing power. Before long, there were ‘supercomputers’ developed at other American universities, and some in several other countries as well. A contemporary forecast by a highly regarded engineer supposed that, one day, there might be a powerful computer in nearly every country on the globe.

That’s one computer per country; this brave forecast was just slightly under the actual global penetration of computers, which currently stands just under 2 billion.

I guess, though, we can’t be too hard on the original forecaster. Economic, industrial and technical conditions have changed just that radically since the late 1940s. Even your phone, much less your computer, is faster, easier to obtain and use, has more computing power and capacity than ENIAC did, and all at a fraction of the cost.

This distance between prediction and reality is nothing new, of course. As our societies continue to progress and evolve, as we push forward with new things, both found and made, we will continue to outstrip projections of those who must live in the hard and limited reality of the present day.

Batteries, Today

There was a time when Americans seriously prepared for a Japanese invasion of the West Coast. We can look back at that time with a sort of ironic amusement, I guess, but the truth is our war planners weren’t being completely paranoid; as we discovered many years after the Second World War, Japan did have plans for military action against California and did, in fact attack American Alaska.

So, starting in the late 1930s, the War Department constructed a series of artillery bases on the coast, several clustered around the Golden Gate: Battery Townsley, Battery Chamberlin, Battery Davis, and so on.

Here’s Battery Chamberlin, above what is now Baker Beach.

Battery Davis, during its working life:

And Battery Davis as it looks today:

Long since decommissioned and allowed to fall into disrepair, the artillery batteries that ring the entrance to the Golden Gate are now just crumbling curiosities. People mostly visit Fort Funston, the location of Battery Davis, to walk their dogs off-leash in a beautiful, open natural setting. Most visitors have no idea what these decrepit tunnels were originally constructed for, nor the enormous (but now welded-shut) underground vaults near them.

Probably just as well. These are now places to walk with best friends, smell the ocean (or occasional beach bonfire), appreciate the views, get some fresh air and quiet away from the city’s tumult, not to watch and wait for invasions. Thank God.

I hope you get some peaceful time with your best friend soon.