The Academy on Parade
No one in this country is commenting on how common subservience and deference to authority, to elite America, and to bureaucratic norms is nowadays. It certainly didn’t used to be like this in my living memory and I see it getting worse as times proceed. The scrap and tussle of democracy, of democratic norms, is mostly dead in key sectors of our society, and academia is one of them. The two events below recounted that I recently attended at the University of Texas at Austin show not just that subservience and deference in action, on key critical life and death issues for our republic, where we largely have abandoned any sort of critical discussion of them to generally accepted elite wisdom. It also shows that the leading party responsible for this state of affairs is the American academy, which is eaten up itself with deference to the ruling elites in this country—political and economic ruling elites—and is quite guilty of spreading this attitude in our society via the higher educational process.
Event 1. The Commanding General (CG) of Fort Hood and III Corps (one of the Army’s largest troop commands) spoke at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin recently. Three stars on his shoulders, and he struck me as a fairly decent sort, a better than average human being for a general officer for sure. I’ve always found that senior military officers generally have a larger streak of turd in their makeup them than most people; pleased to see one different. The General was out doing community outreach to the academic world, which shows a considerably larger and more forward-thinking world view than most senior military in his position have, as they tend to stay on the reservation and not stray far from it ever. A big part of the why of that I suspect is a belief on their parts that the natives aren’t friendly, and/or they don’t matter anyway. The General was also in part making a pitch to LBJ School students to consider working with the US military, either as a civilian with the DOD or perhaps even to consider going into government service via a tour as a military officer. What might even be the most remarkable thing for him or any other senior general officer is that he claimed to be out here to listen to what the LBJ School students had to say about the US military, about military-civilian issues, and any other issues that they might want to discuss with him. Such curiosity, and concern for larger citizenship issues, is most rare for career military and is most commendable on his part.
But you know, there is a war on, and I aint taking no prisoners. The General was introduced, gave a brief set of remarks, and went straight to the Q&A. Stuck my hand up, and asked him two questions. The first was what was the enemy OB strength in Afghanistan, current and past, past is OK if you can’t give out current, and what are the trends in the numbers? The second question was what percentage of the military engagements with enemy we initiate versus what percentage they initiate, and if he had any trend numbers on those statistics.
There is a good useful bit of basic military craft skill knowledge and historical backstory to these questions that most nobody out there knows, mostly on account of American historical illiteracy and the distressingly widespread ignorance of things military by civilians nowadays in the USA. The first thing is OB—the Order of Battle—is the number of enemy troops you are facing in the war. The size of the enemy forces determines absolutely how many of your troops you must commit to the war for victory. How big a war effort you require to win is mostly entirely determined by how many enemy troops you face. This is the sort of thing that gets explained in the first five minutes of the first day’s lecture in military affairs 101. Now with the second question, on who is starting the shooting out in the field, this statistic is perhaps the second most important statistic, after the OB numbers statistics, there is on a guerilla war. The shooting part of a guerilla war* involves unconventional/guerilla small unit engagements against the opposing regular army’s small units. There are no big knock-down drag-out pitched battles in a guerilla war like are fought in a conventional war. The guerilla’s objective is to fight an increasing number of small engagements, taking advantage of surprise and temporary local numerical superiority, to defeat small detachments of the opposing regular army, and over time enough, inflict a military death of a thousand cuts on the conventional army. Over time enough, the conventional army will tire of the losses and will up and quit the war. If the guerillas are initiating the engagements, it means that they have the initiative on the battlefield and in the war in general, and are almost certainly going to win their war.
Now the historical backstory from our most recent big war, Vietnam, on these two questions is something that everyone ought to know, and in particular, every career military. There was a great scandal that never got the attention it deserved about how the US Army in Vietnam deliberately misstated the Viet Cong military strength (the VC OB numbers) in its intelligence reports to Washington DC. This scandal blew up with the Tet Offensive in 1968, which battle, assuming that the Army’s VC casualty numbers were right (which they largely were) meant that every single VC in South Vietnam had been killed or wounded, some more than once. Funny, the war didn’t end, or slow down any for that matter, after Tet. Official DC couldn’t paper that one over; and that meant that the war wasn’t going to be won by us, simply just because there were just too many of them fighting us. It meant we had to make some settlement and leave. Our only other choice would be to commit to a three or four times larger military effort, which was a political impossibility. Years later, in ’83, CBS did a report on this scandal (CBS Reports: The Uncounted Enemy, dir. George Crile) which led to General William Westmoreland, US commander in Vietnam, suing CBS for libel. Biggest libel case in US history. Westmoreland lost, badly. Presumably every journalism student since ’83 has had this case run by them in school and maybe some of them remember something of it yet.
And on the percentage of engagements initiated question, well, everyone out in the field during that war knew that the VC always started the fighting whenever and wherever they wanted, and that US forces never got the drop on the VC hardly ever. The US military high command, as well as American politics and journalism, were blind and deaf to this fact during the war—willfully so?–nobody has adequately researched the why of this. But RAND did a study immediately afterwards that showed that 98% or so of all engagements in the war were initiated by the enemy. That’s how incredibly far away we always were from ever having the battlefield initiative in that war. Inevitably therefore we never had a chance of winning it. Period.
The military is one of the few professions where there is at least some study of history practiced. Knowledge of military history is expected of all officers. The most usefully studied and always the most studied wars are the ones you just fought. One would therefore reasonable expect the Vietnam War to be somewhat studied by currently serving officers. One would also reasonably expect these two questions/scandals to be a part of any officer’s military knowledge skill set. Anyone with any real knowledge of the Vietnam War knows that these two questions are about the two biggest historical scandals/issues about the war there ever were.
So when I asked my questions there at the LBJ School, three things happened. First is that the General went into a lengthy huddle with his ADC (aide de camp, his lead horse-holder), I assumed, to discuss if the information I requested was classified. Second is that the LBJ School faculty there at the event all turned to stare at me for asking these questions. Third is that the questions obviously went over the heads of the LBJ School students. After a bit, the huddle ended, and the General announced that he didn’t know what the enemy OB strength was in Afghanistan, that the only figure he’d ever heard about enemy strength in Afghanistan was one of 20,000, and that figure was four or five years old now. I slammed my hand down on the desk, and said loudly, “Come on. We’ve killed more than 20,000 of them over the past four years. Why then is the war still going on?” The general responded after a bit by saying that the insurgents were good at recruiting, I guess. His ADC winced at his answer.
At that point, Celeste Ward Gventner, second in command of the LBJ School Strauss Center for the Study of International Relations**, turned around again and gave me quite the stare and said, loudly, that it was time for other people to ask questions. I replied, more loudly, that the General hadn’t answered my second question, would he please be so kind as to do so? The General went into another huddle with his ADC, and came out of it to say that he had no idea as to the answer to the question, that he’d never heard of anyone asking it.
Have to give the General credit for honesty, a rarer than usual quality for general officers. Didn’t see any signs of life from any of the LBJ School students showing that they’d caught what had just happened. None caught up with me afterwards to talk or ask a question. And as usual, none of them asked any decent questions in the Q&A. They really are all dullards there at the LBJ School.
Event 2. UT’s Engineering Department, GM, Nissan, and some other smaller players sponsored a symposium on the electric car issue. The public evening show started with a showing of a wretched 30-minute documentary movie entitled “The Revenge of the Electric Car”. Movie was Hollywood unscientific agit-prop for a technological magic bullet solution to a big and complex problem. Danny DeVito and some famous I guess rock musician whom I’m supposed to know I suppose were the movie’s two electric car experts. I couldn’t take that proposition seriously, or any other part of the movie seriously either. UT’s panel afterwards had on it one very old geezer from ME and EE, who incidentally invented the lithium ion battery and who might yet get a Nobel before he dies, some younger Engineering department hustlers working on electric car issues on campus courtesy of some outside tie-ins from the US Commerce Department and Nissan (for tie-ins read: grant monies), and one bozo who’d recently fled the City of Austin’s Austin Energy ship for private industry. GM, Nissan, and Toyota all had a seat on the panel, held down by persons from their marketing departments.
I was not picked for a question, which basically never happens at any event I attend, by the asswipe Limey EE running the show, almost certainly because I’d spent the day spraying acid on metal buildings per paint prep and was quite downscale dressed. My hair looked like hell, too. Obviously someone dressed like me was someone to be ignored and so I was.
My question would have been: “I’ve read that the production of a conventional internal combustion (IC) engined automobile is responsible for the production of 20,000 lbs of pollution. An electric car costs more than twice what an IC engined car does, that’s a given. Doesn’t this difference in price represent embedded energy costs to produce the electric car’s batteries and consequently doesn’t an electric car start out the gate with a much worse pollution debt than its IC counterpart from these larger embedded energy costs? How much worse is that pollution debt—how many more pounds of pollution does it cost to make an electric car as opposed to an IC engined car? And seeing as most electric cars will be recharged by coal-fired electricity here in the US, what with 52% of our electricity coming from coal, (figure for China 90%) won’t an electric car have a worse overall pollution creation problem during its EUL (Estimated Useable Life) than a conventional IC engined vehicle? Between how dirty coal combustion is and the inefficiencies of turning coal into delivered electrons at household charging stations won’t the total amount of pollution from operational use be worse for an electric car than its IC counterpart? Doesn’t all this mean that an electric car will in its lifetime creat more total pollution than its IC counterpart? And if that is the case, then why are we pursuing electric cars, and why do you deserve our tax dollars for research into them?” ***
I caught the UT engineers at the nosh pit**** after the panel presentation and asked them this question. They all confessed that they didn’t know the answers to any of this, and that my figures were news to them. They’d never considered the problem from this angle. We digressed off into the social policy aspects of Nissan the giant Japano/French multinational getting $1.4 billion of free US taxpayer largesse for its new electric car battery plant in Tennessee. Engineers were as dumb as to be expected here and came up with profundities like somebody has to pay for it you know. The car industry reps–I caught them all and asked them the question—they all freely confessed that they had no idea either, that that wasn’t their area of expertise, they were from marketing, sorry. At least I had a good chat with the car guys afterwards–they saw past my irritation that I was a car guy like them and we swapped war stories. Fellow from GM, as he was leaving, apologized some, saying that I really deserved an answer to my question, but he was marketing, sorry. I explained to him that I understood that, but that my question, and the numbers behind an answer to it, should be on the tip of the tongue of every single engineer or scientist working on electric cars, and it was a flat-out goddamned disgrace that none of the UT scientists or engineers knew these numbers or had even thought about this question any. I’d be outraged at this low level of intellectual performance and engagement on this issue from them except that I went to UT and from everything I saw when I went there then I’m not the least bit surprised by seeing it now. GM fellow grinned at that.
So here we have the US Academy on full parade. UT Austin is a reasonable representation of it, most certainly the LBJ School of Public Affairs, which considers itself the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s little sibling. These two events deal with the biggest issues facing us—war unquestionably is the single biggest issue of all for any nation. The faculty at the LBJ School, like their counterparts throughout this country, has never once asked the key essential questions about the wars viz our likelihood of prevailing successfully in them. Many to most are likely too ignorant about recent US history and basic military affairs to ask them. (Same is true of journalism and our intelligentsia in general.) The wars have gone on quite unsuccessfully for a dozen years now and they haven’t bothered to learn this material, essential material about the biggest issue our country faces. But not all of them can plead ignorance of these matters. Certainly some of the LBJ faculty at the event knew enough of these matters, and that led them to behave like they did when I asked my questions. They instinctively know what questions, what areas of the issues, are off-limits for discussion, and they automatically and happily enough make sure any off-limits questions stay unasked by anyone else. Particularly if asking those questions offends someone in power. That’s a part of their job as they see it. Seeing as these limits are of course set by the power elites, we have a most dreadful courtier culture in academia and the intelligentsia towards our power elites. Out at the academic ranch they are mostly just passing on that courtier culture and judging from the students at the LBJ school they are doing it successfully. Have been for a while now, too.
Science and engineering has always claimed a higher ground on verifiable truth than the social sciences, and mostly they are right to do so. Electric cars have always been technologically possible but they probably don’t make environmental sense if you look at the large picture. I aint scientist enough to say that is definitely the case but I do know enough science to have deep and profound doubts about any rationale for electric cars here in the USA. I’ve got an I’m from Missouri attitude towards electric cars and nobody has ever properly put together an argument for them that convinces me or any other skeptic and they’ve had three decades or more to do so now.
Too many engineers are glorified technicians and have tunnel vision and can’t ask big picture questions, such as why should we invest efforts and resources in electric cars? What is our objective in doing so?. But I see here that they have a similar set of courtier attitudes about what is off limits for question and discussion on engineering and science issues, just like their LBJ counterparts and the wars. Asking the wrong questions about electric cars means no money from the friendly giant multinational corporations and bureaucratic inclinations and imperatives keep them from upsetting the research money apple cart by asking them, no matter how basic and necessary the questions are. The complete incuriosity of the engineering faculty about these questions this many years on is almost in itself an act of inexcusable intellectual dishonesty as well
Everybody who knows about war knows what I asked about. Everybody who knows about cars knows equally about what I tried to ask about. Why then does none of this get asked? Why does the academy discourage my or anyone else asking about it? Courtier culture, and the brainwork professions’ endorsement and spreading of it through their institutions, is the best and biggest share of the explanation that I can come up with. Courtier culture, and the dishonesty, moral and professional, that comes with it, will be the death of this republic yet, if it isn’t already. Courtier culture and accepting and embracing it–that’s the American academy, today, on parade.
*The shooting part of the war is of course secondary to the moral/political part of the war. Napoleon said that in war the moral is to the physical as three is to one. More is the fact that guerilla troops are local residents who have dropped their ordinary lives and tossed their lot in with death because things in their own country have outraged them to such a degree that they are willing to do just that. Regular soldiers are in it for the money, let’s be honest about it. And if there is a single political objective to our wars, a single political goal we are working towards for the peoples of those countries, I have yet to hear it, more than a decade of war on. Or for ourselves and our country, for that matter.(1)
**Ms Gventner is ex of RAND, and did some sort of tour or two in Iraq as an advisor for the high command staff there during the counterinsurgency days there for RAND, and is currently married to some star-struck (hustling for general) Lt. Col. at Hood.
***In the past, electric cars were sold as a way to reduce air pollution in our cities. They might do that, but at the expense of pollution elsewhere, duh. Isaac Asimov said about pollution that saying that Taiwan has a pollution problem is like saying that your end of the rowboat has a leak. Nowadays electric cars are being sold with two arguments. One is that although there is a lot of pollution now from burning coal to create electricity in our upcoming green future there will really honestly be new technologies to cleanly generate electricity to where that won’t be a problem in our impending green future. Second is that our converting our car fleet to burn coal-generated electrons is a good thing because it will reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
The first argument is fatuous wishful thinking because no matter how much we clap our hands, Tinkerbelle is unlikely to defy gravity and the laws of aerodynamics both. The second has at its core anti-arab racism and nativist claptrap with a good dose of macroeconomic ignorance and wishful thinking. It is wrapped in the flag, too, and as is always the case when the flag is used for that task the stink of monetary and political corruption freely leaks past it.
****Except for Dr. John Goodenough. Not only was he smart enough to invent the lithium ion battery, he was smart enough to skip the post-panel noshery. Too bad, as he alone might have had some answers.
Daniel White can be reached at email@example.com
(1) Which of course should lead everyone to ask the question as to if we start and continue wars with no political objective, then are we insane as a society and country? Are we a curse on the rest of humanity for doing so and killing untold hundreds of thousands of persons who have done us no injury? Or are we both? Nobody in the brain trades has guts enough to ask those questions, near as I can tell. What’s worse is that nobody in the god business in this country of ours does, either.