Is the Military-Industrial Complex Functioning as Designed?

military general drinking whiskey and holding a gunThe Operators, by Michael Hastings

I went to a poetry reading in North Beach last week and then out drinking with the poets and their friends afterwards. This fulfilled an old Beatnik fantasy of mine. As I teenager, I venerated the Beat generation writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg. Their jazz-fueled, drug-laden epiphanies, wandering barefoot through the city at dawn, seemed a far cry from my suburban ennui, where the shopping mall was the hottest spot for us teens to gather. But there I was, last week, sitting in an old North Beach bar, arguing about Hemingway with a bunch of old hippie communist poets in the very place that Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Cassady might have had the same disagreement. It was like a dream come true.

Communists that they are, these poets blamed all of modernism’s ills on capitalism exclusively, it’s all about the money for them. Marx himself was a modernist in my own view, and the systems inspired by his visions have fared no better than those driven by capital in terms of real human flourishing, but I’m grinding a different axe today. See, the commies are convinced that it’s all about the money. Why has the US been venturing into the Middle East for so many years, wasting money and lives, as we clumsily sow chaos throughout the region? It must be for the money. “No Blood For Oil” read the protest signs. And it’s not an exclusively leftist position to take. Eisenhower himself coined the phrase “military-industrial complex” to warn of these powerful vested interests, and he was technically a Republican, though no Republican today would tolerate his views, I’m sure.

I hate to say this, postmodernist that I am, but there’s a part of me that thinks, if the US needs oil, it will grab oil. Our country is a system, competing with other systems for resources. I’d rather live under our system than under the Chinese or Russians, so I grit my teeth and bear it. But if you look at the details of the Iraq war, for example, huge Iraqi oil fields were ruined with water when they were disrupted by the war. Maybe some US oil companies benefitted temporarily from transient spikes in oil prices, but it’s not like the US is literally pumping the oil and taking it away. The US isn’t really benefitting from Iraqi oil. We spent way, way more on that war than we got back in free oil. One might say, well, it’s these multinational oil corporations that benefited. But it’s not at all clear why multinationals would care which regime they got their oil from. Saddam Hussein couldn’t pump the stuff himself.

And then there’s this whole line of reasoning that Hussein was threatening the US petrodollar by accepting euros for oil. And that seems like a decent argument, and would actually be aligned with US interests. Sure, we want the dollar to be propped up by the fact that it’s a global reserve currency. That’s fine, in a sense. Like it or hate it, if the purpose of the military-industrial complex is to preserve western dominance, as Chomsky might say, then this is just the sort of thing we should EXPECT it to do, and crying about it isn’t going to change the realpolitik of the situation. Powerful systems crush weak systems, end of story.

But then I ask myself, what if these systems AREN’T functioning to preserve US dominance? It may well be that US interests have actually been harmed by our Middle East adventures. We’ve certainly spilled plenty of blood and cash in Afghanistan for no apparent benefit. No oil there. Some pipeline theories float around, or maybe there’s a huge cache of rare earth metals we can grab, but, based on our track record, the US will probably fail to profit from either rare earth metals or pipelines.

It doesn’t seem like our military-industrial complex is being guided by the principle of advancing US interests. And that’s actually a bigger problem than if it were. If we were just bullies stomping on weak nations to make ourselves stronger, that wouldn’t be so bad, really. . . But if the military-industrial complex ISN’T guided by principles . . . if it fails to advance US interests, then it could destroy the US.

It doesn’t seem like our military-industrial complex is being guided by the principle of advancing US interests. And that’s actually a bigger problem than if it were. If we were just bullies stomping on weak nations to make ourselves stronger, that wouldn’t be so bad, really. As Pinker asserts in Better Angels, we have a long history in the West of becoming more and more civilized. If we’re bullies, we can learn to be gentle. But if the military-industrial complex ISN’T guided by principles, then it runs the risk of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. If it fails to advance US interests, then it could destroy the US, and there could be no more US to suck money out of at some point.

We saw a similar thing play out with the bank bailouts. A proper capitalism with accountability for making bad bets removes stupid strategies from the marketplace and should sustainably generate wealth for many. A crony capitalism that offloads risk onto the taxpayers threatens to break the very system from which its wealth is built.

What if these systems that we depend upon are broken? What if we didn’t go to war with Iraq to get the oil, we just went to fulfill the contracts of the military contractors? That just seems so crazy. Surely there should be someone at the wheel, guiding this whole thing, who would see a problem with that? But maybe not.

I read The Operators, by Michael Hastings. . . The big takeaway for me was that the military seems to be driven by a cult of bloodlust. . . The people fighting on the ground aren’t fighting for their country, they’re fighting to spill blood and to risk their own blood, in and of itself. . . Hastings describes war as a drug, the ultimate adrenaline high. And that paints an ugly picture. The Pentagon starts a war simply to deploy assets and make sure that the defense industry gets paid, and the people on the ground execute it because spilling blood is such a fucking RUSH, man! Holy shit, we’re fucked. . . This is a terrible system.

I had sort of accepted that defense contract spending was driving US military intervention, but then I read The Operators, by Michael Hastings. There’s a lot to say about this excellent book and its unfortunate author, but the big takeaway for me was that the military seems to be driven by a cult of bloodlust. On some level, the officers aren’t fighting for their country, they’re fighting to spill blood and to risk their own troops blood, in and of itself. It’s not even clear if they see these war theaters as proving grounds for their character, which would have some virtue, I guess. Hastings describes war as a drug, the ultimate adrenaline high. And that paints an ugly picture. The actual foot soldiers think they’re fighting for their country, but they’re actually fighting out of loyalty to their fellow soldiers. The Pentagon starts a war simply to deploy assets and make sure that the defense industry gets paid, and the officers execute it because spilling blood is such a fucking RUSH, man! Holy shit, we’re fucked. The wheels cannot help but come off of this system. Maybe we don’t have to outrun the bear, maybe we just need to outrun the other guys running from the bear, but come on. This is a terrible system.

To my conservative friends, my pals who defend modernism and think that it’s us postmodernists who have dismantled the system: Take a closer look at our systems. We postmodernists are doing you a favor by pointing out the flaws. We haven’t come up with any sustainable solutions, granted, but we didn’t CREATE these flaws. And now it seems to be up to ALL of us, modernists, traditionalists, postmodernists, whatever, to figure out a post-postmodernism that builds sustainable systems guided by principles and not just lust for cash and blood. God help us.

Why the Back to Nature Movement Failed

modern caveman on computer

The paleo diet has been popular for a while now, and it prescribes a “back to nature” way of life that’s interesting. The premise is that humans evolved in an environment devoid of processed foods and high-glycemic carbs, so we should eat a diet that more closely mimics our paleolithic ancestors.  It also suggests that everyone should be outside, moving around all of the time.  I’m not going to try to defend the paleo diet per se, some people lose weight on it, whatever.  But it’s an interesting framework for considering what environments we as humans are adapted to and how we can apply that to the problems of modern life.

Consider depression. Two of the top cures for depression are exercise and light therapy.  It’s clear that humans evolved for at least 100,000 years, largely outdoors, moving around in the sunlight.  Depression is probably best thought of as a disease of modern life, where we’re living indoors and are largely sedentary.

Another aspect of modern, developed cultures is social isolation.  Humans are social animals, and we arguably evolved in tribes of roughly 150 members, according to the Dunbar number.  (I know that Dunbar has been supplanted by newer research, let’s just use this number as a starting point.)

Depression is probably best thought of as a disease of modern life, where we’re living indoors and are largely sedentary. . . Another aspect of modern, developed cultures is social isolation. . . So let’s consider these three aspects of an evolved human lifestyle: 1) Living outdoors in the sun, 2) Moving around continually, and 3) Being surrounded by a community of other humans invested in our survival.  These are all things that many of us struggle with in modern life.

So let’s take these three aspects of an evolved human lifestyle: 1) Living outdoors in the sun, 2) Moving around continually, and 3) Being surrounded by a community of other humans invested in our survival.  These are all things that many of us struggle with in modern life.  Sure, maybe some people still live in tight-knit, traditional farm communities that fulfill these needs, but, here in the US, economic forces have largely broken the cohesion of these rural places and we see drug abuse epidemics as a consequence.

Transhumanists can rightly argue that our need for sunlight, exercise, and social support are just kludgy legacy code tied to our messy biological bodies.  Maybe we can upgrade humans to be more machine-like with replaceable parts and we can do away with these outdated needs.  That’s a valid argument.  I don’t happen to agree with it, but it’s coherent at least.  For the sake of this discussion, I ask my transhumanist friends to acknowledge that these human 2.0 upgrades don’t seem to be right around the corner, so it probably makes sense to make accommodations for the hardware we humans are running right now.

Hippies tried to solve the problems of modern life in the sixties with their back to nature movement. . . But what ever happened to that movement, anyway? . . I asked a fellow named Frosty, an old hippie scientist at one of my clients, who said that when his friends from the city showed up at the rural commune, they blanched at how much work needed to be done.  They didn’t have the skills needed to build structures by hand, grow food, or dig latrines.  And then they would look around and ask, “Where’s the bar?”  They wanted to get drunk and hang out.  Who can blame them?

Hippies tried to solve the problems of modern life in the sixties with their back to nature movement.  Good old Stewart Brand was in the thick of it with his Whole Earth Catalog.  Many long-haired freaks trekked out to the middle of nowhere to build geodesic domes out of logs and get naked in the mud together.  Awesome!

But what ever happened to that movement, anyway?  What went wrong?  Brand himself said at a Long Now talk that the hippies discovered that the cities were where the action was.  I’m fortunate to work with these old hippie scientists at one of my clients, and I asked a fellow named Frosty why the back to nature movement didn’t properly take hold.  He laughed and said that when his friends from the city showed up at the rural commune, they blanched at how much work needed to be done.  They didn’t have the skills needed to build structures by hand, grow food, or dig latrines.  And then they would look around and ask, “Where’s the bar?”  They wanted to get drunk and hang out.  Who can blame them?

Twentieth century communists in Asia attempted their own versions of the back to nature movement.  They took what appears to be a sound hypothesis and effectively implemented it as genocide.  Mao’s Cultural Revolution forced the relocation of city dwellers to the countryside, resulting in disaster.  Pol Pot’s Year Zero also involved a violent reset of the clock, trying to turn back time and force modern people to live as our ancestors did, also a terrible failure.  So yes, as Scott Alexander says, we “see the skulls.”  We need to learn the lessons of previous failed attempts before we can rectify the problems with modern life.

Cities are where the power is accumulating.  Cities are more energy efficient.  Cities are where the action is.  But how can we remake our lifestyles to fit them? . . We see the first glimmers of a solution with Silicon Valley’s obsession with social, mobile, and augmented reality. . . Maybe augmented reality will give us the ability to move freely around the city, connect with our communities, and still do modern work, but while getting exercise and sunlight at the same time.  Call it the “Back to the City, But Working Outside, Walking Around Movement?”  Not catchy, but you get the picture.

We can’t turn back the clock.  We have to start where we are and assume that progress will keep happening whether we like it or not.  Cities are where the power is accumulating.  Cities are more energy efficient.  Cities are where the action is.  But how can we remake our lifestyles to fit them?  We see the first glimmers of a solution with Silicon Valley’s obsession with social, mobile, and augmented reality.  Perhaps we can find our communities via social network technology.  I certainly feel vastly enriched by my East Bay Futurists Meetup.  I’ve made good friends there, who help me grow and teach me a lot.  Mobile technology has made it easier and easier for people to do real work on the move.  Maybe augmented reality will close the loop and give us the ability to move freely around the city, connect with our communities, and still do modern work, but while getting exercise and sunlight at the same time.  Call it the “Back to the City, But Working Outside, Walking Around Movement?”  Ahh, well, not catchy, but you get the picture.  We just need to start redesigning our cities a little bit.  Step One: More parks!

What the Corporate Lunch Reveals

a depressing corporate lunch restaurant

Last night I was thinking about the SMELL of an office.  Normally offices don’t smell like much, except for at lunchtime, when there’s this nauseating smell of microwaved meals.  It’s a savory smell of preformed chicken, warm plastic, and ramen noodle spice packets.  It wouldn’t even bother me so much, except that it’s been designed in a lab to tug at my appetite.  So I breathe it in and am tricked for just a moment into thinking that it’s something I could eat.  Is that a carbohydrate, mushy noodles with a hint of sweetness?  Especially since this smell is wafting through the cube farm around noon and maybe I haven’t eaten yet.  But then it pervades my palate, and the stale, processed nature of it hits me.  Are the amino acids of that savory protein intact?  Probably not.

There is nothing fresh to eat in an office.  Oh sure, they bring in some delivered produce once a week, encased in plastic, the apples turning brown moments after I cut into them, leached of all antioxidants by months in cold storage.  Everything is on a conveyor belt, really.  The workers are moved into the building by rapid transit systems.  The frozen meal energy units are stamped out and packaged using some hellish alchemy that approximates nutrition to the minimum federally mandated standards.  The work product generated by these meals is emails and documents, packets of drudgery routed across vast global computer networks and spewed into the faces of recipients via glowing screens, lighting up our faces with blue light as we digest the mediocrity.  And afterwards, we eliminate the waste product in a corporate bathroom, squatting side by side in merciless stalls with huge gaps that deny us privacy.  All systems optimal and functioning as designed.

But when I try to go out for lunch, my frugal companions scowl at my madness.  How will I ever afford a house in the Bay Area if I squander my dollars on such extravagance?  No, no, we office drones must scrimp and save every penny.  Get a CostCo card and a big freezer.  Buy in bulk.  How will I afford children?  And I ignore them because I want a breath of fresh air, at least.  I know the food at the restaurants won’t be any better, though I did have a client down on 2nd Street in San Francisco with an organic salad place across the street.  SF systems require somewhat better fuel inputs to produce slightly less mundane work output.

But the average corporate lunch place, even here in the Bay Area, is nothing like that.  Lunch in the corporate world illustrates the depth of our descent.  White bread sandwiches with processed meats, canned soups, iceberg lettuce salads with trans fat dressings.  And don’t get me started on the decor.  Fluorescent lighting, travel photos of a beach with palm trees, faded by the sun coming in the window, a damaged dream of escape from the grinding routine of a systemized society.  So eat quickly or maybe just take your food to go and eat at your desk.  So much to do, so little time.  Choke down the calories, get on with it.   You do want this job, don’t you?

I notice the rare smokers I pass as I come back from lunch.  Only the smokers seem to take regular outdoor breaks in the corporate world, driven by the monkey on their backs to suck down carcinogens.  Did you know that nicotine actually improves cognitive function somewhat?  I assume the benefits are largely offset by the reduced lung function generally, but I haven’t looked into it.

And the higher up the status tree we climb, the fiercer the competition becomes.  In the ruthless furnace of Silicon Valley startup culture, white bread sandwiches are replaced by intermittent fasting.  Nicotine is a lowly nootropic.  Get your uridine stack in place and drive that motivation.  Pop the Modafinil and FOCUS, people, FOCUS.  Ship that code.  Build your brand.  Sink or swim, motherfucker.  Always Be Closing.  The Bay is a churning mass of wrestling bodies, competitors striving and scratching all around you, clutching at any advantage.  Is it any surprise that the psychopaths inevitably rise to the top?

But these modernists look at me askance when I say that maybe these systems are failing.  They are unsustainable environmentally and financially.  They are bereft of meaning, commoditizing all human experience.  It may be that the gears of these mighty systems around us will simply fall apart and fail as a consequence.  Humans have needs unfulfilled by these processes.  We need better nutrition, we need to be outside moving around basically all of the time.  We need some meaning, a supportive community, we need to cut each other some slack.  That’s my futurism.