Sunday, September 30, 2018

Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers

Arguably Heinlein’s last juvenile novel, the story is a shoot-‘em-up. I got lost in the jargon of military organization. I accepted at face value that as a corporal Juan Rico could not be promoted to assistant section leader over his platoon assistant leader, but I still have no idea what that means. Reading Heinlein’s philosophical arguments are the reward for being immersed in his futures. The movie version of Starship Troopers made the case more succinctly and forcefully than the book: When you vote, you call upon the full power of the state to do your bidding; and no one should do that who does not understand what it means. The Socratic dialog in the book that delivered the justifications for requiring military service as a condition of full citizenship was easy to jump in and argue against.

That theorem has a corollary: You cannot vote while you are in uniform. According to Heinlein's philosophy, until you complete your military obligation, you have not earned the right to vote. In real life, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George C. Marshall, and George S. Patton refused to vote while serving in the Army. (See "I Fight for Your Right to Vote. But I Won't Do It Myself," by Maj. M. I. Cavanaugh in the New York Times for Oct. 19, 2016 here.)

The minor premise of Heinlein's command doctrine is interesting to consider, and we have come to absorb some of it: everyone who wants to serve has a role. After graduating from Annapolis (1929), Robert A. Heinlein was cashiered from the Navy (1935) for tuberculosis. He recovered and lived a normal active life. Today, although military fitness standards have just gotten tougher, amputees with prosthetics have been returned to active duty, even to combat. 

I saw the movie on disk a couple of years ago, but very many years after reading the book. So, I read it again. I was looking for the story of the senior Rico, Emilio, the hero’s father, who enlisted after Buenos Aires was nuked. Emilio Rico was a corporate CEO from Harvard Law School. But his portrait is a shadowgraph. My intent was to write his story as a project in placing and selling military science fiction stories. “Write what you know” is the basic rule. I know the old man who enlists late in life but the Harvard lawyer is an alien. 

Most of the book delivers Heinlein’s vision of the ideal boot camp. The infantry fighting is out of army field manuals. (Joe Haldeman's Forever War is the better ground battle.) Heinlein served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lexington. Sgt. Juan Rico’s time aboard the Rodger Young is easy to understand and identify with. Write what you know.


Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Market is Always Right – About the Market

“Employee Salaries versus Contributions to Society” was a recent poll of 1013 people conducted by CreditLoan dot Com. The survey was not rigorous, but it was not all that bad. At least they had a large number of respondents in their convenience sample. The flaws in the poll reflect common errors in philosophy within our broader culture. 

“Hardly a week goes by where we don't hear about a CEO, professional athlete, or celebrity who's scored a multimillion-dollar salary or bonus. Maybe their talent or skill set is worthy of a hefty paycheck, but considering the small amounts paid to teachers, soldiers, and first responders, it makes us wonder if we are underpaying those who perform outside the spotlight.”  

The survey is long and involved. It ranked eleven occupations:  teachers, scientists, social workers, police officers, military, legislators/elected officials, journalists/reporters, transportation security screeners, artists, clergy, and chief executives. It considered Republicans versus Democrats, Baby Boomers vs. Gen X vs. Millennials. So, it is worth looking at for its detail, again, given some warning about its not being perfectly aligned to the standards of sociology research. They do close with an open explanation of their methodology. For one thing, they grouped occupations so that actors, designers, singers, photographers, writers, and dancers are among the “artists” as are sports figures. Nine kinds of “scientist” are listed, as are four types of “military.” Note that security screeners are considered apart from police and military.

The More You Do for Other People the More You Earn

Generally, as the aggregate data shows, the more you do for other people (in their own aggregate estimate), the more you make. That’s how markets work. So, it is erroneous to say that “most people think that teachers are underpaid.”

More to the point, teachers knew the markets before they went to college. They chose teaching anyway.  The same is true of the military. They are not in it for the money—though the money is there if you stop to think about it. 

EMT Paramedic

That is one of the problems with this survey. Military people get great healthcare for some ailments such as bullets and burns. Psychological problems have been less well attended. But they get food, clothing, and shelter. On the downside, female Navy officers pay much more than their male colleagues for uniforms. Home mortgages are cheaper; and they can get Basic Allowance for Housing, and Bachelor Officer Quarters subsidy. And housing is determined by cost of living at your home of record. I met a “special forces” kind of guy who was always on the road and whose HOR was Anchorage, Alaska. (Good thinking, Sarge!) After twenty years of military service you can retire and start another career. If you move to another federal agency, you take a lot with you. Even if you go into the private sector, you can cash in on college degrees and other untallied benefits – assuming you live through your employment, a very real untallied cost for many protective services. 
And if we could magically triple the pay of teachers or soldiers, what would be the consequences of that? Conversely, if we capped the pay of executives at 60% of this moment’s “average,” would corporations change for the better?

And it is those “averages” that beg so many questions. Granted that “artists” do not make much money on average, Tom Cruise earned $12.5 million for his role in A Few Good Men, which cost $33 million to make. As Deke Slayton said, “Averages only apply to average pilots.” 

Previously on Necessary Facts

Sunday, September 9, 2018

On Saluting the Flag

When I leave home for drill, I am in uniform. I salute the flag when I step outdoors to load my vehicle; and I salute it again before I get into my car and drive off. When I come home, before I leave my vehicle, I put on my cover and I salute the flag before going indoors. Once inside, I change into civilian clothes and stand down the saluting as I unload my vehicle. I do not otherwise acknowledge Old Glory except to unfurl her if the wind has wrapped her around her pole. But what other people do is their own business.

When I joined the Texas State Guard, I took this oath of office: 
“I, MICHAEL MAROTTA , do solemnly swear 
that I will bear true faith and allegiance 
to the State of Texas 
and to the United States of America; 
that I will serve them honestly and faithfully 
against all their enemies whomsoever, 
that I will obey the orders 
of the Governor of Texas and the orders
of the officers appointed over me, 
according to the laws, rules and articles 
for the government of the Military Forces of Texas.”

Someone who does not salute the flag of the United States is not (necessarily) an enemy of the USA or Texas. They might be a citizen of Canada. They might have religious, philosophical, or personal reasons of their own. 
Flag salute. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that bowing down to a flag or saluting it, often in conjunction with an anthem, is a religious act that ascribes salvation, not to God, but to the State or to its leaders. (Isaiah 43:11; 1 Corinthians 10:14; 1 John 5:21) One such leader was King Nebuchadnezzar of ancient Babylon. To impress the people with his majesty and religious ardor, this powerful monarch erected a great image and compelled his subjects to bow down to it while music, like an anthem, was being played. However, three Hebrews—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—refused to bow to the image, even on pain of death.—Daniel, chapter 3.  Watchtower Online here 
You can read Billy Gobitis’s letter to the Minersville School Board, at the Library of Congress American Memory here

(Penn & Teller burn an American flag. One YouTube video is an out-take from The West Wing in which they burn an American flag in the White House. Penn Jillette gives a great defense. "Did you go to law school?" Josh Lyman asks. "No," Penn replies, "clown school.")

“And then Nate Boyer saw Kaepernick sitting and got mad.  Boyer is a former Green Beret who played football briefly with the Seattle Seahawks, and with the Longhorns at the University of Texas before that. After his initial anger of seeing Kaepernick sitting, he wrote the player a letter, saying he wished Kaepernick would stand up, but that he was willing hear him out about why he was sitting down.
“So I urged him to stand and then take action, because that's really how change will happen, and he said, “No, I'm committed to sitting until I feel that things are changing and that we're moving in the right direction.” And so through that conversation, I guess, we agreed on a middle ground of him taking a knee alongside his teammates.”
On why kneeling was better than sitting
“For me, that's a sign of reverence. You know, people take a knee to say a prayer. And then also, military personnel, it's very common to see an image of a soldier, or a marine, or an airman, or a sailor, take a knee in front of a fallen brother-in-arm's grave to pay respects. So, I just thought it was better, and it showed more about — that he's paying attention as well, he's not, in a sense, sitting it out. He's engaged.” Original NPR All Things Considered story from 17 October 2017 here.  Audio reply of 9 September 2018 ATC broadcast presenting further on the same subject.

This was how my mother learned to salute the flag in the 1930s. The Pledge of Allegiance was crafted by a socialist, Francis Bellamy. He also founded a magazine called The Nationalist


Sunday, September 2, 2018

Captain America: the original is still the best

We watched Captain America: The First Avenger the other night. It was my fourth viewing. Yesterday, I brought home Winter Soldier, which I sat through a couple of months ago, and Civil War which I had not seen yet. The first movie continues to hold up well. The second was better than I remembered, but not stellar. The third installment was largely a waste of two-and-a-half hours.  

Serial fiction must identify and cross a boundary that separates the uninformed reader from the true fan. The theory of mythology insists that we know the characters: the warrior, the wanderer, the orphan, the magician… Some heroes are born that way and die still blessed even though fallen or taken down. Siegfried is an easy example. Others struggle their whole lives as did Heracles. When you have a boatload of them, as in The Iliad, Argonautica, and Star Trek, the narrator is under some burden. 
Captain America: The First Avenger reviewed here.
If you could travel through history you could take the story of Captain America: the First Avenger to just about any castle or camp. You would need more rhyming couplets to explain how Hydra infiltrated SHIELD. I had to consult the oracles at Google and Wikipedia to put Hawkeye in the Civil War and that was all: he was just a character with some attributes. He has no compelling backstory. Similarly, I know of Ant Man, but never followed him and was unaware that resizing himself and other objects is one of his super powers. (Where does the mass go or come from?) The Scarlet Witch, Vision, Black Widow, Rhodey/Rhodes,... they are just a bunch of people with special powers and could be anyone with any powers. That aspect of the movie was definitely for the true fans. But the same unmet challenge afflicts the Star Trek universe: if you do not know the crew before you see the movie, you are ignorant. On the other hand, for all of its flaws, the continuing Star Wars saga makes use of such disposable characters. 

That photojournalist Peter Parker uncritically accepted Tony Stark’s glib talk about Steve Rogers is disturbing. It would have been even worse if the kid had been approached by a wily Hydra salesman. 

The putative cause of the Civil War is the legalization, licensing, and control of “enhanced individuals,” a theme already developed in the Marvel universe through the X-Men. It was explored by The Watchmen. It even pitted Batman against Superman: “They sent me to bring you in.” “You always were a Boy Scout.” It was cited in Haldeman’s Forever War  (1974), where high-IQ kids were drafted first. The identification, nurturing, and therefore control of the gifted is known in public education from the turn of the previous century with the work of Lewis Terman. (See NecessaryFacts here.) It is an interesting theory, one too close to fact in an era of presidential doublethink and double talk. 

However, the “save the cat” school of screenwriting insists that every twisty turn lead to another twisty turn. In this case, in addition to the United Nations, we have one otherwise ordinary but understandably bitter man, Helmut Zemo. He tricks and overpowers a Hydra psychiatrist. (Hey, your shoe is untied!) On the other hand, Tony Stark has spent his life never finding out why his parents just never made it to the airport, as if they suffered a perpetual flat tire down a dirt road with no farm houses in sight. At least Helmut Zemo put two and two together. 
 ZemoMy father lived outside the city, and I thought we would be safe there. My son was excited. He could see the Iron Man from the car window. I told my wife, “Don't worry. They're fighting in the city. We're miles from harm.” And the dust cleared, and the screaming stopped. It took me two days until I found their bodies. My father still holding my wife and son in his arms... And the Avengers? They went home. I knew I couldn't kill them. More powerful men than me have tried. But if I could get them to kill each other... 
That the loss of innocent lives led to the Sokovia Accords to corral the super beings is no comfort (understandably). But did Spiderman sign them before he joined Ironman's team? As a minor, can he? What about the hundreds of other enhanced individuals? 

The middle story, Winter Soldier, held up better to a second viewing. The cast of characters is manageable. But the eye candy of Ragnarok escalates from cataclysmic conflicts in street traffic to the titanic destruction of three aerial carriers (each about ten times the area of football field or maybe 8000 times the volume of a stadium) that crash into the Potomac River without the inconveniently equivalent displacement of water. And it is the same amount that had to have been sucked into the submerged hangars when they opened to launch the helicarriers. 

The premise of Winter Soldier is purely Cold War. From our point of view, it was easy for Hydra to infiltrate the secret laboratories of the USSR. The Russians probably still feel the same way about us today. Pythagoreans, Freemasons, Jesuits, Dr. No, Thrush, Kaos, Dr. Evil … so many have trod that path that it is a superhighway with rest plazas.  

Captain America: The First Avenger must have its own problems. But they remain much smaller. The Red Skull flies toward New York and Chicago in his Valkyrie, a machine similar to the real XB-70 nuclear bomber of the same name wrecked in a collision on its maiden voyage in 1964. 

The original Captain America is lost to time because his world of 1940 is not ours now. As he said to Sam Wilson at the opening of Winter Soldier: “Well, things aren't so bad. Food's a lot better; we used to boil everything. No polio is good. Internet, so helpful.” But what we understand of him is constant, continuous, immutable. The problem is that he sometimes get lost in the noise and confusion of computer graphics and franchise licensing.