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How Amazon and Silicon Valley Seduced the Pentagon

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James Bandler, Anjali Tsui, and Doris Burke report in ProPublica:

On Aug. 8, 2017, Roma Laster, a Pentagon employee responsible for policing conflicts of interest, emailed an urgent warning to the chief of staff of then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Several department employees had arranged for Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, to be sworn into an influential Pentagon advisory board despite the fact that, in the year since he’d been nominated, Bezos had never completed a required background check to obtain a security clearance.

Mattis was about to fly to the West Coast, where he would personally swear Bezos in at Amazon’s headquarters before moving on to meetings with executives from Google and Apple. Soon phone calls and emails began bouncing around the Pentagon. Security clearances are no trivial matter to defense officials; they exist to ensure that people with access to sensitive information aren’t, say, vulnerable to blackmail and don’t have conflicts of interest. Laster also contended that it was a “noteworthy exception” for Mattis to perform the ceremony. Secretaries of defense, she wrote, don’t hold swearing-in events.

Laster’s alarms triggered fear among Pentagon brass that Mattis would be seen as doing a special favor for Bezos, which could put him in hot water with President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly proclaimed his antipathy to Bezos, mainly because of his ownership of The Washington Post. The swearing-in was canceled only hours before it was scheduled to occur. (This episode, never previously reported, is based on interviews with six people familiar with the matter. An Amazon spokesperson said the company was told that Bezos did not need a security clearance and that the company provided all requested information.)

Despite the cancellation, Bezos met with Mattis that day. They talked about leadership and military history, then moved on to Amazon’s sales pitch on why the Defense Department should make a radical shift in its computing. Amazon wanted the department to abandon its hodgepodge of 2,215 data centers, located in various Pentagon facilities and run using different systems by an array of different companies, and let Amazon replace that with cloud service: computing power provided over the internet, all of it running on Amazon’s servers.

That vision is now well on its way to becoming a reality. The Pentagon is preparing to award a $10 billion, 10-year contract to move its information technology systems to the cloud. Amazon’s cloud unit, Amazon Web Services, or AWS, is the biggest provider of cloud services in the country and also the company’s profit engine: It accounted for 58.7% of Amazon’s operating income last year. AWS has been the favorite to emerge with the Pentagon contract.

Known as JEDI, for Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, the project has been the subject of accusations of favoritism. Two spurned bidders have launched unsuccessful bid protests and one of them, Oracle, filed and lost a lawsuit. Meanwhile, there’s an ongoing investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general.

The DOD defends JEDI. The agency’s decision-makers have “always placed the interests of the warfighter first and have acted without bias, prejudice, or self-interest,” DOD spokesperson Elissa Smith said in a statement. “The same cannot be said of all parties to the debate over JEDI.”

What’s happened at the Pentagon extends past the JEDI contract. It’s a story of how some of America’s biggest tech companies used a little-known advisory board, some aggressive advocacy by a few billionaires and some unofficial lobbying to open a backdoor into the Pentagon. And so, no matter who wins the JEDI contract, one winner is already clear: Silicon Valley. The question is no longer whether a technology giant will emerge with the $10 billion prize, but rather which technology giant (or giants) will.

There are certainly benefits. The Pentagon’s technological infrastructure does indeed need to be modernized. But there may also be costs. Silicon Valley has pushed for the Pentagon to adopt its technology and its move-fast-and-break-things ethos. The result, according to interviews with more than three dozen current and former DOD officials and tech executives, has been internal clashes and a tortured process that has combined the hype of tech with the ethical morass of the Washington industry-government revolving door.

Laster did her best to enforce the rules. She would challenge the Pentagon’s cozy relationship not only with Bezos, but with Google’s Eric Schmidt, the chairman of the defense board that Bezos sought to join. The ultimate resolution? Laster was shunted aside. She was removed from the innovation board in November 2017 (but remains at the Defense Department). “Roma was removed because she insisted on them following the rules,” said a former DOD official knowledgeable about her situation.

Laster filed a grievance, which was denied. “I’ve been betrayed by an organization I joined when I was 17 years old,” said Laster, who is 54. “This is an organization built on loyalty, dedication and patriotism. Unfortunately, it is kind of one-way.”

Other criticism, from Amazon’s rivals and the press, has centered on the actions of several DOD workers who had previously worked directly or indirectly for Amazon and have since returned to the private sector. The most important of those employees, Sally Donnelly — a former outside strategist for Amazon who had become one of Mattis’ top aides — helped give Amazon officials access to Mattis in intimate settings, an opportunity that most defense contractors don’t enjoy. Donnelly organized a private dinner, never reported before, for Mattis, Bezos, herself and Amazon’s top government-sales executive at a Washington restaurant, DBGB, on Jan. 17, 2018. The dinner occurred just as the DOD was finalizing draft bid specifications for JEDI. (Asked about the dinner and several others like it, the DOD’s Smith said: “One of the department’s priorities is to reform the way DOD does business. As part of this reform, leaders are expected to engage with industry — in a full and open manner within legal boundaries — to find ways to reform our business practices and build a more lethal force.” A spokesperson for AWS said the dinner “had nothing to do with the JEDI procurement, and those implying otherwise either are misinformed or disappointed competitors trying to distract with innuendo vs competing fairly with their technical capabilities.”)

Such meetings aren’t illegal, but they undermine public trust in defense contracting, said Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and one of the nation’s leading experts on government-contracting law. “This is a particularly serious example of the revolving door among Pentagon officials and defense contractors, which has been problematic in recent years and is getting worse under the Trump administration,” he said.

In July, Trump expressed concerns about the process and whether it was skewed in Amazon’s favor. Early this month, his new defense secretary, Mark Esper, announced a fresh review, which will delay the selection of a winner. The judge in the JEDI-related case ruled in favor of the government but nonetheless summed up the process as containing conflict-of-interest allegations that were “certainly sufficient to raise eyebrows” and a “constant gravitational pull on agency employees by technology behemoths.”


The board that Bezos almost joined — called the Defense Innovation Board — was launched in 2016 by Ashton Carter, the last defense secretary in the Obama administration. Carter worried that the Pentagon’s information technology was falling behind. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 August 2019 at 3:50 pm

‘We are dropping like flies.’ Ex-fighter pilots push for earlier cancer screenings

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Tara Copp reports for McClatchy:

Former Air Force and Navy fighter pilots are calling on the military to begin cancer screenings for aviators as young as 30 because of an increase in deaths from the disease that they suspect may be tied to radiation emitted in the cockpit.

“We are dropping like flies in our 50s from aggressive cancers,” said retired Air Force Col. Eric Nelson, a former F-15E Strike Eagle weapons officer. He cited prostate and esophageal cancers, lymphoma, and glioblastomas that have struck fellow pilots he knew, commanded or flew with.

Nelson’s prostate cancer was first detected at age 48, just three months after he retired from the Air Force. In his career he has more than 2,600 flying hours, including commanding the 455th Air Expeditionary Group in Bagram, Afghanistan, and as commander of six squadrons of F-15E fighter jets at the 4th Operations Group at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.

Last month McClatchy reported on a new Air Force study that reviewed the risk for prostate cancers among its fighter pilots and new Veterans Health Administration data showing that the rate of reported cases of prostate cancers per year among veterans using the VA health care system across all services has risen almost 16 percent since fiscal year 2000.

The Air Force study also looked at cockpit exposure, finding that “pilots have greater environmental exposure to ultraviolet and ionizing radiation … (fighter pilots) have unique intra-cockpit exposures to non-ionizing radiation.”

Retired Navy Cmdr. Mike Crosby served as a radar intercept officer in F-14 fighter jets from 1984 to 1997, accumulating over 2,000 flight hours. He started Veterans Prostate Cancer Awareness Inc. in 2016 after his own prostate cancer diagnosis at age 55.

“I think there’s been a lot of avoidance in addressing this issue,” he said. Crosby and other pilots who contacted McClatchy said they suspect the cancers in their community may be linked to prolonged exposure in the cockpit to radiation from the radar systems on their advanced jets, or other sources such as from cockpit oxygen generation systems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that exposure to some types of radiation can cause cancer, however to date there has been no link established between the specific radiation emitted from radars on these advanced jets and the illnesses pilots are now seeing.

Navy and Air Force pilots told McClatchy about their battles with cancer, their frustrations about what they saw as the limitations of the Air Force study, and about former pilots who have died from cancer.

“When you’re 30 years old you need to start screening for prostate cancer, even if it comes out of your own pocket,” Nelson said. “You need to see a urologist once a year. Not your primary care physician, not your flight doc. Pay the money and stick around for your great-grandkids.”

If the military would begin screening for cancer earlier, “that would save lives,” Nelson said. The military’s health care system, TRICARE, currently covers prostate cancer screenings at age 50 for service members with no family history of the disease, and as young as age 40 if there is a family history of the disease in two or more family members. The pilots who spoke with McClatchy said they did not have a family history of prostate cancer when they were diagnosed.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Thomas Hill was a career F-4 and F-14 pilot and squadron commanding officer with more than 3,600 flight hours and more than 960 aircraft carrier landings. Hill was 52 when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In December 2011, at age 60, he learned he also had esophageal cancer.

Hill has spent the last two years tracking premature deaths or cancers among former commanding officers of F-14 squadrons. So far he’s found more than a dozen who have either been diagnosed or have died from the disease.

“God, they’re all my friends,” he said.

What has frustrated some pilots is that the government has looked into the connection between military service and cancer rates for years, but with mixed results.

For example, a 2009 peer-reviewed study published by the American Association for Cancer Research looked at cancer rates among service members from 1990 to 2004 and reported in 2009 that “prostate cancer rates in the military were twice those in the general population, and breast cancer rates were 20% to 40% higher.”

However, a 2011 study published in the peer-reviewed journal “Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine” found no significant difference in prostate cancer rates between pilots and non-pilots in the military. It’s the same conclusion that the Air Force study found.

“The Air Force did not ask the right question,” Hill said of the study, which like the 2011 aviation journal review compared cancer rates between pilots and non-pilots but largely did not look at what happened to the pilots’ health after their military careers. The Air Force said its study was limited by lack of access to pilots’ health records after they separated from the military.

“If they are really going to protect the people who have gone out and served, they need to look at the guys’ health 20 years after they have finished their military careers,” Hill said. His own informal review of fellow pilots showed a similar pattern: cancers usually surfaced about 15 to 20 years after pilots left the military, which would not have been captured by the Air Force review.

Derek Kaufman, a spokesman for Air Force Materiel Command, said further studies are under consideration. “We have presented potential options for a follow-up study to the Air Force Medical Readiness Agency,” Kaufman said. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

16 August 2019 at 9:29 am

Posted in Daily life, Health, Military

Congress is Accepting Price Gouging By Defense Contractors

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Congress now seems completely divorced from protecting the public and representing the interests of the public. Charles Tiefer writes in Forbes:

On May 15, the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform held a  hearing about contract pricing practices of Transdigm, a sole source supplier of parts to the Pentagon.  The Department of Defense (DOD) Inspector General (IG) found that Transdigm overcharged the government by as much as 4,451 percent for items purchased.  The hearing produced what passed for bipartisan outrage, and Transdigm eventually agreed to refund $16 million to DOD.

Left unstated was that Transdigm violated no laws, regulations or DOD policies.  Transdigm simply got overly aggressive at the wrong time, and was singled out for criticism when the prices DOD paid became public.  But what about all the companies that engage in the same type of perfectly legal pricing practices as Transdigm, but are more subtle about it?  This includes every major defense contractor, since virtually all of them are using the same type of pricing transparency disclosure exemptions employed by Transdigm.

Over the past two decades, government contractors, primarily those that supply to DOD have used their political clout to have traditional pricing laws changed – sort of the government contracting equivalent of repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act.  Instead of supplying cost or pricing data to the government for negotiation of contract prices, Congress has largely exempted contractors from these long standing pricing transparency requirements by a form of legal jiu-jitsu that labels goods and services as “commercial.”  But, what does “commercial” mean under this new paradigm?  For decades, it was goods and services sold to the general public at market prices.  Sounds reasonable.  But that was not good enough for  contractors who want to claim that everything the government buys, including specialized goods and services for military use on a sole source basis are “commercial” (and thus not have to justify their prices).

Contractors pushed through a willing Congress a government contracting definition that literally qualifies anything imaginable as “commercial” provided it is “of a type” relating to something that exists in the commercial world.  Under this Orwellian definition, military aircraft, combat vehicles, specialized electronics, even rockets, and virtually every other product or service potentially qualifies as “commercial” and contractors are relieved of the necessity to submit cost or pricing data to justify their prices – even in sole source situations.

For contractors, not submitting cost data makes perfect sense.  No one wants to empower a buyer with information that could make them drive a harder bargain.  For the buyer, the government in this instance, not getting the cost data has been a disaster, leading DOD and other agencies to pay inflated, but perfectly legal prices.  Transdigm is just the tip of the defense pricing iceberg.

Even when DOD does not recognize an item or service as “commercial,” other statutory changes made by Congress have effectively neutered much of the law that used to provide for pricing transparency, the “Truth in Negotiations Act.”  The effect is that government contract pricing has become a “Wild West” with much less meaningful disclosure to ensure that prices paid using taxpayer dollars are fair and reasonable.

Meanwhile, the Cost Accounting Standards (CAS) Board, a part of the Office of Management and Budget that sets accounting rules for cost-reimbursement contracts, and other contracts awarded without competition, is quietly, but actively trying to “deregulate,” i.e., allow contractors to use whatever accounting principles they feel like when pricing contracts and seeking payment.  The CAS Board, the brainchild of the legendary Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear Navy, has been estimated to save the government from 5–10% on all contracts to which it is applied.  That’s a 5–10% margin that contractors would like to see pad their bottom line.

The situation has gotten so bad that the recently departed Director of the DOD Pricing and Contracting Office wrote to the DoD IG in late 2018 stating, “The reality is that the only true defense against companies that exhibit unconscionable greed is to avoid doing business with those companies whenever possible through competitive means, ensure that there are statutory provisions that address ‘war profiteering’ and price gouging, and ensure the existence of a legislative provision that compels companies to provide cost data …”  He added that current defense contractor “value based pricing” concepts “… are no more than an industrial code word for unfettered price gouging.” . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

9 August 2019 at 10:48 am

The Coming Boeing Bailout?

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Matt Stoller writes:

Let’s start by admiring the company that was Boeing, so we can know what has been lost. As one journalist put it in 2000, “Boeing has always been less a business than an association of engineers devoted to building amazing flying machines.”

For the bulk of the 20th century, Boeing made miracles. Its engineers designed the B-52 in a weekend, bet the company on the 707, and built the 747 despite deep observer skepticism. The 737 started coming off the assembly line in 1967, and it was such a good design it was still the company’s top moneymaker thirty years later.

How did Boeing make miracles in civilian aircraft? In short, the the civilian engineers were in charge. And it fell apart because the company, due to a merger, killed its engineering-first culture.

What Happened?

In 1993, a Defense official in the Clinton administration, Bill Perry, called defense contractor CEOs to a dinner, nicknamed “the last supper.” He told them to merge with each other so as, in the classic excuse used by monopolists, to find efficiencies in their businesses. The rationale was that post-Cold War era military spending reductions demanded a leaner defense base. In reality, Perry had been a long-time mergers and acquisitions specialist working with industry ally Norm Augustine, the eventual CEO of Lockheed Martin.

Perry was so aggressive about encouraging mergers that he put together a strategy to have the Pentagon itself pay merger costs, which resulted in a bevy of consolidation among contractors and subcontractors. In 1997, Boeing, with both a commercial and military division, ended up buying McDonnell Douglas, a major aerospace company and competitor. With this purchase, the airline market radically consolidated.

Unlike Boeing, McDonnell Douglas was run by financiers rather than engineers. And though Boeing was the buyer, McDonnell Douglas executives somehow took power in what analysts started calling a “reverse takeover.” The joke in Seattle was, “McDonnell Douglas bought Boeing with Boeing’s money.”

The merger sparked a war between the engineers and the bean-counters; as one analyst put it, “Some of the board of directors would rather have spent money on a walk-in humidor for shareholders than on a new plane.” The white collar engineers responded to the aggressive cost-cutting and politically motivated design choices with the unthinkable, affiliating with the AFL-CIO and going on strike for the first time in the company’s 56-year history. “We weren’t fighting against Boeing,” said the union leader. “We were fighting to save Boeing.”

The key corporate protection that had protected Boeing engineering culture was a wall inside the company between the civilian division and military divisions. This wall was designed to prevent the military procurement process from corrupting civilian aviation. As aerospace engineer Pierre Sprey noted, military procurement and engineering created a corrupt design process, with unnecessary complexity, poor safety standards, “wishful thinking projections” on performance, and so forth. Military contractors subcontract based on political concerns, not engineering ones. If contractors need to influence a Senator from Montana, they will place production of a component in Montana, even if no one in the state can do the work.

Bad procurement is one reason (aside from military officials going into defense contracting work) why military products are often poor quality or deficient. For instance, the incredibly expensive joint strike fighter F-35 is a mess, and the Navy’s most expensive aircraft carrier, costing $13 billion, was recently delivered without critical elevators to lift bombs into fighter jets. Much of this dynamic exists because of a lack of competition in contracting for major systems, a result of the consolidation Perry pushed in the early 1990s. Monopolies don’t have to produce good quality products, and often don’t.

At any rate, when McDonnell Douglas took over Boeing, the military procurement guys took over aerospace production and design. The company began a radical outsourcing campaign, done for political purposes. In defense production, plants went to influence Senators and Congressmen; in civilian production, Boeing started moving production to different countries in return for airline purchases from the national airlines.

Engineers immediately recognized this offshoring as a disaster in the making. In 2001, a Boeing employee named L. Hart Smith published a paper criticizing the business strategy behind offshoring production, noting that vital engineering tasks were being done in ways that seemed less costly but would end up destroying the company. He was quickly proved right.

The first disaster was Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, a test case in how to attempt to cut costs and end up driving up expenses. The company went over budget by something like $12-18 billion. As Sprey put it, “You don’t have to be wearing a deer-stalker hat to deduce that the rotten practices bred by DoD procurement have finally infected the executive suite of Boeing’s commercial division.” Aside from the offshoring of key capacity, the 787 had significant engineering problems, including electrical systems that caused battery fires on the planes.

In 2005, Boeing hired its first ever CEO without an aviation engineering background, bringing in James McNerney, who got his training in brand management at Proctor & Gamble, then McKinsey, and then spent two decades at General Electric learning from Jack Welch how to erode industrial capacity in favor of shareholders. He brought these lessons to Boeing, and greenlit the 737 Max to compete with a more fuel-efficient Airbus model.

The key decision was, rather than just build a new plane, was to upgrade the 737 model. That way, airlines would be able to buy the plane and not have to retrain their pilots, as pilots must be re-certified for a new aircraft model but don’t have to be recertified for upgrades of old models. But this choice caused significant problems, because the aerodynamics of the 737 body didn’t fit with the Max’s engine, which was obvious during the first wind tunnel tests.

The testing in 2012, with air flow approaching the speed of sound, allowed engineers to analyze how the airplane’s aerodynamics would handle a range of extreme maneuvers. When the data came back, according to an engineer involved in the testing, it was clear there was an issue to address.

The old Boeing would have redesigned the plane, but the McDonnell Douglas influenced Boeing new one tried to patch the problem with software. And it was bad software, written by to engineers paid $9/dollar an hour. The Federal Aviation Administration, having outsourced much of its own regulatory capacity to Boeing, didn’t know what was going on, and Boeing didn’t tell airlines and pilots about the new safety elements.

This disregard for engineering integrity and safety had come from the Wall Street driven financialization of the 1990s, through General Electric’s McNerney, but also from military procurement culture. Current CEO Dennis Muilenburg, for instance, has presided over a series of problematic projects in the defense division, from the X-32, the losing entry in the F-35 joint strike fighter contract, to the Airborne Laser system. Muilenburg has handled the 737 Max problem the way a defense official would, through public relations and political channels rather than the way a civilian engineer would, which would be through an aggressively honest review of engineering choices.

The net effect of the merger, and the follow-on managerial and financial choices, is that . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

5 July 2019 at 11:25 am

How John Hersey Bore Witness

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Roy Scranton writes in the New Republic:

Some writers are known for their oeuvre. Some are known for their personality. John Hersey, as the subtitle of Jeremy Treglown’s biography attests, is known as the “author of Hiroshima.” Taking up most of the August 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorker, Hersey’s article was a media sensation, selling out that issue of the magazine, and a spectacular success when reprinted as a book a few months later. Nothing he did after—not his speculative novel imagining China conquering the United States and forcing its white citizens into slavery, White Lotus; not his nonfiction account of a grisly police murder in the 1967 Detroit riot, The Algiers Motel Incident (later fictionalized by Kathryn Bigelow in the film Detroit); not his social novel of bourgeois malaise, The Marmot Drive; not his commentary accompanying Ansel Adams’s photographs of Japanese-Americans interred in a concentration camp during World War II, Manzanar; not even his best-selling meditation on fishing, Blues—would reach the level of renown achieved by his slim book about the American atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. Indeed, little of Hersey’s other work is read or remembered today. Most of it is out of print.

Sadly, I’m not here to tell you that Hersey is a forgotten genius awaiting rediscovery. Some of his work is plodding and mediocre. His formative years at Time and Life left a deadening, middlebrow mark on his style, blunting the edges of an otherwise singular perspective. Hersey is at his best in extremity, as in his war writing and in Hiroshima, where his restrained, sober voice is able to describe violence and horror that in the hands of a more lively writer might seem lurid. He can write about the panicked tension of a bombing run, a sniper attack, and people’s skin melting off their bodies without letting his prose turn purple, without trying to make his sentences perform the reaction the reader must feel. Hersey is often regarded as a progenitor of the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, but he couldn’t be further from the antic gyrations of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, or Michael Herr, or even the brilliantly rococo self-dramatizations of Joan Didion. The title Treglown takes for his biography is apt: Not only morally but also stylistically, Hersey is “Mr. Straight Arrow.”

Yet Hersey’s writing is stranger and more obsessive than its conventional form would suggest. His lifelong fixation on East Asia and his insistent interest in the extremes of the human condition were no doubt related to a sense of alienation he seemed to have felt his entire life. His stories and books always seek out the victims of violence, the survivors, the men and women who are trampled by power yet find a way to keep going. Many of his stories might today raise ethical questions about co-opting others’ voices—victims of the atomic bomb, concentration camp survivors, black Americans brutalized by police violence—yet in his time he was one of the few to bring these stories into the mainstream of American culture.

He also happened to live during a time of epochal change, the dawn of what his employer of many years, Henry Luce, called “the American Century,” a period today shrouded in myth. People talk about “World War II–style mobilization,” the Marshall Plan, and the “Good War” without any real sense of what actually happened in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, or any apprehension of what those grim decades were like for the people who lived through them. We tend to forget that most Americans favored staying out of the war until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, or that, after that attack, most Americans saw the war primarily as a mission of vengeance against the Japanese, who many thought deserved complete extermination. The racial hatred that swept America in the war years is well documented by historian John Dower in his book War Without Mercy, and exemplified by an iconic photo that ran in the May 22, 1944, issue of Henry Luce’s Life, showing a demure young woman gazingthoughtfully at the Japanese skull her Navy boyfriend had sent her.

Likewise, we might remember Hiroshima, in part thanks to Hersey, but we tend to forget that dropping the atomic bomb was seen by analysts at the time as militarily unnecessary, since Japan was already near collapse and suing for peace, and that the decision to murder hundreds of thousands of civilians was made largely as a show of force against Soviet Russia, to keep the Russian army from encroaching on America’s gains in East Asia, and because of technocratic inertia: So much money and effort had been sunk into the Manhattan Project that the “gadget” simply had to be used. We also tend to forget about the American napalm raids on Japan before Hiroshima, such as the firebombing of Tokyo, which killed more than 100,000 civilians and displaced more than a million people.

Recalling these atrocities puts Hersey’s groundbreaking work in its appropriate context. Hiroshima may have turned out a massive success, but it was written against the grain. Treglown’s careful study of Hersey’s life and work helps shed light on a time as distant and mythic to us today as the Wild West was to Hersey. Mr. Straight Arrow stands out in Treglown’s biography as a writer of empathy and curiosity, a writer whose plain style conveyed the desperate struggle for survival and dignity in the face of oppression, violence, and political chaos.

A classic insider-outsider, never quite at home in the elite world in which he moved, Hersey spent his career shuttling between the margins and the center, struggling to connect. Born in June 1914, just before the start of World War I, in the Chinese port city of Tientsin (now Tianjin), Hersey was the son of Protestant missionaries, which fact helped him get a scholarship spot at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut; he then entered Yale on another scholarship. His brother’s old Hotchkiss roommate, Sheldon Luce, helped get him a job offer from Henry Luce at Time-Life. He turned it down and spent a year studying English literature at Cambridge on a Mellon scholarship instead, then worked for a few months as a private secretary for Sinclair Lewis.

He took another shot at Time. Within two years, he was given a desk in the Foreign News section and sent to cover the war in China. He visited Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Chungking (Chongqing), saw Chiang Kai-shek, and returned to his birthplace, Tientsin, then occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army, just as a crisis broke out that nearly led to war between Japan and Great Britain. In autumn 1939, as Poland fell to German and Russian tanks, he courted Frances Ann Cannon, whose other beau, a roguish young man named Jack Kennedy, was seen by her parents as something of a problem.

Germany conquered France. Henry Luce published his now-famous editorial in Life declaring that in “The American Century,” the United States “must undertake now to be the Good Samaritan of the entire world.” Franklin Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease bill, enabling economic and military support for the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, Free France, and China. In December 1941, the Japanese navy and army launched simultaneous surprise attacks on U.S. and British colonial military bases in Hawaii, the Philippines, Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, Wake Island, and Sarawak.

Within hours of the attack on the Philippines, an editor at Knopf asked Hersey to write about it. This invitation led to his first book, Men on Bataan, a hasty synthesis of interviews, correspondents’ cables, and biographical sketches, one part biography of General Douglas MacArthur, one part apologetic summary of MacArthur’s disastrous failed defense of the Philippines, and one part oral history of the soldiers who fought there. Hersey then convinced Luce to send him to . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

30 June 2019 at 4:46 pm

Trump Keeps Talking About the Last Military Standoff With Iran — Here’s What Really Happened

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Megan Rose, Robert Faturechi, and T. Christian Mille report in ProPublica:

Just before sunset on Jan. 12, 2016, 10 American sailors strayed into Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, a navigation error with potentially grave consequences. On their way to a spying mission, the Americans had set sail from Kuwait to Bahrain. It was a long-distance trek that some senior commanders in the Navy’s 5th Fleet had warned they were neither equipped nor trained to execute.

Surrounded by four boats operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the U.S. sailors, in two small gunboats, surrendered rather than opening fire. The officer in charge of the mission later said he understood that had a firefight erupted, it could well have provoked a wider conflict and scuttled the controversial nuclear deal the two countries were poised to implement in mere days.

The Navy dialed up an elaborate rescue mission to free the sailors from tiny Farsi Island involving fighter jets and a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group. But the return of the sailors was ultimately secured peacefully. The nuclear deal went forward with the U.S. providing sanctions relief and unfreezing billions in Iranian assets in exchange for Tehran’s promise to curb its nuclear ambitions.

President Donald Trump explicitly invoked the 2016 incident last week as he weighed actions against Iran amid rising tensions. Trump told Time magazine that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had mishandled the high-stakes confrontation, a mistake he would not make. “The only reason the sailors were let go is that we started making massive payments to them the following day,” Trump said. “Otherwise the sailors would still be there.”

But a ProPublica investigation makes clear that Trump’s repeated claims about the captured sailors – Obama’s weakness; that the money was improper – obscure the more troubling realities exposed by the Navy’s 2016 debacle in the Persian Gulf. The Farsi Island mission was a gross failure, involving issues that have plagued the Navy in recent years: inadequate training, poor leadership, and a disinclination to heed the warnings of its men and women about the true extent of its vulnerabilities.

Now, the Navy, and the 5th Fleet based in the Persian Gulf, are staring at the possibility of a military conflict, standing ready for a commander in chief who lacks a permanent secretary of defense and is thus more dependent on uniformed military leaders.

In the wake of the Farsi Island incident, the outlines of the Navy’s fumbles were widely reported. But ProPublica reconstructed the failed mission, and the Navy’s response to it, using hundreds of pages of previously unreported confidential Navy documents, including the accounts of sailors and officers up and down the chain of command. Those documents reveal that the 10 captured sailors were forced out on dangerous missions they were not prepared for. Their commanders repeatedly dismissed worries about deficiencies in manpower and expertise.

Prior to the mission, the sailors had received little training on their weapons, and the crew of one boat forgot to load the limited number of guns at their disposal during the transit. One sailor prepared to record the potentially hostile encounter with the helmet camera she’d been issued but couldn’t get it to work. So she filmed it on her personal iPhone 4. And when they were captured, a rescue seemed unlikely given that no one back at shore had yet realized they were off course.

The Farsi Island episode is consistent with ProPublica’s findings in its ongoing examination of the Navy’s state of combat readiness. ProPublica’s detailed review of the Navy’s two accidents in the Pacific in 2017, which killed 17 sailors from the 7th Fleet, shows that the most senior uniformed and civilian leaders mishandled years of warnings about degraded ships, undertrained and overworked crews, and the potentially fatal costs of tasking vulnerable sailors with an unceasing number of sometimes ill-conceived missions.

Immediately after the release of the Farsi Island sailors in early 2016, Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan launched an investigation that would divide the highest levels of the Navy over the question of who was to blame for the embarrassing incident. The findings of that investigation, completed in February 2016, did not spare the commanders and crew of the two riverine combat boats, or RCBs. They had violated fundamental Navy doctrines regarding navigation and leadership, the report found. Senior 5th Fleet commanders were also faulted and two were relieved of their commands.

Donegan’s investigators, though, dug deeper. They concluded that the riverine unit had not been properly manned or trained before being dispatched to the Persian Gulf. Riverine sailors had had to train themselves. The sailors had done most of their exercises on smaller patrol boats instead of the RCBs used in the Gulf. They had received a minimum amount of training on the latest navigation system. They had never conducted a lengthy training voyage in the open sea, something they would be asked to do routinely in the Gulf.

he investigation’s files included the personal plea of one of the enlisted men taken captive on Farsi Island, Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Diebold.

“I cannot, nor am I in a position to, determine the exact reasons why my crews were captured,” Diebold wrote. “This is something that should be discussed frankly and openly.”

The seeds of the mishap, Diebold wrote, did not “materialize on the 11th of January, nor do they end, neatly, on the morning of the 13th. It is my hope that the current investigation and the team’s findings are used not to punish 10 sailors, but educate and refocus a critical, if neglected force, if not our Navy as a total warfighting organization.”

The Navy ignored the sailor’s request. In internal Navy memos, commanders criticized parts of the investigation for being “deficient,” “incomplete” and “unsubstantiated” amid disputes over how much training has actually taken place. To address the differing views, the Navy ordered a second investigation and embraced its findings that pre-deployment training and manning for the RCB unit, in fact, had been adequate.

“Pre-deployment training and manning were not contributing factors to this incident,” the second investigation, which was released to the public, concluded.

The Navy’s top commander, John Richardson, signed off on the more reassuring set of findings.

“I’m not prepared to say that there’s a larger problem,” Richardson told reporters in 2016.

Over the weekend, the details of Iran’s downing of an unmanned American drone that further escalated the confrontation remained unclear, but it seemed possible the Navy had again mistakenly entered Iran’s territory. Iran insists the plane had penetrated its airspace; the United States says it was in international territory. Last week, The New York Times quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying Trump had pulled back in part because of emerging evidence that the Global Hawk drone or a second, manned U.S. spy plane may have indeed breached Iranian territory. Trump cited the high number of possible Iranian casualties.

In a written response to questions, the Navy said it had implemented reforms to improve the coastal riverine units. U.S. trainers now keep careful track of the instruction gunboats and their crews receive while deployed. New maintenance teams are ready to fly into deployed areas to make repairs. The RCB boats have been replaced by a newer gunboat known as the Mark VI.

Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, the Navy’s spokesman, said that many of the changes were still being implemented, but that the Navy’s most senior leaders were confident that “the Coastal Riverine Force is ready to carry out all missions assigned in any numbered fleet area of operations.”

Brown also said the Navy’s investigation was “conducted in an independent manner.”

“There were no instances of facts or opinions being silenced,” Brown wrote.

Brown also offered a broader defense of the Navy’s preparedness.

“No naval forces are deployed without ensuring full readiness,” he said. “There should be no doubt — U.S. Navy Forces deployed globally are ready in all respects.”

In an interview with ProPublica on Friday, Donegan, who stepped down as commander of the 5th Fleet in September 2017, said the margin for error is small in such extraordinary circumstances. Training matters. Mistakes can prove dire.

“My biggest concern is about miscalculation,” said Donegan, who now works as a security consultant. “When you have heightened tensions, no direct communications between the two sides and forces in close proximity, an event that one side thinks is low-level might compel the other side to respond in a way that leads to expanded conflict.” . . .

Chapter 1. “What Are We Doing Here?”

To some at the Navy’s outpost in Kuwait, the last-minute mission for which they were briefed on Jan. 11, 2016, seemed preposterous.

The RCBs would have to travel from Kuwait to Bahrain — a 260-mile trip, two times longer than any they’d ever done — carefully avoiding nearby territorial waters. Once there, the National Security Agency, as part of its intelligence operations, would load up their small boats with listening equipment and have them float along the Persian Gulf’s coastline. The mission was given a name: “Radio Creep.” It was unclear who they’d be spying on, but several officers took the order as urgent, and, given worsening weather conditions, one decided the sailors would have to launch within 24 hours.

The crew raised what seemed to be an essential problem: Only one of the three RCBs was currently operational.

They might be able to fix one of the two disabled boats, Gunner’s Mate Isaac Escobedo guessed, but it would be a rush job, he later told investigators.

The boats had been run 3,000 hours beyond the cut off for required overhauls.

Lt. Kenneth Rogers, the officer in charge of the RCB unit, also had concerns. The boats were needed for another mission; to make it to Bahrain, they’d have to refuel at sea, something they’d only done once before — while they were close enough to base to make it home if it didn’t go well; and the crew, if it scrambled to get at least one more boat ready, would be exhausted when it set out, Rogers argued.

Cmdr. Greg Meyer, Rogers’ boss, was sympathetic to Rogers’ concerns, records show, and took the case up the chain of command.

Kyle Moses, the commodore with ultimate authority over the RCB unit, didn’t want to hear any of it. He thought the worried officers were being “overly cautious.” Moses said he didn’t know why so many of his officers were concerned about the riverine command boats making this kind of trip, since “the RCB is a boat and boats float.”

“Navigation is navigation,” Moses, an explosives expert, later told investigators.

The Navy’s 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain and is responsible for about 2.5 million square miles of water and some 20 countries. The vast expanse includes three critical chokepoints at the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab al Mandab at the southern tip of Yemen. The 5th Fleet has been a vital nerve center for American action and interests in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 5th Fleet, though, doesn’t have warships of its own and instead relies on vessels and aircraft rotated in from the enormous 7th Fleet in the Pacific as well as stateside fleets.

Riverine boats, if a modest segment of the Navy’s full arsenal of ships and aircraft, have nonetheless been a staple of operations for decades, typically deployed to patrol rivers and marshes, whether they be in Vietnam or Iraq. The RCBs were then the most recent incarnation of the gunboat: 53 feet long, holding crews of eight and loaded with heavy machine guns and high-tech navigation gear.

In the Persian Gulf, the RCBs for years mostly performed escort missions for  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2019 at 2:29 pm

One of D-Day’s most famous, heroic assaults seems to have been unnecessary

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Scott Higham reports in the Washington Post:

Pointe du Hoc, France — Seventy-five years ago Thursday, a battalion of elite U.S. Army Rangers scaled the 100-foot promontory here overlooking Omaha Beach, with nothing more than ropes and rickety ladders. As enemy gunfire and grenades rained down, picking them off as they climbed, the Rangers managed to secure the strategic high ground and silence a small battery of long-range German guns that had been moved inland.

The battle for Pointe du Hoc became one of the most heroic moments of the D-Day invasion. It was lionized by the legendary Hollywood film “The Longest Day” and by President Ronald Reagan, who stood on this hallowed ground to one of his most famous speeches, extolling the bravery of the “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” on the 40th anniversary of the largest amphibious assault in the world’s history.

But a little more than three miles down the windswept Normandy coastline, an archaeological dig on a vast swath of farmland is starting to tell another story about what took place that day. A World War II artifact collector and historian accidentally stumbled upon a massive German artillery installation that was buried after the invasion. His discovery, along with a trove of declassified U.S. and British military documents, threatens to alter the narrative of Pointe du Hoc and its importance as a military objective during the D-Day invasion.

Only now are historians beginning to reckon with the implications. Depending on which is talking, the discovery of what is known as “Maisy Battery” either calls into question the wisdom of the entire Pointe du Hoc operation or is simply one more footnote in a war full of footnotes.

One thing is certain: The mythology of Pointe du Hoc is firmly established. Those who challenge the story do so at their own peril.

“Historians always shatter the idol, but let me tell you, when they do, they get a lot of pushback and angry emails in the middle of the night,” said Rob Citino, the senior historian at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans who has written 10 books about the war and only recently learned about Maisy Battery. “Pointe du Hoc is such sacred ground, it’s like bringing someone to Gettysburg and saying, ‘Actually, there was a much bigger battle fought just a few miles away.’ ”

The artifact collector and historian, Gary Sterne, 55, has received nothing but pushback since he found a map at a military flea market 15 years ago that led him to the discovery of Maisy Battery, a complex that covers 144 acres one mile inland between Omaha and Utah beaches — the prime objectives of the U.S. invasion forces. He has published a two-volume, 1,160-page encyclopedia full of photographs, military documents and interviews with Army Rangers who climbed the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc.

His startling conclusion: The assault was unnecessary, the commander of the U.S. Army Ranger unit failed to follow orders, putting his men directly in harm’s way, and U.S. military leaders should have targeted Maisy and its battery of heavy artillery guns instead of Pointe du Hoc, which the Germans had largely abandoned by the time of the Normandy invasion.

“I have nothing but respect for the Rangers and what they did at Pointe du Hoc,” Sterne said in a recent interview from his home in England. “It was truly heroic. But the facts are the facts.”

‘A lightbulb moment’

Sterne has been collecting military memorabilia since he was child growing up near Manchester, England. It became a full-time pursuit after he purchased a home in Normandy. In 2004, he traveled to Louisville to attend one of the largest military flea markets in the world.

Beneath one of the 5,000 tables set up there, Sterne spotted a cardboard box. Inside was the complete uniform of a U.S. Army soldier who had fought in WWII. Sterne bought it for $180. Inside one of the pockets was a map of Normandy. The map was marked with hand-drawn circles, each with an “X” in the middle, and the words: “Areas of High Resistance.”

Sterne was confused. He knew the precise locations of those areas.

“I thought, ‘There’s nothing there. It’s just fields,’” Sterne recalled.

Back in Normandy, Sterne drove to the fields and started to walk through the tall grass. He came across a clearing and a large slab of concrete. At first he thought he had found the foundation of a building destroyed long ago. As he stepped off the slab, he tripped over a small chimney protruding from the concrete.

He was standing on the roof of a building, not the floor.

“I thought, hang on a minute,” Sterne said. “It was a lightbulb moment.”

Sterne and his brother grabbed some shovels and began to dig. They unearthed a perfectly preserved, bombproof German ammunition bunker. He and his son, Dan, have been digging ever since, uncovering bunkers and barracks and large concrete gun placements. They discovered a field hospital, a command and control center, evidence that an SS squad was embedded at the battery and the skeleton of a German soldier. All of it was buried by Allied forces after the invasion and Maisy was lost to history.

For nearly two years, Sterne kept his discovery a secret as he purchased dozens of tracts of land from their owners, quietly piecing together vast sections of Maisy for a World War II museum. When he went public with his findings in 2006 and opened the site to the public a year later, he said the backlash was ferocious. Other historians labeled him an opportunist, a fabulist, a “Mad Englishman.”

Sterne returned fire. He argued that Maisy, not Pointe du Hoc, should have been a primary target on D-Day. The guns at Maisy, he noted, were still firing three days after the invasion and capable of striking positions on Utah Beach, about five miles away. What he said next amounted to heresy in the military world.

Based on previously secret intelligence and field reports he obtained from military archives in the United States and Britain, Sterne said the 2nd Ranger Battalion commander of the Pointe du Hoc mission, Lt. Col James E. Rudder, knew that the Germans had removed their guns from Pointe du Hoc as the D-Day invasion neared. When Rudder and his men reached the top of Pointe du Hoc on June 6, 1944, the guns were gone, some of them replaced with long wooden telephone poles resembling artillery cannons. The real guns had been moved inland. The Rangers found five guns that had been moved from Pointe du Hoc that morning and disabled them with thermite grenades.

Sterne went further. He said Rudder jeopardized the lives of his men by disobeying orders. The declassified orders show that the 2nd Ranger Battalion was tasked with attacking Pointe du Hoc, moving inland and knocking out the German artillery batteries at Grandcamp and Maisy. The orders, issued March 26, 1944, directed Rudder’s Rangers to “capture enemy batteries at GRANDCAMP and MAISY” after taking Pointe du Hoc.

Instead, Rudder attacked Pointe du Hoc, despite the reports documenting that the guns were being moved, and he remained in the area without advancing to Maisy. He later said he was ordered to hold the Grandcamp-Vierville Highway to prevent a German counterattack. But Sterne said he could find no orders in the thousands of records he has reviewed directing Rudder to remain at Pointe du Hoc and hold that highway. Of the Rangers who served under Rudder during the invasion, 77 were killed, 152 were wounded and 38 were listed as missing in action.

Rudder, who died in 1970, went on to become a war hero, receiving the Distinguished Service Cross, and was later appointed president of Texas A&M University. One of the Rangers who said he fought under Rudder, Lt. George G. Klein, went on to become a world-famous narrator of the Pointe du Hoc story.

Klein frequently lectured about the assault, telling audiences that he was wounded by a German bayonet and had to be evacuated. During the 73rd anniversary of the invasion, Klein traveled to Normandy, where he was feted as “one of the great celebrities of the battle.” He signed autographs. He posed for pictures. He planted trees in Normandy villages.

But there was a problem: Klein never fought at Pointe du Hoc.

Sterne said Klein visited Maisy during one summer and told Sterne that “you have your history all wrong.” Sterne had written a book by then called “Cover Up at Omaha Beach.” It was a based on interviews Sterne had conducted with Rangers who fought at Pointe du Hoc.

Sterne said he asked Klein about the role he played that day. Klein told him he had destroyed a gun pit at Pointe du Hoc. But records show that the gun pit had been destroyed months earlier. Klein said he was a lieutenant in F Company of the 2nd Ranger Battalion. But F Company already had a full complement of lieutenants. Klein could not recall details of the battle. The Rangers Sterne had interviewed could never forget. Klein said he returned to his original artillery unit after he was wounded.

Sterne and other historians found the papers documenting the activities of that artillery unit during D-Day. Klein and his unit were in Ireland on June 6, 1944.

Klein eventually admitted that he had fabricated his military past and the tales he told about the attack. The story was picked up by news outlets around the world.

Klein, like Maisy, faded into history. Now 98 and living in Illinois, he did not return calls for comment.

‘The fog of war’

Each year, nearly 1 million tourists descend upon Normandy, many of them from the United States. Tour guides escort them to Omaha and Utah beaches, the American Cemetery and historic military sites, such as the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise.

The piece de resistance of any tour is Pointe du Hoc.

Adrian Ridley-Jones, 63, a top-rated battlefield guide in Normandy, has recently added a new site to his tour: Maisy Battery.

The former signal officer in the British Army said he has come to appreciate the significance of the Maisy discovery and the documents Sterne has obtained. It has become increasingly clear to him that as D-Day approached, the need to take Pointe du Hoc diminished. The guns were gone, the Germans were changing their positions, and the Pointe du Hoc mission would be perilous. He wonders why Rudder didn’t alert his commanders that the guns were being removed from Pointe du Hoc and urge them to make Maisy and Grandcamp the primary targets instead. Rudder never told his men that the guns had been removed, either.

“As archaeological evidence becomes clearer, history gets rewritten,” Ridley-Jones said. “Problems come as you do this. You upset preconceived ideas and entrenched positions. Instead of people looking at this dispassionately, it becomes a political hot potato.”

Ridley-Jones is careful to note the bravery of the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc. . .

Continue reading. The original article has quite a few interesting photos.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 June 2019 at 11:03 am

Posted in Army, Military

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