Wednesday, December 31, 2014

(#91-1) December 31 2014. Distracted Nation—does social media really help us communicate better—or is it mostly noise? Do we know how to tell the difference?






The Atlantic—one of my favorite publications as regular readers of this blog will know—has just run a fascinating but disturbing piece called The Death of the Artist—And The Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur.

Hard-working artisan, solitary genius, credentialed professional—the image of the artist has changed radically over the centuries. What if the latest model to emerge means the end of art as we have known it?

  • by William Deresiewicz
  • Dec. 28, 2014

It is fascinating to me because I’m deeply interested in creativity—and how it can be harnessed for the benefit of mankind and the joy of those involved. And yes I do mean ‘joy.’ Satisfaction and pleasure certainly feature in abundance, but they don’t adequately convey the exhilaration of the creative process. I just love to think and then convert such thoughts into the written word. That’s nearly as good as it gets as far as I’m concerned.  Add a woman and some wine—and I desire nothing more. Heaven can wait. It is right here on Earth.

It is disturbing because it so reflects and describes my own situation. On the one hand, I rather fancy the notion of being a solitary genius (not that I think of myself as a genius, let me stress) whereas a combination of my analysis and circumstances is pushing me—apparently inexorably—towards being a creative entrepreneur.

When I say ‘my analysis’ I mean that in some ways I feel betrayed by my own mind. Emotionally, I would like to do nothing but write in productive solitude (with maybe a little company now and then), yet my inner voice says—quite firmly—that I cannot ignore the realities of the marketplace, but must reorganize my life to both write and deal with the commercial aspects.


I have been working on that for some time in the fashion of Sisyphus. I am not finding the transition easy. I have come to terms with the entrepreneurial aspect—I was in marketing before I became a writer and I am a serial entrepreneur—but I’m extremely concerned by the extent to which my focus is being fragmented. I like to do one thing really well—which is to write—and I’m not a good multi-tasker. Indeed, I don’t even believe in multitasking.

When I’m making love, I don’t write (the other way round, there have been some exceptions).

However, I seem to be living in a world which is pulling me every which way—and where focus is practically becoming socially unacceptable. Here I am referring to the vast array of social media and other tools of distraction at our disposal which—if anything—seem to be making communication even more difficult. There was a time you could phone someone and talk something through. Now the chances are that you will just get voice mail. And then—if they reply at all—they will text.

Texting is not the same as talking. 

Personally, I love e-mail (as well as hate it)—but apart from the fact that many people can’t write (or choose not to) the volume is so great that its advantages are substantially negated. And then you have the problem—if you, personally, take the trouble to express yourself with style, vigor, and clarity—that your opus isn’t read. At best, it will be skimmed.

Skimming is not reading.

Skimming is what agents and publishers do so that they can find something they can buy cheap and sell dear. God forbid they should read. Skimming is about the first few pages—followed, in most cases, by the delete key. Skimming is fast, efficient, effortless—and, not infrequently—mindless. Reading requires engagement—really paying attention.

To exaggerate to make a point—reading is becoming virtually un-American (no, of course it is not really).

In fact, I’m increasingly beginning to think that the art of comprehension is vanishing. That means, in many cases, we/they don’t understand. It helps to explain why so many issues—which are totally solvable—go unresolved. I am also noticing that people are becoming truly lousy at following through—even when they stand to benefit. And I’m far from the only one to notice.

Something is going seriously wrong in the U.S. with how we think and behave to the point where it is becoming cultural—by which I mean that it is generally accepted as being normal.

For instance we seem to be quite relaxed about being permanently at war. Have we given up questioning this sort of thing?

We seem to think it is acceptable to ignore facts. We fight shy of reasoned debate. We let issues fester instead of evolving solutions. We are politicizing just about everything. Education is much blamed—and it is certainly a factor, particularly where the less affluent are concerned, but it is much more than that. We don’t feel it is necessary to keep well informed. We seem to think democracy will take care of itself. We work because we have to—but then our primary focus seem to be on keeping ourselves entertained or otherwise distracted. We seem to be highly successful at it.

I am rendered near speechless by the findings expressed in the Pew Research Center graphic below. Or maybe the gains of the internet compensate for the distractions of e-mail. Or perhaps we are deluding ourselves.

Or maybe people don’t always tell the truth to interviewers. 

Vast majority say the internet has not hurt their productivity at work

A further complication is that even if I exclude the distractions of social media and e-mail—a near impossibility—I find myself being torn in different directions creatively.

Creative limb from creative limb! Creatively painful!

Part of that is my own fault. My first love is writing researched action thrillers (full of gratuitous sex and violence) but I also feel the need to write non-fiction as well (a desire to make a difference, perhaps)—and more recently I added satire.

The characters sort of appeared and ordered me to.

And I also research, follow, and write about military matters and the economy. But, at least most of that comes under the banner of writing books.

Now, I am blogging in a fairly serious way as well—and have moved on to screenplays. And, if that wasn’t enough, it has been suggested that I present a TV series.

 And I could go on—but I’m frightening myself!

If all of this meant I was an enormous financial success it would be one thing—and it may lead to just that.

Pigs may really fly.

Nonetheless, for the time being, the primary impact is the sense that I am going to have to make some hard choices—and a New Year is a better time than most at which to make them.

My great fear, as far as far as society as a whole is concerned, is that we are trivializing life, replacing work with networking, and losing a great deal of social stability in the process. However, that is at the macro level—and I doubt that there is much I can do about it (except write).

At the micro level—my own life—my general feeling is that I need to play to my strengths and eliminate as many distractions as possible. If that means that I filter my e-mail more, don’t use social media or network as much as I should, so be it. Some choices have to be made.

My son, Christian O’Reilly (you can Google him—he is an award-winning playwright) once told me of an incident that has resonated with me ever since. Seeing him somewhat distracted by the necessity of making a living, his wife, Ailbe said? “Remember, no matter what, you are a writer, Christian.”

I, too, am a writer.  Important to remember that fact. It’s why I get up in the morning. It’s why I breathe.

I write best when I am so focused, I’m in the zone—so intensely absorbed, I’m relaxed. It took me years to learn how to get into the zone virtually on demand. These days, I sit to write—and I’m in it.

The sight of a keyboard makes me react like Pavlov’s dog. Well, not exactly. I don’t think the dog wrote. Perhaps he blogged.

I value focus over fragmentation. I think what we are doing to ourselves at present is insane.

Will I continue to blog daily? Yes, I will. I have an open mind on the form and the frequency.

VOR words 1,366.






Tuesday, December 30, 2014

(#90-1) December 30 2014. We profess to admire the military—but are largely ignorant of it (and prefer it that way). The MICC exploits that ignorance. We spend more than the rest of the world put together on National Security—and we keep on losing wars.





A U.S. soldier from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment waits for a CH-47 Chinook helicopter after an advising mission at the Afghan National Army headquarters for the 203rd Corps in the Paktia province of Afghanistan on Dec. 21, 2014.

Check out The Atlantic Declaration of interest—I know, like, and admire Jim. I have been interviewed by him on defense matters—and have flown in his aircraft. He is a thoughtful, measured journalist. For those reasons the concern he expresses in this piece really deserves to be both listened to—and acted upon.

There are no signs that either this administration or Congress will pay the slightest bit of attention. In fact, Congress is seriously complicit.

The following is a brief extract.

The Tragedy of the American Military

The American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously. The result is a chickenhawk nation in which careless spending and strategic folly combine to lure America into endless wars it can’t win.

James Fallows JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2015

I. Chickenhawk Nation

If I were writing such a history now, I would call it Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously. As a result, what happens to all institutions that escape serious external scrutiny and engagement has happened to our military. Outsiders treat it both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules. The tone and level of public debate on those issues is hardly encouraging. But for democracies, messy debates are less damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as our military essentially does now. A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness.

Americans admire the military as they do no other institution. Through the past two decades, respect for the courts, the schools, the press, Congress, organized religion, Big Business, and virtually every other institution in modern life has plummeted. The one exception is the military. Confidence in the military shot up after 9/11 and has stayed very high. In a Gallup poll last summer, three-quarters of the public expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military. About one-third had comparable confidence in the medical system, and only 7 percent in Congress.

Too much complacency regarding our military, and too weak a tragic imagination about the consequences if the next engagement goes wrong, have been part of Americans’ willingness to wade into conflict after conflict, blithely assuming we would win. “Did we have the sense that America cared how we were doing? We did not,” Seth Moulton told me about his experience as a marine during the Iraq War. Moulton enlisted after graduating from Harvard in 2001, believing (as he told me) that when many classmates were heading to Wall Street it was useful to set an example of public service. He opposed the decision to invade Iraq but ended up serving four tours there out of a sense of duty to his comrades. “America was very disconnected. We were proud to serve, but we knew it was a little group of people doing the country’s work.”

Of course, we are directly affected by wars—if only through the financial cost. That doesn’t impact immediately because of our disastrous habit of relying solely on borrowings to fund wars. However, the figures are so large that we’re going to feel the effects for a very long time.

According to a December 19 2014 Bloomberg report, Neta Crawford of Boston University puts the total costs of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at $4.4 trillion including interest and veteran’s care through 2054.

That is trillion with a ‘T.’ And since nothing is being done—and we are still actively engaged—that $4.4 trillion figure is likely to go only one way—up.

VOR words c.50.

Monday, December 29, 2014

(#89-1) December 29 2014. It’s time we became creative about creativity. It’s a largely untapped resource with pretty much universal application which can add value to virtually anything.




"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." -Buckminster Fuller

I have become increasingly research oriented over the years—and, in fact, spend some hours at it every day. Primarily I do this so that I can write with more facility and authority—but I’m also innately intellectually curious. Additionally, I find that writing about a range of issues—which means I am constantly trying to master new concepts—exercises my mind and forces it out of its comfort zone. That said, I try and discipline my research so that I stick to certain themes of particular interest, and try and avoid anything that clearly is irrelevant to my writing.

Since I have wide interests, that still leaves me with a serious time problem—which you would think a well-trained mind would be able to resolve.

Clearly, my mind isn’t yet well-trained enough. I struggle—but, as with writing—that is partly the point.

Do I spend too much time on research and not enough on writing? I don’t quite know the answer to that. I suspect I should try and tilt my time allocation more in favor of writing, but my current research routine seems to be helping my writing so much that it is hard to be sure. Though I enjoy research greatly, I much prefer the actual writing.

It is so damn hard—but so rewarding.

But, it is, as they say, a dynamic situation. In the short term I’m resolving it by putting in more hours so that I have enough time for both. Anyway, the villain of the piece in terms of my time allocation is e-mail—a topic for another day.

I both love e-mail and hate it. And this year I have had more than ever before in my life to the point where I can’t cope adequately. Tough decisions await.

What my research is showing me—somewhat to my surprise and pleasure—is that there are answers to almost all the problems we face (except e-mail!) but that somehow we don’t seem to be too good at linking answers to solutions—even when those solutions are proven, are working currently elsewhere, can be viewed and studied in detail.

Why is this?

  • FEAR. None of us like making fools of ourselves, but if you say, write, paint, or otherwise do something creative, you are opening yourself to both criticism and ridicule. Here I speak from first hand experience as an author, public speaker, and military thinker. At one stage in my life I received a terrible review in the New York Times—and it went through me like a knife (I’m tougher now) It helped that I ended up on their Best Seller list. But a bad review is as nothing compared to the consequences of creativity in the U.S. Here, you can lose your job for almost any reason—and that can ripple through to the extent that you lose your home. It takes sustained courage to be creative. It is particularly risky to be constructively critical about the military. In fact, there is a saying that an officer will lay down his life before before his career. In my experience, it is largely true. It is my belief that if we decreased economic fear—as many other countries have done—we would increase creativity in the U.S.
  • GREED. We live in a money and power-driven culture where the incredible satisfaction that comes from creativity—is substantially ignored. This is ironic because many of us, arguably most—are not primarily driven by the money imperative (providing we have enough). I had better also concede that where greed is concerned, people are endlessly creative. How do you counter greed? You can’t completely. However, you can make it culturally less acceptable. One way to do this is to promote alternatives—such as the rewards that stem from creativity. In fact greed for creativity might even be a good thing! But probably not. Greed for pretty much anything is ugly.
  • WRONG DEFINITIONS.We don’t define our goals, issues, and problems correctly—which makes it  rather hard to identify solutions. As best I can determine it, if you can frame a question correctly, you can normally find an answer. For instance, where healthcare is concerned, our political focus seems to be on funding it—whereas we are not looking at our appalling diet and lack of exercise. The fact that our longevity is roughly three years less than that of Europeans—and two years less than that of Canadians—should be a case of concern but doesn’t seem to be.
  • SELFISHNESS. We don’t care. We are an incredibly selfish culture. I have mixed feelings about this hypothesis because—personally—I have been met with much kindness and generosity. Nonetheless, published research seems to indicate that it is valid. For instance, we seem to neither particularly aware or concerned regarding many social issues.
  • IDEOLOGY. Ideology, dogma and prejudice tend to dominate over rational analysis. A corollary is that ideology is often used to mask greed. Are other societies less ideological or is this a predictable byproduct of human nature? Some are definitively more pragmatic and rational—particularly the Scandinavians. In the U.S., we have now deteriorated to the stage where hard data, even if supported by considerable scientific evidence, is brushed aside. That seriously undermines any possibility of effective government—or any meaningful cooperation. It does not augur well.
  • AUTHORITARIANISM. For all our talk about ‘Land of the Free’ we are a surprisingly authoritarian culture—and authoritarianism tend to be anti-creative because creative people inevitably question authority. Authoritarianism isn’t confined to the military (where you can argue it is required—though I debate the degree). It pervades our corporate culture, government, national security, and many other areas.
  • VESTED INTERESTS. Vested interests don’t want change and do rather well out of the status quo. They are also, by and large, extremely well organized. 
  • LACK OF INTELLECTUAL CURIOUSITY. As a society, we seem to be woefully short of intellectual curiosity. Individually, intellectual curiosity—and talent—abound, but they doesn’t seem to translate into a determination to resolve national issues.
  • FATALISM. We seem to regard quite a number of social problems as inevitable—even when they are not.
  • POOR INVESTMENT CHOICES. We invest in the wrong things—like wars—and we don’t distinguish adequately between expenditure and investment. It makes no sense, for instance, for us to neglect our infrastructure the way we do. Currently, we are eating our seed-corn.
  • SHORT-TERMISM. Primarily, we both think and act short term—and, as a society, we resolutely refuse to plan.  Other societies, which do plan, seem to do better—much better. The Chinese, for instance, have been growing at over 9 percent a year for 30 years. That is awesome. This isn’t about communism versus democracy. It is about what works. We badly need to evolve a flexible method of planning for the long term.
  • FAILURE TO UNDERSTAND CHANGE. We don’t devote enough attention to the mechanisms and processes of change. This is an interesting one. In brief it means that we are much quicker to organize a lobbying group to change something than to understand how change takes place.
  • NARROW THINKING. We seem to have a problem thinking holistically. For instance we resent subsidizing public transport even though it helps car drivers by making the roads less crowded. We focus too narrowly on issues. We need to become much better at joining the dots.
  • LACK OF EDUCATION. Our population, as a whole, is not well enough educated. Sadly, that is self evident.
  • CONSTITUTION. Our Constitution needs updating. This is a profoundly serious problem which we largely ignore.
  • PROBLEMATIC MEDIA. We have serious problems with our media. and with how we disseminate information. We are not adequately informed. Actually, it is rather worse than that. We are selectively misinformed. Media owners have their own agendas.
  • UNDERESTIMATION OF CREATIVITY. We grossly underestimate creativity. This is a core problem. It means, in a nutshell, that we vastly underestimate what we are capable of—especially when working together. We act like people who possess a vast quantity of gold—but complain that we lack resources. Creativity is a great deal more valuable than gold.

So much for the negatives. But the good news is that the answers are out there and relatively easy to apply (or would be if we were rational and not ideological). Where the economy, and other matters that are fundamental to a good quality of life—health, education, housing, jobs—we aren’t facing the intractable ‘wicked problems’ that have the Middle East in chaos, for instance. If you want to know more about ‘wicked problems’ Wikipedia defines the phrase rather well. It has a specific meaning.

I’m somewhat baffled at how to communicate this finding. To me, it is self-evident, but most people seem to regard such a viewpoint as naïve. Frankly, I would have said much the same thing a decade or two ago, but the evidence I have now accumulated indicates that I would have been wrong.

Since all of this is far too much to cover in a single blog, let me focus on creativity. Here I have long thought we should invest in it more because it is the ultimate problem solving tool—and everyone has it though most don’t make much use of it. Further, because it threatens the status quo, we make great efforts to confine it to the arts. We ghettoize it.

What is creativity?

the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships,or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods,interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination:

the need for creativity in modern industry; creativity in the performing arts.


Creativity leads to innovation—which means change—and tends to be resisted.

How could we invest more in creativity?

Let me start by stressing the word ‘invest.’ I am somewhat uneasy doing this because it seems to stress the monetary aspect—which is positively not my intent. But what I am saying is that if we are going to invest considerable resources in creativity, we need to be fairly sure that we get more out than we put in (whether the return be financial or otherwise).

I’m not going to attempt to answer my own question comprehensively or this blog would turn into a book (one thing at a time). But some examples are clearly called for.

  • EDUCATION. Schools tend to be rigid places which stress conformity in the interests of socialization. Here, we would listen to Sir Ken Robinson. His core point is that naturally creative children have that creativity crushed in school. He makes a persuasive case.

  • THE ARTS. Most developed nations spend significantly more on the arts than we do—and achieve impressive results. Britain’s investment in the theater, for instance, helps to account for its international success in TV and cinema and underpins its truly impressive tourist trade. The arts yield both tangible and intangible results—and contribute greatly to our quality of life. They not only give pleasure but they stimulate. Creativity promotes creativity. It’s a virtuous circle. 
  • INNOVATION CENTERS. Since creativity fosters creativity so seems to flourish better in agglomerations. We could do a great deal more to encourage these. The Japanese, for instance have constructed a complete city—a ‘science’ city devoted to research. It has proved to extremely successful.
  • THINK-TANKS. The concept of a think-tank—a multi-disciplinary group focused on problem solving—is brilliant. One of its great strengths is that it promotes perspective and attacking the problem from a fresh angle. However, think-tanks have been largely hijacked by people with specific agendas—which runs contrary to the whole idea of a think-tank. Nonetheless, the basic idea of a think-tank remains valid—and arguably needs to be revitalized.
  • RESEARCH. Both public and corporate investment has been cut back despite clear evidence that it pays. The main objection to government research is ideological. Corporations have cut back because they want to increase short-term earnings. That tends to put share prices up—and CEOs are largely rewarded through share options. Long-term profitability is affected negatively but by that time most CEOs have moved on.
  • DESIGN. In terms of raw material, it costs pretty much the same to manufacture something whether it is badly or well designed. In fact, if the highest design standards are applied throughout—as Apple tend to do—a well designed product may cost even less to make. Nonetheless, bad design is commonplace. This is crazy because good design is one of the most proven ways of adding value. The potential to improve the quality of our lives through improved design is incalculable.
  • INSPIRATIONAL PROJECTS. Society seems to need projects which rise above the mundane and are incredibly difficult to do. They entertain, inspire and uplift us. Historically, they have frequently been architectural—castles, bridges and cathedrals come to mind. Today we have NASA and the challenge of space. We could do with many more. For instances, I would argue in favor of building a complete city from scratch—ideally car-less and incorporating a very high level of sustainability.  
  • WAYS OF FACILITATING HUMAN INTERACTION. The Constitution is no more than than a brilliant creative concept of how we might best govern ourselves. Right now, it clearly needs updating—although we largely seem to be ignoring that pressing requirement. But, the Constitution apart, there is enormous potential for us to to create new and better ways to interact. For instance, we don’t really have adequate mechanisms to develop communities—especially politically. There is huge gap between the individual and a congressman to the point where voting seems remote and irrelevant to many. Could we bridge that gap? I see no reason why not. Personally, I like the idea of some kind of non-political, non-religious community organization which one would join as a matter of routine. Have I worked out the details? No. I’m merely sowing the seed.

My argument is that we should consciously and deliberately invest in creativity as such to the point where virtually every human organization of any size would have a creative director.

People will argue that we can’t afford such an approach. My argument is that we cannot afford not to make more of this extraordinary resource—and that, primarily, it is about mindset.

Creativity creates its own value. Yes, it is disruptive and can be uncomfortable because it almost always evolve change—but look at what can be achieve with it—and wonder.

VOR words 2,232.




Sunday, December 28, 2014

(#88-1) December 28 2014. Funny numbers.







It is very hard to go against optimism—and I don’t particularly want to. I think its great that people are heading into the New Year feeling decidedly more optimistic about the economy (whether they are right or otherwise).

However the idea of idea of being a writer—as I understand it—is to call it like you see it (within reason). ‘Illuminating the human condition’ doesn’t guarantee that what can now be seen more clearly is a pleasant sight. But there is so much to see that is beautiful, fascinating, or both—that your odds are quite good.

But maybe the guts of the economy and social issues aren’t the best things to illuminate if you want to focus solely on the beautiful..

Some thoughts.

  • We seem to have learned virtually nothing from the 2008 Great Recession—the severest recession since 1929. In fact, the banks are already clawing back the ground that was gained by Dodd-Frank (limited though it was). And they are doing so blatantly. They don’t seem remotely concerned with public opinion.
  • Financialization continues to increase its hold on the U.S. economy despite considerable evidence that—at a certain point—it becomes destructive. We are long past that point.
  • A high growth rate and a booming economy should not be confused with gains in prosperity for most Americans. Why not? Because key costs are going up (housing, healthcare, education etc.) which more than cancel out any gains.
  • Lower gas prices are a wonderful thing, but not if they lead to more driving, and reducing our efforts to develop a more sustainable economy. There is worrying evidence that this is already happening.
  • A disturbing number of people are not in the labor force—and that number is rising fast. It cannot be accounted for by demographics alone. It seems that large numbers of people have rejected conventional work for various reasons. My theory is more and more people are disillusioned with U.S. working conditions. Through there are some commendable corporations out there, all too many seem to have no feelings—other than negative—for their workers at all. Add low pay, few prospects, anti-unionism, minimal vacation time, no sickness pay, ever increasing healthcare costs, no security, and authoritarian management and sooner or later people wonder: “Is the game worth the candle?” As far as many are concerned, it isn’t. This isn’t the kind of issue that grabs the headlines. It’s a structural problem—one of many.

Here, I touch on just a few. I would have preferred to have listed more purely economic issues—as opposed to social—but I don’t have the graphics to hand. That said, the two are interdependent.

Blame TMBD (Too Much Bloody Data). I shall try and improve.


not in labor force

The current trend is for the American Business Model to continue as usual—only more so. I happen to think it needs fundamental structural reform.

There are few signs of that happening—and it doesn’t seem to be a widely shared view.

Back in 2004 I thought there would be a recession in 2008—and that wasn’t a widely held view either.

But, I have no crystal ball. I’m more in the position of someone inspecting a building suffering from severe structural problems. Such structures can endure for many years—or collapse tomorrow. But, if you don’t repair them, sooner or later collapse is inevitable.

Countries don’t literally collapse. They just become decidedly more stressful to live in. That can happen with surprising speed. Consider how fast the Soviet Union disintegrated, our Great Recession took effect, or the speed of the recent drop in oil prices.

I’ll feel a great deal easier when I see repair work underway. This is a genuinely Great Nation, most of my friends—who I care about greatly—live here, and it deserves more maintenance that it is getting.

I am not without faith.

Happy New Year.

VOR words 573.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

(#87-1) December 27 2014. Of wings and things.




The aircraft is said to be the first capable of recharging its batteries in flight (Photo:...

I’m not sure I accept the reasons for the slow adoption of hybrid electric aircraft—I think sheer inertia plus the difficulty of getting a new engine certified has a great deal to do with it—but this is what Dr. Paul Robertson of Cambridge University has to say (and here I am quoting from that ever excellent site ).

A quick aside on Gizmag. I read it daily to keep up with technology—and because it is an ongoing tribute to the more positive aspects of the human condition. Day after day, I cannot but be impressed—and cheered—by the ingenuity displayed. Apparently Gizmag now has 5 million readers—and I can well see why. Its stories are consistently well written, its photographic standards are high, and its range is wide. I find reading it makes me feel downright optimistic because again and again it comes up with answers to some pressing problem or other.

Whether these answers are applied adequately or correctly is another matter entirely—and a topic for another day. It is also not Gizmag’s function. It supplies the information. It is up to us to make use of it.

Currently, I am much preoccupied with the gap between problems and solutions. We have actually solved way more problems to do with improving the general quality of our lives than I think most of us realize—but seem to be slow at linking issue and answer. On the face of it, the internet would seem to be the solution, but so much information is out there that we are in danger of drowning in data. Framing the question correctly can go a long way towards resolving this, but I suspect we also need search engines geared to better comprehension of natural langue queries. I doubt we will have long to wait. However, in many cases we will still be faced with a multiplicity of answers.

We will then have to deal with determining the optimum solution for a given challenge—not a bad problem to have. But are we making the same progress with our politics and human interaction generally as we are technologically? It would appear not—particularly in the U.S. Nonetheless, even here, if you search globally, there are many more answers out there than we seem to understand. Fascinating stuff!

But I digress. Back to hybrid electric aircraft.

"Although hybrid cars have been available for more than a decade, what's been holding back the development of hybrid or fully-electric aircraft until now is battery technology. Until recently, they have been too heavy and didn't have enough energy capacity. But with the advent of improved lithium-polymer batteries, similar to what you’d find in a laptop computer, hybrid aircraft – albeit at a small scale – are now starting to become viable."

Gizmag is no stranger to hybrid aircraft. Volta Volaré promised its hybrid four-seater GT4 back in 2012, while just last month we featured the Faradair BEHA concept that will theoretically be powered by electric motors and a bio-diesel engine. The Cambridge/Boeing test plane is a much simpler design than both of those, however.

The aircraft is said to be the first capable of recharging its batteries in flight (Photo:...

The single-seat aircraft, which is based on a commercially-available model, is powered by a Honda 4-stroke piston engine and a custom-made electric motor/generator. The two power sources are coupled so that either can drive the propeller. At times when a lot of power is required, such as during take-off, the plane uses both the engine and the motor to drive the propeller. Once it is at cruising height, however, it can use the motor only to reduce fuel consumption.

It is also possible for the motor to be switched into "generator mode" and for it to recharge the batteries while the plane is in flight. According to the University of Cambridge, this is the first time that this has been achieved. A module designed by the engineering department at Cambridge is used to control electrical current to and from the lithium-polymer cell batteries, 16 of which are housed in compartments in the wings.

The hybrid aircraft was tested at the Sywell Aerodrome, near Northampton, UK. Initial tests comprised a series of "hops" along the runway. These were then followed by longer flights at an altitude of over 1,500 ft (457 m). Ongoing tests are aimed at optimizing performance and fuel economy.

VOR words c.400

Friday, December 26, 2014

(#86-1 December 26 2014.The worst of years has also been the best of years.





Privately, I have had a tendency to be extremely self-critical—and to focus more on my failures than successes. Though that is better than ignoring one’s failures, I’m not sure that focusing on one’s lack of successes is particularly constructive. Yes, you should certainly note them and try and learn what you can from them (normally a great deal)—but, arguably. it is rather more important to be aware of your achievements. They build confidence and resilience—which you need to achieve more successes. Faith in yourself is important—and the lack of it can be sensed by others.

If there is one thing I believe in absolutely (and there are many) it is that success breeds success—and what the world regards as success, and you do personally, are two very different things.

Yes, I do have material goals—though I am not particularly materialistic these days—but my primary goals, other than those to do with my writing, have to do with my character. I am painfully aware of my weaknesses and would like to improve my character before I die.

Can I? I actually think I can. I’m not sure I would have said that a decade ago—because, over time, we tend to become very set in our ways—but I have been discovering over the last five years or so that age is not a barrier to re-thinking things. On the contrary, it is a help. You have all that experience to draw upon. It is exciting.

I used to think New Year resolutions were a waste of time—because one rarely keeps them. Now. I’m agreeably surprised to find that I’m keeping them—even when they are difficult. I’m not totally successful, of course, but mostly. Evidently, my self-discipline has improved. It needed to.

Miracles do happen.

One area where I have failed dismally—yet again—is at my goal of keeping a daily journal.. I feel a writer should maintain such a thing, if only to ensure that one writes something every day—and to log those useful things, ideas (which have a tendency to wander unless corralled.  But—again and again—I start off well and taper off within a month or so.

Will I try again in 2015? I haven’t decided yet. On the one hand, I don’t particularly want to make a resolution that I am virtually guaranteed to break. On the other hand, it relates directly to my writing and would be an excellent exercise in self-discipline.

I think I’ll keep my decision to myself. Much as I don’t really feel comfortable talking about books I haven’t written, I debate the wisdom of talking about resolutions I haven’t kept.

I have kept to my resolution to blog every day and have been truly amazed at what a positive effect it has had. So why not combine the blog and the journal? Because my journal—as I see it—should primarily be a record of events and private. Also, I like to dump half formed ideas and odd scraps of information in my journal so it often looks like a bit of a mess. In contrast, I like this blog to be relatively neat and structured.

On the face of it, 2014 has been something of a disaster for me.

  • I haven’t succeeded in getting my little publishing going.
  • I hurt myself badly in April and was in pain and operating below par for months.
  • I was completely drowned by two overly successful e-mail experiments.
  • This is the first year for some time where I haven’t written a book (though I do have a book of essays on writing culled from this blog)..

I could go on, but I don’t want to depress myself—or you

The paradox is that I am ending 2014 feeling more positive and energized than I have in a long time—because apart from my setbacks, a whole string of good things has happened. Also I have found my writing developing in ways that I had always hoped for, but hadn’t been able to a achieve up to now.

I also have the sense that inconvenient though it has been in the short term (something of an understatement), my publishing company will benefit from being delayed.

Is that rationalization? Well, I’m sure there is some there, but—on balance—I don’t think so. I have certainly strengthened it quite substantially over the last year in very specific ways. The most important had to do with determining my brand image (which I couldn’t really get a handle on until this year—but which is fundamental).

I have also been the recipient of much kindness and have seen the true mettle of some very special friends. I feel much blessed. When you have nothing to offer in a material sense—and no current social position or status to contribute—it means a very great deal when people reach out. Many do not. The exceptional do.

Again and again, they have done just that. I just hope that such behavior is infectious. They have set a standard that I would be very proud to come close to. My character now has no shortage of role models. I just hope the damn thing pays attention.

It really is a wonderful life.

Happy New Year to you.

VOR words 889.



Thursday, December 25, 2014

(#85-1) December 25 2014. Sometimes the traditional way of saying something is the best—even if one is saying it in a slightly different way.






It seems to be more customary to say ‘Merry Christmas’ here in the U.S.—and it may even be more appropriate (given that one can become merry with relative ease, and a few glasses—or puffs) but I prefer ‘Happy Christmas.’ It’s the expression I grew up with with.

Can one be happy? Some argue that it is no more than an aspiration and the best the human condition can aspire to are brief flashes of happiness—and contentment.

I don’t agree. I am exquisitely happy while I’m writing—but rarely content. How can I be? Writing is an unending struggle to try and write better.

So, am I discontented when converting thoughts into written words? How can I be when I’m writing!

As for the meaning of life—that greatest puzzle that has preoccupied the keenest minds since Adam and Eve were an item—I have discovered the answer. Socrates, eat your heart out.

Life is an unending struggle to try and improve one’s character. Nothing else matters.

But what is character? I’ll solve that puzzle after I have improved it.

Am I ever happy when not writing? Much more often than I expected to be—despite going through the roughest patch that I have ever experienced. In fact—in my case, at least—I can establish no correlation between the trappings of success—and happiness.

But mostly I’m content—except when I’m writing. Writing requires a certain restlessness. That, I have.

Incidentally, I have just heard Clive James being interviewed. He is an Australian best known for being a TV personality in the UK—but he is also an interviewer, critic, writer and poet. And he is suffering from multiple conditions—including leukemia and emphysema—and dying.

He said:

  • “If you’re a writer, you can never resist a subject.” In this case he was talking about writing about his infidelity. He is so right.
  • “Writing is making a contribution to mankind’s heritage of intelligence.” How cool is that. I tend to think of writing as, “illuminating the human condition’—and clearly a writer does both—but I had never thought of it that way before.

He will be missed.

VOR words c. 400.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

(#84-1) December 24 2014. Christmas is really my Thanksgiving. Best of all is having both.




I had a particularly enjoyable Thanksgiving this year—thanks to the kindness of friends—but Christmas still remains a very special time for me. I regard Thanksgiving as a wonderful holiday, but I’m Irish and didn’t grow up with it—and one’s childhood experiences of such events tend to leave lasting impressions.. In my case, they are particularly favorable where Christmas is concerned.

This is strange in a way because if there is one thing I associate with Christmas Day, it is that my mother would somehow or other generate a major row. Normally, the overt reason was because she felt slighted in some way—being given an inadequate Christmas present was the standard excuse—but really it was because she felt she wasn’t the center of attention. This was a volatile woman who demanded to be the center of attention at all times. Quite where her insecurities came from I don’t know because I adored my grandmother—but they were manifest. I suspect my grandmother was better at public service and doing good works than being a mother—but she was a sensational grandmother.

My grandmother’s greatest error seems to have been inflicting two French governesses in succession on my mother instead of sending her to school. Since my grandmother had had a governess also, this probably seemed like the right thing to do—but it was a disastrous failure that was followed by a lifetime of hostility.

I was to meet either one or both of my mother’s French governesses later on in life—they were both so similar I am never quite sure whether  I met one twice, or the two once—and I have to say my sympathy, for a change, was with my mother. But, to be fair, she—my mother—learned to speak impeccable French. My grandmother and my mother normally rowed in French.

Every family has its customs.

Still, my happy memories of Christmas outweigh the less pleasant by far—and here I’m talking about the whole period and not just Christmas Day.

Christmas, while I was child, meant:

  • The end of the longest boarding school term. Let me stress ‘boarding.’ Apart from the discipline and harshness of the environment—which was enforced with some ferocity through a wide range of punishments from writing lines to being beaten—it was affection free. One has to wonder about the cumulative effects of that—and I was at boarding school from the age of five. The idea was to toughen us up and prepare us for the rigors of helping to run the (fast vanishing) British Empire (public schools were expensive and private but ‘public’ meant one was being prepared for public service). Most of us were taken out by our parents several times a term. A fortunate few went home at weekends. I was neither taken out, nor able to go home. I felt I was in a prison—and never became reconciled to it—though I excelled academically. Thankfully, it was in a prison that gave me an excellent education. Matters were made rather worse by the fact that from the age of nine, though we lived in Ireland, I was sent to boarding school in Britain. Typically, it was 13 long weeks—and I loathed it—so its end was a marvelous thing. After the September term was over, I tended to think I could survive another school year. The Easter term was short and featured athletics—which I enjoyed (instead of rugby) and the Summer term meant the long vacation that was to follow—and cricket. I mildly enjoyed cricket and was quite a good bowler, but—if we were batting—primarily liked lying in the equipment box out of the chill of the wind—and reading. The audio background was normally a combination of cricket and automatic weapons fire.  As part of our military training, we tended to practice with Bren guns (light machine guns) on the outdoor range in the summer, so when I hear machinegun fire I think of cricket and vice-versa. I retain a certain fondness for the Bren gun—a truly excellent weapon, if too heavy. 
  • A month to five weeks of vacation at home. We had unusually long Christmas holidays for some reason. I seem to recall not having to go back to school until late January. I guess having a short Easter term was the school’s way of dealing with the rather harsh winters in Yorkshire. Sometimes it snowed which I thoroughly enjoyed. When it snowed, there were no compulsory games so we could do what we wanted. That was a rare privilege in an environment where every minute was normally scripted. The word ‘freedom’ has a special significance as far as I am concerned.
  • Actually being at home. Apart from being at boarding school, typically I was packed off to aunts at Easter, and to my grandmother in the Summer, so I was actually at home rather little. This stemmed, I suppose, from my difficult relationship with my mother. We never discussed it. I just went where I was sent the way children do—and life with my aunts, and my grandmother, was actually a great deal more pleasant than home. But, I liked being home—despite its many disadvantages—at Christmas.
  • The sheer excitement of the countdown to Christmas. There is a great buzz in Dublin at Christmastime. The Irish are social anyway, and particularly so during Christmas. After I arrived home, I would take the Number 10 bus from Donnybrook Church—always sitting up front on top—and travel into Grafton Street, the main up-market shopping street, in a haze of pleasure. To be free of school was magic in itself. To be free at Christmas was heaven.
  • Family. I am the eldest of 12 so have always spent a great deal of time looking after the younger ones even though we had maids. I was changing diapers from the age of four. I was about to write that I didn’t look after my sister, Maxine, much because she is too close to me in age—but I then remembered going rambling when I was five and Maxine a year and a half younger—and losing her while watching a house on fire nearby. I searched for her desperately for quite a time and then ran home convinced that she had been burned to death in the fire. Poor Maxine! How would I explain this? Careless to lose a sister at the best of times—but in a fire! I might have worried less if I had known I would have five more. I was very fond of Maxine, who was a cuddly blond thing in those days, and just felt sick. There, of course—having found her own way back—was Maxine. My relief was overwhelming. Why were we allowed out alone at such a young age? My mother had a distinctive approach to parenting—with neglect featuring prominently along with terrifying mood swings and violence.  There was so much discord at home, because of my mother, that I tend not to think of the word ‘family’ in the warm and fuzzy way many people do. But in fact I adored my step-father, and most of my siblings except or my brother, Rex—who always wanted to be the eldest! I particularly loved looking after “the babies” as the youngest eight tended to be called—long after they were babies. In fact, I love babies and young  kids generally to this day. I’m not so sure about teenagers.
  • Buying presents. It’s a somewhat arcane talent, but I have always been pretty good at buying gifts for people. I had to get it right for my mother—or get a hard slap in the face—so I learned early to put considerable thought into the process. Being observant and empathetic helped as well.
  • Parties. We were—compared to most Irish at the time—wealthy, had a big house, and so did most of our friends, so we both gave and went to quite exceptional parties—and these were backed up by a high level of sociability. That meant that there were practically always interesting people coming to the house. The place was cold and drafty—apart from adult areas the house was largely unheated, and the food at home was worse than at school, but alcohol flowed in profusion from the time my mother came downstairs from her bedroom—around midday—to when she went to bed—typically well after midnight. She would start the day with sherry and finish it with brandy.
  • Friends. Living in Ireland and being sent to boarding school in Britain has always created some problems with school friends because they mostly lived in Britain. Still, I had a few friends left over from my Irish boarding—and a couple of good friends who also lived in Ireland but were schooled in Yorkshire. Later, girls entered the vacation picture—but that is another story.
  • Movies. We saw a movie a week at boarding school so I tended to feel movie deprived by the vacations. We had no TV at home, so I would make up for it, particularly at Christmas, both by using my saved up pocket-money, and because I normally received some money for Christmas itself.
  • Reading. As I have stated elsewhere, I was a serious bookworm (by which I mean fanatical), and regarded school as an interruption to my reading. While at home, I would typically read for at least half the day—and often longer. This meant I would go through a book every couple of days—or faster. It also meant a great deal of time in libraries and scouring second-hand book stores. Book browsing remains one of my favorite activities..
  • Christmas Day itself. Presents at home weren’t put under a Christmas tree, but instead were put at the foot of one’s bed. This meant you were so excited you couldn’t get to sleep—but fell asleep anyhow—and awoke to the even more exciting prospect of unwrapping a number of presents. In my case, there were always books so I would be content to read until Christmas lunch which was always held just after the Queen’s speech—which was delivered at 3.00 pm. The woman is a terrible speaker and quite why we listened to that I don’t know. My mother had no interest in politics at all (except she never really accepted Irish independence). As for lunch itself, I don’t associate Christmas with vast amounts of food—probably because there were so many of us—but I particularly enjoyed watching the plum pudding be set on fire, and I retain a passion for brandy butter.

Later on in life, I am delighted to say that both the women I have lived with, and my children, have all had a talent for making Christmas special—and my daughter, Evie, raised it to an art form.

The combination of children and Christmas is such fun that if children didn’t exist, they would have to be invented.

But one of the best things about Christmas, when I was kid, was the fact that after Christmas, I didn’t have to go back to boarding school for four glorious weeks. I don’t have quite the same enthusiasm for January these days. It means facing up to real life, and I’m not sure I have a talent for that.

As an adult, I have spent a few lonely Christmases alone—but I have normally retained the spirit regardless of my circumstances.

As for the grossly excessive commercialism, I filter that out insofar as it is possible—together with sundry memories of in-laws—and I have certainly become much less materialistic as I have become older. Going through the belongings of people after they have died really rams home how little ‘stuff’ matters (providing you have the basics). I had to do that twice in a short period a few years ago and the impression has lingered.

Most of what really matters is intangible—but does anything really matter? I prefer to think that it does..

One of the things I like to do best these days is write to friends—and here I don’t just mean send cards. It may seem an odd pleasure at a time of year when most emphasis is placed upon face-to-face sociability—but the combination of writing and Christmas is nearly as good as it gets, as far as this particular writer is concerned.

So what is missing?

I’m sure you will be able to work that out—which prospect should make 2015 an interesting year.

You know, one of the things I like best about life—and despite my bizarre upbringing I like a great deal about life—is that it is a story—and there are few greater pleasures than an interesting story full of twists and turns and surprises.

My life—full of struggles, setbacks, successes and some exceptional friends rarely disappoints in such regard. And I have been very lucky with lovers, though less so with wives. But if at first you don’t succeed—so much for skydiving.

I love to write.

VOR word 2,116.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

(#83-1) December 23 2014. A very real world—one I have more than a little familiarity with—turned into an exceptional movie.





A Most Wanted Man Poster.jpg

This is my kind of movie—intelligent, thoughtful, exciting, beautifully acted and directed (by Anton Corbijn).

It was made for only $15 million. As they say,  ‘The money was all on the screen.’ A tour de force!

Everyone in it was excellent—but I was struck, once again, by how much I like William Dafoe and Robin Wright. They are a credit to American acting and cinema. As for Hoffman—he was never better.

The movie also makes a rather fundamental point about counter-terrorism—but there I’ll stop. Best you see it for yourself.

Hoffman’s great strength was that he managed to get right into the humanity of a role. When he is on screen, you see a real human being—even though the roles he acted were very different.

The downside is that creativity takes a toll. Is it higher for actors that writers? I don’t profess to know. What I do know is that what looks easy and natural, is damnably hard.

I rarely mourn celebrities—I guess I was exposed to too many earlier in my life—but I do deeply regret the passing of truly great talent.

Hoffman was just such a talent.

Here is the paradox. We have marginalized artistic creativity. We make obeisance to work. We ignore the fact that work without entertainment would be intolerable in all too many cases (though it shouldn’t be).

We need to think of the whole thing holistically. But, I’m a writer so clearly I am biased.

That doesn’t make me wrong. In truth it reflects no more, and no less, than what I believe.

I’m drifting from the main point. This is what Wikipedia says about the movie. Go see the thing. It’s terrific!

A Most Wanted Man is a 2014 British espionage-thriller film based on the novel of the same name by John le Carré, directed by Anton Corbijn and written by Andrew Bovell.[7] The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams,Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Daniel Brühl and Nina Hoss. It premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival[8] and competed in the main competition section of the 36th Moscow International Film Festival[9] and the 40th Deauville American Film Festival. It is the last of Hoffman's films released in his lifetime.


Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a refugee from Chechnya, enters Hamburg, Germany, illegally. Günther Bachmann (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a German espionage agent, leads a team that seeks to develop intelligence from the localMuslim community. The team learns of Karpov's presence from CCTV footage and confirms from Russian intelligence that he is considered to be a potentially dangerous terrorist. Bachmann's team also tracks the activities of a local Muslim philanthropist, Dr. Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who is believed to be funneling funds to terrorist activities, though the team is unable to prove this. German security official Mohr (Rainer Bock) and American diplomatic attache Sullivan (Robin Wright) both take interest in the two cases.

VOR words c.550.

Monday, December 22, 2014

(#82-1) December 22 2014. “The whole art of war consists in getting at what is on the other side of the hill.” The Duke of Wellington.




This is what Stars & Stripes says.

When fully deployed next spring, the system will feature two, unmanned, helium-filled aerostats, tethered to concrete pads 4 miles apart. They'll float at an altitude of 10,000 feet, about one-third as high as a commercial airliner's cruising altitude.

One balloon will continuously scan in a circle from upstate New York to North Carolina's Outer Banks, and as far west as central Ohio. The other will carry precision radar to help the military on the ground to pinpoint targets.

The aerostats won't carry weapons, military officials said. Enemy missiles would be destroyed by air-, ground- or ship-based weapons.

The system is called JLENS, short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System.

"We can defeat cruise missiles but we have limited capability to detect. And so, with an elevated sensor, such as JLENS, and the ability to look out over the horizon, now we have the ability to detect and to enable our systems to defeat cruise missiles," said Maj. Gen. Glen Bramhall, commander of the 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense.

The project, built by Raytheon Co. of Waltham, Massachusetts, and TCOM L.P. of Columbia, Maryland, has cost the government about $2.8 billion so far. Congress approved another $43.3 million last week for the first year of the test.

Proponents say JLENS will save money in the long run by reducing the need for surveillance by conventional aircraft.

"The analysis we've done says it's about five to seven times less than operating a fleet of aircraft to cover the same area over the same time period," said Douglas Burgess, Raytheon's JLENS program director.

The white balloons, each 80 yards long, are part of a new wave of lighter-than-air surveillance equipment. The government also has deployed tethered airships near the Mexican border, in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the Caribbean Ocean to combat drug smuggling.

The airships at Aberdeen will be the first of their type near a major East Coast city, visible from Interstate 95.

The military said the balloons won't carry cameras but David Rocah of the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland said privacy advocates were leery of the airships' ability to constantly monitor moving objects, including cars on the ground.

Bramhall said the radar can't identify individuals or record cellphone conversations.

"The mission is not to spy on U.S. citizens. It is not designed for that," he said.

Apart from the occasional sighting of an advertising blimp, the only time I can recall seeing one regularly used for surveillance was over Tokyo. It was there virtually every day and was used by the police.

I was intrigued by it and ended up setting a fight sequence in it in Rules Of The Hunt—my second thriller featuring Hugo Fitzduane..

I don’t object to that kind of surveillance. It’s very hard to have a good overview of a city unless you have an aerial overview—and airships are less expensive to run than fixed wing or helicopters.

VOR words c.90

Sunday, December 21, 2014

(#81-1) December 21 2014. Writing apart (and as part of writing), I seem to have spent a great deal of my life studying defense matters. Then again, I’m a War Baby.





I try and stay current with national security issues—with a particular focus on small wars, special forces, and terrorism—because they have been an interest of mine for virtually all my sentient life.

Being born in May 1944—which makes me very much a War Baby—may have something to do with it. Hearing stories of the war—still fresh in everybody’s minds as I grew—had a great deal more. People didn’t talk much about actual combat (though that changed as I grew older). More typically, a story would be about wartime privations, or a narrow escape during the bombing—and rationing and the black market were ever discussed. This was scarcely surprising because they still continued.  In fact, rationing didn’t end in the UK until the Fifties.

You may well wonder why, since were were Irish, we were in London. Well, the Irish have been going to Britain for decades to find work. In this case my mother moved to London to find excitement. She was bored stiff in neutral Ireland. Wartime London meant night-life, parties and men—in reverse order. There were men there of every race, type, size, and uniform—and mother made the most of it—though she had a bias towards Middle Europeans and the aristocracy. In fact, her third marriage—decades later—was to a Polish count.

Based upon her needs, she had a very good war and I was one of the results. A little bombing didn’t phase her in the least. It just added to the drama—and mother loved drama—and its associated histrionics—more than anyone else I have ever encountered. Life at home was chronically insecure and emotionally turbulent at best—and frequently frightening—but rarely dull.

She also did her bit to defeat Hitler by serving as a radar operator before she became pregnant with me. She was always very proud of having served in the WRAF (Women’s Royal Air Force) and bought me an RAF tie when I was about nine on the strength of it.

Believe it or not—I’m still incredulous when I think back—former RAF Types regularly accosted me thereafter—sometimes angrily—complaining I was not allowed to wear the tie because I hadn’t served. Rather hard to have served when you are too young to shave. They tended to mellow when I explained—or if mother appeared on the scene. She was attractive and verbally formidable (something of an understatement).

In those days, we lived near London and signs of the bombing—normally shattered buildings—were everywhere. A building would look fine from one angle and then you would turn a corner and see a complete wall blown out and all the interiors revealed. Sometimes dishes were still on the table. As a child, I found this fascinating—and disturbing. I have been both blessed and cursed with a vivid imagination and I could imagine what it must have been like when the bomb had exploded.

Many of the bombs were incendiaries because in proportion to their weight and size they could inflict even more damage though fire than explosive devices. An incendiary bomb could weigh as little as a couple of pounds (roughly a kilo) as opposed to 250 pounds for a small explosive bomb. A single German HE-111 bomber could carry 1,152 incendiary bombs. London’s Blitz was not a minor assault.

My grandmother acquired a legendary reputation for neutralizing such devices—normally with a bucket of sand. Given that an incendiary normally contained a small charge of explosives as well—to blow through a roof so that the incendiary could do its work in the more combustible interior-this must have required considerable courage. It was not something she talked about. I heard from others. She was a VAD (an unpaid voluntary nurse) in WW I, and an Air Raid Warden in WW II. After the war, she was an activist helping refugees. Such was Granny’s life—one of endless service to others. I adored her.

Strangely enough, it took the British longer to rebuild than the Germans. The German need was greater, they were more desperate, and almost certainly were better organized. Say what you like about the Germans—and people certainly did, though they are an admirable culture in many ways (with a disconcerting tendency in the past towards aggression)—they know how to make things and to get things done. They also had Ludwig Erhard, the man largely credited with restoring the German economy with such speed. Essentially, he opted for the free market while Britain hung on to price controls. Germany prospered. Britain stagnated.

There were other reasons for Britain’s malaise which were arguably more fundamental. It’s workers weren’t as skilled (German training was, and remains, superior). It had under-invested in manufacturing for decades. It lacked a decent road system (the Germans had built the autobahn system in the Thirties). Its rail system was in disrepair. Class divisions were rife. Socialism was being tried out for the first time and no one knew quite how to do it. There were shortages of just about everything—something almost impossible to imagine in today’s U.S. consumer-driven world. People then re-used envelopes and saved paper, string, and pieces of cloth. Anything which could be re-used was.

London hadn’t been as badly damaged as Berlin, but the British were exhausted, deprived, run-down, and in reaction. They had been at war for six years and it had been a close run thing. The British War Effort been even more total than the German. London had been subjected to two Blitzes. The first had consisted of conventional bombing by aircraft and was really an exercise in frustration because Germany couldn’t secure the necessary air dominance to invade. The Battle of Britain determined that. 

The second Blitz started shortly after I was born (in fact, while in my cot, I was told I was showered with broken glass from a nearby blast on one occasion, but was unscathed) and consisted virtually entirely of missiles—nearly 10,000 in all. That is a frightening quantity of explosives—and they were delivered over only a few months. Fortunately, they were comparatively slow so the British became very good at shooting them down. Fighter pilots also learned to insert a wing-tip under the missile wing, bank hard—and thus tip the weapon out of control to crash into the sea or the countryside. 

This put the fighter, itself, at risk of crashing, or being blown to pieces. A V-1 carried nearly a ton of Amatol-39 explosive. The pilots displayed astonishing courage.

They, the V-1 rockets, popularly known as ‘Doodlebugs’) made a distinctive noise. This was a characteristic of their pulse jet engines. Then the motor would cut out, and there would be brief seconds of terrifying silence before a massive explosion. If it had been heading your way, you were just plain out of luck.

Doodlebugs, though equipped with a guidance system, were highly inaccurate, but London was a vast urban sprawl, so it wasn’t hard to hit something—which often meant somebody—typically a civilian, often a complete family, though not the children. By and large, children were evacuated, and sent to stay somewhere perceived to be safer. Both parents and children hated the separation, but at least the children lived.

Why wasn’t I evacuated?  Now I think about it, I have no idea. I guess I was too small. I don’t think babies who hadn’t been weaned were evacuated. We had to take our chances.

Fusée V2.jpgLater in the campaign, the supersonic V-2s were introduced. They were genuine long-range ballistic missiles, and were faster and much harder to shoot down or intercept. The Germans launched over 3,000 of them. This was missile war on a considerable scale, conducted even as Germany itself was being defeated.

In fact, we tend to forget that Nazi Germany retained considerable military capability right up to the time it surrendered. It just lost the will to fight on.

After the war, the V-2 went on to become the basis of the entire U.S. missile program.

About 30,000 Londoners were killed in the first blitz—and 50,000 injured. I don’t have the figures to hand for the second Blitz—but they were considerable. The totality roughly equated to the U.S. casualties sustained in the Vietnam War, but the impact in the UK was greater because the majority of the dead and injured were concentrated in London.

Britain didn’t stop being at war when WW II ended. It still had an empire—more a burden than a benefit—and for much of the next couple of decades, Britain was at war with someone somewhere as various parts of the empire fought for independence. Virtually all the campaigns were fascinating as far as I was concerned, and I learned a great deal from them. Many are largely forgotten now—more is the pity—because a great deal can be gleaned from them still. In fact, all things being considered, the British did remarkably well with small numbers of well trained troops operating in a wide variety of environments—and most were conscripts at that.

I recall combat—after WW II was over—in Indo-China (the British were there too briefly), India, Greece, Malaya, Palestine, Egypt, Cyprus, Kenya, Yemen, Indonesia, Oman—and, of course, Northern Ireland. I doubt that list is complete.

One of my marketing colleagues in United Biscuits (my first corporate job in marketing) had been an infantry officer in Malaya, spending days on end in the jungle hunting communist terrorists.

Pistolet maszynowy STEN, Muzeum Orła Białego.jpgWhen I asked him what it was like, he said it was terrifying, but though he was city born and bred, he’d got used to it, and they had actually caught and killed a few terrorists even though most of their forays were abortive. He had carried a Sten gun on the grounds that if he bumped into a hostile—and visibility in the jungle was minimal—he wanted to be able to put rounds down-range faster than his opponent.

A Sten is a cheap but effective British 9mm submachine gun. The magazine protrudes from the left side. This looks odd, but makes re-loading when lying flat, under cover, considerably easier. If you are left handed—the Sten is not for you.

De Havilland DH-98 Mosquito ExCC.jpgMy boss, when I worked in Doyle, Dane, Bernabach Advertising in London, had been a Pathfinder in WW II. He had flown the remarkable all wood Mosquito in advance of bombers to mark where bombing was to take place.

The Mosquito airframe was constructed entirely of wood because of the metal shortage in Britain during WW II. It was a decidedly counter-intuitive concept which worked brilliantly in a wide variety of roles—from precision bomber to fighter—and it was also one of the fastest aircraft for its time. It could achieve well over 400 mph and was powered by two Rolls Royce Merlin engines—the same engine as used in the Spitfire. Nearly 8,000 were made in the end.

The British, when they put their minds to it, may be less well trained and organized than the Germans, but they are capable of astonishing ingenuity. The Mosquito and radar are but two military examples. Consider Alan Turing and Bletchely Park or the numerous inventions of Barnes Wallis (best known for the Dam Busters). There is something about that damp little island—which really had no business being strong enough to create an empire—which promotes innovation and creativity. What is it? I have absolutely no idea unless it is an imperative to escape from the weather.

Being Anglo-Irish—a member of the land-owning class that used to rule Ireland until independence in 1922 (so very much aligned with British interests) I was decidedly conflicted by all this. On the one hand I went to a British public school where I was actually being formally trained to serve in the British Army—we wore British Army uniforms and trained twice a week. On the other hand, I was Irish—liked the idea of Ireland being independent—and, when I thought about it, could see no good reason why the various countries involved, should not have their independence as well.

In practice, they have all achieved just that. All of those small, tragic, colonial wars were unnecessary.

Either way, I followed virtually all the campaigns in as much detail as I could—which, in turn led to my having great interest in the French War in Algeria and the U.S. in Vietnam. My interest in the Algerian conflict led me to track down the French Foreign Legion in Corsica and spend some time with them—then I went to Cyprus to experience the Greek-Turkish confrontation which nearly got me killed.

That happened on several occasions—particularly in Northern Ireland. I am not particularly brave and tried not to be excessively foolhardy, but when you put yourself if harm’s way—albeit for such a worthy cause as researching a book—a bullet doesn’t much care whether you are a writer or not. Combat photographers tend to think they won’t be shot at as well. We are inclined to feel that because we are merely observers we will be safe. The other side tends not to care who or what you are. As far as they are concerned you have a simple designation. You are a target.

In 1969, I didn’t have to go anywhere to experience terrorism. The IRA started up—yet again—and Northern Ireland settled down to 30 years of bombings and shootings. Given the small population of a little over a million, the carnage was considerable. Scale it proportionate to the U.S. population and deaths would equate to around 100,000, and the injured to a multiple of that—and practically all in several relatively compact geographic areas..

Note that length of time. Terrorist campaigns typically last for long periods, so if you are going to engage in counter-terrorism, you had better settle in for the long haul—with associated costs in blood and treasure. This doesn’t seem to suit the American mentality.

I could now, so to speak, commute to the war. In fact, sometimes commuting was not necessary. The action came south of the border—and, sometimes I went to it. Terrorism was rife in the Seventies—though not in the U.S. I doubted that would last.

By complete coincidence, I went to Rome to have a delightful romantic interlude with a woman called Maria some little time after Aldo Moro, Italy’s former prime minister, had been kidnapped by the Red Brigade. He was still missing when I arrived. Unbelievably, the authorities decided to search the whole city, building by building (which they actually did—to no avail), and road blocks manned by nervous cops carrying submachine-guns were everywhere.

In fact, the tension was extraordinary. By this time, the violence in Northern Ireland was such an accepted occurrence that people took it in their stride. Terrorism and the day to day activities of life coexisted. Armed troops patrolled the streets—heads constantly turning as they scanned for snipers—while people did their grocery shopping or walked their dogs. This juxtaposing of violence and the mundane was bizarre, but accepted as normal—because that is exactly what it was.

Nonetheless, the fact that a society can go about its business against a background of terrorist violence should not be confused with terrorism having no effect. It was politically divisive, stressful, seriously undermined the economy, and costly in blood and treasure

It spanned 30 years in Northern Ireland—more than a generation. Its effects will be felt indefinitely. Trust has been destroyed.

In contrast, though there had been some incidents, terrorism was still fairly new as far as the Italians were concerned—and the cops in Rome were jumpy. The bloody kidnapping of a former prime minister was in a league of its own. They were not unaffected by the fact that when Moro was kidnapped, all of his bodyguards had been shot to death. Their unspoken question was: Who is going to be next?

The police clearly thought it was likely to be one of them—and weren’t taking any chances. I was much more concerned that I might be shot by accident than by any terrorist. Safety catches off, twitchy fingers, and tired nervous cops do not inspire confidence. We had one particular encounter at a roadblock which came very close to the edge.

We didn’t have long to wait to find out who was going to be next to die..

David Janssen Richard Kimble 1963.JPGAs luck would have it, I was nearby when Moro’s body was found. I heard the news from an actor called David Jannssen (best known for The Fugitive) who was filming a TV adaption of the Irving Wallace book, The Word, in Rome at the time.  He has a very distinctive voice. I didn’t know him. This was pure happenstance.

His crew were eating in the same restaurant I was—it was near the Pantheon—and he came up and said: “They’ve found him. He is just up there.”

We knew, without being told, who ‘he’ was.

I wen to look and there he, Aldo Moro, was—a bundle in the back of a vehicle. He had been shot in the head. The year was 1978.

I find military matters and terrorism fascinating to study, but the brutal reality of the end result turns my stomach. I felt very sad when I looked at Moro’s body—much as I felt when I found the hanging body which led to my writing Games Of The Hangman. In the latter case, I caught the upper half of the corpse after it was cut down, and was profoundly moved. As I held his torso in my arms—and with blood and mucous coming out of his mouth he was a pretty grim sight—I wanted to hug him, and bring him back to life again. I both study and write about violence—and I have both experienced violence and inflicted it on occasions—but I am not a violent man. Compassion tends to dominate my feelings. Violence is ugly. It is strange, indeed, that it plays such a major role in entertainment. I find it equally strange that even though I am conflicted, I research, read, and write about it so much.

Where terrorism and its consequences are concerned, the most bizarre sight I ever witnessed in Ireland—and there was considerable competition—was watching a British Army helicopter resupply a heavily fortified police station on the border. The IRA, though comparatively few in number, had still made the roads in the area too dangerous for British troops to use. Their weapon of choice was the IED. In the case of paved roads, it was frequently concealed in a culvert so was often referred to as a ‘culvert bomb.’

My point? This wasn’t happening in the Vietnam War or in some movie. This was happening in a modern, developed, Western economy—where I just happened to live. It was surreal.---but the evidence of my own eyes was undeniable. I was more affected by that sight than just about anything else.

You may well ask why the U.S. didn’t learn more from the many irregular wars that have taken place since WW II. All I can say is that we seem to be remarkably reluctant to either learn from abroad, or master our own history. Again and again we pay the price of such ignorance.

A classic example of this concerned our failure to factor in the predictable threats from either RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) or IEDs. Both of these were serious threats as far back as the Vietnam War—so we are talking the Sixties—yet we bought the unarmored Humvee and later the flat-bottomed wheeled Stryker for tactical mobility.

The Stryker was fitted with SLAT armor (a cage designed to pre-detonate RPGs) at the last minute to combat RPGs, but nothing was done about the flat hull of the Stryker until about 2011. The point here is that the South Africans had substantially ameliorated the IED problem by introducing armored vehicles equipped with V shaped hulls back in the Seventies.

In the Nineties, I decided the U.S. Army would be the backdrop for a series of books so initially spent time with the 82nd Airborne. Dave Petraeus was a colonel then—and the brigade commander of the unit I was assigned to. He went on, as you will know, to become a four star general and to command Iraq while the surge was being implemented. Then he took over in Afghanistan. After that came the CIA.

I was very sorry when I heard he had resigned. He’s a controversial man who is frequently accused of being excessively ambitious. I have no idea of the truth of that. I happen to like him personally and regard him as exceptionally able.

That visit to the 82nd proved so worthwhile that I returned a couple of years later to research the entire XVIII Airborne Corps—which turned out to be a more substantial task than I had realized.

A corps is an army in itself in that it contains the full spectrum of capabilities available to an army—infantry, armor, engineers, aviation, logistics, medical, intelligence, and so on. A corps typically contains a number of divisions and can vary substantially in size. Since a division typically numbers 10-15,000, a corps can contain 50,000 soldiers or more. Add in the civilian workforce and families, and you are up to the size of a small city—where a substantial proportion has to be prepared to deploy globally and fight pretty much anywhere in the world.

Commanding such a unit is an awesome responsibility.

The XVIII Airborne Corps contained two airborne divisions, one light division, and—oddly enough—the heavy 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) which contained tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.

One exception to the full spectrum principle, is that a U.S. corps typically doesn’t contain Special Forces—as such—though they can be attached to it, and frequently are. Special Forces have their own command, and their own ways of doing things though the Big Army (or Green Army) tries to rein them in. There is a profound cultural clash between the two. The Big Army tends towards centralized authoritarianism and deploys in large numbers. Special Forces are highly trained and empowered soldiers who operate in small numbers with considerable autonomy.

I will confess a strong bias in favor of special forces (the small ‘s’ means special forces in general as opposed to just U.S. Special Forces) and their mindset. They tend to fight smarter and be disproportionately effective (though there are limits to what they can do as matters stand). My interest in them started in school. The founder of Britain’s legendary SAS (Special Air Service) David Stirling (see photo), had been a pupil there so we were all familiar with his story, and many past Ampleforth pupils went on to join ’The Regiment.’ One, Captain Robert Nairac, was kidnapped, tortured, and shot to death by the IRA under circumstances which  I very nearly duplicated. I was lucky enough to get away. He didn’t. His body has never been found.

Funnily enough, apart from going to the same schools, Gilling Castle and Ampleforth College, we both have French associations. One of my ancestors, Benjamin Lentaigne, came from Normandy. Nairac’s ancestor—and his name—came from the Gironde. He also had Irish ancestors.

All my thrillers feature special forces—particularly an Irish unit known as ‘The Rangers.’ Strangely enough, I invented them at about the same time the real unit, called The Ranger Wing—was actually created. Later I was invited to visit with them—which was quite an honor. They prefer to keep a low profile, as do the SAS.

In fact, I never made it to the 10th Mountain Division. That apart, it was a thoroughly rewarding experience—and it was how I met General Jack Keane, then the commanding general of the XVIII Airborne corps—who  was to go on to become the Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army—effectively the man who runs it on a day to day basis.

The Vice Chief is called ‘the Vice’—a marvelously evocative title. The Vice is the man who gets things done. He also happens to be Dave Petraeus’s friend and mentor. The airborne world is nothing if not connected.

Jack Keane, an intelligent, imposing, ambitious man with a forthright style (who is decidedly more complex than he seems), impressed me greatly and we took to each other. In fact, it was thanks to him that I ended up spending time with the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division, and flying in an Apache AH-64 Attack helicopter—both by day and by night.

That exposure to Army aviation not only taught me a great deal, but changed my life. Through it I met Chief Warrant Office 4 Tim Roderick—now one of my closest friends, colleague, and much else besides. He is also a walking encyclopedia of military matters to a degree that is just plain astonishing. Here, I don’t just mean facts. I mean history, strategy, tactics, techniques, and procedures. Tim is the most professional military man I know—which is saying quite a lot, because I know some exceptional warriors.

Warrants are the problem solvers of the Army, and, generally speaking, are specialists. It’s an interesting rank.

Rank is a subject unto itself—and is given too much importance in the Army. On the one hand, history has proved it to be necessary where the military are concerned. On the other hand, all too often rank is abused and used in an excessively authoritarian manner. The most disconcerting aspect is the implicit assumption that the person with the higher rank automatically knows more. A fundamental difference with special forces is that they place less emphasis on rank and much more on proven competence—and special forces troopers are encouraged to speak up. In fact, the most senior special forces soldier in rank may not command on a particular mission. The requirements of the mission determine that.

The overall effect of empowering soldiers is to make them better soldiers. I also question whether rank and pay should associated to the extent they are. Sometimes a soldier is so good and comfortable in a role he or she should be left there, but still be rewarded with higher pay. There are certain key roles where this is particularly applicable—such as company commander. As a general rule, U.S. Army officers don’t get enough command experience. It takes time, training and practice to produce seasoned commanders. In fact, you can say the same about soldiering in general—veterans take lower casualties for good reasons—but it is particularly relevant where certain command positions are involved.

Concurrent with familiarizing myself with the U.S. Army, I also researched the NYPD, the FBI, and the Congressional Task F0rce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare. Apart from my innate interest, my feeling was that if I was to write thrillers, I should be as familiar with the security milieu as possible, and in as much depth as I was intellectually capable of. It turned out to be a fairly gargantuan task—and continues to be so. National security encompasses a very great deal—and, despite its innate conservatism, evolves constantly. I endeavor to keep track of it holistically—partly because of time limitations, and partly because that is the way I think naturally. 

Combat has mostly evolved around weapons and systems which would still—broadly speaking—be familiar to the soldiers of WW II, but we are now transitioning to a level of combat technology which demands a whole new mindset and level of expertise to grasp. Such technology  includes computerization in general, drones, robots, the extraordinary accuracy of modern PGMs (Precision Guided Missiles), lasers, cyber war—and the sheer pace of technological change. Whether our current structure are geared to handle that is open to some doubt.

I find it hard to realize that much of my hands-on field exposure to the Army and National Security in general started to happen nearly 20 years ago now. Given that my interest in this area commenced decades before that, I have been immersed in this fascinating but dangerous world for a very long time. Keeping up with it all in detail is impossible, but I try and retain a sense of things, of how the pieces fit together, and then zero in where necessary.

My greatest interest is the Army. I am a critic at times—which the Army doesn’t like—but I hope a constructive critic. It’s hard to feel affection for an institution, but there is a great deal of truth in the saying, “You’ve got to love soldiers.” The camaraderie is very real. Time spent roughing it with troops in the field is time well spent.

I first heard that remark while spending time with 3rd ID—the tank division—at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert. They managed to lose me in an impact zone (supposedly full of unexploded munitions) at night, gas my driver badly, gas me unpleasantly, forget water (in the desert) forget to feed me, issue us with a faulty radio—and much else besides—but then General Keane arrived (dramatically, by helicopter—I was on a hill and it seemed to rise out of the ground) and he allocated a BG, Dale Nelson, to look after me—and he was the source of the saying.

Keane also lent me his binoculars—a gesture that was as much symbolic as practical. I then pushed my luck and asked for a helicopter. I wanted to see Fort Irwin from the air.

Keane paused at this one—gave me a long hard look—and then granted my request.

Let me tell you having my very own Blackhawk for a while was an absolute blast—though I was somewhat disconcerted when I found they were firing 155mm artillery over us. Just suppose they got the elevation wrong. Having a vivid imagination can be a mixed blessing.

Still, what an appropriate way for a thriller writer to do. It would do wonders fro my sales!

A BG is a brigadier general—a one star. I always think of BGs as ‘Baby Generals’—but the operative word is ‘general.’ The lust for a star drives the senior officer corps.

Generals like being called “General,” much as a penis—or a clitoris for that matter—likes being stroked (a lot—and they stand more erect) but it creates an imbalance in the relationship since I’m normally called by my first name—which prefer (Ireland is a first-name culture). Also I am now older than most serving generals—and was when I made the change. Anyway, I thought about this for a while and decided I would address generals by their first name. They flinch occasionally, but mostly it has worked. If I was in the chain of command—an entirely different situation—I would call a general by his rank.

Looked after by a BG or not (and Dale was pretty good), they managed to injure me on the last day as we tried to drive cross the desert at far too high a speed in a HUMVEE (and neither door nor seat belt). After we hit a bump, my badly gassed driver—who was sitting in the rear—was flung up, and forward, and crashed through the windscreen. onto the hook  Fortunately, there was no glass in it. Still, it was a good thing he was wearing his helmet. I spent two weeks in pain trying to get a thigh muscle I had strained from not looking like a protruding baseball.

But, as we writers like to say, it’s all material. I loved it. My epiphany, where the ordinary soldier is concerned, took place when I was in a Blackhawk watching young scared troopers rappel to the ground as part of graduating from the Airborne Assault course. We were 100 feet up so a fall would kill—and not only were the doors wide open but so was an aperture in the floor. I felt decidedly insecure.

Though I had talked my way onto the aircraft for the experience, I’m terrified of heights. Watching those visibly nervous kids master their fears was an inspiration—and a lesson that courage is infectious. I even started hanging out the open door to take photographs (a wonder in itself if you knew how badly I am affected by vertigo).


How do I achieve such access? I’m a great believer in the Letter of Introduction. I received my very first one from a journalist friend of the family back in my teens—it was from the Dublin Evening Mail (now defunct) and progressed from there. Essentially it is a matter of asking, establishing credibility through such letters, patience and persistence. It also helps if you have a book to show (though that is not essential). I give virtually everyone who helps me a book. Luck is also a factor. My first U.S. editor, Rosemarie Morse, had a friend who was dating a former NYPD cop called Dennis Martin  who came from a family of cops. They asked to meet me and we became friends. Through him I not only had a lot of fun but connected with Jim Fox, then head of the FBI in New York. And so it progressed.

Jim Fox was a remarkable man and great company—empathetic, shrewd, thoughtful. and extremely amusing. He had spent much of his distinguished FBI career in intelligence—both as a spy hunter and as a case officer managing spies. Among his other talents he spoke Mandarin. He built the case that convicted John Gotti and headed the 1993 World Center investigation.

Aged 59, he died far too young. I went to his retirement party which was attended by anybody who was anybody. Governor Cuomo was there and so was Mayor Giuliani (whom I met—and did not warm to). What I remember most—with some wry amusement—was that while I was sitting beside NYPD’s Chief of Detectives, I had my camera stolen.

In the late Nineties, I became involved with a group of military thinkers and reformers of world class caliber who have taught me more than I can say. This loose group is anchored by Tom Christie’s Fort Myer Wednesday meeting, but includes many who aren’t necessarily physically present but who make a major contribution to military thinking. The distinguished journalist, James Fallows used to be an attendee. That Fort Myer group is much more extensive and influential than one might think—and it is still going strong.

James-Fallows-(edit).jpgI rate Jim Fallows very highly. He is well informed, measured, writes beautifully—and is the epitome of a thoroughly decent human being. He also interviewed me at one stage and offered a flight in his aircraft as an inducement. I was happy to talk without one, and, as it happens, we did the interview on the phone. Nonetheless, he flew down subsequently and gave myself and my kids a flight in his Cirrus—and afterwards we had a meal together and talked at some length.

This is a man who remembers his promises. We have many shared interests including defense matters, computers, and aviation. You can read his work in The Atlantic—and elsewhere. He has been there since dinosaurs roamed the earth.

The group was started by John Boyd of OODA loop fame. ‘Observe; Orient; Decide; Act.’ He is worth reading about. Check out books by Robert Coram, Grant Hammond, and Chet Richards. Many regard him as one of the most significant military thinkers in years. Unfortunately, his ideas were primarily presented through briefings. He didn’t write any books or even position papers (as far as I know). Nonetheless, his flame is kept alive and, if anything, his stock seems to be increasing.

By all accounts, Boyd was masterly at getting things done—a near impossibility in the bureaucracy that is the Pentagon. My favorite story about him concerns his making a point to a recalcitrant general by poking him repeatedly with his smoldering cigar—to the extent that he finally set fire to the general’s shirt. But typically Boyd outmaneuvered his opposition. A brilliant fighter pilot, he was known as Forty Second Boyd because that was all the time it took for him to get on your tail—even if he had started in front of you.

Are the ideas of the reformers always listened to? Sadly they are not. The Pentagon—generally called ‘The Building’ by the cognoscenti—and shorthand for the Department of Defense—like many large and powerful institutions, is not overly fond of listening, and lacks a mechanism for doing so (a serious weakness of many institutions). Being both powerful and authoritarian, it is also arrogant.

A strange feature of the Pentagon, and its component services, is that although they all have Public Affairs Departments—and here I am speaking from considerable experience—the orientation of such departments is almost entirely propagandist and defensive. They seem to think that they exist solely to put across the party line to to defend their organizations against criticism (and that lying in pursuit of a higher goal is justified). The fact that they could play an invaluable role by engaging in genuine two-way communication seems to escape them. If you want a classic example of that, consider the Tillman case where every effort was made to disguise the fact that he had been shot by friendly fire. The trouble is that when public affairs lie so egregiously they destroy credibility.

Mostly, the Pentagon does what it wants its way—and largely ignores criticism. Nominally, Congress has oversight, but so many committees, subcommittees, and panels are now involved, the end result is minimal effective supervision. On top of that, the Pentagon cannot be audited. It features too many incompatible accounting systems for mere mortals to make sense of it all. In effect, it is unaccountable.

Is this by accident or design? One can but speculate.

The Pentagon is where the military interface with money, politics, power, ambition, and bureaucracy—and the result is pretty horrendous and badly needs root and branch reform. It is careerist, corrupt, inefficient, inflexible, over-staffed, vastly over-costly, and puts far more effort into inter-service rivalry than war-fighting. The auditing issue is only one of its problems. Its acquisition process is a nightmare—and apart from costing too much, takes far too long. This is particularly concerning given the pace of technological change. If you take a couple of decades to produce a weapons system, it tends to be obsolete long before it is accepted for service. 

This inability to be audited makes the Department of Defense  in permanent violation of Federal law. We go on shoveling money in anyway. We can’t very well shut down National Defense even if we don’t quite know where the money goes—or whether we get value for it (we don’t).

If you want to get a sense of whether we get value or not, compare the National Security budgets of the U.S. and Israel. Israel doesn’t have the same global commitments we do—and it doesn’t have to travel far to fight—but, even so, it is a nuclear power which is able to field a large and sophisticated military force when required. Its research and development is also cutting edge and superior to ours in some areas (arguably more than a few)

What are the comparable figures?

  • U.S. National Security expenditure $1 trillion plus
  • Israeli National Security Expenditure $20 billion minus

Note that National Security includes not defense but related expenditure on such matters as veterans.

Both figures are a little rough, but no matter how you look at it, Israel spends a tiny fraction of what we do.—and gets much more bang for the buck. The contrast is so dramatic, you have to wonder. Could we learn anything from the Israelis?

A very great deal.

Just for starters, they save a fortune by fielding only a relatively small permanent military but having a vast militia. Also, they don’t suffer from rank inflation the way we do. But, it is more than than that. They just plain buy better—and faster.

In 2001/2 I actually worked for the Pentagon for a while as a consultant to General Jack Keane (see photo) when he was Vice. That gave me the kind of access a writer like myself would practically kill for—fortunately not required in this case—and led me beyond thriller writing to consulting, and then to my actually expressing opinions on weapons systems and strategy.

As it happens, I became very deeply involved—probably more so than a writer should. On the other hand, the cause was worthy. The details can await my memoirs. I paid a heavy price for getting involved—but I would do it again. Sometimes you have to do what you feel is the right thing regardless of the price. Sometimes the hard part is knowing what the right thing is. Commenting on weapons and weapons systems brings you up against vested interests of enormous power and influence. Billions of dollars are involved. It is dangerous ground.

I completed my Pentagon phase with so many knives in my back, it resembled a pin-cushion. Still, traditional publishing is even more treacherous so I wasn’t excessively disturbed. Though few would speak out publicly, I also had numerous supporters.  

My priority in this particular case wasn’t my career. It was the soldier at the sharp end. I had met enough during my time with various units to hold them in high regard. Were we buying them the right equipment? I thought not—and said so.

At this stage, do I consider myself a military expert?

As I have written before, I am reluctant to use that word. Experts normally know a great deal about a specific area. I have accumulated a unique body of broad based experience which means I understand how the pieces fit together better than most, but probably don’t have the depth of expertise in some areas that an expert should. Here, I don’t intend to be modest—merely factual. But, subject to that caveat, I am remarkably experienced, well informed, and insightful—and am eminently qualified to comment on defense issues across a broad range of sectors. I am, without question, a military thinker.

Are my ideas original? Some may be—but I make no such claims—nor is that my goal. Though I do have my own ideas, here, as with the economy, I’m much more concerned with determining what works—and communicating it effectively.

If my ego needs a work-out, I have my novels to give it satisfaction. Where both military matters and the economy are concerned, I’m a pragmatist.

My standard is not—is it original? My standard is whether it works. Claiming credit for an idea has a tendency to slow the adoption of the idea in question which is not what you want when lives are at stake—whether financially or physically.

Where my novels are involved, I’m delighted to be thought original, entertaining (or whatever) and to accept whatever accolades are going. Regretfully, I haven’t managed to eliminate my ego entirely—because it has a tendency to distort one’s judgment—but I guess you could say I have compartmentalized it.

What am I doing right now with this expertise?

  • Editing a non-fiction book on the future of the U.S. Army
  • Writing a novel based around the Army
  • Commenting as and when in this blog and elsewhere.
  • Developing some additional ideas—which, for the moment shall be nameless.
  • Carrying out a great deal of additional research.
  • Worrying about the lack of intellectual honesty, integrity, and depth where defense is concerned.

I am greatly concerned about the direction of our national defense.

  • We have evolved the most expensive way of war the world has ever known. We behave as if cost was no object but ignore that we have other urgent commitments.
  • We are spending an excessive amount on defense without having a clear national strategy focused upon what we want to achieve. Appreciate that the Defense Budget represents only part of what we spend on National Security. Our total expenditure here exceeds $1 trillion. 
  • We are still borrowing money to make war. This is the most acceptable method in the short term politically, but it means we are going to end up paying interest on the interest on the money we are borrowing. This is going to cripple the budget downstream—and we have other urgent needs.
  • We have set ourselves up as a de facto global police force to the point where we are grossly overextended with bases all over the world—and without having the resources to fulfill such a global commitment. At the same time we haven’t yet mastered the art of deploying as speedily and effectively as we need to. These are complex issues because, on the face of it, foreign bases seem an advantage (and having a limited number certainly is). However, when you have as many as we do right now (roughly a 1,000 including about 250 golf courses) they have a number of undesirable side effects: they are costly to operate both financially and in terms of human resources; they threaten our enemies to the point where an arms race develops; they dissipate effort; they cause rank inflation because a senior officer is needed to command each base; their sheer number means that the forces in any one individual base are strong enough for any anticipated mission. Overall, I would argue in favor of considerably fewer bases but a much enhanced and faster expeditionary capability. Tom White, then the Secretary Army, once told me we had so many bases roughly 10 percent of our military manpower was in transit to and from them at any one time—and thus could not be used.
  • We cannot account for our expenditures. We already know that every time we occupy a country, corruption goes through the roof. Why do we assume it is limited to over there? There are serious grounds to believe it is endemic here. However, the bottom line is that we don’t know, and we should.
  • We continue to have serious problems with intelligence—despite the vast sums we spend on it. We still seem to be overly focused on target sets—things we can count—and weak on understanding cultures, beliefs, and intentions (both stated and covert). We have placed ourselves in a state of permanent war without making any serious effort to understand our enemies. This is an extraordinarily serious omission. These are very smart people who may well be able to lay their hands on nuclear weapons sooner rather than later. The homeland has remained largely unscathed since 9/11 but I can see no particular reason why that should continue. Yes, internal security has been much improved—but we have also increased the number of our enemies. Further, natural selection has ensured that the survivors are more experienced,capable—and familiar with both our strengths (which they avoid) and weaknesses (which they have leaned to exploit).
  • We make trite announcements such as “Islam is a religion of peace” without knowing what we are talking about. How many of us have really taken the time to be informed of the history, complexities and schisms within Islam? If one thing is absolutely clear it that Islamic Wahabis do not advocate peace. Here it is worth noting that the main backers of the Wahabis are the Saudis who are supposed to be our allies. The reality is that they are both allies and enemies—a complexity we have largely chosen to ignore. Up until recently we have needed their oil—and we sell them vast quantities of military equipment. Concurrently, they fund organizations like ISIS—albeit not normally officially. But this is something Saudi intelligence could largely stop if they wanted to. The Saudi regime is also the antithesis of a democracy. We are allied with a regime whose values are the antithesis of ours.
  • We have evolved a MICC—Military Industrial Congressional Complex—which has now become so powerful, it operates virtually without oversight. Roughly two third of retiring  generals are hired by defense contractors. These are the same people who decide what weapons systems should be bought. They are guilty of conflicts of interest on an industrial scale. Such conflicts have become normal to the point of acceptability in the Pentagon.
  • Partly because of the MICC—which has, in effect, monetized, Duty, Honor , Country—careerism is rife. Careerism means putting your career ahead of your mission. Given the example of general after general feathering his own nest to the extent so many do, perhaps the prevalence of careerism should not be a surprise. But is is exceedingly unhealthy. It constitutes a form of moral rot.
  • We are operating our defense establishment as if it was virtually entirely independent of ‘We The People.’ We’ve subcontracted it.
  • Our foreign policy is dominated to excess by oil and defense interests. In reality we have many other interests which deserve much greater considerations. Are we, for instance, under-utilizing our soft power? I would argue that we are.

War is far too serious and disgusting a business to be making it without the full support,  commitment, and participation of the American people—who also need to be made aware of the consequences in a much more direct way. We need to know not just our own casualties but who else we are killing and injuring, how, and why.

To be at war without most of us being aware of it, or paying for it, or being touched by it in any way, seems unwise as a minimum—and just plain wrong.

In many ways, we have an exceptionally fine military—and are justifiably proud of it. Yet if you look the results after more than 13 years of war, it is hard to feel sanguine about our achievements. But if there is blame, I doubt it lies with the troops as such. In fact their overall performance has been fairly remarkable. But, subject to some—perhaps many—notable  exceptions, I doubt one can say the same about either our policies or senior leadership—both civilian and military. For instance, our strategic focus has been erratic at best. We lost interest in Afghanistan to invade Iraq, and then did much the same in Iraq in order to re-focus on Afghanistan.

The pattern is clear. It is easy enough to get into a conflict but prodigiously hard to end one. We tend to linger. We seem to have scant skill at expeditionary warfare where you mount an assault, teach a lesson, and then got out. It has a much better track record than occupation—and it is less costly by an order of magnitude. It also allows the losers to save face (because they claim victory) which makes it easier to make piece. Occupation is a different thing entirely.

The future for both places scarcely looks encouraging. Iraq is corrupt, fragmented and a significant portion is occupied by ISIS. Afghanistan is corrupt, fragmented, and outside the main urban areas, the Taliban seem to be resurgent.

Yes, we have killed Bin Laden and severely degraded Al Qaeda—but other organizations have sprung up to take their place so we have ended up with rather more enemies than before. Islamic extremism is now rife in numerous countries in Africa for instance—and is proving to be remarkably difficult to contain. Boku Haram, for instance, are proving to be far more resilient than one might suspect.

A good case can be made for a drastic re-think of our National Security. I start from the basis that we need to remain militarily dominant. Restraint should not be confused with weakness—much as the scale of expenditure should be be confused with military effectiveness.

I believe absolutely that we could have a stronger and more effective military at lower cost.

The following are just a few of the question which come to mind.

  • Is our tendency to lead with military power the best way of doing things?
  • Does it really make sense for us to have bases all over the world and to have a military presence in at least half the world’s nations?
  • Are we getting value for money with our National Security dollars
  • Have we given thought to the fact that our military actions promote comparable reactions?
  • Would it be better if our military were more U.S. based but also more deployable?
  • Is the MICC—Military Industrial Congressional Complex—which President Eisenhower warned us about, healthy—and, if not, what are we going to do about it.
  • How do we deal with the problem of careerism?
  • Why have we fought so many wars since 1945—yet either drawn or lost most of them?
  • Should our military be more integrated with the population as a whole—and should we rely more on a militia?
  • Does it make sense to have as many separate military services as we do—which spend a great deal of time and energy fighting each other—and which involve prodigious waste and duplication? For instance, we have three air forces.
  • Why are we allowing the Air Force to buy over 2,000 of the limited,  deeply troubled, and vastly expensive F-35?
  • Why are we allowing the Air Force to neglect CAS—Close Air Support—while doing their utmost to scrap the immensely capably and combat proven A-10—which was designed and built specifically for the task?
  • Why doesn’t the Air Force employ much less expensive aircraft for the COIN role?
  • Why did we allow the Air Force to take over the C29J program—originally an Army program—and then scrap it on the back of specious figures? Why did we allow the Air Force to connive in the destruction of 18 similar aircraft given to the Afghanis?
  • Why isn’t the Coast Guard integrated with the Navy?
  • What is the Nayy going to do about the vulnerability of its aircraft carriers to hypersonic missiles?
  • Why is the Navy spending so much on the inadequately armed  and protected LCS?
  • Why is the Marine Corps so large in relation to its mission—and what exactly is its mission anyway?
  • Why aren’t the services and Veteran’s Administration records integrated?
  • Why has the Army allowed itself to become so road bound—particularly given the ubiquity of IED’s?
  • Given that PGMs—Precision Guided Missiles—are becoming increasingly common, how is the Army going to fight its armor?
  • Why does the Army continue to tolerate such a huge logistics tail—a major vulnerability in  fight?
  • Given the Air Force’s unwillingness to embrace the CAS mission, why doesn’t the Army take it over?

The above list is only a tiny extract of the questions that could, and should, be asked and answered—but somehow we let them fester on.

Why is that? Vested interests have no interest in discussing such matters—they like the status quo. Vested interests include all the players who constitute the MICC—senior military, both serving and retired, and civilian Department of Defense employees. They have powerful weapons on their side including the ability to classify everything. Appreciate also that Congress is part of the MICC. Members of Congress are both bought directly through PAC donations, or kept in line through defense money spent in their districts. Oversight is tough to do when the very people you are supposed to be overseeing are paying you off.

He who pays the piper can get away with most anything—especially where defense contracts are concerned. Is this corruption? Apparently not if everyone does it. As with careerism, it becomes part of the culture.

The media are kept from asking too many questions by the media owners, who want defense advertising money, and by the military who use access as a primary instrument of control. Some media have joined the Dark Side and are members of the MICC. The public as a whole have neither the knowledge nor the interest. Defense think-tanks are largely funded by either the defense industry or the services.

It all adds up to a very good example of how freedom of speech works better in theory than in practice—particularly when the media are muzzled.

That leaves a sprinkling of concerned citizens—many knowledgeable former military or retired  DOD employees—who do a commendable job considering their limited resources—and the odd War Baby.

Entirely suitable, when you think about it. You would imagine annual expenditure of over a trillion dollars would command more attention. Hell, it is almost real money.

It’s an odd situation.

VOR words 9,440.

Given that I recently commented that I was going to try to write shorter blogs, you may well wonder at the length of this piece.

So do I!

The answer is that from time to time I tend to feel the need to write at greater length—and this piece seemed to justify it.

I also like to test myself with different lengths from time to time—and this comes into the 5-10,000 word category—what one might consider ’long-form’ journalism. It is the kind of length I like for a serious subject—though decidedly long for a blog.

A third reason is that I’m working up to writing a series of memoirs—and I like to drill down into memory now and then and see what is there. It’s a surprisingly useful exercise.

I hope in 2015 to find a separate location for my longer pieces.