Eat The Elephant

Well, gentlemen. Let’s go home.
Sink the Bismarck! (1960).

Someday someone will die and the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain problems.
—FBI Field Office, New York City, to FBI Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
29 August, 2001.


Simon Pegg, author of the latest entry in the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Beyond, explained the new film’s title in an interview over a year ago: the studio in charge of the franchise, Pegg said, thought that Star Trek was getting “a little too Star Trek-y.” One scene in particular seems to designed to illustrate graphically just how “beyond” Beyond is willing to go: early on, the fabled starship Enterprise is torn apart by (as Michael O’Sullivan of the Washington Post describes it) “a swarm of mini-kamikaze ships called ‘bees.’” The scene is a pretty obvious signal of the new film’s attitude toward the past—but while the destruction of the Enterprise very well might then be read as a kind of meta-reference to the process of filmmaking (say, how movies, which are constructed by teams of people over years of work, can be torn apart by critics in a virtual instant), another way to view the end of the signature starship is in the light of how Star Trek’s original creator, Gene Rodenberry originally pitched Star Trek: as “space-age Captain Horatio Hornblower.” The demise of the Enterprise is, in other words, a perfect illustration of a truth about navies these days: navies today are examples of the punchline of the old joke about how to eat an elephant. (“One bite at a time.”) The payoff for thinking about Beyond in this second way, I would argue, is that it leads to much clearer thinking about things other than stories about aliens, or even stories themselves—like, say, American politics, where the elephant theory has held sway for some time.

“Starfleet,” the fictional organization employing James T. Kirk, Spock, and company has always been framed as a kind of space-going navy—and as Pando Daily’s “War Nerd,” Gary Brecher, pointed out so long ago as 2002, navies are anachronistic in reality. Professionals know, as Brecher wrote fourteen years ago, that “every one of those big fancy aircraft carriers we love”—massive ships much like the fictional Enterprise—“won’t last one single day in combat against a serious enemy.” The reason we know this is not merely because of the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, which showed how two Al Qaeda guys in a thousand-dollar speedboat could blow a 250 million dollar-sized hole in a 2 billion dollar warship, but also because—as Brecher points out in his piece—of research conducted by the U.S. military itself: a war game entitled “Millennium Challenge 2002.”

“Millennium Challenge 2002,” which conveniently took place in 2002, pitted an American “Blue” side against a fictional “Red” force (believed to be a representation of Iran). The commander of “Red” was Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul K. Riper, who was hired because, in the words of his superiors, he was a “devious sort of guy”—though in the event, he proved to live up to his billing a little too well for the Pentagon’s taste. Taking note of the tactics used against the Cole, Riper attacked Blue’s warships with cruise missiles and a few dozen speedboats loaded with enormous cans of gasoline and driven by gentlemen with an unreasonable belief in the afterlife—a (fictional) attack that sent 19 U.S. Navy vessels to the bottom in perhaps 10 minutes. In doing so, Riper effectively demonstrated the truth also illustrated by the end of the Enterprise in Beyond: that large naval vessels are redundant.

Even warships like the U.S. Navy’s latest supercarrier, the Gerald R. Ford—a floating city capable of completely leveling other cities of the non-floating variety—are nevertheless, as Brecher writes elsewhere, “history’s most expensive floating targets.” That’s because they’re vulnerable to exactly the sort of assault that takes down Enterprise: “a saturation attack by huge numbers of low-value attackers, whether they’re Persians in Cessnas or mass-produced Chinese cruise missiles.” They’re as vulnerable, in other words, as elephants are according to the old joke. Yet, whereas that might be a revolutionary insight in the military, the notion that with enough mice, even an elephant falls is old hat within American political circles.

After all, American politics has, at least since the 1980s, proceeded only by way of “saturation attacks by huge numbers of low-value attackers.” That was the whole point of what are now sometimes called “the culture wars.” During the 1980s and 1990s, as the late American philosopher Richard Rorty put the point before his death, liberals and conservatives conspired together to allow “cultural politics to supplant real politics,” and for “cultural issues” to become “central to public debate.” In those years, it was possible to gain a name for oneself within departments of the humanities by attacking the “intrinsic value” of literature (while ignoring the fact that those arguments were isomorphic with similar ideas being cooked up in economics departments), while conversely, many on the religious right did much the same by attacking (sometimes literally) abortion providers or the teaching of evolution in the schools. To use a phrase of British literary critic Terry Eagleton, in those years “micropolitics seem[ed] the order of the day”—somewhere during that time politics “shift[ed] from the transformative to the subversive.” What allowed that shift to happen, I’d say, was the notion that by addressing seemingly minor-scale points instead of major-scale ones, each might eventually achieve a major-scale victory—or to put it more succinctly, that by taking enough small bites they could eat the elephant.

Just as the Americans and the Soviets refused to send clouds of ICBMs at each other during the Cold War, and instead fought “proxy wars” from the jungles of Vietnam to the mountains of Afghanistan, during the 1980s and 1990s both American liberals and conservatives declined to put their chief warships to sea, and instead held them in port. But right at this point the two storylines—the story of the navy, the story of American politics—begin to converge. That’s because the story of why warships are obsolete is also a story about why that story has no application to politics whatever.

“What does that tell you,” Brecher rhetorically asks, “about the distinguished gentlemen with all the ribbons on their chests who’ve been standing up on … bridges looking like they know what they’re doing for the past 50 years?” Since all naval vessels are simply holes in the water once the shooting really starts, those gentlemen must be, he says, “either stupid or so sleazy they’re willing to make a career commanding ships they goddamn well know are floating coffins for thousands.” Similarly, what does that tell you about an American liberal left that supposedly stands up for the majority of Americans, yet has stood by while, for instance, wages have remained—as innumerable reports confirm—essentially the same for forty years? For while it is all well and good for conservatives to agree to keep their Bismarcks and Nimitzs in port, that sort of agreement does not have the same payout for those on the liberal left—as ought to be obvious to anyone with an ounce of sense.

To see why requires seeing what the two major vessels of American politics are. Named most succinctly by William Jennings Bryan at Chicago in 1896, they concern what Bryan said were the only “two ideas of government”: the first being the idea that, “if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below,” and the “Democratic idea,” the idea “that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.” These are the two arguments that are effectively akin to the Enterprise: arguments at the very largest of scales, capable of surviving voyages to strange new worlds—because they apply as well to the twenty-third century of the Federation as they did to Bryan’s nineteenth. But that’s also what makes them different from any real battleship: unlike the Enterprise, they can’t be taken down no matter how many attack them.

There is, however, another way in which ideas can resemble warships: both molder in port. That’s one reason why, to speak of naval battles, the French lost the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805: as Wikipedia reports, because the “main French ships-of-the-line had been kept in harbour for years by the British blockade,” therefore the “French crews included few experienced sailors and, as most of the crew had to be taught the elements of seamanship on the few occasions when they got to sea, gunnery was neglected.” It’s perfectly alright to stay in port, in other words, if you are merely protecting the status quo—the virtues of wasting time with minor issues is sure enough if keeping things as they are is the goal. But that’s just the danger from the other point of view: the more time in port, the less able in battle—and certainly the history of the past several generations shows that supposed liberal or left-types have been increasingly unwilling to take what Bryan called the “Democratic idea” out for a spin.

Undoubtedly, in other words, American conservatives have relished observing left-wing graduate students in the humanities debate—to use some topics Eagleton suggests—“the insatiability of desire, the inescapability of the metaphysical … [and] the indeterminate effects of political action.” But what might actually affect political change in the United States, assuming anyone is still interested in the outcome and not what it means in terms of career, is a plain, easily-readable description of how that might be accomplished. It’s too bad that the mandarin admirals in charge of liberal politics these days appear to think that such a notion is a place where no one has gone before.


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