Sunday, May 6, 2007

Good things from the LA Times

The LA Times is a big fat paper, about which someone once joked that
"It seems to be edited with a shovel." True but the good stuff is very
good. The Food Section on Wednesday is wonderful and the revived West
Magazine is not as good as it once was but its better than an airline


Bomb Mots
Dan Neil

May 6, 2007

Richard "Mack" Machowicz speaks softly and carries a big laser-guided,
over-the-horizon, armor-penetrating stick. Machowicz is the host of
Discovery Channel's "Future Weapons," a breathless hour of gun love in
which Mack—former Navy SEAL and a keen advocate of peace through
superior firepower—pulls the trigger on some of the most fearsome
hardware ever procured by the Pentagon.

In one episode, he ventilates the night with the fire-spitting 40mm
cannon aboard an AC-130 Spectre gunship. On another, Mack visits with
the men behind the Massive Ordinance Air Blast device (MOAB), a
21,000-pound, mushroom-cloud-forming super-bomb that is the largest
conventional weapon in the Air Force arsenal, thus earning it the
nickname Mother Of All Bombs.

It was the MOAB segment that stayed my remote-control hand. While I'm
no authority on the laws of armed conflict, it seemed to me a weapon
with a lethal blast radius of 400 feet is a tad, well, indiscriminate.
Perhaps glorifying this pseudo-nuke was in some sense ethically

"You can't put it down to the weapon," says Machowicz when I reached
him by phone. "Any weapon is unethical if used improperly." The MOAB
was designed primarily as a psychological weapon, Machowicz says. Also,
the MOAB provides an alternative to battlefield nukes. "Not a good
alternative, but an alternative," he says. The show—promoted as part of
what Discovery calls its "Manday" lineup on Mondays—typically has four
segments, each featuring a high-tech weapon system and each, ideally,
ending in an incandescent gout of destruction that makes you ever so
glad you're not a jihadist in Warizistan. A season-one segment featured
the world's most powerful cluster bomb. Misplace your Jane's Defense
Weekly? That's the CBU-97 Sensor Fuzed Weapon (SFW), which can rain
down molten copper over 600,000 square feet. Another segment explored
ground-penetrating thermobaric weapons, which are an extremely
unpleasant variety of incinerating fuel-air explosive that can be used
to—if I may paraphrase President Bush—smoke them out of their holes.

Who is "they"? Well, who have you got?

"The world is full of bad people, evil people," said Machowicz.
"People who are fundamentally inconsiderate of their actions." Ah,

Cable TV has always had more than a whiff of cordite. Following
Clausewitz's maxim that all history is, at base, military history, the
History Channel offers a steady diet of armed conflict: "Dogfights of
the Middle East," "Man Moment Machine: Patton and the Desperate Tank
Attack," are a couple of current titles. In a charming confluence of
life and art, R. Lee Ermey—a former Marine drill instructor cast as the
martinet in "Full Metal Jacket"—hosts his own show of weapons past,
present and future, called "Mail Call." If that's not enough gear, guns
and guts for you, flip to the Military Channel. They're always storming
the beaches of Normandy and Tarawa over there.

God knows I love to see things blow up. A proper gentleman's education
cannot be considered complete unless he has, at some point, shot a
watermelon with a high-powered rifle. But I have a major problem with a
lot of this programming, the first being its clinical and morally
vacant fascination in killing. You know that familiar wing-camera
footage of white-orange napalm blooming in the jungle canopy in
Vietnam? There are people under there. At the other end of every smart
bomb is some poor dumb bastard who is about to be blown to bits. When I
hear some narrator crow about America's precision bombing, I just
cringe. There is nothing precise about a 1,000-pound bomb.

I had a similar reaction to media coverage of the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency's Grand Challenge, DARPA's annual open
competition for auto- nomous ground vehicles. How many people
registered that this was a program to develop robotic weapons? Did
anybody even see "The Terminator"?

It's not about the necessity of armed conflict, or morality of a
particular weapon. All of that is, as they say in the military, above
my pay grade. It's about making glib entertainment out of mechanized
death. You couldn't blame a visitor from another country watching this
program and concluding that Americans have slipped into a nutty
late-Roman fascism.

Mack disagrees. The effect of this technology is, he says, to make
warfare less destructive, to limit collateral damage, to protect our
own forces, and in some cases—such as the Long Range Acoustic Device
(LRAD), a focused sound weapon—to find non-lethal means to achieve
military objectives. "It's about how much responsibility you are trying
to take for the battlefield."

A whisper-voiced bulldog of a man with a head as smooth as an ROTC
drill team helmet, Mack seems like a decent sort of guy. I pressed him
as to whether he thought perhaps his show is just a televised front
porch for the military-industrial complex. He does, after all, have
some amazing access, and he never seems to have met a gold-plated
weapons system he doesn't like.

Good propaganda fools the people who see it. Great propaganda fools
the people who make it.

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times