Thursday, September 22, 2005

Lies... and urban myth/conspiracy lies

How we wage war:

Similar to Vietnam? "The differences are so notable that it would take too long to list them," Def Sec Donald Rumsfeld remarked. Administration officials blanch at comparisons with Vietnam. And yet, the similarity in wording of presidential assurances can take on a creepy tone.

"America is committed to the defense of South Vietnam until an honorable peace can be negotiated," Johnson told the Tennessee Legislature on March 15, 1967. Despite the obstacles to victory, the president said, "We shall stay the course."

After fourteen Marines died in a roadside bombing on Aug. 3, Bush declared: "We will stay the course, we will complete the job in Iraq. And the job is this: We'll help the Iraqis develop a democracy."

Still, though Truthout and others leap upon such similarities, I haven’t noticed anyone pick up on the two biggest ironies.

(1) The Right has long diagnosed failure in Vietnam as due to “politician meddling in military matters” (deeply underplaying Vietnamese Nationalist will & tenacity). Yet no war in American history has featured so much meddlesome fiddling by complete amateurs, over-ruling professional soldiers, than this intervention in Iraq.

(2) The guy who supervised our final humiliation in Vietnam was... Donald Rumsfeld.

And finally...a good old blog-style rant!

We all have pet peeves. One of my own came up recently in the form of an urban legend conspiracy theory. (Feel free to clip the following and use it whenever you see this old chestnut raised.)

Now, mind you, I know I sometimes come across as a conspiracy theory fetishist. I’m not, really, but some of the things I say about who might really be calling the shots in this current administration do seem to wind up leading us toward a pretty darn conspiratorial scenario! (Hey, real world conspiracies can happen!)

ConspiraciesStill, most conspiracy theories revolve around one central motive... helping to make the theorist feel romantically cool and smart and much more in-the-know than his fellow citizens, or historians, or anyone else among the benighted masses. Conspiracies swarm through Third World bazaars causing no end of grief. One is responsible for a huge outbreak of polio in many Muslim countries, just as the World Health Organization seemed on the verge of wiping out that scourge, forever.

Busting these piles of nonsense is the job of any true modernist... hence the jazz one has to get from the “Myth Busters” TV show! Indeed, this is one of the strongest reasons to fight for a relatively transparent world.

All right then. Here I go. The "FDR Knew About Pearl Harbor" myth is the biggest piece of utter lying insane hogwash in circulation today. It is utter malarkey and drivel of the first water.

Yes, FDR was driving Japan against the wall in order to get them to commit a casus belli. That’s no secret. The oil and resource embargo against Japan, heroically assisted by the Dutch colonial government in Indonesia (despite threats against their families by the Nazis controlling Holland) was what succeeded in forcing Japan to attack. (Of course, the outrages in China more than justified an embargo.)

On the other hand... Think. will you? Yes, he wanted them to attack... and expected them to attack the Philippines. That’s what historians, FDR, and George Marshall (arguably the greatest man of the 20th Century) all said.

No, FDR did not want to enter the war with the Pacific Fleet destroyed! What insane doggy poo!

THINK! If they knew the Japanese were coming to Pearl, fine. Wouldn't they, thereupon, have wanted to win that battle? What’s even better than the enemy starting a war when you want it started? Why, having them start it and lose!

If the Japanese come 4,000 miles, stick their necks out, start a war... and LOSE... that frees FDR to send almost all US resources to what he considered the "real" fight... against Hitler. If he knew they were coming, he'd order an ambush! At LEAST he would have had Halsey's carriers ready to pounce. All the subs would sortie and stake-out along the northern approaches. Torpedo nets would be up. For freaking sakes, PLANES would take off, ready to make the attacker pay as soon as they legally start war by crossing Hawaiian air space.

This piece of arrant nonsense proves that cynics can be the biggest fools of all.

See also Conspiracies and Wishful Thinking: How to tell the difference.


News flash from David Brin - (Repeats an earlier announcement, but pass it on.)

Along with authors Stephen King, Amy Tan, Peter Straub and others, I have joined a fundraising auction to help the First Amendment Project, an online campaign to support free speech.

Most of my peers are offering the highest bidder a chance to have naming rights for a character in a coming novel... or to be "killed" (in Stephen King's case). To be different, I’m auctioning the right to have your name given to either an alien race, to a garish building, or to a uniquely gruesome and inexplicable disease. Hey, it's for a good cause. Bidding opens Thursday Sept. 15, and runs through Sept. 25.

(Oh, finally, we won't see a "space elevator" above Earth in our lifetimes. Even if it would work, the liability insurance, in case the thing broke, would be staggering. The lower half would strike Earth at hypersonic speeds, paining a charred "equator line" all the way around!)


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if the Iraq War and Vietnam War are comparable.

What is the same is the rhetoric and jingoistic puffer being employed to defend the administration's mistakes and incompetence, and that is what I find so dismaying.

I firmly believe that our military leadership is smart enough not to fall into the trap of "fighting the last war." Our leaders, however, seem to be doing their best to repeat the last defeat.

* * *

I highly recommend Errol Morris' documentary Fog of War. Robert McNamara, an operations wonk and rationalist, explains in excruciating detail how the war got away from them. Painful and illuminating.

* * *

Dave, I think your analysis RE FDR and Pearl Harbor is right-on.

But for people who believe the conspiracy story (or -- perhaps more to the point -- who want others to believe it), logic doesn't matter. "Movement Conservatives" have it in for FDR, and they will say anything in their campaign to rewrite history.

Ronald Reagan, at least, had the courage and decency to give respect the man who saved the country from social chaos. He labeled himself, however disingenuously, as a successor to FDR.

The neocons and the paleocons, however, are too in love with their distorted vision of a small-government golden age to give anyone on the other side credit.


Anonymous said...

P.S. You should submit the news about the character-naming auction to Science Fiction Weekly!

Anonymous said...

Okay, I have to ask, Has David Brin ever offered an opinion on whther or not Oswald acted alone?

My thoughts, there is a lack of compelling evidence to prove co-conspirators. Compelling arguments yes, compelling evidence no.

Rob Perkins said...


Thanks for pointing out what should have been obvious about Pearl Harbor.

daveawayfromhome said...

(Oh, finally, we won't see a "space elevator" above Earth in our lifetimes. Even if it would work, the liability insurance, in case the thing broke, would be staggering. The lower half would strike Earth at hypersonic speeds, paining a charred "equator line" all the way around!)

Well, I am deeply bummed. Would that apply even if you put it on the west coast of S. America? I suppose even then you'd get a whopper of a tsunami (at the least. Plus, I guess it's quite a few miles long, too, perhaps long enough to reach across the Pacific?)


Tony Fisk said...

What's this about FDR knowing about Pearl Harbour??

Having recently read the Zimmerman Telegram, I've been struck by a couple of parallels between the machinations of WWI and WWII
- Attempts by Germany to distract America from Europe involved Japan in both cases (encouraging Japan to encourage Mexico to invade in the case of WW1)
- unquestioning (and wrong) belief in the unbreakability of german codes (and Japan's was based on Enigma)

..and a more modern simile: I found Woodrow Wilson's insular attitude (ie not taking advice) was strikingly like Bush's . Although, ironically, the former was an implacable pacifist, it was his unbending outlook (ie predictability) that allowed him to be 'played'.

Quoth DB:
Oh, finally, we won't see a "space elevator" above Earth in our lifetimes. Even if it would work, the liability insurance, in case the thing broke, would be staggering.

Is this a case of Clarke's first Law? (not that I'm calling you 'elderly' ;-)

I have questions about how the thing would be maintained generally and, indeed, one 'timbered' Space Elevator could certainly ruin your day... if it was the monolithic tower type.

OTOH, LiftPort are pushing the ribbon approach, which is lightweight (if anything over 22,400 miles long can be called that!). Wouldn't this burn up on reentry?

Ah, well! Even if they don't get beyond servicing heliostats, they're having fun trying!

Anonymous said...

If Bush et. al are rerunning Vietnam, I think I know what's happening.

Sometimes children from a dysfunctional family will vow that when *their* time comes, they will do it *right*. The irony is, a lot of them end up repeating the very same mistakes they vowed to correct. And Vietnam was the Boomer's #1 trauma.

Make sense?


Brian Dunbar said...

The lower half would strike Earth at hypersonic speeds, paining a charred "equator line" all the way around!)

With great respect you're wrong on the details. Sorry.

The catastrophe you describe can only happen from a mega space elevator - the sort KSR describes in 'Red Mars'. We can't build something like that - we may never want to.

The space elevator that Dr. Edwards describes in his NIAC study, and which Liftport proposes to build, is a light 20 ton ribbon. When this fails* part will fall to earth, part will disintegrate on re-entry. By no means will the entire thing strike the earth.

In short, a mess. But not a catastrophe. We think we can find insurers or we wouldn't be pursuing the idea in the first place.

I invite you - and your readers - to look up the NIAC study (available by PDF on our site) as well as our FAQ.

Brian Dunbar

*yes, when. Everything breaks and we realize this. In a good world we'll catch the failure before it happens and either prevent it or cause a controlled failure.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't the lasers used to power the lifters also be used to disintigrate whatever part of the ribbon hadn't already burnt up as it fell?

Anonymous said...

How about explosive charges placed along the length to blow the earthside portion of the ribbon into segments in the event of a break?

Anonymous said...

Hello, David

As a (strictly amatuer) historian, I have come across the 'FDR KNEW' myth more times than I can count... and my counter arguement is identical to yours. The Japanese 1st wave was some 180 aircraft, the 2nd 170 for a total of about 350 (from memory)... but the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines had some 300 FIGHTERS on Oahu. Sure, some of them were 3rd rate (P-26 Peashooters), many were 2nd rate (Buffaloes and P-35's) and only a handful were truly 'modern' (Wildcats and P-40 Warhawks)... but that's a lot of fighter planes. With 2-1 superiority, I'm sure the first wave would have suffered heavy casualties. Add in a alert and ready fleet (lots of anti aircraft guns, ships with hatches sealed for combat, damage control teams standing by) plus the Army's anti aircraft manned and ready (Army AA had thier ammunition stored away from the guns 'for safety'), and the Japanese air strike would have been badly battered. Throw out the Subs and the American Carriers 'who just happened to be exercising north of Hawaii' and the Japanese probably would have lost 3 carriers and accomplished almost nothing.

OK, rant off.

The space elevator thing... how long would it be? Could we put it on a island and have it just fall (fail) into the ocean? How much in bribes would we (the United States) have to pay to have a country lease us the location to build it? It worked in Panama...

HawkerHurricane (HH)
SM1(SW) USN (ret)

David Brin said...

My argument about Pearl Harbor is an example of "Triaging your fights" by dismissing some scenarios with simple logic.

I learned to do this by dealing with UFO nuts. If you get drawn into dealing with individual cases, your life span will be sucked right out of you. Then, having disproved that case, you be handed another from an endless pile.

I learned to say "I ADMIT that one out of a thousand of these cases might actually be little silver guys swooping down to disemboel cattle, kidnap citizens on back roads and perform anal probes! I admit it might be happening...

"... but what does that have to do with intelligent life in the universe? The one common thread is this. There is not a single purported UFO even that IF TRUE, represents the kind of BEHAVIOR one might expect from adults.

"I don't care what their excuses are. This is our home. Guests adapt to house rules. It is the most basic principle of courtesy.

"They are assholes. Go airforce."

It is the only argument that has worked with UFOists. Just as "FDR wanted an attack... but would have wanted to win." demolishes that theory completely.

Oh, I hope our lifespacs get extended and we do see space elevators. Still if you want a man who REALLY understands tensile objects in space, see my friend Joe Carroll, who almost single handedly rescued the whole "tethered sub satellite" program from those expensive shuttle-based debacles.

He proved the physics behind "Tank Farm" my story at

Learn more at

Finally, this quote from a guy who wrote in from Britain:

'Sucked into an interminable guerilla war in Asia, just promised to send men to the moon: is Mr Bush planning a visit to Dallas this November?'

Brian Dunbar said...

Couldn't the lasers used to power the lifters also be used to disintigrate whatever part of the ribbon hadn't already burnt up as it fell?

I would not bet the farm on it. I'm not (by any means) an expert but we're going to go to some lengths to 'prove' the lasers can't be used for 'evil' possibly reducing their ability to elevate and rapidly track, and certainly tuning their output so they can only deliver the power we need. Having the ability to track a wildly gyrating bit of ribbon while delivering the power needed to vaporize is probably beyond our abiliity, and certainly will not be economnical.

But again, I'm not an expert.

How about explosive charges placed along the length

I don't know (again, I'm a computer guy) but I know that weight is a concern. How many kgs of explosive per kilometer will you need and how heavy is will that be? Reliability so when you need them to go bang they do?

He proved the physics behind "Tank Farm" my story

I had read, and enjoyed, that story, but forgotten that you wrote it. Nice bit.

Sucked into an interminable guerilla war in Asia, just promised to send men to the moon: is Mr Bush planning a visit to Dallas this November?'

If we're re-running the 60s can the 70s be far behind? Swell - Disco Redux.

daveawayfromhome said...

and E.S.T

Xactiphyn said...

I'm not convinced a hypersonic length of strong plastic wrap would be so devastating. Even if the stored energy is tremendous, that energy will be dissipated over an very large area.

Joe Carroll may be an expert on tensile objects in space, but we only care about the effect within the atmosphere. I trust the warning, but not the conclusion.

Anonymous said...

There's an article at IEEE Spectrum magazine about a space elevator.

What makes this interesting is that the author claims you could make the cable out of a lightweight material (density of 8 kg/km) that would mostly burn up if the anchor at the top were detached. The remainder of the cable would 1000 km long and so would limit the damage by the falling debris.

I wish I knew enough materials science to know if this is realistic or not. The density seems fantastically low. The article leaves me with the same feeling I get reading old Popular Science articles. Anyone know enough to comment? Are space elevators the flying cars of the 21st century?

David Brin said...

Consider this.

The space elevator must stretch 22,000 miles JUST to reach the geosynchronous station. It must then extend many thousands of mile FARTHER in order to reach the counterweight that keeps the whole thing taut.

Wherever a break occurs, the part above the break flies off into deep space, including the geosynch station, if the break is below it.

If the break is just below the station,or even some distance above, you get enough cable falling at high speed to almost wrap around the planet.

Read Kim Stanley Robinson's vivid novel Red Mars.

BTW, can someone tell me where to look on Worldchanginf for my recent posting and the response. A klutz at navigating.

Anonymous said...

DB's comment and responses can be found at:

Anonymous said...

God Damnit:,8599,1108972-1,00.html

'Prisoners were designated as PUCs (pronounced "pucks")—or "persons under control." A regular pastime at Camp Mercury, the report says, involved off-duty soldiers gathering at PUC tents, where prisoners were held, and working off their frustrations in activities known as "F____a PUC" (beating the prisoner) and "Smoke a PUC" (forced physical exertion, sometimes to the point of collapse). Broken limbs and similar painful injuries would be treated with analgesics, the soldiers claim, as medical staff would fill out paperwork stating the injuries occurred during capture. Support for some of the allegations of abuse come from a sergeant of the 82nd Airborne who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch quotes him as saying that, "To 'F____ a PUC' means to beat him up. We would give them blows to the head, chest, legs, and stomach, pull them down, kick dirt on them. This happened every day. To 'smoke' someone is to put them in stress positions until they get muscle fatigue and pass out. That happened every day. Some days we would just get bored so we would have everyone sit in a corner and then make them get in a pyramid. This was before Abu Ghraib but just like it. We did that for amusement.

"On their day off people would show up all the time," the sergeant continues in the HRW report. "Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent. In a way it was sport. The cooks were all U.S. soldiers. One day a sergeant shows up and tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the guy's leg with a mini Louisville Slugger that was a metal bat. He was the cook."'

That's it.

Game over.


Rob Perkins said...

I read Red Mars. I guess no real analysis is possible unless we know the mass of the cable in the worst case, and whether it and its components will burn up in the atmosphere before striking the ground.

Ben Tilly said...

David, I'm unimpressed at your latest demonstration of how to make CITOKATE fail.

I've long noted that what we most dislike in others is what we most dislike in ourselves, and I suspect that I'm seeing this in you right now. In fact I see a content-free doom and gloom pessimism that would depress the dour progressives that you like to deride!

A space elevator is truly a grand vision. But rather than being inspired by this, all you can say is how it can't work. Brian Dunbar has directed you to Dr. Edwards' NIAC study on the proposed design, including the risks. And his conclusion is that the risks are very manageable.

But you don't point to what the people you know have to say about this exact proposed design. (I looked on his site, and if he addresses the question, I couldn't see it.) As you've noted yourself, science fiction authors are paid to be interesting, not right. So much for Red Mars. You vividly portray a global disaster but ignore whether 20 tons of flammable cable would really do that much damage.

In short your reaction so far has been practically a parody of how to ignore criticism. Criticism may well be The Only Known Antidote To Error, but it doesn't always work. For one thing, people can ignore it. In particular when we encounter a point of view that we disagree with, it is very hard to listen to it in an open minded fashion. Especially when someone whose opinions we trust doubts it. (This can be a good thing, insert here comments about minds so open that brains fall out.)

Now you've been pointed at an attempt to address the safety concerns in a rigorous manner. What exactly do you disagree with in that analysis? Do you think that the proposed design wouldn't work (eg proposed materials cannot be made), and the ones that could will be far more dangerous? Do you think that the amount of material dropped is dangerous? (If so, then compare with usual meteor activity and you may be surprised...) Do you think that the material will survive re-entry, and its physical properties will make it dangerous? (If so, then get very worried, because such a useful substance won't just be produced for this cable - it will have plenty of other industrial uses and will get into the environment in other ways. Also a light ribbon around the Earth doesn't strike me as being nearly as damaging as you portray.) Do you not want to think about this beyond knowing that Joe Carroll objects? (The truth of which I can't actually discern.) What, exactly, is your objection?

Impress me. Respond thoughtfully.

But don't just quote Kim Stanley Robinson again. Kim's book envisioned an engineering marvel that was a lot bigger than the proposed 20 ton ribbon. Like a lot of science fiction, his vision of future engineering marvels was bigger and grander than anything we've done. The real future has constantly surprised with miniaturization. (I find it amusing to read science fiction stories from the 50s that discuss the behemoth computers of the future...) Minaturization changes things a lot. Small is beautiful, particularly when it comes to disasters. :-)

Anonymous said...


Sadly, there's much worse out there. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib both, and at least thirty deaths in custody that the military has admitted were basically murder. See: The Red Cross report, the Taguba rebort, "Extraordinary Rendition", and so on.

This isn't new. It's been Bush administration policy for years. One of the many reasons I can't understand why anyone could vote for Bush.

On another note, while we're on the subject of urban legends and lies, I'd be willing to bet that when the US pulls out of Iraq (probably beginning, oh, a few months before the 2006 elections), there'll be plenty of people who'll say "We were winning, until Those Damn Anti-American Anti-War Liberals interfered and made us pull out." Completely disregarding the completely Republican Congress, George W. Bush's entire administration's fuckups, the fact that "liberals" have no control over the government right now, etc. Just like with Vietnam.

Anonymous said...

Nate suggests:

'there'll be plenty of people who'll say "We were winning, until Those Damn Anti-American Anti-War Liberals interfered and made us pull out."'

Oh, certainly. They're setting things up for that now.

My first try at that last post had a much angrier conclusion that ended with something like:

"Remember this when Bush dies and future conservatives try to revise history and set him up as a champion of democracy and justice."

Joel said...

I don't see how a single width of ribbon would be practical in any event. The bending loads on the traction rollers would be much lower if there were several (50 or so? several hundred?) strips of ribbon, and there would be many other benefits.

In the case of soft failure, one ribbon would likely lose a lot of energy against the ones that are still standing, and the crawler could lay a new ribbon while shredding & jettisoning the tangled remains of the old one. In the case of catastrophic failure, a tangled ball of thread will have greater air drag, if nothing else.

Not to mention the benefits in ease of manufacturing and quality control.

Admiral said...

I have a conspiracy theory. I think that a lot of people are members of the vast pro-George C. Marshall conspiracy! For some reason, everyone and I mean EVERYONE is touting his horn to be the greatest man of the 20th century. Forgive me my MacArthur bias, but while I think Marshall was a great man, I would hardly put him in the top 10 greatest, or even the top 10 most influential in the course of world events in the 20th century. I mean, he just doesn't rank. Maybe I'll be able to read more thoughts on the matter from you later...

Ben Tilly said...

Joel: with many strips of ribbon, a crawler would have a very complex job in trying to straighten them out and crawl up them. A single strip of ribbon is mechanically simple to crawl up. Remember also that this "ribbon" would be made out of a substance tougher than any we currently have, and would be under tension. That means that it vibrates, and trying to straighten it is easier said than done.

Furthermore with multiple threads there are new failure modes. For instance they would vibrate somewhat independently, which would make them snap into each other very hard. This could cause damage and break threads. A single ribbon does not have this tendency.

Furthermore once one tower was built, you'd then be in a good position to build the next far more cheaply (using the first to ferry materials up). This gives you redundancy against damage to a single ribbon, with a far simpler design. Plus you can put multiple towers in different places, protecting against a single local disaster (hurricane, airplane accident, etc) shutting you down.

Anonymous said...

The target of the Japanese at Pearl Harbor was the Pacific Fleet. Not the carriers (which they would have taken if they were there), but the battle line. Remember this: 6 months after Pearl, at the Battle of Midway, the Japanese battle plan called for 8 Battleships to win the battle. Not thier carriers. No one but the most forward thinking (radical) admirals thought aircraft carriers were a war winning weapon.
As for damage done... While only 2 battleships were permanantly lost (Arizona and Oklahoma), all 8 were knocked out of action for months to years. A ship out of action might as well be destroyed until it gets back, and it takes up resources that could be used for new construction.
The U.S. would be on the defensive until Midway, and only capable of limited offensive action for over a year. The Pearl Harbor Raid was a success... unfortunatly, they needed more than a mere success to win, given that the U.S. could build ships faster than Japan could, that Japan didn't have enough oil even after capturing the oil fields of the Dutch East Indies (nor enough tankers to ship it), and most importantly, that the U.S. had it's pride hurt... Japan forgot what the United States did to the Confederate States... and they were related to us.


Anonymous said...

/discaimer: complete amateur about to speak off the cuff.

Wherever a break occurs, the part above the break flies off into deep space, including the geosynch station, if the break is below it.

If the break is just below the station,or even some distance above, you get enough cable falling at high speed to almost wrap around the planet.

What if the ribbon was mined with explosives, so that if one part broke, the whole lot broke. Then a good portion of the ribbon would stay in orbit forever, and even if it did fall, would fall in tiny chunks.

There may, of course, be concerns about mining such an expensive investment.

Anonymous said...

the things I worry about mining/controlled demolition is:
Who has access to the button? and Who might GAIN access to the button?
Sabotage where the victim provides his own explosives...


Anonymous said...

Hi Brin,

Just wanted to draw your attention to a rather disturbing site I was pointed to by my webmaster.

It´s called the Global Freedom Party and it has a review by Tom Cahill on the film "Beyond Treason".

The site is

It also contains links to a rather disturbing ´Declaration of War´ against the United States, which in my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt.

"Every American should be forced to see “Beyond Treason” as German civilians were forced, by order of then Gen. Eisenhower, to visit the Nazi death camps immediately after liberation in 1945. Justice would be further served if the Americans responsible for the use of uranium munitions were tried for war crimes in the very same court in Nurenberg, Germany, in which Herman Goring and other Nazi bigwigs were judged. This should include former commanders-in-chief George H. W. Bush and William Clinton."

"We, the Global Freedom Party, speaking on behalf of the United States of Europe, hereby declare war on the Federal Government of the United States of America, their plutocrat advisories in the Industrial and Military complex and their foreign collaborators. We will use all of our powers and means to bring down the United States goverment, plus expose and bring to global justice the individuals and corporations who have commited crimes against humanity and nature collaborating with the United States. We will use all of our powers and means to hinder, boycott, sabotage and prevent American goods and services to enter and be used in the United States of Europe and allied states."

Say what? The United States of Europe?