"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 18 January 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Hit & Run 01.18.01


Some familiar fantasies showed up in Tuesday's USA Today, as a front-page story alerted readers to the imminent conversion of the U.S. Army — don't blink! — from a "plodding Cold War behemoth" to a much-sexier "swift New World dynamo." The story goes on to promise "revolutionary changes" and a weapons system that "looks like something Star Wars villain Darth Vader might control from the Death Star." While this is an old brand of glittery media fiction, it's also more particularly a good example of the credulous reportorial embrace of Army Chief-of-Staff General Eric Shinseki's nascent "Transformation." Shinseki's stated goal is to build a light-but-lethal Army that can deploy "a warfighting division on the ground in 120 hours and five divisions in 30 days," anywhere in the world. Except that, apparently unnoticed, a strong case for the total impossibility of meeting that goal anytime in the foreseeable future already arrived late last year from a surprising — and really, really dull — source. The November/December issue of Army Logistician magazine features a "commentary" on a quantifiable bit of historical precedent that appears to have gotten its peanut butter in Shinseki's chocolate. The careful, number-heavy piece, written by an active-duty colonel, all but dismisses the chief's dramatic transformation in Army quickness as an act that would have to occupy the loaves-and-fishes category to succeed. Col. Christopher Paparone's "friction index" compares "the actual speed of an army to its potential speed of movement."

Measuring the friction index for 18th-century armies against the friction index for contemporary rapid deployment units, Paparone reports that "the actual-to-potential speed by which closure of a decisive force is attained has remained relatively constant for over 200 years." It's easier to understand just why that's true if you flip a few pages back through the magazine, to the five-page article titled: "Splitting Hand Receipts for Deployment"; there is, technology aside, a lot of friction built into the military model of doing things. And so achieving Shinseki's five-in-thirty vision implies landing something on the friction index that Paparone calmly describes as "a startling figure!" ("A little over two sigma from the mean of previously calculated indexes," if you really must know.) The colonel goes on to suggest some ways to make that happen, but his final words complete the reality check that he started with: "We should," he writes, "understand the magnitude of that challenge." Which, in a climate of enthusiastic unreality, is a pretty good goal. And as long as Paparone and his fellow soldiers can avoid reading the morning newspaper, they should be able to meet it.

Then again, who needs response time when you've got a cool new slogan? The Army recently unveiled its new tagline, "An Army of One," to replace the 20-year-old "Be All That You Can Be." The change is an attempt to prevent the Service's becoming an army of none, as recruitment has failed to meet goals for the last five years. By allowing non-high school graduates in for the first time since WWII and increasing their focus on blacks and Hispanics (and you thought all those ads during NBA games were designed to get Woody Allen and Jack Nicholson to join up), Army officials hope to round up enough young bucks to stave off the Jerries, or Commies, or whoever it is these days. Common sense would seem to suggest, however, that the Army may have done better to invest $150 million into raising the wages of its new recruits rather than bouncing from one vacuous corporate slogan to another.

George W. Bush hasn't even been sworn in yet and we've already worn out the Joke. The Joke, that is, that he can't speak very well. He's the Found Humor President-elect, a man who spouts dumb puns and malaprops faster than any late night comedy writing staff could make them up. And he's consistently funnier than they are. While most people with speech impediments are off limits to professional humorists, Mr. Bush's every awkward syllable is now news, as the folks at Reuters proved this week when they shot out the bulletin that the President-elect had referred to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as "Anthony" then "Antonio." Like Viagra and Joey Buttufuoco jokes, our new President's verbal dyslexia is becoming as exciting a laugh as using "the naked guy from Survivor!" as a punchline.

What's worse, it's now such an instant diversion from the news that Bush can use it as a smoke and mirrors tactic in dodging questions. His reference to Scalia came when he was asked about the appearance of a collusional relationship between the President-elect and the Court. That question never got a real answer, and Reuters' spin on the story is Bush's stumble. Clinton bombed an aspirin factory to ditch impeachment headlines and Reagan is widely rumored to have invaded Grenada to divert attention from Young Ron's failing ballet career, but wagging the dog for this incoming President only means wagging his tongue. A mere mention that he's in favor of expanding "NEATO" when he meant to say "NATO" and foreign policy debates are swept aside as a nation's eyes well with tears of laughter. Bushisms will come out of the White House communications office the way Madison Avenue copy writers fed Yogi Berra his calculated nonsense. In response to bad economic news, a Dick Cheney strategy meeting will have Bush uttering, "I'm in favor of bigger tax sluts — I mean cuts!" And for months, the swelling ranks of the unemployed, warmed by kneeslapping bellylaughs instead of home heating, will have Mr. Bush's polls rising steadily. He has already appeared on SNL and Leno to kid himself, chuckling along over his gaffes, but don't kid yourselves — he's not always going to be laughing with us.

Three and one half years ago, Suck cheered on Ted Turner as he bought World Championship Wrestling (WCW). Rather than go the route of class(less) contemporaries Ross Perot and Steve Forbes, who felt that fortunes alone entitled them to run the country, Turner shined on a Presidential bid and instead devoted himself to the gentleman's pursuit of full-time wrestling promotion. Turner stood atop the world back then, married to a movie star, his WCW trouncing Mr. McMahon's WWF, his Atlanta Braves ripping up the National League, and his CNN the only 24-hour news network going. And yet even with our blessing — oh hell, most likely because of it — the WCW soon dropped through the floor and was sold last week for such an embarrassing figure it wasn't even released to the press.

This news comes on top of a recent chain of indignities: Jane Fonda's decision to drop Ted for Jesus, FOX News and MSNBC's yanking the ratings rug out from under CNN and Bernie Shaw, the Braves' John Rocker's taking Ted's spot as the new Mouth of the South, and Ted's merger with Time-Warner — which in turn merged with AOL and froze Ted out, stranding the world's mightiest mortal Cast Away-style on a pile of cash as big as the Ritz. And, while anyone with Turner's ambition and that much cash should never be counted out — well, anyone with only the cash, when you think about it — the fact that the man who engineered the 'toon titan Cartoon Network and Turner Classic Movies, who restored more movies than anyone will ever watch, will no longer be in charge of those operations is, to quote the poet, a pisser.

Like Hearst, Turner ruled by genius and whimsy. Hearst found time to start wars and demand that comic strips like Krazy Kat run all over the country for the very same reason — he felt like it. Turner gave us Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, Robert Benchley shorts on TCM, and a new definition of TV news; he threw $1 billion to the United Nations and publicly compared his evil twin, Rupert Murdoch, to Al Capone. Yes, he colorized movies, but by making rare, vault-bound, forgotten films available to the public he more than made up for it years ago. Say what you will, the man's style has been to create and build and restore where no one has cared before, and it's yet another sad day in the vast wasteland when he's eased out of business by the same bland, grey, moneymen he taunted for years. We'll take The Powerpuff Girls over AOL instant message any day. Ted, the nicest thing we can say to you is this: We'll never cheer you again.

Maybe it was the brown acid we dropped on the way over to the theater, but we seem alone among the elite media in our bad-trip response to Steven Soderbergh's much-heralded Traffic. The two and a half hour long flick, dubbed "a blistering look at our nation's hypocritical and useless war on drugs" by a strung-out reviewer for a failing dotcom zine who no doubt is worrying about where his next fix will be coming from, has garnered more Golden Globe nominations than Robert Downey Jr. has felony charges.

Here's the curious thing about this bit of "exemplary Hollywood social realism" (so sayeth the Village Voice in what we think was a compliment) that claims to deliver the righteous cinematic telegram that the War on Drugs is a waste of time, money, and lives: One of Traffic's central plots amounts to little more than a tortured updating of Reefer Madness. Michael Douglas plays Robert Wakefield, the newly named drug czar with a teenage daughter. Even as Daddy is jetting to Washington, D.C. to plot interdiction strategies with the president, the girl is introduced to the pleasures of freebasing cocaine and quicker than you can say "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling," the high school honor student becomes a bona fide crack whore, even shacking up with her ghetto dealer and trading sex for product.

Call us junkies who are in deep denial, but that sort of cautionary tale — which we dimly remember from films we nodded off through in junior high health classes — seems to argue that drugs really are bad for you, that they're not the life-enhancing, laff-inducing substances we all know them to be. Indeed, if, as Traffic suggests, drugs are routinely that disastrous, then there may well be a case for prohibiting them. If Soderbergh's latest is what passes for a cranked-up indictment of the drug war that has created an Amerikan gulag system, then we're sticking with Cheech and Chong's brand of "social realism." That dopey duo may not have been all that funny, but at least they left the hysterics to professionals.

Can an Army of One fight the War On Drugs? Could The Mouth of the South beat Antonio Scalia? Holler about it at Plastic.

courtesy of the Sucksters