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The Seduction of Technology: A Memorial Day Ramble

Memorial Day

(photo: John M. Cropper/flickr)


He was
totally totally totally
in love
with the sky
and he wanted
to fly
so his country said come
you want wings, we’ve got some.

From the sky the earth became a wonder.
not mere real estate to plunder.
and the young man flew, pretending to assault the earth.

to fly, he was so far from where men die.
to focus only on the task
and not the questions earth might ask
of why her lover, her dear son could
drop his wretched load and run.

(today I say theres a new game to play,
with drones in the sky – a target to spy
oh my a gamers delight – such fright)

— craftysue

This Memorial Day we need to remember once again those who were killed by conscription and those who were killed by seduction. A volunteer army in peacetime depends on seduction or on economic pressure in order to recruit youth. The primary factor in the seduction of a military career is the illusion of immortality held by youth, the idea of tempting death but never succumbing. But there is another seduction involved as well — that of shiny things, things that make loud noises, and things that are puzzles. Technology seduces as surely as drones kill.

To be a young patriotic American boy at the beginning of the 1960s was to be fascinated by science and technology, appalled that a society like the Soviet Union existed, and convinced that the United States of that time was the very embodiment of Thomas Jefferson’s, John Adams’s, and James Madison’s hopes and dreams. And to see the astronaut corps as the great American adventure. And to see that as the first step in a career whose pinnacle was being like the cosmologist George Gamow.

There was however one minor step in the career path to the astronaut corps. At that time, all seven Mercury astronauts were military test pilots. You had to enter the military in order to go into outer space. But there was a peacetime draft; you had to enter the military anyway if you were male. What better way than to go to the Air Force Academy (then brand-spanking new), major in physics and astronomy and go to pilot school. Of course it was not to be. I lacked the political connections to get a Congressional appointment and at 108 pounds and 6 feet tall was both too underweight to qualify for the Academy and too tall to ever be a test pilot. But I did get a feel for how the military operates in two years of mandatory ROTC in college. I chose not to take the scholarship and complete the remaining two years to be commissioned as a lieutenant. I chose to transfer to a prestige school that had a degree in international relations because in my naive view there was somewhere a career path to waging peace.

Joe Ruzicka was one of the folks who did complete his ROTC training.

The closest thing to a counter-culture at 1964-1966 Clemson University was the Jabberwocky Coffee House, which was run as a co-op. There was weekly folk music, and it became the place for name musicians to hang out when they were performing in the then cultural desert of Clemson SC. Van Cliburn spent until 3 am one night regaling Jabberwocky customers with ribald jokes. Other musicians would come to jam.

Joe Ruzicka was one of the folks who helped make the Jabberwocky happen. Stereotypes of who does what are so misleading. Joe was no more than an acquaintance to me. But for two years, the Jabberwocky was a cultural home to me.

Joe was a bomb navigator in one of the B-52s that cratered Southeast Asia.

The tragedy is that Joe will be remembered this Memorial Day for the wrong reasons. It is very Lewis Carroll. Jabberwocky indeed.

I do not know his motivations for deciding to enter the Air Force; I just know the zeitgeist and how it affected us.

My experience in an international relations curriculum was that it was designed to train the diplomatic wing of the military industrial complex. My first clue came when I found out the chair of the department was BA US Naval Academy, MS, PhD Naval War College. As the Vietnam War and the resistance to it increased, I moved steadily toward the date of my pre-induction physical. For those not of that generation, the pre-induction physical was the prelude to a letter that began “Greetings” and told you that your friends and neighbors of your locally controlled draft board had decided that you were to be conscripted. If seduction fails, there is conscription.

I was not conscripted either. Even in 1968, the military did not want severely flat-footed conscripts with long and narrow shoe sizes tromping around jungles. Oh the ignominy of never being in the military in America!

We no longer live in quite a techno-frenzied society. The seduction of the military has turned to the traditional sales pitches of instilling discipline, developing leadership skills, and proving yourself. And to the promise of jobs and education.

But the techno-weapon imagination still lives in the stories and games promoted and consumed by youth. And the privatized space program (and its military counterpart) seduces.

And then there are the unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). And dreams of private armies.

The militarist culture pervades American life more than ever.

And yet (from Wikipedia):

Memorial day has its origins in a Decoration Day, which began during the civil war among Freedmen (freed slaves) and other Black American families … as a celebration of both black and white Union soldiers who fought for liberation and justice. Together with teachers and missionaries, Blacks in Charleston organized a May Day ceremony in 1865, which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers. The freedmen had cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Nearly ten thousand people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the dead. Involved were 3,000 schoolchildren newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, and black ministers and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field. Today the site is used as Hampton Park. Years later, the celebration would come to be called the “First Decoration Day” in the North.

Lewis Carroll would understand how we turned liberation into jabberwocky.

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