Mom’s Last Gift: Donating Her Body to Science

Instead of being buried or cremated my mother donated her body to science, which in this case meant Brown University Alpert School of Medicine. Last night we went to a ceremony there in which the first year students — who have been working on the bodies all year — thank the family and friends of the donors for this gift.

It was a very moving ceremony and not just for the families and friends. At one point they read off the donors’ names one by one and with each one a student placed a flower in a vase that went from empty to overflowing. (See picture)

Afterwards there was a reception where med students came and talked to the families. This was really the most moving and unexpected part of the evening. It became clear that these aren’t just cadavers for the students. They are very much people who the students learn about as they examine the bodies. One woman told us her donor was a construction worker and she could see how the strength he got doing that was still evident even in his 90 year old body.

While the students don’t know much about the person they work on beyond a first name and maybe a few other details they knew a lot about them. They used the words “humbled” and “in awe” frequently when describing the bodies. One student even said he sometimes would just hold the person’s hand which made me hope he worked on my mother.

Mom would be so happy to see how much people were still learning from her. We told the students about mom and especially her famous last words, “Holy Shit!” and gave them the pins with those words which we had made up for her memorial service. They loved them  and I watched them showing the pins to other students who were also clearly delighted. Talking to the students it became clear Brown’s med school clearly has an emphasis on public service which I found touching and knew mom would love (perhaps it’s why she donated her body there). This ceremony was a great public service to me and my family.


Mr. Mencken explains Mr. Trump

Mencken“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost… All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” — H.L. Mencken, Baltimore Sun, July 26 1920

2/6/15: The last time I spoke to my mother


Ann C. Byrne, 1927-2015

The last time I spoke to my mother she was cranky, which I took to be a good sign. One thing I learned in our 52 years together was an irritated mom was a happy, healthy mom. The cause of her irritation? The hospital had served her a no-salt breakfast. “I don’t have heart disease, I have cancer,” she said with a delighted exasperation. She had me tell her friends to smuggle some salt in to the hospital. Many volunteered but before they could act a nurse took care of it, no doubt flouting some hospital protocol.

However, that afternoon, just as mom was about to be moved from the ICU to a regular hospital room, her condition suddenly got worse. Her blood oxygen levels plummeted. I was mom’s healthcare proxy and around 5:30 I got a call from her doctor, telling me the end was near and wanting to confirm her “do not resuscitate” order. I called Anna Highsmith and was crying so hard I was barely able to ask her to put out the word to people. She did just that and in the hour or so it took my wife, son and I to drive down from Boston the Tribe of Ann had begun to gather.

The ICU has a “family only” policy for visitors and we adhered to it strictly despite many of the people there not being legally related to her. In the course of the next 18 or so hours the room contained two sons, three daughters-in-law, a grandson, a nephew, a son and a couple of daughters she never quite got around to adopting. There were many friends who had known her for forty plus years and remember it only takes seven years to qualify for a common law marriage so certainly these people were at the very least common-law cousins. There were also parents of the many children who she had been a de facto grandmother to. (Not that mom would ever put up with the word grandmother. She declared herself to be Meme and to all those kids, many now adults, that’s what she was.) There was her personal, in-house blues musician and, of course, far too many potters to count. And there was one Bruce. A Bruce is a unique family member, a combination aid, confidante, organizer and person who goes to with you to scary doctor’s appointments and helps you understand about them afterwards.

When I got to the hospital mom’s eyes were half-open but she wasn’t seeing anything. Her breathing was shallow. At first when I held her hand and talked to her she would respond by slightly curling her fingers around mine but after a while that stopped too. People can hear long after they stop being responsive in other ways, Deb Bruce and someone in a set of medical scrubs both told us. So we all did what usually did around mom: We talked. We talked to her one at a time, we told stories to each other. Except for all the crying and mom not interrupting us with her own stories it was almost another evening around the dining room table on Ivy Street or in Chicago. Sometimes there would be a lull and Martin or my son Greg would play guitar and sing for mom backed by an all-key chorus of whoever remembered the lyrics.

At 1.20 my brother Alex leaned over and whispered something in mom’s ear. A few minutes passed and then suddenly mom opened her eyes, sat up, looked around at all of us and said, “Holy shit!” There was a stunned moment and then Marie and Jennifer rushed to hold mom’s hands and comfort her. A pair of medical types hurried in and gave her some more sedative and mom relaxed back into the bed. Then laughter started to pop up around the room as we all realized these were the perfect last words for mom and a last gift for all of us.

A story to go out on, as she would say.

The Oregon Standoff: How and How Not to End a Siege

The FBI has issued an ultimatum to Owl Qaeda, the people occupying an Oregon bird sanctuary, saying it is time to go. This means the Feds are now besieging the sanctuary. Sieges are not the government’s strongpoint, to put it mildly. They have screwed up at Waco, Ruby Ridge, Rainbow Farm and the MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia.

Although little used in the past century, sieges have been used in warfare for several millennia. As a result the tactics of ending a siege have been studied at length and can be understoon by anyone with even a slight understanding of the uses of force.

Sieges end as a result of three things:

  1. Outwaiting your opponent: For the besiegers that means sitting there until the food and water of the besieged have run out and they surrender. For the besieged it means waiting until a large outside force arrives and chases the besiegers away.
  2. Negotiation: Convincing the other side that there is no way they can defeat you and that it is in their best interest to surrender and/or leave.
  3. Force of arms: Attacking into or out of a besieged place invariably ends in loss of life, usually in significant numbers.

These tactics can be combined in a number of ways: Waiting until the besieged are too physically weak and then attacking; attacking and then negotiating with then enemy who is now in a weakened condition.*

Law enforcement authorities seem unable to recognize a siege when they are conducting one and that explains a lot of the terrible outcomes. Oregon is at risk of becoming another example of this.

In an effort to de-escalate the situation they have allowed the bad guys to recieve both reinforcements and supplies right up until the time the ultimatum was issued. While it is unlikely that the large number of sex toys sent to Owl Qaeda will help them, it is all but certain other supplies were recieved as well.

The supplies and re-inforcements likely emboldened the “militia” members, giving them the sense that they have considerable support beyond the confines of the bird sanctuary. To be fair, isolating them might have just made the more desperate and determined to go out in a blaze of glory. I hope it is easier to judge the mental state of people in the bird sanctuary if you are on the scene than it is from 3,000 miles away. Then again the fact that they appear to be entirely delusional may make any such judgement moot. (This is why it is difficult to say what impact the arrest of the percieved leaders will have on what happens next.)

I hope but am not hopeful the situation is resolved without more bloodshed.

*See Henry V, Scene Three, Act 3 for a dramatization of one of the great bluffs in history when Henry demanded the surrender of the town even as he doubted he could continue the attack. 

#And I don’t just mean the 55-gallon barrel of “personal lubricant” send by one of the inventors of Cards Against Humanity.


The Best Books About Donald Trump’s Ascendance Were Written 50 Years Ago

If you want to understand how it is that Donald Trump has managed to rise to political prominence then you need to read three books, two written more than 50 years ago and one in 2005.

jim crowThe first is C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow. In Jim Crow Woodward tells the story of the emergence of the increasingly severe laws enforcing segregation in the South following the end of Reconstruction. (In the North we were more De Facto than De Jure about segregation.) They grew harsher as the economic status of the Whites and Blacks narrowed; the Whites seeking to hold on to privilege even as their economic status worsened. In the US today wages have been at best stagnant for the last 40 years. In the wake of Financial Crisis and the Great Non-Recovery Americans again find their economic status diminishing at the same time that groups of people – Gays, Lesbians, Transgendered, Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, etc. etc. – are demanding and sometimes even receiving equal treatment under the law. White Americans feel their privileged position slipping away and they are lashing out, this time without the legal mechanisms of Jim Crow. This is one of the reasons behind the rise to the Tea Party and other extreme Rightist movements.

paranoidThe second is Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics. It is a collection of essays and the title essay has understandably received a lot of attention in the last eight years. However I think it is the second essay in the collection, The Pseudo Conservative Revolt – 1954, which truly captures what Charlie Pierce calls “the prion disease afflicting the Republican party.” Here is a relevant quote:

The ideology of pseudo-conservatism can be characterized but not defined, because the pseudo-conservative tends to be more than ordinarily incoherent about politics. The lady who, when General Eisenhower’s victory over Senator Taft had finally become official in 1952, stalked out of the Hilton Hotel declaiming “This means eight more years of socialism,” was probably a fairly good representative of pseudo-conservative mentality. … The general who spoke to the [Freedom Congress] demanding “an Air Force capable of wiping out the Russian Air Force and industry in one sweep,” but also “a material reduction in military expenditures”; the people who a few years ago believed simultaneously that we had no business fighting communism in Korea and that the war should immediately be extended to an all-Asia crusade against communism.

A perfect example of this today is the reaction to Operation Jade Helm, a military training exercise that had been held many times prior to this year in various Southern and Western states. This year however a number of citizens came to believe that this was either a precursor to the Federal government taking over or the actual take over. In Texas “a survey of registered Republicans by Public Policy Polling in May 2015, found that 32% thought that “the Government is trying to take over Texas”, and that half of all Tea Party supporters are concerned with an imminent Texas invasion.” The governor of Texas, a human paper weight named Greg Abbott, met with representatives of these people and ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the operation, declaring, “During the training operation, it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed.” This trend of course has reached its apogee and perfect mouthpiece in Trump. However, had Trump not run this insanity would have had no trouble with any other of this year’s crop of GOP contenders for the Presidential nomination.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about Trump’s followers is their devotion to him no matter what he says or does. They so thoroughly identify with him that it does not matter if he says something that is an easily proven lie. (Go here or here for collections of those lies.)

It does not matter that he has offered no policy or course for how he intends to “make America great again.” It does not matter that he has at various times rejected some or all of the Conservative ideas his followers appear to hold. Conservative evangelicals, who used to require candidates be able to answer a lengthy catechism, now do not care that Trump is entirely uninterested in religion. He has made himself immune to the charge of flip-flopping, which used to be able to derail entire campaigns. Indeed his followers appear to assume anything he says comes with a wink-and-a-nudge. They all “know what he really means” so anything he says is in automatic agreement with whatever that particular person believes. His ability to get people to support things that are against their own self-interest is without parallel in American history.

How is this possible? Consider this:

“The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides…is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. … The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.”

bullshitThat is from Harry G. Frankfurter’s remarkable book On Bullshit, a philisophical examination of why facts are of less and less importance in public discourse. (Don’t let the phrase “philisophical examination” scare you, it is both readable and short.)

Trump’s campaign only makes sense once you apply Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit: It was never supposed to have any connection to reality. It exists soley to aggrandize Trump himself and nothing else.

There is quite a bit of the sociopath about Trump. Publicly he shows little empathy and absolutely no remorse for anything. People appear to be of interest to him only to the extent that they can get him something. He shows no loyalty — if you once were useful but now dare to offer even the mildest criticism you are cast off and attacked with the same vengeance used for his bitterest enemies. Should he be elected president he will easily eclipse Woodrow Wilson and Nixon, the current benchmarks for presedential vindictiveness. He will also make Nero and the most recent President Bush look like amateurs when it comes to destroying their own nations.

It’s somehow fitting that the best description of Trump I have found was written 91 years ago by H.L. Mencken in his blistering essay In Memoriam: W.J.B.

“A vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He is ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. … A poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He is a peasant come home to the dung-pile.”


The Best Books I Read This Year: Fiction.

The one thing all these books have in common is they surprised me. They all told me stories I had never encountered before. Also the Fate of The World is (almost) never at stake. FoTW is hack. It is worse than cliché. If your book requires FoTW to make it interesting or gripping then you are doing something wrong.  PS: If you want plot summaries you’ve come to the wrong place.

europe in autumnNot sure how I came across Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson but I am so glad I did. It is a spy/dystopia novel set in a very near future when Europe has dissolved into many city states and even some neighborhood states. This novel has a strangeness akin to the great Slavic and Semitic writers of the fantastic (Kafka, I.B. Singer, Gogol, Bulgakov) combined with Le Carre or Allen Furst and yet it is firmly grounded in a world I understand. This is a book that I have taken to proselytizing for. It is far, far too good to get lost in the tide of speculative fiction books. A sequel, Europe at Midnight, came out earlier in November but only in the UK so far. I ordered a copy from a UK bookseller and gladly paid the shipping charges. It is every bit as good and strange as its predecessor. (Hutchinson is also great fun to follow on Twitter @HutchinsonDave: “The city of Detroit was renamed in his honour, but no one was told about it.”)

city of stairsLike Europe in Autumn, Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs has a great unexplained strangeness in it. The book successfully combines noir and fantasy, something which many writers have tried to do but very, very few have succeeded. Stairs is nothing I had read before, original and surprising. Unfortunately the just-published sequel, City of Blades, isn’t nearly as good. Stairs indicates and implies things, letting the reader fill in the blanks. Blades doesn’t. Everything is explained which kills the wonderful strangeness. However, Blades seems to be the exception in Bennett’s writing. This year I also read his horror novel American Elsewhere is every bit as good as Stairs and totally different from it. I don’t read much horror but Bennet has got am looking forward to reading his first novel Mr. Shivers.

tigermanMy friend David Durand tipped me to Nick Harkaway earlier this year and I quickly read all three of his published novels because he is an excellent writer. His first two, The Gone-Away World & Angelmaker, are very good. Angelmaker is a truly funny crime book. However neither prepared me for his latest novel, Tigerman, which is superb. It is set on a fictitious island nation in the Arabian Sea, a former British colony, and the time is roughly now. The setting is so vivid it reminds me of Jan Morris’ great novel, Hav, which also made real a fictitious nation. The story itself is reminiscent of Graham Greene’s novels of life in post-imperial circumstances while still being totally original. I think to say more would spoil it. I urge you to read it.

First 15 livesI never thought I would have any interest in a time travel book again. Then I read The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (a pen name of Catherine Webb). This is nothing I have read before. The plot, the ideas and the characters are all smart and unexpected. The only thing that is in any way even slightly similar is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt which is sui generis among his novels. Even there the similarity is more a distant echo than anything else.  I will read anything Ms. North/Webb writes, up to and including a grocery list.

Guy Gavriel Kay is a renowned and well-known fantasy writer. Prior to this year I had tried to read some of his best known books and couldn’t get into them. Fortunately I didn’t remember that when I picked up Under Heaven and then River of Stars. These two books are fantasy retellings of events from Chinese history. They take place in an ancient-China-like land where magic exists. These books have a depth and richness I didn’t find in his other works. It may be because Kay is able to draw on the all the sources and stories about this period or it may be some other reason, I don’t know or care. I do know that these are wonder filled and wonderful books.

Station ElevenLike The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven does something new with a heavily used standard science fiction idea. In this case it is life in the post-apocalyptic world. She removes the exoticism which is usually the basis for these stories. This makes the world and people in it seem very normal which only heightens the impact of what they are going through. This is a book I would give to someone who says they never S****** F******. It is very literary, in the best sense of the word. (A finalist for this year’s National Book Award in fact.) It is literary enough that I expect it will somehow not get trapped by the idiotic genre designation that seems to prevent otherwise sensible people from reading certain books.

Paolo Bacigalupi is the author of The Windup Girl. If you haven’t read it then go right now and do so. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.  <Jeopardy theme song as a week or so passes> See. I told you so. Anyway, this year he published The Water Knife and it, deservedly, got a lot of attention. It’s set in an America that has fractured as the water has dried up. It’s a fine book and manages to make the legal end of a dispute over water rights fascinating.

Greg Bear, War Dogs: A stranger came to visit and brought many wondrous gifts. And then the stranger left – rapidly because the bad guys (maybe?) have shown up and are approaching earth (we think).

Jeff Vandermeer, Southern Reaches trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance. These could be classified as horror but really they are novels of weird dread. It’s very hard to overstate how good they are.

Kathleen Ann Goonan, In War Times: I’m just going to steal this: “Goonan weaves experimental jazz, particle physics, and biochemistry into a compelling adventure through alternate universes.” All that and World War II, too.

Jo Walton, Farthing (Small Change, #1) Walton, author of the great Among Others (read it before you read this. They aren’t related to each other, it’s just that Among Others is a masterpiece), takes on the What-If-The-Nazis-Had-Conquered-England story and wins. She does this by doing what great writers do: Focusing on the people, not the plot.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword: Begin with Ancillary Justice, the first novel in this series which won a whole bunch of awards, then read Sword (which won a fair number as well) and then do what I’m about to do and read the third volume Ancillary Mercy. Leckie has taken a key idea from the late Iain M. Bank’s Culture series, the existence of giant minds/consciousness which run starships, and made it smaller. She makes them human and subject to the same baffling emotions the rest of us go through.

Ben H. Winters, The Last Policeman trilogy: The world is about to be destroyed by a comet and everyone already knows it. So why is this cop investigating a murder?

James S.A. Corey: Cibola Burn: This series is the best Space Opera being written today: Big, fun, action, action, action, and with enough emotional depth that you don’t have to think of it as a guilty pleasure.

Charles Stross, Rule 34: There’s something in the air or water or something in Scotland – Great SF writers seem to be everywhere: Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod and Charlie Stross to name just a few. Rule 34 is a police procedural set in a near future. The protagonist is head of the Innovative Crimes Investigation Unit, otherwise known as the Rule 34 Squad, which monitors the internet for potential criminal activity, analyzing trends in the extreme fringes of explicit content. You can also pretty much read anything by Stross and at its worst it will be interesting and smart.

Ken MacLeod, The Execution Channel: Another near future story, this one is about espionage. It’s filled with all the things you want from a good spy novel: Betrayal, emotional and political confusion and great atmosphere. The Execution Channel – where various groups broadcast the executions of captives – plays a small role in the plot but is a constant darkness throughout the book. This was written in 2007 and nails a significant part of the world in 2015. I also recommend his novel The Sky Road which is a wonderful, over-the-top, trippy, comic railroad story.

Carol Emshwiller, The Secret City: Emshwiller is a far-too-little known writer. I think this is because she mostly writes short stories which don’t get the same attention as novels and because her books have all been published by small companies. She has won about every award that can be won and should have been designated a national treasure long ago. Secret City is one of her novels. It is about “a mysterious enclave protecting a lost culture, a hidden city in the wilderness where stranded aliens struggle to preserve their fragile society. Hoping for a better life, many have fled the Secret City in favor of trying to survive in the harsh human world; others remain concealed, living out a fading memory in hope of deliverance.”

Graphic Novels:

Unbeatable SGFrank M. Young, The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song The real lives and times of the people who along with Jimmy Rodgers invented what today we call country music. Top Notch.

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Volume 1: This is the best, smartest, funniest comic book I have read since Cerebus. SG is part of the Marvel universe and makes fun of it and every other comic book trope, idea and stereotype. She is a mutant (as in the X-Men and why is a mixed gender group called the X-Men anyway? One of SG’s great questions) with the powers of yes a squirrel. Her confrontation with Galactus, Destroyer of Worlds, had me laughing out loud even after several re-reads.

A brief introduction to the U.S. military: Its structure, size and cost

armedforces2The military is composed of four[1] different services: Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. The Army primarily handles war on the ground, the Navy on the sea, the Marines which are responsible for amphibious warfare, and the Air Force which is self-explanatory. There is a lot of overlap in what each service does. All of them have their own air forces, intelligence services, boats, and ground troops. The bulk of the Air Force’s combat ground troops are responsible for defense of air bases; it also has Special Forces units. The Navy’s ground troops are primarily the Marine Corps, although it too has Special Forces units, most famously the SEAL[2] teams like the one which killed Osama Bin Laden.

The military is subject to civilian control. While the president is the commander-in-chief, the Department of Defense[3] is directly responsible for overseeing the military and is run by the Secretary of Defense. Under him are the secretaries of the Navy, Army and Air Force, which are responsible for oversight of those services.

At the top of the military command structure are the chiefs of staff for the Army and Air Force, the chief of Naval Operations, and the Commandant of The Marine Corps. They also serve as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the committee gives advice on military matters to the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Homeland Security Council and the National Security Council. They all have the top rank in their respective services: For the Army, Air Force and Marines that is a General and for the Navy it is an admiral.

People in the military serve as either officers or enlisted personnel.[4] In simple terms enlisted personnel have to do things while officers have to make sure things get done. All officers outrank and may give orders to all enlisted men and women. Officers are a little like the executives at a company in that they supervise and come up with plans for what is to be done, if not always how to do it. The chief difference is that officers are regularly required to do the same job as the enlisted. For example a lieutenant (which is the lowest grade of officer in the Army, Air Force or Marines) in command of ground troops in combat is also a fighter[5] and not merely there to supervise. Nearly 84 percent of military personnel are in the enlisted ranks and about 16 percent are officers.[i]

  • Just 16% are female, while 84% are male. In comparison, 53.1 percent of the U.S. civilian work force 16 years old and over was female in 2012. The Air Force has the largest percentage of female Service members (18.9%); the Marine Corps has the smallest (7.0%).
  • Of the 238,861 Active Duty officers, 38,574 (16.1%) are female and 200,287 (83.9%) are male.
  • Of the 1,149,167 Active Duty enlisted personnel, 164,302 (14.3%) are female and 984,865 (85.7%) are male.
  • People who identify themselves as White represent the largest proportion of the total DoD force (71.9%), while Black or African American members represent 16.2 percent. Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander members make up 3.5 percent, 1.3 percent, and 0.9 percent, respectively. Over two percent (2.1%) of members report themselves as Multi-racial.
  • Overall, 52.6 percent people serving in the military are married. In comparison, 53.5 percent of the civilian population was married, according to the United States Census.
  • Approximately 44 percent (43.9%) of Active Duty members have children.
  • Overall, Active Duty officers have a higher level of formal education than the civilian population. As of 2012, the majority of officers (82.4%) have a Bachelor’s or advanced degree, while, ionly 30.9 percent of the U.S. population age 25 and over did. Most Active Duty enlisted members have at least a high school diploma (98.9%), which is higher than the percentage of the U.S. civilian population age 25 and over that had at least a high school diploma (87.6%).
  • In 2012, the Active Duty civilian spouse unemployment rate was 25 percent, compared to 26 percent in 2010.


3rd Infantry Regiment 'The Old Guard'

There are 1,477,000 people on active duty in the U.S. military. That makes it the second largest military in the world. China, whose population is four times larger than ours, has 2,285,000 people in its military.

The Army is the largest part of the U.S. military with 561,437 people on active duty; the Air Force is second with 328,821; then the Navy with 320,141; and finally the Marine Corps with 201,026.[ii]

If all we had was the Army we would still have the ninth largest military in the world. The Marine Corps[6][iii] alone is the 26th largest military force in the world, bigger than Israel’s armed forces and only slightly smaller than those of the U.K.[iv]

That’s only counting the active members: men and women whose full-time job is serving in the military. There are also about 424,000 people in the military reserves and another 461,000 in the National Guard.[7] The increasing number and duration of our wars – the 2nd Iraq War lasted 13 years and the war in Afghanistan will soon enter its 14th year – means the Guard and Reserves are being called upon much more than previous wars[8] with many units deployed multiple times to the war zones. So the total force available within a short period of time is closer to 2,400,000 people. China has about 800,000 people in its military reserves so its total is about 3,000,000 people.[v]


The Pentagon has:

  • 13,600 aircraft. The most of any military in the world and about as many as the next five nations’ militaries combined. The U.S. air fleet includes 2,300 fighters, as many as the next three nations combined; 2,600 bombers, also as many as the next three nations combined; 5,000 transport aircraft, as many as the combined total of the next 10 nations; and 915 attack helicopters, more than the rest of the entire world combined.
  • 8,300 tanks; the third most in the world, about half of what the Russia has and around 1,000 fewer than the Chinese.
  • 26,000 armored fighting vehicles which are used primarily to move infantry into combat. That’s about 1,500 fewer than Russia and 2nd most in the world.
  • 473 ships and boats, making it the third largest navy in the world.[vi]

That last is a deceptive number because there is little if any doubt that the U.S. Navy is the most powerful of any nation. Just consider that the largest navy (1,061 ships and boats) belongs to North Korea and most if not all of those are built to operate in the country’s coastal waters. The 2nd largest navy, 520 ships, belongs to China a nation which some consider a possible military threat to the U.S. It is worth noting China currently has only one aircraft carrier.[9] Also, China’s 30 or so attack submarines are diesel fueled[vii], so they must be refueled regularly either by returning to port or meeting up with a supply ship while at sea. As a consequence they are really only useful in coastal waters. America’s 43 attack subs are nuclear powered providing them with a virtually endless power supply – so they can go anywhere in the world and are much, much faster than any non-nuclear powered submarines.

In order to really understand the power of the Navy consider that it has:

  • 10 aircraft carriers[10]. The rest of the world combined has 12. The nation with the second most is Italy. It has two.
  • 61 destroyers – the primary attack ship for a navy – more than any other nation. In second place, with 45, is our long-time ally Japan.

Then there are nuclear weapons. The U.S. and Russia are effectively tied for first when it comes to nuclear warheads. Each has around 4,300 total either operational or in reserve.[viii] In second and third place are France (290) and China (250).


US mil spending

For the fiscal year 2015 the official budget for the Department of Defense was $495 billion. That half trillion dollars is the base budget and is what people usually mean when they refer to the military budget. However it doesn’t include all the money spent on the military. In 2015 the U.S. also spent $85.4 billion[ix] for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) [11] to pay for the wind-down of the War in Afghanistan. Another $178.4 billion was allocated under different budget items for defense-related agencies and functions, including

  • $65.3 billion for the Veterans Administration
  • $45.6 billion for intelligence agencies not run by the military (Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, National Geospatial-Intelligence Program)
  • $11.7 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy

Added together the total military budget is $693.6 billion. That makes the total military spending the second largest Federal government expenditure, after Social Security ($896 billion). Military spending has been dropping over the past several years thanks to sequestration and the end of the War in Iraq in 2011. Its all-time high was $851.3 billion in FY 2010.[12][x] Military spending is greater than Medicare ($529 billion), Medicaid ($331 billion), or the interest payment on the debt ($251 billion). It’s also more than the three next largest departments combined: Health and Human Services ($73.1 billion), Education ($68.6 billion) and Housing and Urban Development ($32.6 billion).

world mil spending 2012It is also more than any other nation. In fact it is as much as the military budgets of the nations with the 2nd through 13th largest militaries combined.

Some comparisons:

  • US military spending accounts for 39 percent, or almost two-fifths of the world’s total military spending
  • US military spending is almost 4 times more than China, about 8 times more than Russia, and nearly 70 times more than Iran.
  • The United States and its strongest allies (the NATO countries, Japan, South Korea and Australia) spend approximately $1.2 trillion on their militaries in total, representing more than 70 percent of the world’s total spending on the military. [xi]
  • In 2011 the Pentagon spent $20.2 billion on much needed air conditioning for service members in Iraq in Afghanistan. That was one-third of the United Kingdom’s entire defense budget for that year[xii] and $1.8 billion more than the entire budget of NASA.[13]

It is quite clear that what the U.S. military needs is not more money but the ability to use the money it has more effectively.

That will be the subject of my next blog post.


[1] Sometimes five – the Coast Guard, which is currently part of the Department of Homeland Security, serves as both a law enforcement agency and a military force. When a war is declared the Coast Guard can become part of the Navy. The Coast Guard has been deployed to war zones during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the first and second Iraq wars.

[2] The name is an acronym for SEa, Air, Land.

[3] It is also referred to as DoD and the Pentagon, which is the name and shape of its headquarters building. Until 1947 DoD was called the Department of War, a more accurate name.

[4] There is a very small third group called warrant officers. These are enlisted personnel who have extensive expertise in a specific area – like piloting or surgery or even being a chaplain – and are in jobs that require the authority of an officer. Warrant officers outrank all enlisted personnel and are outranked by all officers.

[5] The Department of Defense refers to people who serve in front-line, combat jobs as “war fighters.” Was someone concerned the troops would not know what type of fighting they were supposed to be doing?

[6] The Marines are the only part of the military to have a minimum size determined by law. In the Marine Corps bill of 1952 the size was set at three divisions, three air wings and supporting forces. This law protects the Marine Corps, which does many of the same things the Army does, from being eliminated or severely cut in size — something that was regularly proposed by members of Congress seeking to reduce government spending.

[7] Don’t feel bad if you don’t know the difference between the National Guard and Reserves, many people don’t – including people serving in them. The National Guard has a dual state-federal mission. This means it is normally under the command of the state government but the President can activate it and put it under Federal command. The Guard can be called up for domestic purposes: Providing aid in the event of national disasters and supplementing or replacing local law enforcement authorities. Federal troops, like the reserves, are forbidden by law from performing domestic law enforcement. Each state has both an Air and Army National Guard, which go thru the same training and have the same basic equipment as the active (regular) Air Force or Army. The Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Reserves, in contrast, are solely a federal component of their respective military branches and have no domestic responsibilities. Both the Guard and Reserves can be called up for service in wars – declared or otherwise.

[8] During The Vietnam War, which lasted 19* years, only about 9000 members of the Guard were deployed to Vietnam. This was because of the draft which provided a constant flow of new soldiers to the Army. *Officially the government says the war lasted 14 years, from February 1961 to May 1975. However U.S. personnel had been involved in the war starting in 1955. The first American soldier killed in the Vietnam War was Air Force T-Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr. He is listed by the U.S. Department of Defense as having a casualty date of June 8, 1956.

[9] They bought it used from Russia. A lot of noise is being made about the fact that China looks to be building an aircraft carrier and that this is a threat to the U.S. Much of that noise is made by groups which will gain from increased military spending – military officers, companies which make weapons systems and the members of Congress which represent the places those companies are based in.

[10] The U.S. Navy is a carrier-focused operation. Whether this is a good idea is very debatable. They are incredibly expensive and are increasingly vulnerable to less costly munitions. See The U.S. Navy’s Big Mistake: Building Tons of Supercarriers.

[11] For OCO spending back to 2001, see War on Terror Facts

[12] Unlike the amount I put forth as the total U.S. spending this does not include spending on the VA, intelligence agencies and nuclear security.

[13] Since the U.S. Civil War the American way of conducting was has been to outspend and out produce whomever it is at war against. This has succeeded in the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War. It has failed in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult to see how it will succeed against ISIS or the government of Syria.

[14] On the Democratic side only Sen. Sanders has said anything definite on the topic, calling for “a major reform” on military spending. Gov. O’Malley has pretty much avoided the issue and Sen. Clinton wants to appoint a panel to examine the issue.

[i] Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Military Community and Family Policy), 2012 Demographics: Profile of the Military Community

[ii] [ii] Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Military Community and Family Policy), 2011 Demographics: Profile of the Military Community,

[iii] Shaping U.S. Military Forces: Revolution Or Relevance in a Post-Cold War World, Duane Robert Worley, Greenwood Publishing, 2006, P 19


[v]  Why The Chinese Military Is Only A Paper Dragon, The Week, 9/24/2014


[vii] Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013 Office Of The Secretary Of Defense


[ix] OMB, FY 2015 Budget, Table S-11

[x] Office of Management and Budget, 2015 Budget, Summary Tables, Table S-11,


[xii] U.S. Spends $20 Billion A Year On Air Conditioning In Iraq and Afghanistan,  The Telegraph, 6/28/2011