Showing posts with label the Cold War. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the Cold War. Show all posts

08 June 2022

The Last Roadside Attraction


The last Howard Johnson’s in America closed this June, in Lake George, up in the Adirondacks.  There was one in Lake Placid, too, but it went under in 2015.  The following year the second-to-last, in Bangor, Maine, turned out the lights.  Once upon a time, they were a fixture across the U.S. and Canada, familiar roadside stops – there was one in Times Square - now as forgotten as the passenger pigeon.


They started out in
Quincy, Mass., a drugstore with a soda fountain, and Howard – there was in fact a Howard – came up with a better ice cream recipe, higher butterfat, and made a killing.  The first restaurant followed.  He franchised a second down in Orleans, on Cape Cod, and popularized the fried clam “strip” (the foot, minus the belly) which became industry standard. 


He weathered the stock market crash in 1929, but WWII rationing nearly put him out of business.  He saved himself with War Department contracts to serve food in Army commissaries.  Then he went after state turnpikes, which had tolls, limited access, and service plazas.  He locked up Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, and Connecticut.  It was the first major nationwide chain.


Me, what I remember, is driving up to Maine in the summer, and back in the 1950’s, before the turnpike to Augusta, you took Route 1, along the coast.
  Somewhere along the way – I’m guessing a little way north of Portsmouth, NH, or Portland - my dad would pull into the HoJo’s.  I was crazy for the hot dogs, because they nicked them with a knife, so they swelled and popped open on the grill, and they buttered the outside of the rolls, and toasted them on the grill.  It came in a paper sleeve, and you could dress it up in yellow mustard and dill relish, and not have the whole slippery thing slide into your lap.  And of course we got ice cream sodas.  


An interesting thing happened, though, in the 1950’s,
Brown v. Board of Education.  Howard Johnson’s, and Woolworth’s, both had a lot of outlets in the American South.  Woolworth lunch counters in the South were segregated; they wouldn’t serve black patrons.  Same with Howard Johnson’s.  The fact that these were franchise operations, not corporate, made no nevermind.  There was economic leverage applied.  I used to go to the Woolworth’s in Harvard Square.  They sold everything from notions to tropical fish you took home in plastic bag, but now, I wasn’t supposed to go the lunch counter.  A boycott had been organized, in sympathy with the sit-ins to integrate Southern lunch counters.  Then a Howard Johnson’s in Delaware made the national news when they refused service to a visiting diplomat from Ghana, and there was more than enough embarrassment to go around, the Eisenhower administration trying to build bridges to the Third World as a counterweight to Soviet influence, and Jim Crow making them out to be hypocrites. 


It’s a little strange, and not a little scary, that we can connect that ten-year-old kid with his hot dog and an ice cream soda to a larger and more ambiguous circumstance, the Cold War and the nuclear threat, the struggle for personal respect and ordinary decency, and the realization that political change is both local and glacial, but that experience was in fact one of my earliest encounters with the wider world – an understanding that the boundaries I took to be solid as stone, family, neighborhood, tribe, were as brittle as glass, and afforded no protection.
  The world could break in.  There were more than twenty-eight flavors.  The story we believed was a comforting construct, a fiction we’d chosen, just one among many. 

I don’t know that it made me apprehensive, so much.  More of an insight, that this was the world grown-ups inhabited, all day and every day.  It was a small glimpse of wisdom.

But still, admittedly, a lot to read into a hot dog. 

27 April 2022

Performance Anxiety

Talking to a guy I know – we’ll call him Mike – who was once upon a time in the same trade I was, and who still has skin in the game, I wondered what he thought about how badly the Russians have stepped on their dicks in Ukraine.  There were in fact two parts to the question: why Russia has underperformed so fatally, and why Western intelligence so overestimated their war-fighting capacity beforehand.

Mike happened to be on his way to Ft. Huachuca for a workshop, or a briefing, or a roundtable, at the least a guarded conversation with some other stakeholders on this very subject, so he already had his ducks lined up, and was ready to share them. 

The chief impediment is that Russian command authority is rigidly hierarchal.  The culture and doctrine are top down.  Initiative is career suicide.  And the weakest link is simply that there’s no professional NCO class, not in the sense that an American combat soldier would understand.  Russian junior enlisted are cannon fodder; their sergeants are brutal, indifferent, and corrupt.  Morale is clearly in the toilet, unit cohesion near collapse. 

Where, then, did the intelligence consensus come from, that the Russians were going to kick ass in Ukraine?  Mike had an answer for that one, too.  We put a lot of faith in the hardware.  That’s because intelligence analysis mirrors our own presumptions.  In other words, NSA looks at the performance specs for, say, the MiG-31, and the obvious question is how it stacks up against the F-16.  Same thing with tanks, or infantry weapons: the AK-47 is one of the most copied guns in the world.  Our attention is fixed on the platform.  Mike’s point being that less weight was given to the personnel, the existing skillset of the pilots or the tank crews or the ground-pounders, or in support.

Like a lot of things, once you hear the explanation, you slap your forehead and tell yourself it makes perfect sense.  Nor do I think it’s Monday-morning quarterbacking.  For me, it actually conforms to what I learned back in Berlin, in the 1960’s, during the Cold War, when our target was the Soviet occupying forces in Eastern Europe, and the Warsaw Pact.  Poland and East Germany and Hungary and the other satellites were being trained by Russians, on Russian equipment, so there was a lot of overlap. 

The reason we were there, if I haven’t made it clear before, or if you’re new to this space, was to provide a basic profile of what the Russians could throw at us.  In military vocabulary, it’s called an Order of Battle.  A specific example might be: How many aircraft are at Zossen Wunsdorf? - Are they fighters or ground attack? – And how many pilots? - What’s their readiness posture?  This is all numbing detail, but it kept the Cold War from going hot.

Here’s why I don’t think the Russians have learned anything in fifty years.  Back in the day, they had sophisticated systems and platforms, but they didn’t trust them, or they didn’t trust their people, which adds up to the same.  They scrambled fighters, for drills, using Ground-Controlled Intercept, or GCI.  MiG-21’s and Yak-28’s were fitted with on-board pursuit radars, and a ground station tracking their targets could transmit encrypted signals directly from the ground radar to the pursuit radar on the aircraft, and the radar would vector the plane to target, all done electronically.  Hands off.  Fire and forget.  We, meaning your humble servant and his crowd, were listening to the pilot chatter, we could image the Russian ground radar, we could follow the encrypted signals, we intercepted the frequency shifts from the aircraft’s radar and knew when it went from Lock to Launch.  In effect, we were in the cockpit, too.  And not a single one of those pilots, or their command structure on the ground, believed the system would work on its own.  Every instruction the pilots got, every course correction that was transmitted, over a secure network, the pilot would repeat, in the clear, on Voice.  “Roger that, turning to heading 270.”  At which point you watched him on radar, changing course to 270.  I kid you not.  And you wonder why Russian generals are getting blown out of their shoes in Ukraine?  They’re using open comms.

I think there are other reasons for what’s going on.  I think the Ukrainian defense is heroic.  Volodymyr Zelensky has bigger balls than Vladimir Putin.  And the resolve from NATO has been unexpectedly solid.  But at its most basic level, the Russian disaster is a character flaw.  Arrogance defeats empires.