Sacrifice and the Future of America

Masters of the Air on Apple TV+. Photo by Apple.

How The Pacific gets the frontlines and the home front right

This week, our semi-regular contributor Michael Magnani returns with a new column. His previous column was Pivotal Pivots in February.

Growing up, my father always told me about the many accomplishments of the American Army Air Force (AAF) during World War II. From the game-changing P-51 Mustang to the lumbering B-17 Flying Fortress, these planes and their missions were a source of constant wonder for my father. He learned of their glory alongside the sacrifice of the pilots who flew them from my grandfather, Elmo Magnani, who was deployed to Europe as a mechanic for the AAF during the war.

Given family lore, we were greatly excited to sit down and watch the next iteration of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hank’s war stories, Masters of the Air on Apple TV+. The nine-episode series truly puts the viewer in the front seat of the Allied bombing campaign, thrown into the lives of the AAF’s 100th Bomb Group and witnessing the absolute and relentless carnage these crews faced throughout the war. Entire squadrons are decimated, while the remaining pilots bail out over enemy territory and become POWs before being forced onto death marches. Like its predecessors, Band of Brothers and The Pacific, the showrunners leave nothing to the imagination in portraying the horrors and miseries of war.

As I watched the miniseries, and admittedly binged both Band of Brothers and The Pacific for the first time, I constantly returned to the profound sacrifices these young men made in the pursuit of victory. With the weight of the entire country at home behind them, they fought in obscene conditions in foreign lands to liberate countries from quite possibly the purest manifestation of evil the world has ever seen. These Americans sacrificed more than most of us today could ever imagine.

Admittedly, my cynicism flared up at times. I couldn’t help but pause and wonder if my current generation could pull off the same valor. Would we be able to endure not just the fighting itself, but also the sacrifices necessary on the home front? In an era defined by social media, political polarization, insatiable consumerism and instant gratification, could we ever make the same sacrifices as the fittingly-titled greatest generation did?

Part of our incapacity for sacrifice is just how insular the U.S. military has become to the rest of society. Since the all-volunteer model arrived following the Vietnam War, Americans largely outsource any thought of defense and conflict to defense leaders, ultimately believing it is they who sacrifice for the rest of us. Americans pay taxes, and then the Pentagon runs up a hefty budget with shiny equipment that shoots things. For most, that is the extent to which they think of what it means for America to fight.

That limited engagement with defense would be completely alien to most Americans a century ago. In the lead up to and throughout World War II, the U.S. took unprecedented steps in preparing for and carrying out the conflict. Prior to the war in the summers of 1940 and 1941, the government carried out the only two peacetime drafts in American history. FDR and Congress enacted the Lend-Lease Act (and extended it to the politically vilified Soviet Union), while also laying out grand strategies for the world after the war in the form of the Atlantic Charter. Enacting measures like these during peacetime prepared Americans for the sacrifices they’d ultimately have to make when the coming world war came to their doorstep.

During the war, both conscripts and volunteers continued to supply American manpower to the two theaters of the Atlantic and Pacific, but notably, the sacrifice extended to the home front as well. Industry went from making cars and radios to munitions and tanks, while the Truman Committee and other institutions used political oversight to keep industry in check via investigations of waste and inefficiency. Unpopular yet necessary measures were taken, including raising taxes, introducing price and wage controls, and rationing goods required by law. Americans bought War Bonds to help fund the war effort not just because Jimmy Stewart told them to, but because patriotism was at an all-time high.

Consider those extensive sacrifices and contrast them with the internecine cultural battles our society is currently fighting. Bluntly, I can’t imagine a similar level of domestic sacrifice, considering that recent generations have never experienced the economic tradeoffs required when facing existential risk. In fact, since the price controls initially placed during the beginning of the Korean War, America’s leaders haven’t asked their citizens for pretty much anything across Vietnam, Desert Storm, the Balkans, the Global War on Terror and now Ukraine and the Middle East. Tens of billions of dollars of aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, all of which will be funded by public debt.

During the Covid-19 pandemic — one of the world’s worst public health crises in decades — political leaders asked for simple sacrifices including wearing masks and social distancing as well as more disruptive sacrifices like shutting down local schools and limiting hospital and retirement home visits. The domestic response to these measures was the antithesis of the American spirit that galvanized the home front in the 1940s.

More optimistic analysts believe that if a large-scale conflict were to erupt involving the U.S., a common adversary will galvanize the public and supersede our partisan fights. Yet in the age of social media, where conspiracies about war and conflict run rampant, even getting consensus on what is happening overseas can be challenging, as we have seen with commentary on the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. The duress of conflict is likely to only intensify the polarization and tribalism that social media has forced us to endure. I believe it is naïve to think measures undertaken by the government to support the war effort wouldn’t be co-opted into clever political attacks by online extremists.

That assumes, of course, that the government would even undertake measures in the first place. The U.S. has a Congress that is unserious in actually governing, refusing to floor bills for months that are in the interest of U.S. national security by deterring future conflicts. We’re also witnessing a brain drain of the few members of Congress actually interested in governing as retirements stack up. I find it largely unfathomable that American politicians would sacrifice their political standing in order to make the tradeoffs necessary to further our country’s national security, even during a time of conflict.

Congressional complacency is almost outdone by an executive branch whose eyes are bigger than its stomach in terms of realistic American foreign policy goals (as I analyzed in my last piece, "Pivotal Pivots"). Meanwhile, American industry titans have serious trepidation about divesting from foreign adversaries. Our soldiers on the front lines are holding up their part of the bargain, but those front lines can’t hold if the home front doesn’t stand up.

This piece may read like a call to arms for able-bodied Americans to start a war in order to bring back the glory days of the greatest generation. I promise you, that is not the intent.

Watching Masters of the Air and the other Spielberg/Hanks collaborations were simply a wake-up call for me. As I watched these three series and read more about the events portrayed in them, it made me realize how deeply unprepared we are if another conflict were to come to our doorstep. We expect the military to pay the ultimate sacrifice while not reciprocating those sacrifices at home. That’s a dangerous and ultimately untenable combination.

We can’t wait for a better culture to emerge. Instead, we need to start making sacrifices at home now. By banning apps such as TikTok and Temu, we attack head-on the issues stemming from social media malaise and the instant gratification culture of some ecommerce services. We also need political leaders to collaborate and broker an honest conversation about taxes and entitlements, fixing our current fiscal path while simultaneously preparing America for a future existential fight.

Americans need to understand that the next big conflict won’t be like anything we’ve endured before. By being proactive and sacrificing some things now, we are better preparing ourselves for a future that we hope never comes.

(P.S., I’d rank the three series in order as Band of Brothers, Masters of The Air and then The Pacific).

Podcast: Margaret Mead and the psychedelic community that theorized AI

Cover of Tripping on Utopia by Benjamin Breen
Cover of Tripping on Utopia by Benjamin Breen

How does science progress? One way to look at the question is to peer into individual fields and observe the flow of ideas from laboratories and experiments into seminars and conferences and ultimately into the journal record. But the reality is so much more complicated since science is truly a creative act, a set of imaginative leaps from incumbent ways of thinking to new possibilities. The milieu that scientists inhabit — and particularly among its most productive leaders — is often far more expansive than one would expect.

That’s the story today with Margaret Mead and the rise of psychedelic research. Best known as a cultural anthropologist, Mead spanned the sciences, from information theory into the humanities. That range brought her into regular contact with brilliance, and also helped her transmit vital ideas and concepts from field to field. One of the circles she participated in was an emerging group of scholars conceptualizing ideas around computer science, neurology and consciousness, linked together by a curiosity around psychedelics within the paranoia of Cold War politics.

Joining me this week is Benjamin Breen, a professor of science at the University of California Santa Cruz who just published his new book, Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science. Also joining me is Lux Capital’s scientist-in-residence Sam Arbesman.

We cover Margaret Mead’s early work, her popularization of science, the Macy conference circles that brought disparate networks of scientists together in New York City, the utopian dream of science in the 1920s and 1930s recently depicted in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer movie, the rise of LSD and finally, why there were so many interconnections between these scientists and defense institutions like the CIA.

🔊 Listen to “Margaret Mead and the psychedelic community that theorized AI”

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  • Lizzie Yarina has a detailed writeup of the immense engineering — and political coalition building — required to keep The Netherlands afloat in "This River Is a Model.” “Landscapes — and plans to adapt them — are always contested, involving negotiations over competing values and priorities. In the Netherlands, making local sacrifices for the sake of national water management is a shared cultural value, but that doesn’t mean there is consensus about how sacrifices are calculated.”
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That’s it, folks. Have questions, comments, or ideas? This newsletter is sent from my email, so you can just click reply.