Military Industrial Punk

written in July, 2010

If I may, a bit of military-industrial-punk.

Military-industrial-punk? Why yes. Why would I link the military-industrial complex–the domain of imperialism, violence, multinational corporations, pork barrel spending, secrecy, and often world-threatening technology–to punk: the realm of anti-authoritarianism, anarchy, DIY culture, and a shoddy, tattooed knuckle-grip onto material possesions at best?

Well, because the world is filled with problems. Some problems are small, like how to have fun when all the music on the radio is catatonia-inducing commercial crap and all the kids in your school think athletic prowess is the only personal trait worth celebrating. Other problems are relatively big, like how to figure out what your opposing superpower is up to when their terrain spans a continent bristling with fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missiles, and they have just gotten the Bomb. Problems are relative of course, but what is not relative to the problems is their solution. A solution fits the problem. Not as the two Aristotalean halves of a perfect hermaphrodite, but as the imperfect succession of larvae to pupae. The dialectic in play: from the problem develops the solution.

Solutions are often messy, don't fit quite right, and barely hang on to the problem like the loose fibers of duct tape holding your (my) van's headlight in place. And yet, they fix the problem. The headlight is no longer broken. The problem is not gone, but it is resolved.

Although we could debate the definition of True-Punk endlessly (and some would like to), this dialectic is the essence of the term, to me. Something born to fit the place and time; something that is not the missing piece, but fits so well that you can't dig it out, and then after a week, you think, well okay, I'll just wait for it to scab over and fall off. Punk as a reaction to disco, to rock, to new wave, steampunk as a history that didn't exist but fetishistic elements of culture desperately wish could have, ____-punk as the new fusion that was just primed to develop from two or more component elements and so did, like a blossoming bacterial bloom on a plate of sugar water in the sun, whether those elements are short loud guitar chords and cheep beer, cheap black mall gear and disaffected teens, technology and victorian mystique, tattoos and porn, or, in this case, the Cold War, the 1950s, and the U2 spy plane.

Despite the common political understanding of the military-industrial complex, it isn't all billion dollar contracts and guys in suits patting each other on the back. Of course, when you have the entire resources of a superpower to throw at the unsolvable problem of having to share the world with other superpowers, limited oversight if any, and a culture of secrecy and supreme purpose, you will no doubt end up with this shadow world we know and loath. But it doesn't necessarily start that way.

Consider, the Skunk Works. Run by Clarence Johnson, “one of the most talented and prolific aircraft design engineers in the history of aviation,” it only gained its renown through results. Johnson's own management strategy, emphasizing 100% commitment, open (internally) communication, and minimal company size wouldn't be that alien to many makers and other driven punks of today. He built himself up from nothing, as he did the company, with tenacity, toughness, and moreover, skill applied at the right moment.

While attending grade school in Michigan, he was ridiculed for his name, Clarence. Some boys started calling him “Clara”. One morning while waiting in line to get into a classroom, one boy started with the normal routine of calling him “Clara”. Johnson tripped him so hard the boy broke a leg.

That's only an anecdote. More historical episodes are him leading the team that built the P-38, and the P-80, America's first operational jet fighter.

But even after these projects, and joining the Advanced Development Projects section at Lockheed, it was still, for lack of a better word, punk.

The first ADP offices were nearly uninhabitable; the stench from a nearby plastic factory was so vile that one of the engineers began answering the intra-Lockheed “house” phone “Skonk Works!” Big Barnsmell's Skonk Works — spelled with an “o” — was where Kickapoo Joy Juice was brewed in Al Capp's comic strip L'il Abner. When the name “leaked” out, Lockheed ordered it changed to “Skunk Works” to avoid potential legal trouble over use of a copyrighted term. The term rapidly circulated throughout the aerospace community, and became a common nickname for research and development offices; however, reference to “The Skunk Works” means the Lockheed ADP shop. Here, the F-104 Starfighter and the secret reconnaissance planes U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird were developed.

The U-2 might be the most punk of all warplanes ever built. In the 1950s, surveillance aircraft were converted bombers, and vulnerable to the enemy as a bomber would be. What is the DIY solution to enemy fighters, radar, and anti-aircraft defenses? Well, just fly higher than they could reach. If a plane could fly over 70,000 feet, the military figured, then it would sidestep those problems. Well, okay. Let's build an aircraft that can fly to the edge of space.

So Johnson designed an extremely light aircraft with glider wings, a single engine, and at first, no landing gear at all. The military didn't like it. But someone saw potential in it: Edwin Land, the inventor of instant photography, and he took it directly to the CIA, who would see the value in it.

The first flight of the aircraft occurred at Area 51 (which Johnson built) when under a high-speed taxi run, the aircraft took off on its own, because of how much lift the wings generated. Despite this, the aircraft was notoriously difficult to fly, because the controls were designed to function at the target altitude of 70,000 feet, where the air is very thin, so low-altitude landing required good strength to manipulate the controls. It is very susceptible to crosswinds, and so on landing another pilot chases the plane on the ground in a performance model car, giving advice on conditions. Additionally, at 70,000 feet the plane must fly at its maximum speed to hold its altitude, which at that air pressure, is only ten knots over stall speed. And if all of this wasn't difficult enough, the thing only has two wheels on an axis, like a bicycle. It has wing wheels which are attached by the ground crew before take off, and drop off as it rises into the air. The wing tips are reinforced with titanium to protect them during landing.

The plane can carry a variety of sensing equipment, both photography cameras that can focus to a resolution of 2.5 feet from an altitude of 60,000, and other over-the-horizon sensors. And yet, it has used an off the shelf Sony video camera to give the pilot a downward view during flight and landing.

It's record is far from perfect. There have been a number of operational accidents, and the aircraft has been shot down several times, notably over Russia in the Francis Gary Powers incident during which the existence of the U-2 was recognized by the world, but also over Cuba and China. Of 19 aircraft, 11 were lost to accidents and enemy action.

My sources for all of the historical information are from Wikipedia: Lockheed U-2; Clarence Johnson; Skunk Works

But still, the plane has been operational for 54 years, and is still in active duty today. It uncovered the presence of nuclear missiles in Cuba that precipitated the Cuban missile crisis. In 1977 it's cameras were turned skyward, to monitor the cosmic microwave background. It still has the altitude record for single-engine aircraft. And even today, it is used in Afghanistan with cameras that can detect changes in mud pathways that might belie the presence of IEDs.

The U-2 is punk, because it is a niche creation, and so purposefully niche that it has been around for over 50 years. It is not the mainstream, and it does not have the power to shock and awe. But it does it's job, as it was designed to do, hanging on to the cutting edge between problem and solution. It's troublesome, unstable, and featherweight. But it permeates, it remains, and it is as much a part of the intelligence terrain as a scar is part of the skin. It took a simple fix–carefully treading over the defensive airspace ceiling–and made it a career. It's a skateboard. It's a scratched 45. The thing is the goddamned Ramones–more than half of its members dead, been in some crappy movies, and still more rock and roll than most of the shit out there. It started from nothing, just a small group of people trying to solve a problem, and became a household name. From a military-industrial complex punk perspective, anyway.

One has to admire these sorts of chapters, these sidebars to the rest of the story, which give the entirety context and meaning. If it wasn't for instances of ingenuity and success-through-danger like the U-2, the military wouldn't have license to be the sprawling the behemoth that it is. If it wasn't for pilots willing to renounce the military and be civilian CIA operatives flying in pressurized power-gliders at the edge of the envelope, a mere ten knots from stalling and dropping into sudden SAM death over enemy lines, then we wouldn't have had the monolithic sides of the Cold War. Without this kind of intelligence stunt, we'd be in no position to critique the insanity of our leaders, taking us to the brink of destruction. What would the world have been like without the Cuban Missile Crisis? Maybe the US would have found out about the missiles some other way. But you can't beat a clear picture taken from 70,000 feet. Some photographs that change the world are taken from the front lines, but this was taken from the edge of space.

If I were to prescribe punk for the rest of society, it would take this form.

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