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Required Reading For The Pentagon

The most level-headed, wise and modestly self-assured of George W. Bush's appointees, Robert Gates, has proposed a Rooseveltian enrichment of the already de-Rumsfelded Pentagon: the funding of social scientists and other professional researchers to work on such problems as China and Iraq: According to yesterday's New York Times,  "Gates has compared the initiative--named Minerva, after the Roman goddess of wisdom (and warriors)--to the government's effort to pump up its intellectual capital during the cold war after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. Although the Pentagon regularly finances science and engineering research, systematic support for the social sciences and humanities has been rare. Minerva is the first systematic effort in this area since the Vietnam War..."

There is mention of humanities scholars, none for poets and novelists, a loss. (In Three Days of the Condor, the Robert Redford character works for a small CIA outfit that reads such bizarre material in order to pick up out-of-the-box suggestions for unspecified machinations.) I just finished John Updike's novel, Terrorist, one of his many recent books that most critics slammed. But Updike may be the wisest of all American observers, and I trust that Minervans will read--though it won't be necessary to fund--him. The novel is full of acute observations, usually made by characters that haven't passed the political-correctness exam. Here, Hermione Fogel, the spinster assistant of a Tom Ridge-like Secretary of Home Security, comments on the new breed of security screeners:

"In a land of multiplying security gates, the gatekeepers multiply also. To the well-paid professionals who traveled the airways and frequented the newly fortified government buildings, it appears that a dusky underclass has been given tyrannical power.... Where once a confident manner, a correct suit and tie and a business card measuring two by three and a half inches had opened doors, the switch is no longer tripped, the door remains closed. How can the fluid, hydraulically responsive workings of capitalism, let alone the commerce of intellectual exchange and the social life of extended families, function through such obdurate thicknesses of precaution?  The enemy has achieved his goal: business and recreation in the West are gummed up: exorbitantly so." 

Whether or not this observation will serve Secretary Gates and his Minervan cohorts I don't know, but its free floating intelligence is the sort of thing that at least limbers up intellectual muscles.

I'm now 75 pages into Denis Johnson's NBA winning novel Tree of Smoke and though one seventh of the text isn't enough for pronouncements, it looks as if one of its American war themes seems to be the fluidity of alliance and enmity. (Japan, an enemy in 1945, is an ally today. Russia, an ally in 1945, was an enemy through the Cold War and is now--what?). Not a great insight, but in Johnsonian detail, powerful. It might be obliquely covered in a joke from another novel read last week, James Salter's Light Years:

"There were two drunks on an elevator.... A woman got on---she was completely nude. They just stood there and didn't say anything.  After she got off, one turned to the other. ‘You know,' he said, ‘It's funny, my wife has an outfit exactly like that.'"

The Pentagon Minervans shouldn't ignore jokes, irony, sarcasm, cynicism, or wit of any sort. The human enterprise, even in its destructive and diabolic forms, turns just as often on these axes as on the doom-heavy ones Messrs. Bush, Cheney, Petraeus, and McCain apparently prefer.

--Richard Stern