Making the Other Guy Die

Here’s an interesting little fact for you. If you add up every single combat death the United States has experienced in every single war it’s ever fought, from the Revolutionary War to this one, you’d find that in about 230 years, it tallies up to just over 650,000 deaths (fewer if you throw out the 74,500 combat deaths suffered by the Confederacy on the grounds it was a separate political entity, but for now, let’s just assume they were merely rebellious states and toss them back in).

650,000 deaths are nothing to sneeze at, to be sure, but the remarkable thing here is how few combat deaths that number represents over the course of time, especially when you add totals from other countries in the same period of time. And thus we learn the United States’ real secret weapon in war: Not our technological edge or our productive capability, but the fact that relative to other combatants, we die a hell of a lot less — as a nation we adhere to the maxim, put forward in the film Patton, that the object is not to die for one’s country, it’s to make the other poor son of a bitch die for his.

As an object lesson of this, let’s take World War II. The US lost more men in that conflict than any other before or since: about 295,000 dead in combat. But to put this in perspective, that’s fewer than were lost by Yugoslavia (300,000), Austria (380,000) or Romania (580,000) — these are combat deaths, and don’t include civilian casualties — and far fewer than were lost by China (1.3 million), Japan (1.5 million), or Germany (3.25 million). And, of course, you could add up the combat deaths of every major and minor participant in WWII and still not even come close to the number of combat deaths from the Soviet Union — a staggering 13.6 million. Now, the US number is mitigated somewhat by the fact that we came into the war over two years after everyone else started mixing it up, but on the other hand it’s not as if we didn’t make up for lost time by fighting extensively on two fronts.

The first 80 years of America’s history saw fewer combat deaths than a single battle of the Civil War; in fact, twice as many US soldiers died at Antietam (21,000) than in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Indian Wars and the Mexican-American War combined (9,500). Basically, in order to really rack up American deaths, we had to fight ourselves. Even in defeat, we made the other guy bleed more: We had 47,000 combat deaths in Vietnam, but North Vietnam had over 600,000.

The lopsided combat death totals in Gulf War I (about 150 combat deaths for the US versus and an estimated 100,000 for Iraq) and the current war are extreme — the day the US entered Baghdad we estimate we killed somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 Baghdad defenders and lost one Marine, which has got to be a record of some sort — but as a part of a continuum of the US’ relative ability to not to lose a lot of combatants, you can’t really say they’re entirely surprising.

Simply put, and especially in the last 100 years, we’ve made a science of making the other guy die for his country, while not dying for ours. We’re merely getting better at it as we go along. That’s good news for us, of course. It’s not so great for the poor sons of bitches who get to be the other guy.

I Don’t Know What This Means, #43,226

I don’t want to alarm any of you living in the Pacific Northwest, but last night I had a dream that Mount Rainier erupted. Pop, there it went.

The two reasons you probably shouldn’t be alarmed by this:

1. I make no claims toward having psychic abilities. I’ve never once had a “psychic” dream that came true.

2. What was erupting out of Mount Rainier were huge, flaming pieces of Honeycomb cereal.

I don’t that anyone should be concerned that a pyroclastic flow consisting of crunchy, honey-flavored oat nuggets might suddenly descend upon them. On the other hand, if your homes are suddenly engulfed in a nutritious part of a complete breakfast, you can’t say you weren’t warned.

Contribute to the Book of the Dumb

So, hey, wanna help me write a book?

As many of you know, I’ve started research on a book titled The Book of the Dumb, which is (as the title suggests) a book on the march of stupidity over the years. This is, as you might imagine, a tremendously fertile topic, especially these days, and one could end up writing a whole series of books on the subject (and indeed, that’s the plan). I’m making considerable progress on finding a whole bunch of stupid people and events, but at the same time I just know there are some really great dumb moments in the history of our species that I’m just not thinking about. And that’s where I’m hoping you can help.

I’m looking for suggestions on topics to include in the book — events, discoveries, inventions, people, political events, sports moments, military maneuvers, movie/music/tv stupidity, and so on, which represent, in your opinion, a really stellar example of stupidity on the hoof. Obscure and esoteric stupid events are fine, and even desired (not every prime example of stupidity has been relentlessly publicized). Everyone has their favorites, and I’d love to hear yours.

In return, for every suggestion I use, I’ll give credit within the book (i.e., “topic suggested by [your name here]”). Also, Portable Press (the publisher) will be providing me with a fair number of books to give to idea contributors, so depending on the number of books I get and the number of ideas I use, I’ll either pass out a book per idea used or — and this is more likely — put all the contributor names in a hat and randomly select winners of a free copy of the book.

Please note that I’m looking for ideas only — I’m not asking for full essays that I’d cut and paste into the book, for which, quite obviously, a name credit and maybe a book would be woefully inadequate compensation. Just a suggestion will be fine. I’m guessing most people have a good idea of something they think is really, really stupid. Let me know about it — I’ll take it from there.

If you’re wondering what the end result would look like, go over to my “Best of the Millennium” section — many of the topics there were suggested by readers, and a large portion of the book will be in essay form just like those. I’ll also post a couple of sample topic suggestions at the top of the comments thread.

Well, you say, stupidity is everywhere! I have many suggestions! What should I do? Easy:

1. E-mail me your suggestion at a special address I’ve created for just this purpose: suggestion(–at–)scalzi.com. Just replace the (–at–) there with an actual @ symbol to send (my token attempt to defeat the spam spiders, there). When you e-mail your suggestion, if you want to include a couple of sentences as to why you think that particular person, place, thing or event is really lame, that would be swell, although don’t feel you need to go into great detail (much of my fun in writing is in researching things for myself).

Please e-mail suggestions instead of using the comment thread. It’s easier for me to collate and organize that way (you can use the comments thread to ask questions about what I’m looking for, however).

2. In the subject heading of your e-mail, please put the word “SUGGESTION: ” first, and then whatever you like afterwards. This will allow me to filter out the inevitable piles of spam that I will get.

3. Please provide your full name with your suggestion (or alternately, however you wish to be referred to), so if I use your suggestion, I can credit you appropriately for your idea. Don’t worry about sending your address; when I send out the books, I’ll notify people and ask for addresses then.

4. You can make as many suggestions as you like, but be aware that I’ll typically credit one suggestion in the book (in order to give more people a chance to be named). In the cases where more than one person suggests a topic, I’ll credit the first three people who have suggested an idea, in order of when I receive them. The more topics you suggest, the more chances you have that I’ll use one.

5. I’m open to any suggestion in any category of the stupidity of the human experience, but I do have a couple of caveats.

a) I’m trying to avoid explicitly “Darwin Award”-like examples, since the people who do the Darwin Awards, you know, have that corner of the stupidity market well covered, and more power to them. Most particularly, don’t send me ideas from the Darwin Award web site or from the books. “Urban Legends” are also out, because stupidity is more interesting when it actually happens.

b) In terms of presidential politics and stupidity, I’m not taking suggestions on the sitting President, George W. Bush. Those of you who know me know this isn’t due to a particularly pro-Bush stance; I do it because I don’t want to politicize the book. All previous presidents, from Washington to Clinton, however, are fair game.

c) Don’t write me to tell me how your friend/sibling/random person you know is really stupid. It’s not that I don’t believe you, but aside from the possible libel issues, I’m looking for topic ideas I can actually research. Also, it’d be uncomfortable to call someone up and say — “so, someone you know thinks you’re a real idiot.”

6. If you have any friends who you know would have some suggestions (and who doesn’t?), by all means send them to this entry (you might point at the archived version), or link to it from your own site/blog/online journal/whatever. I’m hoping for one of those “power of the blogosphere” moments here, where friends tell friends and people link and I get a lot of great ideas I never would have thought up of on my own.

(Mind you, the flip side of this is people saying to me, hundreds of times over, “do your own damn work, you sad little man.” It’s a chance I’m willing to take.)

Separately but related: I’m looking for a select few people (30 or so entire) to become part of what I call the Book of the Dumb Brain Trust. This elite but entirely unpaid group will act as a sounding board for specific topic ideas and will be the “go to” brains that I pick when I need fresh perspectives. The benefits? You’ll be e-mailed book entries fresh from my brain (all the better to provide withering feedback) and you’ll receive special acknowledgment in the book. Also, you’ll go to heaven. I’ve cut a deal. It’s a group rate.

If you’re interested, let me know at braintrust(–at–)scalzi.com. Depending on how many people want to join in, not everyone who asks to be in will be included (and at least a couple of the spots are already filled). But I will be looking to add a wide range of people and at least a couple of total strangers. That could be you!

Thanks — I’m looking forward to seeing your ideas on stupidity.

My New Sister

If y’all don’t mind, I’d like to take a moment to introduce you to Andrea Perez, who is today officially my new sister: My mother got the go-ahead to formally adopt Andrea today, and as you might imagine, we’re all very excited about it. It’s a little weird to be getting a new sister at this late date, but on the other hand, it’s also pretty cool. And a lot less weird than it would be if, say, my mom had actually gestated a new kid at age 54. I hear that’s possible these days, but it has so many layers of I don’t want to think about it attached to it, it’s hard to know where to begin. So let’s not. Adoption. It’s a good thing.

Also, now I’m officially a middle child, and I just can’t wait to try out all those “middle child” developmental issues I’ve heard so much about, from books and articles and, lest we forget, Jan Brady. The good news here is that it seems highly unlikely I’ll have very many sibling issues with Andrea, being that she’s nine and I’m about to be 34; and anyway, if I did, it’d look pretty bad on me, wouldn’t it.

This was a fairly difficult adoption process, in part because Andrea is a Mexican citizen and my Mom is a US citizen, living in Mexico (she runs a children’s home there, as part of her religious calling — yes, yes, I know, what happened to me. It’s a long story), so there were a lot hoops to jump through before it finally happened. Nevertheless, mom persevered and here we all are, formally expanding the family by one.

So congratulate me, damn you! I have a new sister. And that’s just neat.

Women at War

I’m wondering if this is the war in which we get rid of the polite fiction that women aren’t capable of serving in forward combat positions in the military. The first point to make is that in a war like this one, every position inside Iraq could reasonably have been assumed to be a “front” position — if you’ll recall, there were those couple of weeks in which Iraqi irregulars were whacking at supply convoys as they sped by, and while I’m not a military expert, I’d be guessing that no matter wherever you are, when the enemy is trying to kill you, where you are has suddenly become a front for you.

The second point is that this war has had prominent examples of women serving and fighting with equal facility as the men. In the comment thread of the post I made about the Marine reservist shocked to find out that Marines kill people, someone called Stephen Funk a “pussy” for his position. I deleted the reference, not only because it’s a rather pedestrian insult, but because inasmuch as American and British women are pulling their weight out there in Iraq, so the insult literally makes no sense. If “fighting like a girl” means blasting the hell out of advancing Iraqis until your ammo runs out, as Pfc Lynch so famously did, we should all fight like girls.

I’m sexist enough to note that I’d personally have a vague, rather irrational preference that women not be placed in direct combat positions, but I’ll note that my reasoning here has nothing to do with what I understand are the official reasons against it, which is a presumed male superiority in size and strength or whatever. I speak from personal experience that this presumption is just plain wrong. My wife is three inches taller than I am and demonstrably stronger as well; the idea that I am fit for combat duty while she is not is entirely stupid.

My reasons come down to two mostly indefensible positions — one, the desire not to see women shot up like Swiss cheese in combat (which is entirely sexist, and considering how many women are civilian casualties of combat, really tremendously futile), and two, men are more expendable since they don’t actually, you know, grow babies. One of the big stories prior to the war was how so many soldiers were storing their sperm so that if they were killed (or just had their sexual organs blasted off, I suppose), they could still father children. A woman, by contrast, can’t just leave her uterus frozen in a lab somewhere to be defrosted and used, should she not make it back home alive (she could leave behind her eggs, but from what I understand extracting eggs is neither as simple or easy as, ahem, extracting male gametes in quantity).

This is a wholly irrational position because in a nation of some 280 million, whose population is not in decline and is unlikely to decline any time in the next century, the placement of women in military combat positions is not at all likely to impede the production of future little citizens to any significant degree (and, of course, looking at women solely in reproductive terms is a fine way to get a punch in the eye). But as I said, I don’t claim for this to make any sort of rational sense; nevertheless, when someone says “Women in Combat,” some weird part of my brain says “but they’re more reproductively useful! Send a man!” I can’t explain it. But there it is.

My indefensible leanings aside, if women want to be on the front lines, I don’t see at this late point any reasonable rationale against it. Again, at this point in time, it’s merely a polite fiction that they don’t fight on the line, and the thing about polite fictions is that they are inevitably condescending to someone, and in this case, it’s to women in uniform. Personally, I wouldn’t want to condescend to a woman in uniform; I’m pretty sure she could kick my ass. Obviously, this makes my larger point.

For the Record

As most of you know, I would rather attempt to swallow a live, angry wolverine in a single gulp than vote for George Bush for just about anything, much less President of the United States. I consider him basically an incompetent largely surrounded by smug apparatchiks of dubious morality.

So you can believe me when I say to you: His removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq is an unambiguous good thing in itself, for which he deserves thanks, and the appropriate respect for his decision to do it, and his focus to follow through.

I don’t doubt the all-too-near future will offer me numerous opportunities to get riled up at his general disastrousness as the Chief Executive of the United States, and as for my confidence that he can manage the rebuilding of Iraq… well, we’ll just have to see. However, from now to the end of time you won’t hear me say that the man never did anything right. He did, and what he did right has a pretty big thing. And were I ever to meet him, I would say to him: Fine job with Saddam. You did well.

No, it’s not painful in the least to say that. What would have been painful would have been to have to say, well, you screwed up on the Saddam thing, too. Because the implications of that — for our troops, for our country, and for the planet in general — would have been immeasurably bad. I can live with Dubya having done a good job with Saddam. Happily.

I’m still not voting him. Not even close. But I’m not going to let that get in the way of recognizing the fact he’s done something good for the world.

Is It War?

Leaving aside the pedantic strategy of consulting a dictionary for a definition, here’s the question: Does what’s happening in Iraq actually qualify as a war in itself? I wonder.

Primarily, it’s because the span of fighting has been awfully short. From first strike to occupation of Baghdad, it’s been three weeks. The “hard” part of the war, which is to say taking operational control of the enemy’s stronghold, is done. Three weeks is sufficient time to get a lot done in a war — Nazi Germany blitzkrieged its way through much of Western Europe in a similar span of time — but it’s not very frequently the entire war itself. Operationally speaking, this is one of the shortest wars on record, shorter (in the sense of from first shot to last) than even the first Gulf War, itself a model of brevity. In one sense, I guess you could say this is simply another example of the production and manufacturing superiority of the US: No one makes a war faster than the Red White and Blue. Our assembly line for these things is frighteningly efficient.

Of course, no one ever said wars had to be long. Indeed, during the Cold War, the going line was that the entire of World War III would last just as long as it takes for an ICBM to arc over the pole. Granted. Even so, in a real-world sense, “war” isn’t just a condition of military activity but also a matter of national psychological adjustment, and a three-week war isn’t going to do that — It’s a shot of adrenaline jammed into the cerebral cortex of the national psyche, but adrenaline wears off. As some have noted, this is a war where the national willingness for material sacrifice to support the war was not only not implied but discouraged — no one is rationing, no one is buying war bonds, no one is told that when they ride alone they are riding with Saddam. The only things Americans have been asked to sacrifice recently have been their personal liberties (which, ironically, are things that worldwide are on a continual scarcity basis). I’d rather ration sugar, personally.

The more logical response here is that obviously what’s going on in Iraq is not a war, but merely a campaign in a war that begun on 9/11 — the famed neocon transformational war of the Middle East. And this makes sense. Three weeks is enough not time for a psychological transformation, but 19 months sure is, and anyone who doubts that the US is psychologically a different place than it was on September 10, 2001 is ignorant to an embarrassing degree. Saddam found this out on the tip of a JDAM, while France is likely to get a few additional economic and political lessons on this one as well before everything is sussed out.

(I don’t say this last one as a newly-transformed frog-hater; I like France and the French as much as I ever have (which is to say, I’m categorically indifferent). The French did what the French do, which is to pursue their own self-interest; what they failed to appreciate was that the United States and its citizens are now less inclined to be forgiving of self-interest when it conflicts with our self-interest, because the motivating factors of our self-interest — revenge and national security — are adjudged to be rather more consequential than France’s reasons — mulish, reflexive opposition to the US and incomprehensible Euro-centered diplomatic rigmarole.)

My major problem with Iraq being the second campaign in a wider, undeclared Middle East war is simply that: It’s an undeclared war, the contours, goals and designs of which are secretive and hidden, not from our putative enemies — believe me, Syria and Iran know they’re next — but from the us, the American people (and in a larger and to my mind far less critical sense — sorry guys — the rest of the Western world).

If Iraq is indeed just part of a larger war, it’s a larger war that the American public is being told doesn’t exist (just ask Ari Fleischer), which means that once again the Dubya administration is telling us that we don’t need to know the details. And either we don’t need to know the details because the Administration is doing its patronizing, paternalistic “trust us, we know what we’re doing” thing, which is insulting and scary (and of course, so often wrong), or we don’t need to know because they don’t really know what they’re doing and there’s no point burdening us with their lack of insight. This is also insulting and scary, but in entirely different ways, and given the constantly surprised, backtracking, “I meant to do that” nature of this Administration, is the one I’d personally suspect is in effect. Either way you slice it, it’s troubling that our government’s war intentions are probably more transparent to our eventual enemies than to its citizens.

On the other hand, maybe the Iraq thing simply is its own thing. In which case, we’re back to the original question: What is it? It’s too small for a war, too big for a battle, and too singular for a campaign. Is there a word for something inbetween all these things? Maybe now is a good time to consult the dictionary.

I Am a Science Fiction Convention Virgin

Oh, before I forget: I’m giving serious thought to attending Torcon 3 this Labor Day Weekend. It is this year’s host of the World Science Fiction Convention, at which they give out the Hugos, and I think it might be a fun introduction for me into the world of SF fandom. Also, Toronto is a nice town.

Having said that, I am — what’s the best way to put this — a complete SF Con virgin. I know, I know, hard to believe. And yet there it is. Well, there was that one time I went to a Star Trek convention. But I went as a reporter! I was working! I interviewed Armin Shimerman, for God’s sake! So I couldn’t actually soak in all the SF-y goodness. I was on the clock.

Basically, if I go, I don’t wish to comport myself as an ass, at least not unintentionally. So those of you who have attended an SF Con or two who might wish to pass along your words of wisdom about what I can expect and should steel myself for, please do so in the comments or in e-mail, and tell all your friends to come by and offer their advice as well.

See, I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a virgin. And I want to make sure I know enough so that when it comes time for my first time, well, that it’s, you know, special. So there you have it. Please, be gentle.

Random Crap

* First off, you all realize that if Saddam is in fact dead, we’re six weeks away from the End of the World. Please refer to the seminal film South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut for all the details. The truly ironic thing about this is that relations between the US and Canada at the moment are very nearly as bad as they are in that film, not in the least because Canada actually hasn’t repeatedly apologized for Bryan Adams.

* Got word from Tor today that Old Man’s War has been slotted into a May 2004 release, slightly later than the late 2003/early 2004 release Tor had been mulling over. I’ll need to go through the site and update references, but for now, you’ve heard it here first. I’m not known as being the world’s most patient man, but I’m actually pretty good with this release date, since previously there’s was a chance that OMW and The Book of the Dumb would be released right on top of each other. That would have been no good because I can’t reasonably expect people to buy two books of mine in the same month, no matter how much guilt I apply. However, now they’ll be six months apart — more than enough time for people to have save up their pennies once more. Everybody wins!

* The Movable Type – increased readership thing is definitely confirmed — I’m now operating at double the unique visits per day than I got pre-MT even on weekdays, which is pretty neat (and doesn’t even count the RSS feed access). I wonder if other people who switch over to MT have noticed a similar bump in traffic with a switchover.

On the flip side of this, the amount of spam I get also seems to have doubled in the last couple of weeks as well — about 250 pieces of junk mail daily on my spam trap accounts and another 50 or daily on my main account. Yes, I actually get 300 pieces of spam a day. And yet, I still don’t want to buy a Dale Earnhardt commemorative wrench set! I wonder if people also have noticed a corresponding spam increase after they switch.

Back to work. Done with Scandalous Women, now I’m onto Inventors of Fads. Yes, it is a truly random life I lead, thanks for asking.

Morbid Thought for the Day

Phone meetings and essays to write on Scandalous Women, so contributions here will probably fairly light today. But I leave you with the following question:

I am I the only one whose first impulse, when he doesn’t see any of his New York friends on his IM list, is to click over to the CNN site?

Discuss.

Defense of the Flag

As anyone who reads this knows, I’m no fan of the new Georgia flag, which despite having the virtue of not being based on the Confederate Battle Jack is still steeped in Confederate imagery. Be that as it may, a reader forwarded me a link to a floor speech by Georgia Rep. Bobby Franklin, arguing for the new flag at the expense of the 1956 Battle Jack flag. Franklin, an admitted “Southern Heritage” sort of dude, has some very interesting things to say about the Confederate Battle Jack flag which he had previously supported, including the following “Nixon to China” moment which I will pull out here:

“Allowing hate groups and white supremacists to hijack the battle flag and pervert it into a negative symbol without publicly and repeatedly repudiating them, dissociating from them, and demanding that they cease and desist has been a grievous moral failure. Silence in the face of evil may be construed as consent or worse. The result of this moral failure — a failure of conscience and courage — is that the battle flag is so tainted from misuse that it cannot stand as merely a symbol of heritage.”

Here’s Rep. Franklin’s entire speech.

“Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to explain why HB 773 is an excellent means to bring reconciliation, healing, and unity to our state.

“In 1993, when Governor Miller proposed eliminating the Confederate Battle Flag from our state flag, Southern heritage concerns lead me to consider running for the legislature. In 1994 I did run unsuccessfully, but then was elected in 1996.

“In 2001, I voted against changing the flag. In the next legislative session I sponsored a bill calling for a referendum. This session I introduced HR 1, calling for a referendum.

“My motives for defending the use of the Confederate battle flag have always been totally unrelated to race; I have simply regarded it as an honorable symbol of Southern heritage.

“However, political reality now argues against returning its imagery to our state flag.

“The General Assembly is the place to resolve the flag issue. The governor’s call for a non-binding referendum means this responsibility will ultimately devolve upon us.

“So let us decide now. Let us rise to the challenge of leadership. Let us lay aside the past. Let us lay aside prejudice, partisanship, and politics. Let us bring healing, reconciliation, and unity so that we may focus on making Georgia a better place for all our citizens.

“Let me ask you four simple questions:

“1. Is it not true that the political campaign leading up to the referendum is not likely to be characterized by intellectually honest debate and enlightened discussion that will bring us together as one people?

“2. Is it not true that the far greater likelihood is that such a campaign will drag us through the mire of racially-charged and racially-divisive demagoguery from extremists on both sides?

“3. Is it not true that a referendum over the flag will be counterproductive, not only in terms of stirring up racial animus, but also in terms of negative national publicity injurious to our business climate in the midst of an economic crisis?

“4. Is it not true that this entire process is a distraction and a diversion that interferes with our concentration on the more essential issues of education, economic development, environmental quality and transportation?

“As a proud Southerner who is a former member and camp commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and while continuing to believe that the battle flag is not inherently a symbol of racism, oppression or hatred, I have gained a better understanding of why it is deeply disturbing and offensive to many.

“There is a reasonable alternative which will allow us to honor Southern heritage without including the Battle Flag image on our state flag.

“To those who argue that the battle flag has been misappropriated and misused by hate groups and white supremacists, but that it is only a symbol of heritage, I offer three answers:

“1. Allowing hate groups and white supremacists to hijack the battle flag and pervert it into a negative symbol without publicly and repeatedly repudiating them, dissociating from them, and demanding that they cease and desist has been a grievous moral failure. Silence in the face of evil may be construed as consent or worse. The result of this moral failure — a failure of conscience and courage — is that the battle flag is so tainted from misuse that it cannot stand as merely a symbol of heritage.

“2. Even if those who argue that the battle flag is a symbol of hate, etc. are absolutely wrong in their interpretation of history, can we not have the grace and the sensitivity to be considerate of their feelings? In order to honor our ancestors and the Confederate war dead and wounded, must we insist on a means that hurts and offends over one-third of our fellow Georgians?

“3. In the Scripture, I Corinthians, Chapter 8, the Apostle Paul discusses things that while not inherently sinful might create a stumbling block or give offense to others. He concludes in the final verse of the chapter, verse 13 “that if eating food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, that I might not cause my brother to stumble.” The spirit of Christian charity is to surrender my right, even though there is nothing wrong with it, so as not to offend my brother. The analogy is clear: While there is nothing inherently wrong with the Confederate Battle Flag, to some it is the cause of grievous offense. Therefore, in the spirit of Christian charity, let us choose not to offend.

“I ask Southern heritage advocates to search their hearts and be willing to agree to a plan that does not restore the perceived negative and offensive messages associated with the battle flag.

“I also ask those opposed to the use of the battle flag to be willing to compromise so as not to alienate, anger, and injure citizens of good will who, without negative race-based intent, merely wish to honor their ancestors and heritage.

“Together, as legislators elected to do the peoples’ will, if we act in good faith and with mutual respect, in the spirit of charity, we can achieve a solution that will satisfy the concerns of all our citizens.

“What do I propose?

“1. That the General Assembly repeal the current state flag.

“2. That the General Assembly adopt the following flag. (He held up a photo of his Stars and Bars design.)

“This flag is specifically based upon the first national flag of the Confederacy, popularly known as the “Stars and Bars,” with the Georgia state seal and the phrase “In God We Trust” added.

“If the true motive of “heritage advocates” is to honor the South and those who fought for Southern independence, what better symbol than an actual national flag of the Confederacy with reasonable and timely modifications?

“Unlike the Battle Flag, the national flag has never flown at a Klan rally or at a lynching. Thus, it does not carry the racially-charged and racially-offensive perceptions of the Battle Flag.

“This is an attractive design around which all Georgians of mutual respect can rally.

“Finally, let me stress that returning to the pre-1956 flag, or some new variation thereof, is absolutely not a satisfactory compromise. There is absolutely nothing specifically and uniquely Southern about the pre-1956 flag. Some proclaim, and the media seems to promote, the idea that its red and white stripes are taken from the Stars and Bars. However, there is at best only an oblique and tenuous connection. Without the context of the actual Stars and Bars alongside for illustration, these stripes are merely generic. They could well appear on any state or national flag without reference to Southern history. Certainly just as good a case could be made that it derives from the Austrian flag.

“Adopting a flag that is not clearly Southern will guarantee ongoing unhappiness and uproar. Many will view it as capitulation, not compromise. Let us avoid this by adopting a flag that while distinctly Southern is free of negative, racially-divisive imagery.”

A Briefing From the Information Minister

“In an apparent show of defiance, Iraq’s Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf stood in the streets of Baghdad Monday morning amid a U.S. raid on the capital, issuing denials of coalition advances… He denied certain buildings, such as the al Rashid hotel, were under coalition control. ‘The Americans, they always depend on a method what I call … stupid, silly. All I ask is check yourself. Do not in fact repeat their lies.'” — “Sahaf: U.S. troops will be burned,” CNN, 4/7/2003

Reporter: So, Minister, the US says they’ve taken over another presidential palace.

Sahaf: The Americans infect us all with their putrid filth. Their so-called advances are illusions and shadows. We have gutted them like the fish our noble Saddam hauls out of the river.

Reporter: Well, they’re actually broadcasting from the Palace. See? Look, there’s a US Marine waving in front of a collapsed statue of Saddam right there.

Sahaf: How easily you are taken in by their prevarications. It is obvious that is in fact an image manufactured on a sound stage in Hollywood. Undoubtedly they are filming “Wheel of Fortune” right next door. That gaunt temptress Vanna White is even now turning over a vowel, and some flatulently sedentary housewife from St. Olaf is winning an oven. Listen. You can hear her squealing in joy through the cheap plasterboard of the Marines’ soundstage.

Reporter: Actually, I think that’s the sound of some of the elite Republican Guard surrendering. See, look.

Sahaf: Just because you are taken in by advanced computerized special effects does not mean I have to be. Our Republican Guard would never surrender. Even now, just a single one of our immortal fighters is slaughtering an entire division of American Marines at the airport we let their foolish forces take in order to lure them into a false sense of security. And he’s doing it with nothing more than a ball of twine, some hard cheese, and a kitten. They are like a legion of MacGuyvers, our Republican Guards.

Reporter: Minister, I’m getting a report that Marines have in fact entered this very building.

Sahaf: Why do you repeat their despicable nonsense? The Americans will never enter this building. The citizens of this city would not allow it. They would rise up, yes, even the toddlers and the infants, among whom even the newborns can disembowel one of their vaunted Army Rangers with one swift thrust of his chubby fist.

Reporter: The Marines seem to be carrying you away even as we speak, Minister.

Sahaf: It is all lies. I am stationary. It is the room that is receding.

Old Friends

It’s been old friend week here at the Scalzi Compound, as pals of mine have renewed their acquaintance with me after separations and silences ranging from several months to the better part of an entire decade. I don’t know why this week has occasioned such a repatriation of friendly affection; perhaps last week was National Google Your Old High School Pal Week and I just didn’t get the memo.

There’s something exciting about catching up with someone you used to know so long ago that there’s a good possibility that the person they are today hardly resembles the person you knew back then. I myself am an enthusiastic exhumer of long-lost friendships; I will occasionally call up someone from elementary school just to see how they are. That’s always fun because, of course, they have no freakin’ clue who I am talking down the line to them — I like to think I retain many youthful qualities at age 33 years 11 months, but the vocal timbre of a second grader is not one of those qualities. And if you think I’m kidding about occasionally ringing up, say, my best friend from the second grade, here he is:

Kyle Brodie, now a Deputy Attorney General for the Department of Justice out there in Los Angeles. He prosecuted the guy who killed Ennis Cosby, so watch your step in the City of the Angels. He also plays drums, rather better than I do (he was a professional musician at one point in a band called Nothing Painted Blue. He wore his hair longer then). I call him up roughly every five years or so, just to check in. He’s usually very polite, although I do wonder if he thinks I’m a little insane. The answer is: Well, of course. What other sort of person randomly calls up his best friend from second grade? Fortunately it’s a harmless sort of insane, which is good, because Kyle has the prerogative to get all Ashcroft on my ass. And no one wants that.

The many-years-later-reconnection often has a small tinge of guilt to it, because generally speaking there’s usually no good reason that you stopped talking to the people who were once so close to you. In each of the cases where an old friend reconnected, there hadn’t been a falling out or even a lessening of affection; it’s just that whole “life” thing getting the best of you. You would think that, given the ceaseless exhortations of the phone companies to get on the damn horn and prop up their failing long-distance businesses already, more of us would keep in better touch. But we don’t.

Fact is, from the ages of 18 to 35, it’s just damned hard to keep track of people here in the US — we move all over the place. The phone numbers and e-mail addresses I have for people are typically ones from two phones and four e-mail addresses ago. One of the primary reasons I got the Scalzi.com domain was simply so I would never have to change my damned e-mail again. Then there are the other usual excuses of work and family and new friends and just not wanting to call because the prison only allows you to call collect, and it’s not like you wouldn’t have enough to explain about your circumstances already without trying to slip that one by. So many excuses, but so very few of them any good.

The secret, I’ve found, is simple: Assume that the friendship has survived. These people are your friends, after all. If you’re calling, they’ll be glad you’re calling. If you get the call (or the e-mail, or whatever), you should be glad to hear from them. Do the obligatory “So this is what I’ve been doing over the last decade or so” to get them caught up on the story so far and then just reinsert them back into the calculus of your life. Your friends are your friends, and friendship is always contemporary.

I love that these old friends of mine are coming back into my life, especially because it coincides with a time when I seem to be making quality new friends as well. A new friend who I sincerely hope I will one day have the honor to call an old friend wrote recently: “I want to discover beauty and strangeness and kinship in new friends.” Rediscovering all of these things in old friends is just as sweet. It’s truly a good life when you have both.

Lessons From Heinlein

I was re-reading the postscript I had on Old Man’s War just before I sold it, and which I subsequently removed from the Web site. I think it’s interesting enough as a discussion of the mechanics of writing that I’ll go ahead and repost it here. Astute observers will note that I wrote it before I actually sold OMW, and so the entire discussion of writing successful SF is a little presumptuous. On the other, it is sold now, so there you have it. The first graph, talks about OMW a little bit, but the meat of article — what I call Heinlein’s Theory of Characters — is generally applicable. Anyway, here it is.

Lessons From Heinlein

A number of readers have commented that Old Man’s War is strongly reminiscent of two classic science fiction novels: Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. In both cases, the comparison is flattering, although in the case of Forever War, it’s an entirely coincidental thing, since I haven’t read the novel and (horrific as it is for an sf reader and writer to admit) I’m only vaguely aware of the plot. I’m aware there’s a war going on, and I think there’s the matter of long distances taking a long time to travel, but beyond thatů nope. Drawing a blank (although I have read other Haldeman stories and have enjoyed them, which is how I know the comparison is flattering).

The Starship Troopers correlation, on the other hand, is emphatically not a coincidence, since Old Man’s War is modeled after that novel in several ways. The most obvious is of course the military setting and the introduction of a starry-eyed protagonist into that milieu, and the subsequent progression from recruit to grunt to seasoned veteran. More generally, however, Old Man’s War follows roughly the format of a number of Heinlein “juvenile” novels (of which Starship Troopers was one originally): It’s meant to have the “boy’s own adventure” feel that RAH jammed into those books. One could easily say it’s a classic “juvy,” just with a 75-year-old as its hero.

I adopted the “juvy” format for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I like the format, which lends itself to classically linear storytelling and a pace that allows the reader to get comfortable with characters and situations. Second, I like the irony of marrying the format to the story of a senior citizen, whose motivations and interests are emphatically not the same as those of, say, Starship Troopers’ Johnny Rico, who is fresh out of high school when he joins the military.

The flip side of so consciously appropriating such a well-known sf format as Heinlein’s juveniles is that Old Man’s War cannot be accused of being breathlessly original, either in concept or execution. I think that’s a fair enough assessment. To speak of novel in musical terms, it’s best described as a variation on a theme or an improvisational riff off a classic tune. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with approaching a science fiction novel in this way; writers intentionally chain themselves to established formats all the time, or reimagine old concepts and old stories in new, subtly altered ways. Given the persistence of Heinlein juvies on the bookshelves, there’s a market for the format. I think readers will note the points of departure from the original formula and judge them on how successfully the riffing works.

In a general sense, I think Heinlein is a fine writing teacher — his enduring popularity after many of his sf contemporaries find themselves slipping out of print suggests there’s something about the writing that is atemporally appealing; that is to say, as fresh today as when it was first written. And whatever that is, it’s worth study and worth emulating (so long as it’s married to one’s own individual narrative gifts; no point writing exactly like the man, after all).

But one has to be careful not to focus on the wrong lessons. One of science fiction’s misfortunes is that what many people take away from Heinlein is the man’s penchant for “hard SF” wonkiness and his polyamorous libertarianism. Few of the writers who try to replicate these aspects of Heinlein’s corpus do it very well, and indeed, with the latter of these subjects, Heinlein himself had a tendency to go overboard. In any event, not everyone likes reading (or writing) hard SF or polyamorous libertarianism.

More enduring lessons from Heinlein come in how the man handled characters — both in how they existed in his writing and how they talked and interacted with other people. If I could boil down what I see as Heinlein’s Theory of Characters. It would come to these four lessons:

1. Your Characters Doesn’t Exist in the Story; Your Story Exists For Your Characters. Starship Troopers concerns itself with obligation and duty, but it’s about Johnny Rico’s development as a person who recognizes the importance of these qualities. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress addresses freedom and the cost of achieving it, but in the context of the relationships between its main characters (which include a self-aware computer). Friday mulls over what makes humans human by providing us a warmly human heroine who worries that she’s not human at all. The character is the context; Heinlein books that are more about ideas than people (such as I Will Fear No Evil or Job: A Comedy of Justice) aren’t anywhere as good.

2. Make Room in Your Characters For Your Reader. One of Heinlein’s great talents was creating characters that the readers felt they could be, either because the character was a more or less average person (Troopers’ Johnny Rico is a perfect example of this), or because even if they were special in some way they were still nevertheless subject to uncertainty and doubt (Friday fits here). Heinlein was also smart about immersing his reader into his characters by degrees, rather than frontloading the character development and dumping a complete character into the reader’s lap before the reader knew how to handle it. It’s like boiling a frog: Do it slowly enough and the frog doesn’t realize it’s in hot water. By the same token, if you get your reader comfortable with your character bit by bit, by the end you can do anything you want and the reader will willingly follow.

3. Make Your Characters Talk Like People Talk. This is not to say that you populate your characters’ speech with “ummms” and “uuuuhs” and fractured sentences and grammar. But you do help your readers by not torturing them with strange usage. Nearly all of Heinlein’s books feature recognizably contemporary language usage, and that fact is a great part of their appeal — the reader can focus on the story rather than the language used to tell it. This is probably the lesson that will be the most ignorable, since not every story wants or needs language with an easy-to-read, contemporary feel. But on the other hand, unless you’ve got a reason to make your language difficult, don’t.

4. Make Your Characters Act Like People Act. A corollary to lesson three: Give them doubts, fears, amusements, petty fears, indecisions, conflicting thoughts, space to learn and grow. This note is especially evident in Heinlein’s juveniles, which makes sense because their “heroes” are meant to be teenagers. But Heinlein does it with his adult novels, too — Valentine Michael Smith famously has to learn how to laugh in Stranger in a Strange Land and copes with a continual failure to fundamentally grasp human nature. The plot of Friday depends on its character’s doubts and needs. Characters who are recognizably people are a comfort to reader, since it implicitly suggests that extraordinary things can happen even when one is having ordinary emotions.

Now, bear in mind that not every story is going to be well served by this Theory of Characters. One major science fiction classic that would be flatly ruined by it would be Frank Herbert’s Dune, an outsized story if there ever was one, in which even the primary character of Paul Atreides is ultimately little more than a very mobile and integral chess piece. One also shudders to think of the mess this theory would have made of the Lord of the Rings books.

But by attempting to incorporate the ideas found in this theory, your average writer has the opportunity to try something interesting: Incorporate big events into stories on a human scale. Heinlein did this on a regular basis, even in his juvenile fiction — and indeed the format of his juvenile books feels implicitly designed to support this character theory.

This theory also informs Old Man’s War. It touches on topics such as the utility of war, the responsibilities we have towards others (particularly those we don’t know and will probably never know), and the uses of both youth and old age. But ultimately what it’s about (or what I think it’s about; as a writer I cheerfully acknowledge that readers don’t have to get out of the novel what I wrote into it) are the relationships that make us fully human. One of my favorite comments about the novel came my friend Erin, who read an early version of the novel and noted that the novel comes on like a sci-fi action thriller but is really a love story. This is exactly right and I was thrilled that this fact came through in the writing.

Whether Old Man’s War is actually successful is another matter entirely, and I’ll leave that up to the reader to decide. Certainly it doesn’t try to be exactly like Heinlein. For better or worse, I’m my own writer, and even if I could write exactly like Heinlein, why would I want to? He left enough books lying around. But as I’ve said, I’m happy to play with some of the forms he’s championed and see what I can do with them. If you’re thinking of writing a book, think about fiddling with them as well. You might be surprised (and happy) with what you come up with.

Another Georgia Flag

A reader was so good as to send me a link to this article about this proposed new flag for the State of Georgia, which as you may know has had a contentious time of it recently with its flags. For those who don’t know, in 2001, Georgia ditched the state flag it had been flying since 1956, which prominently featured the Confederate Battle Flag (just in case anyone should think that this switch didn’t have to do with white folks gettin’ all angrified at them there black folk, it should be noted that the switch to the Battle Flag design coincided with Georgia being ordered to desegregate its schools), for a flag that featured it only as a tiny historical element. This enraged the “Southern Heritage” folks to no end, and since then there’s been a push to bring back the 1956 flag by way of referendum.

This new flag is designed to sidestep bringing back the battle flag design in an interesting way. The Georgia Legislature could adopt this new flag immediately, and then about a year from now, there’s to be a referendum asking Georgians if they like the flag. If they do, it stays. If they don’t, then they’ll have another referendum on whether to bring back the Battle Jack flag (or the one that flew before it, which, as it happens, was also modeled after a Confederate flag). Obviously, the lege will be banking on the hope people will like the new flag just fine.

I think the new flag is interesting because it plays to both the pro- and anti- Battle Jack crowd in a really cynical way. For the “anti-” crowd, it has the attraction of not being the Battle Jack, which is, of course, the internationally-recognized symbol of small-brained racist white folk. But for the “pro-” crowd, it has the attraction of still being explicitly modeled after a Confederate flag — the “Stars and Bars,” the first flag of the Confederacy, and the model for the Georgia state flag that flew from 1872 through 1956.

The “Stars and Bars” is not nearly as infamous as the Battle Jack, but it’s still a nice Confederate memorial flapping in the breeze, representing the State of Georgia, and even the smallest-brained of the racist white folk can appreciate that if they just keep their yaps shut about it, this subtle bit of Confederania will slip right by all the folks who get het up about the Battle Jack. The “In God We Trust” part, I imagine, is just there to sweeten the pot for the approval of God-fearing partisans on both sides.

In short, in one fell swoop, this new flag plays on the ignorance of some, the racism of others, and the cheap religious sentiment of yet a third subset between the first two. Make no mistake, this new flag is just as racist and hateful as the Battle Jack flag, specifically because of the fact that it is just as modeled on a Confederate flag as the 1956 flag was, and all Confederate iconography (or vexillography, to be more accurate here) equally represents the only government in the history of the world that specifically encoded the enslavement of human beings into its Constitution. Were I a Georgian, I’d be no more excited to have this flag flying across my state than I would the Battle Jack.

My correspondent wonders how long it would take for this flag to generate a lawsuit. I don’t imagine it will be very long. I suspect the “In God We Trust” part would be the bit that gets the action, because it’s not a bit of language traditionally associated with Georgia (whose state motto, ironically in this case, is “Wisdom, Justice and Moderation”), so its sudden inclusion here is fairly questionable. Sure, it’s on our money (added in at the height of Godless Communism fear-mongering, incidentally), but I don’t know how well that argument would stand up in court.

Mind you, it’s not my state, so I don’t have to live with this flag or any other Georgian flag. If you Georgians want to go on fetishizing the dumbass Confederacy, thereby reminding a significant portion of your population that you continue to be proud of a period of time in which they would have had the same personal rights as a table lamp, by all means, go right ahead. As I’ve said before, I prefer my small-brained racists clearly marked. This will help.

Update: A correspondent from Georgia writes to note that “In God We Trust” is actually on the current flag as well. And so it is! Interesting.

Posters for Dubya Haters

Having won the hearts of many right-wing folks yesterday with my excoriation of the Marine reservist who didn’t know that the Marines occasionally kill people, let me just as quickly alienate them by promoting my pal Ted Rall’s latest bit of Dubya bashing: Downloadable “Bush is an Unelected Usurping Warmongering Nitwit” posters. Choose from two conservative-enraging designs:

Before you post comments I’ll inevitably have to delete (unless they are truly creative): Yes, yes, I know Ted is an affront to all right-thinking patriotic Americans, and by linking to him I’m showing my own personal contempt for those who are fighting right now for my freedom, and so on and et cetera. Please refer to this document for my response. Thanks!