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You Are Only Coming Through in Waves | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

You Are Only Coming Through in Waves

My new "Think Again" column is called “Cracks in the Worldwide Murdoch Empire” and it tracks the happy events reported here.

My Nation column is here.

I believe my review of a wonderful show by John Hammond and John Mayall at the Jazz@Lincoln Center’s Allen Room a couple of weeks ago got lost somehow, due to my own personal screwups. I managed to stay up late enough to see the final of four separate sets.

Hammond has recorded over thirty albums, all of them interesting and surprisingly fresh takes on orthodox blues, both delta and urban.  Mayall is one of the few people in our benighted world for whom the world “legend” is not overstatement. He founded the Bluesbreakers in 1963 and among those who passed through his bands over time included Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and Mick Taylor to name a few.  He’s 78 now, but a pretty lively 78 even by the standards of, say, fellow 78-er L. Cohen.

Hammond opened with his typical set, which changes all the time and contains great stories and solid picking. It is what it is. Mayall, with a full band, paid tribute to the wonderful room with a jazzier set than I’ve seen him play in the past. Put together, the show was kind of like going to blues school, which would be a great idea, come to think of it, especially if one’s classroom were the Allen Room.

Earlier this week, I caught Lyle Lovett’s show/party at the Concert Hall at the Ethical Culture Society.  The show was a celebration of Lyle’s new cd, “Release Me,” in which he sings other people’s songs that he (no doubt) wishes he had written. A few of them, like  Michael Franks’s “White Boy Lost in the Blues” and Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” he probably wishes he had written about himself. The album is almost all covers and duets, as was the concert, with classics like aforementioned “Brown-eyed” which revealed itself anew in Lyle’s interpretation and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” which reminded one of its wonderfulness without much in the way of reinterpretation. (And really, who wants to compete with Ray Charles and Betty Carter?)

You also get k.d. lang playing the role of Kitty Wells on the title track and a “White Freightliner Blues” by Townes Van Zandt, who has become an obligatory contributor to every Texan’s repertoire of late. The show was a hoot because of Lovett’s shy charm and the assembled muscians’ virtuosity and affection for one another. It featured Lovett's longtime band (Keith Sewell on guitar, Viktor Krauss on bass, Luke Bulla on violin and Russ Kunkel on drums) plus Sara and Sean Watkins, formerly of Nickel Creek, and Mickey Raphael, the longtime harmonica player in Willie Nelson’s band, added to the falsetto backup vocals of Arnold McCuller.  Hard not to like, but I could have used some more of the “classics” that Lyle himself has written. More about the new cd here.  

Speaking of “classics,” it’s that time again. The colossus formerly known as “Pink Floyd” has graced us with “Immersion” and “Experience” editions of The Wall, their second biggest-selling album and the album that broke Roger Waters—its principal author—away from the rest of the band, and also caused millions of drunken frat boys to sing “We don’t need no education” as if this were something of which to be proud.  

The album works best as a coherent whole, than as individual songs, although I still maintain that “Comfortably Numb” is one of the greatest songs ever written. Even so, it’s hard to get a handle on the whole “Wall” phenomenon because it’s taken so many massive forms over the years from the 31 performances the band staged in 1980-81 in which a 40-foot wall was constructed, brick by brick, across the front of the stage during the performance. Then in 2010 and 2011 Roger Waters toured a new production of The Wall during which I purchased a counterfeit ticket outside Madison Square Garden and am still mad at myself for how obvious it should have been.

The Wall Immersion 7-disc edition is driven by the “No Such Thing as Too Much” philosophy that we saw with “Dark Side” and my favorite Floyd album, “Wish You Were Here,” and so comes as a big box with seven discs and includes a DVD featuring a film clip from the 1980 tour and a Behind The Wall documentary. It’s also got  Waters’ demos and stuff that are the experience version. There’s a live version of the entire album too, compiled from the 1980-1981 original tour.

There’s so much here, as a matter of fact, you’re going to have to read about it.  But yes, the remaster of the original is breathtaking in places. Of course it ain’t cheap. More here.

Now here’s Reed.

Bunker Bluster
by Reed Richardson

If you want to get a sense of the ominous turn toward bombing Iran our national discourse has taken in just the past few weeks, there’s perhaps no better place to begin than with the media’s coverage of ground zero for all those bombs. Or more specifically, the brand new bomb designed to penetrate beneath ground zero.

Prosaically nicknamed MOP (Massive Ordnance Penetrator), this new 30,000-pound bomb was built to be a bunker buster of magnitude beyond the previous ‘shock and awe’ era. Designed to dive down a full 200 feet through rock and concrete before detonating, the MOP was developed to directly counter the defensive tactic of burying strategic WMD targets within hardened bunkers and inside mountains. Besides one nuclear facility in North Korea, the only other practical targets for the MOP are Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities at Fordo (Qoms) and Natanz (As evidence of how specialized the MOP’s role is, consider that the U.S. Air Force had only contracted to build a mere 20 of these new bombs, at an startling-even-for-the-Defense-Department cost of $330 million.)

Now, the connection is rarely made in the mainstream press, but the notion that Iran’s two key enrichment facilities could now be destroyed by an U.S. air strike—thanks to this new bunker buster—marks a subtle, but critical shift in the policy discussions toward Iran. So much so, the fact that Israel lacks anything close to the same kind of specialized ordnance is now a strong reason many military and policy experts say a unilateral strike on its part against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a wasted effort. 

Couple that with all the logistical hurdles Israel would have to overcome to pull off such a raid—explained in the New York Times last month—and even former Bush administration officials have started dismissing the efficacy of a standalone Israeli attack.

Michael V. Hayden, who was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2009, said flatly last month that airstrikes capable of seriously setting back Iran’s nuclear program were ‘beyond the capacity’ of Israel, in part because of the distance that attack aircraft would have to travel and the scale of the task.

Indeed, the prospect of an Israeli air attack against Iran has all the earmarks of a political, military, and humanitarian debacle. To merely put a temporary halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment program, Israel would have to undertake not an overnight strike, but a concerted air campaign of hundreds of sorties waged over days, if not weeks. Such an extended engagement could quickly exhaust Israel’s military’s capability, leaving it more vulnerable to counterattack. What’s more, that scale of bombing would make it all but certain that Iranian civilians will be killed, which would no doubt drive an often unruly Iranian populace right back into the Ahmadinejad’s arms and generate plenty of sympathy for Iran among world public opinion.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, due to arrive at the White House on Monday, doubtless knows all this. And so all his government’s apocalyptic talk of an Iranian ‘zone of immunity’ could easily be interpreted as an implicit call for the U.S. to step in and act in its stead. After all, the U.S. has both the power projection capability and specialized weaponry to make quick work of the Iranian nuclear program. Right?

Maybe not. In fact, in January both Reuters (Iran’s nuclear sites may be beyond reach of ‘bunker busters’) and the Wall Street Journal (Pentagon Seeks Mightier Bomb vs. Iran) published articles that cast serious doubt on the MOP’s ability to take out the facility at Fordo (Qoms).

Noting that “the narrow, technical question of whether such an attack is feasible is therefore central to strategy,” the Reuters story called the chances of a MOP strike destroying Fordo as “slim.” The report went on to pour more cold water on this strategy, citing other military experts skeptical of such an approach.

Doubts were echoed by Robert Henson, Editor of Jane's Air-Launched Weapons, to Reuters, who said it was likely that Fordow had been built to survive a sustained assault.

‘We know for a fact—or as near a fact as possible—that you will not be able to stop this program with air strikes. There continues to be a whole lot of hysterical posturing about this.’

The Journal report from the end of January, ostensibly more of a defense industry story, was even less sanguine. Citing Pentagon officials in its very first sentence, the story flatly declares the MOP ‘isn’t yet capable’ of taking out a facility like Fordo.

[I]nitial tests indicated that the bomb, as currently configured, wouldn’t be capable of destroying some of Iran’s facilities, either because of their depth or because Tehran has added new fortifications to protect them.

Doubts about the MOP’s effectiveness prompted the Pentagon this month to secretly submit a request to Congress for funding to enhance the bomb’s ability to penetrate deeper into rock, concrete and steel before exploding, the officials said. 

To further illustrate how uneasy the Pentagon is with the proclaimed capabilities of the MOP, the Journal offers up another keen bit of journalistic insight, gleaned from the acquisition process. The Pentagon’s secret request involves diverting $82 million from other ongoing defense projects, a move designed to avoid any budgetary tripwires that might arise from having to pass new appropriations. In addition, the story quotes another unnamed Pentagon official who casts doubt on the MOP’s effectiveness against the less-fortified Natanz site: ‘But even that is guesswork.’

If one is starting to get the sense that maybe this new, $16.5-million-a-pop bunker buster might be something of a bust, never fear. Because this past Wednesday, just a few days before the impending U.S.-Israeli summit, you could run across a front-page Washington Post article (Iran’s underground nuclear sites not immune to U.S. bunker-busters, experts say) that reads like an upside-down version of the aforementioned Reuters and Journal pieces.

As befits its decidedly glass-is-half-full headline, the report plays up the positive and pushes any doubts about the weapon way down into the weeds. For example, in its second paragraph, it cites U.S. military planners who are ‘increasingly confident about the ability to deliver a serious blow against Fordow.’ Then, two paragraphs later, right before the story notes how bunker buster capabilities will likely play a notable role in next week’s U.S.-Israeli talks, the Post writer trots out this line of dizzying spin from an anonymous official:

Massive new ‘bunker buster’ munitions recently added to the U.S. arsenal would not necessarily have to penetrate the deepest bunkers to cause irreparable damage to infrastructure as well as highly sensitive nuclear equipment, probably setting back Iran’s program by years, officials said. (italics mine)

Ah ha, so maybe the Pentagon should consider calling their new weapon MOWNNP instead?

To be fair, the Post article is no different than the two aforementioned reports in that all three spend time discussing how merely damaging the infrastructure around the enrichment sites at Fordo and Natanz would be viewed by some as a worthwhile, albeit temporary, victory. But this defining down of what would constitute a successful attack is troublesome to say the least.

Nonetheless, I get it—opinions differ. And if a reporter talks to certain Pentagon officials and military experts and not others, they’re likely to hear a different party line, emphasizing different things. 

But then, we start to go off the rails a bit in the Post story:

U.S. confidence has been reinforced by training exercises in which bombers assaulted similar targets in deeply buried bunkers and mountain tunnels, the officials and experts said.

Unless these training exercises occurred within the past month—the Journal did admittedly use the term ‘initial tests’—what we see is fairly significant disconnect between its reporting and the Post’s. Who’s right? Who knows? But I began to have my suspicions when I finally got to the Post article’s rather innocuous discussion—buried in the 26th paragraph—of the Pentagon’s additional MOP expenditure request:

The Pentagon is investing tens of millions of dollars to enhance the MOP’s explosive punch and concrete-piercing capabilities.

Lost entirely here is the context needed to genuinely understand the why behind this budgetary request. Situated as it is within the Post’s unquestionably sanguine analysis, we have a glaring sin of omission. As a result, the reader almost assuredly interprets this as a move by the Pentagon to simply improve the MOP’s already impressive capabilities, rather than what it really sounds like based on the Journal's reporting—a hurried bureaucratic attempt at fixing them. 

The real danger, in the end, is that this credulous page-one story from the Post and others like it begin to unjustly circumscribe the limits of the serious policy debate we should be having about Iran’s nuclear program. But if anonymous sources, hawkish spin, and incurious reporting can marginalize legitimate uncertainty about these bunker buster bombs, the likelihood that broader policy questions could be hijacked is even greater. And if we let that happen, policymakers are liable to, once again, find out that the supposedly precise, assuredly easy, military solution they thought they’d chosen is no such thing. And, once again, the rest of us will pay the price for it. 

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

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