Tag Archives: military


It’s the number of US war casualties since 1775 (death in combat or by war or military deployment)*.

77413798, John Moore/Getty Images

ARLINGTON, VA – MAY 27: Mary McHugh mourns her slain fiance Sgt. James Regan at ‘Section 60’ of the Arlington National Cemetery May 27, 2007. Regan, a US Army Ranger, was killed by an IED explosion in Iraq in February of this year, and this was the first time McHugh had visited the grave since the funeral.

* 74 of those, incidentally, were sustained during our first war in the “Middle East” (North Africa/Mediterranean)… Which began in 1801 (not-coincidentally-coinciding with the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson). Refusal to pay tribute to the Barbary pirates was one circumstance that led to the formation of the US Navy.


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The Contours of Catastrophe: Bombs and “The Bomb”

The Contours of Catastrophe: Bombs and “The Bomb”

How did we get here? How did the referent of this icon most of us have never seen, held, or operated become the iconic “bomb”?

Bombs in the Looney-verse

Until some young age, most of my “understanding” of explosives derived from Looney Tunes (a questionable reference when it comes to the operation of weapons and deadly objects, to be sure). While even the most obsolete objects and interactions therein depicted became more familiar, one remained elusive longer than the others.

Though they were also essential explosive furniture in the cartoon lexicon, most others (the stick of dynamite, the time bomb–i.e., the cluster of sticks of dynamite with a clock and curly wires attached–and the plunger detonator) had some overlap with movies and TV: miners, bandits, hostage-takers. And of course, there’s the perennial variant: a ticking box (perhaps presented to the antagonist with a bow affixed), at once both innocuous and ominous from our usually omniscient perspective.

So for this young boy they were more clearly anchored in “reality”. But the cartoon bomb with that familiar form, like a small bowling ball with the protruding plug and dangling fuse, where did that come from? I barely saw it anywhere except in the hands of Bugs Bunny.

Outside of the Looney-verse, it was more often in the arsenal of a frock coat- and top hat-clad ne’er-do-well with a curling moustache (I’m not going to belabor the morphology of the villain; he’s further down in the Contours of Catastrophe hopper), though it could sometimes fall into the hands of a hapless innocent like Buster Keaton (speaking of silent movie stars and phony bombs, there’s actually a spot-on germane Harold Lloyd story on the topic.)

Then there are a few odd variations. This one has an embedded clock:


And it even features in one of the notorious Danish Mohammed cartoons.

Consider both the pre-20th century grenade (and when I say “pre-“, I mean that one might go back as far as a millenium) and an 18th century mortar. Something like it could indeed be lit, and handled/thrown manually, or, in the case of the mortar, be dropped down a tube to be propelled in the direction of the enemy. With regard to the grenade, it’s long-since been superseded by the more familiar “pineapple” form factor, or, in the case of depictions of battle with Germans, the “stick grenade”.

This is probably a unique opportunity to mention the similarity of this device to the petard (as in “hoist by own…”):

Where, when and how did it embed itself in the collective unconscious?



Harper's Weekly, 1886

Those who’ve read the prior installment will be familiar with my assertions that the outline of the bin Laden compound, or the abortive vector of the Challenger, asserted themselves with their power and through the ubiquity of repetition, as well as the singular viewpoint. In the case of the “bomb” one source might be the accounts of the Haymarket event and subsequent trial, where images of similar bombs from the home of one of the conspirators were trotted out and printed repeatedly.

Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry’s assertion that Haymarket is one of the sources of the “bomb-throwing anarchist” (As well as the origin of May Day) sort of overlaps with this and the promised forthcoming “Contours…” post. Indeed, the “bomb-throwing anarchist” is a bit of a trope of its own, captured even in song:

In an anarchist’s garret, so lowly and so mean

Oh, smell the pungent odor of nitro-glycerine.

They’re busy making fuses, and filling cans with nails

And the little Slavic children set up this mournful wail.

Oh, its Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb;

The last one it was thrown by Brother Thom.

Poor Mamma’s aim is bad and the Copskys all know Dad,

So it’s Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb.

Other Explosives in the Looney-verse

Here, Foghorn Leghorn bequeaths an odd hybrid of the globular cartoon bomb and the time bomb:


The stick of dynamite is nearly ubiquitous. These are often somewhat helpfully labeled “TNT” (though they’re nitroglycerin sticks, at least the label indicates something analogous to “dangerous” to someone who can read and parse), especially in the Road Runner bits (Wile E. Coyote being an avid user of mail-order explosives), where everything seems to be labeled.

Here Bugs produces a rather unique IED in the form of poultry:


I was going to segue into the next bit by citing aerial explosives in cartoons, and the morphological similarities especially to the Little Boy bomb, but alas, I’ve run fresh out of YouTube-scouring gas.

“The Bomb”

The last Contours of Catastrophe entry referenced the Challenger disaster and the telltale shape of smoke, vapor, etc, especially when viewed and captured from a distance, which lends an archetypal sameness to the images and flatness of vantage point. In each case, the active agent (the shuttle, the bomb-dropping plane, the bomb itself) has been obliterated. The iconic image is that of a trace, a footprint, a “signature”. And the ultimate instance of this (along with the cross occupying nearly the apex) is the mushroom cloud. It’s an artifact of not only a singular destructive act but also a distinct physical process, yet when it comes to the identification and association of the image, neither seem to matter.

Look closely, and see a classic instance of the Mushroom Cloud Meme at work...

On the other end of the semiotic spectrum, and perhaps as a palate-cleanser, theres this bit from an Oppenheimer interview in 1965 (apologies for the brevity and sensational score):



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The Contours of Catastrophe

The Contours of Catastrophe

Last night I suggested that the outline of UBL’s compound had–at least to me–already taken on an archetypal aspect. The inverted delta with one squared-off side, so frequently cited that the main editorial option is what color to outline the perimeter in. Remove the background, and that outline’s been burned into my subconscious; so deeply that it might surprise me later to find that it’s still recognizable.

Another image with a simple, archetypal, vector-traceable contour is the iconic image of the Challenger explosion. Not the instant of the explosion, and not the images from moments later when the solid rocket boosters have begun to spiral. No, that decisive instant just after the explosion; the trail up to the bulge of the initial explosion, the now shuttle-less trajectory of the boosters like devil’s horns… this is the canonical image.

I remember the time when a friend of mine had just returned from Florida; one of his family’s destinations was the shuttle launch. I remember the terrible familiarity to the sequence of the photos, the manual animation that lead inexorably to the image above. I recall thinking at that moment–quite naively–“That looks just like the photos in the newspaper!” Indeed, at a distance of nearly 10 miles, the position of the news cameras wasn’t particularly privileged.

I could wax at length now about iconic photographs of disaster, catastrophe, or otherwise singular events, and the way that there’s so often one of many that becomes the image. The Hindenburg, Oswald, Kent State, Birmingham (to name just a few–seriously; I am, after all, doing my best to avoid an explosion of musings)…

I will, however, refer back to what has already become–at least temporarily–one of the iconic photographs of this event, and that’s the one from the Situation Room (not the sitroom proper–it appears to be the “small conference room” in the Situation Room complex). I could comment on the countenances of various individuals in the picture (while HRC’s gasping gesture steals the show, to me Bob Gates is the most interesting), or the fact that just this evening I noticed a burn bag in the photo (next to Obama’s knee)–but no: the star of the moment is Pete Souza. Some readers know my admiration for Souza and the now-famous WH Flickr photostream, but it really grows when I think of the circumstances of this image. On at least one of the screens we have helmet-mounted footage of the killing of Osama bin Laden, nearly in “real time” (20-minute delay); yet he’s focused on the reaction of the people in the room. He’s the only one not looking at those screens. Phenomenal.

BTW, those of you with Netflix accounts might be interested to see the Nat’l Geographic fluff-doc “The President’s Photographer”. Soft as down it may be, but great fun to watch, and revealing of the massive amount of material Souza shoots and the amount of time he spends with the President (of course more than Michelle; perhaps second only to Reggie Love).

Getting back to catastrophe, disaster, spectacle and iconic locales, I’ll end with a reference to Constantin Boym’s Buildings of Disaster series. Boym:

“We think that souvenirs are important cultural objects which can store and communicate memories, emotions and desires. Buildings of Disaster are miniature replicas of famous structures where some tragic or terrible events happened to take place. Some of these buildings may have been prized architectural landmarks, others, non-descript, anonymous structures. But disaster changes everything. The images of burning or exploded buildings make a different, populist history of architecture, one based on emotional involvement rather than on scholarly appreciation. In our media-saturated time, the world disasters stand as people’s measure of history, and the sites of tragic events often become involuntary tourist destinations.”

My favorite? The Watergate.

Also, since I mentioned the shuttle SRBs, this is probably one of the few opportunities I’ll have to mention the NASA cameras that show the spent rockets’ slow descent Earthward. There’s a combined video of both the fore- and aft- facing cameras, but I think nothing compares to a to the poignancy of one rocket’s lonely descent.


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Shipspotting: Razzle Dazzle

Shipspotting: Razzle Dazzle

Some really interesting ephemeral innovations can happen at the interstices between technological eras. This is particularly the case in military history, especially for the often brief period before both sides adopt the new technology (such as with gunpowder, iron cannons, breech-loading guns, rifled barrels, tracked vehicles i.e. tanks, jets, etc.).

In the period before advanced remote sensing technologies such as radar and aerial surveillance, nautical warfare had to rely on more rudimentary means for identifying enemy ships, and especially their range, speed, and bearing. Think Horatio Hornblower and his brass telescope…

For a brief period beginning in WWI and ending at various points during and after WWII (where radar and aerial surveillance made visual camouflage increasingly obsolete), we had “dazzle camouflage”. As you’ll read, its purpose was not out-and-out concealment or disguise, but rather confusion (again, with the goal of confounding identification of type of vessel, range, speed, and bearing).

Whether or how well it worked is unknown, but we can expect that the more identification relied on purely visual means, it’s effectiveness would have been at least marginal, and likely even more so in the case of submarines where rangefinding would have been especially reliant on what you could do through a periscope.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the technique was developed by an artist; the intersection of massive military machines and what resembles “decoration” (the attractiveness of which being particularly debatable in many cases) is quite stunning.

A wonderful collection of images can be found here.

Perhaps we find ourselves (briefly, if at all) at another of these interstices–with similar techniques applied to human faces and meant to confound automated facial recognition systems.


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Shipspotting: Office Window

Shipspotting: Office Window

I was sitting in a meeting a couple of weeks ago with a new person (in a corner conference room with sweeping views of the bay right over the Ferry Building–31st floor) and mentioned obiter dictum that we might be about to have a novel sighting of a–probably quite old and rusty–military vessel. Indeed, minutes later, there it was in the company of three tugs. Traveling backwards, in fact, just to put a fine point on the novelty.

SS Lincoln


The Suisun Bay “Mothball Fleet”
The vessel (I haven’t had time to ID it yet) was an old military ship from the “mothball fleet” at Suisun Bay, formally the National Defense Reserve Fleet, a collection of some 50-200+ assorted vessels, from cargo ships to battleships (just one, actually) from as far back as WWII, kept in a state of at least nominal readiness in case of any of a variety of crises.

The reason this ship and others before was passing the window is due to the ultimate decommissioning of the fleet as the result of a suit between the State (and a collection of environmental organizations  such as NRDC) and MARAD. The ships are conveyed by tug to the BAE Systems dry dock in SF for “cleaning” (particularly paint removal) after which they’re towed some 5,000 miles (through the Panama Canal) before ultimate shipbreaking and “recycling” in Texas. Morbidly romantic as that circuitous journey may sound, this business may be kept local soon (see below, pentultimate graf)…

Most so far have seem to come from "Row J"

After seeing the first of several of these boats travel by, I’d determined to do the “official” mothball fleet tour, which my wife and I did last Memorial Day (auspicious-seeming, but the tour was for the most part unceremonious).

Right before the meeting I’d noticed something odd-looking on the water steaming in,. I launched an iPhone app which shows ships’ AIS transponders on a map showed three tugs escorting nothing–this is often a giveaway as the ships being hauled from Suisuin Bay don’t have AIS transponders.

Helicopter Carrier
He mentioned having recently been cycling down near the BAE drydock and seeing something that looked like a squat aircraft carrier. It happens that that ship had been an earlier Suisun Bay craft I’d seen on it way to demise. It was one of seven Iwo Jima-class helicopter carriers built for Vietnam War service. It is visually striking indeed; it certainly caught my eye on its first pass, and his description is, though basic, quite apt. It’d made an appearance in the film, “Apollo 13”, standing in for the eponymous USS Iwo Jima which had hosted the recovery of the actual Apollo 13 recovery.

Note: until now I’d been rather smug at having identified it as the USS New Orleans, as review of some satellite imagery led me to believe that it was one of two Iwo Jima-class carriers that had been at Suisun Bay, and the other had already been sunk during SINKEX exercises (a side topic I’d thought of mentioning here, but alas I’ve run out of steam–also, I’d have talked about “artificial reefing” in the same context), but “thanks” to Wikipedia I’ve discovered the New Orleans was also 86’d in the same manner.

The USS New Orleans goes down in a blaze of glory (US Navy)

In fact, almost all seven have; I’ve failed in this instance of shipspotting–perhaps I can redeem myself slightly by reiterating that I usually am quite busy! I’m now going with the USS Tripoli. The fact that it had done very late duty (recently, in fact) as a test platform for the Ballistic Missile Defense system would in fact explain the radome she now sports. But anyone with more gumption I might find it in the MARAD inventory.

Left, the Tripoli returning after modification post-BMD tests. Right, the X ship as seen by friend (note the radome on both).

There’s also a substantial industrial/economic element not to be forgotten, here: the first two vessels to be decommissioned fetched $1.47 million to BAE Systems (for drydocking and cleaning and $2.1 million to ALL Star Metals for the chopping up and recycling. Again, that’s just for the first 2 of at least 57. A facility has been purpose-built just for these jobs (I’m not sure whether any of the ships have gone there yet). With the creation of the Mare Island facility, the whole process (cleaning to recycling) can be done locally. Eureka! Jobs created, Congressmen crow.

A Few Other Mothball Ships of Interest
Later I’ll mention a couple particularly interesting vessels that are or have lived at Suisun Bay, including:

Sea Shadow

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