Chapter 17 Washington Worries
In Washington, concern about the menace of the invisible airplanes arched toward a crescendo. The Pentagon expressed grave concern over the erosion of the American edge in technology. Various scientists pointed out that the American edge had been eroding precipitously for three decades, during which the United States had maintained an unchanging lead of fifteen years in all important technologies. Conservatives responded that these hot-house pinkos didn’t understand the threat. Congressmen in whose district Invisible Airplane money was to be spent found in their hearts a hitherto undiscovered solicitude for the welfare of Our Boys. The people at General Dynamics being no fools, money was slated for every district in the United States.
In various states around the nation, factories began to rise for the production of IADs, or Invisible Airplane Detectors. The design had not yet been finalized, and prototypes suffered from certain growing pains, as for example what seemed an utter inability to detect invisible airplanes. The difficulty was that General Dynamics was unable to say whether there were any invisible airplanes around to be detected, and so wasn’t sure whether its device worked. The crux of the problem was that General Dynamics, having no invisible airplanes to experiment with, couldn’t tell whether its equipment could in fact detect them. Thus an expensive crash project was begun to design invisible drones. At any rate, when the IAD had finally been thoroughly invented, the factories would stand ready.
Before long, thousands of workers and researchers were drawing paychecks from the program. In the normal course of democratic politics, these people, and the merchants in nearby towns who prospered by selling them clothes and televisions, came to form a powerful constituency for continuing the IAD program. It is usual in democracies that, when enough people earn a livelihood from solving a problem, the problem itself becomes trivial in comparison with the need to keep the solvers employed, so that it becomes crucial not to solve the problem, which has by now become a national resource.
Tensions grew in the vast and growing IAD community, which Marxists, had they adequately understood economics, would have called the contradictions of capitalism. The researchers wanted to avoid inventing a workable detector, so that they could continue their research. The labor unions however wanted to begin production immediately of a detector whether it worked or not. A compromise was reached. The factories would produce an Interim IAD, which wouldn’t work, but could be fielded quickly to meet the immediate needs of the Pentagon. The researchers would pursue a Follow-On IAD, or FOIAD, which of course would depend on successful development of invisible drones.
Feinstein said to Corporal Hearn as they bounced and cut through the heavy military traffic in Cowpatch, “Anything new on the invisible airplane front?” He regarded those airplanes as his story, which in fact they seemed to be, inasmuch as the chief source of information was Corporal Hearn. For the same reason Corporal Hearn regarded them as his story.
“No. For three days I’ve been TDY at BEEB, mailing out medals.”
Hearn swerved to dodge a motor scooter that was trying to ram them and collect damages. Accelerating neatly, he cut around a six-by full of helmets, skirted a noodle stand, and shot into open country.
Three days earlier Corporal Hearn had spent all day in the air-conditioned computer room of BEEB, stuffing Bronze Stars into envelopes addressed by the computer to every lieutenant in Southeast Asia. The military was trying to improve efficiency. Previously medals had been given only to men who had done something courageous in battle, but this had taken a great deal of work, examination of claims, and evaluation of evidence. Besides, those who didn’t get medals thought that their career prospects were hurt. Further, many held that winning a medal in combat was a sign of deficient judgment, as anyone who would leap into a trench full of VC and beat them to death with an entrenching tool clearly had a serious personality disorder.
Since there were more men who didn’t earn medals than there were who did, numbers made themselves felt and the award of medals had been democratized. The solution had been to award medals by rank, so that every lieutenant got a Bronze Star. For a while the medals were issued on graduation from Officer Candidate School, but it was too hard for people to understand how a lieutenant could have been brave in combat when he hadn’t left Virginia. So now they issued them by mail from the computer room. Hearn had spent the next day sending Silver Stars to colonels, and Army Commendation Medals to majors.
While taking a break, Corporal Hearn had picked up a print-out showing the accumulated combat time of Air Force officers. He had noticed one, a Lieutenant Trilling, who had sixteen years of continuous combat flying. A few officers from SAC bases in the US had a couple of years each, but no more, which was strange. He had made a mental note that Feinstein might consider such a tip worth a few bottles.
“Yeah,” said Hearn, cutting around an amtrac bellowing and emitting acrid smoke, “They have computers that, you know, keep track of flying hours and things. I didn’t know we’d been over here so long. One guy in the Philippines has something like sixteen years combat. One’s enough for me.”
“Sixteen years? Bullshit. The war’s only been on for four.” Feinstein put his feet up on the windshield and tore open a candy bar.
“Can’t help it,” said Hearn with the air of one who can’t be held responsible for the vexing ways of the world. “Guy named Lieutenant Gopher Trilling. Or maybe it was Hamster. It’s on the printout. A whole bunch of guys in the PI have four years, and even some from back in the World.”
“Uhuh. I smell a rat. A lieutenant with sixteen years in combat? He’d be at least a light colonel.”
Hearn looked at him with that air of galling confidence that he had. “Bottle of bourbon? For the printout?”
Feinstein chewed and said nothing, screwing his face in thought. Hearn was a real rug merchant. The story on the invisible airplanes was running Feinstein about two cases of hooch a month, and it was beginning to devour his bank balance. At first he had put it on his expense account, and gotten a letter from Accounting in New York saying that AP would pay for treatment in a detox center. Now he was buying Hearn’s bribe-hooch with his own money.
Still …hmmm. Guys with heavy combat hours, in the Philippines? Had to be a spook operation, some kind of secret thing with garrotes and freaky electronics. That would be a story. Besides, if this lieutenant really did have sixteen years of combat flying, that meant the United States had been secretly involved well before the Tonkin Gulf incident. The rank of lieutenant was obviously phony. Jesus, that would blow the press open.
“Yeah. Two bottles, to keep your mouth shut.”
“Go to hell.”
“Where you think this is, Paleface?”
“OK, OK. Three. I hope your liver rots.”