Walsh: A principle of madness

From an Antique Land

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” won the Oscar for best picture in 1957. In the movie, British martinet Colonel Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness, is forced to construct a bridge for his captors and wartime enemies, the Japanese. Like Ahab’s white whale, this bridge becomes an obsessive devotion. Blindly obedient to principle, Nicholson balks at anything less than the finest engineering and the sturdiest construction. He raids the medical tent seeking malingerers, and finds a whole group to meet his definition. The company medic, Clipton, level-headed and wary of abetting the enemy, wonders aloud, “Must we work so well? Must we build [the Japanese] a better bridge than they could have done for themselves?”

Clipton wonders this because Nicholson has lost touch with reality. His reasoning sputters and fades behind the steady torch of principle — by whatever means, to whatever end. Clipton wonders this because Nicholson, though he cannot see it, is wrong.

House Republicans, just as thoughtlessly guided by principle, have advocated and passed a budget bill with severe cuts that are wrong. Not wrong-headed, but wrong.

I try to avoid categorical dismissals. I was moved a few months back by an interview with Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Van Jones, in which he argued that no politician on either the right or left can be defined by a single moment in time. “Glenn Beck,” he said, “who a lot of people on the left are concerned about, did something great last week when he refused to go along with the whole Shirley Sherrod thing.” The point, Van Jones explained, is to look beyond party distinctions and to see the good in each other.

So I tried. Really. But I’m having trouble seeing the good in Republican intentions.

We are flagging desperately in the race for a new energy economy. China has surged ahead while Europe has steadily crept forward. And yet Republicans find nothing more gratifying than asphyxiating funding for new energy research. They have cut 20 percent from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science budget, zeroed the $600 million allotted to the Office of National Infrastructure Development, and called for a quarter-billion dollar cut to the budget of ARPA-E, a research division modeled on the Pentagon’s highly successful DARPA. After all, why would Republicans bother with inquiry into energy alternatives that are deeply embedded in national security concerns, or care about advanced energy innovation spurred by market competition?

On other environmental issues, Republicans have displayed the same idiotic intransigence, sticking to principles that will drive our country into the ground. Among countless other cuts, conservation programs within the Bureau of Land Management are on the chopping block, efforts to clean and mitigate further pollution of the Chesapeake Bay have been stalled, and proposals to regulate mercury emissions from cement plants have been derailed. Jeremy Grantham, business leader and cofounder of the hundred-billion dollar investment firm GMO, a man certainly not unfriendly to a handful of conservative ideals, said the following about the Republican stance toward the environment: “Have they no grandchildren?”

Across the board, most federal agency budgets will see cuts. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is slated to receive a budget increase of two percent. GOP priorities were most transparent in their (thankfully vetoed) support for a $450 million investment in a jet engine for the next-generation F-35.

War planes, or engines for war planes, should not represent our manufacturing future. Rather than competing for the development of more sophisticated technologies for killing (at which we are already quite proficient), we should compete in the booming economy for alternative energy and environmental conscientiousness.

In the climax of “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” Colonel Nicholson’s masterwork, his bridge, is blown up with plastic explosives. A steaming train folds into the ravine and a series of senseless deaths in the muddy and torpid river follow. The bridge, that great sign of civilization, has collapsed, and the jungle, the screeching and tenebrous wild, encroaches again from the riverbanks. Clipton stands alone over the bodies floating facedown. The sole survivor, he is nearly speechless. Nearly.

“Madness,” he calls to nobody. “Madness!”

I could not agree more.

Dylan Walsh is a second-year student in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.


  • The Anti-Yale

    Government funding isn’t a panacea. Where would facebook be if it had waited around for government funding.

    Sometimes an idea and a need unite and make the future (ask the original Henry Ford) —without government funding.

  • dwalsh

    The Anti-Yale:

    Two quick points I want to make in response to your comment:

    1) I don’t mean to suggest government funding would be a panacea. I simply consider clean energy investment more prudent and less anachronistic than much Department of Defense spending.
    2) Where would Henry Ford be without roads and highways? Where would facebook be without internet? Of course private innovation is important, but, like our system of transportation, the energy system is both massive and complex. The government must be involved somewhere. The question is: how can government involvement be most effective?

  • JackJ

    Let’s address just one of your examples: ARPA-E. You note it is modeled on a very successful DARPA program. Are you aware there are also IARPA (intelligence programs) and HSARPA (homeland security) offices. So let’s see that’s four ARPA’s each with hundreds of support and administrative personnel, each needing to be housed in expensive office space in and around Washington D.C., each competing with the others for line items in the Congressional Budget. Why not one consolidated research undertaking where truly needed projects are funded and from which each of the constituent agencies can reap intellectual capital for use in developing techniques to solve their respective problems? For as one could and should note the ARPA’s aren’t generally about practical solutions rather they are about “out there” disruptive technologies although on some occasions DARPA has been able to deploy short term solutions like the BBN Technologies Boomerang program to counter snipers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    Perhaps the Republicans are telling the Executive Branch to be more concerned about duplicative efforts by cutting some funds from one ARPA. Perhaps they should look at consolidation of research efforts with more comprehensive teams of scientists and engineers.
    What is obvious, however, is the USG is broke and funding efforts that could otherwise be housed within pre-existing structures is wasteful.
    One other comment: Try coming up with some positive ideas about how the financial and governmental crisis could be handled vice just carping from the sidelines. What we need in this country is fewer critics and more doers. But that’s just my opinion. BTW the soldiers who died in the train crashing into the river were on their way to kill other soldiers who were fighting to free Thailand from a foreign overlord. Tragic, yes but practical in the world and time depicted in the movie.

  • dwalsh

    JackJ: Your central point is well taken. I’m skeptical, however, that the Republicans have this insight about duplicative efforts in mind. I’m skeptical that they are trying to tell the Executive Branch anything, given their main interest, about which they’ve been explicit, is getting Obama out of office in 2012. This appears to be the reasoning behind most of their actions.

    I also agree with you that positive or progressive ideas for solutions are far more valuable than carping. This piece was simply meant to raise the point that many of our elected officials, who should represent the vanguard of solutions, are instead digging a pit for themselves and their constituents–that is, us. And all in the name of Principle.

  • Jaymin

    It’s not principle, but a matter of arithmetic. There are millions of little things we want the government to be doing, but if we can’t pay for them, we can’t do them; it’s pretty common-sense logic. I agree the defense budget should have been butchered, but nonetheless it doesn’t mean these other cuts were any less necessary.

    Our yearly interest payments are well over $400 billion. I feel there is much merit in preventing that giant black hole of money from getting any bigger.

  • The Anti-Yale

    2) Where would Henry Ford be without roads and highways?

    Mr Walsh:

    Good point about Henry Ford. I’m not sure the analogy works with facebook (see below).



    No one actually owns the Internet, and no single person or organization controls the Internet in its entirety. More of a concept than an actual tangible entity, the Internet relies on a physical infrastructure that connects networks to other networks. There are many organizations, corporations, governments, schools, private citizens and service providers that all own pieces of the infrastructure, but there is no one body that owns it all. There are, however, organizations that oversee and standardize what happens on the Internet and assign IP addressesand domain names, such as the National Science Foundation, the Internet Engineering Task Force, ICANN, InterNIC and the Internet Architecture Board.


  • lfsouth

    Good thoughts, Dylan. I’ll tack one more on:

    “Eliminating nearly all the money for poison control centers would save $27 million — not even a rounding error when it comes to the deficit. Yet it is so foolish that it perfectly illustrates the thoughtlessness of the House Republican bill to cut $61 billion from the budget over the next seven months.

    The nation’s network of 57 poison control centers takes four million calls a year about people who may have been exposed to a toxic substance. In three-quarters of all cases, the centers are able to provide treatment advice that does not require a visit to a hospital or a doctor, saving tens of millions of dollars in medical costs.

    While a single visit to an emergency room can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars (often paid for by the government), a call to a poison center costs the government only $30 or $40. A study in the Journal of Medical Toxicology estimated that the poison centers saved the State of Arizona alone $33 million a year. Louisiana eliminated its centers in the 1980s but restored them when it realized how much money they saved.”

    Here’s the link: http://bit.ly/gwQ57U

    And good on the house Republicans. I can’t stand it when Big Government limits my constitutional right to be poisoned.

    Cheers from Auckland.