Our Dangerous Dog-Sled and Reindeer Gaps!

Matt Bivens, MD
Apr 16 · 10 min read

“Moscow is moving to claim Arctic territory as barriers between Russia and North America melt,” reported The New York Times this weekend. The paper is referring to icebergs — apparently they are melting, something about “global warming”? — and as they crumble away, why, there’s nothing left to hold back the Red Menace:

RESOLUTE BAY, Canada — After finishing a training drill on surviving the bitter cold, the soldiers gathered around Ranger Debbie Iqaluk to hear about an inescapable fact of life in the high Arctic: The ice is melting despite the frigid temperatures.

And that means the Russians are coming.

Her retelling of how she watched as an enormous iceberg fractured, just a few feet from the military base here, was riveting. It is one thing to be told constantly that the melting polar ice cap has opened up the Arctic, disappearing what used to be an impenetrable barrier between North America and Russia. It is quite another to see it firsthand.

The iceberg took five years to melt, but by 2018 it was gone, taken over by a sea that with each year is melting earlier in the season. That has brought Russia right to Canada’s doorstep, cutting into the “Fortress North America” concept that has long comforted military planners on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

NATO is rushing to try to catch up. Last month, hundreds of troops from member countries and partners, including France, Norway, Finland and Sweden, joined Canadian soldiers, reservists and rangers for the Nanook-Nunalivut exercises that aimed in part to help alliance forces match Russian readiness in extreme-cold climes. (The United States sent observers but no troops this year.)

OK, I get it. I really do. NATO has an exercise someplace exotic, like the Arctic, so the New York Times Pentagon reporter gets to go along. It’s one of the perqs of the profession. Helene Cooper, the reporter, is pretty cheerful about this side of her job — the article includes a “behind the byline” interview with her, where she is asked “what do you enjoy most” about reporting on the Pentagon, and she replies:

The cool hardware! I love checking out all the toys the American military has. I’ve flown for hours in the co-pilot seat of a B-1 bomber, including during midair refuels. I’ve done the catapult takeoff and abrupt landing on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. I’ve been in Apache, Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters … That part of the job is just pure fun.

Tip of the hat to Bob Gould for the “dog sled gap” joke

I’m sure it is! And the article itself is pretty fun. Lots of nice photographs. Lots of camaraderie, as the soldiers of NATO learn to make an 8-person igloo, debate the merits of different kinds of mittens, and moan about the icicles in their beards. Many of us have friends or family in the military, and it’s always interesting to get some insight into their day-to-day life and work.

But here’s the thing: I wish the reporters, photographers and editors involved in this could have just owned it for what it is: A lark. A travelogue, enjoyed on the government dime.

Instead, they take seriously their duty to sing for their supper. And so we have to hear a bunch of dreary, half-baked nonsense about how the ice wall is falling and the White Walkers in fur hats are on the way.

This area of Canada is so desolate that, to quote the article, “Until Russia appeared on the horizon” (!) the main work underway was “soldiers armed with ancient rifles standing guard against polar bears.”

Until Russia appeared on the horizon? How did they appear there again? Right, right, the icebergs melted — and like Tina Fey channeling Sarah Palin, we could suddenly look across a half-frozen sea, littered with dejected and emaciated polar bears, and see Russia, lookin’ right back at us. Damn them! (Does this really make sense to anyone?)

Slogging forward ever further into absurdity, the article seeks out the Defense Minister of Canada, who “in a telephone interview … made clear that the alliance had no intention of ceding the icy expanse.”

Could this be more vague? What are we not ceding exactly — the ocean? The land? The oil and gas presumably out there? (And how did that telephone interview go anyway? “Defense minister, this is The New York Times! Will you be ceding any of Canada’s icy expanse?”)

Too many questions! Onward! Mush, mush!

The article tells us that Russia is reopening military bases in the Arctic — no details of that offered, hey, it’s just The New York Times, what do you want, facts? Google it!

(So I did, here’s a typically breathless CBS News report from almost exactly two years ago in response to a Kremlin p.r. blitz about a new military base in northern Russia. CBS News takes the bait and raves uncritically about “the unveiling of the country’s crown jewel.” Crown jewel! To me, it looks like an old Holiday Inn in Fargo. But to CBS News in 2017 — in the midst of our Russiagate mass psychogenic illness — it is Russia’s crown jewel, because it provides housing for “150 troops”, some of whom may or may not be riding reindeer — I’m not kidding— and unspecified “war planes.” “For now,” the CBS News reporter concludes, “Russia’s flag seems to be firmly planted on the top of the world.” All this melodrama is for, again, a military base Russia has built on its own territory that houses 150 people, some planes, and plus-minus some reindeer. Fine, whatever, I am ready to eyeroll and move on with my life — but there’s more! “Great reporting! I’m glad we did this!” gushes Nora O’Donnell of CBS This Morning. “This is a future battlefront, the Arctic.” Co-host Charlie Rose chimes in enthusiastically, “That’s exactly what it is! The conflict with Russia is now global, every part of the Earth, including the top and the bottom.”)

And the Earth-encompassing struggle continues. As with CBS News two years ago, so with The New York Times this weekend, we hear again that Russia has more than 40 icebreakers, the United States only two. We are also warned we are falling far behind in the Arctic because, uh, Russia uses it more.

“Twenty percent of Russia’s gross domestic product is pulled from the Arctic, whether in minerals or through its shipping lanes. It is far ahead of North America,” The New York Times warns — an outrage, when for comparison one considers that “less than 1 percent of the United States’ economic output is derived from the Arctic.” (Voice of America this week publishes this same strange observation — where does it come from? Journalists used to source assertions. Now we just say stuff.)

Look, Russia’s economy is more than 12 times smaller than ours. Worrying that Russia “is far ahead” because it has to eke so much of its frankly pathetic income from the turnips and smoked fish of the Arctic which runs along its entire northern border — while we in the United States get almost none of our massive, vibrant economy from this desolate wasteland that only touches one of our 50 states — is so ridiculous that I had to check again this wasn’t a spoof article. But it’s not. Instead, it is in a long line of similar New York Times hyperventilations about our Arctic use-gap with Russia.

The United States also gets less than 1 percent of our GDP from sales of rosaries, St. Christopher medallions and votive candles; the Vatican gift shop may or may not get 20 percent from such sales but either way is surely “far ahead” of us. Shame on you, America!

What about this icebreaker gap? The U.S. Coast Guard says it has just two and needs more, and everyone notes that Russia has more than 40. Fair enough. But I can’t help noticing how, across our pro-defense spending national media, journalists toggle freely back and forth between describing “our” military as either the entire NATO alliance (when it suits the narrative), or just the U.S. military (when the narrative culminates in the appeal for more money).

Go on Wikipedia and start counting icebreakers, and you’ll see that while Russia has 40, our NATO ally Canada has 14, with 10 more on the way; lots of other U.S.-allied nations seem to have lots of ice breakers as well. Isn’t this relevant context? Yet I’ve never seen it mentioned. If you are a citizen trying to figure out what we should be spending money on — and for my barely informed guess, by the way, I am fine with us investing in more U.S. icebreakers — it’s nearly impossible to get a straight answer.

Where is all of the money going?

So let’s review. “The Russians are coming,” because global warming. We have an icebreaker gap. We have an exploitation-of-the-Arctic gap. We apparently have a dog-sled and probably also a shaggy reindeer gap, as NATO struggles to “match Russian readiness in extreme-cold climes.”

I could have just swallowed all of this and moved on — what’s one more hazily reasoned p.r. piece for military spending, right?

But it sticks in my throat this weekend, because at the same time it was serving this up, The New York Times did not cover surprising comments by President Donald Trump, made in the Oval Office during a meeting with the Vice Premier of China, calling for international cuts in military spending.

“Trump laments military spending by U.S., China and Russia, floats deal idea,” is the headline of the Reuters report on this. What follows is the entire 5-paragraph report:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — President Donald Trump on Thursday lamented the amount of money that the United States, China and Russia spend on weapons production, including nuclear weapons, and suggested that such money could be better spent elsewhere.

Trump, during a meeting with Chinese vice premier Liu He in the Oval Office, floated the idea of following up on a potential trade deal with China with a second phase deal that addressed the issue of military spending and arms production.

“As you know China is spending a lot of money on military, so are we, so is Russia and those three countries I think can come together and stop the spending and spend on things that maybe are more productive toward long-term peace,” Trump said.

“It think it’s much better if we all got together and we didn’t make these weapons,” he said.

Asked by the president to weigh in on the suggestion, the vice premier said he thought it would be a good idea.

I stumbled over that, and thought: Huh. I hadn’t heard about this! I will go over to The New York Times — my go-to paper-of-record — to get the details. And what do I find? They just used the Reuters report. Apparently the U.S. president making a public plea to Russia and China that we all three scale back military spending is not worthy of their reporting time.

Reuters, like a dutiful news agency, followed up a day later by asking for Kremlin comment, and the Kremlin spokesman endorsed the idea, saying that “any call in favor of disarmament deserves attention and high regard.” Reuters filed an even more succinct report this time: three paragraphs. My paper-of-record again yawned and used the Reuters report.

So we now have the leadership of the United States, Russia and China all in public agreement with President Trump’s suggestion that “it’s much better if we all got together and we didn’t make these weapons,” scaled back our out-of-control military spending, and instead spent our national treasures on “things that maybe are more productive toward long-term peace.”

Yes, I know Donald Trump is inconsistent — has put forward a massive new Pentagon budget increase, and backs massive new spending on nuclear weapons. But President Barak Obama was also inconsistent — he would float all kinds of aspirational ideas and then not follow through (the massive new nuclear weapons spending binge we are all angry at Trump about was actually approved by Obama.)

Why do presidents and politicians make bold suggestions and not follow through? Because the public does not respond to them. Why? Because the public gets its information, and in particular a lot of its background assumptions, from weeks, months, years, decades of media reporting — in this case, decades of reporting strongly favorable to giving as much money as possible to the Pentagon.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, people were outraged to learn the military was charging taxpayers $640 for a toilet seat and $436 for a humdrum claw hammer. Ordinary people could get our heads around that, and it became a symbol of Pentagon corruption and arrogance. As Matt Taibbi reported recently in Rolling Stone, the then-young Senator from Iowa, Republican Chuck Grassley, was one of the crusaders behind the $400-hammer Congressional hearings and investigations. Taibbi continues:

But 35 years later, Chuck Grassley, now 85, is still sending letters to the Pentagon about overpriced parts, only this time with more zeros added. The Iowan last year asked why we were spending more than $10,000 apiece for 3D printed airborne toilet-seat covers, or $56,000 on 25 reheatable drinking cups at a brisk $1,280 each …

Taibbi’s Rolling Stone piece is a deep dive into a Pentagon so massive, murky and impenetrable, that it cannot be audited even after having spent hundreds of millions of dollars on auditors — so much money, in fact, that auditors should now themselves be seen as part of the military-industrial-congressional complex. This is a Pentagon that has no idea how much money it has where; that loses track routinely of billions of dollars of inventory; and that infuriates critics in Congress on both the left and right, who seem powerless to do anything but give it more and more money.

“Over and over again, we’ve been told we cannot afford to guarantee health care as a right, make public colleges tuition-free, or seriously address any of the needs of the working class,” says Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “When it comes to the massive waste, fraud and abuse at the Pentagon, there’s a deafening silence.”

So there it is — the news from RESOLUTE BAY, Canada. The ice is melting, the Russians are coming. The conflict is global, every part of the Earth — the top part, and the bottom part too. But we shall not cede any of the icy expanse! We need more icebreakers, more dog sleds, more shaggy reindeer. We need reheatable drinking cups at $1,280 each and 3-D printed toilet seat covers at $10,000 each. We need more of your money — more, more! Yes, the erratic U.S. president says “it’s much better if we all got together and we didn’t make these weapons,” and China and Russia immediately publicly agree, and yes the progressive Democratic candidates wonder if we couldn’t use some of the missing tens of billions of Pentagon dollars for, you know, medicine, and education, but that’s just the occasional 3–5 paragraphs on Reuters, who reads Reuters? Onward! Mush! Mush!

Matt Bivens, MD

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Born in DC, studied at UNC-Chapel Hill, now living in Massachusetts. ER physician, EMS medical director, recovering newspaper journalist & Russia-watcher.