By Johna Till Johnson
From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Changes in Military Communications, by Clarence E. McKnight and Hank H. Cox. History Publishing Company, Palisades, New York, 2013.
Okay, I know I have weird tastes in reading material. But when I picked up “From Pigeons to Tweets”, I didn’t expect what I actually got.
The subtitle is “A General Who Led Dramatic Changes in Military Communications”, and the author is Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight Jr. (along with journalist Hank H. Cox).
Given that, plus the relatively staid promotional blurbs from a range of military luminaries, I was expecting a dry treatise on the history of military communications technology.
That would have been interesting enough. I’m fascinated by military technology in general, and military communications technology in particular. (I told you I have weird tastes!)
What I got was (in part) a rollicking and thoroughly absorbing memoir by a man who rose to the highest ranks of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps (the branch that focuses on communications technology) and who had a reputation for hands-on effectiveness in setting up communications systems. (“McKnight could communicate from Hell,” says one of his colleagues—as a compliment.)
McKnight lived through some of the darkest moments in US military history (he served in both Korea and Vietnam) and suffered significant personal tragedy. For that alone—plus his passion, idealism, and wicked sense of humor—the book would be worth reading.
But the book is far more than just a memoir. McKnight has important, interesting things to say about everything from effective organizational structure to engineering, education, and politics. One of his (many) themes, for instance, is that “things” (whether information, weaponry, or gear) constantly tend to overwhelm the systems created to transport them (whether communications systems or physical transport systems). And that this tension is a fundamental characteristic of human endeavors—the more we’re able to transport, the more we will create to transport (again, whether what we’re transporting is data or physical stuff). So technical solutions are, and always will be, only a partial fix.
And he explains this with deadpan humor. Here he’s describing a challenge early in his career to determine whether the Big Red One, a famous Army division, was transportable by air:
The Air Force was feeling its oats and contended it could move the division all by itself. So we set out to determine if that were true. One of our first tasks was to lay all of the components of this division, equipment and personnel out on the ground so the Air Force brass could get a good look at what a full division consisted of…
It extended for over two miles.
It was winter, the vehicles were running. Exhaust fumes created clouds. It must have looked like the evacuation of Dunkirk from the air… [Army General] Paul D. Adams… leaned over to [Air Force General] Curtis LeMay and said, “Okay Curt, that’s a division, haul it!”
I do believe LeMay almost swallowed his cigar.
In another example, he recounts his only “war” wound—getting hit by a Jeep being transported aboard a C-30 airplane, which pins him to the fuselage during an abrupt landing. Although the injury is ironic, it’s also real—as he points out, transporting things carries a cost, and the risk of harm.
Another facet I appreciated is that, so far as I can tell, he gets the small details correct. For instance, he correctly notes that ARPANET—the precursor to the Internet—was originally created to link scientific researchers, not (as the urban myth holds) to create a network that would survive nuclear attack. (It’s true that the original military funders noticed pretty quickly that the network’s architecture made it unusually resilient, and pressed the designers to accelerate their work in that direction—but the original impetus was to create a research network.)
Then there’s the sheer charm of his personality, particularly his open-mindedness (not a trait you stereotypically associate with Army officers). For instance, he’s a devout Baptist who credits his ability to survive and thrive to his faith in God… and his practice of Transcendental Meditation. And who doesn’t blink an eye when one of his daughters converts (temporarily as it happens) to Mormonism. And in another flash of dry humor, he—or his co-author—starts a rather balanced chapter about Wernher von Braun with an excerpt from the satirical song by Tom Lehrer.
Of course senior military officers tend to be political creatures, but how can you not like a man whose heroes include both (liberal) J. K. Galbraith and (conservative) Ronald Reagan? Better still, he praises President Reagan (correctly in my view) for ending the Cold War, but also disparages (again, correctly in my view) Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”) and goes on to say “The greatest threat to our way of life is not terrorism, but ignorance, poverty… and corruption.”
If you’re getting the idea that I loved this book, you’re right.
It was totally not what I expected—except for one thing. I did learn quite a bit about military communications systems, including the titular pigeons. McKnight really did have experience with carrier pigeons, early in his career, in Korea, when they were still deployed as a backup communications system.
We had them in a cage at corps headquarters well to the rear… We drove them up to the front in Jeeps and put test messages in little capsules attached to them and set them free with instructions to go back to headquarters. “Go that way,” I said, pointing.
Most of them made it…
If you have any interest in military technology, political history, or simply good memoirs—I highly recommend this book.