Saturday, August 11, 2007

Seinfeld and the Military-Industrial Complex

I was poking around on the website of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency the other day (don't ask), and found myself reading about a project called Intestinal Fortitude. While naturally every word of a DARPA project summary is gripping, this passage in particular caught my eye:

To increase the amount of energy available to the soldier from either food rations or nontraditional foodstuffs, the program explores the use of cellulose-degrading beneficial bacteria in the gut. These novel “fibr-biotics” are able to break down non-digestible fiber (cellulose and hemicellulose) into glucose, which can be directly absorbed for energy. When added to the diet of deployed soldiers, these novel fibr-biotics will be able convert non-digestible fiber into usable energy.

Cellulose is one of the primary components of grass and leaves. In other words, when the soldier of the future runs out of field rations, he's going to be able to graze. The DARPA summary says little about the current state of this project. But then a friend suggested I search the incomparable Danger Room, Wired's military and national security blog, where I discover that I am, as usual, behind the times. Intestinal Fortitude was not the entire project, merely the name of phase one, which was wrapped up in March 2007. Under a DARPA contract, scientists at the Agricultural Research Service sorted through pig manure, isolating 'degrading bacteria' to figure out why our porcine brethren can digest things we can't. In phase 2, scientists are examining human feces, isolating potential fibr-biotics.

In other words, they want to make the human digestive tract (or at least some human digestive tracts) more like a pig's. Now this is far from full-blown hybridization, but the project inevitably brings to mind the Seinfeld episode, "The Bris," in which Kramer thinks he's seen a human-pig hybrid in a hospital:

Kramer: I'm tellin' ya! The pigman is alive. The government's been experimenting with pigmen since the fifties.
Jerry: Will you stop it. Just because a hospital gets a grant to study DNA doesn't mean they are creating a race of mutant pigmen.
Kramer: Oh, Jerry. Would you wake up to reality! It's a military thing. They're probably creating a whole army of pig warriors.
The question of the hour, ladies and gentleman: is DARPA so desperate for ideas they're stealing them from Seinfeld? While I am one of those who has long held that Seinfeld was one of the best American television shows of all time, I'm not sure that qualifies it to play an even marginal role in national security efforts. I re-read the script of the episode "The Masseuse," (which deals with Jerry's 13-year no-vomiting streak), to see if it could possibly have provided any inspiration for the Navy's vomit beam.* No dice (it was a long shot, I realize).

I won't say rest easy. But perhaps we should rest a little less uneasily with my modest evidence that military scientific research isn't solely inspired by Larry David. Still, American military and political affairs have an air of unreality, to say the least. The great war news this month was that U.S. casualties were down in July, so the 'surge' must be working. However, casualties have dropped during July since the war began--nobody wants to fight when it's 120 degrees. Back home, the Supreme Court spent its time this summer debating whether "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" is constitutionally protected speech. And currently the campaign of a half-African presidential candidate is dogged by the question "Is he black enough?"

Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld may not be the minds behind the latest military research, but somewhere along the way our national life really did get to be a show about nothing.

*Thanks to my friend KT for alerting me to the existence of the vomit beam. Or as she put it, "I'll see your grazing soldier and raise you one puke gun."

1 comment:

Angela said...

This is hilarious.

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