The senator from the great state of New York had been droning on for over five minutes; droning about drones.
Bird McIntyre sat in the first row behind his boss, the recipient of the senatorial cataract of words. He scribbled a note on a piece of paper and passed it forward.
Chick Devlin glanced at the note. He let the senator continue for several more mind-numbing minutes so as not to appear prompted by Bird's note. Finally, seizing on an ellipsis, he leaned forward into the microphone across the green-baize-covered table and said, "Senator, pardon my French, but isn't the whole point to scare the shit out of them?"
The committee collectively stiffened. One senator laughed. Several smiled or suppressed smiles; some pretended not to be amused; some were actually not amused. Not that it mattered: This was a closed hearing, no cameras or media in attendance.
"If I may, Senator," continued Devlin, chief executive officer of the aerospace giant Groepping-Sprunt, "the idea that a predator drone should be unobtrusive, some speck in the sky, so as not to alarm the general public..." He smiled and shook his head. "Forgive my asking, but who the heck wrote the specs for that paradigm? Look here, we're talking about a part of the world where one third of the so-called general public is in their kitchen making IEDs to kill American soldiers. Another third are on the Internet recruiting suicide bombers. And the last third are on cell phones planning the next 9/11. These are the people we don't want to alarm?" He sat back in his chair, shaking his head in puzzlement. "Or am I missing something here?"
"Mr. Devlin," said the senator, straining a bit obviously for the satanic homonym, "we are talking about a predator drone the size of a commercial airliner. Of a jumbo jet. A drone, by the way, that may or may not" — she jabbed an accusatory finger in the direction of the neat, blue-uniformed air force general sitting beside Devlin — "be nuclear-capable. I say 'may or may not' because I can't seem to get a straight answer from the air force."
The general leaned into his microphone to protest but was waved away by the senator before he could achieve takeoff.
"So I'm asking you, Mr. Devlin: What kind of signal does this send to the world? That the United States would launch these huge, unpiloted — "
"Sentinels? Sentinels? Come on, Mr. Devlin, these are killing machines. Not even H. G. Wells could have come up with something like this. Read your own specs. No, on second thought allow me."
The senator put on her bifocals and read aloud: "'Hellfire missiles, Beelzebub Gatling gun. Seven thousand rounds per second. Depleted-uranium armor-piercing projectiles. CBUs.' CBUs — that would be cluster bombs — "
"Senator," Devlin cut in, "Groepping-Sprunt did not make the world we live in. Groepping-Sprunt — if I may, ma'am — does not make U.S. foreign policy. That we leave to such distinguished public servants as yourself. What we do make are systems to help America cope with the challenges of the world we inhabit."
"Please don't interrupt me, Mr. Devlin," the senator shot back, returning to her reading material. "What about this so-called Adaptable Payload Package? 'Adaptable Payload Package.' There's an ambiguous term if ever I heard one. No wonder it's got General Wheary there talking out of both sides of his mouth."
"Senator, if I might — " General Wheary tried again.
"No, General. You had your chance. Now I'm asking Mr. Devlin — for the last time — what kind of signal does it send to the world that we would deploy such an awful symbol, such a device — a device by the way you have the gall to designate 'Dumbo.' Dumbo!" she snorted. "Dumbo! This, sir, is a creature from hell."
"Senator, with respect," Devlin said, "the platform is designated MQ-9B. Dumbo is merely a..."
Bird McIntyre nodded thoughtfully, as if he were hearing the name Dumbo for the first time. In fact, the name was his suggestion. If the idea is to render a breathtakingly large and lethal killing machine (as the senator would say) sound less lethal, what better name than the Disney's cuddly pachyderm? Bird had considered "Cuddles," but that seemed a bit much.
"...a nickname," Devlin continued, "like, say, 'Dragon Lady' for the U-2 spy plane or BUFF, 'Big Ugly Fat Fellow,' for the B-52 bomber. Military vehicles all have nicknames. But as to your question — what kind of signal does it send? I would say the answer is — a serious signal. A very serious signal. If I for one were a member of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda or some other sworn enemy of freedom and the American Way, and I looked up from the table in my IED lab and saw Dumbo — if you prefer, the MQ-9B — blotting out the sun and preparing to obliterate me and introduce me to Allah, I believe I might just consider taking up another line of work."
A murmur went through the committee.
Bird nodded, well pleased by his ventriloquism. Devlin's speech was almost word for word from Bird's briefing book — Tab "R."
Groepping-Sprunt was Bird McIntyre's largest account. And the Dumbo contract was a biggie — $3.4 billion worth of appropriations. Bird had worked furiously on the public-awareness campaign. For the past several weeks, every TV watcher in the Greater Washington, D.C., Area, every newspaper or magazine reader, bus-stop passerby, Internet browser, sports spectator, and subway rider — all their eyeballs and ears had been assailed by messages showing Dumbo — MQ-9B — aloft, soaring through serene blue air high above the piney mountains of the California Sierra Nevada, looking for all the world like a great big friendly flying toy that might have dropped out of Santa's sleigh. Bird had proposed painting the fuselage in a soothing shade of teal. Beneath the photo were these words:
DUMBO: CAN AMERICA AFFORD NOT TO DEPLOY HER?
The problem was money. The appropriations climate on Capitol Hill these days was brutal. The Pentagon was drowning in health-care costs, administration costs, war costs. Cutback time. They were even pensioning off admirals and generals. Not since the end of the Cold War had so many military been given the heave-ho: an aggregate of over three hundred stars so far.
Meanwhile defense lobbyists were scrambling. In happier times, getting approval for a Dumbo-type program would have consisted of a couple of meetings, a few pro forma committee hearings, handshakes all round, and off to an early lunch. Now? Sisyphus had it easier.
From They Eat Puppies, Don't They? by Christopher Buckley. Copyright 2012 by Christopher Taylor Buckley. Excerpted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group.