The Cycle of Catastrophic Failure
by Robert M. Herzog
It would almost be comforting to think that the coronavirus pandemic and in particular the many faceted inept response to it, was a chaotic event, springing unpredictably out of nowhere. There’s a branch of mathematics called chaos theory which, much as it sounds, says that every now and then something occurs which is unexpected, non-linear, can’t be extracted from past performance, flies off the charts. But the sad fact is that America has suffered through catastrophic failures of management in this country repeatedly.
These failures cut across party and ideological lines, propelled by a commonality of ego, greed, willful ignoring of facts, and just plain stupidity. The main difference is that in the current crisis the consequences of our particular brand of arrogance and incompetence have more directly fatal consequences on our people, our economy, and our social structure. But it is not an aberration, rather an extreme.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson, newly President due to John Kennedy’s assassination, was concerned about his reelection prospects being dimmed by being viewed as “soft on communism.” So he participated in and drove a sham process, based on false reports of a North Vietnamese attack on a US naval ship, that led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution empowering him to send troops to Vietnam. While knowledgeable members of the administration already expressed the futility of starting a war with North Vietnam, Johnson proceeded, and under his watch tens of thousands of US troops began to march into the abyss.
Political ego combined with promoting, in the absence of any evidence, the self-serving justification to the nation of the wild and discredited domino theory, that if South Vietnam went communist so would not only the rest of Asia but South and Central America. This toxic mishmash drove American foreign affairs for the next decade.
One’s blood boils to hear Robert McNamara speak, in the Fog of War documentary, about the Johnson administration’s persistent ignoring of the realities of a ground war in Vietnam. For his own political purposes, Nixon continued and escalated the war, all the while relying with an open eye on the false reports of favorable body counts and the prospects of winning from besotted generals such as William Westmoreland, whose early predictions of victory if only we sent more troops ultimately led to 58,000 Americans killed and 300,000 American wounded. And the terrible toll on civilians, over 2 million, as well as a total of 1.1 million combatants.
It took until 1975, 11 years of lies, arrogance and stupidity, largely in service of venal political purposes, before the US withdrew, achieving no objectives other than the destruction of America’s ability to project its values in the world.
This pattern of willful deceit, abominable planning, ignoring realities, and terrible execution, played out again when George Bush squandered the sympathy and support of the world, and the pursuit of actual enemies of the state, to falsify reasons to invade Iraq. There were no weapons of mass destruction there; as heinous as Saddam Hussain was there was no justification to attack him, and as in Afghanistan there was no thought or plan on how to maintain any stability in a region we had no comprehension of or standing in.
Over 4,000 Americans killed and 31,000 wounded under these pretenses would be bad enough, but worse when compounded the hundreds of thousands of civilian killed and casualties in the war, the complete failure of post-war planning, and the consequent rise of ISIS in response to the US invasion. All testimony to yet another elongated avoidable catastrophe perpetrated by arrogant, incompetent public managers, guided by political and financial objectives while blinding themselves to realities that knowledgeable people portrayed.
Prior to the Iraq War, there was the failure of our purported intelligence agencies who ignored all the warning signs that preceded 9/11. Such as Middle Eastern men in flight training schools, including Zacarias Moussaoui, already on a terrorist watch list and a mastermind of the plot, and direct reports, based on prior attacks and ongoing information, of bin Laden’s intent on attacking US soil — nobody collated these data points nor responded to them in any way.
When the financial crisis erupted in 2008, why did auto companies also require bailouts? Because for years their managements ignored the signals the market was sending, about what kind of cars people wanted, what they didn’t, in the wake of rising oil prices, changing tastes, and the better reliability and fuel efficiency which foreign manufacturers were providing. They kept pouring out what they had always produced, while pushing the same bad loans as their financial counterparts. Requiring billions of dollars to avoid bankruptcy and the threatened loss of jobs.
And of course the collective avarice, the cupidity of the great companies of finance, creating houses of cards nested within each other by the billions. Complex financial instruments dreamed up to bilk 11 million home owners who were left high and dry while the perpetrators of this mass fraud were bailed out by their colleagues who were then in high government positions.
Repeatedly, the perpetrators of failures not only go unpunished, but also they often benefit. This lack of accountability is yet another barrier to the development of better processes, as it provides no incentive for improvement and indeed a perverse incentive to more or less carry on.
The nation endures because of the great depth of its resources, the resilience of our people, its immense inherent wealth that enables us to survive these crises. The polity endures because of its capacity to ignore or exploit so many of its citizens, inured to their cries of pain and distress when they lose their houses, can’t pay for their health, find their homes swept out from under them, see their jobs and dignity shipped overseas, as globalization succors the lust of capital at the expense of labor. Perpetuated by leaders wrapped in cocoons of their own devising that preserve them in their sanctuaries.
So it’s an occasion for dismay but not surprise, this latest in this series of cataclysmic failures. In the current instance, government failed to prepare for and adequately respond to a pandemic it was forewarned about, not just this January, but over the past decades of outbreaks that foretold the need to prepare. What’s different is a matter of scale and hurt, but not one of type and category.
What exacerbates the current circumstance is that the people in government now don’t believe in government. They sought power with the goal of limiting government’s powers and influence, just at a time when a crisis has occurred at a scale and type that only government can address. Thanks to them, societal mores must be abandoned, systems decimated, the depth of this catastrophe still unfolding.
Decent management involves the analysis of facts, the weighing of options against desired outcomes, making choices that best reflect important but obtainable goals, thorough planning to achieve those goals, and flexibility to respond to challenges, new issues and changing circumstances. In other words, the exact opposite of what the government has repeatedly provided its purported constituents.
While it is tempting to look for patterns or correlations, epic failures, the inability to rise to an occasion vs. exploiting it, cut across party, ideological, and other grounds, and are measured by outcomes, not particular inputs. They are more a result of human natures than specific subsets, this inability to establish a genuinely thoughtful response, the lack of preparedness and reasoned response in the face of information that was contrary to their biases.
If they have something in common, it is that the person or people in authority were allowed or enabled to proceed unchecked, decisions unexamined and/or unchallenged. How few were those who knew better and spoke out, resigned, shouted, and how ineffective in any event they were, with power structures so heavily weighted at the top, where men were, at the end of the day, just men.
The pandemic will come and go. The self-serving lies, the incompetence coddled by greed and arrogance, are endemic, and require a very different kind of cure.
If you found this worthwhile, check out my new book, Views from the Side Mirror: Essaying America, which ranks highly on Amazon in Political Commentary and Historical Essays, and and I’d love to hear what you think about it.