Thursday, September 08, 2005

Return of another Vietnam syndrome

Most of the better histories of Vietnam highlight the fact that the brass micro-managed the war and robbed small unit commanders of their initiative. A captain in a firefight soon found his radio crackling with messages, advice, and questions. Battalion and brigade headquarters wanted updates. On a bad day, his division commander would soon be circling the battlefield in a chopper. Saigon might join in. Instead of leading, the hapless company commander was briefing his chain of command while the bullets were flying.

Later, everyone seemed to agree that it was no way to run a war.

Today the media, with its instant global reach, forces the military to repeat those mistakes.

Al Jazeera reports that Marines fired on a mosque. CNN has pictures of a car shot at a checkpoint. Reporters clamor of answers at the White House, Pentagon, and CENTCOM HQ. Investigations are promised; information is gathered.

What does that mean for the men at the tip of the spear?

The same thing is happening in Louisiana. The cameras capture sickening images, the reporters profess outrage, the whole world sees and hears. Politicians pontificate and pundits lay blame. Answers are demanded.

There is no context nor is there any understanding of the vast logistical obstacles that the responders face. At the heart of the outrage is a collective confusion. Everybody on TV seems to think that everything that is desirable is always feasible. If it is feasible then every delay must be evidence of misfeasance or malfeasance. While we search for the guilty parties, we add to the friction that those on the ground face as they try to bring order out of chaos. Yes, lives are at stake, but all the yapping and faultfinding is not saving anyone.

Von Moltke said that no plan survives contact with the enemy. This is as true for disaster response as for a military campaign. Von Moltke's solution was to create an army whose officers could improvise when faced with the unexpected. But improvisation is career suicide when the media is second guessing every step of the process.

Responding to the Monday morning quarterbacks sucks up time, attention, and critical resources. At the tip of the spear, all of these are scarce and should not be squandered humoring the likes of Scarborough, Grace, or Greenfield.

UPDATE: This is a great discussion of the real world logistics involved in a seemingly inexplicable delay.

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