Saturday, December 05, 2020

Why bureaucracies fail: Politics and enforced solidarity

When Gen. George Marshall became Army Chief of Staff in 1939, the US was at best, a fourth rate power. Portugal, Romania, and Bulgaria all fielded larger, better equipped armies.

Given time Selective Service would supply the men; the US economy would provide the weapons. The key challenge Marshall faced was finding the right men to lead the divisions, corps and field armies that would go to Europe to face the Wehrmacht.

As Tom Ricks points out in this lecture, Marshall embarked on a process of ruthless winnowing and culling. He expected his generals to perform; those who failed to do so were quickly replaced.

Ricks contrasts this winning approach to war-making with the less impressive performance of the recent past. From Korea to Iraq, the US Army has become more tolerant of failure, and, as night follows day, less successful in her wars.

How did this happen? Why, with Marshall's example to guide it, did the US Army learn to accept mediocrity? Rick's offers one interesting reason: it is harder to relieve generals in an unpopular war.

One can see the logic. The public acknowledgment of failure – even the failure one individual – might strengthen the opponents of the war and the critics of the senior commanders. There is a powerful incentive to avoid controversy and hope for the best. When an embattled organization circles the wagons, it winds up protecting its worst performers. The competent and talented become hostage to the weak and mistake-prone.

This phenomenon shows up repeatedly and not only in the military. The British intelligence agencies were driven by the same dynamic as they uncovered traitors in their ranks. Again and again MI5 and MI6 showed more concern about the reaction in Parliament than with the harm done by the spies. They were keen to keep their American allies in the dark even if that meant that systemic failures had to be covered up and papered over. To the Whitehall mandarins reform and criticism was more dangerous than Stalin and the KGB.

This also helps to explain why journalism has been unable to reform themselves or even correct their most egregious failures. As the public loses trust in the media, the industry feels compelled to admit to no mistakes for fear of hurting journalism's reputation and strengthening its enemies. The guild rushes to protect every member no matter how much it costs the industry in public trust.

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