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The Strategy Of Survival
A lifelong student of military history and affairs says that nuclear weapons have made the idea of war absurd. And it is precisely when everyone agrees that war is absurd that one gets started.
July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
Yes. America remains the freest society in the world, not only because of the absence of police control but in the sense that more Americans are willing to spend more of their time totally rethinking and reevaluating what they’re doing and how they’re doing. They’re willing to move thousands of miles to change jobs; no other society is quite like this. This is the least rigid society. This brings many problems, because it is a rootless society, an alienated society, but it is also a society with tremendous advantages. One of them is free-floating creativity and innovation. Yankee ingenuity writ large. If—and this is a truly huge “if"—we were essentially able to disestablish the very slow, rigid, infinitely inert and bureaucratic acquisition system, we could have a tremendous advantage in research and development. I’m not talking here about some magic innovations but just general creativity of the sort that is manifested in areas that are not bureaucratically controlled.
It was not IBM that innovated massively with the micro-computers that fed the home computer revolution; it was a peripheral mass of people who did it, exploiting environmental advantages present in American society that the Japanese, the Germans, and the French do not have. If we are somehow able to bypass the Pentagon’s bureaucratized research and development apparatus, which forces resources into incremental improvements of existing weapon configurations because they’re the favorite cavalry of the cavalry generals and the admirals, we ought to be able to recover.
When you see a documentary of the Second World War and you see the most banal images of, let’s say, American forces advancing, you see tank transporters, fuel tankers, half-tracks, bulldozers, tanks, tank destroyers. AH these were improvised, almost overnight. There was a proliferation of equipment that was workable, practical, ingenious, innovative. That was the genuine expression of the inherent superiority of American society.
You might say, with spiritual black humor, that it took the tremendous ingenuity of another group of Americans, that it took a tremendous bureaucratic perversion to finally strangle this ability to innovate. We have almost achieved it. Where we spend the most money we innovate the least. Take again the example of the aircraft carrier. The angled deck: a British innovation. As is the whole landing system. And the steam catapults. The Navy developed no part of the aircraft carrier. It couldn’t, precisely because it was focusing on it in a narrow-minded, incremental way.
Actually, the same qualities that give us innovation, which is ultimately this exceptionally self-confident belief in the value of individual lives and all those other things that are the basis of creativity, the same qualities have a perverse effect, because everything has to be legal and fair, and so elaborately fair that it conspires to create the slowest and most stultifying acquisitions procedures, to strangle everything, to systematically divert resources from the important to the unimportant. Because it is so hard to do anything new, you embellish the old. And everything is slowed down because of infinite care to avoid waste, fraud, and mismanagement, so you don’t give authority to any official. This is research and development not by men but by laws, and the effect of these laws is to slow everything down to the point that you do not get any advantage from being Americans.
That’s where the huge potential is. If you turned over the problem of stopping Soviet tanks to small engineering outfits and machine shops, to little companies in Silicon Valley, they’d figure out a way to do it. I don’t know what it would look like. I couldn’t begin to imagine. But I’ll tell you one thing: It wouldn’t look anything like what the Pentagon is doing now.