[lit-ideas] Re: Piggy-eyed wonder

  • From: John McCreery <mccreery@xxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 27 May 2004 15:06:12 +0900

On 2004/05/27, at 4:53, John Wager wrote:

> The Pentagon is usually accused of being TOO concerned with
> hypotheticals, or in your terms, it's TOO feminine. They have
> hypothetical solutions to hypothetical problems like nobody else. And
> they plan for hypothetical unforeseen circumstances to hypothetical
> problems.  There are teams of "players" who role-play adversaries, so
> that each side can do the unexpected. Some brass get to play Al Qeda
> operatives, I'm sure.  The point is that this Republican president has 
> a
> Republican staff with almost no real understanding of the workings of
> the military.  Not since the Democrat MacNamara has the Pentagon been 
> as
> badly led and badly served.  The military is trained to follow orders
> from the civilian leadership, though, no matter how vexing or stupid, 
> so
> they have gone to war.

This discussion addresses a question that might be framed as "How can 
political leaders be so stupid?"

Answers so far include

(1) An hypothesis about male vs. female thinking habits, and
(2) "a  Republican staff with almost no real understanding of the 
workings of the military."

I would judge (2) a better answer than (1) but suggest a fuller 
analysis along the lines pursued by the sociology of knowledge.

I am talking about analysis that begins from the observation that what 
counts as "knowledge" is unevenly distributed in all societies and the 
"knowledge" operating in any social situation depends on the social 
actors involved and where they are positioned in the social networks 
through which "knowledge" is (or, more importantly for the case in 
hand, may not be) distributed.

I became acutely aware of this issue while pondering a remark made by 
the late Lauriston Sharp in a seminar that I took my first year at 
Cornell in 1966. Sharp was an eminent Southeast Asianist, and he noted 
that when the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed only three American 
scholars could speak and read Vietnamese and two were archeologists. I 
then asked myself what were the odds of LBJ, a man who had spent his 
career in Texas and then Senate politics, knowing anything about Asia? 
Not bloody likely, I thought. But what about his advisors? There may 
have been a few specialists in China or Japan buried deep in the State 
Department or in the intelligence services, but it would have been a 
miracle, indeed, if any of them had been in the inner circle where 
LBJ's views were formed and reinforced. (The expertise that had once 
existed had been largely decimated during the McCarthy era and an era 
of "Better Dead than Red" knee-jerk anti-Communism had not been an 
environment friendly to the creation of sophisticated understanding.)

What, then, of MacNamara? He and his Ford whiz-kids were experts in 
mathematical operations analysis, which is rooted in the rational 
choice assumptions of classical economics, practitioners of what was 
surely, to both LBJ and his confidantes, an arcane mystery that was, 
however, blessed with the aura of "Science and Technology"(both widely 
seen as the engines of the progress advertised by General Electric and 
embodied in Disney's Epcot Center).

Neither the wholly American political street smarts that made LBJ a 
successful politician nor the operations analysis that made MacNamara 
seem a high priest of the flourishing religion of Science had room for 
the idea that Vietnamese would prove more persistently dedicated to 
their local versions of patriotic values than their would-be 
liberators--uncompromising in a manner neither "politically smart" nor 
"economically rational." The rest is history.

What we need think carefully about is how men blinded by Christian 
and/or market fundamentalism reached positions of power where they were 
able to isolate themselves from all sorts of potentially useful advice, 
from all across the political spectrum, concerning the sorts of 
problems that we have now, yes indeed, run into in Iraq.

John L. McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd.
55-13-202 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama, Japan 220-0006

Tel 81-45-314-9324
Email mccreery@xxxxxxx

"Making Symbols is Our Business"

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