September 10, 2003

"But what possible use could the U.S. Army have for a four-engine transport?"

I was tracking my muddy footprints into the comments section of a Dave Trowbridge post, and he responded to me by bemoaning the "lack of planning and general fecklessness of the administration." I had to scratch my head at that because I'm just now immersed in some real fecklessness. I'm reading the autobiography of Eddie Rickenbacker, right at the point where he is in despair over the wretched condition of US military aviation just before we were plunged into World War Two.

I sometimes think my friend Dave's a big-government guy. Not any real big government, I scurry to add. But there's a kind of Platonic Ideal Big Government lurking in the back of his mind, and so he's always baffled and disappointed by the sausage-making muddle and compromise of actual administrations and politicians.

It's the kind of thing you absorb from reading the broad-brush type of history book. Kings and generals issue commands, arrows show armies moving across the map and empires expanding or contracting. It's easy to believe that history is driven by rational choices. But if you look at the same events more microscopically; if you read so-and-so's memoirs of life in the 399th Regiment, or of working in the Iteration Department of the Ministry of Recursions, you ALWAYS encounter confusion, incompetence, muddle and mistakes. Later the historians come and impose order on the march of events.

Me, I'm convinced that most of what governments (and many other human institutions ) achieve, is done by sense of touch, like a blind man groping in an unfamiliar room, and pulling his hands back when they get burned or scratched. The important metric for judging institutions is not how well they see into the future, but how well they adapt and learn when they smack into it in the dark.

To perhaps put Dave's comments into perspective, (or maybe even make him feel better about current events) I've jotting down a few examples of feckless ill-planning that are actually big enough to show on the seismograph. Starting with the words of Rickenbacker. (A fascinating man, by the way. His famous exploits in WWI form just a small part of a rich life.)

...It was the airlines, as I have already recounted, that worked with Don Douglas on the development of the DC-1, the DC-2 and the famous DC-3, or "C-47," as it was known in the military.

When Douglas first started drawing up plans for a larger plane, with the increased payload and dependability that four engines could provide, he attempted to interest the military services in it. He was turned down cold. An Army general asked him, in all seriousness, "But what possible use could the U.S. Army have for a four-engine transport?"

I went to the top brass in the Air Corps, including Hap Arnold, by that time a Brigadier General, and told them bluntly that they ought to order one thousand of those planes. They laughed at me, just as they had laughed at Douglas. It was only through the financial support of the airlines that Douglas was able to complete the design and development of his four-engine plane. It was the DC-4 or C-54. Its praises were never sung as loudly as those of the C-47, the "Gooney Bird" as it was affectionately known, but the C-54, because of its greater capacity, had a large share in winning the war... [there's lots more along this line. Appalling stuff.]

Now, a few other examples off the top of my head...

The American Civil War. Both sides thought the war would be short. Both sides were sure the tactics of Napoleon, as related by Jomini, would be the secret of success. No one dreamed that the Minie Ball and the steam engine would transform war. No one expected that many of the most effective generals would emerge from the ruthless guerilla warfare in Missouri and Kansas. Both sides were extremely reluctant to adopt repeating rifles.

And when the war degenerated into stalemate and trench warfare at Petersburg, the many European observers assumed that Americans were incompetent soldiers. None dreamed that they were seeing their own grim future.

And when that future arrived, in 1914, the meticulous planning of the German Staff was impressive and effective. But neither they nor anyone else guessed that their powerful new weapons would utterly change warfare. And that the changes would preponderantly favor the defensive, leading almost immediately to stalemate. The Germans refused to recognize the importance of the tank. No one foresaw the rapid development of aviation. The Germans introduced poison gas, without pondering that the prevailing winds in France would blow most of it in their direction.

The American planning failures of World War One are so monumental it's almost impossible to get a grasp on them or list them. President Wilson not only blocked all warlike preparations, in the insane belief that this would foster peace, but American officers were discouraged from even learning about the war raging in Europe! Few of them knew more than what was in the papers.

In World War Two, the Japanese grasped, brilliantly, the importance of the aircraft carrier. Then at Pearl Harbor, they used them to sink the battleships that they were, at that very instant, making obsolete. They perfected carrier warfare, but at the start of the war were only graduating 100 new pilots a year. The Germans were far and away the best planners, but refused to admit the possibility that their machine ciphers could be broken, as did the Japanese. And,of course, the ways in which the Allies prepared to re-fight WWI are too many and painful to repeat. George Patton dreamed of tanks and blitzkrieg, and was ignored. He also invented a new cavalry sabre, which was received with glad cries, and became standard in our (horse) cavalry...

Vietnam. Just one thought. Our leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, were bewitched by the seeming success of big government in WWII. None of them thought that the alternative to Communist big-government could be anything except Capitalist big-government. No one even considered offering the South Vietnamese people a small-government low-tax low-regulation alternative...

Posted by John Weidner at September 10, 2003 8:23 AM
Weblog by John Weidner