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The buck stops where?

By Terry Graves
web posted May 24, 2004

Many years ago the lecturer in a political science course I was taking remarked to our class that he had helped design for the U.S. government something called the Hamlet Evaluation Survey. The play wasn't the thing: the government intended that the Survey help track the progress of the pacification program in Vietnam. As it happens, not long before taking the course I had been one of an advisory team tasked with completing the Survey for our rural district. We were to rate numerically dozens of villages in everything from morale to security to sanitation. Computers back in Washington were then to collate hundreds of such reports, giving our government, if not a finger on the pulse of pacification, at least a thumb in its eye. However, by then, after 25 years of warfare, most of the villages about which the Survey demanded ratings either no longer existed or never had, at least not under the names it supplied. Vietnamese Brigadoons. There were hamlets we could identify with certainty, but these we had seldom seen except from the air or while on patrol -- it is difficult to search for septic systems and for booby traps with quite the same degree of concentration. No matter: our team's orders were to complete this detailed Survey, so we did -- by rolling dice. Likely all over Vietnam that week dice were being rolled, coins tossed, and darts thrown, all to complete the Hamlet Evaluation Survey.

I did not have the heart to tell any of this to the lecturer. In that hostile university setting, his public admission of any involvement with the Vietnam War had taken considerable courage. (And not just moral: about the same time left-wing students assaulted the course's other lecturer, a New Left theoretician, for, apparently, not being New enough.) I dredge it up now only to illustrate something about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal: those nominally in charge of any large organization seldom know what their underlings are doing, and billions of bytes of computerized data too often merely give them the dangerous illusion that they do.

Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on that he took full responsibility for the scandal
Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on that he took full responsibility for the scandal

This is an illusion believed less (I hope) by those in charge of an organization than by those outside it. Otherwise reasonable people who have no idea what their sixteen-year old daughter is up to on a given evening will nevertheless believe that a Secretary of Defense must know what all his millions of subordinates are doing every day. As the AP reported, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would seem to agree, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee, "These events occurred on my watch. As secretary of defense, I am accountable for them. I take full responsibility." However, he later continued, "I would not resign simply because people try to make a political issue out of it."

Commenting on the scandal, Senator John Kerry went further, saying, "The chain of command goes all the way to the Oval Office. Harry Truman did not say the buck stops at the Pentagon." (Actually, Truman did not say "The buck stops here," either. The saying was sometimes displayed on his desk, on a sign a friend gave him in 1945, after the friend saw a similar one in, coincidentally, a Federal prison.) If one follows Kerry's notion of the President's total responsibility for a subordinate's actions to its logical conclusion, then Kerry's own Vietnam war medals should have been awarded instead to Richard Nixon, who then would not have had to wait until Kerry threw his Silver Star over the White House fence, which event now seems as mythical as Washington throwing his silver dollar across the Potomac.

A second dangerous illusion is, even if an organization's manager has accurate knowledge, that he can effectively act on it. In the workaday world, a manager is not expected to lead in any personal sense; he merely tries to control and channel his subordinates' activities so that they cannot not adhere to policies, even to, especially, those that are mutually contradictory. He can intensely train and indoctrinate his subordinates, hedge in their actions with guidelines and procedures, and try to check on the results. Yet for the average manager his writ does not extend much past the margins of his scratch pad, because we underling-types have many ways to seem to comply with policy without actually doing so -- lying, for one. Even if we are caught out, there is a complex web of defense against punishment -- unions, organizational politics, civil service rules, human foibles and contrariness, and outside media and political pressure.

The bureaucratic abuses we decry and bungles we mock are characteristic of organizations we all work (and write) for, not just governments. If the reader cannot accept this, let him consider for a moment his own organization, and others he has dealt with, and then try to recall one that he can be certain is not similarly dysfunctional. Those lucky readers who have no truck with organizations -- that is, hermits reared by wolves -- merely need read Dilbert for a few days to get up to speed.

About assigning blame for the scandal, columnist George Will wrote "This nation has always needed an ethic about the resignation of public officials…" who should be "…highly attentive to what is done in their departments — attentive far down the chain of command, as though their very jobs depended on it," because "[w]hen there is no penalty for failure, failures proliferate." The question is still on the table, though: just who failed? Will strongly implied that Rumsfeld should resign and that this would somehow lessen the damage to the war effort -- this no matter that John Kerry will insist on blaming Bush no matter what Rumsfeld does. It is, after all, a year evenly divisible by four. At one time partisan politics stopped at the waterline; now, that is where it begins. This is now understandable, because the two major parties so resemble each other on domestic issues, where they engage in a bidding war for votes, using the voters' own money. With few substantial differences in domestic policy, they must seek, if not manufacture, distinctions in foreign policy.

Will did have a point, for when Rumsfeld shouldered "full responsibility" it was of the lightweight variety that carries with it no consequences for the bearer -- Rumsfeld meant to fall on his scabbard, not on his sword. His acceptance of blame was intended to shield others, in this case President Bush -- just as Kerry's subordinates would assuredly do for him if ever he becomes president, throwing to the media wolves any hapless bureaucrat on the wrong end of a PR disaster. And just why should Secretary Rumsfeld fall on his sword? His acceptance of blame included these words: "These events occurred on my watch," which phrase is truer than he likely intended. Rumsfeld runs the largest organization in the world, and for the reasons noted above the very most he or anyone else can hope to do day-to-day is helplessly "watch" what a few of his immediate staff is up to. Given these limitations, I must ask Rumsfeld's critics what he should have done before the abuse to have prevented it. Surely, with the advantage of hindsight, they should be able to give us specific, realistic instructions, and not vague platitudes about control and discipline. Furthermore, they should try to allow for unintended consequences -- a Pentagon obsessed with, say, treatment of prisoners may be one too distracted to capture any more of them, let alone win a war.

Yet Mr. Will would have his pound of Rumsfeld. Perhaps he, and we, should recall that it takes at least two to make a scandal: one to sin and another to talk about it. So far Abu Ghaib seems to be low-level abuse on a small scale and in disobedience to regulations, and hardly a second Holocaust -- worse than a crime, a blunder. As a former employee of the Federal government, I am bleakly certain there is daily wrongdoing of equal magnitude in every one of its departments, yet this relatively trivial one has received 24-7 endless loop coverage. I recall one talking head on television saying that this war is about symbolism; Will, for one, wants Abu Ghraib to be razed and, I presume, salt sown on its ruins (and in Rumsfeld's front yard). Yet there should be a reality behind the symbols, which should at least approximate that reality and not be mere dismasted, unmoored thought bites drifting around our consciousness, representative of nothing deeper than television ratings, polls, and election-year hypocrisy.

This brings us to the self-fulfilling prophets of the American media, who simultaneously saturate us with stories about Abu Ghraib; term it a PR disaster; and never, ever relate the first activity to the second. (And it is likely that had the military managed to forestall the abuses and disciplined the would-be perpetrators, the spin would have been in favor of the prison guards -- "overreaction of authority, abuse of our GI's," and so on.) Of course, it is not uncommon for members of the press to overrate its importance, to believe that it is for them to start the buck, no matter where it is to stop. Only recently Walter Cronkite said that he wished he had not retired, so he could once again "set the agenda" -- without troubling to explain just who elected him as president or even dogcatcher. (Speaking of journalistic hubris: after watching the recent embarrassingly weak performance of Washington journalists and other movers-and-shakers as Jeopardy contestants, I wonder whether many of them are competent to set their wristwatches, let alone our national agenda.)

Whom to blame for the excesses at Abu Ghraib? (The fan mentality of partisan politics, if nothing else, demands someone to blame.) One writer, Steven Greenhut of the Orange County Register, professed to have been unsurprised by the abuse and blamed government in general and of the military culture in particular: "… the kind of people attracted to such a career are people who: a) Have few other skills or options available to them; b) Like to give or take orders; c) Like to blow things up and kill people; d) Are most comfortable in a highly regimented, bureaucratic environment where they don't have to make nuanced moral distinctions." He opposed the war and wanted the soldiers "brought home, safely, and encouraged to find productive employment at home (and I don't mean police work!)."

Mr. Greenhut's tidy formulations manage to be at once above the battle and below the belt. (Perhaps those unskilled soldiers can be encouraged to settle within commuting distance of Orange County, where they can ease the OC's servant problem.) Anyway, Mr. Greenhut's item c) is irrelevant to the abuses at issue, and the limited options he posits in a) are inconsistent with the supposedly attractive aspects of b) and d). Far more important, most of us Americans, not just soldiers, have few skills or options and must settle, like it or not, for dreary careers in organizations where we give or take orders and make no nuanced moral distinctions: cogs in our "booming economy."

So it is just as meaningful to blame everyone, our whole society, which is to say, meaningless. That is, nearly all of us live, and work, in a nuance-free zone. This includes judges and writers like Mr. Greenhut (and me), whose moral distinctions, nuanced or otherwise, are usually judgments about what someone else should have done in the past, rather than decisions about what we should do in the future. It is likely that the cops he despises, and the cops' white-collar counterparts, welfare caseworkers, make more nuanced moral decisions in a month than most of us make in a lifetime. Mr. Greenhut asks rhetorically, "Who becomes a member of the armed forces, especially during a booming economy?" The obvious answer: people who want to postpone for at least a few years the ineluctable regimentation and boredom of civilian careers and at the same time be paid to add to their few skills or options.

Mr. Greenhut does make a necessary point, that our soldiers have been greatly idealized, and I would add so much so that the abuse by some of the Abu Ghraib guards, highlighted by the unrelenting media coverage, shocks us far more than it should. It is of course not that the media created the abuse -- it exaggerated first the virtue of our soldiers and then the betrayal of that faith by some. I would encourage this coverage, however, only so long as it concentrates on the actual events and not on what it is helping create, the hysterical reaction to those events and their supposed symbolism.

Still, whom to blame, if not the leaders, the military culture, our whole society, or the media? I think Michelle Malkin got it right in a recent column where she cited guards and their units that had done their duty, and beyond. She ended it with, "…punish the wrongdoers, reward the right-doers, and get the knuckleheads at home and abroad to knock it off."

Soldiers, military bureaucrats, civilians, and even journalists will err, will sin, sometimes grossly. This simple fact seems to cause us cogs to drop our jaws in amazement every time another example of it appears, festooned with symbols and nuances. And the only cure for this recurrent amazement is to close our mouths, get over it, and get on with it.

This is Terry Graves' first contribution to Enter Stage Right © 2004 Terry Graves. All Rights Reserved.

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