May 2, 2007
Bureaucratic FailureBy J.R. Dunn
Three of most widely-covered recent news narratives revolve around the same fundamental issue: the failure of bureaucratic institutions to meet challenges involving their basic missions.
The British Navy, a force that embodies the term "legendary", was taken by surprise and humiliated by a militia in speedboats. Virginia Tech proved itself, despite years of warnings, unable to provide the minimal level of security necessary for the safety of its faculty and student body. The war on terror, worst of all, is hobbled by bureaucratic strictures and habits of mind.
What these problems have in common - apart from being disasters of various magnitudes - is that they are all bureaucratic in nature. The rules and habits by which each of the organizations operate came in conflict with events, and rather than adapting or reacting or even hollering for help, each of the organizations involved fell apart.
This, according to anthropologist Robin Fox, one of the more formidable intellects of our era, is inevitable. Some years ago Fox published "Why Bureaucracies Fail" (available in his essay collection Conjectures and Confrontations) an analysis of the faults of bureaucracy originally presented as a lecture to select military officers. And fail they do, constantly and without letup:
The reason bureaucracies fail, Fox tells us, is "...because they are, in some sense, inhuman." By this he doesn't mean that they are vicious or cruel (although they can be), but that they are, by their very nature, at odds with human nature as it exists. Bureaucracies operate according to a certain fixed set of procedures. They are an attempt - heroic or otherwise - to force the world to conform to a rational system. But human beings, much as we pride ourselves on our rational thinking, are actually a grab-bag of instincts, intuition, and habit, with a handful of rationality thrown in to pull everything else together. This serves us well because it matches how the universe actually works, but it also means that there will always be a conflict between bureaucracies and human beings. The relationship starts out on the wrong foot and gets worse as it goes along.
And that's considering only normal, everyday individuals. What happens with people who deliberately kick the chessboard over? Or someone so monstrously twisted he can't even grasp the rules of the game?
The Royal Navy
The Royal Navy's duties in the Persian Gulf were utterly routine: inspecting shipping en route to Iraq to ensure that no arms or other contraband was being smuggled in. More the mission of a coast guard than a navy, and that may well have been the root of the problem. Because everyone involved, including the crews, the naval hierarchy, and the government beyond, began viewing Gulf operations as routine. The Gulf was the "safe end" of the Iraqi theater. Nothing could be expected to happen there. It was okay to slack off.
But the Shatt al-Arab was in truth a war zone, one encompassing not one but two distinct conflicts: the Iraq war and the long cold war against the Iranian mullahs. As an endless parade of pacifists, philosophers, and diplomats have told us, nothing is more irrational than warfare. We practice it only because it can accomplish things that rational behavior can't. The British forgot this. The Iranians did not.
Following the ambush, the first action of the HMS Cornwall's commander, Jeremy Woods, was to call Whitehall to ask what to do. When told to do nothing, he obeyed. Years before he became a legend, Horatio Nelson received an order while in battle that he thought mistaken. So he put his telescope to his bad eye and pretended he didn't see it. He went on to do what he'd been planning in the first place, and he won that battle. "Turning the blind eye" has been an unacknowledged British naval tradition ever since. At least until the Shatt al-Arab, when Jeremy Woods acted as a bureaucratic cog rather than a sailor.
Bureaucratic functionalism had taken the place of the military virtues. Somehow the Iranians sensed this. Perhaps by observing the routine, perhaps by intercepting radio traffic. Perhaps simply through noticing that women were driving the boats. Seeing that they were not, in the strict sense, dealing with a military operation, they made their move, and they got away with it.
So there should be no surprise at how the British sailors behaved in captivity and afterward. (At least three and perhaps four of the Royal Marines acted much better, as an examination of the turnover photos clearly reveals. The fact that this has gone almost unmentioned speaks volumes about British attitudes.) A bureaucracy simply does not command the high loyalty that a military force does. And so a legendary navy, the navy of Gravelines, and Trafalgar, and the Falklands, the navy that destroyed the slave trade and the Nazi U-boats, is gone with scarcely a whimper.
Virginia Tech was not so fortunate. Cho Seung-hui had been shambling around the campus for years frightening everyone - students, faculty, administration - that crossed his path. So strong was the impression he made that when news of the shooting spread, everyone on campus immediately guessed who it must be. (Except for the local cops, who wasted their time tracking down an innocent third party who happened to be a legal gun owner.)
Cho had been thrown out of classes. He had been caught taking surreptitious photos of female classmates. He was discovered stalking two other girls, and in fact was kept overnight at a mental health clinic as a result. He was found to be obviously disturbed but was released the next morning on the grounds that he was "not an imminent threat". (A fine example of the bureaucratic mentality at work can be found in this debate on the meaning of "imminent" at James Taranto's "Best of the Web".)
What further response was there? Next to nothing. You see, there were rules. In this case, the "Buckley Regulations", after a law sponsored thirty years ago by Senator James Buckley, New York State's last conservative senator. The Buckley Regulations completely seal a student's record. Nothing can be revealed to any outsider - not even the parents - concerning a student's activities or behavior under any circumstances. In the past this has led to nervous breakdowns, suicides, and expulsions. Now we can add mass murder to the mix. (It's difficult to imagine, at this distance in time, what Buckley was thinking, or how such a law fits in with a conservative philosophy.
The single exception to the university's inertia was Prof. Lucinda Roy, a living monument to human decency who went out of her way not only to tutor Cho after he was dumped by another teacher (the world's greatest poetess Nikki Giovanni, whose contribution appears to have been to tighten the screws a notch or two), but to attempt some form of human contact. That she failed cannot be held against her - there appears to have been no one else willing to make the effort. Numbers count in these situations. Another person's interest may have lent enough weight to break through whatever barrier separated Cho from normal reality.
So with this human bomb in their midst, what did the administration of Virginia Tech decide to do? They declared the campus a "gun-free zone", apparently under the impression that stating the fact would make it so. This assured Cho that he could operate without being interfered with in any way whatsoever. (The legacy media has failed to grasp that "gun-free" also applied to the school's security forces, who were effectively disarmed.)
And when the day came, after whatever trivial incident at last set Cho off (what it was we can only guess, but as the street poet Charles Bukowski once wrote, "It's not the dead child but the broken shoelace that drives a man mad"), and the killing started with two lonely bodies, how did the campus elite respond? They turned to that most quintessential of bureaucratic actions - they called a meeting. After an hour's discussion - a talented playwright could turn out an extremely dark comedy with that material - they decided to e-mail a warning across campus. Why they didn't use fourth-class bulk rate mail is anybody's guess.
After Columbine, there is no excuse for second-guessing in this kind of situation. We live in a society where a first-grader can be suspended and forced into counseling for cocking a finger. So what was wrong with the VT staff? Simply this: they were thinking bureaucratically, according to the rules. They were attempting to pit rational thought against a lunatic with a gun.
In the meantime, Cho was able to make a final video, mail it to NBC, load up, walk across the campus untroubled by the cops, and fire over a hundred rounds into thirty-two innocent people.
Jack Dunphy, acting in the spirit of pure collegiality, has attempted to defend the Blacksburg police department's actions after the first murders. But it doesn't work. Anybody who has ever stumbled unknowing onto a crime scene and spent the ensuing fifteen minutes explaining themselves to one cop after another knows exactly what I mean. For some reason - one that we'll probably never hear - standard procedure wasn't followed at VT.
The War on Terror
Air travelers have personally experienced so many examples of bureaucratic thinking and behavior that the point needs little elaboration. The problem is everywhere. Recall the Pentagon lawyer who refused to okay the attack on Mullah Omar in 2001. Recall that no military police officer ever got around to walking the short distance from headquarters to the Abu Ghraib prison to see for himself what was going on. Recall all the little PC rituals surrounding current airport security procedures.
If you want a capsule illustration of the effects of bureaucratic thinking, contrast Norman Minetta's boldness on 9-11 - "Bring all planes down immediately" - with his ineffectual pussyfooting in the ensuing months.
The problem is, we're depending on this form of organization for our survival - and it is failing us. Bureaucracy is a major tool of our civilization, to a greater extent than any other before us. We can't get by without it, but we're rapidly approaching a point where we can't live with it either.
It used to be understood that there were situations where you threw out the rulebook. When FDR wanted to start a covert operations service, he ignored the established bureaucracy and turned instead to "Wild Bill" Donovan, a Manhattan businessman (and Republican to boot). The result was the Office of Strategic Services, a ripe gaggle of New York socialites, lawyers, communists, homosexuals, and adventurers who got the job done while breaking every rule in existence. As soon as the war was over, the OSS was rolled up - there was never any hope it would fit in with a peacetime bureaucracy.
It appears that we've lost that capacity. As a society, we seem content to believe that bureaucracy is the only possible method of doing things, at least as far as governments go. And that could be fatal.
Short of the genius who will rework our entire concept of management (and who will appear eventually, though no one can say when), what can we do? There is no possibility of reform. "The ‘internal contradictions' of bureaucracy," Fox tells us, "are indeed chronic; they are incurable. No amount of social science tinkering is going to do more than cover the patient with bandaids."
Any attempted reforms will be carried out under bureaucratic procedure. They will meet all the criteria, they will be approved by every committee, and they will be perfectly satisfactory right up until the appearance of the next maniac with a pistol or gang of Jihadis attempting to flatten an American city.
Similarly, there's little point in asking for higher-quality, more spirited personnel. Such individuals will seldom attempt a career as a bureaucrat in the first place, and when they do, the bureaucracy often moves heaven and earth to stymie them. (See the recent adventures of Paul Wolfowitz.)
In the end we'll simply have to depend on ourselves. Forget all the bureaucratic procedures, promises, and guarantees. Events have proven them empty.
There's a story that went unmentioned in the mainstream media (though covered elsewhere) involving Appalachian Law School, a campus only a stone's throw from Virginia Tech. In 2002, yet another lunatic attempted to shoot up the place only to be intercepted and disarmed by two students who happened to be gun owners.
That's what we need to return to -- the American taproot, the spirit of individualism in the service of community. It's the spirit of Flight 93, the spirit evident in Iraq and Afghanistan every single day. It's an element of the American character that has never failed us, one that will still be going strong long after all the study groups and committees have issued their statements and filed their reports and gone home. There is a reason, after all, why the Iranians didn't attempt their little tricks against our Navy.
Otherwise, we can look forward to still more deterioration, under the circumstances of war, where error leaves no room for second chances. A final thought from Robin Fox: "Good departments do not necessarily get better, but mediocre ones of necessity get worse."
I believe we have been so advised.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.