TCS Daily

Pentagon Reviewers Need To Beware The Consequences Of Complacency

By Ken Adelman - March 12, 2001 12:00 AM

The much-heralded Pentagon "strategic review" is much needed. Yet a lot of skepticism is likewise required, for it's awfully tough for anyone to predict the future - even the greatest experts.

The current public attitude toward security matters ranges from apathy to antagonism. Having for half a century fought the totalitarian monsters of Nazism and communism, Americans see no such danger now. Many see no danger whatsoever. And history teaches that is truly dangerous.

Indeed, the need for a strong defense at the beginning of the 21st Century is just as obscure as at the beginning, and in the middle, of the last century. Back then, the fashionable view before the carnage of World War I and World War II was that modern transnational trade and travel - now dubbed "globalization" - made large conflicts obsolete.

This conventional thinking was presented and then mocked by a young Winston Churchill in 1914. He summed up the thinking of that day: "War is too foolish, too fantastic to be thought of in the 20th Century. ... Civilization has climbed above such perils. The interdependence of nations in trade and traffic, the sense of public law, the Hague Convention, liberal principles ... have rendered such nightmares impossible."

After presenting this popular view, Churchill then delivered this prescient punch line filled with a terrible irony: "Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong."

And what a pity it was. America was unprepared for both world wars. And they resulted in upwards of 60 million deaths. The unimagined wars became unimaginable tragedies.

But, today's optimists say, the Pentagon's "strategic review" doesn't rely upon such conventional thinking. The review is staffed by experts who really know their stuff.

True, but such experts - as we see below -- can be laughably wrong, too. Or rather, it would be laughable if the review were not forming our national security and affecting the Defense Department's ability to deliver the best tools to our troops. When young men and women step forward to be willing to risk their lives for us, we at least can furnish them with the best tools available.

While the Pentagon brass hear experts give their views, they should keep in mind these truly "expert" predictions:

"What use could this company make of an electrical toy?" Western Union President William Orten asked in 1889 when he turned down Alexander Graham Bell's offer of his struggling telephone company for $100,000.

"Fooling around with alternative current [AC] is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever. It's too dangerous. Direct current [DC] is better," the genius of Menlo Park, Thomas Edison, forecast.

"Heavier than-air flying machines are impossible," Lord Kelvin, the president of Great Britain's Royal Society, confidently predicted in 1895.

"Everything that can be invented has been invented," Charles Duell, the U.S. Patent Office commissioner, publicly announced in 1899.

"Aerial flight is one of that class of problems with which man will never be able to cope," Simon Newcomb proclaimed in 1903.

"While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility, a development of which we need spend little time dreaming," Lee DeForest, noted physicist who first broadcast radio and put the first sound to film, opined in 1926.

"Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau," Yale University economist Irving Fisher proclaimed in 1929, just before the great Stock Market Crash.

And things haven't gotten much better in more recent high-tech times:

''I think there is a world market for about five computers," IBM Chairman Thomas Watson predicted in 1958.

"There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home," Kenneth Olson, Digital Equipment founder, declared in 1977.

"640K [ of memory] ought to be enough for anyone," Bill Gates opined more than a decade later.

Pentagon planners beware. For military "experts" have been as wrong as those highly respected and intelligent seers in other fields. To wit:

"We must not be misled to our own detriment to assume that the untried machine can displace the proven and tried horse," Army General John K. Herr declared one year before the Nazi tank blitzkrieg.

"As far as sinking a ship with a bomb is concerned, it just can't be done," Rear Admiral Clark Woodward assured everyone two years before Pearl Harbor.

"The [atomic] bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives," Admiral, William Leahy then President Truman's Chief of Staff, asserted shortly before our first A-bomb exploded.

And even Time Magazine's "Man of the Century" -- the great Albert Einstein -- got some things terribly wrong.

"There is not the slightest indication that [nuclear] energy will be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will," he predicted.

It now is. And that is why today's Pentagon planners can afford even less to become complacent about the prospects of war than their tragically misguided predecessors. As the much-heralded strategic review moves forward, let's hope the reviewers retain this much-needed perspective.


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