The U.S. Military announced today….DUCK!

Opinions - April 20th, 2001
Robert J. Collins

by Robert J. Collins

I have always been reluctant to criticize the U.S. Military.

In my very earliest memo­ries, the Ameri­cans were the good guys who prevented the evil Hun from climb­ing up the drain­pipe to my bed­room and slaughtering me as I shivered in my jammies under the covers. (What other Ameri­can soldiers were doing at the same time in the Pacific was off my scope, and it was someone else’s problem anyway.)

Political decisions regarding the military’s use is a different matter. Washington has made some bonehead decisions down through the years, and elected officials are fair game for criti­cism which, by the way, hind­sight tells me was often justified.

But the military, meanwhile, was merely carrying out the bonehead orders—like the arm of a robot obediently respond­ing to daffy commands from a slightly deranged main console. Can’t criticize the military for following orders.

That is all changing. The U.S. Military deserves a closer and more critical look. It appears that it is bespoiling its own nest—independent of Washington—at an increasing and alarming rate. What’s going on here?

We all know the stories. The ramming by a U.S. submarine of the Ehime Maru, the training trawler belonging to Uwajima Fisheries High School, is the epitome of the problem.

“The presence of a couple dozen civilian observers on board was not a factor,” con­cluded investigators. Hey, give me a break. This wasn’t the Akebono Ballroom at the Okura Hotel. This was a submarine—a submarine crammed with gear, most of which worked.

One sailor wearing cor­duroys creates space and friction problems under normal circumstances. A whole crowd of tooth­pick-chewing civilians milling about? “No problem,” reported the military. Right.

The prob­lem, however, is that this most spectacular of screw-ups occurred as other little “prob­lems” were continuing in the background. The U.S. Marines have a craft that flies both like a helicopter and a normal air­plane. In the last 24 months, that craft has crashed six limes—in each mode. Hmmm.

In the last two months, U.S. Military planes have crashed in the north of Japan—two off Hokkaido and one, an F-16 training jet, off Aomori (Misawa Air Base). Lives were lost, and that’s a shame, but mistakes are…mistakes.

Some mistakes don’t cost lives, but does that make them any less significant? While the inquiry into the Ehime Maru’s sinking was going on, a nuclear-powered submarine named the “Chicago” slid into a port in Japan without giving the authorities the agreed-upon “48-hour advance report.”

No big deal, except to the Japanese it was a big deal. The U.S. Navy “mistakenly” failed to inform the authorities (Picking up the old phone to make a call was “overlooked.”)

Bubbling away, also in the background, are what appear to be continuing problems in Okinawa—U.S. warriors raping, molesting and peeking up the skirts of “the locals.” That kind of thing is always a problem, particularly with the “occupier mentality” that seems to still exist, but how can it be correct­ed by military leadership refer­ring to local politicians as “wimps?” Not easily.

All this brings us to the U.S. Military surveillance plane that collided with a Chinese jet fight­er and limped off to land in Chi­nese territory. (The Chinese fighter pilot was apparently killed, and for that all mankind is profoundly sorry, but apolo­gies must wait until it’s clear what the hell happened up there between a fast-moving jet and a lumbering surveillance plane.)

Clarity of the issues involved is not possible, unfortunately, and it is because of the U.S. Mil­itary’s screw-ups. We may not remember exactly, but the Chi­nese do. A couple of years ago, the U.S. bombed to kingdom come the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade because the wrong maps were mistakenly used. (“Let’s see, Pittsburgh’s here, so Belgrade must be over there.”)

Why is all this happening? Wrong maps and lei-beclad civilians on a submarine are only part of the story.

It strikes me that technology has outpaced the skills and abili­ties of those theoretically in charge of it all. Individual judg­ment loses when presented with pixels on the screen. Pixels don’t lie—except when the system fails. Individual judgment must then be dredged up to come to a logical conclusion. But exercis­ing individual judgment is becoming a lost art.

(“Did we check the periscope? I guess so. What about the computer? Only one of the systems worked, but the reading was 1684409X3400701 to the fourth degree at lat. 37401.9 degree by long. 401.6 on the scale of a pint of Miller Lite. OK, well, ah, let’s go for it.” Boom, through the bottom of the fishing trawler.)

One can observe how tech­nologically challenged the mili­tary has become by listening carefully to FEN, or Eagle 810, to call it by their preferred name. An hour doesn’t go by without a glitch caused by some spacehead doing something complicated like pushing the wrong button on incoming phone calls. (“Oh silly me. I just launched a nuclear rocket.”)

We’re entering an era when so much of what is at stake will be controlled by folks where the gap between their abilities and the technological requirements to function normally is widen­ing daily.

The U.S. Military has not caught on. They’re falling behind. We’re all in trouble.