RE: US Military Good But Not That Good
Saved under Features, Social
Tags: Education, Efficiency, Living Standards
The U.S. Military is Good, But Nobody is That Good
When an angry electorate headed for the polls Tuesday, the questions on their minds probably included: Why did a Liberian man with Ebola get into this country, and how did the authorities so botch his treatment that two American nurses were infected with the virus? How did a convoy of Islamic State fighters cross a desert in plain daylight without being blasted to smithereens by the U.S. Air Force? How could U.S. automobile companies commit one gaffe after another without being called to account after Washington bailed them out?
The one answer to all these questions is: President Barack Obama screwed up.
Voters cannot imagine in this age of super-smart technology how any of these things could have happened unless there was a failure of leadership. But there is another possible answer — the public’s expectations were inflated to begin with, and not by Obama.
We live within a myth of efficiency. That the world actually operates with a cool precision — the way it does in the movies. Seen through this prism, you could say that voter frustration is not so much the result of reputed Oval Office incompetence as of our having been spoiled by the movies and television. Americans cannot accept the fact that our abilities are seldom as good as movies make them out to be.
Watch the popular television thriller The Blacklist, for example, and here is what you will see every single week: A brilliant young computer savant working for a special FBI unit can, with a few keystrokes on his laptop, root out any piece of information, however arcane; determine the whereabouts of any person, however covert, and find patterns in just about anything, however disparate. Not only does he do these things. He does them instantaneously. Yet we never suspend disbelief. Not because it would undermine our enjoyment of the program, but because we actually believe in the extraordinary powers of the computer and computer technician. It just doesn’t seem that far-fetched.
But the reason we believe in this technological omnipotence is not because we have ever experienced it ourselves. In fact, the experience of most of us, who curse daily at our computers, is quite the opposite. Rather, we have become acclimated to the idea of efficiency because the computer is now the primary deus ex machina of television and movies. In the end, salvation is always a few keystrokes away — albeit keystrokes that are invariably racing a digital clock and that manage to win by milliseconds.
Even so, Americans’ faith in efficiency isn’t just a matter of watching cinematic technology. It is also the result of our belief in the power of human agency. The remade action star Liam Neesen, for example, routinely vanquishes dozens of villains with a bit of ingenuity and, clearly, a lot of training. He is as efficient as any machine. Denzel Washington in The Equalizer accomplishes the same feat — starting his watch and then orchestrating the mayhem second-by-second until his enemies lie in a heap on the floor. Matt Damon, in the Bourne movies, has killed dozens of bad guys with equally cool dispatch.
The message is not that these are superheroes genetically endowed with special powers. They are CIA-trained operatives, and the message is that they are so disciplined, so aware, so well-conditioned they have become super-efficient.
Movies have shown us this efficiency so relentlessly that it has entered our consciousness as fact — a fact that is reinforced by our leaders telling us that our technologies, our agents and our SEALs and Rangers can do anything. They can do a lot. Think of the SEALs who arrive at the end of Captain Phillips and terminate the messy kidnapping attempt with a surgical effectiveness, or the SEAL Team 6 that cuts down Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. They just can’t do it all the time everywhere. You need Liam, Denzel or Matt for that.
The corollary here is that if the mechanisms for efficiency are all around us, then the reason the world is so messy and inefficient must be because the people in charge keep blowing it. Indeed, the myth of efficiency compels us to live with a ceaseless frustration, and even anger, at the leaders and bureaucrats who must be responsible. That frustration influenced the 2014 midterm election.
Not to absolve anyone of responsibility for things not having gone as smoothly as we would wish, but the terrible, non-movie secret of life is that people are basically inefficient, and technology, though it has its upside, is nowhere near as efficient as we would like. Or as the movies and TV portray them. Much as we may hate to admit it, we live in an inefficient world, perhaps because of our leaders’ inefficiencies, but in much greater part because inefficiency is the human condition.
No humanly devised system can keep every person exposed to Ebola from our shores. No system can wipe out Islamic State with pinpoint bombing. Because the human beings who operate these systems are not machines. They are fallible. They absentmindedly touch their faces while taking off their hazmat suits after treating an Ebola patient.
In fact, machines aren’t even machines — at least not as the movies portray them. So it is not the failings of technology or the dearth of real-life supermen — or the shortsightedness or our leaders — that have betrayed us. It is our own unrealistic fantasies about technology and supermen.
The movies spoiled us. We should know better.