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The Rise of the Militarised State, Redux

There was a point in last night's speech that struck me, that I haven't heard anyone else mention -- the part where the president said this:

I also want to know all the facts about the government response to Hurricane Katrina. The storm involved a massive flood, a major supply and security operation, and an evacuation order affecting more than a million people. It was not a normal hurricane -- and the normal disaster relief system was not equal to it. Many of the men and women of the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the United States military, the National Guard, Homeland Security, and state and local governments performed skillfully under the worst conditions. Yet the system, at every level of government, was not well-coordinated, and was overwhelmed in the first few days. It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces -- the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice. [emphasis added]

This is interesting in two ways:

  1. First, it can be seen as dodging responsibility. "It was not a normal storm", perhaps, but what would be "normal"? And doesn't it matter that all the qualified emergency management professionals knew what it would be like and understood the risks it posed?
  2. Second, because the final statement just simply isn't true. If FEMA had not been gutted by the Bushites, there's an excellent chance that the worst atrocities of the New Orleans floding, at least, would have been averted. Properly proactive officials at FEMA and DHS could have exercised their existing levels of authority to substantially ameliorate the impact. That they didn't says nothing about the level of authority they did have -- it only says that they didn't care enough to use it.

What I see happening already is Bush reframing the issue in terms of rigid, top-down corporate hierarchies like the ones he learned about in Harvard's b-school in the 1970s. In the current context, that means "to solve the problem, send in the Army", because the 1970s Harvard b-school model for corporate organization is based on military-style hierarchies.

Ironically, the US military establishment would most likely no longer support that analysis. They've spent much of the past thirty years trying to open up their command structures (to the degree that it's feasible given their mission) and re-instill the sense of initiative and dedication that are necessary for morale in tough going.

The relationship of business to the military, at least in America, is curious and interesting. In the run-up to the Second World War, the Army was particularly ill-prepared: Poor discipline, entrenched corruption in the enlisted ranks, poor organization. Business models and metaphors contributed to the reorganization. Through the course of the war, men like Robert Macnamara introduced systems theory and other b-school concepts into the management hierachy. The result was the Vietnam-era Army that failed its soldiers and its nation in no small part through hubris and arrogance and lack of attention to detail.

Meanwhile, American business was being reshaped on a more hierarchical, more military model. In other words, the two trends were mutually reinforcing. As the American military system failed in the 1960s and 1970s, so the American systems of business organization failed in the 1970s and 1980s.

George W. Bush was out of the loop both times. His dabblings in business in the '70s and early '80s were mostly in non-representative areas like oil wildcatting; his "successes" were in non-representative areas like real estate and professional sports. He has no actual experience with business success; he doesn't know that successful businesses don't work by enforcing rigid top-down hierarchies.

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