Monday, 15 November 2010
Military Intelligence Blunders and Climate Change Denial: Lessons to Learn
1. "Well, don't worry about it."
The Failure of Imagination.
Early in the morning of the 7th September 1941 a technician monitoring a radar on the northern tip of Hawaii noticed some unexplained blips. As a good soldier he reported it to the Duty Officer, Lieutenant Kermit Tyler. "Well, don't worry about it," the officer replied. Forty minutes later bombs were raining down on Pearl Harbour, most of the US Pacific Fleet was on fire or underwater and over 2000 people dead.
The attack has become synonymous for the failure of military intelligence. Famously an oxymoron, intelligence failures are generally responsible for worst disasters in military history, from Lord Chelmsford going off to chase phantom Zulus and leaving his camp at Isandhlwana poorly defended, to the USA blundering into Vietnam thinking they were only facing a few foreign infiltrators.
But if failure to spot the warning signs in war can lead to the deaths of thousands, being ambushed by Climate Change could lead to the deaths of millions, and we are being bigger Muppets than the unfortunate Lieutenant Kermit.
Military intelligence failures don't just happen because someone is being dense, they happen because one bunch of people has outsmarted another, and this is a lesson that those of us who want to do something about Climate Change, especially scientists, often forget.
Figuring out relativity was easy by comparison, as there was no Cavorite industry hacking Einstein's emails and claiming it was all down to Ether. Darwin met a bit of resistance on Evolution, but it took the Creationist nearly a hundred years come up with Intelligent Design, by which time the science was settled.
But back to 1941. Tyler wasn't to blame, he was on his second day in the job and nobody had told him anything, but the authorities in Honolulu most definitely were. Tensions were rising and intercepted radio messages told the Americans an attack was coming. The response though was just to bunch the aeroplanes more closely together on the tarmac.
This may sound daft, but it meant they could be more easily guarded by sentries. This was because the only attack the commanders could imagine was a sabotage by secret agents. That the entire Japanese Fleet would silently steam half way across the Pacific to bomb them was something they just couldn't envisage. It didn't matter that the Royal Navy had pulled a similar trick on the Italians the year before, in their world this sort of thing was unimaginable.
And that I suspect is where most people are with Climate Change. It is too big to imagine. The blips on the radar screen are getting bigger, but we'd rather not worry about it.
2. "I'm not worried because he's not worried"
The Denial Loop
Egypt's surprise attack across the Suez Canal in October 1973 was one of the great coup's of all time. The Egyptians crossed the canal by surprise, dug in, and fought off counter-attacks by the hitherto invincible Israeli Army. Only an intemperate advance brought on by the collapse of their Syrian allies prevented the first Arab victory in war over Israel.
Egypt had been planning the operation for six years, and had ran exercise after exercise, sometimes mobilising of thousands of civilians as well as tens of thousands of soldiers. The result was that when the actual assault came, even the Egyptian soldiers involved were taken by surprise, not believing it was the real thing until they were actually ordered to put their boats into the water.
But it still shouldn't have worked. Against them was the combined intelligence might of MOSSAD and the CIA. Israel had the agents on the ground and the Americans had the spy planes and satellites. Together they should have seen it coming.
What went wrong instead was that each agency looked at the other and, seeing no reaction, assumed they knew something they didn't. MOSSAD didn't panic because the CIA didn't panic, and the CIA didn't panic because MOSSAD didn't panic, and so on.
Campaigners trying to convince a sceptical public know the problem only too well. If Climate Change was a real threat the government would do something about it, says Joe Public. Whilst in the corridors of power the green lobbyists are told that the government would love to do something to limited our fossil fuel consumption, only the public won't allow them to you see......
3. "I'm not lying, he is"
Bluff and counter bluff.
If you want to point to where it all went wrong for America in Vietnam most historians will point you to the Tet Offensive in February 1968. For three years Westmoreland and the military had been telling the public that the war was as good as won. Then suddenly there were thousands of guys in black pyjamas running around South Vietnam's major cities and blowing things up. No matter that by the end of the week most of them were dead, the damage had been done.
The shock the American public felt after Tet was similar to that felt by scientists and activists after Climategate. Despite the well documented funding of dubious Climate Change denying lobby groups by the fossil fuel industry, and not withstanding the rather obvious fact that lots of rich people are going to loose a lot of money if we give up on fossil fuels, when a few stolen emails are quoted out of context a surprisingly large number of otherwise sensible people choose to believe that there really is a scientific conspiracy. Why? Are people really that stupid?
The CIA aren't stupid, and although they get a lot of the blame for Vietnam, mostly they did a good job. The agency base in Saigon had been telling Washington for years that this was a full blown insurgency and not just a bit of cross border raiding, but the top brass at Langley hadn't believed them, and by the start of 1968 they were signally back to America that something big was in the pipeline.
Something big was indeed brewing; a major offensive involving attacks in every major southern city. Insurgencies by their very nature are secret, but the Vietnamese knew they couldn't keep something this size secret, so instead they went for an elaborate bluff.
The spot they chose was Khe Sanh, a US marine base on the border. It was no threat to the Viet Cong, who could easily bypass it, but at the end of 1967 the Vietnamese started moving large forces up to Khe Sanh. At the same time they planted documents which said the plans for a national offensive were just a bluff and that Khe Sanh was the real objective.
The trick worked better than they could have expected. France had quit Vietnam fifteen years earlier when their outpost at Dien Bien Phu fell, and President Johnson was terrified of a similar debacle. Ignoring the numerous intelligence reports which suggested Khe Sanh was the bluff, he ordered a model of the base constructed in the White House basement. So whilst he was busy watching a struggle for a few square metres of worthless jungle, the Viet Cong overran huge chunks of South Vietnam.
Poor old Johnson. He wasn't a bad bloke, and the chants of "Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" really hurt him. But in the end the demonstrators were right and he was wrong. The Americans were taken by surprise, lots of people died, and it was all pointless from then on.
But the world of bluff and double bluff can be confusing, and in the end, like Johnson, we can just end up seeing what we're most afraid of and not what's really out there.
Why did so many people fall for Climategate? Maybe they don't like clever clogs, maybe they like idea that a lot of self-righteous beardy people have got it wrong, or maybe they just like their cars and foreign holidays. Either way the deniers found that the easiest way to protect an extremely plausible conspiracy is to suggest an utterly implausible one.
4. "None so blind as those who don't wish to see."
When all else fails, ignore the inconvenient facts.
General Montgomery had a brilliant plan, one that would definitely end the war by Christmas. It involved a desperate race to reach a bridge captured by paratroopers before they were overrun by the Germans. True, the relief force would be advancing down a single road where one German with a panzerfaust could hold up the entire army, and true, to date the only race Monty had looked likely to win was onto a pedestal, but it might just work.
The Dutch resistance weren't so sure and brought back worrying reports of German tanks refitting in the woods. They were ignored. Major Urquhart, the intelligence officer, wasn't too impressed either and kept producing aeriel photographs of said panzers in the woods. He was sent on sick leave. Nothing was to stop the master plan.
The result was heroic, but pointless.
But it was a really good plan, and that's the problem. If only our climate wasn't so sensitive to pesky carbon molecules, then we could build paradise. Whether it's Social Democracy 2.0, the cutthroat world of the Neoliberals or even a Marxist workers paradise, it all depends on using cheap energy with no consequences.
There are no easy answer to stupidity, and the only solution to bad intelligence is better intelligence.
Perhaps though we could take heart from the biggest military intelligence disaster of this decade; the Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction. We couldn't stop the war, but at least most of us saw through the deceit. You can fool all of the military all of the time, but you can only fool all of the people some of the time.