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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Overrun, Overwhelmed, and Waiting

In military terms, nothing conveys the total helplessness of a situation as the term "over-run". According to my rememberance, it's the term used by a commander to indicate that gunnery should triangulate on his radio signal and direct their fire at it. The idea is to create a pyrric victory. Once the enemy has broken through your defenses and you can't tell friend from foe even two feet away, the only way to lessen the defeat is to make the enemy pay as high a price as is possible. You do that by sacrificing your own unit - calling down hellfire even as you stand in the midst of the enemy to make sure they don't fade away into vapor.

In civilian terms, when you are confronted with a natural disaster instead of an unfriendly army, you aren't going to call down artillery or bombs. The term is no longer "over-run", but "overwhelmed". Conditions are so far out of hand that there is simply no place to start regaining control. Every contingent that has been planned for has come through with a vengeance simultaneously. Action in one area is stifled by needs in all other directions.

In the military, there is the understanding that, ultimately, soldiers can be sacrificed - reluctantly. In civilian matters, there is no such understanding. There is only aching, throbbing, stabbing need - and the inability to meet those needs.

The only way to get out of being overwhelmed is to shut out the calls for help and tackle the primary problem. Once that is settled, you move on to another problem. Then you move on to the next, and the next, and the next. It means people will suffer and probably die. Soldiers live with the understanding that they will deal with the dead, and may count themselves in that group at any time. They also deal with the fact that they will face such decisions and not question the people who are sacrificed. That's simply the way of a soldier: cold, hard, logical.

Of course, the military plans and trains and learns to act reflexively. FEMA is supposed to. They have plans. They always had plans. But they were overwhelmed and the power structure lacked the capacity to harden themselves. The lacked the ability to resolve themselves to the fact that people were going to die as a result of their choices and make them anyway. As a result, even more people suffered and probably died than was absolutely necessary.

Of course, we now have video proof that the President was told that Katrina would be bad. Michael Brown is sure that he is now vindicated.

But there are also reports that the video may not be the whole story.

I haven't seen the video. I don't really care to see it. First, I have to wonder about how the video was released. There is one person - and only one person - who would benefit from taping the meeting in the first place, then editing it, and leaking it to the media in altered form. That would be the person saying he has been vindicated. Second, ever since I saw Forrest Gump shake hands with Lyndon Johnson, I've tended to be a bit skeptical about videos. That kind of goes along with the first point, doesn't it?

More than that, I don't think there is much use in watching the video. What is it supposed to tell us? That the Adminstration bungled the recovery effort? I think that's pretty well common knowledge by now. Were we expecting some confirmation of of Kanye West's statement?

There is really only one reason to watch the video - to make sure something like this doesn't happen again. No, I'm not excusing the ineptitude of those responsible for saving lives. They failed their trial of leadership and that is unforgiveable for people who had held their positions for so long - and I mean everyone from Chertoff and Brown to Bush and Cheney.

The greatest failure is that none of them trusted the American public enough to tell the truth. Instead, they put on a good show for the news cameras and shrugged it off - the responsibility, the blame, the reality. The primary ingredient of a leader is honesty. It should be crystal clear to everyone by now that honesty is a commodity in short supply in the Administration. The first step in admitting you are overwhelmed is to admit it to your self. We still have seen no sign of that.

Another thing I learned from time in the military is that authority can be delegated, but responsibility cannot. That, too, is necessary to understand before one can recover from being overwhelmed. From the beginning, Michael Brown has been hung out to dry by a President who can't be honest enough to admit that it was his responsibility. John Kennedy's ratings soared when he accepted responsibility for the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, where our troops were overrun. Republicans sometimes like to defend Bush's tax policy by pointing out that John Kennedy also cut taxes. Unfortunately, they are completely unable to point to any example that would tie the honesty with which Kennedy spoke to the American people with any statement made by Bush at any time.

So our government's capacity to govern remains as it was at the time the video was made: waiting to be overwhelmed.

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