Monday, May 13, 2019

Voltaire's Bastards: Blaming It All on the Staff

I'm still not quite sure what to make of John Ralston Saul's Voltaire's Bastards. A good way to illustrate this is his chapters on the military staff culture: "Learning How to Organize Death" and "Persistent Continuity at the Heart of Power." What began as an attempt to infuse a bit of reason and knowledge into military affairs, "marshaling reason to organize armies in order to remove mediocrity and allow the competent soldiers to command," has ended in the "transformation of reason into a bureaucratic sea."

And as we know, anything organized as a bureaucracy eventually becomes all about the interest of the bureaucracy and not the noble purpose for which it was founded. The original purpose of the administrative system is transformed, in the end, the continued existence of the bureaucracy.

The problem with the rationally organized army, Saul realizes, is that it creates just the instrument needed for a Napoleon to lay waste to the whole of Europe. So maybe it is better to have an army as "a bureaucratic sea designed to drown Heroes" rather than a shining sword ready to be wielded by a genius Hero.

So let me try to lay out Saul's argument. First, there were the young officers "disgusted by having to fight in unprofessional armies under the orders of unqualified aristocrats." So, under Guibert and others, they organized the profession of arms on a rational basis. But that led to Napoleon co-opting the shining new tool and destroying everything, and so there emerged the staff bureaucracy that was suspicious of genius -- from Marlborough to Guderian to Patton -- and substituted war by the book that did not need genius to succeed. Problem is war by the book led to gigantic bloodbaths, of which World Wars I and II are Exhibits A and B.

And the problem is that the disorganized guerrilla band can very often tie the organized army up in knots. So should not armies be organized on the guerrilla model, learning how to appear out of nowhere to land a nasty blow right in the solar plexus and then disappear into the hills?

Maybe, or maybe not.

Maybe the ponderous bureaucratic staff-led army is just what we want, and especially just what the politicians want, because the genius Hero is likely to become a threat to their power, as Gen. McArthur to President Truman. So what if millions get killed in the wars? As long as the state goes on, what's the problem, except for the mothers of the slain?

But Saul proposes to unleash genius:
Surely it would be wiser today to hand our defence to those able to defend us in the belief that we are capable of controlling them. Better the risk of honest genius than the impossibility of controlling manipulative and unresponsive mediocrity.
I wonder. If we apply my reductive Three Peoples theory, I'd say that most people approach defense as People of the Subordinate Self, and are happy to serve as serfs and let the bosses take care of things, reserving the right to criticize them when things go wrong. The People of the Responsible Self would step up to "do their bit," as the Brits say, but really would be uncertain about letting self-professed geniuses loose on the world. And as for the People of the Creative Self, I suspect that they would be all in favor of themselves being empowered to lead the nation to glorious victory, but not at all certain about the other so-called geniuses.

The thing is, we know all about the geniuses that actually got to be successful geniuses, the Pattons, the Maos, the Castros. But the guys that thought they were geniuses, and led their irregular band of guerrillas to ruin? We never hear about them.

And then there is the little problem that the successful guerrillas -- the Maos and Castros -- like to convert themselves into the boss of a great big beautiful non-functional bureaucracy, of which it might be said that the cure was worse than the disease.

The point is that when creative people are on the loose -- as in Schumpeter's creative destruction -- they disrupt an awful lot of lives with their creative endeavors. And average people don't like that.

But is the creative change "good for them" despite the negative aspects? Sure. Unless you happen to be one of the buggy-whip makers.

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