9/11 and America’s Chronic Failure of Imagination

Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001.

Across much of the nation, the air was crisp and dry. The sky was clear and blue. Visibility unlimited.

You remember where you were, right?

If you were in New York, you probably saw or heard what occurred.

If you were somewhere else, then someone called or told you in person.

“Hey, turn on the television!”

And you were stunned…

WTC smoking

WTC smoking on 9-11” by Michael Foran licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Twin Towers… Smoke. Fire. People jumping…

Eventually the collapse.

And you thought, “How the hell did this happen?”

Later, the 9/11 Commission Report offered some answers. One conclusion was that a “failure of imagination” lay behind this disaster.1

The people charged with protecting the country failed to “imagine” that something like this could occur.

It’s an issue that has plagued the United States since before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941… and continues right through our current COVID-19 crisis.

How did this nation grow to be so blind? And is there any way to change the system so the U.S. isn’t caught so badly off-guard yet again?

Let’s dig in…

You know the basics of 9/11.

Four hijacked airliners. Two hit the Twin Towers. One hit the Pentagon. One crashed in western Pennsylvania after passengers rushed the cockpit.

In Lower Manhattan, the smoke was so bad that satellites imaged it from space.

NASA image

Courtesy NASA

Our nation spends hundreds of billions on “defense” and “intelligence.”

And yet the 9/11 attack was unexpected.

Well, not exactly… Because there were clues that something was amiss.

The FBI had received reports of people training to fly… Learning to take off but not interested in learning how to land.2

Too crazy to believe, evidently. Not within the accepted threat-vector…

Then again, “Hindsight can sometimes see the past clearly — with 20/20 vision,” wrote the 9/11 Commission.

After a disaster, noted the Commission in its report, “the path of what happened is so brightly lit that it places everything else more deeply into shadow.”

Roberta Wohlstetter wrote about this quandary long before 9/11, in her insightful 1962 book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision.

It is “much easier after the event to sort the relevant from the irrelevant signals,” she wrote.3

“After the event, of course, a signal is always crystal clear; we can now see what disaster it was signaling since the disaster has occurred. But before the event it is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings.”

So, then, how does one identify the setup for national-scale disaster? How does one “imagine” such things?

A professor of mine at the Naval War College once said, “If you are fighting an opponent who thinks just like you, he’s probably not your opponent.”

In other words, someone who wants to defeat you will not play your game. He definitely won’t play to your strengths. He’ll go for your weaknesses and blind spots.

The intellectual challenge is to cease thinking like you normally think. Be different. Move outside the system. Find the edge of the envelope, then step beyond it to look back.

Don’t merely connect conventional dots and extrapolate. Scatter the dots and come up with entirely new patterns.

At root, this involves identifying one’s own biases. And that’s not necessarily easy.

Before Pearl Harbor, for example, U.S. planners didn’t think that Japanese pilots were particularly competent, nor that Japanese torpedoes could function in relatively shallow water.

Attack on Pearl Harbor

Japanese Pilot’s View of the Attack on Pearl Harbor

The data showed otherwise, of course. U.S. intelligence officers had monitored the progress of Japanese combat and conquest in China. They knew the Japanese military was competent in many arenas.

But these actors had been instructed simply to observe Japanese weapons, tactics and operations, not to analyze them. No “scenario-building,” to use a current term.

Thus before Pearl Harbor, the people closest to realistic combat were barred from contributing critical insight towards Japanese capabilities, let alone intentions.

Even then, under the best of circumstances, intelligence data typically show up in vast volumes.

Analyzing it — aka “pattern recognition” — is more of a fine art; a human skill honed over many years.

Adding to the problems is the organizational reality of national defense. Data and intelligence analysis require a bureaucracy. And that quickly gets into human factors: “Personalities, paychecks, promotions and parking,” as one of my old admirals used to quip.

With this in mind, it’s easier to understand why so much was overlooked in the decade-long run-up to 9/11.

No sugar-coating here, though… For many reasons, the 1990s burned lazy, bad, bureaucratic habits into the foundations of U.S. analysis and planning.

First, there was that U.S./Western so-called “victory” in the Cold War.

Of course, it’s a good thing that the Cold War ended. The world became a better place.

But in the West — certainly in the U.S. — policymakers and politicians drew many wrong lessons.

Indeed, the conventional, popular story was that the U.S. “won” the 45-year long Cold War. A host of external military, economic, political and even moral efforts directly caused the Soviet Union finally to collapse.

No, that’s not what happened…

But U.S. groupthink quickly established a “Winner’s Circle” level of analysis. It became trapped in a “rah-rah” kind of box. “We won because everything we did was so correct and proper.”

Few senior players entertained an alternative view. In fact, within U.S. policymaking and academic circles in the 1990s, it was impolitic to argue otherwise.

But step outside the circle and you will quickly learn what really happened. Start by asking a few Russians if you know any.

They will likely say that Soviet Communism outlived itself. Much of the Soviet system was rotten from the inside out, certainly by the 1970s. It had become too “complex,” with not enough money and/or energy to hold it together.

Only a mix of Communist central political control and Soviet social-economic inertia kept things going into the late 1980s.

Eventually, Gorbachev came along… and his efforts to hold things together simply failed. Then in 1991 the Communist state dissolved for internal reasons.

But that’s not how American planners viewed things — and most of them still don’t see it that way.

Around the same time, by 2001 U.S. policymakers and politicians were blinded by the 1990–91 Gulf War (a war in which your editor played a role as a U.S. Navy officer).

In a quirk of fate, the Gulf War occurred just as the Soviet Union was fizzling. With problems at home, Moscow assured Washington that it was bowing out.

Thus U.S. and coalition forces had the strategic luxury to relocate entire armies to the Middle East, several thousand miles away.

Eventually, a massive, combined-arms, air-ground force demolished a third-rate Iraqi army that was armed with what Russians call “monkey models” of Soviet equipment, meaning equipment of inferior quality and capability.

Post-Gulf War, U.S. policymakers and politicians were flush with the wine of victory. And they viewed the American military as invincible, with the nation entirely secure.

There are other examples of this kind of 1990s-era hubris, but you get the picture.

All in all, as the 1990s unfolded many people in the U.S. defense complex simply stopped “imagining.”

By 2001, U.S. defense-oriented thought was curled up deep and comfortable inside the proverbial “box.”

Then came that Tuesday morning, 9/11…

Soon afterwards, with rubble still smoking, the U.S. geared up its war machine. American troops moved into Afghanistan and have been there for 19 years.

By 2003, American politics was ready to support an entirely different war, this time against Iraq. The U.S. has been there now for 17 years.

Despite the famous saying that “we never lost a battle,” can anyone truly argue that the U.S. has somehow won either conflict? In other words, what’s the theory of victory here?

The U.S. has spent vast fortunes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Plus, thousands of dead soldiers and tens of thousands of wounded. Add in the human and financial costs to allied partners. And never forget the damage to people and property on the ground in the affected areas. After all, it’s their country…

Meanwhile, consider how the long-term, seemingly endless U.S. commitment to the Middle East has tied down literal armies of troops and equipment, as well as political focus and strategic thought.

As a consequence, the vast U.S. system of defense planning and procurement has neglected other critical matters.

Stated more bluntly, it’s clear that the U.S. has fallen dramatically behind Russia, and in some respects China, in many areas of military modernization. Former Soviet naval officer Andrei Martyanov has argued as much in two recent, stunning books.4

In fact, Martyanov has done us all a favor. He lives in the Puget Sound area of Washington, and in his own humble way his strategizing is “doing the work that Americans don’t want to do,” to borrow a phrase.

Martyanov has identified significant flaws in U.S. strategic and operational thinking. He scatters the dots of American policymaking and military efforts, and comes up with entirely new patterns. It’s a brutal exposition of U.S. military and defense failures, at the systems-level and higher.

In essence, over the past two decades, the U.S has fallen far behind Russia in terms of technology and warfighting doctrine in areas ranging from air defense and electronic warfare to hypersonic weapons. These, and many more… It’s a long, granular list.

Consider just one industrial sector that’s foundational to national defense, naval shipbuilding and repair. Even this is yet another area in which the U.S. lags far behind where it “ought” to be, certainly considering the global commitments American politicians have made.5

So in military matters alone, the past 19 years offer innumerable examples of deep lapses in imagination, strategic thinking, basic research and development, procurement and much more.

And the American failure or imagination is not just the military side. Look down another dark pathway… Consider that three months after 9/11, on Dec. 11, 2001, China entered the World Trade Organization (WTO).

As we’ve discussed before at the Whiskey bar, the past decades saw accelerated U.S. deindustrialization. China moved to dominate entire sectors of global production and trade.

American policymakers and politicians not only allowed the loss to occur, they cheered it on while pocketing campaign donations and sinecures.

U.S. “deciders” did nothing to halt the hollowing-out of the country. Instead, they basically told the American people that all their industrial and job losses were somehow a good thing. You’ll pay less for a pair of socks at Walmart, or some other stupid cliché along those lines.

And then came Donald Trump in 2016. He waged a populist, outsider’s campaign for president based on pointing out the severely obvious… That American workers have been screwed, and the middle class is being strangled by a dangerous elite and their nation-scale sellout.

Trump reframed the understanding of what occurred with China since 2001, and before that in the 1990s with “bad trade deals” like NAFTA.

And in his own inimitable way, Trump highlighted how the U.S. has “globalized” itself into a strategic disaster.

Now, in the midst of the current Covid pandemic, the U.S. doesn’t even manufacture most of the medicines and medical equipment the country needs.

So the 9/11 failure of imagination persists… Indeed, it’s chronic.

What’s the solution?

Well… Begin by understanding that the river of problem is wide and deep. It’s generational. We’re looking at failures of imagination from political offices in Washington, D.C. to the Pentagon, and from corporate boardrooms to the halls of academe and more.

The broad answer involves a long list of efforts…

Drain the Swamp. Push back against globalization. Understand the dangers of financialization. Get out of foreign wars, and don’t start new ones. Rebuild the U.S. industrial base. Rethink the profligate U.S. education complex, which mis-educates so many young people. Argue for sound money… And hey, we do that here in Whiskey & Gunpowder.

The answers are out there. But channeling Wohlstetter, if not Martyanov. you have to step outside the box and look at things differently than the conventional wisdom.

We’ve now reached 9/11 plus 19 years. It’s time to reframe and reimagine what we see out there, often as not hiding in plain sight.

The alternative is an American future of continuing disasters, strategic failure and national decline.

On that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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1 The 9/11 Commission Report

2 FBI Was Warned About Flight Schools, CBS News

3 Roberta Wohlstetter (1962); Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision.

4 Andrei Martyanov (2018), Losing Military Supremacy: The Myopia of American Strategic Planning, and (2019) The (Real) Revolution in Military Affairs

5 US Shipyards Lack Needed Repair Capacity, Admiral Says, Government Executive

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Byron King

A Harvard-trained geologist and former aide to the United States Chief of Naval Operations, Byron King is our resident gold and mining expert, and we are proud to have him on board as the managing editor of Whiskey & Gunpowder.

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