Bombing the Enemy with Better Ideas and Codswaddle

After consulting with military leaders at the Pentagon this afternoon President Obama held a press conference on the growing threat of ISIS. President Obama declared the United States “will never be at war with Islam.” Obama also said, “ideologies are not defeated with guns but better ideas.”

RealClearPolitics, July 7, 2015

On First anniversary of the Defeat of Hitler, a General Recalls the Strategy That Beat Hitler

New York Times, July 11, 2016


General Prancible pauses to put on his spectacles, reinforcing the donnish, scholarly air that characterized much of the World War II top brass. He opens a book and draws a wizened finger down the page, stopping at an entry, and smiles as though recalling an old friend, or first love.

“Yes, I remember,” he said. “She was my first love, and an old friend, too. Marjorie Panzenjam, from Queens. I was walking her home from the automat, and a fellow comes around the corner with a gun in his pocket. All gruff like he’d seen too many Cagney movies. ‘This is a stick-up,’ he says. ‘Give me all your money.’ And Marjorie, she’s fearless, she says, ‘Mister, I know you must be down on your luck, but you see those people behind us down the block? They were at the automat where we were just now, and I heard the man say he couldn’t have another piece of pie because all he had was a 20. Now you could rob us, but I think it would be a better idea if you went and robbed him.”

Prancible nods. “That’s when it hit me. Not the wisdom of her idea, but the butt of the fellow’s gun, right on the head. But when I woke up I thought, She’s on to something there. Did I get shot? No. Did I lose my money? Well, it’s just paper. But she did have a better idea, and with a little fine tuning, her way of presenting alternatives might lead to an entirely new theory of war that would let us scrap conventional armies for well-trained, elite commandos who excelled at hand-to-hand argumentation. Rhetoric, metaphor, allegory, appeals to emotion — a whole new toolkit for beating back militant fascism.”

Prancible spent his 30s at the War College pushing his Better Idea (BI) theories, which were inevitably named Behavioral Solutions, or BS. “We realized that we couldn’t do this halfway, that any war with Hitler would be total war, and would require total BS. The invasion of Poland came as a shock, since we’d been working for months to avoid conflict, sending postcards to all the German high command with suggestions that they take a vacation in Poland, instead of occupying it. I suppose you’d call them time shares now, but the idea was, if the Germans could all be assured of a week’s stay in a Polish resort, they’d have a sense of ownership, without any of the problems of pacifying the population. They didn’t go for that. I think it was the annual dues on the time shares. Those maintenance fees. Hitler went right into Poland and the war began.

“We knew we’d have to come up with some powerful ideas, because we not only faced a formidable army fanatically dedicated to a messianic leader, we faced a two-front war at home. There were still a lot of the old guard who thought the only way to beat Hitler” — he pauses for effect, a smile lighting up his face — “was to bomb them for a few years, weaken their industrial base, demoralize the population, tie them up on two fronts, then pour massive amounts of men and materiel into a beachhead, driving to Berlin and killing Hitler. From a modern perspective it may seem odd that men like that were let anywhere near national security, but you have to remember that there were still some old holdovers from the previous war. I remember having a chat with one of them about how BS theory would have worked in the Great War, if only they’d figured out a way to provide a better idea than Kaiserism.

“‘And what was that exactly?’ the fellow sputters. ‘Kaiserism? You think when the Huns rolled into Belgium they made everyone wear a pointy mustache and a metal helmet with a spike on top and glare at people with icy superiority? Because that’s your Kaiserism. What a load of codswaddle.’ Of course, he was British, and they were having some trouble with the Blitz, so you could excuse him for being a little unhinged. Eventually he calmed down and said he would like Roosevelt to send him some of those movie-premier spotlights so the German planes could see them and think there was something fun and theatrical going on down there and feel bad about bombing it. Turns out they used them to light up German planes elsewhere so they could shoot them without engaging the pilots on an intellectual level. Really something of a deception. I don’t think FDR spoke to Churchill for weeks after that came out.”

Prancible settles back in his chair; outside, the rain lashes the window, a reminder perhaps of the difficult struggles of the early years of the war.

“We came up with a crash program to develop a bomb so powerful it would send hundreds of thousands of small, compressed pamphlets that expanded when soaked in water and presented a logical, factual refutation of Nazi principles with colorful illustrations.”

“This rain reminds me of the early, difficult years,” he said. “We continued to drop leaflets on Germany, giving reasons for more intellectually consistent alternatives to Hitler, but the ink, it ran when it got wet. So that hurt our effort. Also, they shot anyone caught with the pamphlet. They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but it turns out the Germans didn’t use swords much anymore. That’s when we came up with Operation Howzabout: a crash program to develop a bomb so powerful it would send hundreds of thousands of small, compressed pamphlets that expanded when soaked in water and presented a logical, factual refutation of Nazi principles with colorful illustrations.

“But that was years away. After Poland and Czechoslovakia, we concentrated on broadcasting shortwave arguments in favor of representative democracy, and a national identity based on notions that transcended national origin. There were occasional successes that buoyed us along —  turns out the invasion of France was delayed by two days because Hitler wanted to bomb the transmission towers first. Which he did, but that was two days France might not have otherwise had.

“It looked like our BS strategy would have to be completely revamped, and that’s where Ike came in. Came in right through the door, handed in his resignation, spat on the floor, and left. That freed us up to plan the greatest intellectual assault the Third Reich ever faced — a vast armada of scholars, theologians, public speakers, PR agents, and even some science-fiction writers would be carried across the Channel to the beaches of Northern France, where they would set up a powerful loudspeaker system we called “The Ethel Merman.” From five locations we would present the case for a better alternative to National Socialism. We would also send in commandos ahead of time to get behind enemy lines, go to the villages, and pass out various graphs and charts showing the material prosperity that accrued from a free society.

“I’ve no doubt we’ll beat ISIS, once we come up with a combination of bland piety and emotional restraint that appeals to sexually frustrated, aimless young men.”

“I still remember General Bertrand Russell giving a speech to the lads before they shoved off. You have to remember that a lot of these soldiers were young and green, and some of them had just had a two-week crash course in debate before they went up against the Nazis. Of course they were scared. Hell, I was scared. You go over your arguments the night before the best you can, but you’re always thinking there’s an argument out there with your name on it, and you’re fated to fail to make a good case for your ideas. You hear tales about what it was like in the trenches — savage Germans stabbing a man before he had a chance to present his thesis, using Kant on farm boys who’d just begun to live. The SS were the worst; they used ad hominem, and there’s not much you can do once that’s been deployed. All the rules of civilized war go out the window, and it’s a race to see who can employ reductio ad absurdum. We had a Godwin Brigade that attempted to discredit the Nazis by pointing out the similarities in their arguments to the statements and behavior of Hitler, but for some reason it didn’t work as well as we thought.”

The 70th anniversary of the war’s conclusion brings a sober look to Prancible’s face. “As we liked to say, you can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea. Damned shame if you’re the man, though, and we lost at lot. Close air support would have helped the men on the beaches, yes, I suppose, although the noise from the planes would have drowned out the ideas the men were shouting. Once Operation Overthink had failed, there was nothing to do but retreat to England and wait the Nazis out. Stand as an example of our better ideas. It was a generational struggle, and in the end it paid off. It took 70 years, but it worked.” He allows himself a small smile.

“You know, sometimes it’s the small ideas that turn out to have the biggest impact. I’ve no doubt we’ll beat ISIS, once we come up with a combination of bland piety and emotional restraint that appeals to sexually frustrated, aimless young men. But let’s remember that no one thought we could beat Hitler with ideas, and we did, even if it took seven decades. No one thought we could dissolve the European Bloc, and we did. All it took was a simple, small idea, a little project of the CIA no one thought would work. We planted a few agents in Berlin and made it seem like lending money to Greece was a very good idea.” He grins.

“Turns out that’s all it took to pull it down.”

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