Purposeful stupidity

Purposeful stupidity: Simple sabotage and big government bureaucracy


(Originally published at The Jerusalem Post)

H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the famed irascible American military commander, relates that as a junior staff officer he was attached to a new headquarters and asked by the commanding officer to prepare some coffee. Realizing that he would get stuck in the unpleasant position of being a glorified secretary, if he allowed himself to be pigeonholed into coffee-making, he brewed a terrible cup, weak from cold water and not enough grounds. He was never asked to make coffee again.

MANY PEOPLE recall an instance in their past employment where they noticeably avoided unpleasant tasks through feigning ignorance. Those who are habitual smokers might recall taking enough smoke breaks so that they actually spent more time coming and going, smoking and thinking about smoking, than they actually seemed to do real work.

What is interesting is that in 1944, William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the hard-driving Catholic head of the Office of Strategic Services (now the CIA), signed off on an odd memo called the “Simple Sabotage Field Manual.” The unclassified document was recently discussed in a witty column by Haaretz’s Amir Oren, who concentrated on the Olmert verdict. But Oren missed the larger context of what this fascinating piece of history can teach us.

Simple sabotage was what the OSS defined as the ability of the ordinary citizen to resist the German occupation, and it could reasonably be applied against other distasteful regimes. The logic was that the average citizen does not have the expertise or desire to get himself killed in derring-do James Bond style operations.

But the citizen can carry out low-level acts of stupidity.

The document noted: “Where destruction is involved, the weapons of the citizen-saboteur are salt, nails, candles, pebbles, thread or any other materials he might normally be expected to possess as a householder or as a worker in his particular occupation. His arsenal is the kitchen shelf, the trash pile, his own usual kit of tools and supplies. The targets of his sabotage are usually objects to which he has normal and inconspicuous access in everyday life.” The ordinary man may not like acts of destruction that run contrary to his “habitually conservationist nature.”

Mostly, though, “purposeful stupidity is contrary to human nature.” Well, it was assumed so in 1944. But is that true today? THE OSS imagined that the saboteur would eventually come to the point where he would train others in his subversive methods. “Normally diligent, he should now be lazy and careless.” He would begin to “think backward.” The memo outlined how the man could resist. “Try to commit acts for which large numbers of people could be responsible. For instance, if you blow out the wiring in a factory at a central fire box, almost anyone could have done it.”

Bus drivers could skip stops “by mistake.” Furthermore, “it is easy to damage a tire in a tire repair shop… when you fix a flat tire, you can simply leave the object which caused the flat in the first place [in the tube].” If you work at a hotel you can cut people off “accidentally.”

Opportunity can be found at the otherwise efficient post office; “Employees can see to it that enemy mail is always delayed… or put it in the wrong sacks.” And if the taxi driver is a patriot, “waste the enemy’s time and make extra money by driving the longest possible route.”

If you have begun to suspect that in today’s world this is what postal employees and taxi drivers do in their normal course of work, then reading the section on how employees of a bureaucracy can do their part is even more illuminating. A sample: • Insist on doing everything through “channels,” never permit short cuts.

• Make speeches, talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your points with long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.

• When possible refer all matters to committee for “further study,” attempt to make committees as large as possible. Advocate “caution.”

• Haggle over precise wording. Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.

• Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products… approve defective parts whose flaws are not visible.

• Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.

• Never pass on your skill and experience to a new worker.

• Snarl up administration in every possible way.

• Apply all regulations to the last letter.

EVERYONE I showed these “simple sabotage” suggestions to immediately looked at me askance, broke down in laughter and said, “I think my office got the memo.” Anyone who has dealt with government agencies or worked for a large company has experienced such headaches as described in the memo – such as the recommendation to “see that three people have to approve everything… multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions.” Yet these recommendations were designed to undermine an enemy regime.

Are we the enemy? When you get in a taxi, board a bus, go to the post office or file papers to start a business, are those we interact with engaging in “simple sabotage”? Surely they are not knowingly doing so.

Yet our culture, especially that related to large institutions, has increasingly taken on the attributes of this “resistance.” Who hasn’t sat through a meeting where someone refers “back to matters decided upon at the last meetings and attempt[s] to reopen the question of the advisability of that decision”? Yet they aren’t undermining a regime, they are undermining themselves and their colleagues, slowing down efficiency, wasting both the public’s money and time with purposeful stupidity. The OSS manual should be mandatory reading for those entering bureaucracy or joining a large firm, for it encapsulates perfectly how not to carry out one’s job. And, it is hilarious.

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