November 2008

Apparently Barack Obama has now gotten his first intelligence briefing.

Hearing that made me think of one of my favorite passages from John Piña Craven‘s book The Silent War (Craven was Chief Scientist of the U.S. Navy and a key figure in developing its nuclear submarine program):

The Silent War, by John Piña Craven.

Whenever I participated in the presentation of similar briefings to new cabinet secretaries and undersecretaries, new presidents and vice presidents, and other newly elected or appointed officials, I would watch for the same psychophysiological encounter with terror at a point in the briefing that I called “the overwhelming moment”. Poker players will have observed such a moment in the glaze that forms on the eyes of the neophyte when he realizes that he is out of his depth and that he has already staked more than he can afford or its emotional equivalent on the outcome of the game. In these briefings, the overwhelming moment would invariable be followed by either a blind surrender to the exigencies of the program or by a bracing of the shoulders as the members of the [military program] had braced their shoulders in realization of the authority, responsibility, and accountability that participation entailed. Only one official, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, would not respond this way. Initially, I believed this to be the result of a superhuman level of understanding and self-confidence. Sadly, I would discover that this only reflected his unshakable belief in a dogma of management practice that substituted bean-counting formulas for knowledge and understanding.

For some reason, Craven’s publisher decided to market the book as a kind of real-life military thriller, hence the cheesy cover. That’s a pity, because it’s actually a serious book about how technological innovation happens in the military — the Navy, in this case — and about the political implications of that process.

It is no romanticization of imperial might to realize that the moment when a president-elect is told exactly what the intelligence services really know, and exactly what the capabilities of the military really are, must be sobering in a way that makes the campaign seem like child’s play. If the candidate has any ability to grasp the magnitude of what he’s hearing, he cannot help but feel unsettled, and probably terrified, at the responsibility.

Let’s hope, for the world’s sake, that Obama is an Obama, not a McNamara.