Monday, May 18, 2020

How to “cover up” mistakes

Musings of a Veteran

An old “Sea-Dog” once told me a Naval Yarn – maybe it was an apocryphal story.

A Navy Captain rammed a jetty while berthing his ship thereby damaging his ship as well as the masonry structure on the wharf.

Normally – a Ship’s Captain would have been court-martialled and punished for this professional lapse of poor navigation and shoddy seamanship.

However – the Captain was well-connected – in fact – he had “Royal” connections and patrons in high places.

Instead of punishing him for his mistake – the “powers-that-be” commended the Captain for “keeping a cool head in a crisis”.

Yes – instead of being punished for ramming his ship on the jetty – the Captain was rewarded for keeping cool in a crisis – and hence – his professional lapse was covered up.

This is a time-tested subterfuge to cover up mistakes – to reward the person who makes a mistake instead of punishing him for it.

You don’t accept your mistake – instead – you glorify it. You act boastfully about something you ought to be ashamed of.

This stratagem may be unethical – but it seems to work everywhere – in all spheres of life – especially in politics – in bureaucracy – and – in the military too.  

I was fortunate that I read the classic military war novel Catch-22 by Joseph Heller before I joined the Navy.

Reading Catch-22 gave me a better understand the curious goings on and peculiar behaviour of some of the idiosyncratic characters I came across in the Navy and it helped me maintain my sanity in the rather atypical Naval Environment.

There were plenty of  “Cathcarts” “Dreedles” “Scheisskopfs” “Peckems”“Korns” “Captain Blacks” “Milo Minderbinders” “Doc Daneekas” and “Wintergreens” around – and occasionally – you also noticed a “Yossarian” – or a “Dunbar”.

In fact – during my career in the Navy – I saw an analogous caricature of every character of Catch-22 – including some of the female characters.

I am sure you have read Catch-22.

In case you haven’t – do read the book – it will surely bring a smile to your lips.

There are many themes and morals in Catch-22 – including the truism I had told you about on how to cover up mistakes.

The best way to “cover up” a mistake is to reward the person who commits the mistake instead of punishing him for it.

A pertinent example of this dictum is illustrated in a story enunciated in chapter 13 of the war novel Catch-22.

The protagonist of the novel – Captain Yossarian – he is a bombardier – in a bomber squadron.

Yossarian’s Squadron is tasked to demolish an important bridge.

Yossarian is leading the bombing mission.

Due to navigational error – the bomber formation is not exactly over the target – so Yossarian orders the bombers not to drop their bombs.

So – the bomber squadron is unsuccessful in its mission.

As per the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in force – it is irregular to go for a second bomb run over the target – especially when there is heavy anti-aircraft fire (flak).

Despite this – Yossarian takes his formation over the target for a second time – this time they are exactly above the bridge – the bombers drop their bombs – and – the bridge (target) is destroyed in the second bomb run.

Unfortunately – one of the bombers in the formation is hit by anti-aircraft fire and blows up mid-air – and the entire crew is killed in action.

The Bomber Group Commander Colonel Cathcart is furious at the loss of the bomber aircraft and its crew.

He wants to court-martial Captain Yossarian for not following the SOP.

But – the Deputy Commander Lieutenant Colonel Korn advises against it.

Korn is Cathcart’s right-hand man – an “intellectual” who does most of thinking and work for Cathcart who only takes the credit.

Korn knows that Cathcart is extremely ambitious and is obsessed with getting promoted to General.

So – Lieutenant Colonel Korn tells Colonel Cathcart that till now – his bomber group has had an exceptional record and having a court-martial on the base may spoil that perfect record.

Also – a court-martial may expose many other flaws – and this may blemish the excellent reputation that Colonel Cathcart and his Bomber Group enjoys till now – and – this may reflect poorly on the Group Commander Colonel Cathcart – and adversely affect Colonel Cathcart’s promotion prospects.

So – Korn tell Cathcart that punishing Yossarian by Court-Martial may not be advisable.

Korn advises Cathcart that instead of punishing Yossarian – it would be best to cover-up the shameful incident by awarding Yossarian a Medal for Bravery.

“We can easily justify the gallantry award – after all – I suppose it did courage to go over the target the second time in heavy anti-aircraft fire – and he did hit the target, destroy the bridge and successfully achieve the mission…” Korn says, “You know – that might be the answer – to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That's a trick that never seems to fail…”

And so – Yossarian is awarded a medal (instead of being punished).

Dear Reader:

Look around.

Don’t you see examples of this phenomenon everywhere...

1. You “cover up” a mistake by rewarding the person who commits the mistake instead of punishing him for it.

2. You act boastfully about something you ought to be ashamed of.

3. You create hype by touting your failure as your “success”.

I have seen many such cases during my Naval Career – and even now – I see this happening everywhere – politicians seem to be especially adept at doing this.

Military History is replete with examples where defeats in war have been “glorified” – and – and avoidable casualties due to military incompetence are hyped as “sacrifice” – the most famous example being “The Charge of the Light Brigade” at Balaclava.

Political History will reveal plenty of such “cover ups” too.

Even now – as the COVID Crisis has gripped the entire world – don’t you see examples of this “Cover-Up Strategy” being successfully used by Politicians, Bureaucrats and various International, National and Local Agencies…?

Dear Reader – please comment and tell us if you have you seen examples this “cover up” strategy – glorify failure – reward mistakes – and act boastfully about something you should be ashamed of…”

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