The French Army in 1940…and the American CDC in 2021

Andre Beaufre, later a general, was in 1940 a young Captain on the French general staff.  He had been selected for this organization a few years earlier, and had originally been very pleased to be in such elevated company…but:

I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.

The consequences of that approach became clear in May 1940.

It is interesting that Picasso had somehow observed the same problem with French military culture that then-captain Beaufre had seen. As the German forces advanced with unexpected speed, Picasso’s friend Matisse was shocked to learn that the enemy had already reached Reims.

“But what about our generals?” asked Matisse. “What are they doing.”

Picasso’s response: “Well, there you have it, my friend. It’s the Ecole des Beaux-Arts”

…ie, formalists who had learned one set of rules and were not interested in considering deviations from same.

I was reminded of this history by a sequence of posts at twitter.  Joanna Masel, a theoretical biologist, says the CDC contacted her (following an NYT story) about an app she helped develop to notify people (anonymously) about possible covid-19 exposure. Her group put a very informal preprint on github nearly immediately, and a more formal one on medrxiv soon after. A CDC coauthor was added to shepherd it through MMWR, which is described as “CDC’s primary vehicle for scientific publication of timely, authoritative, and useful public health information and recommendations.”

The preproposal was rejected. Informal feedback was that they liked it but were so backlogged that a peer reviewed journal was likely faster. This initiated 6 months of clearance procedures needed for CDC coauthor to stay on paper.

What CDC staff spend a LOT of time on: rewriting manuscripts with meticulous attention to style guides. Eg, Methods must follow exactly the order they are used in Results, all interpretation must be in Discussion not in Results, etc. to a point truly unimaginable in my field.

and

6 months and endless CDC work hours later, after new CDC edits overclaimed efficacy in ways we deny, at CDC’s urging we removed the CDC coauthor in order to terminate clearance to instead make the deadline for a relevant CDC-run special issue…On top of minor revisions from reviewers, more style guide edits required by CDC journal editors. Eg because style bans reference to an individual as a primary or secondary case, we now refer to individuals who test positive v. infected individuals v. those infected by each. After resubmission in <30 days, rejected months later despite green light from peer reviewers. Bottom line from CDC editor: because our data is now too old, we longer conform with journal guidelines….

So after the manuscript spend the vast majority of the previous 12 months on CDC desks not ours, we were rejected by the CDC because the data had become >12 months old.

Doesn’t this sound like a replay of what Andre Beaufre observed?

I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.

See the costs of formalism and credentialism.

1/4/2022:  Updated to correct name of Picasso’s artist friend.

Dangers of National Dependency

I recently read a history of the French Air Force–The Rise and Fall of the French Air Force, Greg Baughen–which includes much analysis of aircraft design and construction.  One historical fact I thought was interesting: in 1939, the French licensed the design of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine (the engine that powered the Spitfire and Hurricane, among other airplane) and contracted with the Ford Motor Company to manufacture these engines.

But when war was declared on September 3 of that year,  Henry Ford–who had strong neutrality and ‘antiwar’ beliefs–pulled the Ford equipment and people.  No Merlins for you, Mr Frenchman!

Closer to our own time, during the Iraq War, the Swiss company Swatch Group refused to supply contracted components for the JDAM missile.  In this case, there was a US company that could provide the items, and the Swiss refusal was ultimately overcome by diplomatic pressure.

In this retro-reading post, I cited an old copy of Mechanical Engineering magazine, which discussed the shortage of certain chemicals for which the US was largely dependent on Germany:

America did not make much progress (with aniline dyes) owing to certain complications and the lack of consolidated action.  What was produced here was in most cases equal to the imported product, but owing to the greater facilities for producing the color, the greater attention given to research, substantial government financial aid, and, primarily, the exceedingly low labor cost abroad, competition was out of the question.  Hence up to 1914 we had practically no dye industry and depended on Germany not only for dyes but also for many valuable pharmaceutical preparations as well as for phenol, the basis for many of our explosives.  

This problem was solved by intensive efforts during the First World War.

Prior to 1914, most people, including government people, probably thought (if they thought about it at all), “Well, dye for fabrics isn’t exactly a strategic resource…sure, we like wearing & seeing attractively-colored clothes, but it’s not really a matter of life and death”…but missed the connection to the pharmaceuticals and the explosives.

If we do wind up in a military conflict with another major power, the time constants are likely to be relatively short–more comparable to the time pressures the French faced in 1940 than to our situation in 1914, separated by oceans from any immediate threat to the country.

And today, we have a report on US companies investing significantly in Chinese semiconductor companies and related software providers.

A Prototype for Biden?

President Biden’s bizarre behavior during media appearances reminds me of something.  The British general Edward Spears, who was Churchill’s personal emissary to the French Army during the campaign of 1940, described a meeting he had with Philipe Petain during the final desperate days of that campaign…his objective being to turn the old general away from his growing defeatist orientation and toward the direction of resistance.  When Spears said that “What France needs today, Monsieur le Marechal, is another Joan of Arc”, the general’s reaction was startling:

“Once more he was all animation. His face lit up. “Have you read my speech on Joan of Arc?’ (no) ‘Well, that is too bad…I made it at Rouen, when was it, in 1937? 38?  It was an extremely fine speech, I may say. I shall read it to you.”

To Spears’ consternation (for the military situation was very urgent), Petain began to search for a copy of the speech. Unable to find it, he summoned his chief of staff, who finally found it.  The speech was very, very long, and Petain read it in a monotone.  “I do not think he was really proud of that speech as a great achievement, for he did not caress it by inflections of voice as a sculptor might stroke a statue he believed to be a great work of art.  He was recalling rather the pomp and circumstance of its delivery, the applause, and he wanted to include me in that admiring audience of years ago.”

And when the speech finally ended, Petain pointed out that “Joan of Arc was a peasant of France,” talked about the importance of peasants, and insisted in locating and reading another speech, this one about the French peasants.

“Genuine alarm brought me back to realities.  Time was passing, I had endless work to do.  The London telephone was certainly calling. How could I get away?”

Spears finally made his escape.  But doesn’t Petain’s retreat to his old speeches, and, further back, to his old victories, mirror Biden’s verbal retreat back to the days when he played shortstop, and such?

A month or so earlier, Spears had discussed some of the key players in France with his combative friend, the Interior Minister Georges Mandel.  Concerning Petain, Mandel had been dismissive:

“Surely you have seen for yourself–barely alive–and what there is left is pure vanity. He became a Hidalgo in Spain.”

I don’t think Biden has ever spent any significant time in Spain, but “what there is left is pure vanity” seems like a pretty good description of the man.

(The quotes are from Spears’ memoir Assignment to Catastrophe, a two-book series which is essential reading for anyone interested in the events of that period.)

 

The segregation of Citizen COVID

France brings out a SARS-CoV variant of leprostigma by fiat. Now where did I put my clapper and bell?

You know that funny feeling when the head of State addresses the nation and declares that you and some of your fellow citizens shall be treated as outcasts and arbitrarily deprived of your rights?

Or perhaps you don’t.

I know I didn’t until Emmanuel “Jupiter” Macron, President of Le Pays des Droits de l’Homme the “nation of human rights”, as some French like to call this country, appeared in the idiot box and announced, right on the eve of Bastille Day, that:

Our choice is simple: to put the restrictions on the unvaccinated rather than on all.

Restrictions being Macron’s byword for segregation, to be implemented on people who have not been covaxxed into submission—whatever the reason we have, of which there are many, ranging from the borderline insane conspiracy theories to informed common sense and caution.

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