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September 8, 2005

The Greatest Generation
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:52 PM * 42 comments

On Tuesday, 30 August 2005, the day after Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana coast, while water was still pouring across the broken levees, at the very hour FEMA was turning back volunteer firefighters who were trying to enter New Orleans, President Bush was in Coronado, California, delivering a speech. The occasion was the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII. Mr. Bush, in his speech, compared himself to FDR.

So, let’s talk about WWII for a moment. Specifically, let’s talk about, not the end, but the start of WWII for the United States: The devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Pearl Harbor attack took place just before 8:00 am local time on a Sunday morning, 7 December 1941. Surprise was total, sucess was complete: Within minutes 2,400 Americans were dead, five out of the eight battleships in the harbor were sinking. The men responsible for the defense of Pearl Harbor were Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander, US Pacific Fleet, and Major General Walter C. Short, Commanding General of the Hawaiian Department.

Ten days earlier, on 27 November, Admiral Kimmel received a “war warning” from the Chief of Naval Operations indicating that war was imminent. Rather than prepare an active defense of Hawaii against attack, General Short set up passive defenses against sabotage.

Over an hour before the raid, USS Ward, a destroyer, fired on and sank a Japanese midget submarine in the Pearl Harbor approaches. Admiral Kimmel was informed of that sinking, but no alert was issued; no planes were launched, no guns manned.

The failure of the New Orleans levees during a major hurricane had been predicted for years. When assistant secretary of the Army Mike Parker, head of the Corps of Engineers, objected to cuts in funding for Mississippi delta flood control during testimony before congress, Mr. Bush fired him. Rather than strengthen the levees, President Bush cut the funding for their improvement and maintenance by 80%. Rather than create plans for a hurricane strike on New Orleans, FEMA outsourced planning to a civilian agency. It is unclear whether those plans were ever produced. Seventy two hours before the levees broke, Hurricane Katrina’s path and strength had been accurately forecast by the National Weather Service. The Departmnet of Homeland Security took no effective measures in response.

One day after the Japanese attack, President Roosevelt asked congress to declare war in the “date that will live in infamy” address. One day after the levees broke, President Bush compared himself to President Roosevelt and accepted a gift guitar.

Two days after the attack, the Knox Commission (9-14 December 1941) investigated the facts. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox went to Pearl Harbor, and reported back to the President.

Two days after the levees broke, Bush returned to Washington.

On 16 December 1941, nine days after the attack, General Short was relieved of command.

On 08 September 2005, nine days after the levees broke, Michael Brown is still director of FEMA.

On 17 December 1941, ten days after the attack, Admiral Kimmel was relieved of command.

No one knows what tomorrow will bring, but I’m willing to bet that ten days after the levees broke Michael Chertoff will still be Secretary of Homeland Security.

The Roberts Commission, headed by Justice Owen Roberts, was convened on 18 December 1941, eleven days after the attack. They delivered their report on 23 January 1942. The Roberts Commission report begins:

JANUARY 23,1942

The White House

SIR: The undersigned were appointed by Executive order of December 18,1941, which defined our duties as a commission thus:

“to ascertain and report the facts relating to the attack made by Japanese armed forces upon the Territory of Hawaii on December 7, 1941.

“The purposes of the required inquiry and report are to provide bases for sound decisions whether any derelictions of duty or errors of judgment on the part of United States Army or Navy personnel contributed to such successes as were achieved by the enemy on the occasion mentioned, and, if so, what these derelictions or errors were, and who were responsible therefor.”

The Congress speedily supplemented the Executive order by granting the Commission power to summon witnesses and examine them under oath.

The Commission examined 127 witnesses and received a large number of documents. All members of the Military and Naval Establishments, and civil officers and citizens who were thought to have knowledge of facts pertinent to the inquiry, were summoned and examined under oath. All persons in the island of Oahu, who believed they had knowledge of such facts, were publicly requested to appear, and a number responded to the invitation and gave evidence.

Various rumors and hearsay statements have been communicated to the Commission. The Commission has sought to find and examine witnesses who might be expected to have knowledge respecting them. We believe that our findings of fact sufficiently dispose of most of them.

The evidence touches subjects which in the national interest should remain secret. We have, therefore, refrained from quotation of testimony or documentary proof. Our findings, however, have been made with the purpose fully and accurately to reflect the testimony, which as respects matters of fact is substantially without contradiction.

23 January 1942 was forty-seven days after the attack. 16 October 2005 will be forty-seven days after the levees broke. What are the bets we’ll see an investigatory report on the New Orleans disaster on that day?

Now what are the bets that Mr. Bush will still be comparing himself to Franklin Roosevelt on that day, even as he continues to tear down the last parts of Mr. Roosevelt’s legacy?

Comments on The Greatest Generation:
#1 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 12:34 AM:

Oh, this is getting better and better.

TIME Magazine has dug up dirt on Brown's credentials:,8599,1103003,00.html

#2 ::: Sean Ainsworth ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 02:38 AM:

The difference here, of course, is that a hurricane can't be blamed. Bush doesn't know how to blame idiots. Only evil. That's why he's not doing anything. He stands behind his "folks." Which is why Brown isn't going to be wearing anyone's boot up his ass anytime soon. Which is a shame.

#3 ::: Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 03:25 AM:

I was sitting in my hazmat operations class this evening with a bunch of other twentysomethings, the sort I think of as 'kids,' five or six years younger than me. And the details of this whole mess kept unwinding in my mind and distracting the hell out of me.

I feel such a yawning, hideous disconnect between the people actually training to deal with emergencies on the ground and the people supposedly in charge of directing us on a national level. I find it near inexpressible.

It makes me sick to my stomach. I know it's totally irrational, but it feels like the taint of these fuckers is somehow oozing downward and polluting what we do on a local level. As far as this administration is concerned, emergency responders are just like action figures-- they come in bulk, their expressions don't change, they can be posed wherever you want them, and they go back in the box when you're done playing with them.

#4 ::: Peter Hentges ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 04:49 AM:

A report of how volunteer firefighters are being used by FEMA from the Salt Lake Tribune.

Just further, sad evidence that the organization has done things extremely poorly in response to this disaster. I have outrage fatigue.

#5 ::: Brod ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 07:56 AM:

Point well-made.

One quibble:
"Rather than create plans for a hurricane strike on New Orleans, FEMA outsourced planning to a civilian agency."

On the face of it, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. FEMA is a "civilian agency." I don't think disaster planning should be lead by a military agency.

I wouldn't even object reflexively if planning had been outsourced to a private organization. The problem is that, who ever 'did' it, the planning failed to achieve even the "half-assed" standard of quality.

#6 ::: Andi ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 08:05 AM:

It is a lot easier to pretend you didn't know things were going to be bad than it is to take precautions for the possibility. If you prepare ahead and nothing happens, people get angry; if you don't, you can use the disaster to make yourself look like a triumphant hero (not that I think that ploy is really working, here). It's typical - and sick.

What I want to know is why we have the stupid rainbow of "alertness" that gets jogged around, and "higher security" is put in place for advanced warning, but an act of nature (which is entirely unpredictable) gets zilch. Please, explain the logic of that to me, because I don't get it.

#7 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 08:11 AM:

Rather than "civilian agency," how about "non-governmental agency" -- IEM of Baton Rouge, whose main qualification seems to be that their president was a Republican campaign contributor.

#8 ::: jane ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 08:11 AM:

Jim--no one has mentioned this, but your timeline is absolutely brilliant and should be sent to the Washington committee--or at least to key senators. I'd start with Pelosi and the Louisiana senators.

Or just send it to all of them! Even Frist and Hastert.


#9 ::: Styx ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 08:27 AM:

If you are looking at comparative timelines ... In Australia, Cyclone Tracy hit, without warning, around midnight on Christmas Eve 1974, totally destroying the town. The Australian Director of the National Disasters Organisation, and the Minister for the Northern Territory, arrived at Darwin Airport late (around 10.20 p.m.) on Christmas Day and quickly took charge of the relief effort. The Prime Minister, who was on an overseas tour of Europe, basically on the other side of the world, returned within three days landing in Darwin on the morning of 28 December 1975. He then proceeded to Sydney where he chaired a cabinet meeting two days late to determine the response for the medium and long term. Note: I am not comparing the magnitude of the death and destruction, I am just noting the response rate of the Australian Federal government. Maybe the response rate is a function of the differing size of the states? Or maybe it was easier in Australia because Darwin, being the principal town of the Northern territory was administered by the Federal Government anyway (no pesky state or local governments getting in the way)?

#10 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 08:49 AM:

An important question from my wife

My wife would like to know where to point her father and her sister, who are conservatives, for an explanation of this disaster which will not immediately alienate them and might get through.

It's her thought that the coverage of the disaster has mostly come from liberal sources, and that (for instance) stories from the right-wing Chicago Tribune would be more useful.

I'm putting it here because the post from Jim that heads this thread strikes me as such an item. With the exception of the last clause, it's not noticeably liberal--it just states the facts.

I don't have an answer for her--I love her folks, and don't care to think about this too deeply.

#11 ::: ElizabethVomMarlowe ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 09:06 AM:

I see another parallel, and it scares me. The Japanese were effective in their attack because they knew we were vulnerable and where. I wonder what the terrorists are thinking now. I mean, do they look at our response to New Orleans and think: "Sitting ducks. The whole US response system is ineffective and ripe for the killing. Let's step up our attack timeline."

I think another terrorist attack on US soil might also trigger martial law across the board.

#12 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 09:13 AM:

Here's a story from the Chicago Tribune.

Here's one from the Manchester Union Leader.

#13 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 10:06 AM:

Thanks, Jim--that's a start. I think she'd like a one-stop site, but that helps.

Anyone else?

#14 ::: Zed ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 11:34 AM:

But Bush's response has been so quick in some ways. Like promptly suspending the Davis-Bacon act in affected areas so federal contractors can pay less than the local prevailing wage on construction projects.

(Thanks for the great post, Jim.)

#15 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 12:09 PM:

"TIME Magazine has dug up dirt on Brown's credentials:"

Why are we only doing this *now*? He's been in the same position for *how many years*? And we're only now coming up with, "'Ere, wait, lookit this, this might not be the guy we want heading this sorta thing."?

I mean, provided, I'm sure all the information was there to be seen. But why didn't anyone look before?

#16 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 12:27 PM:

Because Joe "DINO" Lieberman put Michael Brown through a grueling 42-minute hearing.

That's why.

#17 ::: hrc ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 01:00 PM:

Fabulous comparison. I've shared it with many friends, I think it is so on point.

One question though. I've heard that some of the punishments meted out were later held to be overreaction. Do you know anything about this?

Again, thanks for a great post.

#18 ::: tavella ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 01:16 PM:

I've seen arguments that Kimmel and Short were to some extent scapegoats, in the sense that their higher ups were equally or even more complacent than they were, but even given that, I can't say that they were unjustly punished. They failed horrendously. They weren't stripped of their pensions or put in jail; just relieved of their commands and told to retire.

It's just that some others who probably should have been punished weren't.

#19 ::: marty ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 01:35 PM:

Brown has just been removed as FEMA's head.

Also, as to that report you alluded to

#20 ::: Andrhia ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 01:42 PM:

Breaking news says Brown was just relieved of duty regarding the Katrina be replaced, says rumour, by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen. Fascinating.

#21 ::: Andrhia ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 01:45 PM:

Oops, sorry :) I spent too long before I hit submit!

#22 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 01:59 PM:

Is he spending more time with his family?

#23 ::: OG ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 02:05 PM:

Not removed as FEMA's head, just recalled to Washington to "oversee the big picture".

#24 ::: jane ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 03:28 PM:

My guess is that, with TIME magazine outing his puffed-up resume, he had become a liability to the party. Not the bad job done as FEMA chief, not all the poor black folk dead and dying, but telling reportable fibs on his resume did him in.


#25 ::: Lizzy Lynn ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 03:56 PM:

Brown has been recalled to D.C. to "handle administrative work" by Chertoff. Good, but not sufficient; I want him fired. Of course, it won't happen, because firing him would suggest that it was a mistake to hire him, and as we all know, George Bush doesn't make mistakes...

#26 ::: janra ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 04:54 PM:

adamsj: Reason magazine (notoriously right-wing) has an excellent article about this and other disasters.

#27 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 05:42 PM:

One question though. I've heard that some of the punishments meted out were later held to be overreaction. Do you know anything about this?

Yes. In 1999, Congressment Spratt, Spence, and Skelton introduced a bill, H. R. 3050, to advance Rear Admiral Kimmel and Lieutenant General Short on the retired list to the ranks of Admiral and Major General, the highest ranks they held while active, on those very grounds.

The bill was referred the Armed Services Committee. I don't know what became of it afterward.

Since both Short and Kimmel were long dead by then, the results would have been purely administrative.

Here are the conclusions of the Army's investigation:

Notice that responsibilty is given to:

1. The Secretary of State -- the Honorable Cordell Hull.

2. The Chief of Staff of the Army, General George C. Marshall.

3. Chief of the War Plans Division, War Department General Staff, Major General Leonard T. Gerow.


4. Commanding General of the Hawaiian Department, Lieutenant General Walter C. Short, failed in his duties in the following particulars:

(a) To place his command in a state of readiness for war in the face of a war warning by adopting an alert against sabotage only. The information which he had was incomplete and confusing but it was sufficient to warn him of the tense relations between our government and the Japanese Empire and that hostilities might be momentarily expected. This required that he guard against surprise to the extent possible and make ready his command so that it might be employed to the maximum and in time against the worst form of attack that the enemy might launch.

(b) To reach or attempt to reach an agreement with the Admiral commanding the Pacific Fleet and the Admiral commanding the 14th Naval District for implementing the joint Army and Navy plans and agreements then in existence which provided for joint action by the two services. One of the methods by which they might have become operative was through the joint agreement of the responsible commanders.

(c) To inform himself of the effectiveness of the long-distance reconnaissance being conducted by the Navy.

(d) To replace inefficient staff officers.

Please notice that fourth particular, "failure to replace inefficient staff officers." That was a failure of leadership. Can you think of anyone else recently of whom that same failing can be be said?

#28 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 11:38 PM:

In case you folks are wondering.

This required that he guard against surprise to the extent possible and make ready his command so that it might be employed to the maximum and in time against the worst form of attack that the enemy might launch.

This is why command is hard, and...

To replace inefficient staff officers.

...this is why command is harder.

That little sentence really translates to "end the careers of men, some you may have know for decades, when it is apparent that they are unable to do the job. It is the single most reliable marker of a good commander -- that they will do this thing, that leads to the ruin of someone who might be a life long friend, in order to make sure the unit they command is able to perform the duties required of it.

Good COs sack bad staffers. Bad COs protect them -- and often, while doing so, sack good staffers.

Feel free to insert the letter "E" in the middle, if you must. Personally, the only letter I need here is "W".

#29 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2005, 12:34 AM:

Kimmel and Short failed to discharge their command responsibilities, that much is clear enough. No military commander at any level ever has access to perfect data, and military competence partly consists of accurate assessment of imperfect data, and acting according to the worst credible case.

They had been instructed to prepare their commands for war. They had been instructed that the enemy, in the case of war, would be the Empire of Japan. They knew that the Empire of Japan disposed of a considerable and able carrier fleet. They knew, or ought to have known, that the Empire of Japan had spent most of the previous half-century at war, and had never once preceded an attack with a formal declaration. Specifically Admiral Kimmel knew, if he had done his duty and studied his profession, that capital ships in harbour were good targets for attack by carrier-borne torpedo aircraft. The Royal Navy had carried out such an attack with great success on the Italian fleet at Taranto, and they had done it with ancient fabric and wire aircraft far inferior to the types that Kimmel knew, or ought to have known, were deployed by the Japanese Imperial Navy.

Yet they did nothing to prepare their commands to meet these threats. This was actually in disobedience to their orders, let alone in neglect of their plain duty. In my opinion, they were lucky to get away with being removed from command and retired with their pensions. There was good reason, in my opinion, to try them at court-martial for neglect of their duty, and a good case to be made for their guilt.

Now, let us consider the case of Lieutenant-General Percival in Singapore...

#30 ::: Bob Oldendorf ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2005, 02:08 AM:

...or MacArthur in Manila.

#31 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2005, 09:38 AM:

That little sentence really translates to "end the careers of men, some you may have know for decades, when it is apparent that they are unable to do the job.

A commander must, when the circumstances require it, give orders that would end the lives of those same friends, or of thousands of others, not personally known, who are under his command.

#32 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2005, 01:26 PM:

A commander must, when the circumstances require it, give orders that would end the lives of those same friends

Agreed, of course. Part of the essential deal of the military is "Oh, and by the way, you just might die." Note the unoffical USCG motto starts "You have to go out..."

But when you tell him "You, sir, are relieved," there's a bit of a difference. The difference is in the former, you order him out to die, and he might survive. In the latter, you metaphorically pull the trigger yourself, and it will destroy him.

#33 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2005, 01:59 PM:

An important point is that the investigations of the military disasters didn't wait until after WWII was over.

#34 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2005, 07:06 PM:

Senate nixes independent Katrina panel

Katrina-related legislation hits snags

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senate Republicans on Wednesday scuttled an attempt by Sen. Hillary Clinton to establish an independent, bipartisan panel patterned after the 9/11 Commission to investigate what went wrong with federal, state and local governments' response to Hurricane Katrina.

The New York Democrat's bid to establish the panel -- which would have also made recommendations on how to improve the government's disaster response apparatus -- failed to win the two-thirds majority needed to overcome procedural hurdles.

"Just as with 9/11, we did not get to the point where we believed we understood what happened until an independent investigation was conducted," Clinton said.

Republicans doing what they do best.

#35 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2005, 07:20 PM:

Did you'all read who has been put in charge of rebuilding New Orleans?

Karl Rove.

Son of a bitch.

#36 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2005, 08:25 PM:

Karl Rove?

No chance that the rebuilding of New Orleans will be tinged with honesty, is there?

Every time you think they've hit bottom Bush and his pals break through the crust and keep on going.

#37 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2005, 09:06 PM:

"City-building" is, after all, just a version of "nation-building."

Robert Moses would have found Rove small, petty, and so devoid of practical skill as to be useless for any constructive purpose; defamation lays no bricks. Actually, William Marcy Tweed -- whose Tammany, with all its numerous faults, fed and housed and employed large numbers of New York's underclass -- would likely have considered him infra dignitatem.

#38 ::: Lisajulie ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2005, 09:09 PM:

James D. MacDonald --

We're just f***ing doomed here.

I weep (I drink) and I contemplate where else I can go.

Karl Rove? Words aren't sufficient to express my disgust.

#39 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2005, 10:36 PM:

" . . . so devoid of practical skill as to be useless for any constructive purpose."

Now, now Mr. Ford. Mr. Rove could be used as fill or for compost. Lowly, but still a constructive use.

#40 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2005, 10:50 PM:

Stefan Jones: Mr. Rove could be used as fill or for compost.

Only if you wanted to create a superfund site.

#41 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2005, 11:27 PM:

Only if you wanted to create a superfund site.

I thought NOLA was a Superfund site now.

#42 ::: Earl Neller ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2005, 02:29 PM:

Reaganomics is largely responsible for the Katrina disaster. It was Reagan who said that the nine most feared words in America were: "I'm from the government. I'm here to help you." Local governments have been squeezed so much since 1980 that they can't do a good job on a normal day. Reagan succeeded in convincing Americans to reduce taxes, reduce government income, reduce government staffing, reduce government salaries and benefits, and thus reduce government programs.

I helped out with the aftermath of Hurricane Iwa in Hawaii in 1982. Local government workers, and other people (business, volunteers) handled the response. FEMA only helped to pay the bill. State, County, and Federal governments are the biggest employer in Hawaii. The situation is probably different in the Southern states.

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