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The Atlantic Monthly | September 2002

[From "Homeland Insecurity," by Charles C. Mann]

 
Remember Pearl Harbor

Surprise, when it happens to a government, is likely to be a complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing ... It includes gaps in intelligence, but also intelligence that, like a string of pearls too precious to wear, is too sensitive to give to those who need it. It includes the alarm that fails to work, but also the alarm that has gone off so often it has been disconnected. It includes the unalert watchman, but also the one who knows he'll be chewed out by his superior if he gets higher authority out of bed. It includes the contingencies that occur to no one, but also those that everyone assumes somebody else is taking care of. It includes straightforward procrastination, but also decisions protracted by internal disagreement. It includes, in addition, the inability of individual human beings to rise to the occasion until they are sure it is the occasion—which is usually too late. (Unlike movies, real life provides no musical background to tip us off to the climax.) Finally, as at Pearl Harbor, surprise may include some measure of genuine novelty introduced by the enemy, and possibly some sheer bad luck.

The results, at Pearl Harbor, were sudden, concentrated, and dramatic. The failure, however, was cumulative, widespread, and rather drearily familiar. This is why surprise, when it happens to a government, cannot be described just in terms of startled people. Whether at Pearl Harbor or at the Berlin Wall, surprise is everything involved in a government's (or in an alliance's) failure to anticipate effectively.

Foreword by Thomas C. Schelling to Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (1962) by Roberta Wohlstetter

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Charles C. Mann, an Atlantic correspondent, has written for the magazine since 1984. He is at work on a book based on his March 2002 Atlantic cover story, "1491."
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 2002; Homeland Insecurity; Volume 290, No. 2; pp 81–102.