Purposeful stupidity: Big government and bureaucracy
In 1944 William Donovan, the head of the OSS, signed off on an odd memo called the "Simple Sabotage Field Manual" which should be mandatory reading today for it encapsulates perfectly how not to carry out one’s job.
Working today? Photo: REUTERS
H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the famed irascible American military commander, relates
that as a junior staff officer he was attached to a new headquarters and asked
by the commanding officer to prepare some coffee. Realizing that he would get
stuck in the unpleasant position of being a glorified secretary, if he allowed
himself to be pigeonholed into coffee-making, he brewed a terrible cup, weak
from cold water and not enough grounds. He was never asked to make coffee
MANY PEOPLE recall an instance in their past employment where they
noticeably avoided unpleasant tasks through feigning ignorance. Those who are
habitual smokers might recall taking enough smoke breaks so that they actually
spent more time coming and going, smoking and thinking about smoking, than they
actually seemed to do real work.
What is interesting is that in 1944,
William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the hard-driving Catholic head of the Office of
Strategic Services (now the CIA), signed off on an odd memo called the “Simple
Sabotage Field Manual.” The unclassified document was recently discussed in a
witty column by Haaretz’s Amir Oren, who concentrated on the Olmert verdict. But
Oren missed the larger context of what this fascinating piece of history can
Simple sabotage was what the OSS defined as the ability of the
ordinary citizen to resist the German occupation, and it could reasonably be
applied against other distasteful regimes. The logic was that the average
citizen does not have the expertise or desire to get himself killed in
derring-do James Bond style operations.
But the citizen can carry out
low-level acts of stupidity.
The document noted: “Where destruction is
involved, the weapons of the citizen-saboteur are salt, nails, candles, pebbles,
thread or any other materials he might normally be expected to possess as a
householder or as a worker in his particular occupation. His arsenal is the
kitchen shelf, the trash pile, his own usual kit of tools and supplies. The
targets of his sabotage are usually objects to which he has normal and
inconspicuous access in everyday life.” The ordinary man may not like acts of
destruction that run contrary to his “habitually conservationist
Mostly, though, “purposeful stupidity is contrary to human
nature.” Well, it was assumed so in 1944. But is that true today? THE OSS
imagined that the saboteur would eventually come to the point where he would
train others in his subversive methods. “Normally diligent, he should now be
lazy and careless.” He would begin to “think backward.” The memo outlined how
the man could resist. “Try to commit acts for which large numbers of people
could be responsible. For instance, if you blow out the wiring in a factory at a
central fire box, almost anyone could have done it.”
Bus drivers could
skip stops “by mistake.” Furthermore, “it is easy to damage a tire in a tire
repair shop... when you fix a flat tire, you can simply leave the object which
caused the flat in the first place [in the tube].” If you work at a hotel you
can cut people off “accidentally.”
Opportunity can be found at the
otherwise efficient post office; “Employees can see to it that enemy mail is
always delayed... or put it in the wrong sacks.” And if the taxi driver is a
patriot, “waste the enemy’s time and make extra money by driving the longest
If you have begun to suspect that in today’s world this
is what postal employees and taxi drivers do in their normal course of work,
then reading the section on how employees of a bureaucracy can do their part is
even more illuminating. A sample: • Insist on doing everything through
“channels,” never permit short cuts.
• Make speeches, talk as frequently
as possible and at great length. Illustrate your points with long anecdotes and
accounts of personal experiences.
• When possible refer all matters to
committee for “further study,” attempt to make committees as large as possible.
• Haggle over precise wording. Bring up irrelevant
issues as frequently as possible.
• Insist on perfect work in relatively
unimportant products... approve defective parts whose flaws are not
• Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be
• Never pass on your skill and experience to a new worker.
Snarl up administration in every possible way.
• Apply all regulations to
the last letter.
EVERYONE I showed these “simple sabotage” suggestions to
immediately looked at me askance, broke down in laughter and said, “I think my
office got the memo.” Anyone who has dealt with government agencies or worked
for a large company has experienced such headaches as described in the memo –
such as the recommendation to “see that three people have to approve
everything... multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing
instructions.” Yet these recommendations were designed to undermine an enemy
Are we the enemy? When you get in a taxi, board a bus, go to the
post office or file papers to start a business, are those we interact with
engaging in “simple sabotage”? Surely they are not knowingly doing
Yet our culture, especially that related to large institutions, has
increasingly taken on the attributes of this “resistance.” Who hasn’t sat
through a meeting where someone refers “back to matters decided upon at the last
meetings and attempt[s] to reopen the question of the advisability of that
decision”? Yet they aren’t undermining a regime, they are undermining themselves
and their colleagues, slowing down efficiency, wasting both the public’s money
and time with purposeful stupidity. The OSS manual should be mandatory reading
for those entering bureaucracy or joining a large firm, for it encapsulates
perfectly how not to carry out one’s job. And, it is hilarious.