Military Intelligence

Bill Coffin


June 1, 2010

June 6 marks the 66th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, that moment on June 6, 1944, when the Allies launched the largest amphibious battle in history and began the final push to overturn Nazi tyranny. The logistics, planning and sheer level of risk management involved in D-Day were unprecedented, and one can only imagine the stress upon those tasked with setting the best time to launch the invasion. To some, D-Day seemed like a reckless gamble, but to others, it was a risk that had to be taken. The nature of any military operation, especially one where the fate of nations lies in the balance, makes it almost impossible to make a rational decision, and military history has proven this true more times than we can count, usually with tragic consequences.

But sometimes, the consequences aren't tragic as much as they are, well, puzzling. We don't even need to look beyond World War II for examples. The stakes in that war were so high that it gave both sides more than enough reason to pin their hopes on innovations that in a saner time would have been rejected out of hand. The Office of Strategic Services (or OSS, the forerunner of the CIA), for example, launched a ton of weird weapons projects, but few were stranger than the infamous "Who, Me?" project, in which the OSS meant to provide French resistance fighters with poop-scented perfume atomizers. Their purpose? To spray them covertly on German officers in order to erode enemy morale. The project was canceled after only a few weeks. It's a wonder it even made it that far.

Over on the Soviet side, the Red Army came up with the anti-tank dog. Here's the concept: fit a dog with explosive-filled satchels and a tall antenna on its back. Train it to run under enemy tanks, and when the antenna bends, the dog explodes, taking out the tank. The problem was, the Soviets had to train the dogs to like being under tanks. And having no German ones to spare, they trained them to go under Russian ones, whose particular mix of fuel smelled differently from German Panzers. In the heat of battle, the scared dogs often ran back to the tanks they knew, and blew up their masters. Served them right. Only bad guys blow up dogs.

But perhaps the grand prize for weird innovation goes to the British, whose resource scarcity and concern over imminent invasion empowered some truly bizarre plans. Chief among these was Project Habakkuk, a plan to carve an iceberg into an aircraft carrier. It seemed like a good idea until somebody pointed out a few problems. Not only were the resources required more than it took to build a regular aircraft carrier, but pilots didn't fancy landing on ice and-oh yeah-it's a freaking iceberg. The only people who should militarize them are comic book villains. Case closed.

But the Brits didn't stop there. The Admiralty's Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development (which sounds like the kind of place where Wile E. Coyote would have had a field day) built, among other things, the Great Panjandrum, a rocket-powered, explosives-laden cart meant to zoom up the beaches of Normandy and blast through German defenses. Initial tests were huge failures and were carried out near popular holiday beaches, leading some to think the whole thing was a big ruse meant to distract the Germans. It certainly distracted enough British vacationers, though. We might laugh at the British for the Panjandrum, but at least they still had the risk appetite to go on vacation in southern England during a war. Bravo.

You have to feel for the desperation that inspires such wartime lunacy, but once peace breaks out, what excuse is there? In the 1950s, the Italians commissioned an entire fleet of bazooka-mounted Vespa scooters, which is an insult to both Vespas and bazookas, really. Meanwhile, the British were busy building the Blue Peacock, a tactical nuclear weapon that was designed to be triggered by live chickens. (I'm not kidding, Google it.)

It all shows how in any culture of decision-making where extremely high levels of risk are involved, it is all too easy to get trapped in a pattern of thinking that relies on equal parts "that's how we've always done it" and "anything that works isn't a stupid idea." And the military has no monopoly on this; all kinds of enterprises make equally colossal missteps, and usually it comes down to one really bad decision after another, leading to things like fecal perfume, exploding dogs and chicken-powered nukes.

What will they think of next? I'm not sure I want to know.
Bill Coffin is a freelance writer and former editor in chief of Risk Management.