Commentary Magazine


Mistake of the Day

As an avid chessplayer–along with my day job at COMMENTARY, I am a coauthor of the New York Sun’s weekly chess column–I have had a lifelong fascination with blunders, of which I have made more than a few.

This interest has extended to domains far afield from the 64 squares of the chessboard. Mistakes of all sorts, from the trivial to the serious, from typographical errors to the misdesigns that lead to collapses of bridges, from slips of the tongue to intelligence failures, have been a subject that has gripped my attention and is reflected in some of my writing (see, for example, How Inept is the FBI? and Could September 11 Have Been Averted?).

Why do mistakes occur, and what can we do to avert them? One good starting place for answers is the work of Charles Perrow, author of Normal Accidents, which explores mistakes in industrial settings. As the aviation industry, among others, has demonstrated, there are numerous ways to reduce the accident rate (i.e., the mistake rate), but it cannot be brought down to zero. As the clichéd maxim has it: to err is human. There are limits to the functioning of human cognition, and the impact of these limits is magnified inside organizations of all sorts.

Today’s Mistake of the Day is on the decidedly trivial side of the spectrum. It involves the Army, Navy, and Airforce. As reported by USA Today, despites its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the military has been unwittingly seeking recruits on, a website where you can connect with others who are “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or everyone else.”

“This is the first I heard about it,” said Maj. Michael Baptista, advertising branch chief for the Army National Guard, which will spend $6.5 million on Internet recruiting this year. “We didn’t knowingly advertise on that particular website,” which he said does not “meet the moral standards” of the military.

Subjects for further inquiry: how many “advertising branch chiefs” does the U.S. military have, how are they recruited, and what are the limits on their cognitive functioning?

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