Thursday, March 28, 2013

Paul Kennedy's Back-office War
(With Cameo Walkon from Jon Gertner)

Here's a shoutout for Paul Kennedy's Engineers of Victory, a fine book even if it is difficult to say just exactly what it is about.  The subtitle is  The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War which is perhaps a bit closer to the mark except you could say that everybody was a problem solver from George C. Marshall on down.  Of course that isn't quite what Kennedy has in mind.  A better pitch would be that it is a book about learning-by-doing, about getting things wrong and then staying lucky long enough to get them right the next time.  Closer, but still not enough.  Better to say that in context, what really gets Kennedy's juices flowing are a few stories about individual innovators, mosly  unhonored and unsung (until now) and also, not at all incidentally, the system(s) that were able to assimilate and operationalize their innovation.

In this context, I suspect Kennedy's favorite character in the whole book is an otherwise virtually unknown British test pilot named Ronnie Harker who tried out a US P-51 fighter aircraft and, in an almost seat-of-the-pants intuitive judgment call, suggested that they could vastly improve its performance by dropping in a Merlin 61 Rolls-Royce engine.  Harker's suggestion turned out to be not just right but dramatically right: in effect he turned the air war around: the Allies had been taking near-intolerable losses: after Harker they were able to reclaim the upper hand.  

Of course it wasn't just Harker. Kennedy tells it, the happy ending lies at least as much in the story of how Harker's idea turned into action: how the British operational structure turned out to be loose and flexible enough to know a good idea when they saw one, and how the Americans were able and willing to cooperate in production.

It's a lovely yarn and there are others in the book almost, if not quite, as good.  One gets the sense that there would be more such to tell if only we could find them.  But in a way, that's the problem: Kennedy seems to have done a prodigious job of research but some the stuff you would want most to know continues to repose behind a veil of wild surmise.   Kennedy himself gives the game away at the end of a superb story about the  epic resurgence of the Russians and and after Stalin grand, ending with their savage reprisal/conquest of Germany itself,
 But what about the lesser-known contributors to the Soviet victory? Who were the problem solvers in that part of the story, the equivalents to the innumerable players on the Anglo-American side whose tales are so readily accessible? Clearly they existed and made enormous contributions...
Unh hnh.  It's no real disrespect to Kennedy--after all, the Russian archives just aren't available.  But there is so much more you wish he could tell.

  Even with this limitation, though, I'd shelve Kennedy's offering close to another of my favorite books from the last year: Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.  Like Gertner's, Kennedy's is a delight to read, and gives you a warm glow, if tinged with a dash of wry nostalgia, about a time when things more or less worked.  And can contrast, for example, Tom Ricks' The Generals, in which he offers an account of the Post-War Army's descent into careerism and heroin addiction.

Both Kennedy  and Gertner are well worth the time and effort, even if Kennedy seems a tad  unfinished. Still, in the end you've got the unsatisfied sense that you've got a just-so story.  You could say they both tell you lots of good stuff about institutions that did what you would have wanted them to do, but very little about who or how.  Where's the secret sauce?  Isn't there some way we can have it bottled and stocked in every market in the land?

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