Cover me

1992, 1945, and what can go wrong with a little miscommunication. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

During the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, President George H.W. Bush sent 4,000 U.S. Marines (plus an Army infantry task force) to back up the local police. This was done at the request of both the mayor of Los Angeles and the governor of California.

There’s a story (opens as .pdf) from that time about miscommunication that has a lot of relevance for today — even more than I first realized, in fact.

Two police officers were being trailed by a squad of Marines, when they were called to a domestic dispute. Someone inside the house fired a gun, and one of the cops turned to the Marines, yelling, “Cover me!”

  • The cop meant: Point your weapons at the house, ready to fire if a threat appears.

  • But to the Marines, this two-word command apparently meant: Open fire on the house (“covering fire” or “suppressive fire”), to keep everyone's heads down inside.

The Marines did as they’d been trained. They lit the place up, reportedly firing as many as 200 rounds.

Luckily, miraculously, nobody was hurt. But miscommunication like that can easily have tragic results—and often does.

Another example: Last year, I wrote about an academic theory that the U.S. military dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan after a misunderstanding with President Truman.

In short, the military had told Truman its plans in writing, and said that its next bomb “of tested type” wouldn’t be ready until August 24, 1945. However, the memo neglected to mention that there was was also an “untested” bomb that was ready to go.

So, Truman thought he had a few weeks to make a decision—only to learn after the fact that the military had dropped the second bomb, on August 9. He immediately ordered that no more bombs could be dropped without his express authorization.

I was thinking about these stories, along with several other episodes of momentous miscommunications in history, because of the sheer alphabet soup of federal agencies that have been facing off against protesters in Washington.

Among them: the Secret Service, U.S. Park Police, Bureau of Prisons, DEA, DHS, ICE, Customs and Border Patrol, U.S. Marshals, National Guard, active duty troops from the 82nd Airborne and 10th Mountain divisions, and quite a few others.

Having that many armed people in a tense situation, where they can’t communicate to each other well, just sounds risky. It’s even more dangerous, given that many haven’t been wearing identifiable uniforms with their agencies, names or badge numbers displayed.

The more I’ve thought about miscommunication though, the more it hit me that there’s a much bigger theme here. It’s not just the cops and the military. As Americans in 2020, many of us hear different things, even when we speak the same words.

Ezra Klein wrote about this on Vox the other day, exploring whether our current divisions are a bigger deal than what America went through in the in the 1960s.

Generally, he says no, he thinks the 1960s were even more divisive. But, he identifies one big difference:

There was one thing the 1960s had, that we, today, do not: a political system designed to absorb conflict and find consensus, or at least stability.

I do not seek to smother the age in nostalgia. That calm was often purchased at terrible moral cost ... as in the union of Dixiecrats and New Deal Democrats that upheld segregation for decade after decade. But our divisions did not track our parties.

Today, our political coalitions are our social divisions, and that changes everything.

I’m not convinced the dynamic he describes was really a good thing. We are paying the price now for propping up racism. Some of us have been paying the price for a long time.

But it’s a fact that people’s ideologies now are a big part of their identities. Folks used to joke about “mixed marriages” — a Republican who married a Democrat, for example. That’s really hard to imagine today.

And hard to communicate. People don’t only disagree; they literally can’t understand how the other side could possibly think as they do.

Frankly, it seems like we’re all in the midst of a sea change. I’m optimistic. But I’m the process, miscommunication, polarization and ideology are a dangerous mix.

I was going to end on a high note, and write that, “of course, maybe the stakes aren’t quite as high now as they were for the Marines in Los Angeles or for Truman and the military.”

But you know what? That’s beginning to feel a bit like wishful thinking.

7 other things worth your time

  • Staffers at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Philadelphia Inquirer all spoke out against their employers, over an op-ed, charitable giving, and a headline that read, “Buildings Matter, Too.” (CNN, Mediaite, NY Post)

  • Amazon banned a book critical of the coronavirus lockdown, but then backed off after complaints (including one from Elon Musk). (Washington Post)

  • WalMart says it’s changing its hours permanently, to allow people over age 60 to shop from 6 to 7 a.m. on Tuesdays. (The List)

  • Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, said Thursday she isn’t sure she’ll support the president’s reelection campaign. Within hours, Trump tweeted that he’ll campaign against her in 2022. “Get any candidate ready,” he tweeted “good or bad, I don't care, I'm endorsing. If you have a pulse, I'm with you!” (NPR)

  • U.S. schools are laying off hundreds of thousands of people, leaving a big question about how and when they’ll be able to ramp up again. (Reuters)

  • Authorities say they’re anticipating a “one of the largest” protests ever in DC on Saturday. (WTOP)

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