Sorry about that

'Where are WMD?/What a kick if he has none/Sorry about that.' Also: 7 other things worth a click.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq back in 2003, one of the top military intelligence officers on the ground was a colonel named Steve Rotkoff.

Rotkoff had a sense of history. Even as troops were fighting their way north (my little brother among them), Rotkoff wondered what it would be like to look back 15 or 20 years later (a/k/a, “now”).

He tried keeping a war journal, but he had almost no time. So, he wrote a single haiku each day—the minimum commitment necessary to document some what it all felt like.

Here’s a Rotkoff haiku from May 2003, after yet another fruitless day of searching for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction:

Where are WMD?

What a kick if he has none.

Sorry about that

Not that bad

This vignette comes from a book called State of Denial that I helped Bob Woodward write back in 2006.

I’m probably still not supposed to say how we happened to learn what was written in the diary. But that haiku has stuck with me. For nearly a decade and a half, it’s been kind of a personal joke.

I’ll make a mistake, and I’ll catch myself thinking aloud: “Sorry about that.”

The punchline is that whatever I screwed up, it can’t have been that bad, because at least I didn’t invade a country by mistake.

  • Forgot to pay a bill on time?

  • Left my keys sticking out of the lock on the front door overnight?

  • Showed up at 11 a.m. on the 9th for an appointment that’s actually 9 a.m. on the 11th?

Sorry about that.

Baseball, not basketball

I made one such mistake in my newsletter yesterday, and I’d like to correct it.

I wrote that John Altobelli, who perished with his wife and daughter, Keri and Alyssa, in the helicopter crash that took the lives of Kobe Bryant and five other people, had been the head basketball coach at Orange Coast College.

In fact, he coached baseball. Two readers caught it and let me know. I’m not beating myself up about it. I’m only human. But I’d like to do better.

Still, I’ve been thinking today about how quick we are to climb all over people who make inconsequential mistakes. At the same time, we wind up “just accepting” or “living with” bigger mistakes that have huge consequences.

Worst mistake ever

Take this one, possibly one of the biggest mistakes in history. I wrote about it last year for Inc.com. It’s the theory that during World War II, President Truman accidentally gave permission for the U.S. to drop its second atomic bomb on Japan.

How? Well, he’d authorized use of the atom bomb in general in July 1944, after the military told him that it had one bomb ready (which it dropped on Hiroshima on August 6) and that it would have another bomb “of tested type” ready by August 24.

But, the briefers never mentioned that there was also another bomb—one that hadn’t been “tested.” So, the second bombing on Nagasaki on August 9, which killed between 39,000 and 80,000 people, theoretically came as a surprise to the president.

We’ll probably never know for sure if there was really a misunderstanding, but we do know that the day after Nagasaki, Truman issued an order that no further atom bombs could be dropped without his express authority.

Anyway, had you ever heard of this theory before? I hadn’t before I found this professor’s Twitter thread last summer.

It’s a pretty big mistake to go untaught in high school history, though—to say nothing of business school and military leadership schools.

‘A general who loses a war’

I know I’m using a lot of military examples, but I’m going to close with one more, anyway.

It’s about another retired colonel, a man named Paul Yingling. He wrote a highly critical scholarly article about military leadership back in 2007, with the subtle (not) title: A Failure in Generalship.

One quote stays with me from this, too: “A private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

For those who might not know, colonels like Yingling was are outranked only by generals. So, his article basically called out all of his bosses and their colleagues.

That in turn might have something to do with why Yingling wound up retiring from the military a few years later, and now teaches at a high school in Colorado.

Mistakes were made, I suppose.

I just realized this is the second day in a row I’m calling out military generals for poor leadership. Maybe I should have spaced them out more.

Sorry about that.

7 other things worth a click

  1. Layoffs at Netflix. (The Hollywood Reporter)

  2. Apple had an amazing holiday season. (AFP)

  3. Podcasts are big. (Vox is set to make $20 million in 2020). (Digiday)

  4. He served a full 25 years in prison for rape. Now a state judge says he was wrongfully convicted. (New York Times)

  5. Passenger demand for flights to China is falling fast. (CNBC)

  6. A Harvard professor was arrested and accused of lying about his contacts with China. (NPR)

  7. A college course on "adulting" is so popular now that it has to turn students away. (KTVU)

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