Any bureaucracy’s rank-and-file workers are almost all competent, because if they’re not, they get canned. But the higher you go up the food chain — and salary scale — the more it’s clogged with pompous asses and blazing incompetents. I first learned this in the Navy watching The Great CRITIC Cock-up of 1970.
CRITIC was short for CRITICOM, which in turn was short for Critical Communication. Back in the Dark Ages of pre-satellite communication, CRITICOM was the military’s highest-priority message category. It guaranteed any teleprinter message sent from anywhere in the world would be on the president’s desk within 15 minutes.
Like everything in the Navy Security Group, it was top secret and very hush-hush. And like almost everything else in NSG, I learned more about it from Time magazines than I did in Navy briefings.
I was a Morse code intercept operator on a shore station in Bremerhaven, Germany, where all the ops were watchstanders. We worked two day watches, two mid watches, then two eve watches, and then had 80 hours off. There were four watch sections, so intercept took place 24-7.
Due to our schedules and chronic lack of sleep, watchstanders were a bunch of hollow-eyed zomboids who made it through the day and night fueled by coffee, cigarettes, candy bars and vile sarcasm.
Our opposite number were the day workers. They worked bankers’ hours with a five-day work week, though what actual work they did, I never found out. From what I could figure, they pushed paper, swapped sea stories and took hour-long lunch breaks. They could best be described as fat and happy.
The Sunday funnies
TGCC-u started on a Sunday like all the others, with my section in the radio shack by 0630, relieving the mid watch and ready to start our day.
There was nothing random about intercept. Each person had a specific target to monitor and copy, and each target had assigned call signs and broadcast schedules. The only surprise was if a target station suddenly signaled the start of a military exercise. And even that was choreographed: The station sent out a known series of letters followed by a code word. Exercises didn’t happen very often, but as soon as they did, we were all over them because we didn’t know if they were playing for keeps or not.
On that Sunday, something different happened. A kid named Nelson had time to kill before his target came up, so he decided to spin the dials and listen to whatever else was out there. And when he did, he picked up some station starting an exercise. But this one had a real twist to it: The code word was “Attaka.” He looked up the call sign and found out it was a Russian long-range bomber site.
The word sure looked like “attack,” so Nelson called the Russian linguist, who confirmed, yep, that’s exactly what it meant. So what next? Nelson did the only thing he could think of — he called over our section chief, Tex Berry.
Tex was the best chief I ever worked for. He was squared away and demanding, but he was fair, and if you did for him, he did for you. He also had a tongue that could slash through canvas.
“Chief, what should I do with this?” Nelson asked.
Tex took one look at it, shook his head and said, “What you should do, versus what you shoulda done, are two different things.”
“Whattaya mean?” said Nelson.
“What you shoulda done was ignore it,” said Tex.
“Why?” said Nelson. “It says, ‘Attack.”
“Nelson, are you et up with the dumbass?” said Tex. “First, that’s not our target, so someone else is already covering it. And second, you really think the Russians are gonna start an actual attack with a code word like ‘attack’?”
“I dunno,” said Nelson. “I just thought –“
“You didn’t think,” said Tex, cutting him off. “They wanted to start an attack, they woulda used a code word like ‘vodka’ or ‘samovar’ or some damn thing.”
“What’s a samovar?” said Nelson.
Tex just gave him a dirty look and went on.
“Now, thanks to you showing that nonsense to me, I gotta show it to the watch officer. And before you know it, every day worker’s gonna be here, oo-ing, ahh-ing, and generally making a big deal and a mess outta everything.”
Which is exactly what happened.
What goes up …
Tex called the watch officer, who was an ensign, named Mr. Ronson. He was a nice kid, fresh out of OCS, and fresh out of college before that. In short, he was a baby seal swimming in the great whites’ waters, a fuzzy-cheeked tyro with no idea how anything worked in This Man’s Navy. But he was sure about to find out.
Totally clueless, Mr. Ronson now had to rouse his superior from his Sunday sleep-in to seek his sage advice. His boss was the division officer, who stumbled into the shack about a half-hour later. He looked at the intercept, and this being the military, where almost no one either can or will make an independent decision, he called the operations officer. After the ops officer came in and had his look-see, he called the executive officer, who then called the captain, since he was the only one left.
Meanwhile, more day workers showed up, all of them hot to trot to send out a CRITIC. Because a CRITIC announced a potential disaster of epic proportions, it should have made everyone’s blood run cold, but it had exactly the opposite effect: For reasons I never understood, the lifers thought it was like winning the lottery. CRITICS were extremely rare — a lifer could spend his entire career seeing maybe one or two … if any. So, by some perverse twist in thought, they thought if they sent it, it’d be a feather in the station’s cap and they’d all get a pat on the head.
The captain finally strolled in about 1030.
He was a tall, cadaverous poop who had nothing to do with the men. The only times we saw him were at inspections, where he always managed to find an annoying dust mote, or maybe a white hat that was two degrees awry. If he’d had half a sense of humor, it would’ve died of loneliness. Captain Queeg was his literary counterpart, but since he was an Annapolis grad, his career was guaranteed, even if his fitness wasn’t.
… must come down
Surrounded by all his toadies, he pored over the message as if it was as long and complex as Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Finally, he looked up and called a confab in the division office. A couple of hours later, he returned with his vapor trail of suck-ups and announced the intercept warranted a CRITIC. The toadies all but gave him a rousing chorus of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” He dictated the CRITIC and then had Mr. Ronson sign it.
Of course, since sending it was wholly dependent on the captain, he should’ve signed it, not the most junior officer on the base — if not in the entire Navy. So why’d he do it? Read on …
The CRITIC went out and within minutes was on Nixon’s desk. But no matter: They’d delayed so long that if there had been an actual attack, the Russkis could’ve leveled Portland, Oakland, Ashland and Disneyland, and still been home for lunch.
A short time after the CRITIC had been sent, a response came back.
I don’t know its wording since I never saw it, but I found out its gist from a friend who did. Essentially, it said whoever authorized that nonsense was a dribbling idiot and a disgrace to the Navy officer corps that had turned out the likes of John Paul Jones, Chester Nimitz, Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, and so on and so forth.
It was the cheapest of cheap shots on the captain’s behalf, and a perfect example of how command structure works. But I’m sure it also convinced Mr. Ronson that if he’d ever considered a Navy career, he’d been sadly mistaken.
Interestingly, two years later when I was about to be discharged, Mr. Ronson was assigned my reenlistment talk. He was now a lieutenant JG, and while still a nice guy, he was no longer the naif he was when he got deep-sixed by the captain.
“OK, Seidenstein,” he began, “I know you’re not going to re-up, but I’ve gotta give you the talk anyway.”
Which he did.
When he finished, he said, “And now I have to ask you, do you want to re-up?”
“Well, Lieutenant, let me put it this way,” I said, “I wouldn’t re-up an hour for a two-hour coffee break.”
Then I added, “if that makes any sense to you.”
“I probably shouldn’t say this,” he said with a sigh. “But that not only makes sense — it makes perfect sense.”