Revisionist History recently completed a four-part series on Air Force General and Distinguished Service Cross recipient, Curtis LeMay. As with all episodes of Malcolm Gladwell’s truth-telling podcast, the aim of the quadrilogy was to examine the “overlooked and misunderstood.” In LeMay’s case, that meant delving beneath the sheen of his accolades to understand how he got his hardware.
LeMay was what Gladwell termed a “problem solver.” As you listen to the episodes, you learn that the label is a bit of a misnomer. The “problem solver” does not receive this title because of their painstaking efforts to digest the full range of a problem’s complexities, nor their meticulous scenario planning of the impact of its potential solutions. A problem solver is concerned with one thing: getting rid of the problem; all other challenges are secondary. As commander of the XXI Bomber Command in World War II, Curtis LeMay was cutthroat, brutal, and completely unfazed by the inhumanity of using napalm to carpet bomb and effectively wipe out the city of Tokyo in 1945. The bombing proved to be the deadliest of WWII, and human history, and yes, that includes Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We know the rest of the story; Japan, staggering from the United States’ slash and burn tactics, surrendered. Problem solved.
To me, problem-solving is a decision-making strategy for the simple-minded; it legitimates the cognitively-lazy mantra that the ends justify the means. Do what you have to in order to win; worry about everything else later. In LeMay’s case, he said that maximum aerial brutality up front prevented a land invasion that would have claimed more lives later. I find this ridiculous. Who’s to say that taking civilian casualties into account — or in other words, being a more thorough decision-maker — would have invariably necessitated a land invasion later?
The “problem solver” strategy has long formed an indispensable piece of American political decision-making both at home and abroad. In August 1981, former President Ronald Reagan had a problem: 13,000 air traffic controllers had gone on strike in protest of what they viewed as low pay for a job that required long hours and special skills, yielding the cancellation of some 7,000 flights nationwide. Instead of resuming negotiations with the union, Reagan opted for brutal expedience. The issue wasn’t the air traffic controllers but the canceled flights. Why bother with the needs of the workers if you can restore air travel without them? He fired over 11,300 workers who went on strike (the few remaining had returned to work before his 48-hour deadline expired) and banned them from ever holding the position again for life (a ban later lifted by President Clinton in 1993). He couldn’t have done this without his sole focus on what he determined to be the problem, which is why he replaced the workers with 3,000 supervisors/nonrated staff and 900 military controllers, allowing the seemingly-devastating blow to air travel to shrink into little more than a scratch. Problem solved.
Problem-solving doesn’t always come with a heaping dosage of brutality. There are plenty of not-so-villainous American actors and organizations who have employed problem-solving in the sole-interest of achieving their goals and nothing else. The Democratic National Committee's singular focus on the problem of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders led it to rally around Joe Biden, the seemingly most expedient, pragmatic, path to victory. This approach failed to thoroughly evaluate the effectiveness of a Biden presidency, but so long as Trump and Sanders do not win, then problem solved.
We don’t always take issue with problem-solving. If it’s dressed up the right way, if it serves our interests, if we decide that it “worked,” then we are supportive. Curtis LeMay was eventually promoted to Chief of Staff of the Air Force in 1961; a patriot who, though controversial, is respected in mainstream politics as a lynchpin to a historic war effort. Ronald Reagan is similarly enshrined at an elevation of reverie in mainstream politics, credited in particular by Republicans for his success in sidelining unions from the American political landscape so many of us are proud of. And millions of us who are ready to vote Trump out of office at any cost have rallied around Joe Biden.
This is what makes it hard to argue against problem solvers in a time of crisis. In theory, it seems obvious that it’s better to think through all angles of a problem and make the decision that is most enduring in the long-term with respect to American peace, stability, and prosperity at home and abroad. But in practice, whether administrations, NGOs, researchers, or activists, political buy-in, resources, and time are just more difficult to secure when a decision-making protocol attempts to rely on thorough analysis amid high stakes.
Initially, LeMay’s approach to problem-solving got me thinking about another American leader who seems to be on his wavelength: Donald Trump. The methods the President’s administration has employed to address the coronavirus outbreak in the United States are similarly one-track minded, hyper-focused on the economy while exhibiting little concern for human life. To the current President, the problem isn’t so much the virus as it is the damage it inflicts on our economy. The solution is to keep the economy open as long as possible, send people back to their offices, keep schools and universities open, and allow sports fans to attend games and matches, among other highly dangerous activities that have put the US in rare company when it comes to its coronavirus death rate. Let people get infected, let the weak ones who don’t have the money for private hospitals, whose skin color has relegated them to poverty and poor medical care, who are the victims of autoimmune diseases, and who are over 65 die; repeat until we reach herd immunity. The ends justify the means right? When the weak fade away, the strong will continue to operate the economy. This is the sacrifice we have to make. Problem solved.
Or maybe not.
Perhaps Donald Trump is much less like Curtis LeMay than I originally thought. What if LeMay was entrusted with the power to manage our national response to Covid-19? Recall, he thought that carpet-bombing Tokyo would be a major blow up-front that would save lives later. Wouldn’t he then, after choosing to falsely bifurcate the virus and the economy as two separate issues, shut the economy down entirely as early as February? Wouldn’t a full-on lockdown from the get-go while simultaneously ramping up contact-tracing and testing on a massive scale have ultimately resulted in less damage than the Trump Administration’s approach in the long-run? In fact, a true problem solver would have put us in a better position to address both the coronavirus and economic challenges, since they are indeed correlated. LeMay’s complete shutdown of the economy would have reduced Americans’ exposure to one another.
So problem-solving isn’t exactly the approach of the simple-minded. Ironically it is sometimes a thorough evaluation of the matter at hand that unveils it as the most effective protocol. One could argue that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and New Zealander Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern applied problem-solving to a great degree of success when dealing with the coronavirus in their countries.
LeMay’s flaw is that he jumps straight to this cuthroat strategy without thinking first. “President LeMay” nailing the coronavirus response is merely a function of the certainty and predictability of his course of action. His strategy’s effectiveness in managing the current public health crisis is merely a byproduct of its fortuitous intersection with the challenge at hand.
Donald Trump is neither Chancellor Merkel nor General LeMay. He does not thoroughly evaluate problems and he does not know how to singularly and brutally focus on them on a consistent basis.
So when it comes to the coronavirus he’ll likely keep getting the same question: problem solved?