Malice as the cause of a malign event is often evoked when stupidity is the real culprit. Conspiracies rarely get to action as a screw up typically intervenes before the planning stage is finished. When a conspiracy actually succeeds it is almost always the result of multiple failures of systems or structures that should have stopped the plot, eg 9/11. It’s a sort of ugly contest in which the highest level of incompetence is the deciding characteristic.

The military has a maxim that no battle plan survives the first contact with the enemy, yet no entity has more plans than the army and its likes. Why they have so many plans they’re sure won’t work is hard to fathom. Napoleon wanted lucky generals. The obvious reason is that in war, as in much of life, nothing goes according to plan and the laurel typically goes to the luckiest.

Consider the infamous Schlieffen Plan. The brainchild of Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen (1833-1913), the chief of the Imperial German General Staff. The plan was designed to bring about a quick victory for Germany over France before the war could degenerate into a protracted stalemate.

The plan can be summarized as follows:

  1. A devastating attack on France via Belgium as soon as Russia had announced her intention to mobilise.
  2. A holding operation on the Russian/German border to be carried out if necessary and if required.
  3. Germany had 6 weeks to defeat France.
  4. Germany would then use her modernised rail system to move troops from the French operation to the Russian front.
  5. Russia would then be attacked and defeated.

Its weaknesses were:

  1. The actions of Russia determined when Germany would have to start her attack on France even if she was ready or not.
  2. It assumed that Russia would need six weeks to mobilise.
  3. It assumed that Germany would defeat France in less than six weeks.

The merits of the plan and its execution are the subjects of endless debates about its feasibility. The plan was never going to be employed as intended because it involved contact with the enemy – the French. So what it was intended to avoid happened – a horrific interminable slaughter. The second iteration (in the 20th century) of the war between France and Germany was thought likely to be another prolonged stalemate; instead the French Army collapsed in days. Blitzkrieg worked. Then Germany invaded Russia.

Another scheme that didn’t go according to plan was the Gunpowder Plot – 1605. The plan was to blow up the House of Lords while James I was there and to install his nine year old daughter Elizabeth as a Catholic puppet sovereign. The leader of the plot was Robert Catesby. Guy Fawkes who is the only one of the conspirators to be remembered was in charge of the gunpowder which was in a cellar under Lord’s chamber. James’ men were alerted to the plot by an anonymous rat. Fawkes was caught, tortured, and sentenced to by hanged, drawn, and quartered. He fell off the scaffold and broke his neck before the terrible sentence could be executed. Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated on the evening of November 5 every year in England to mark the plot’s failure or perhaps just as an excuse to make a lot of noise.

Stalin had his five year plans. After the first one worked so well he kept turning them out for almost 40 years after his death. The last one was only abandoned with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The initial plan was to be a revolution from above. Among its many consequences was the Holodomor, a manmade disaster that starved millions of Ukrainians to death. Central planning by the Soviet state was so extensive that 35 million or so prices were set by the government. Nikita Khrushchev once joked (actually he was speaking the truth) that even after Communism took over the world that they’d have to leave Switzerland untouched so they’d be able to know what things cost. No matter the awful consequences of top down planning each generation thinks it will be able to do it right.

Robert E Lee’s plan to invade Pennsylvania wasn’t as ill conceived as invading Russia. In Russia, endless retreat will eventually stretch an interloper’s supply lines to the breaking point. Lee’s offensive, while not as grandly ill conceived as those of Napoleon or Hitler, was based on faulty reasoning. He believed that the north was so war weary that they could easily be pressured into a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy that would assure its independence. He held this view because he was reading the Copperhead newspapers that were the conveyers of the fake news of the time.

Lee knew that his supply lines were inadequate for his northern invasion and accordingly planned to live off the land. He also was supremely convinced that his men were superior to the Union troops and that they could and would do anything he asked. Hence the folly of Pickett’s doomed charge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Though the Union forces did not follow up on their defeat of Lee’s army by attacking it as it retreated, Gettysburg and the failure of the invasion of Pennsylvania signaled the inexorable decline and defeat of the Confederacy.

Not all plans fail. The Marshall Plan seems to have gone the way it was supposed to. But it seems an outlier among other big government spending schemes. Consider the War on Poverty, The War on Alcohol (Prohibition), The War on Drugs, The War on Cancer. Every time the government decides to fight a war solely or mainly by spending money, defeat appears inevitable.

We currently are trying to spend our way out of the consequences of a crazed reaction to an infectious disease. The only certainty is that we likely don’t know what we are doing nor where we are going. If your destination is anywhere, you’ll probably get there. Food, shelter, and clothing may be in short supply at journey’s end. No matter, keep going!