The impresarios of the botched Iranian rescue are predictably denouncing "hindsight" -- though it is actually a useful and unjustly maligned form of vision -- and are invoking voodoo-style explanations of a sound design thwarted by the perverse technological god of "equipment failure."
There is easy advantage in focusing attention on failed hydraulics and gyros. Experience with the undependability of manufactured goods is so prevalent that folk wisdom has quickly adopted what was once a wry adage among engineers, Murphy's Law, which holds that whatever can go wrong will.
But as a matter of fact, the risks and consequences of something going wrong get much bigger when desperate politicans turn hopefully to "technological fixes" for difficult political problems. And it is that context that the episode of helicopter-borne gangbusters in the Iranian desert merits some examination.
Fascination with high-tech assaults on political and social problems isn't confined to the United States, but it runs stronger here than anywhere else, whether the target is cancer, law enforcement or energy. In each instance, the premise that causes politicians to pay attention is that clever and vigorous application of far-out techniques and equipment can bring a desired solution out of an otherwise intractable problem.
Thus, the 1972 War on Cancer responded to growing demands for environment cleanups of cancer-causing substances by promising new wizardries in detection and treatment. Law-enforcement technologists promised great benefits from high-intensity street lights and computerization of the police. And until just recently, national energy policy enthroned the politically easier course of expanding rather than conserving supplies.
For hard-pressed politicans, the seductive appeal of high-tech expertism is difficult to resist, given the sincerity and sales resources of the intertwined bureaucracies, in and out of government, that want to do their thing.
The main theme of the administration's apologies for the aborted rescue attempt is that if those few, highly improbable, mechanical mishaps hadn't occurred early in the mission, all would probably have gone well for the rescuers because, as Defense Secretary Brown explained at a press conference, "the next stage was the part of the mission of which they were most confident."
There is the voice of technological hubris, quite possibly enchanted by the space-age gadgetry, such as night-vision devices and incapacitating chemicals, carried by the raiding party. These are indeed clever products of the world's best laboratories, but their wondrous capabilities might tend to obscure some of the mundane realities that persist on earth -- such as the desert sand that clogged one helicopter's engines and that chance bus load of local folks whose route brought them close to the landing area. The problem wasn't that what could go wrong did go wrong; it was that an immensely complicated high-wire act can easily be wrecked by a slight error or unforseen event.
What was to come next, we'll never know, and perhaps fortunately so for the hostages and their would-be rescuers. But what's evident from what has come out so far about the rescue plan is that it depended upon the successful accomplishment of a long series of steps -- many of them highly trouble-prone, such as helicopter performance. Even allowing for inside help and total surprise -- increasingly unlikely as the raiders got closer to Tehran -- it is doubtful that any amount of Star Wars weaponry could have safely extracted all the hostages and their rescuers. As disappointing as the outcome was, what ought to be contemplated is that it is preferable to the carnage that might have ensued if the raiders had gone on.
However, political desperation and technological hucksterism have an irresistible affinity for each other. There was a failure, but equipment was the least of it.