Belmont Club

The Sad Life of Sergeant Franklin Rock

The classic comic book hero Sgt. Franklin John Rock eventually died, according to the canon, in the European Theater of Operation “on the last day of the war by the last enemy bullet fired”. He was not invincible, in fact the miracle was that he lasted that long.

Sgt Rock was doomed by the “curse of competence”, which all of us know. Jamie Tinker defines it as “when a person is talented, recognized as a great performer [he is] rewarded with… more work.” In Franklin Rock’s case the reward for being good at taking out one Nazi machine gun pillbox was to be assigned to take the next one, and the next, and the next … That grave was waiting for him. It was a miracle Rock made it to VE Day Minus One.

The metaphorical Sergeant Rock lived somewhat longer. Victor Davis Hanson describes his almost superhuman struggle: “we forget that since World War II, the global order has largely been determined by U.S. engagement. The historically rare state of prosperity and peace that defined the postwar world were due to past U.S. vigilance and sacrifice.” This geopolitical master sergeant has been taking one pillbox after the other since World War II.

America — as Sergeant Rock — reformed Germany, created modern Europe, set the stage for the Pacific peace.  It created the modern world.

Germany in the last 150 years has been at the center of three European wars, winning one, losing another, and destroying much of Europe and itself in the third. Yet present-day Germany has the largest economy in Europe and the fourth largest in the world. It is a global leader in high technology and industrial craftsmanship. For seventy years Germany, even after its second historic unification in 1989, has not translated such economic preeminence into military power, much less aggression. In fact, the strategic status quo of postwar Europe—with Britain and France, and their relatively smaller and weaker economies, as the continent’s two sole nuclear powers—remains mostly unquestioned.

That strange fact is due almost entirely to the U.S.-led NATO’s determination to protect the Eastern flank of Europe from potential enemies, to reassure Germany that it need not rearm to enjoy pan-European influence, and to quietly support the European nuclear monopolies of Britain and France. While the U.S. has always talked up the American-inspired United Nations, its first allegiance has always been to assure liberal democratic states in Europe of unshakeable American support. Any weakening of the latter might send Europe back into the tumultuous twentieth century.

A similar paradox exists in Asia. Pakistan and North Korea are two of the weakest economies and most unstable political systems in the region. Yet both nations are nuclear—despite rather than because of U.S.-led efforts at nonproliferation. In comparison, by any logical measure, far wealthier and more sophisticated states like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and perhaps the Philippines should all be nuclear, given their expertise, dangerous locales, and the looming shadows of three proud, and sometime aggressive nations—China, India, and Russia—in their midst. Yet none have. That fact too is largely because of American security guarantees.

And as recompense they gave him one pillbox after the other. But now he’s dead. He died on the last day of the Pax Americana. By his headstone stands Private Gomer Obama, the new squad leader.

Try Moving to Mars

Try Moving to Mars

The good news is that nobody calls “Obama to the front” any more. Poland grudgingly says the US is “still” and important ally, though it’s foreign minister candidly called its alliance under the Obama administration “worthless”. Japan is re-arming. Angela and Francois are dealing with Vladimir while John Kerry begs the Kurds to save Iraq. The reason nobody asks Obama to rush forward is everybody knows that he’s likely to get everyone killed.  The word’s out. For Pete’s sake, just let him play golf. It’s safer that way.

In place of Rock’s inspirational leadership the new motto among allies is “never volunteer for nothing”. When faced with resistance, say ‘what pillbox Lieutenant, I don’ts see no pillbox? Do you Moe?’

As al-Qaeda’s car bomb blitz starts up in Nigeria, as Putin takes apart Ukraine, as Isis drives through Iraq, the watchword is: don’t notice nothing. Because no screwup goes unrewarded. With Private Gomer as squad leader, all the goldbricks will get the cushy jobs. And all the volunteers will wind up like Frank Rock. By contrast Susan Rice’s career will be meteoric. The IRS commish can only be promoted. Recently the Daily Caller noted that the people behind the failed Oregon Health Care exchange got bonuses. Recently news outlets reported that an Obamacare contractor, SERCO, was paying people to do literally nothing. It is still hiring, naturally. There can never be enough people doing nothing.

Smart foreign policy used to be represented by France, which is selling an aircraft carrier to Russia “defying calls from the U.S. and other Western allies to keep the vessel out of the Kremlin’s hands.” The Obama administration, has learned to emulate Paris, to its credit. It is buying Russian helicopters for Afghanistan’s government, which will soon enough be in the hands of the Taliban, just like the Iraqi Humvees which are being driven around by Isis.

And when it all goes bad, Gomer can say. It’s all that guy Rock’s fault. Though Sergeant Rock would be appalled he’s dead. He can’t answer any of the accusations. But he’d still be alive if hadn’t been caught up in the sucker’s game of taking one pillbox after the other, while Gomer wrote up the unit after action reports back at headquarters.

The only way to escape the curse of competence is to privatize the costs and benefits of endeavor. In a world where Rock goes off on his own and Gomer does the same, their relative competences will determine their fates. Where Rock and Gomer are in the same unit, it is Rock who takes the risks and Gomer who gets the credit.

You have to separate the fates. Everybody who has roomed with goof-offs know how it works. The guy who washes the dishes is left with the pile. He may try to ignore the growing pile in the sink, but his roommates know that sooner or later the pile of unwashed plates will get to him.  So they stack it on, eventually claiming it is “their right to have clean dishes.” They picket the apartment. They chant outside his bedroom at night. The only way out is to room by yourself. Only then can you say goodbye to the dirty dishes and escape the Curse of Competence.

This was what the early immigrants to America tried at the outset. They tried to room by themselves. But sea and air travel caught up with America and now even people south of the border have moved in to the new apartment.  Perhaps the only escape from the Curse of Competence is perfecting cheap interplanetary travel; in getting away so far, outcomes are mapped to choices. For the Curse of Competence killed Rock in the end and only bought America grief.

But in the event, maybe not even Mars is far enough. Here’s the prediction. On the day Sergeant Rock’s descendants go to Mars everyone will want to go there too.

Recent items of interest by Belmont readers based on Amazon click-throughs.

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Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality
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20Pk Pad Scotch Brite Gray Ultra Fine 20Pk
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Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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