OPINION | Wouldn’t it be nice to know what we’re doing?

I walked upstairs to stand at the top of the stairway wondering, why did I come up here? Earlier, my wife had said, “What was it you were saying before I interrupted?” I had no answer because the thought was lost. Why is it that plans and purposes drift off course so often?

Ramp the scale up a bit to put yourself in the shoes of Marysville’s City Council when they looked at the city’s recently vacant restaurant at Cedarcrest Golf Course. They wondered, how did we get here? The city had planned for a new operator in a renovated facility to boost revenues. When that didn’t happen they were forced into a reappraisal.

Money issues drift off course. Ask Seattle’s City Council how the Alaskan Way replacement turned into a tunnel project at twice the cost of an above-ground route. Or ask why the King Dome was replaced in the face of two ballot issues that said, don’t do it.

Sometimes drift is calculated, as when an unseen hand promotes a modest project with the intent of altering it, once started. A classic example was when the permit to build a 250 foot-tall dam at Grand Coulee somehow produced a 550 foot-tall dam.

Sometimes what seems to be mission-creep is actually the stripping away of a sham mission to reveal an underlying purpose as when U.S. forces went on a tragic snipe-hunt for non-existent WMDs in Iraq before redefining the mission to depose Saddam Hussein and secure Iraq’s oil fields.

Mission-creep is the term military analysts use for strategic wandering. Should they be pressed for an excuse, they cite the “The fog of war,” an old concept that describes situations in which so much is unpredictable that no one knows exactly which way to turn. The point is, whether I’m standing at the top of the stairs wondering why I’m there or am a commander who can’t seem to make peace among warlords, it helps to know why you went there in the first place.

Mission-creep invades families when the strong sense of mission accompanying the birth of a first-born yields to selfish pursuits and a craving for adult toys and games. Mission-creep subverted public education when schools were tagged with the mission of being sitters for society’s disruptive and unmotivated children. Mission-creep swayed health care when the mission of providing pure health insurance drifted to providing profit potential for investors. But does an administration that raises taxes after campaigning not to raise taxes demonstrate mission-creep?

It is too easy to fault leaders for mission-creep. In fact, dropping one course of action to favor another is most often a practical recognition of change. Maybe an old way can’t work, given the present situation. Maybe once into it, the situation wasn’t what everyone thought. Maybe so much has changed, and changed so fast, that yesterday’s mission-statement isn’t relevant.

Mission-creep is a certainty whenever a person, organization or government tries to bring about change in an insufficiently understood foreign bailiwick. Foreign might mean my neighbor’s house or it might mean a nation on the other side of the globe. To Iraqi or Afghan citizens, foreign also describes gun-toting Americans prowling streets and alleys, none of whom knows how it feels to be an Afghan. How many of our troops have taken courses in Middle-Eastern History? How many of their leaders have lived in the Middle-East as civilians? How many speak the language? How many know Afghan sensitivities well enough to know what kind of jokes get laughs?

The fact of mission-creep should be a reality check. Constant mission adjustments are inevitable each time we get into situations we don’t understand. But we keep doing it. Imagine the pressure on combat officers who might risk discipline if they depart from orders to stay alive — or screw up a mission by sticking to orders.

Greg Mortenson’s mission never suffers mission-creep. Mortenson, author or Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, is a school-building American who is respected in Afghanistan and Pakistan for taking enough time among mountain people to understand what they really need. He’s still doing what he set out to do.

Mortenson’s level of understanding came from years of learning. Wycliffe Society Bible translators live with remote tribes for eight years, earning trust and soaking up folkways before attempting to translate into a native language. Canada’s Kenting Earth Sciences implants teams of ethnologists into remote places where planned dams, power lines or roads threaten native cultures. Their knowledge helps designers to minimize mission-creep.

We live with the uncomfortable reality that the world is besieged by change, making it nearly impossible for planners to connect dots that don’t hold still. We could help the situation by educating our young to understand this and that others have the right to march to their own drums. In the short term, we might restrain ourselves from butting in and pray that worst outcomes won’t be so severe that they can’t be fixed.

Comments may be addressed to rgraef@frontier.com.

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