The U.S. military is good, but nobody is THAT good

November 10, 2014


When an angry electorate headed for the polls Tuesday, the questions on their minds probably included: Why did a Liberian man with Ebola get into this country, and how did the authorities so botch his treatment that two American nurses were infected with the virus? How did a convoy of Islamic State fighters cross a desert in plain daylight without being blasted to smithereens by the U.S. Air Force? How could U.S. automobile companies commit one gaffe after another without being called to account after Washington bailed them out?

The one answer to all these questions is: President Barack Obama screwed up.

Voters cannot imagine in this age of super-smart technology how any of these things could have happened unless there was a failure of leadership. But there is another possible answer — the public’s expectations were inflated to begin with, and not by Obama.

We live within a myth of efficiency. That the world actually operates with a cool precision — the way it does in the movies. Seen through this prism, you could say that voter frustration is not so much the result of reputed Oval Office incompetence as of our having been spoiled by the movies and television. Americans cannot accept the fact that our abilities are seldom as good as movies make them out to be.

gab -- black list

Watch the popular television thriller The Blacklist, for example, and here is what you will see every single week: A brilliant young computer savant working for a special FBI unit can, with a few keystrokes on his laptop, root out any piece of information, however arcane; determine the whereabouts of any person, however covert, and find patterns in just about anything, however disparate. Not only does he do these things. He does them instantaneously. Yet we never suspend disbelief. Not because it would undermine our enjoyment of the program, but because we actually believe in the extraordinary powers of the computer and computer technician. It just doesn’t seem that far-fetched.

But the reason we believe in this technological omnipotence is not because we have ever experienced it ourselves. In fact, the experience of most of us, who curse daily at our computers, is quite the opposite. Rather, we have become acclimated to the idea of efficiency because the computer is now the primary deus ex machina of television and movies. In the end, salvation is always a few keystrokes away — albeit keystrokes that are invariably racing a digital clock and that manage to win by milliseconds.

gab -- neeson

Even so, Americans’ faith in efficiency isn’t just a matter of watching cinematic technology. It is also the result of our belief in the power of human agency. The remade action star Liam Neesen, for example, routinely vanquishes dozens of villains with a bit of ingenuity and, clearly, a lot of training. He is as efficient as any machine. Denzel Washington in The Equalizer accomplishes the same feat — starting his watch and then orchestrating the mayhem second-by-second until his enemies lie in a heap on the floor. Matt Damon, in the Bourne movies, has killed dozens of bad guys with equally cool dispatch.

The message is not that these are superheroes genetically endowed with special powers. They are CIA-trained operatives, and the message is that they are so disciplined, so aware, so well-conditioned they have become super-efficient.

Movies have shown us this efficiency so relentlessly that it has entered our consciousness as fact — a fact that is reinforced by our leaders telling us that our technologies, our agents and our SEALs and Rangers can do anything. They can do a lot. Think of the SEALs who arrive at the end of Captain Phillips and terminate the messy kidnapping attempt with a surgical effectiveness, or the SEAL Team 6 that cuts down Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. They just can’t do it all the time everywhere. You need Liam, Denzel or Matt for that.

gab -- captainphillips

The corollary here is that if the mechanisms for efficiency are all around us, then the reason the world is so messy and inefficient must be because the people in charge keep blowing it. Indeed, the myth of efficiency compels us to live with a ceaseless frustration, and even anger, at the leaders and bureaucrats who must be responsible. That frustration influenced the 2014 midterm election.

Not to absolve anyone of responsibility for things not having gone as smoothly as we would wish, but the terrible, non-movie secret of life is that people are basically inefficient, and technology, though it has its upside, is nowhere near as efficient as we would like. Or as the movies and TV portray them. Much as we may hate to admit it, we live in an inefficient world, perhaps because of our leaders’ inefficiencies, but in much greater part because inefficiency is the human condition.

No humanly devised system can keep every person exposed to Ebola from our shores. No system can wipe out Islamic State with pinpoint bombing. Because the human beings who operate these systems are not machines. They are fallible. They absentmindedly touch their faces while taking off their hazmat suits after treating an Ebola patient.

In fact, machines aren’t even machines — at least not as the movies portray them. So it is not the failings of technology or the dearth of real-life supermen — or the shortsightedness or our leaders — that have betrayed us. It is our own unrealistic fantasies about technology and supermen.

The movies spoiled us. We should know better.


PHOTO (TOP): Matt Damon in The Bourne Ultimatum. REUTERS/Courtesy Universal

PHOTO (INSERT 1): The Blacklist. REUTERS/Courtesy NBC

PHOTO (INSERT 2):Liam Neeson REUTERS/Courtesy 20th Century Fox

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Danzel Washington in The Equalizer. REUTERS/Courtesy Sony Pictures

PHOTO (INSERT 4): Navy SEALs arrive on the scene in Captain Phillips. REUTERS/Courtesy Columbia Pictures

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

President Obama has done an outstanding job in all of these areas, plus a lot more. He single-handedly saved the Euro a few years ago (and hence prevented another Great Depression) with inter-bank loans that few people even noticed, after he had saved the U.S. economy (no thanks to the Republicans). He has arranged for Russia to destroy chemical weapons in Syria, which the Republicans barely knew existed while they were spending $3 trillion chasing imaginary ones in Iraq. He started out his administration killing three pirates in an Navy SEAL operation, and then went on the get Bin Laden. He has reacted correctly to Ukraine, while Mitt and the Republicans would have started WW-III over a country that isn’t even a part of NATO.

I thought at first that Republicans were merely expressing sour grapes, but if this article is correct and they believe Hollywood (which I never watch anyway), they are even more detached from reality than I supposed.

Posted by Jim1648 | Report as abusive

Ah, so now it’s Hollywood’s fault. Just another backdoor attempt at saying the electorate was too stupid to support Obama any longer, movies dulled their minds. Got it.
All the die-hard progressives just can’t believe Obama is such a failure, they can’t wrap their deluded minds around the concept. The sad reality is that Obama is a fail as a president, and even those that supported him before decided to stay home and not support him any more. End of story.

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

I see the liberal media just won’t quit. Stop making excuses for this sorry “president.” It’s been one big screw-up after another for the past six years, then they try to cover it up. It is time for the media to quit giving this guy a free pass. The people have finally woken up (did you happen to see the election results?), why don’t you? I can’t wait to see Congress get some bill to Obama’s desk now that Reid is gone. We will see who the real obstructionist is.

I can’t take anyone seriously who honestly thinks this guy has done a good job leading this country. It just blows my mind.

Posted by InTune | Report as abusive

It is true that Americans have always had unrealistic expectations of Obama’s abilities.

One question that has never been answered: How can ISIS, or for that matter any terrorist organization, attack and hold pumps, mines, refineries, or even cities, without being completely exterminated? In these cases, the terrorists location is well-known (to the square centimeter) and is static by definition? Since the location of the terrorists is well-known in location and time, all any competent commander has to do is arrange a meeting of those terrorist with appropriate munitions.

The fact that ISIS has even one tank or aircraft anywhere, or for that matter any armed forces in any static location, completely vitiates the premise of this article. Thanks though for trying.

Posted by j9h53a7jq | Report as abusive

Obama is the myth.

Posted by Plinius | Report as abusive

This is where YOU and other pundits really get it wrong. You continually think Americans are stupid. You think we do not see details and think in such dumb logic as you write about.
No…it is NOT that we are upset with somebody getting in with Ebola. We are upset because we remember being promised it would never come here as a pacifier, to be stalled. We know it can come…we just understand the words given are lies.
And we resent being told everything is covered…only to see the so called safeguards being changed every time we turn on the news.
We also realize the advance of ISIL was preventable. Although we are always told the polls showed we all wanted to leave Iraq, Obama made it his lead call into office and lead the charge. Leaders should know MORE and as we recently found, the polls are all lies as well.
So stop advancing the popular pundit crap when we all know the public has been buried by scandals from this president and his historically inept staff for years.
Remember the IRS?
Remember the Guns for Mexican thugs?
Remember Benghazi?
Remember the NSA and spying on even reporters?

Posted by ppellico | Report as abusive

Thank you for this, so elegantly put. Your point is, if I may summarize, that people make, for many reasons, a mess of just about anything. The Bourne movies weren’t so much about efficiency, they were about a breakdown in the chain-of-command, in the decision-making process, where few were either afforded unilateral, or usurped others’, authority and discretion. The plots of movies that Liam Neeson has acted in recently are so shamelessly contrived that a simple, slow-motion review of any action-scene will reveal its own improbability, if not impossibility (often his gun by which he purportedly “dispatched” someone wasn’t even pointed in said opponent’s direction, yet he fell nonetheless – not unique to, but prolific in, these recent productions). In government efficiency is thwarted by individuals’ motives. There are many, many incredibly bright and able people at work at all levels – political appointees, civil and uniformed servants, and a lot of hired help (so-called “contractors”). The impact of any individual can be discerned – upon careful observation – when one is replaced by another. People just aren’t programmable. They’re messy. Full of life-experience, education, personal background, emotional baggage – all for better or worse – they bring to the task what they have to work with, each with his or her own approach. Whether, and to what extent, any one of them delegates, informs, enquires, discusses, and draws the most appropriate conclusion or makes the right decision is always open to second-guessing in the aftermath by anyone else who either didn’t do any of those things or wasn’t there to influence them. It’s that second-guessing that gets pre-empted in the movies. You’re left with a foregone conclusion because there’s a script. Network-television is worse as not only does one plot have to fit sufficiently within the limits of the time allotted to keep your interest through the interruptions by commercial-breaks but its presentation must also leave those annoyingly loose ends that make you anticipate its continuation in the next installment. Contrivance and scripted entertainment are synonymous. That’s why I enjoy watching fiction and reading non-fiction. To watch several movies (fiction or “based on actual events”) drawn from the same story is best done one-at-a-time but reading several (non-fiction) books covering the same subject, which is particularly brilliant when they reference and cite one-another, which, in turn, shows that they one was written with the other in mind – an argument for anyone who reads both accounts to partake in (by then putting the out to keep it going) – alternatingly, non-linear. It’s the closest thing to taking lessons-learned, going back to the time that a decision was made, and convince the makers of history to go another way, that is available to us until we find a way to escape from linear time, which we are all subject to.

Posted by jantsch | Report as abusive

Umm … no, movies aren’t why we’re disappointed in Obama.

Posted by MrRFox | Report as abusive


** Reuters admits Obama’s abilities have been exaggerated.

** Reuters unable to explain how US military cannot prevent ISIS from seizing and holding static targets, i.e., cannot hit target that cannot move.

Posted by j9h53a7jq | Report as abusive

The movies did not get up in front of the American people and repeatedly lie about a critical aspect of a major piece of social legislation, despite having been told by senior staff that the statements were untrue, and the movies also did not get up after the lie was exposed and argue that it wasn’t a lie, it was that the whole country was just confused.

That’s all well documented fact, including on Reuters. Fact-check has it, complete with Pinocchios. It also has record of the olde hag’s attempt to blame it all on the evil insurance companies, for which more Pinocchios were awarded. People threw the bums out for many reasons. I simply got disgusted with the Animal Farm level efforts at reality distortion.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

I fully agree that big government, in addition to the reasons you mention, simply cannot perform flawlessly, or even at times competently. But doesn’t that bring out the prime point of contention between the big government and smaller government camps? Big government, of which Obama is the head cheerleader, would have government take over almost all daily support functions and decision making for the public, and whether the movies elevate expectations or not, the proof is in the pudding: Obamacare rollout, VA corruption and abuses in management and delivery, IRS targeting conservative groups, loss (or destruction) of emails, Secret Service imbroglios, etc. etc. etc. The daily news directly counters any of those movie impressions, and completely deflate any effort to portray our solutions as best handled by government programs.

Posted by Senseiman | Report as abusive

Umm … no, movies aren’t why we’re disappointed in Obama. It’s Faux News that has brainwashed us.

Posted by Calvin2k | Report as abusive

stop. it’s both.

Hollywood churns out artful deceptions that serve ruling concepts of empire (who owns the studios?), and the ruling class is actually steering a failing (largely credit-based) system the lurches from one crisis to the next, as the last many decades have illustrated to any objective observer. was 2008 the first severe financial recession? no. was Iraq their first expeditionary war cobbled together out of lies in order to further predatory economic interests? no. are their armed forces invincible? please see SE Asia, Korea, Central America, East Africa, Pacific Rim, etc. (i.e. no.)

Posted by wilhelm | Report as abusive

The Myth of Obama derives from Faux News, as Calvin2K notes above. Reality told us, 6 years ago, that there was nothing beyond the teleprompter. So something had to be invented. We’re seeing it today. Fortunately, last week, the country discovered the Myth, and voted the truth and reality, at last.

Posted by Plinius | Report as abusive

Excellent post – we suffer the same problem in the UK (regardless of the party in power). Partly as a result of US imports such as NCIS (where McGeek can hack everything including the CIA’s computers) and partly a result of the age old fairy tales with their “with one almighty leap Jack was free!” endings.

Perhaps that’s why some of us, of a certain age, prefer the George Smiley novels by John Le Carré which, while also being a great read, capture that sense of semi-amateur ineffectualism (if not outright incompetence) that embodies so many organisations in the real world. That sense of chaos nibbling at the edges of even the best laid plans. It might not be sexy but in most lines of work, business and government a barely acceptable pass (if not abject failure) is more often the outcome than outright, slam-dunk success.

Some people refer to “analysis paralysis” for when people fail to act without every last scrap of information – but there is also the less well known “perfection or rejection” syndrome – when something doesn’t tick all the boxes it is deemed not good enough. We see it with people being turned off from politics because “no politician agrees with everything I say” as if this were or could ever be possible.

In the real world, messy compromise, hairs-breadth misses, half-baked solutions and “that will have to do” are the norm. Perfection simply doesn’t exist – except perhaps in second-rate fantasies and fevered imaginations.



Posted by HuwSayer | Report as abusive

Dear me the comments by Jim1648 are pure fantasy, I can only assume he saw this in a Hollywood movie. Which I believe is the point of the article. I would also suggest you enquired of British service personnel to there opinion of how good the US military is you would be surprised at the response. Just because they spend 640 billion a year and have the largest army in the world do’s not guarantee quality. Again a major miss conception taken from the movies.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

Now that is some awesome stuff, just a roundabout way of saying that the voters were too stupid (brains nulled by hollywood) to come out and vote for Obama. You can’t make this stuff up.
So remember, if you didn’t vote for the progressives and Obama’s leadership it was just because you are are too stupid, too lazy, and are too easily swayed by Hollywood movies (you think movies are real).

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

I am sorry as a former infantrymen who served combat deployments with the Marine Corps, President Obama is handling the ISIS situation pretty reasonable, here’s why. Most, don’t understand or even know anything about foreign policy, which, President Obama is a little weak at. However, I hope most realize that he is forcing the hand of the Saudi Arabian government and building better relations with Iran over this situation. It is alarming that in my World Comparatives course most students didn’t even know Iranians are Persians and not Arabs lol. Our professor issued the citizenship test every semester and only one student has ever passed the test in his ten years of giving it and that student was an international student. Anyways, Saudi’s are the iron-fist of that region, so ISIS is a huge threat to them ( ISIS and Saudi Arabia have the same flag) we are making Saudi’s change some human rights constrictions and look at gas prices. By us cooperating with Iran over ISIS we now have a delegation happening this month on nuclear energy. You can’t just blindly bomb regions like most Republicans would like to do. I have voted for both parties I just think Senator John Mccain suffers from PTSD from Vietnam and has had cancer twice and still smokes needs to stop going on war rants. Senator Ted Cruz wasn’t even born in the U.S. born in Canada and stirs and creates stalemates in our government,and beats the war drum, however, has never served the U.S. military and has a way lower education than President Obama and complains he is stupid lol. Isis is the result of British imperialist in the 1920’s and 1930’s when they excluded all Arabs from the planning and bordering of the middle-east. Just look at the subject matter expert on the issue T.E. Lawerance’s memoirs. Then the U.S. overthrew the Ayatollah in 1953 in Iran that worked out well lol. Our policy under former George W. Bush is atrocious and he had no plan, but to drop a lot of bombs and then sat around with his thumb up his ass. Ask any high ranking officer as I have done on my deployments and they will say the Iraq war was the most mis-managed war. I understand President Obama has been a disappointment, however I feel he is like former President Jimmy Carter wrong place wrong time. I will throw out the racial card though. I am white, but after President Obama announced the new Attorney General Mrs. Loretta Lynch(who has put away harden mobsters, cartel members, gang members, and terrorists, she is highly educated and changed New York’s legal system has no corruption charges and is highly respected with little contact or relation with President Obama) Fox News had to shut down their comment section from an over use of the N word for god sakes. Look at any comment section about President Obama and look at the amount of racist remarks, well, a school did Harvard University found by reviewing comment sections on the internet there is a hidden racial issue still to this day in this country. I am just glad I picked up a rifle, put on my pack and risk my ass for people who believe this country is an all white, Christian nation where only higher end middle-class and the rich get any say or pull. Man was I a sucker. So, let’s keep blaming President Obama lol it will make all our problems go away, because at the end of the day these “representatives” get free health care for the rest of their lives, and get a retirement pay for the rest of their lives from one term of service. Their children or any relative can also go to school for free and have their books payed for. However, most say we are not socialist, yet the vary people of our government provide means to their families form socialist style programs they created for themselves through legislation lol we are fools

Posted by Dueyourresearch | Report as abusive

No. Most Americans work in businesses. We all know what we are expected to do, how we are expected to do it, and what capabilities we have for accomplishing tasks. We see no such professional competence in our current Political Leaders and their political appointees. Americans know laziness and corruption when we see it and it doesn’t take brain washing by some movie or TV fiction to know it. Frankly, saying that we are some kind of “programmable sheep” is demeaning and insulting.

Posted by AZWarrior | Report as abusive

Movies and TV do terribly distort many people’s concepts of reality.

Most members of the NRA seem to believe that in a gun fight the good guy will always outdraw the villain, and the good guy’s bullets always find their target while the bad guys will always miss. They actually believe that John Wayne and all the heroes of the westerns were real. In reality, if an armed bad guy surprises you, you are going to be dead if you reach for your concealed weapon.

Even more people have ever more distorted ideas of work when TV characters are almost never seen working yet enjoy upper middle class lives at home and have offices the size of studio sound stages. They are often clueless about the actual work involved in a real job and feel entitled to the lifestyles they see on TV without any effort on their part.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

This is perhaps the stupidest article about voters and Obama that I have ever seen. “Because teh movies?” Please. People are disappointed with Obama because for all the Progressive talk and Hope and Change, the man is pure corporate servant, somewhere to the Right of Reagan, and he’s started more military misadventures that both Bushes put together.

Posted by Jerrica | Report as abusive

Those who backed Senator Obama and secured his nomination and election portrayed him as the solution to the problems resulting from the Bush Administration. Recall that he was portrayed as a messiah,really this was the descent of farce to BS. Obama has been a terrible president resembling Chavez in his dissing the constitution and abuse of power. In the Middle East he has aligned himself with Syria and Iran which speaks volumes of his lack of understanding of policy. He is an ieologue with beliefs alien to what has been a conception of being American. The emperor is naked and petty. It is not an expectation of perfection, as in the movies and television fiction, but the reality of incompetence and hubris.

Posted by Skepticus | Report as abusive

I agree with the premise of the Opinion that “Nobody is that good”, but the US military is very effective, at least compared with the sad sack militaries of most ME nations, or ISIS for that matter. We learned our lessons with a conscripted and under-trained army in Vietnam. The lesson we haven’t learned yet is when and how to deploy our military to protect our interests.

But now Obama is another matter all together. He may be a strategic thinker, but he is just not an effective politician – one able to close the deal on any significant issue. Talks a good game – but talk is cheap..
Anyone giving him credit for solving any world problems is deluded and immediately dismissed as biased. Certainly most Americans (and everyone else around the world) have now written him off as one of the worst US Presidents in recent times.

Posted by willich6 | Report as abusive

Those who backed Senator Obama and secured his nomination and election portrayed him as the solution to the problems resulting from the Bush Administration. Recall that he was portrayed as a messiah, really this was the descent of farce to BS. Obama has been a terrible president resembling Chavez in his dissing the constitution and abuse of power. In the Middle East he has aligned himself with Syria and Iran which speaks volumes of his lack of understanding of policy. He is an ideologue with beliefs alien to what has been a conception of being American. The emperor is naked and petty. It is not an expectation of perfection, as in the movies and television fiction, but the reality of incompetence and hubris.

Posted by Skepticus | Report as abusive

Just another attempt to put the blame on other things other than on Obama. This is old and no one believes it anymore.

His presidency has been a joke from day one and will be when he leaves office.

Posted by Richard-n-Texas | Report as abusive

Ebola reaching the U.S. and the shortcomings of air strikes against I.S. were not the hot-button issues which swayed public opinion against Obama. It is his lack of decisiveness (and, for many, policies). He is a reactive President. An executive, especially the head of the executive branch of the world’s greatest country, should be proactive and decisive.

The electorates disapproval of Obama is justified. Why are so many reporters trying to portray the American public as thoughtless creatures?

Posted by YertleTheTurtle | Report as abusive

So..that’s that you’re gonna go with, eh? Inflated expectations promulgated by entertainment media are responsible for the ‘foolish’ decisions of the electorate? Good as I’ve heard from your ilk over the last week. I think you’ve a winner there. Suggest POTUS muse out loud such at his next visit to the podium.

Posted by dgss36a | Report as abusive