If you’re going to get it wrong...

In the animal sob-film of the last century, Disney’s Bambi, there was an immortal line said by a scolding mother rabbit to Thumper, her contrite son and playmate of Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”.

Honourable sentiment, but hardly up there with the ten commandments or the I Ching.

Sometimes, however, hearing about someone else’s mess-up makes our journey on this planet seem less confused or scary – and it may offer an ironic laugh at the things we humans do.

Cue Lieutenant-General (as in Lew-tenant) Ronald Kadish, director of America’s Ballistic Missile Defence Organisation.

As John O’Farrell reported in the London Guardian recently, dear Lew-tenant General Ronnie experienced his weekend from hell – big time.

L-G Ronnie, it seems, plays with big American toys that do big damage and the big shields that stop other big toys from entering his backyard. If you, like me, organise a party when you upgrade from Windows 95 to Windows 97, you can imagine how excited L-G Ronnie and his missus were with his addition to the US$122 billion missile defence system, the intercontinental missile defence shield.

He called all his mates over, including the Pres. He put on the barbie, polished his medals, lined up the media, passed out stogies and smiled a lot. The moment came. A missile was fired from the middle of the Pacific 7,500 kilometres away, heading for L-G Ronnie’s party.

The new Minuteman II was fired from southern California to intercept the first missile.

First snafu: one Minuteman careering off target, heading who knows where at 25,000 kilometres per hour – certainly not on target. The first missile continues hurtling unchecked toward the President.

L-G Ronnie panic move one: frantic skimming of the manual, Care of Your Minuteman Missile System. Been there, done that.

Quick thinking from dutiful wife leads to L-G Ronnie panic move two: call the helpline. Been there, done that.

“Thank you for calling the ICBM Helpline. If you wish to purchase other Minuteman systems, press 1. If you are phoning about our direct debit payment plan, press 2. If your intercontinental missile has malfunctioned and is hurtling towards southern California, press 3 and hold for an operator.”

The inevitable happened. To the tinny background strains of Ravel’s Bolero, the US$100

billion missile was blown to bits. Not exactly the Perth Skyshow, but enough fireworks to rate a few “ahhhs”. Then silence. The President was not pleased.

Shades of the Gulf War, where Patriot missiles were officially declared a huge success because they ‘intercepted’ 21 of the 22 incoming Scud missiles.

But, after CNN showed many Scuds coming through, the Pentagon explained: ‘intercept’ means the missiles’ paths cross – not necessarily at the same time. Intercept may mean ‘missed’.

This is when we need to remember Thumper’s lesson. Best to laugh.

l Ann Macbeth is a futurist and principal of Annimac consultants.

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