Old and interesting #3: OSS Simple Sabotage Field Manual
Timeless lessions about human nature from a WWII-era handbook on sabotage
The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA’s predecessor, issued various field manuals during World War II. One of them was the Simple Sabotage Field Manual, published in January 1944, a couple of months before D-Day. The document contains suggestions on how to carry out acts of simple sabotage (i.e., acts “the ordinary individual citizen-saboteur can perform.”).
What can be sabotaged, and how?
Broadly speaking, the target of sabotage can involve 1) objects or materials in the physical world and 2) human decision processes.
Sabotaging the physical environment
Here is a selection of things the manual encourages citizen-saboteurs to do with respect to the physical world:
“A clean factory is not susceptible to fire, but a dirty one is. Workers should be careless with refuse and janitors should be inefficient in cleaning. If enough dirt and trash can be accumulated, an otherwise fireproof building will become inflammable.”
“Sprinkle rock salt or ordinary salt profusely over the electrical connections of switch points and on the ground nearby. When it rains, the switch will be short-circuited.”
“To overheat electric motors, mix sand with heavy grease and smear it between the stator and rotor, or wedge thin metal pieces between them. To prevent the efficient generation of current, put floor sweepings, oil, tar, or paint between them.”
“Put several pinches of sawdust or hard grain, such as rice or wheat, into the fuel tank of a gasoline engine.”
“Leave saws slightly twisted when you are not using them. After a while, they will break when used.”
“Make cores for casting so that they are filled with air bubbles and an imperfect cast results.”
As the usual disclaimer goes, don’t try any of this at home.
Sabotaging human processes
While the above list contains valuable lessons for the DIY enthusiast, methods to sabotage human decision processes may arguably be more widely applicable. Let’s now focus on some of these methods. The worker can either 1) work inefficiently and carelessly or 2) slow down decision-making by taking rule compliance to an extreme.
Working inefficiently, destroying morale, and being unbearable:
“Make train travel as inconvenient as possible for enemy personnel. Make mistakes in issuing train tickets, leaving portions of the journey uncovered by the ticket book; issue two tickets for the same seat in the train, so that an interesting argument will result; near train time, instead of issuing printed tickets write them out slowly by hand, prolonging the process until the train is nearly ready to leave or has left the station.”
“In trains bound for enemy destinations, attendants should make life as uncomfortable as possible for passengers. See that the food is especially bad, take up tickets after midnight, call all station stops very loudly during the night, handle baggage as noisily as possible during the night, and so on.”
“When the enemy asks for directions, give him wrong information. Especially when enemy convoys are in the neighborhood, truck drivers can spread rumors and give false information about bridges being out, ferries closed, and detours lying ahead.”
“At office, hotel and exchange switchboards delay putting enemy calls through, give them wrong numbers, cut them off ‘accidentally,’ or forget to disconnect them so that the line cannot be used again.”
“Audiences can ruin enemy propaganda films by applauding to drown the words of the speaker, by coughing loudly, and by talking.”
“‘Misunderstand’ orders. Ask endless questions or engage in long correspondence about such orders. Quibble over them when you can.”
“In making work assignments, always sign out the unimportant jobs first. See that the important jobs are assigned to inefficient workers of poor machines.”
“Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products; send back for refinishing those which have the least flaw. Approve other defective parts whose flaws are not visible to the naked eye.”
“To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.”
“Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.”
“Make ‘speeches.’ Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.”
“Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, paychecks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.”
“Give lengthy and incomprehensible explanations when questioned.”
“Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.”
“Cry and sob hysterically at every occasion, especially when confronted by government clerks.”
“If possible, join or help organize a group for presenting employee problems to the management. See that the procedures adopted are as inconvenient as possible for the management, involving the presence of a large number of employees at each presentation, entailing more than one meeting for each grievance, bringing up problems which are largely imaginary, and so on.”
Creating bureaucratic stasis through overzealous rule compliance:
“Insist on doing everything through ‘channels.’ Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.”
“When possible, refer all matters to committees, for ‘further study and consideration.’ Attempt to make the committees as large as possible — never less than five.”
“Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.”
“Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.”
“Advocate ‘caution.’ Be ‘reasonable’ and urge your fellow-conferees to be ‘reasonable’ and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.”
“Be worried about the propriety of any decision — raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.”
“Pretend that you are particularly anxious to do your work, and pester the foreman with unnecessary questions.”
Upon reading the items in this list, one cannot help but notice that many of them could have been taken from a section of a management textbook on what to avoid in organizations. I think it’s safe to say that most workers today are not in the business of playing citizen-saboteur. But the fact remains that the acts of an inefficient (or overzealous) worker and a saboteur look the same. This is precisely why being inefficient or overzealous can be a viable strategy to dodge responsibility. Why does this approach work, and what other methods can help saboteurs evade punishment?
For an act to be punishable, it must be deemed malicious, and the perpetrator must be caught. This implies you can evade punishment if you can make people believe you intended no harm, or if this is not feasible, by keeping your identity anonymous.
Lack of malicious intent
The examples I cite from the manual on how to sabotage human decision processes can be classified into two categories: workers being inefficient, careless, and annoying; and workers creating bureaucratic stasis through overzealous compliance with the rules. Both modes of operation share a common feature: the citizen-saboteur wants to evade punishment by pretending to lack malicious intent.
In the first case, the worker may claim to be having a bad day, going through a difficult time, or says he was momentarily distracted on the job. This explanation is so prevalent in all walks of life that, absent a repeating pattern, the citizen-saboteur might be given the benefit of the doubt.
Imagine, for instance, that the number of faulty products doubles in a factory and that this increase is due to sabotage. Even if sabotage is evident at the collective level, it remains unclear which specific workers are responsible. In the absence of collective punishment, nobody might be punished because no individual’s guilt can be established.
This dynamic is not unique, however, to workers and factories. To cite just one example, think of students missing a submission deadline. Invariably, a substantial proportion of them claim they missed the deadline due to a stolen laptop, a deceased relative, or a mysterious system error on the platform. Some of these claims are true, but unless one has a squad of detectives at his disposal, it’s difficult to know which ones. Fortunately, some of the deceased relatives seem to “reincarnate” after the deadline—only to “pass away” again when the next submission is due.
In the second case, the saboteur takes refuge behind the shield of good intentions. His strategy of feigning extreme caution to induce bureaucratic gridlock might even earn him praise from his supervisors. If his motives are suspected and he is ever questioned about the deleterious effects of his supposedly good intentions, he can heed the manual’s advice of “crying and sobbing hysterically”. For extra effect, the following defense might also help: “I just wanted to make sure that we reach the right decision, that everything was done correctly, and that nobody is excluded from the decision process. I didn’t realize that holding a 27th meeting and using up half a forest’s worth of printing paper weren’t necessary to hire a part-time cleaner.”
In both cases, the citizen-saboteur aims to avoid punishment by feigning a lack of malicious intent. But what if an act can only be interpreted in one way, like when the tyres of a fleet of vehicles are slashed? In those cases, the citizen-saboteur’s best bet to avoid punishment is to go undetected.
Evading punishment through undetectability
The janitor turns on the lights in the factory at night, and the fuses blow out. Someone placed a coin beneath a light bulb. When he tries to enter the control room to investigate the issue, he cannot unlock the door because someone jammed paper and bits of wood into the lock. He recognizes the blown fuse and the jammed lock as acts of sabotage, but he has no way of identifying the culprit. There are dozens or hundreds of potential suspects, as many people have access to these places within the factory.
The most risk-averse saboteur seeks to protect himself on both fronts by taking actions that don’t unequivocally point to malicious intent and that could plausibly have been carried out by a large group of people. Examples include clogging toilets or being careless with tools used by many people.
But wait, isn’t a risk-averse saboteur an oxymoron? It is—at least on the surface. However, if an alternative course of action (one of which is inaction) presents a greater danger, sabotage could be the less risky option for the individual. Imagine, for instance, that if the enemy wins, he would murder people like you. Doing nothing is like signing your own death warrant. In contrast, engaging in small acts of sabotage (marginally) increases your chances of survival by contributing to your side’s victory.
Cost-benefit analysis of sabotage
The costs of sabotage to the saboteur are rather obvious. If caught, the saboteur may face arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution. With costs so high, the benefits must also be high. Importantly, the benefits need to be perceived as high by the people who are in that situation—and not by us, who are fortunate to never have faced similarly difficult choices. The manual advises the propagandist to refrain from highlighting benefits he would find convincing (e.g., abstract ideals like liberty). Instead, he is urged to emphasize tangible benefits the potential saboteurs are more likely to care about:
"Gains should be stated as specifically as possible for the area addressed: simple sabotage will hasten the day when Commissioner X and his deputies Y and Z will be thrown out, when particularly obnoxious decrees and restrictions will be abolished, when food will arrive, and so on. Abstract verbalizations about personal liberty, freedom of the press, and so on, will not be convincing in most parts of the world. In many areas they will not even be comprehensible."
The difficulty of estimating the prevalence of sabotage
During World War II, some people heroically engaged in acts of sabotage against the enemy. It would be interesting to see an estimate of how simple acts of sabotage contributed to the war effort, and what percentage of the population in occupied territories engaged in some form of sabotage. I suspect obtaining reliable data to address these issues is hard for three reasons.
First, as I mentioned before, certain forms of sabotage are indistinguishable from bad working practices. Even when something cannot be measured directly, one could consider using proxies. For instance, an increase in the number of defective products a factory produces might be a proxy for sabotage. It’s unclear, however, if it’s a good proxy. After all, besides sabotage, there are many things that are simultaneously changing during a war that could explain an increase in the number of defective products (e.g., raw materials becoming scarce, key workers being sent to the front, etc.).
Second, the occupying power is not incentivized to publicize acts of simple sabotage lest they encourage potential saboteurs. Even internal documents may be misleading. Factory managers aware of sabotage might withhold reporting to supervisors to dodge scrutiny or accusations of incompetence.
Third, self-reports of people who worked in the factory at the time are not necessarily reliable either. After the war, anyone can claim to have been a saboteur. The habitually late loafer, the clumsy worker who broke tools and produced defects, the gossipmonger, and the blabbermouth can suddenly rebrand themselves as unsung heroes of the resistance.
Reaction and punishment
So far, we discussed sabotage from the perspective of the citizen-saboteur. But the factory leadership will not idly stand by while the factory’s operations are being disrupted. Rather, it will try to increase the saboteur’s expected costs by meting out punishment, either to individuals or the whole group.
The expected cost of punishment is a combination of two factors: the severity of the punishment and the probability of the saboteur being caught. Broadly speaking, there are two possible schemes the factory manager can employ. The first scheme involves relatively mild punishment and a high likelihood that the perpetrator will be caught (e.g., red light cameras to fine drivers). The second scheme combines severe punishment and a small likelihood of being caught. Sabotage falls squarely in the second scheme, as it’s usually difficult to detect.
If the factory manager wants to increase the likelihood of punishment, one thing he can do is redefine what constitutes an act of sabotage. Namely, he can eliminate the requirement of malicious intent. For example, the mere fact that a product is defective can be used as evidence for sabotage. Such a redefinition allows the factory manager to catch more saboteurs, while also raising the false positive rate (i.e., more non-saboteur workers are unjustly punished).
When no individual worker can be linked to an act of sabotage, the factory manager may decide to punish the whole collective. For example, every worker who worked during the shift when the blast furnace broke down can be labelled a saboteur. Collective punishment can backfire by alienating those who hadn’t thus far participated in (or otherwise encouraged) acts of sabotage.
Setting moral considerations aside, the factory manager faces an empirical question when determining the optimal features of his punishment scheme. Let’s consider, for instance, the effects of employing collective punishment over individual punishment. If the factory manager only cares about short-term production, it’s unclear theoretically how production would be affected. Productivity could increase because workers keep each other in check to evade punishment resulting from someone else’s actions. Alternatively, productivity could decrease if the non-saboteurs are alienated by the unfair punishment and feel compelled to support the saboteurs.