Paul Menter

Several years ago, I remember reading about how during World War II, the Army Air Corps conducted a study of damage inflicted upon its heavy bomber fleet. The B-17 and B-24 were the United States’ primary heavy bombers in the European Theater during World War II in the lead-up to, and after, the allied invasion that we call D-Day, the 75th anniversary of which is, quite significantly, Thursday.

The allied bombing campaign was intended to both break the Nazis’ will to fight, and destroy their industrial capacity to manufacture weapons and munitions of their own. But the bombing raids were extraordinarily dangerous. Bomber crews needed to fly a total of 25 missions before their tour of duty ended, and most bomber crews simply didn’t live that long, surviving an average of only 12 missions. This meant that on average a bomber crew only made it halfway through their tour of duty before being shot down.

This fact made service in an American World War II heavy bomber just short of a suicide mission. Every time a bomber was shot down, a crew of eight to 10 young men was lost, either dead or if they were lucky enough to bail out and parachute to the ground in enemy territory, imprisoned in a German POW camp.

The study documented damage inflicted by German flak (ground-based shell fire) and Luftwaffe fighters on bombers that were able to return to Britain after successfully completing their missions over mainland Europe. In excruciating detail, the study identified locations on the airplanes’ wings and fuselages that received the greatest amount of damage, and areas between the engines, on the tail, and along the long axis of the planes’ bodies. It went on to recommend ways of reinforcing these particular areas of the big planes so as to make them less vulnerable to attack. Army Air Corps planners were sure that the study would result in a dramatic decrease in the number of bombers lost.

The study’s recommendations were implemented. The bombers were reinforced. But inexplicably the same proportion of bombers continued to be shot down. No one in the Air Corps could figure out the reason, which was staring them right in the face.

Finally, it dawned on them. They were evaluating the bombers that made it back. The damage the Germans inflicted was insufficient to bring down the planes that they were studying, even without any reinforcement. They realized it wasn’t the locations damaged on these planes that needed reinforcement, it was the undamaged places on the returning planes that were the weakest points: the engine cowlings and the connective points between the wings, tail and fuselage that carried the plane’s aerodynamic loading, areas on surviving planes that received little damage. It was in these areas that the bombers being shot down were hit by enemy fire, and therefore the areas that needed reinforcement.

It’s a classic human mistake to focus only on what we see, rather than putting what we see in the context of what is missing from our sight. In most situations, the result of such oversight is far less tragic than the World War II bomber example. Do we catch the full context of a loved one’s comments? Do we think about how future changes outside of our control are likely to affect our current decisions? Do we allow power struggles to narrow our ability to make decisions on important issues without considering the viewpoints of others with whom we think we disagree?

But how much thought, analysis and evaluation is enough? How can we know when we know enough to completely understand the needs of those around us and make the right decision? There is no single correct answer to this question, but there are symptoms and circumstances that signal that it might be time to take a step back and evaluate how current decisions are being made.

I’ve written, for example, for over four years now, that Aspen deserves a great city hall. As we approach the summer of 2019, the multi-year preparation for the city offices building on the Rio Grande Plaza is just about over. As a new mayor, Torre, and two new council members, Skippy Mesirow and Rachel Richards, are sworn into office next week, plans to start vertical construction are imminent. But is the building, which, by the way, is not even going to be Aspen’s city hall, great?

Not by any measure.

The city has never given it the opportunity to be an architecturally significant building. At a time when technology enables more and more collaborative work to be completed from remote locations, public buildings need to serve a purpose higher than stacking workers in offices and cubicles. Planning to put all of the city of Aspen’s employees in large centralized buildings (the new Galena offices building and the current Armory city hall) is so ’90s. Using public spaces and facilities to create a sense of inviting communal gravity that draws people in and encourages participation in this experiment we call democracy, that’s the new millennium.

The city has focused narrowly on fighting a late-but-growing opposition to the Rio Grande offices building rather than stepping back and asking if perhaps something has escaped their vision. Unlike the World War II bomber example no one is going to die from this oversight, but that doesn’t mean a new council majority shouldn’t take that step back.

It’s only too late if the new council lets the bureaucrats decide it is.