Nuking hotdogs in the Pentagon – a story of incomplete data.

Ground Zero Cafe: the most dangerous eatery in the world? I like this story, even if the truth is opaque. It illuminates something about how easy it is to accept the face value interpretation of observations. 

In the central courtyard of the Pentagon there was a hotdog stand. It was a very popular eating spot. I imagine the Pentagon being a difficult workplace to wander out for lunch and meals, so a convenient, central location attracted plenty of custom. On a daily basis, many staff and military personnel would make their way there, entering to purchase lunch. A simple story.

The mythology is more fun though. That story tells of Soviet military intelligence targeting the spot with ballistic nuclear missiles over many years. Viewed from satellite imagery, the behaviour pattern looked like a steady and regular stream of military personnel, some very senior, entering a central, unmarked building in the Pentagon complex. In the paranoid and febrile cold war atmosphere, this was interpreted as senior military figures entering some kind of control bunker or briefing facility. This was clearly the nerve centre of the US military intelligence organism. A great spot for a nuclear strike. Hence the name, Ground Zero Cafe. 

The myth doesn’t take much debunking, I suspect. Over the course of a few decades, the Soviet intelligence community could probably source alternative testimony to reveal the true purpose of the building. That’s not such a good story though. It’s also very easy to believe a fixed ideological view of the data in a large and hierarchical organisation driven by ideological decision making. If the accepted narrative describes a legitimate and high profile target, who would argue? A single data source which is easily explained through accepted wisdom and ossified practice. There is plenty of that about in all organisations. 

In the corporate learning world, interpreting anything other than completion through the study of completion data strikes me as an exhausting example of cold war thinking from my own professional life. It doesn’t tell us much at all. But, who is going to tell the regulator that? As a single data source, it could easily be used to bomb a hotdog stand. 

Leave a Reply