Operation Papyrus

Bill Neinast


“Reviving the dying art of talking could be one of the most beneficial results of the paper ration.”

This quote is from an article in the December, 1973, issue of Army, the magazine of the Association of the U.S. Army.  I was the author and, at the time, was serving in the Pentagon as Chief of the Army’s Litigation Division.

This was a facetious look at the rumors of a paper shortage and was titled, “Operation Papyrus, or How to Make Do When (horrors) the Paper Runs Out.”

There were no computers, but high speed typewriters and copy machines were everywhere.  Memos, letters, drafts of regulations, operation plans and orders, and other print on paper filled the 17.5 miles of corridors in the Pentagon like falling snow. Then came the rumors that the paper mills were unable to keep up with the demand for typing paper.

The solution suggested in “Operation Papyrus” was to ration paper in the Pentagon to one sheet per person per day.  That would get people back to talking with each other instead of exchanging notes and letters.  It might even promote some face-to-face meetings. Notwithstanding those miles of corridors, because of the unique layout of the building, every office is within a relatively short walk of every other office.

Now jump ahead 45 years to today.  There is not even a hint of a paper shortage.  Just the opposite is true.  Paper manufacturers are cutting back from writing paper and converting some of their plants to other usages.

Still, however, we are not talking with others.  Letters and notes have been replaced with emails and twitter blogs.  These are much more prevalent than the paper missives clogging the Pentagon during my last tour there.

In one way, the new way of communicating in writing may be worse than the flood of paper in the ’70s Pentagon.  Back then, in the absence of a shredder or fire, there was always an easy paper trail to follow.

Compare following that paper trail with trying to follow Ma Clinton’s email trail when she was Secretary of State.  Historians of the future are going to have a difficult time trying to record the factual story of all types of governmental actions.

The negative effects on history is not the only negative effect of the paperless society.  A more bothersome immediate effect is its intrusion on our tranquility.   

Enjoying a movie without someone clicking away on a Twitter message in the row back of you is a thing of the past. Sometimes it seems the typist in back of you is describing the movie scene by scene to a friend back home.

So you leave the movie and stop at a nearby restaurant for a nice meal before heading home.  This will be a lucky break if the adjoining booths and tables are not occupied with adults and children engrossed in conversations with others far away.  

These are not the old fashioned family conversations around the dinner tables of long ago.  They are separate conversations carried on through the cell phones glued to every ear at the table.  Worst of all, the conversations are loud enough to insure that everyone in the restaurant is in on the gossip.

The worst of all the paperless society problems, however, is the distraction of the users as they are walking or driving.  The most recent tragedy of that distraction is the death of 13 elderly Texans returning from a church outing when their van was hit head on by a 21 year old man texting as he was driving.

So here’s the perspective.

The pending paper shortage in the Pentagon could have been avoided by a law rationing paper to one sheet per person per day.

No law can be devised, however, that will stop texting while driving.  Laws  against drunk driving, assault, theft, etc. have not stopped those crimes.  They may slow down the rate of each a bit, but there has never been a 100% effective criminal law.

The only way to keep paperless communication devices from being used by individuals in moving vehicles is to manufacture them with mechanisms that render them useless within ten feet of a vehicle with the ignition turned on.

With the technical abilities of Apple, Dell, etc., developing wireless phones with the automatic silencers should be easier than snatching paper from action officers in the Pentagon.


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