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Forgetting our American Tradition

by David Brin, Ph.D.

The folly of relying exclusively on a professional protector caste.

Forgetting our American Tradition

Today we face (but largely ignore) a major historical anomaly. From our nation’s birth all the way until the end of the Vietnam War, America's chief approach to dealing with danger — both anticipated threats and those that took us by surprise — was to rely upon a robust citizenry to quickly supplement, augment and reinforce the thin veneer of professionals in a relatively small peacetime warrior-protector caste. Toward this end, society relied primarily upon concepts of robustness and resilience, rather than attempting to anticipate and forestall every conceivable danger.

This emphasis changed, dramatically, starting with the Second World War, but accelerating after Vietnam. Some reasons for the shift toward professionalism were excellent and even overdue. Nevertheless, it is clearly long past time for a little perspective and reflection.

Over the course of the last two decades, while doing "future threats" consultations for DoD, DTRA, NRO, CIA, the Navy, Air Force, etc., I have watched this distinction grow ever-more stark — contrasting an older American reflex that relied on citizen-level resilience vs. the more recent emphasis on anticipation and the surgical removal of threats. Inexorably, the Protector Class has increasingly come to consider itself wholly separate from the Protected. In fact, our military, security and intelligence services have reached a point where — even when they engage in self-critical introspection — they seem unable to even ask questions that ponder resilience issues.

Instead, the question always boils down to: "How can we better anticipate, cover, and overcome all conceivable or plausible threat envelopes?"

While this is a worthy and admirable emphasis for protectors to take, it is also profoundly and narrowly overspecialized. It reflects a counterfactual assumption that, given sufficient funding, these communities can not only anticipate all future shocks, but prepare adequately to deal with them on a strictly in-house basis, through the application of fiercely effective professional action.

In fact, history shows that anticipation — no matter how well-done — always and inevitably fails, sooner or later (as it did on 9/11, Katrina, and in the run-up to Iraq). This emphasis, if it excludes all else, can only be seen as a psychological fixation that is pernicious and deeply dangerous. It is also — in the light of 250 years — deeply un-American.

Granted, the monotonic trend all across the 20th Century was a steady "professionalization of everything" that households used to largely do for themselves. On the whole, we have reaped tremendous benefits from specialization. Moreover, since Vietnam, this High Dogma seemed to have very good reasons (e.g., unpopularity of the draft and a need to train extensively for use of high-tech weaponry). Within a single generation, our focus shifted from utilizing large numbers of "Cincinnatus" citizen volunteers, to the kind of super-elite mobile forces that the Roman Empire relied upon, during its final century of existence.

Some specific results:

Because nearly all of the Army was lately committed to a specific, counter-insurgency mission, the response was to hyper-professionalize counter-insurgency, while de-emphasizing other potential mission profiles. This has led to de facto abandonment of an older US Army goal — dominance in peer-style ground war battlefield combat. At Ft. Irwin, all brigade-level training has ceased in favor of converting most units into large-scale "urban swat teams." The Army that pounded its way through Republican Guard divisions to Baghdad no longer exists.

One rationalization is that smart munitions and perfect command of the air will compensate for lack of brigade-level maneuver and firepower readiness. Another posits that asymmetrical insurgency will be the principal threat for a long time to come. But note: whatever the reasons given, the trend is always to lean harder in the same, predictable direction.

Potential peer-level adversaries have noticed this trend. There are growing signs that Russian and Chinese planners are emphasizing mass numbers of forces capable of operating in conditions that universally degrade high technology, under an assumption that the US emphasis (on super-tech and small numbers of hyper-professionals) is inherently brittle. One aspect of this Russian and Chinese doctrine is a perpetual exploration for some systemic weakness in US technology (e.g. computer subornation or EMP). Another is the creation and maintenance of prodigiously large reserves.

Hyper-professionalization of mainline units has had the side effect of relying on either contractors or reserve units to provide support services for extended, multi-year tours. The former have proved catastrophically expensive, while the latter practice violates both the meaning of "reserves" and any sense of compact/faith with reservists, weakening one of the last connections between the military and the civilian population.

I could go on and on with examples where, given a variety of choices, our military/defense/security establishment always and reflexively chooses a path that is psychologically predictable. And in geopolitics, predictability is inevitably lethal.

the news is not new

Of course I have commented on all of this before. See one article where I remark upon the great, unheeded fact about 9/11... all successful and effective actions that took place on that day were performed by resilient citizens, who proved fully capable of augmenting — and even replacing — the professionals when needed. Exactly as their ancestors would have done. This event, followed by the collapse of professionalism exhibited during Hurricane Katrina, suggest that the entire modern premise — putting all our eggs in the professional basket — is seriously flawed.

Alas, members of the Professional Protector Caste (PPC) seem to avert their eyes, compulsively, from recognition of what this might mean. They avoid ever pondering the ad absurdum silliness of this situation. A huge populace that is vastly more skilled, healthy, educated, capable and technologically empowered than any that came before it, is told that it must rely utterly upon a paint-thin layer of super-professionals, who have almost no reserves, almost no surge capacity and almost no plan for rapid replacement of fallen personnel. Does this strike no one else as somewhat... well... brittle?

Has history served this methodology well? There are some examples of where pure professionalism alone has been effective, especially when political leaders applied the entire suite of elite tools, from skilled diplomacy to excellent intelligence to overwhelming and surgically accurate use of force. The Balkans Intervention achieved all aims rapidly, giving the European continent its first peace in 4,000 years, dramatically enhancing America's reputation and world popularity (especially among Muslims) while leaving readiness unimpaired, at the cost of zero US casualties. In making my argument for citizen-based robustness, I am most definitely not turning my back upon the myriad advantages derived from a corps of professionals with unparalleled training, equipment, doctrines and morale.

Nor should we forget some of the reasons for the professionalization trend. While New Yorkers proved hardy, agile and brave on 9/11, their skill sets would have been strained to the limit, had that crisis lasted much longer. Moreover, in rosy-hindsight, we tend to forget some of the drawbacks of those old-fashioned American militias. All-too often, the good posse might transform into a gang of "bad vigilantes." We have also seen disturbing trends toward the privatization of force, in mercenary condottieri outfits like Blackwater, that bypass hard-won processes of lawful accountability. As the new administration offers some tentative proposals for beefing up citizen-based robustness, we should remember these and many other lessons from the past, and keep faith with our super-skilled cadres, like the U.S. Officer Corps.

So, yes, we need skilled professionals, more than ever. Nevertheless has it been wise to reverse American tradition so completely? Imitating the way the resilient, citizen-based Roman Republic gradually transformed into a brittle and rigid Empire? Is it possible to turn the clock back just a little, so that some of the advantages of a Nation of Cincinnati can be recovered... without going back to the draft? (For more on this, see my DTRA presentation slides, Part 1 and Part 2.)

citizen action items

I contend that the questions I've raised here call for a systematic and deep re-appraisal of many aspects of our national security policy. But we can start much more modestly, at first, with a “wish list” of Citizen-Oriented Systems and Technologies that could dramatically augment America’s emergency-response capabilities, by returning some traditional emphasis to resilience.

Technologies to facilitate delivery of rapid alerts (broad and/or selective) to segments of the populace.

Technologies to facilitate evacuation from buildings and or urban areas.

Technologies to facilitate citizen communications (both with authorities and peer-to-peer) when networks are down.

Technologies to assist citizens in appropriate self-organization, mutual assistance and rumor control.

Technologies to help emergency responders seek and get access to needed citizen skills or citizen-offered resources.

Systems that encourage dispersed data-collection — e.g., from distributed sensors either carried or locally deployed by citizens — and that create data sets useful to a wide variety of responders.

Studies to determine if several new types of "reserves" are called for, e.g., to provide non-combat services in acute or chronic deployments, without either overspending on lavish contractors, or else overstraining combat-relevant reserves.

Studies of “ramp-up times” required to engage and train volunteers to step in for fallen responders. What critical bottlenecks can be removed or eased, or what "pre-training" can be encouraged, in order to shorten required training intervals, so that the flow of replacements can match earlier generations, when they, too, faced emergencies?

Studies of the short term and long term effects of secrecy, on both tactical and strategic scales. Though counter-intuitive, might it be possible that secular trends toward a more open world tend to benefit American and Western civilization?

I had a lot more to add. But that should suffice for now. Anyway, specifics are nowhere near as important as recognizing the terrifying general trend... with a state security apparatus that seems psychologically bent on solving all problems by scooting farther and farther down a single branch. One that grows ever-narrower and easier to cut off.

Today's emphasis on professional protection — while laudable in certain ways — is also at odds with what has worked for America for most of its history. Psychologically, it is understandable.

But that does not make it wise.

a forgotten tradition?


There is some reason to believe that these ideas have started — at last — to take hold in high places. In his book, The Plan: Big Ideas for America, Rahm Emanuel writes: "It's time for a real Patriot Act that brings out the patriot in all of us. We propose universal civilian service for every young American. Under this plan, all Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 will be asked to serve their country by going through three months of basic training, civil defense preparation and community service."

Now, these paragraphs can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Certainly three months of training are inadequate to create a vast pool of citizen soldiers, even if they had only WWII levels of technology to deal with. But that is not the issue or the point.

What three months (a summer) can achieve is:

To create a vast pool of "pre-trained" men and women who might hurry into accelerated ramp-up training in an emergency.

To allow the security services to access huge reserves of professional skills, finding out where and who such civilians are and pre-slotting them, should they volunteer.

To expose several hundred thousand young men and women every year to a pre-taste of military life, thus enticing tens of thousands toward normal enlistment.

To provide every community with large pools of citizens who are capable of applying swift resilience to any shock or disaster, each of them knowing where to go and what to do, in order to back up or assist first responders.

To give citizens a greater appreciation of just how much they don't know (!) and how impressive the professionals really are.

In any event, one thing is clear. A wind is at last blowing counter to the hyper-professionalization trend. Whether or not any of the points that I have made are truly sensible, it might be wise to study and understand the arguments. We may, indeed, be looking at the future. And truly adaptable professionals ought to be able to roll with it.


Forgetting our American Tradition

about this article

"Forgetting our American Tradition" (published in full here) was originally written for the SIGMA Forum (Science Fiction Think Tank).

Copyright © 2009, 2017 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

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cited in this article

David Brin, Dangerous Horizons, Part 1: Unusual Failure Modes (slides)

Daid Brin, Dangerous Horizons, Part 2: Underdeveloped Strengths (slides)

David Brin, "The Other Culture War"

David Brin, "The Value — and Empowerment — of Common Citizens in an Age of Danger"

Rahm Emanuel, The Plan: Big Ideas for America (book #ad)

FEMA.gov, Are You Ready? An In-Depth Guide to Citizen Preparedness (pdf)

a future we aren't afraid of

letting others have their say

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile

Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World

Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From

Jim Shultz, The Democracy Owners' Manual

Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future?

Douglas Rushkoff, Team Human

Annie Duke, Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts


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