02 June, 2006

Grassroots defense

We recently had a discussion on here about how to reform democracy in the shell of current systems. One day as I gritted my teeth over it, I burrowed into City Lights Books' basement, grabbed the first book I saw, bought it, and was pleased to find it addressing this exact topic.

Who Defended the Country? is about how to reclaim democracy in national defense. It is the best exposition I have seen on the ethics and practicality of using decentralized, democratic forms to mount an effective, consensual defense.

The book uses United Flight 93 as a metaphor for the entire country. On Flight 93, author Elaine Scarry points out, the passengers went through five necessary and sufficient phases in the decision to give their lives for a cause. They identified their enemy and determined the enemy's capabilities; they gathered information about the broader world (the WTC attack) through phone calls; they verified that information through multiple sources; they consulted with outside advisors and with one another to decide on a course of action; they voted; they prepared themselves for action; they took leave of their loved ones; they acted.

It took 23 minutes.

Meanwhile, Scarry accurately points out, today's military relies on centralized authoritarian decisions without consent of those who will fight, much less those are being dragged along (citizens, allies). Instead, we are supposed to let the President, or maybe even a field commander, decide to use a weapon of mass destruction like a fuel-air explosive or a full nuclear arsenal.

The justification for centralized decisionmaking, Scarry says, is the "argument from speed." She rightly points out that not only does centralized decisionmaking undermine democracy by eliminating informed consent in the most life-and-death decisions, it is also slow. The Department of "Defense" failed to stop any planes on 0.8181.* (And like she says, had fighters reached the planes, who could justify ordering them to shoot a plane down? No military allows orders that open fire on hundreds of fellow soldiers; why allow such an act on civilians?) Later, with the U.S. on high alert, the military still missed the kid who crashed a Cessna into a Tampa office tower, the folks who cruised around over Washington, D.C. in their private plane, and Richard Reid the feckless shoe-bomber. When it comes to aerial assault, grassroots action by people on the ground is much more effective.

This reminds me of the story of the Finnish farmers. In World War II, they did a job on Russian planes with their rifles. After pilots crashed, they went out and killed them face-to-face. Not to say I approve of killing ill-defended individuals, but rather than a person sitting at home on familiar territory is the best judge of when and how to fight back.

So maybe if you want to defend the country, the best things you can do are learn to defend yourself (physically, mentally). Develop local groups to deal with crises from car crashes to invasions (that is, from most probable to least). Learn to run a quick and effective democratic meeting.

Maybe instead of football and ROTC, our schools should teach people democracy and self-defense. Thoughts?

*It is with relief that I note how long it's been since I've made this
joke. Does that mean we, or at least I, are getting over it?


a little while back there was a thread on a web board. this european kid and i were defending the russians' reputation as victors over hitler. one of the pro-USA kids declared that calling the USSR the winner was ridiculous because they had crappy guns. that was it. bad guns = losers. losers != winners. we quoted gigantic numbers of deaths, percentages of deaths. links to images of american newspapers declaring victory because of events on the eastern front. it made no difference. only clean cut pro-am heroes need apply. (granted, buff guys running on beaches are  sexy.)

some thoughts.....

1. as a kid, there was a ritual at my wealthy high school. kids who participated in student council and a few other responsible positions got something called "leadership training." i was pissed at the time at this blatant blessing process and more pissed when 10 years later an anointee expressed bewilderment at how fast and far he had gone in his life. never would have guessed, etc.

i'd like to see better process training (along with household skills, parenting skills, and community work). none of those need replace sports. sports is highly placed because americans view society as essentially adversarial. i don't think it's a strong argument here that competition is totally undemocratic. it's contextual.

2. i don't like looking at the people on that plane too closely. there are better examples. comparing cuban hurricane preparedness to american. japanese earthquake prep to american. we definitely rely on our equipment and infrastructure where others rely on training and process.

some conservatives talked about people not living in disaster-prone areas if the only thing protecting them was insurance because the insurance price would be prohibitive. when i think about it, i think insurance is the problem. who needs cooperation to reduce injury and damage when all will be magically adjusted away? building codes and logistics smarts will keep the size of the claim down and unless they're really super-camera-ready (like waving from atop an empty elevated road), the uninsured folks will blend perfectly with the people waiting for the returned phone call.

3. invasion? from where? venezuela??!!! hand combat with foreign foe is incredibly unlikely. now as a replacement for police, that works for me, and seems a good way to look at events on the plane.

4. while we use very large vehicles to move things, we will need very-large-vehicle-protection systems.

5. the air traffic controllers and the military people were outside the planes headed for manhattan and could not fully predict events. U93 passengers were inside and fully informed. therefore time and responsiveness comparisons are unfair.

6 (and out). form follows function. is the book willfully ignoring:
a) military as jobs program;
b) military as industrial subsidy;
c) military as goon squad, deterrent, monopoly on force, what have you; and/or
d) military as wrecking crew? 

Posted by hibiscus

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