The Systems Problem of Mass Shootings

Mass shootings are a systems problem; a problem that involves complex environments in which multiple inputs of varying degrees of dependency act together to produce some systemic outcome. And while we may find some intellectual satisfaction in debating the cause of mass shootings—fire arms, mental health, societal rot, toxic ideology—the exercise doesn’t really yield any effective solutions. Because in reality, mass shootings are some combination of all those things, and more. And so, any solution to mass shootings needs to address the systems problem with a systems solution. Anything less is best suited for political signaling.

Solutions and political signaling rarely occupy the same space.

It’s easy to say we ought to take away the guns. Presently that is politically impossible. If we cleared that hurdle, collecting the 100 million guns in America would be nearly impossible to execute. If it weren’t, ensuring that no guns would ever re-enter the country, would be impossible. There are presently no populations of modern humans in which there is no existence of fire-arms. There have been no populations of humans without weapons. And so we must treat the existence of weapons and even fire arms as some constant within the environment that exists within a range. Simply yelling “gun control now” is as unhelpful as yelling back, “it’s not the guns.”

Thinking of it as a range to be managed is perhaps more helpful. Less guns would probably mean less gun violence. But not always. And for different reasons. Because gun violence and more specifically, mass shootings are systems problems.

Sometimes you’ll hear someone refer to a systems problem as a “perfect storm” of events that yielded a rare and unpredictable outcome. This misses the idea of a systems problem. Systems problems are not often “perfect storms.” Things do not have to be “just so” in order for the event to be triggered. On the contrary, the very nature of the nearly countless inputs means that things can be many different ways and the outcome can still be the same. If that weren’t the case, it wouldn’t be a systems problem. It would be some sort of linear causal one in which the chain of events is easily identified, easily broken and the outcome predictably avoided. This isn’t the case in systems problems. And so it isn’t the case with mass shootings.

Certainly, we could try to ratchet up security at group gatherings to reach airport levels. But we wouldn’t be able to support as many group gatherings. So the group gatherings would stop. Except that they wouldn’t because there are no populations of humans that don’t have group gatherings. As there are no populations of humans without weapons. They are emergent activities. And so we see another aspect of the systems problems.

Mass shootings are not a perfect storm. Instead they are a compilation of many different things that can fall within a range of probabilities. Some combination of ranges drives some range of outputs. And some inputs weigh more than others.

If I had only one motivation, to stop mass shootings, I would address it the way I address any systems problem.

Look at the ranges of inputs that yield the best outputs.

Stopping mass shootings likely requires some investment in the following.

-Reduction in the availability of high capacity fire arms.

-Innovations in security of gatherings of mass people.

-Increased access to mental health.

-Increased accountability for fire arms owners/dealers and how the weapons they own/sell are used.

-Legally supported limits of the identity distribution of those that commit them (If we can keep child porn off the mainstream internet…we can limit the distribution of names, manifestos etc of mass shooters.)

Mass shootings appear to be some sort of network emergence; something that happens more because they happen more within a network where information is shared effectively. And so the goal of reducing them yields a compounding effect by removing one of the inputs.

Life in a society in which this is a thing that happens regularly.

To the Moon

A view of earth from the moon, July 20 1969. Apollo 11. Nasa

Second only to the Gettysburg address for me…one of the great of American Speeches given September 12, 1962 at Rice Stadium in Houston Texas by President John F. Kennedy.

Enjoy…50 years to the day we completed the mission.

Full Transcript:

“We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a State noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three, for we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.

Despite the striking fact that most of the scientists that the world has ever known are alive and working today, despite the fact that this Nation’s own scientific manpower is doubling every 12 years in a rate of growth more than three times that of our population as a whole, despite that, the vast stretches of the unknown and the unanswered and the unfinished still far outstrip our collective comprehension.

No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man¹s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.

Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.

This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers. Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.

So it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait. But this city of Houston, this State of Texas, this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward–and so will space.

William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.

If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

In the last 24 hours we have seen facilities now being created for the greatest and most complex exploration in man’s history. We have felt the ground shake and the air shattered by the testing of a Saturn C-1 booster rocket, many times as powerful as the Atlas which launched John Glenn, generating power equivalent to 10,000 automobiles with their accelerators on the floor. We have seen the site where the F-1 rocket engines, each one as powerful as all eight engines of the Saturn combined, will be clustered together to make the advanced Saturn missile, assembled in a new building to be built at Cape Canaveral as tall as a 48 story structure, as wide as a city block, and as long as two lengths of this field.

Within these last 19 months at least 45 satellites have circled the earth. Some 40 of them were “made in the United States of America” and they were far more sophisticated and supplied far more knowledge to the people of the world than those of the Soviet Union.

The Mariner spacecraft now on its way to Venus is the most intricate instrument in the history of space science. The accuracy of that shot is comparable to firing a missile from Cape Canaveral and dropping it in this stadium between the the 40-yard lines.

Transit satellites are helping our ships at sea to steer a safer course. Tiros satellites have given us unprecedented warnings of hurricanes and storms, and will do the same for forest fires and icebergs.

We have had our failures, but so have others, even if they do not admit them. And they may be less public.

To be sure, we are behind, and will be behind for some time in manned flight. But we do not intend to stay behind, and in this decade, we shall make up and move ahead.

The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school. Technical institutions, such as Rice, will reap the harvest of these gains.

And finally, the space effort itself, while still in its infancy, has already created a great number of new companies, and tens of thousands of new jobs. Space and related industries are generating new demands in investment and skilled personnel, and this city and this State, and this region, will share greatly in this growth. What was once the furthest outpost on the old frontier of the West will be the furthest outpost on the new frontier of science and space. Houston, your City of Houston, with its Manned Spacecraft Center, will become the heart of a large scientific and engineering community. During the next 5 years the National Aeronautics and Space Administration expects to double the number of scientists and engineers in this area, to increase its outlays for salaries and expenses to $60 million a year; to invest some $200 million in plant and laboratory facilities; and to direct or contract for new space efforts over $1 billion from this Center in this City.

To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money. This year¹s space budget is three times what it was in January 1961, and it is greater than the space budget of the previous eight years combined. That budget now stands at $5,400 million a year–a staggering sum, though somewhat less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars every year. Space expenditures will soon rise some more, from 40 cents per person per week to more than 50 cents a week for every man, woman and child in the United Stated, for we have given this program a high national priority–even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us.

But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold.

I’m the one who is doing all the work, so we just want you to stay cool for a minute. [laughter]

However, I think we’re going to do it, and I think that we must pay what needs to be paid. I don’t think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job. And this will be done in the decade of the sixties. It may be done while some of you are still here at school at this college and university. It will be done during the term of office of some of the people who sit here on this platform. But it will be done. And it will be done before the end of this decade.

I am delighted that this university is playing a part in putting a man on the moon as part of a great national effort of the United States of America.

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.”

Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

On America

For every charge over Omaha Beach, there’s a My Lei.

For every Apollo 11, there’s a Tuskegee Syphilis experiment.

All our heroes have the same problem heroes always have. They’re people. And some, beyond the appendix of history books, weren’t good ones. They owned slaves. They were lousy to their families. They were bigots and misogynists, philanderers and all flavors of horrible human frailty.

The adage is true, after all. The one about your heroes. You really shouldn’t meet them. You really shouldn’t even read the letters they wrote to their contemporaries.

That the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the single most important document in the history of Western Liberalism, was written by a man who had a decades long sexual relationship with woman he enslaved because of her race, is a feature, not a bug, of the American experience.

So, today, it’s a fair question to ask, what exactly are we celebrating?

It’s not our great men. And it’s not our history.

Today we celebrate the idea of America. The great Hegelian synthesis that is our founding principles. The thesis that all people were created equal and imbued with certain inalienable rights. The anti-thesis that our very founding documents and the men who wrote them did not mean all people. And the reconciliation of those two ideas that has yielded the struggle that is our past.

The truths were self evident. We declared them to be our founding purpose. And we fell terribly and inexcusably short of living up to them. Had we stayed there, where we started, today would mean nothing. The human framework that is America though, and the people who believed and fought the unpopular, thankless fights to expand the scope of who those ideals applied to, enabled us to move closer to that goal. Slowly. Painfully. Imperfectly. And incompletely.

If we make today about our great men, it falls down too easily. If we make today about our accomplishments, it’s not honest enough to account for the reality of our failures. But if we make today about the idea of America, that all are equal before the law and that all are imbued with inalienable rights, rights which cannot be taken nor given, and that the purpose of our great state is to ensure that they are not, only then can we have an honest celebration of America.

I take my lead from Frederick Douglas, who a decade before the Emancipation Proclamation spoke about what the 4th of July meant to a slave. For Douglas, it was a reminder of the strength of the ever durable message of our charter. But a harsh reminder that America had not made good on the promise it declared. He spoke of the force of the coming fight, but still, a commitment to use this day as a reminder of the principles of America.

“Cling to this day. Cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight. . . At a time like this, scorching iron, not convincing argument, is needed. . . It is not light that is needed, but fire. It is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. . .”

We’re not done this journey. We haven’t walked it all out just yet. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take a day to acknowledge to power of the promise we once made, all we’ve done to try to make good on it and all we’re going to have to do to preserve it as the standard we strive to meet. And so I’ll cling to it. Like a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.

Happy Independence Day.

We Have No Excuse

I came down to my kitchen yesterday morning and realized that I was running short on the lion’s mane, Scandinavian made mushroom coffee that I drink. I spoke a few words into the air and the robot speaker on the counter next to my refrigerator responded, called me by name and told me that the coffee would be on its way shortly. Later that day a van drove up to my house and dropped it off. That robot cost $39. The delivery was free.

49 years and 349 days ago three men climbed into a 363 foot rocket filled with half a million gallons of liquid oxygen and kerosene and flew a 150 ton payload to the moon, landed on the moon and flew back. The launch alone cost a billion dollars in today’s money.

Today, Alex Tabarrok reminded me, on his blog Marginal Revolution, that America once housed 400 thousand German POWs from the Nazi Afrika Korps in 48 states. The standards of humane conditions set by the Geneva Convention were met. Many of them decided to stay. It was all accomplished under a constrained timeline as the war only lasted another two years after they had surrendered.

We, the American people, are capable of incredible, unimaginable, spectacular things when we decide they are worth doing. That we don’t have sufficient living conditions for migrants who show up on our borders is a choice. That people are dying in them, children are separated from parents and basic living standards are not met, is a choice. That the facilities we have available are full, is a choice.

Change the immigration laws if we must. Make it harder to enter the country if that’s the agenda of the democratically elected government. Shut the doors and lock everyone out if that’s the America we want. I’m sure many do. But meet the standard required of civilized nations on how we house those we’ve detained. No excuses. No politics.

There are organizations responsible for solving this problem:

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency and the Department of Health and Human Services are responsible for the plan and its execution.

Congress is responsible for funding it.

And the President, who builds luxury hotels for a living for Christ’s sake, is overall accountable for the performance of the civil servants in the employment of the federal government.

Do your jobs. Yes, this is your job.

It’s not unreasonable to expect that we have a durable solution to meet an influx of migrants at the border that accounts for humane treatment of them. One might even consider it a core responsibility of those living behind the wall to have a plan that accounts for meeting a humane standard when those trying to get over it, show up.

Sometimes might can make right. We are a land of vast resources and unmatched wealth on a historical scale. We could do this without breaking a sweat. We have no excuse not to. And when we do, maybe we can start having a debate about what sort of immigration policy reform we need. Instead of a debate about what sort of monsters we are.

Book Review: Tyler Cowen’s Big Business, A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero

If it seems like I just wrote a review of a new Tyler Cowen book, that’s because I just did. He’s since written another though. With six months between releases, the Tyler Cowen production function is clearly in full effect.

His latest, Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero is well described by the title. It’s a book that few besides Tyler Cowen might have dared to write. It’s difficult to get laughed out of the room for naivety when much of your brand is knowing more things about more things than anyone. For most everyone else, I suspect it would be received differently. The response I got from tweeting a few of the lines from the book without attributing them to Cowen was a combination of eye rolls and followers mistaking it for satire.

It’s not satire though. Tyler Cowen is quite serious. And he’s insistent on using his eclectic super powers to fill a needed void in today’s intellectual rubric; a credible source of permission for calculated optimism.

Cowen’s last book, Stubborn Attachments told us, among other things, not to be afraid to seek hard truths because we could be trusted to do the right things even if we found those truths difficult to swallow. His newest book tells us that one of those hard truths might be that big business is good for mankind. And we shouldn’t fear a world where we trust in it to play an oversized role compared to other alternatives.

That something reasonably obvious should be a hard truth is some part of Cowen’s point.

The general thesis of the book is that, at the margin, big business is a better influence on society than the alternatives. Government, politics, small businesses and even plain old private citizens all have institutional flaws or introduce risk through the power of obscurity or anonymity. Large corporation, on the other hand, have some mandate to sustain their existence and branding with many public eyes on them. Coupled with the motivation of sustainable profit, this makes them inherently trustworthy. At least relatively so.

The theory is one I can put to the test pretty easily with the natural experiment that’s my own professional experience. I’ve worked in multiple industries, presently in the Silicon Valley based tech sector, and also served 15 years on active duty in the military. I’ve spent enough time on both sides of the private and public sector to advance to roles that granted some level of insider experience. That experience has run the tracks for some telling mental thought patterns.

My gut reaction to the recent reports of war crimes in the community and even more specifically within the command in which I served, was disgust. But it wasn’t surprise. In fact, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened or been reported on more over the last 20 years. That is hasn’t is a credit to the individuals that serve and the unique decisions they make to ensure it doesn’t. Because in reality the institutional characteristics of the military make it an inherently risky organization. It has hard laws on the books that purposely subvert transparency, official positions of discrimination on multiple fronts and tolerates high levels of civilian casualties and even poorly thought out wars that destabilize regions.

In contrast, my gut reaction to the Volkswagen emissions scandal was shock. I know why they did it. I have no idea how.  I certainly don’t think higher of the people at Volkswagen than I do of my brothers and sister in arms. But I do know what it takes to make corporate decisions and execute corporate policy. And it’s really, really, really hard to convince leaders to do anything intentionally corrupt at scale. If for no other reason than it’s impossible to keep one of the dozens to hundreds of people it takes to do it from going public.

No one got a review they didn’t agree with from a manager they didn’t like and just put it out there on Facebook…? Really?

I get to stand and be honored in the bottom of the second inning of every baseball game I go to because I served in the military. The idea of calling in the corporate stiffs for the same level of appreciation would be laughable.

That perhaps the appreciation gap should be narrower than anyone wants to admit is part part of the point of the book.

Few disagree that big business does good by producing the things modern society needs to exist and employing and providing benefits for large swaths of the world. The catch is that we believe corporations can’t be trusted to treat employees, the environment, customers or the general public well if its runs counter to their primary motivation of profit.

Simply adding profit as a motivation enables the public to appreciate and trust corporations less than they do the military, an institution constructed to do things explicitly that ought to make us trust them less. Why is probably a topic for another book. Maybe Tyler can take it on over the first three-day weekend this fall.

This book, like Cowen’s last, is a quick read. It runs through counter arguments like CEO pay, the modern working environment, evil tech companies and the financial crisis. Some of the data points feel overfit to the argument. Part of that is probably the commitment to making it a quick read. More intentionally though, I suspect, part of Cowen’s point is that the media narrative is also overfit. It takes advantage of rare one-offs to weave a tight analysis of profit seeking horribleness. An so the data, even if narrowly selected, is at least as believable as the narrative. And so, at a minimum, perhaps the tiebreaker can be the ubiquitous good that comes from the production of everything and the employment of everyone.

My best argument against Cowen’s point is that profit seeking as a rule of law is something more fragile than the inherent rights of man that other organizations claim as a first principle. And so slippery slopes abound. I’ve watched groups slide right down them and nearly take me with them. But they’re far less dubious than most imagine when skimming the sensational headlines. And they’re rarely, if ever, repeated. It’s hard to shake the image of Alan Greenspan in front of Congress in 2009 telling us that the trust he had in free markets was more limited than he had thought though. And so there’s some fear that one day we’ll wake up and have been duped again.

That still seems considerably lower a chance than the guy who painted my house that insisted that I pay him cash because he didn’t want to pay taxes that go towards funding the schools my kids go to or the first responders in our neighborhood. We all have some version of that story of our own. While the stories of corporate malfeasance tend to be things that happened to someone else less real.

Such is Cowen’s point.

Overlord

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

This is an excerpt from the letter General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, wrote 75 years to the day that I write this. He never sent it. The invasion, of course, was successful.

Had it not succeeded, we don’t really know where the arc of liberal progress would have landed. History tells us that it’s not likely Nazi Germany would have been able to hold Europe forever. No one ever has. The Allies would have sued for peace eventually. Hitler may have lived and anchored a fascist hold out in Europe.

Perhaps the Russians would have gotten to Berlin on their own and the iron curtain may have fallen as far west as the shores of Normandy. More likely, they would have simply outlasted the Nazis at Leningrad. Or burnt Moscow to the ground and let the cruel Russian winter do the rest as it did to Napoleon. Whatever counter history might have played out, it’s reasonable to say that Europe, as we know it today, would be quite different. And so would the world.

We’ve learned a few things over the last 75 years. And forgotten some things too. Modern liberal societies don’t try to conquer each other. And so there’s value to the spread of liberalism. But we also know it’s not the predestined end state for all peoples. The world does not simply move towards liberal progress. And so where it has, it takes commitment to keep it. A willingness to believe in it. And a will to fight for it.

75 years ago, the fate of liberal society was on trial. And the case was being argued on the backs of the sons of the free world as they went over the beaches in Normandy. It was, and still is, the largest military landing force the world has ever seen. And it was fighting for the greatest cause. To prove that the free peoples of the world would fight to stay that way. It was the answer to Lincoln’s plea on the battlefield at Gettysburg. That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

With a collective will that seems all but impossible today, we insisted that it survive. And through the iron nerve of men willing to do the unimaginable, and a collective will of a people that mobilized resources at a scale never before seen in history, it did.

Operation Overlord broke the back of fascism in the West. And it stayed broken. It was the type of victory our people look to in order to validate our way of life. My children’s great grandfathers went over the beach and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. And they know it. Because D-Day is an American hero story.

People need a hero story.

For the past 75 years, our society has marched forward towards equality, abundance and relative peace. Our wars have been voluntary. The rights we promised have been expanded. Our standard of living is the highest in the history of our species.

There is no shining past to look upon that is brighter than what we have today. The march has been forward. Imperfect. Incomplete. And riddled with the type of backsliding that takes effort and activism to get through. But forward nonetheless. Forward from the brink of catastrophe.

Forward for 75 years.

Today we’ll tell the stories of a time when it was all in question. And I hope we take the message meant to come from that type of storytelling. We had to fight for what we have. And so we should expect to fight to keep it.

In Memoriam

Most of what I write here is written because I enjoy expressing myself in the medium of words. And I think that sometimes, the things I write might be worth the time spent reading them.

This is not one of those times.

I’m writing this now because it’s important that these words exist, whether anyone reads them or not. They are memories that I have of those who are no longer with us. Men I served with. Men who deserve to have some part of them live on long after they’re gone. We honor them by sharing what parts of themselves they left with us. We are the sum of the impacts of the people we encounter. This is the best I can do to pay them back.

Scotty

I didn’t know Scotty well. We spent a few months together in Africa 15 years ago. He was one of the SEALs that was a part of the detachment in which I served. Mostly his job was to go with me into places no one could find on a map on whatever vehicle we could use to get there and make sure that if anything went sideways, someone more tactically effective than myself could get us out. Jet Ski’s, zodiacs, RIB boats, whatever we could find, I spent hours on end with Scotty.

He was quiet and diminutive. He was just a kid when we worked together. So was I. After a few weeks of talking to mostly old men and their families on rickety fishing boats and ancient harbor landings, with Scotty fully jocked up, body armor, ballistic helmet and long gun, Scotty looked at me one day and said, “LT this if fuckin stupid. I’m scaring these people to death”. Then he took off his gear and put his rifle under the deck of our boat. And for the rest of the time we worked differently.

Scotty was killed Syria last year by a suicide bomber. He was there as a civilian attached to the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Shelly

Shelly was one of the SEALs that relieved the group Scotty was with. He was a dead ringer for Johnny from The Karate Kid.  He came off as a typical SoCal surfer with wavy blonde hair and lay back affect. He wasn’t from SoCal though. He was a kid from outside Philly, just like me, and he came to life when you got him talking about Philly sports. We killed hours burning through the great Eagles teams of the 80’s and the miserable “Steve Jeltz” Phillies.

As a non-SEAL in leadership positions where SEALs were involved, I always needed a few frog men that were ok with serving with and sometimes reporting to an “other than SEAL” officer. Without that support, the whole thing would fall apart. It didn’t take long for most to see that I knew my job and I wouldn’t try to do theirs or do something stupid and get us all killed, but at the beginning, someone in the group had to trust me and model that trust for the others. Shelly was one of those guys.

I saw him in the admin detachment office in Coronado 2005. He gave me a big bear hug and knocked my cover off. That was the last time I saw him.

He was killed in a dive training accident in May of 2009.

Seth

Seth was in my Plebe Summer company at Annapolis. The first time I saw him we were lined up outside our rooms in the hallway in our bathrobes just before lights out. One of the detailers asked a question we were supposed to know the answer to and some tall, rangy kid with a freshly shorn head stuck out his fist and answered in an outrageous booming voice and Texas twang that made the detailer laugh.

We weren’t best of friends but we got to know each other the way you do when you spend four years together at Annapolis. He was like a big kid, usually cheerful and upbeat, often deflecting questions he didn’t feel like answering and skipping deep conversation. He always seemed to be playing some sort of caricature of himself. He played dumb. He wasn’t. He would do things just to see how you reacted. Mostly he just liked to make people laugh. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone. Everyone liked Seth.

After we graduated, he went into the SEAL Teams. He was a platoon commander in the Battle of Ramadi with Task Unit Bruiser and the only member of my class to be awarded the Silver Star. I ran into him sometime after Ramadi at a high school track meet my wife was coaching. He was there mentoring someone. He wore his khaki uniform with his big gold trident and silver star on display. We talked for a bit. He was different. The caricature was gone, worn off by war and life and whatever had passed since we were kids together. It was just Seth. We made a promise to get together sometime. We never did.

Seth was killed in a skydiving accident in 2017.

Jeremy

Jeremy was my friend. We spent four years together at Annapolis and much of the summer after we graduated before he went off to the Basic School to become a Marine Corps officer. He loved the Red Sox and was the best Rugby player I’d ever seen play in person. We had a running joke that that he was a taller, more athletic, better looking version of me. A girl we both dated briefly once told me that if she’d known about him, she would have skipped me all together. She was only half joking. And I didn’t care. Jeremy was the kind of guy that it was hard to be jealous of. He did everything better than everyone and still came off as likable.

He became a Force Recon marine and served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A mutual friend of mine ran into him in DC a little while after his last pump down range. He said Jeremy was running a little hot. He didn’t really seem like himself; like the off switch was broken.

He shot me a Facebook message in January of 2011 letting me know he’d be out in San Diego soon. And that we should get together. We didn’t.

Jeremy was killed in a BASE jumping accident in July of that year.

I leave these memories here so that one day someone, somewhere will read them and know these men a little better. They are more than their headstones and the documented actions they took in war. They were flesh and blood. Sons. Brothers. Friends.

Today our task is to remember them.

 

 

These 20 Years

20 years ago today I walked across the stage at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis and received my diploma and commissioning certificate from then Defense Secretary William Cohen. Tucked neatly inside the flap of the blue folder I’d been dreaming about for four years was a notice that I still had an outstanding library book. And that they, the United States Naval Academy, would be forwarding this delinquency onto my next command.

Go Navy…Beat Army…

That story doesn’t have much to do with the rest of what I have to say other than it’s one of a million stories my class could tell about the uniquely common experiences we’ve had. Unique in that they were our own. Common in that there was the sort of thread that binds them all together the way things really only can be when people are from the same place. Like brothers and sisters in a family. Like friends who grew up in a small town together only to drift away. The thread is never completely broken. It endures in its own way. In stories of library books. Or of war. And of all the beautiful and painful things in between.

The benchmark for a military career is 20 years. That’s how long one has to serve in order to retire and so that’s the date most of us carry in our heads when we start. What none of us could imagine, was where these 20 years would take us, how the world would change in the time that we served, and what it meant to have the responsibilities we would have as world history played out in front of and often through us.

We applied to Annapolis when philosophical battlefield of the Cold War was still smoldering. As the 90’s progressed, the threat of war was as far off as it had been for America in generations. Our parent’s war, Vietnam, had been over for decades. The receding tide of communism made a repeat impossible. The first Gulf War exposed the type of domination Americans could expect to have against a world without an existential enemy.  The Pax Americana was upon us.

Those that went in the years before us got a free education, saw the world a bit and then went on to mint money in the first dot com boom or trading off the growing economy it fed on Wall Street. And so many of us believed we would have a similar path.

We were wrong.

In October of 2000, while many of us were still completing training in whatever warfare school we’d selected, the USS Cole was attacked in the Yemeni harbor of Aden. A fellow 99er was onboard. He survived.  Less than a year later, while on my first deployment to the Gulf, the 9/11 attacks rocked the world. The first shot in war came in by way of Tomahawk cruise missile from my ship. War was back; one that would last 18 of our first 20 years in service.

99ers took part in the airstrikes and ground war in Afghanistan in the years that followed. We were part of the invasion into Iraq as ground forces pushing west over the desert and as the air power that provided the “shock and awe” of 21st century warfare. We were at Fallujah, Haditha and Basra. One of the SEAL platoon commanders from the legendary TU Bruiser at the first battle of Ramadi was a 99er. One of the first Iraq Air Medals, with valor, was awarded to a 99er.

When our initial commitment of service was up, many of us separated into the teeth of the great recession. I worked for Merrill Lynch when it claimed bankruptcy and found shelter from the storm in the form of a recall to active duty and one more trip back to Iraq. Like me, many 99ers learned the lesson that if all else fails, there’s always the war.

By now, most of us are out. Many haven’t gone too far, staying attached to the military industrial complex that’s grown into the fabric of America over the decades of war. We’ve had people serve in the Obama and Trump administrations. We’ve had entrepreneurs start tech companies. Our brigade commander is an astronaut testing the next manned American flight vehicle.

During our time we’ve seen women allowed to serve on submarines and in infantry combat roles and in war zones where long dwell deployments make the distinction between support roles and combat the domain of policy and paperwork, not reality. We served through the end of “don’t ask don’t tell” and realized the true identity of some of our classmates and come to terms with the pain and fear in which they’d been living all along, and the part we, as a culture, played in it.

Somehow, we lost no one to direct combat. But we lost more than our share to the unbearable silence that came after.

Those that still serve have taken command of ships, fighter squadrons and SEAL Teams. And now they’re about to transfer into the unimaginable realm of major command and soon, dare I say, flag rank.

20 years is a long time. Perhaps these 20 years have been longer. What worlds we’ve seen this that day. What worlds there are yet to see. We were together 20 years ago today. All coals drawing heat from the same fire before we went off to the corners of the earth to watch it change. And to watch how it changed us.

Happy 20th 99. I hope you all are well.

Winter is Over…

I didn’t start Watching Game of Thrones until it had reached its sixth season. Like many outsiders, I’d grown tired of all the cryptic tweets and Facebook posts and for years had made fun of people losing their minds over something that couldn’t possibly be that good. And so I filed it away with the Bachelor or the Real Housewives of Somewhere and other things I just didn’t have time for.

It didn’t go away though. So, on a slow night, in the midst of a television lull, my wife and I gave it a go. After the first episode that ended with a man having sex with his sister and then pushing a young boy out the window to what we assumed was his death, we had our reservations.

We stuck with it though and binged watched, as modern cable series are for, and I’m not sorry that I did. It was one of the most engaging entertainment experiences I’ve ever had. And yes, that includes the last season and even the last episode. 

Two days ago the series ended and there’s plenty of mixed feelings about just how. I was fine with the conclusion. And while some felt it was anti-climactic, it’s hard to tell how much of that is people sorting through their emotions as they assess the difference between what they thought would happen and what did happen. And hard to tell how much was a result of not being able to let the pace and tension to mount as the last two seasons were spaced out for years, having the opposite effect of the emotional craze of binging on demand.

For what it’s worth, the last four episodes included a siege battle against a zombie army that was so intense I was physically tired at the end of it, a dramatic turn of the main heroine who burned an entire city to the ground on the back of a dragon and a climactic scene in which the male lead murdered his queen with a kiss and a dagger before a fire breathing dragon melted the throne in question and flew off with her body.

If that’s anti-climactic, it’s only because of the expectations set by the brilliant pace and drama of the series that lead up to it.

My guess is that at least some of the frustration came with the quick and tidy ending in which over the last 40 minutes the remaining characters discussed who should be king. And then gave it to someone few expected. And then life went on. The main character, Jon Snow drifted off into obscurity. The queen that everyone fell in love with was dead. And so were all the villains. By the end though, it was less clear who was which. The evil seemed more human. The heroes less heroic.

This is how war ends. The gold standard of cable mini-series, Band of Brothers ended with someone reporting that Hitler was dead…and that the war was over. And then they played a softball game and told us what happened to the characters afterwards. The heroic lead, one of the most storied American war heroes of the 20th century, Major Dick Winters, went on to work in the personnel department at his friend’s chemical plant. The rest of the men melted into the framework of post-war America. It was how things were. And so for me, Jon Snow wandering off into the woods with the free people of the north after a war of unimaginable carnage isn’t strange. It’s very real. And consistent with the central theme of the story. Which was this:

Conquering and ruling are two different things.

Tywin Lannister gave us the key to the end years ago when speaking to his grandson whose father Robert was the king when the Series opened. Robert was “a man who thinks winning and ruling are the same thing.” His flaw, like those of the bad kings of the past, was that he lacked that thing which makes a good king; wisdom. So, when another Lannister, Tyrion, the “imp” offered the omniscient Bram, the all seeing all knowing, who lost his ability to walk when he was thrown out the window in the first episode, it was the logical conclusion. Those that watched and thought that the end wasn’t consistent, perhaps weren’t paying attention to the narrative.

Cruelty is the business of the evil. You can boil down all the justified means to the end, but cruelty is still what’s left. It’s a choice.

The reward for those that behave honorably isn’t personal gain. It is a world where honor still matters.

The only thing that comes for free in an unjust world is a violent death at the hands of your enemies. Or your friends.

And of course, what matters most, is wisdom.

The real conflict wasn’t about who would sit on the throne. But instead, what the throne would be. In this, Game of Thrones got the consistent conflict of the ruling of man right.

The Red Wedding was the most disturbing and shocking moment of television I’ve ever seen. The Battle of the Bastards was the most satisfying. And the death of Jon Snow the most upsetting. Ramid Djawadi’s score was stirring and nearly all of the it was visually beautiful. The end coming after the most engaging characters were dead and most of the political conflict settled, confirmed that it was in fact that characters and the conflict that made the story. And so it felt reasonably cold without them.

The characters that we wanted to get the things we wanted them to get, did not get those things. But they rarely did in Game of Thrones. And the belief that anything could happen and that no one was safe and the high drama it created was the real innovation of what Game of Thrones was.

Why would it end any different?

The New Risks of Integrated Competition

The curtain on the second act of the original American drama fell at Gettysburg. Four score and seven years earlier, the audience of history had been introduced to the cast of characters and the struggle from which they emerged; the founders; the American people; the idea of liberal government struggling to cast off the yoke of the crown. But there on the battlefield in Pennsylvania, where the bodies of thousands of America’s sons rotted in the July heat, America had reached the depths of her struggles. Months later, Lincoln asked aloud the question that hung heavy in the air.

Would liberal government survive?

Government for the people, by the people did not perish from the earth though. In time, America thrived. The nation grew in wealth and influence. Liberal government conquered fascism and liberated Europe. American scientists split the atom and broke the bounds of gravity to walk on the moon. American activists labored through the messy work of expanding civil rights. And as the curtain fell on the final act of the story of America, the dramatic scene of a collapsing Berlin Wall played out. The last of America’s adversaries had been vanquished. The end of the journey was reached. All that was left was the curtain call.

Fukuyama called it “the end of history”.

Within roughly the same passage of time between the end of the Cold War and today would fit the Bolshevik Revolution, the armistice of World War I, the rise of Nazism, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, all of WWII from the invasion of Poland to Nagasaki, the establishment of the Jewish State in Israel and the rise of Communist China.

Much can happen in 30 years.

21st Century America hasn’t quite come to grips with all that has though. And if a new narrative has been developed, so far, it’s a poorly written one. The characters haven’t been appropriately introduced. And the struggle from which they emerge, not effectively defined. My experience serving as a post-Cold War Naval officer shows the stark contrast between where I spent my time and where the antagonists of the new American drama would eventually be found.

In 2007, about the time that the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community pulled me off of a collapsing Wall Street and back onto active duty, the U.S. Special Operations Command was beginning to think, in earnest, about the world of modern Irregular Warfare. The attacks of 9/11 had awoken Americans to the threat of non-state actors. And American leadership responded by engaging in two active wars in two separate theaters of operation. One had no government to overthrow. The other had one that would not last the first month of invasion by U.S. forces. The struggle that America had been lured into, and somehow is still engaged in, was one against non-state actors in an asymmetrical engagement. Deeper understanding of this sort of “irregular warfare” was required.

In September of that year, weeks before I reported to my post to lead the operations department at a newly commissioned irregular warfare command in NSW, the Department of Defense published the Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept (IW JOC). It was the first publication my skipper handed me when I reported; my perpetual REF A as we built out the command. It contrasted this new version of warfare against the conflict the U.S. military had been engaged in for generations. It was a force that had spent the last half century with its eyes searching the horizon for Soviet tanks rolling across the Vulda Gap. The focus was shifting to something else then; the populations of the regions in which American forces had been more recently engaged. Our task was to establish both kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities that would allow U.S. forces to shape the environments in which they operated. To strengthen those political or institutional domains that aligned with our interests. Or to weaken those that didn’t.

The first edition of the JOC defined Irregular Warfare by its contrast to conventional warfare in that it “focuses on the control or influence of populations, not on the control of an adversary’s forces or territory.” With U.S. military forces occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, the JOC illustrated the threats of the day that were front of mind. “Perfect Storms of failed governments, ethnic stratification, religious violence, humanitarian disasters, catalytic regional crisis and the proliferation of dangerous weapons.”

By 2010, a revision to the JOC highlighted the growing concern about technology advances and the risks they posed and included not only non-state, but state actors as threats. “Advances in technology and other trends in the environment will render such irregular threats ever more lethal, capable of producing widespread chaos, and otherwise difficult to counter.”

The focus, however, was still on how American forces would conduct IW in foreign environments. And what capabilities they’d need to do it. There was still little to be said about the growing threat of the future environment and the growing relative threat past enemies would pose within it. Mitt Romney was nearly laughed out of the 2012 presidential election when he said that Russia was the greatest threat America faced.

That was so 1980. Or maybe it was 2020.

Whether Romney was right on purpose or simply because he needed a hill to stand on that wasn’t already taken is less important than the incredulous response he received. It was unbelievable to think that Russia was our greatest threat. And the only harm China could do to Americans was stealing manufacturing jobs as they continued to industrialize and grow en route to becoming something that resembled America. Americans were consumed by the Global War on Terrorism for a decade, wringing our hands over a threat that was mostly eliminated when the TSA mandated locks on the cockpit doors of commercial aircraft.

As for me, I served in one of the most active communities in America’s 21st Century war, specializing in irregular, asymmetrical warfare. Yet I knew nothing about Russia. I knew less about China. And I had no sense that we were already deeply integrated into the next great American struggle.

Outside our borders, the narrative was clearer. The journey of the previous 30 years had been one of global integration, from many to one. Europe united as one economic system. The Chinese economic growth miracle ushered in access to the World Trade Organization. Russia developed into an irreplaceable energy exporter with a strong 21st century version of the old politburo. And while the neoliberal narrative explained American victory over the Soviets with anecdotes like America has never fought a war with a country in which there were a McDonalds, something was conspicuously missing. That something was the promise of one global liberal society.

The last 30 years has taught us that populations are less flexible than economic incentives. And governments more interested in pursuing their own interests. There’s a bit of irony in the notion that the dream of free markets fueling liberal expansion being sabotaged by rational actor nations pursuing their own interests through competition. Clear is the need for a more serious discussion about the journey we’re about to embark on as a liberal American society competing in global competition with adversaries not quite as vanquished nor assimilated as we may have thought. And more importantly, the tempting IW target that the American people, stewards of Western Liberal belief, represent.

America used to be able to lock its enemies out. Now they’re here and inside the global ecosystem that has few externalities and they’re playing by their own rules. That America is spending any political capital on something as anachronistic as a physical wall to stop foot traffic is telling. That it is a feature of American contemporary politics and not a bug, is dangerous.

It’s an extreme thought but perhaps directionally correct to say that World War III may be upon us. Just not the way we thought it would be, with ICBM raining down upon us or mass mobilization of military forces at the boarders. It’s playing out as IW within the context of global integration. And the population under the most pressure is the American one. Now the risk of “failed governments, ethnic stratification, religious violence, humanitarian disasters” feel less like problems of a far-off land. And more like the front page of the local newspaper. If modern conventional warfare is the sledgehammer that breaks the rock, IW is the water that seeps into the cracks and waits for the long winter to freeze and destroy it from within. As a society of deep demographic diversity, a troubled history or racial inequality, a cultural divide between traditional and metropolitan populations and an inherent mistrust of government, America has many cracks. And many groups that could benefit from them splitting wide open.

There’s a version of the script of this new American drama that includes a second act closing on an America threatened by a rising China, an emboldened Russia and a weakened Europe. And while an internal struggle for the soul of our nation once urged our leaders to ask aloud if this liberal democracy would last, an external one will force us to ask it again. America’s fate won’t be decided by something as tidy as victory on a battlefield in a sleepy rural Pennsylvania town. It will be decided by how well liberal democratic society, and the rule of law that it was built upon, stands up to the external pressures of the 21st Century.

Whether one views Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign and ensuing administration as a “witch hunt” or not breaks largely along political lines. That it was even something to be investigated is remarkable though. One could not have mounted a similar investigation into campaigns of the distant past. And though it’s possible, even likely, that Russian interference had any measurable impact on the outcomes of American democracy, that they were able to get into the room in the first place, is different than the past. Before, the enemy was over the horizon. Today, our old adversary is neither vanquished nor distant.

As for China, we’re presently engaged in a trade war with the country that makes most of the things our American companies sell to Americans. The CFO of Huawei, the world’s largest supplier of phone and internet equipment, is undergoing extradition hearings to the U.S. in Canada after being detained earlier this year. She faces charges of bank fraud, trade secrets theft and sanctions evasion. Huawei sells more cell phones than Apple, who also assembles their iPhones in China, and we’re arresting and attempting to extradite their CFO. A reality where America and China walk hand and hand into the free-market sunset together hasn’t seemed further in my lifetime. Real conflict with China though, will require an economic unwinding that is difficult to imagine. Perhaps the greatest IW campaign ever launched is the one that resulted in China holding a billion dollars of U.S. debt and a trade surplus another half as large more.

These are all manifestations of a new globally integrated competitive reality. A reality of a new type of irregular warfare. A reality in which America is in as precarious a position as we’ve been in since we found Soviet missile sites off the coast of Miami. America has never needed the functions of society that are most effective to respond to existential threats more.

American institutions.

American Democracy does not count efficiency nor effective precision of policy as strengths. Instead, its institutions, formed these last two and a half centuries within the framework of a rare, living liberal constitution are the strongest line of defense against the influence of adversaries that benefit from a diminished America and liberal society at large.

It’s hard to imagine a more effective outcome for those engaging in an IW campaign against America than the destruction of trust within the American government, civil institutions and the American people we’re experiencing today. The strength of democracy is accountability. It shields the electorate from tyranny and the deprecation of the rule of law. American civil institutions and the dedicated civil servants that serve within them are not a swamp. The American free press is not the enemy of the American people. The circles Americans draw around who they decide is on their side needs to be much broader than current leadership has been able to deliver.

In reality, there is no singular narrative. No beginning or end of history. No curtain call. There’s simply a world in integrated motion, filled with billions of people who can experience good or bad outcomes. And leaders they hold accountable to adhere to the principles they’ve maintained for generations to foster trust between those governing and those being governed. In America, that trust is eroding quickly at a time when it’s needed most. And there’s little honest reckoning with just how dangerous that is.