Fireground Rules, Part 2: A Scheme is Not a Vision

Wildfire Israel(Pictured, wildfire reaches a main road in Ein Hod, Israel on December 4.)

Someone asked me after an earlier FPIF post (Fireground Rules, Part 1) why I use so many firefighting analogies to explore foreign policy / security issues. The answer is simple.

It was wildland firefighting that started me studying complexity science. Because other than global weather (and bipedal hominid groups!) I think wildfire is the most complex natural phenomenon around. Like Mongol cavalry, it’s fast, mobile, dynamic and fierce. The interplay of dozens of factors, and millions of variations in each, can generate manifestly different outcomes.

Also, to a fire, you and your crew are just another fuel type. It’s not personal, but given the opportunity, it will kill you. So dancing with it calls for some serious agility and adaptiveness, and a different way of thinking – which I would hope someday to see in US foreign policy.

Long before David Petraeus and the FM 3-24 COIN manual called for teaching warfighters how to think, rather than what to think, fireground commanders were developing algorithms to keep their crews alive while taking down the beast. To be effective, they had to be relatively simple, allow wide latitude in behaviors and responses of leadership and crews, and continuously update.

Here’s another example. We called it the ICG – Incident Commander’s Guidelines. It’s a simple decision tree that works in a variety of emergency response situations, whether wildland, structure, mass casualty, hazmat or rescue. In my experience, it works pretty well in non-emergency situations, too, not least organizational leadership.

  1. Visualize Desired Future State
  2. Gather Companions (no ‘freelancing’– you always go as a team!)
  3. Identify Objectives
  4. Prioritize Objectives
  5. Base Assignments on Priorities
  6. Allocate Resources based on Assignments
  7. Ensure Communications
  8. Follow Up

Now, in the fire biz, some of this is pretty simple. The vision is typically not much more complex than, ‘No one gets hurt and the fire goes out with minimal damage to the environment.’ But it does drive all the other decisions on down the line.

So when we wonder how, for example, Iraq or Afghanistan got to be the total clusters they are, the fireground analysis is pretty simple – No one knew what the desired future state was! And if you don’t know what it is, you can’t bring it forward. Or as songwriter Bruce Cockburn put it so well, ‘In the absence of a vision there are nightmares.’

The rest of the list is simply a handy way to prosecute the effort of achieving that desired outcome / future state. But do you notice any other major gaps when it’s applied to IrAfPak? I would argue pretty much all of them.

Because the US didn’t know – and so couldn’t articulate – what it envisioned, it couldn’t

  • gain the wholehearted participation and support of allies
  • determine or prioritize intelligent, achievable objectives
  • commit appropriate force levels
  • allocate personnel properly
  • provide adequate equipment
  • get all the appropriate people talking to each other
  • or even decide if what they were doing was working

That, sports fans, is how you get ‘burned over’.

If the US hopes to accomplish anything positive with its foreign (and domestic) policy, it needs to start every proposed endeavor at Number 1 on the ICG, and genuinely answer that question – what do we envision as our Desired Future State?

If the answer is a good one – such as liberty and justice for all – it won’t have trouble selling the idea to congress, the American people, and even those citizens at the receiving end.

If the answer is a bad one – such as greater hegemony or another Halliburton contract – don’t even start. It’s gonna end ugly.

And thanks to singer / songwriter Leonard Cohen for the line, ‘A scheme is not a vision.’