we have met the enemy

A long time ago — pre-pandemic and pre-9/11 — I was flying on a commercial passenger aircraft. The flight was over-booked and as I was wearing my Army uniform, I was offered to sit in the jump seat, just behind the pilots. Yes, these things happened in the ‘before times’.

It was a short flight but I had a chance to speak with the pilots. The captain told me that many civilian pilots had a military background but their training and experience resulted in some differences. He mentioned that if there was an observed incident on take-off, most of the civilian-trained pilots would make small adjustments to the throttle speed, aware that fuel costs money for the company.  On the other hand, many of the military-trained pilots might react to an incident by slamming the throttles forward and getting out the situation and in the air as fast as possible. This of course cost more fuel, but from a military operational perspective would probably be the best default action.

This pandemic has been managed in most cases from a perspective of making small adjustments and conserving resources. It has not worked. There was no global shut-down and half measures were the order of the day. Over two years later and locally we have the highest rates of infections and deaths since the pandemic was declared.

Since Russia has invaded Ukraine, Europe and NATO have incrementally put pressure on the aggressor. The war continues as do criminal behaviours, destruction, and civilian deaths. Russian forces continue to devastate their neighbour while Ukrainian forces perform well in spite of their lack of equipment and weapons.

Our representative democracies and their market-led economies seem to have fostered incrementalism in the thinking of decision-makers. This works when the situation is relatively stable but has severe consequences in the two examples above. Politicians are letting the polls decide the next steps in public health measures. Several European nations continue to buy gas from Russia and piecemeal arm the Ukrainian forces. The result is a “profound failure of ethical action”.

When we find ourselves in the chaotic domain, the optimal behaviour is to — Act > Sense > Respond. Ethical action in the face of a clear and present danger cannot be incremental. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

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4 Responses to “we have met the enemy”

  1. Harold Jarche

    Here is Guy Verhofstadt MEP speaking to the European Parliament on 6 April showing how incremental sanctions do not work against an autocrat like Putin and the 6,000 people in his inner circle. Incrementalism will only prolong the war he says.


  2. Lyndon Rego

    One of the things were learned from looking at crisis leadership (https://crisisleadership.blogspot.com/) is that it is the preparation before that enables an effective agile response v. paralysis or chaotic action. Ukraine’s culture has resulted in the commitment of its citizens to the cause compared to the chaotic actions of the Russian troops.

  3. Clark Quinn

    I took a PoliSci class in my undergrad days. The professor said that the one thing he hoped we’d remember is this: government moves incrementally. It makes a small step, and sees if the reaction is positive. If so, it’ll take another small step in that direction. If not, it’ll rescind the action. He also noted that things move much faster than this approach can address. How can we invoke an ‘act-sense-respond’ approach without resorting to an authoritarian approach (which is demonstrably almost impossible to keep ‘benign’)?


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