Anyone looking at the cover of Surprise Attack would likely feel that it is all about military action – and to a large extent that is true. The idea behind the book was to explore an extended series of crises in an exploration of how American national command authority prepares and responds to real time emergencies.
The first instance of a truly national crisis response is seen in the influenza epidemic of 1918. The management of that crisis was largely made possible due to the fact that it occurred near the end of World War I, with the American public already conditioned to national needs, having accepted both rationing and a military draft. The major advances in sanitation and medical treatment during the war had also created a public appreciation and acceptance of scientific medical practices – professional advice on prevention, diagnostics and treatment was a major factor in controlling the pandemic to the extent that was possible.
Of course national command authority itself has dramatically evolved in the following decades, most dramatically after the attacks at Pearl Harbor and the Philippines (the latter of which deserves a great more attention than it normally gets in these matters) of World War II, the first major emergency in which technology and particularly improved communications allowed quickly organizing the nation’s total resources to respond to a crisis.
Centralized command and response dramatically changed following the war, with the threat of nuclear attack. Atomic warfare demanded a totally new speed in response, either the threat was detected within half an hour and effectively met within 15 minutes of decision time or a preemptive attack could end a war before the public was even aware it had begun.
A complex and highly integrated system was developed to do just that, unfortunately such systems tend to be “tuned” for one very specific type of crisis and one specific type of threat. Which explains why in November, 2001 the system proved ineffectual against a totally different type of threat. That same lesson was learned once again in 2005, when the disaster of Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that the nation remained vulnerable to other types of crises.
Still, lessons can be learned, and one of the major lessons of Katrina was that effective environmental response requires the same type of preparation, training and practice as do military threats (which with the resurgence of biochemical terrorism become not unlike major epidemics).
It all becomes a matter of readiness – and readiness requires practice, communications and to a large extent “continuity”. In Surprise Attack Chapter 20 details those elements and illustrates one of the real risks, the loss of continuity and the failure of national level officials to participate in exercises. As with military response, if the president and the nation’s most senior officers to not involve themselves in such exercises, if they do not go through the tension and education learned during realistic simulations – they fail to perform in real crises. That should be no surprise, emergency responders know that, so do the personnel of any operational military unit.
During most of the decade of 2000 and into the following decade, this lesson stayed fresh and the exercises were frequent, with national command level participation. At this point in time it is somewhat unclear whether that has tapered off in recent years; I suspect it has. One way to check is to explore the agencies which conduct such exercises and see what’s going on. I recommend that for everyone’s own education and these are some links that may help: