Sep 18 2009

Doolittle Raider: “we didn’t really think about the future”

It's an axiom even in cyberspace — the "doers" will go first and the "ponderers" will come later
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The U.S. Air Force turns 62 today, and America’s air armada reflected on the occasion by commemorating the famous Doolittle Raid of WWII. So let’s use an anecdote about “The Raiders” as a critique on USAF’s initial forays into “cyber warfare.”

No, waitaminit — first I want you to re-read my blistering critique of USAF’s 60th birthday bash. It will put today’s column in perspective.

SMSgt Rob Rosenberger sitting with Doolittle Raider MSgt (ret.) Ed Horton at the October 2007 Air Force Ball in Marietta, Georgia

SMSgt Rob Rosenberger sitting with Doolittle Raider MSgt (ret.) Ed Horton at the October 2007 Air Force Ball in Marietta, Georgia

Finished reading it? Good. Now I want you to study the photo you see here. It captures an amazing moment in time when I spoke with the late “Doolittle Raider” MSgt (ret.) Ed Horton at the October 2007 Air Force Ball held near Dobbins ARB in Georgia.

Never, never, never underestimate this man’s contribution to WWII, folks — Japan slaughtered a quarter-million Chinese civilians in their raging quest to capture the guy I sat down with. I nabbed a rare privilege to speak for two minutes with one of USAF’s living legends.

And — you guessed it — I didn’t waste my time with him. We exchanged perhaps 15 seconds of pleasantries, then I popped my question. I quote myself to the very best of my recollection:

“Sir, when you hopped in the bomber, did you ever stop to think how much it would impact the course of history?”

MSgt Horton gave a simple answer. I quote him to the very best of my recollection:

“None of us really thought about it. We had a job to do.”

MSgt Horton probably gave the same answer a thousand times to a thousand different people. Right then, though, he took my question and gave me his answer.

Too often we hear government & military people say insane things like “what we do here in cyberspace will reverberate throughout history.” Too often we hear them say “cyber is such an important new realm that we need to consider its long-term ramifications for the future.”

Bah, I say. The “doers” in the world never stop long enough to ponder the consequences of their efforts. They’re too busy doing things. The “ponderers” in the world only get involved after an evolutionary weapon system (finally) proves itself.

Horton’s answer about the Doolittle Raiders reverberates this point. Do you honestly think Jimmy Doolittle pondered how violently the Japanese would react if he succeeded? Do you honestly think he pondered it enough to call his men together to request volunteers for a suicide mission?

“Gentlemen, I’ve got this nagging concern that Japan will slaughter a quarter-million Chinese in their raging quest to capture us if we complete this mission. Are the lives of so many civilians worth the lives of 80 military men? Gentlemen, instead of trying to avoid capture, should we secretly negotiate with China to turn us over to Japanese authorities who will certainly put us to death, in order that we may avert the potential of horrific noncombatant bloodshed in China?”

We know Doolittle didn’t consider the long-term consequences of his actions — because he was way too busy planning and doing the raid to ponder even so much as the immediate fallout.

Do you honestly think the solemn mem­bers of “Doo­little’s Cyber Raiders” will gather to­gether every anni­ver­sary for nearly 70 years to toast their digital feat with gleaming silver goblets — like the origi­nal Doo­little Raiders did?

The same thing happened with the atom bomb. The “doers” who built it didn’t ponder the future; they focused on a mission to beat their enemies to the punch. Even Albert Einstein’s foreboding letters fail to ponder it — he worried only that the Axis would build a bomb before the Allies. One of the most famous scientists in all of history just wanted the U.S. to win a deadly race; he didn’t consider the consequences beyond this. The ponderers played their roles only after Japan’s unconditional surrender.

There’s a simple military axiom: “doers” go first, “ponderers” come later. It doesn’t matter if you talk about mustard gas in WWI or the decision to go with muskets over bows & arrows in the U.S. Revolutionary War. Humans first advance their weapon systems, then they ponder any long-term fallout.

It’s a straightforward military axiom. Even in cyberspace warfare.

“But Rob,” you moan. “Admiral Yamamoto pondered the consequences of his actions before calling for an attack on Pearl Harbor!” The truth is “no, he didn’t.” Contrary to popular belief, Yamamoto focused his ponderings on Japan’s inability to win an all-out war against the United States. When Japan ultimately made the decision to strike, Yamamoto switched right into “doer” mode. His “sleeping giant” ponderings came about when he learned the mailman didn’t deliver Japan’s diplomatic message on time. And — operating in “doer” mode at the time — he merely pondered the mailman’s impact on his naval order of battle.

(“Okay Rob, then what about Billy Mitchell?” He pondered air warfare after The Great War. We’ll need a guy like him when we finally start pondering cyberspace warfare.)

Doers get so busy doing their mission that they can’t be bothered to collect & archive whatever vital documents the ponderers will need. This explains why the Air Force assigns a Historian to every commander from the wing level on up — a specially trained person with the same security clearances as the commander, who collects & archives what the ponderers will someday study.

It’s a simple axiom: “doers” go first, “ponderers” come later.

As a specially trained Historian, I insist USAF isn’t collecting & archiving its cyberspanah, forget I wrote that. It’ll take us off topic…

When it comes to cyber warfare, any number of self-proclaimed ponderers want you to believe they violate the axiom I described above. Bah, I say.

We’re still doing, folks, and we’ll continue doing for a very very very long time before some horrifying IPv6 weapon kills thousands of innocent civilians or saves thousands of soldiers’ lives with the click of a mouse. It’s uncharted territory, it’s a hot project, and it gives communications officers more career opportunities. Pondering about the long-term consequences just isn’t “sexy enough” for anyone right now.

If these ponderers really were pondering the long-term consequences of cyber-warfare, they’d be talking about ephemeral concepts like cyber military graveyards and cyber warfare museums and a solemn “Doolittle Cyber Raiders” ceremony every anniversary for 67 years to commemorate a fateful network attack.

“None of us really thought about it,” MSgt Horton said. “We had a job to do.” Remember his answer — not just on USAF’s birthday, but rather any day you read about the many shallow-thinking “visioneers” who don’t know well enough to recognize an axiom.

“But Rob,” you moan. “You yourself ironically pondered graveyards and museums!” The truth is “no, I didn’t.” I raise those issues only to cast light on the pompous media hounds & conference whores who engage in shallow thinking and who make hysterical claims. I’m a doer — someone who critiques the computer security industrial complex…