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The Elegance of Distributed Lethality

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2020

[by J. Scott Shipman]

In April of 2017 I was honored to speak at a Naval Postgraduate School Littoral Operations Center “Littoral Op-Tech” event in Cartagena, Columbia. This was supposed to be my last Op-tech event, as I was winding down the effort to make our submersible boat a reality. As it turned out, I was in Halifax, Nova Scotia about a year later—and that was my swan song.


The core of this talk was based on four bullet points the late Wayne Hughes wrote on a piece of paper sometime in 2016 and asked me to deliver to VADM Tom Rowden. I had mentioned that I was scheduled to be in a meeting with the admiral the following week, so Wayne wrote four bullet points as points of departure for Admiral Rowden to consider as he attempted to execute his “distributed lethality” concept. The bullets were: Distributed Influence, Distributed Competition, Distributed Confrontation, and Distributed Interdiction. I made a copy and referred to them frequently and added to the list as I thought appropriate. Later in email correspondence, Wayne filled out his ideas of these bullet points and allowed me to use when I told him about this idea for the talk. These bullets are identified with (WPH).


As far as I know, Distributed Lethality as a focus evaporated when VADM Rowden retired, but in my opinion his initiative was refreshing and much needed. Perhaps this little missive will resurrect some interest and spark new interest.


If this collection of ideas seems a bit “all over the map,” it is because it is. The talk was meant to be given with slides, and to generate discussion. This is also my first foray back to blogging in too many years. I apologize in advance it this is too long and conversational—or too navy-centric. Charles left some big shoes to fill.

Setting the stage with quotes and ideas:


“…strikes may in all instances be necessary but they will not in all instances be sufficient to achieve a national military purpose…[and] a fleet is incomplete which has not elements that can operate in waters next to the enemy coast.” From Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, Second Edition, pg 249-250 by Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., CAPT, USN, Ret (emphasis added).


“Where missiles are concerned, the contest between the offense and defense is marked by a serious differential in starting points. In practical terms, the offense has a huge and nearly motionless target to hit and needs to hit it only once. One large missile warhead is equivalent to something like five or ten direct hits by a sixteen-inch gun. The defense, on the other hand, is required to intercept an extremely fast and quite agile flying object, sometimes hardly detectable in the various phases of its trajectory, which can be launched from any operational dimension and often—for design purposes, every time—completely by surprise.” From The Littoral Arena; A Word of Caution, by RADM Yedidia “Didi” Ya’ari, Israel Navy, Naval War College Review, Summer 2014 (emphasis added) (this was a reprint suggested by Wayne Hughes who wrote, A Prophet For Our Times to accompany the rerelease.)


“Future wars in which LRPS (Long Range Precision Strike) systems predominate will involve efforts by all sides to find adversary platforms while hiding their own from the enemy’s ISR and targeting systems. In the “hider/finder” competition, a mobile platform that can hide in clutter (such as environmental or electromagnetic noise, dense traffic areas, on and under the water, etc.) will likely survive and be capable of offensive action. This will become the paramount element in contested seas, straits, and littorals. The offensive action of targeting and counter targeting is decisive, and no navy ever triumphed at sea without having the offensive advantage.” RADM Walter E. Carter, Proceedings, May 2014

These three quotes identify challenges that are just the tip of the iceberg one must encounter if there is any hope of success in the littorals. If history is our guide, the littorals are a life and death environment. Whether a defender or an aggressor, how a navy fights in coastal green water more often than not decides who wins and who loses.
US VADM Tom Rowden, Commander of US Naval Surface Forces introduced the idea of “distributed lethality.” In a January 2015 article in Proceedings he and his colleagues wrote:
“For more power in more places, the Navy should increase the offensive might of the surface force and employ ships in dispersed formations known as ‘hunter-killer surface action groups.’
With respect to VADM Rowden, I would suggest a slight modification:
“For more power in more places, the Navy should increase the offensive might of the surface and subsurface forces and employ ships in dispersed formations known as ‘hunter-killer surface action groups.”
These hunter-killer action groups would be an elegant solution to challenges faced in the littorals. So let us quickly examine some of the attributes and advantages Distributed Lethality brings, bearing in mind many of these examples overlap.
Distributable Options. The number of platforms will often determine the number of options available to leadership. Fewer platforms limits options in an almost binary fashion—ships are either available or not. As magnificent as some of our big deck multipurpose warships are, they can’t be in two places at once. The more ships, the more choices and the more flexibility across the spectrum.
Distributable Presence. Presence is a message without words. The Freedom of Navigation Operations conducted in the South China Sea recently are a good example of the power of presence to send an unmistakable message. As William Beasley wisely suggested in the November 2015 issue of Proceedings, the US Navy needs to “close the presence gap.” Beasley “steals” a line from former Naval War College Dean CAPT Barney Rubel and defines “presence” — “it means being there.”
Distributable Influence. (WPH) A large number of affordable surface [ JSS: and subsurface] ships can be widely distributed—or aggregated—on demand anywhere in the world where our presence is wanted and we are needed. I added subsurface ships to Wayne’s list because knowledge of the potential for additional subsurface presence will influence the decision-making process of an adversary.
Distributable Competition. (WPH) A large number of lethal ships that are capable of cooperating to make sneak attacks using a wide variety of targeting capabilities, and can be based forward in peacetime at small cost in friendly ports.
Distributable OODA. John Boyd’s OODA loop for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act is a complex, yet simple diagram of decision making (or learning) and engagement. The larger point I want to illustrate with this slide is the power of Distributable Situational Awareness (observe) (manned or unmanned), Distributable Orientation (multiplied across platforms) (mostly manned, but aspects could be assigned to an algorithm), Distributable Decisions, and Distributable Action (manned or unmanned). Implicit in OODA is explicit knowledge of Commander’s Intent, where individual Commanding Officers possess the knowledge and capability to execute Commander’s Intent throughout the full spectrum of options.
Armed with their commander’s intent, their human senses and ship sensors a ship’s captain will possess a level of adaptability/flexibility that we will never be able to pre-program into an unmanned system, or implement from remote control. From the Battle of Salamis over 2,000 years ago to the War on Terror, the history of warfare is replete with examples of human ingenuity and bravery overcoming what seemed like at the time impossible odds. As CAPT Frank Andrews wrote in a 1958 Proceedings article:
“But let no one forget that one and only one element will finally sway the balance, when a country must defend the things for which it stands. That element is people, people who believe, people who will act, people who can think, people who have what it takes to outfight the enemy.”
We believe there are roles for unmanned vehicles, but we advocate manned solutions over automation for there are things people can do that computers will never be able to do, make no mistake: our people are our edge. In the event of hostilities, navies will need resilient and survivable platforms to adapt, scout, and attack and create:
Distributable Uncertainty. War is the business of the previously unthinkable. If history is any guide, man’s unmitigated barbarity and ability to conjure novel methods of death and destruction will continue. The outcomes won’t change, though the methods and pace will stagger our sensibilities, so we might as well stagger the enemy first. Shaping the mind of the adversary, in his planning and assumptions. The benefit of creating uncertainty is the creation of novelty in the mind of the adversary.
Distributable Confrontation. (WPH) A large number of lethal ships the enemy understands will attack his fleet and commerce if shooting starts the larger number of lethal ships will conduct lethal attacks at an affordable cost to us and he is forced to devote his time and energy to defending against an attack at a time and place of our choosing with a force large enough to cause him great loss. The late naval strategist Herbert Rosinski said:
“At sea there is no halfway house between victory and defeat, because there is no difference between what is needed for defense and what for attack. One side only can gain security at the cost of the other—or neither.”
Distributable Interdiction. (WPH) Ships that will team with international partners to assert the right level of maritime interdiction all the way from occasional inspections up to a full distant quarantine or blockade.
Distributable Deterrence. A credibly armed Fleet, large enough to be distributed/dispersed should dissuade any potential adversary of the inherent folly and hazard of engagement. As Colin Gray points out, “with deterrence the enemy gets a vote.” Deterrence is connected at the hip with credibility. Credible people, doctrine, ships and weapons combine to establish deterrence in the mind of the adversary. The best fight is the one that never occurs, where angst and second-guessing are artifacts for the historians.

Back to Nuts and Bolts, or as a friend in the intel community called “ground truth”


An affordable and executable set of solutions will be needed to make the most of these ideas. We believe essential elements of these action groups should be a combination of manned and optionally manned, subsurface and surface platforms. For the subsurface vehicles the price per hull should not exceed $250M and for the surface platforms the price should not exceed $100M (though we should aim for $70M). We should buy these ships in numbers. The broad concept of operations for these vehicles would be to operate and compliment our growing number of unmanned underwater vehicles, and our SSNs, where appropriate.

For the subsurface realm we have concept model we call a “Hoss Boat:” a small, stealthy, air breathing lightly manned submersible boat designed to operate and fight on the surface or submerged. Our boats have a long surfaced endurance, able to patrol or project force in the littorals as a real-time, networked asset.
Since Hoss boats are small they can operate in shallow coastal water (in the 20-10 fathom curve range). Our boat combines stealth and persistence on station to greatly complicate a potential enemy’s tactical situation. Hoss Boats can hide in coastal clutter such as environmental or electromagnetic noise, dense traffic areas, the hundreds of islands in the SCS (or the Baltic Sea) to increase stealth in places where we’d probably never send an SSN or traditional SSK. Since she can hide on and under the water, unlike a traditional surface craft in the same environment she would likely survive and be capable of persistent offensive action.
“Submarines are difficult to find and hard to destroy. Even fairly crude submarine forces can attack surface ships or other targets with a great deal of stealth, making them perfect for countries with limited resources. The threat of such an attack is a powerful deterrent in Asia, where coastal defenses are vital.” (Eric Talmadge. Battle for control of Asia’s Seas Goes Underwater, Associated Press, 19 January 2012)
We planned her initial primary mission to be anti-surface ship (ASuW) warfare, holding at risk both combatants and when appropriate, other surface assets. She would also have a robust AA capability for air threats. This boat could also be used for scouting/ISR missions operating as a real-time, networked asset, although she is not bandwidth or network dependent and will be able to independently detect and destroy adversaries. We believe these boats could be built for about $250M per hull, considerably less than SSK/AIP solutions, and the resources required to deter them would have a favorable affect on would-be belligerents.
Recently we added a small surface missile boat to our portfolio of possibilities, with the working moniker Hoss-Surface. While this boat has not been drawn her mission sets are similar in some respects to the submersible, and radically different in others. While both will have an anti-ship mission, the surface boat should have variants allowing for additional missions (ASW-MIW, for instance). Given the environments where she will operate, the radar cross section should be reduced as much as possible. Compared to an LCS, she won’t be fast at a modest 25 knots. Her main battery should include at least eight Norwegian naval strike-type anti-ship missiles and the largest gun the design will allow, but 30 caliber minimum. Our working price estimate is less than $70M per hull.
Both of these boats can provide navies with a needed capability to distribute lethality that are survivable and offers more offensive flexibility at a lower cost. Lightly manned and highly automated, our boats would provide a “man-in-the-loop” level of situational awareness. It would be appropriate to interject here that instead of a binary choice manned or unmanned, both designs should be capable of working in concert with unmanned vehicles across the spectrum and incorporate “optional manning” as initial design consideration.
The title of this talk describes Distributed Lethality as “elegant,” as indeed it is, but Distributed Lethality will continue to be a myth if at least three significant obstacles aren’t overcome. (1) No budget growth, (2) an acquisition process is too slow and complex (3) hard force structure choices. The Navy cannot control the first two without Congressional support, which will not happen quickly. Thankfully, within the Navy a fairly vigorous debate on force structure is on-going. If we frame the force structure debate through the prism of a Winston Churchill quote: “Now that we have run out of money we have to think,” our predicament comes into sharp relief and alternatives appear. Trust me: poverty focuses the mind.
To its credit US Navy has embraced innovative technologies, but in ship building we have over-specialized (mostly because of economy) in large-deck multipurpose warships that are so complex and expensive they take years to design and build and of such value that every ship becomes a capital ship—too precious to send into harm’s way when the purpose of a warship is to fight and win when necessary. In too many cases, the budget will not endure the addition of the number or ships necessary meet our commitments using existing plans and acquisition assumptions/processes.
It would seem the less complex and expensive alternatives we have suggested would fit the bill, if only we could speed up the acquisition process. There must be a way. Why? Because the status quo is not sustainable, safe, nor secure. How can we overcome these problems and challenges? We could begin by casting off what Angus K. Ross called some of our “lazy assumptions.” In an institutional bureaucracy like the Pentagon; lazy assumptions are ubiquitous because they are the path of least resistance. Some examples: the status quo is fine, we can shape any environment, our current acquisition process of buying/building ships optimizes for budget scarcity, unmanned will make all our dreams come true, etc., etc. At the risk of trafficking in clichés: If everyone is saying the same thing, someone isn’t thinking.
What is the answer? No easy answers exist, but we could begin by setting aside a small amount of SCN and dedicating to less complex and less expensive smaller ships. The late Captain Wayne P. Hughes provided the scaffold of this approach in his essay for Proceedings in 2018.
One immediate benefit to less complex ships would be shorter times between design, build and deployment. Right now the cycle time between design and deployment is approaching 20 years—where obsolescence can invalidate a solution before it hits the Fleet. There used to be a phrase, “low cost, technically acceptable,” and we would do well to remember as we move forward.
Distributed Lethality properly deployed is the marriage of the strategic and the tactical. While more platforms options to distribute will largely be a function of strategic force structure planning, the capabilities conveyed by the increase in available ships provides tactical commanders on the scene who can adapt and attack—as their decisions more often than not decide who prevails.
Distributed Lethality is elegant precisely because increased numbers of ships and the capability to adapt on the fly to achieve our ends: maritime dominance.
If we were to take a poll from the representatives of the militaries represented here today and asked if you want your navy to have more options and firepower in your area of responsibility my guess is there would be a resounding “YES.”
We need alternatives and will stipulate there are many from which to choose. Our boats would be a cost effective way to influence war in the littorals in our favor, but there are other solutions to be sure.
Making Distributed Lethality a reality is within our grasp if we possess the imagination to reach beyond the status quo and think differently. As Marc Andreessen once said, “True innovations don’t follow a pattern.” Our platforms and options offered by others are an innovation in how to fight that does not follow a prescribed pattern. On the subsurface front, as a student of military history I believe we’re reaching the point when an offensively disposed subsurface force will be needed in growing numbers. In a world of ubiquitous precision-guided munitions, surface ships will be increasingly at risk in areas where navies will need to have eyes and potentially provide fires—specifically in contested coastal shallow waters—the littorals. All navies will need a deeper subsurface bench.  We need also to explore surface design alternatives that are affordable and stealthy enough.
The USN needs manned highly capable submersible craft and stealthy small missile boats that can be bought in numbers, to achieve a lethal, numerous and credible presence that can dramatically change warfare in the littorals.

Things within things, so to speak, and other stuff

Sunday, June 2nd, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — strongs words on the significance of chyrons, honor and dishonor in the services, things within things and so on.. ]

Ari Melber and Jon Meacham talk twitter-fights and chyrons:

This is a truly fascinating clip, containing not only Ari Melber’s nicely phrased “Bob Mueller brought a book to a Twitter fight” and Jon Meacham’s “The Mueller team has been out-gunned”, but also a discussion of chyrons — which as you know, I’ve been tracking in more than thirty recent posts:

Jon Meacham again:

Basically, Mueller is also fighting not only twitter but what I sometimes think of as Chyron Conservatives – you know, the chyrons are the captions at the bottom of the screen ..

The power of the chyron is a really interesting force right now in our public life ..

As you know, there are footnotes in the Mueller report, that have date stamped of certain TV chyrons that Donald Trump reacted to, to explore his mind as criminal evidence ..

Two other Ari Melber quotes of interest — this one a variant on what’s already been said: “trigger fingers turn into twitter fingers” .. — and this one a quasi-ouroboric formulation: “guns as a solution to guns” ..


Shame and dishonor:

Whatever officials were involved in the attempt to obscure the name of John McCain from the gaze of Donald Trump on the ship bearing that name — on Memorial Day — dishonor an honorable service.

Navy acknowledges request was made to hide USS John S. McCain during Trump visit

“A request was made to the U.S. Navy to minimize the visibility of USS John S. McCain” during President Donald Trump’s recent state visit to Japan, the Navy said in a statement.

Also shameful, if not dishonorable: the scramble up Everest.

The mountain is so crowded by those who want to come home and say I climbed Everest that they’re stumbling over one another. This is the mountain Tibetans call “Chomolungma”– “Goddess Mother of the Snows” — sacred, it seems to me, by virtue of its beauty — and now polluted by our petty pride.

And honor:

I was going to post in honor of U.S. soldiers Captain Silas Soule and Lt. Joseph Cramer, who refused to participate in the Sand Creek Massacre of 200 or so Cheyenne and Arapaho, many of them women and children, until I realized the piece I was going to point to was from November 2017. Their names do not age, but the news oif the annual run from Sand Creek to Denver is now a year and a half stale. . SO I’ll render them honor with these words:


Xi Jinping’s blind spot:


Some time when you have an hour — Malcolm Nance‘s intelligence-oriented conversation at USC packs a wallop:


And finally, things within things, so to speak:

If I recall correctly, the Mughal emperor Jahangir is depicted as preferring to speak first with a Sufi sant, then with a lesser king, then with King James I of England, pretty faithfully rendered btw, and finally on the bottom rung of the ladder, with the artist.

And let’s make that a DoubleQuote`:

Here is a word, maybe even a sentence, in the language of menace

Monday, May 20th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — behold Abraham Lincoln of the USN sending a signal to Iran, the IRGC, and various Shia militias of dubious reliability ]

Here is a word, maybe even a sentence, in the language of menace:

It looks even more menacing in the full-sized image as I found it, thanks to Julian West, in the Guardian. – hit the link to see it, it’s too large for the Zenpundit format!

Now imagine how menacing that word or sentence becomes when it’s not a photo but a carrier strike group sailing your way..

And now think how menacing that carrier group becomes when John Bolton‘s the one who may be — pardon the pun — calling the shots


Let’s go back to the image up above for a moment, and pray there are no unfortunate accidents, and that the carrier strike group seen here as a sentence in the language of menace doesn’t become anyone’s death sentence..

The thing about a carrier strike group and John Bolton

Friday, May 10th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — strategy / metacognition — here’s an easy to feel, hard to conceptualize notion: the threat to Iran is a human+carrier-group threat, not just a carrier-group threat, okay? ]

The U.S. Navy’s Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group includes guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf, and missile destroyers USS Bainbridge, USS Gonzalez, USS Mason and USS Nitze. Photo by MCS3 Stephen Doyle

As the son of a captain RN, I can’t resist images like this:



Let me start by noting that MSNBC’s Richard Engel today mentioned that North Korea expresses varying levels of frustration by exploding underground nukes when “really, really angry” — and then in descending order firing off ICBMs and then short-range missiles — the stage we’re at this week, indicating “moderate displeasure — but why? — And Engel suggests the Kim regime is signalling that it “wants to get back to the bargaining table”..

So the firing of missiles, albeit into the Sea of Japan, an act of aggression on the face of it, and plausibly a bit of a threat — an example of “saber-rattling”, as Engel goes on to say — can carry a message of tghe wish to negotiate, if not for actual reconciliation.

I mention this merely to indicate that threat — along with such related categories as exercise, deployment, war-game, &c — is a polyvalent matter.

But that’s just to open our minds to the matter of The thing about a carrier strike group and John Bolton…


Main point:

John Bolton just announced that the USS Abraham Lincoln was hastening to the Persian Gulf “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”

That’s a threat.

Presumably, as far as Bolton is concerned, the threat in this case is the Lincoln strike group and accompanying bomber wing — the deployment of massive lethal force.

I don’t think that’s the threat — or to put it another way, I think that’s only half the threat, or more precisely, it’s y in the threat xy.

What I’m getting at is on the one hand patently obvious, and on the other, conceptually difficult to handle: that the threat is in fact John Bolton force-multiplying the carrier strike group..

John Bolton is a hawkish hawk — Trump himself said today with a laugh that he’s the one who has to “tempers” Bolton, rather than the other way around — Bolton, if I may say so, is somewhere between a rattling saber and a loose cannon. He may be in complete control of himself, full of sound and fury purely for effect, and far more cautious in purpose and action than he lets on. But his hawkishness is unpredictable, and it’s that unpredictable bellicosity — multiplied by the lethality of the carrier group — that constitutes the real thread.

It’s easy to feel that, particularly if you’re an Iranian honcho — but not so easy to think about it or discuss it strategically, because there’s no such conceptual category as a human-warforce hybrid.

We need that category.

Because the threat to Iran is a human-warship threat, not just a warship threat. And when the human is John Bolton — watch out!

Limina, thresholds, more on spaces-between & their importance

Sunday, March 3rd, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — from one thing to another — and it’s the gaps — the in-betweens — the leaps — the links — the bonds between them that truly matter ]

Blog-friend Bryan Alexander concludes his blog post Casualties of the future: college closures and queen sacrifices with a clip from Babylon 5. What exactly does that have to do with Admiral McRaven?


A difference between bricks and bricks

That’s from near the top of Bryan‘s post.


Bryan, lately of Vermont and now at Georgetown, is our keenest observer of the higher educational future. He coined the term peak higher education in 2013 — like peak oil, but for education, right? — and has been tracking it since then. At some point, he added the notion of queen sacrifice — “A queen sacrifice is when a college or university cuts faculty, especially full-time professors, usually as part of shrinking or ending certain academic programs” — and has made at least sixty posts in which queens are sacrificed, and one on a knight or rook sacrifice? (sports). Bryan‘s latest post is Casualties of the future. In it, he writes:

That academic phase hasn’t been clearly replaced yet. The new phase’s nature isn’t fully evident. Perhaps its outlines will become apparent after several years of change. I’ve speculated on what that next higher education phase might look like here and elsewhere. But for now, let’s consider the present as a moment in between those two phases. That’s our time, right in the midst of a switching period, a liminal space, marked by uncertainty and instability. We’re in a boundary zone.

Okay: a gentleman scholar as wise as he is bearded — and that’s a considerable double-barreled compliment — sees fit to emphasize the liminal in his latest broadside on higher education and its current obsession with cutting arts and humanities programs and various faculty members — ahem, bringing new and far broader meaning, in fact, to the concept of cutting classes. And why?

Why provide a graphic of brick wall(s) unless, somehow, the idea of breaks, gaps, thresholds, borders, leaps, in short the liminal, is of intrinsic importance?


Picking up on What does it mean to be a Canadian citizen? where we left off in Walls. Christianity & poetry. And nations, identities & borders, with the questions:

Is citizenship a kind of subscription service, to be suspended and resumed as our needs change? Are countries competing service providers, their terms and conditions subject to the ebbs and flows of consumer preference? Edmund Burke long ago articulated an ambitious vision of society as a “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Does any of that still resonate? Or is it a bygone idea of a vanished age, dissolved in a globalized world?

We can consider the cases of women from the US, UK and elsewhere who volunteered for ISIS and now wish to return home.


Here’s a paragraph to transition us smoothly:

How easy should it be to give up your citizenship? In the era of Oswald, it could be difficult—like joining an especially selective monastic order that turns away aspirants until they kneel in the snow for a few days outside the monastery or consulate’s doors. Now a U.S. citizen can stop being American with a single visit to a consulate. (Most renounce not for ideological reasons but to avoid the complications of living as an American expatriate, subject to dual taxation and bureaucratic requirements far more onerous than for expatriates of almost any other country.)

That’s from Graeme Wood, Don’t Strip ISIS Fighters of Citizenship

See also:

  • Amarnath Amarasingam, Revoking Citizenship of ISIS Members is Not the Answer
  • Dan Byman, The wrong decision on Hoda Muthana
  • That’s a liminal issue, questions of citizenship and borders are liminal. And Bryan is talking liminality when he talks education.


    Here’s a quick liminal zing from Abigail Tracy, in the title and subtitle of here Atlantic piece:

    I’d have been happy to include this in my chyrons and headers collection, but between the lines is too nicely liminal to miss.


    A limen is a <threshold: it ‘s neither one thing nor the other, it’s in-between. And in-between is a time or state of transition, often tricky — think of the interregnum between the election of a President and his or her Inauguration — and often deeply human — we’re stuck with human nature, every one of us, which as Solzhenitsyn noted has a fault line in it more significant perhaps than even the fissure that separates our left and right cerebral hemispheres. Stunning us, he wrote:

    If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

    There’s liminality for you.


    Here’s how Bryan ends his post:



    There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way. The war we fight is not against powers and principalities, it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender. The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.

    The war we fight is not against powers and principalities — see my earlier post today on spiritual warfare. And The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation — the horror, the blessing of liminality.

    And Admiral McRaven:

    He too deals with the fight against chaos:

    SEAL training is the great equalizer: If you want to change the world, measure a person by the size of their heart — and that deep sense of being equalized by sand. tide, and fatigue, brings with it fine-grained humility and profound bonding with ones’ fellows.


    Victor Turner was the anthropologist who made liminality the corner-stone of his great work, The Ritual Process — see how closely his ideas correspond with McRaven‘s SEAL training. Back in my early post on the topic here on ZP, I wrote:

    Basing his own work on van Gennep‘s account of rites of passage, Turner sees such rites as involving three phases: before, liminal, and after.

  • Before, you’re a civilian, after, you’re a Marine — but during, there’s an extraordinary moment when you’ve lost your civilian privileges, not yet earned your Marine status, and are less than nothing — as the drill sergeant constantly reminds you — and yet feel an intense solidarity with your fellows.
  • Before, you’re a novice, not yet “professed”, after, you’re a monk — but during, you lie prostrate on the paving stones of the abbey nave as you transition into lifelong vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
  • There are two things to note here. One is that liminality is a *humility* device, the other is that is creates a strong sense of bonding which Turner calls *communitas*: in one case, the Marine’s esprit de corps, in the other quite literally a monastic community. Part of what is so fascinating here is the (otherwise not necessarily obvious) insight that humility and community are closely related.


    earlier Zenpundit posts on liminality and borders, among them:

  • Liminality II: the serious part
  • Of border crossings, and the pilgrimage to Arbaeen in Karbala
  • Violence at three borders, naturally it’s a pattern
  • Borders, limina and unity
  • Borders as metaphors and membranes
  • McCabe and Melber, bright lines and fuzzy borders
  • Walls. Christianity & poetry. And nations, identities & borders
  • But go back to that first post, Liminality II: the serious part, and read the whole thing. The story of the USS Topeka, SSN-754 alone is worth the effort..

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