It’s Your Fire Truck, What Are You Gonna Do With It?

A commenter, King Beauregard, wrote the following in response to my piece, “What Some Liberals Get Wrong About The Fight Against ISIL”:

If I have a history of arson and then I ironically find myself in a position to rescue someone from a burning building, shouldn’t I rescue them? What sort of moral idiot would think that I should let them burn? If anything, I am morally obligated to put myself more at risk than the average citizen to atone for my past crimes.

That got me thinking.

Let’s imagine that the fire department here in Joplin once hired a fire chief who turned out to be an arsonist. But before he was found out, he and a few of his fellow firefighters started a rather horrendous fire inside a community several miles from Joplin that ended up consuming several homes and killing several people. Soon after the fire started, most of the Joplin fire department was called out to help fight the raging fire, since our chief started it, and after several days most joplin fire stationof the fire was under control.

Meanwhile, the fire-happy fire chief retired and a new fire chief replaced him, promising he would properly use the fire department from now on. The new chief, after a few more days, decided that the Joplin fire department had done enough to put out the fire his predecessor had started, and he turned the rest of the job—tending to the smoldering ashes—over to the local community. He brought the Joplin fire trucks and the Joplin firefighters back home.

Soon enough, though, the local leaders in the fire-ravaged community, instead of concentrating on putting out the smoldering ashes, began to fight with each other. And not long after, a raging fire was again consuming their land, threatening to spread to other cities and towns. The new Joplin fire chief had a decision to make. He had promised Joplin residents that he would wisely use their firefighting resources. But through his upper-floor office window he could see on the horizon the smoke from the newest out-of-control fire. Should he send in equipment to help the locals put out the fire? Should he, God forbid, send in Joplin firefighters once again? Or should he do nothing, since the fire was far from Joplin and Joplinites felt they had already sacrificed so much for people in the other community, with much of that sacrifice highly resented by some who still remembered that first fire chief’s arsonous behavior?

What should the new Joplin fire chief do?

Here are some of the ways Joplin citizens have responded to this scenario:

1) Many folks say that the first fire chief wasn’t an arsonist at all. Yes, he started the first fire, but it was because he was just trying to clear the land and make room for a new development that would improve the fortunes of everyone around, including people in faraway Joplin. The chief intended no ill will, they say, despite all the destruction and death. And they further assert that the second fire chief is the one who started the second big fire by not following the plan laid out by the first fire chief. They say if the new chief had just stayed with the program, the scorched acreage would be much prettier than it is today and all the death and destruction would not have been in vain. But they will grudgingly applaud the new chief if he sends Joplin firemen and equipment back into the community to put out a fire they blame him, not the first chief, for starting.

2.) Some other Joplinites say that because the first fire chief was obviously an arsonist, because he set a horrific fire that killed so many and destroyed so much, he should have been prosecuted for his crime. They spend a lot of time talking about that around their kitchen tables. They further say that sending more Joplin firefighters and equipment to the burning community will only make things worse, since some of the locals resent it when outsiders come into their towns, some of them so resentful they would even shoot at the Joplin firefighters as they try to fight the fire. These Joplin residents even go so far as to say that it is the nature of any fire department, especially the Joplin fire department, to want to start fires, since it keeps the firefighters busy. And they add that since the first fire chief started the fire on purpose, it would be stupid to think we could trust the newest chief to do any better. Fire chiefs just aren’t happy unless there is a fire to fight, these folks say, and if we don’t stop them the whole world will be in flames.

3.) There are still other Joplin residents who say that even though our fire chief started the fire, it is now the problem of the local community. No more Joplin resources should be wasted on it. We’ve spent enough, they say, trying to help these people put out the fire. Heck, even if we put out this fire, someone will just start another one for the simple reason that some people in that community have come to love the flames and the smell of smoke. We can never bring enough bodies and equipment from Joplin to ever put out all the fires, so just let it go. Should this current fire spread to our town, we’ll deal with that when it happens. For now, it is their problem not ours. In fact, from now on we should only worry about fighting our own fires here in Joplin and not concern ourselves with other communities.

4.) But there is another group of Joplinites who say this: Yes, the first fire chief shouldn’t have started the fire in the first place, no matter what his motivation was. And maybe he should have been held to account for his actions, but that would have taken a lot of time and consumed valuable political and civic resources, when there were other more pressing matters that needed our undivided attention at the time. And, yes, we have spent way too much, in terms of human and material resources, putting out fires in that other community, even if our fire chief started the first one. But he did start the first fire. And that has led to others, including the big one going on now. Sure, it is the case that some small group of locals in that other community hate it when they see a firefighter with a “Joplin” patch on his or her uniform. They hate it when they see our big fancy firetrucks pull up and start dousing the fire. They hate it so much they will try to kill our firefighters. But beyond the fact that our previous fire chief did a bad deed in our names, one we simply can’t morally walk away from, we Joplinites have two other good reasons to send help, this group of citizens say.

First, we have some values we claim we live by, including protecting innocent people from harm, when there is something we can do to help. It is clear that many innocents, including women and children, are perishing in the flames and it is equally clear we can help them. In fact, we are the best trained and best equipped to help. To not do so would be to forsake our values. To not do so would mean that many more innocent people would needlessly die or be forced from their homes forever.

Second, we can see the smoke from this fire, even if some of us have to squint to see it. And if we can’t see it, we can faintly smell it. It’s in the air. That means that if this fire isn’t brought under control, it will spread; it will threaten our city. And by the time it is a direct threat to Joplin, it will be so large we will have to devote many more resources to fight it. Right now, all we need to supply is firefighting equipment to the locals in that other community, as well as drop highly-effective flame retardants from the sky. There are those on the ground, most of whom are begging for our help, who are willing to do the dirty work of actually putting out this fire.

This last group of Joplin citizens would ask everyone a question: If you saw a mom holding her little girl out the window of a burning building, smoke engulfing them 100 feet from the ground, would you sit in your fire truck with its 110-foot ladder and watch them die?



  1. ansonburlingame

     /  September 27, 2014


    Frankly, my eyes glazed over as I tried to read this blog. The reason that was so was that I had a really hard time getting past the premise, an arsonist becomes a Fire Chief, anywhere. That would be akin to a mass murderer becoming a Chief of Police, someone still intent on killing people and not getting caught, AFTER he became a COP.

    To me that sounds far fetched. BUT…….

    As I now hear the continuing debate over Ferguson, I hear lots of negative comments about the “government of Ferguson”. How could a city with 70% black people elect a government that demeaned and tried to discredit blacks? While I have not heard it directly, I am sure some feel that the COP in Ferguson is a latent racist. I suppose others in city government are now viewed in the same light as well. Public TV had a public gathering last night on the subject of Ferguson and such sentiments were expressed, mostly by blacks.

    The majority of voters try to elect public officials to care for “the public”, all the people in a community. Certainly that is the job of any public servant, do the next right things for all the people in a city, state, congressional district, or nation.

    But once a public official gets crossways with a segment of the public, well ……… In today’s politics they are called “arsonists” (in your example). Certainly Bush was called a Nazi and look at all the names Obama has been called as well.

    We could see another and larger “round” in Ferguson, depending on how the Grand Jury decides to vote. If they vote, as I suspect they might, exonnerating the cop, well who knows the violence that will result. And each side will call the other, ……..?

    Sad state of affairs in American politics, today.



    • Well, we agree it is, indeed, a sad state of affair in politics today.

      As for the arsonist thing, the piece was meant to present the various reactions to the Iraq war mistake and how those reactions relate to the problem presented by ISIL. It was set up by the comment about the morality of whether a country, like ours, that has bad moral acts in its history, has forfeited its obligation to try to help fix something that is related to our “past crimes.” I’m sorry you didn’t see that.

      I was obviously highly critical of two of the four viewpoints, Anson. The first one, the neocon position, speaks for itself. The second one, the position of a lot of liberals, likewise I found troublesome. And the third position, the libertarian, non-interventions one (which I think is relatively popular among Americans), I left for readers to judge in the light of the last position, the one I hold. I didn’t take sides as to the motivation of the fire chief. What I did was present a simple question to those who have doubts about doing something against ISIL, people on both sides of the political divide. But it was mainly aimed at my liberal friends, some of whom seem not to understand the dynamics involved.


      • King Beauregard

         /  September 28, 2014

        Perhaps we can get past Anson’s objection with this change. The old fire chief wasn’t an arsonist, but was trying to dispose of potentially hazardous materials; the project backfired and started a massive blaze. Reasonable intentions but mistakes were unquestionably made that created the subsequent problems. (I personally consider that an overly generous analogy for Bush, but Bush’s intentions are not the point anyway.)


      • I like King B’s amendment to the analogy, even though it’s still imperfect, as are most all analogies. Nevertheless, it is a worthy effort just because most people either can’t or don’t want to spend the mental energy to analyze a complex political problem.

        I was tempted to follow the distraction of W’s intent, but King B is right. It’s not the point.


  2. ansonburlingame

     /  September 29, 2014

    Thanks for the explanation, Duane. Your approach went right over my head (dumb me I suppose). But now that I understand it better, I of course still object to a degree. King hit the nail on the head.

    Bush, despite Herb’s contentions, was not nor did he ever act like a criminal. He was our President faced with something unseen since Dec 7, 1941, a massive attack against the American homeland. His initial response, bombing Afghanistan and later invading Iraq had almost the full support of Congress and popular opinion at the time. In a few short months he drove Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, overthrew the Taliban and established a new but shakey government in Afghanistan..

    He also orchestrated one of the most brilliant military campaigns in history, driving a 500,000 man “army” from the field and a dictator into hiding and then (later) a hangman’s noose in about 3 weeks time. No country at that time had the conventional wherewithall to stand against America on any battlefield or at sea except maybe Russia (mass and strategic depth).

    I assert, and have done so for about a decade now, that the BIG mistake was having no idea how to “fix it after we broke it” (Irag and Afghanistan). I further assert we still have no idea what to do once we win on a given battlefield.

    Nation rebuilding worked after WWII. It took full occupation of several countries and massive financial aid to those countries, after the war. And before such took place unconditional surrender, a totally defeated military power in Japan and Germany was required. America does not have either the resolve or the military power today to dictate unconditional surrender AND follow such with occupation and massive financial aid.

    Nor do the countries or regions we conquer militarily want us to occupy and rebuild the destruction and put in place a democratic form of government. Such countries instead continue to fight against us using “other means”, terrorism. As long as oil wealth exists in the Middle East they have the money, regionally, to pay for their own rebuilding. And occupation is resisted with IEDs and other “sneaky means”.

    Obama is taking a “half Bush” approach now it seems to me. Neither politically, financially nor militarily can America put enough ground combat forces on the ground to destroy ISIL Americans will refuse to support such actions. So only air combat, where we are almost totally supreme, will be used. Can anyone show me anytime in history where unchallenged air power won a war and achieved peace on our terms? We could have used only conventional air power to reduce Japan to cinder blocks, but it still would have taken ground combat to beat them into submission. Certainly that is what it took against Germany as well.

    Paint a picture of victory against ISIL (include the K….’s as well if you like) Assume both groups are driven back underground with no physical means to fight other than thru terrorism. Who wins such a battle? Assad certainly has a much stronger hand, with strong Russian support, so Assad “wins”. Iraq will continue to fight with themselves, Kruds, Sunnis and Shia’s (with strong Iranian support) and who knows when any real stability will return to Iraqi government, a government that would support American interests in the region and around the world.

    Most readers herein were not even born yet, or were too young to remember the sobering fear in America of the “communist threat” in the late 40’s and throughout the 1950’s. No one today practices air raid drills in school. I did so routinely while growing up during that period. “Commies” was a slang term on the lips of most kids during that era and even adults and fear lingered over that threat across many areas in America in the 1950’s.

    American values, Western values if you will, prevailed against that threat but it took about 50 years to make it “go away”, the Soviet communist threat against Western values. America led the world in a very long term, strategic resistance to that threat. But look what it took in terms of military power, diplomatic power and for sure economic power to prevail over those 50 years. against “Commies”.

    Replace “commies” with “terrorists”, remove nuclear weapons (so far) from the strategic calculations, add oil as THE economic power of the enemy, and then consider any long term, strategic resistance to that threat. I submit that America and the West has yet to resolve that lack of strategic resistence to radical Islam or “terrorists”.

    Remember all the complaints over Oil being the motivator for the Neocons. Destroy the Bathists in Iraq and let “Haliburton” reign over all Iraqi oil. We could have done that but did not..

    Ultimately we won the Cold War with economic power. In doing so we contained a massive military power, and detered it from being used against us. The center of gravity in the Soviet Union was their weak economic system and we beat it, hands down over 50 years.

    What is the economic center of gravity of radical Islam? How do we overcome that center of gravity and how long will it take? More important, does America have the resolve to undertake such a long term, strategic effort and sustain enough military power to contain the threat of radical Islam as long as it lasts?

    I do not object to Obama’s efforts to “swat flies” in the Middle East. But I don’t believe it will do much to overcome radical Islam, in the longer term. As for nuclear matters, it is only a question of when, not if, radical Islam gains a small capability to attack us using “other means”. A “dirty”, but still conventional, bomb is already available to “them” in my view. Wonder if we will continue to “swat flies” when some city has to deal with radioactive material and not just a conventional explosion, or two?



    • Anson,

      I think it goes to far to say W. Bush acted “like a criminal.” On that we agree. But that’s not to say, for instance, that his endorsement of torture didn’t have a criminal element to it. Not only is torture a violation of international law, it is also a violation of our own. That is why his administration went to such trouble to justify it as something other than torture. But it clearly was and it has been widely acknowledged as such. I’m on record saying that pursuing Bush and other members of his administration would have been bad public policy. But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some legal justification for it.

      You are wrong about what the “BIG mistake” was. And the reason you are wrong is found in your explanation of what you think was really the big mistake: “having no idea how to ‘fix it after we broke it’ (Irag and Afghanistan).” It was one thing to go after the 9/11 planners in Afghanistan, which necessitated driving out the Taliban. It was quite another to go after Saddam Hussein in Iraq, who wasn’t harboring any terrorists and wasn’t doing us any harm at the time. In the former case, it was acceptable to not have a plan how to “fix” what we broke. We had a right to go after those who attacked us. In the latter, it was completely unacceptable. We had no good strategic reason to break Iraq in the first place. I don’t know why, after all we have seen since 2003, that is so hard for you to admit.

      As far as America’s military power, you seem to me to continue to believe that we are a 98-pound weakling these days. I don’t get that view at all. But the right in this country continues to push the idea that Obama has weakened our military, which, if anything, has been weakened by Republican budget austerity extremism (read: sequester).

      And, of course, there will be no Japan-like or German-like surrender in the fight against bands of terrorists. That’s not how that kind of warfare ends. There are no governments to sign and honor treaties. The battle will ultimately be won, as I said, when sensible Muslims begin to loudly and forcefully dominate the conversation about what defines their religion. In some cases, they may have to fight the bastards that have hijacked what, for a majority of Muslims, is a religion of peace (I won’t go into some of the Quaranic verses that actually support the jihadists’ extremist interpretations; suffice it to say for now that most Muslims emphasize the more peaceful aspects of their faith, just like Christians ignore the bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament in favor of the more friendly Jesus of the New).

      In the mean time, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that now and then we will have to meet the jihadists on some ad hoc battlefield, whether it be in Iraq or Syria or Pakistan or Yemen or elsewhere. And we have to resign ourselves to the fact that we may, at some point and time we can’t now predict, have to meet them on that battlefield with combat troops.

      That’s just the way it is for now.



  3. ansonburlingame

     /  October 3, 2014


    This string has probably reached its end so I will not elaborate much further.

    Remember Bush said, “You are either with us or against us”. After 9/11 he and the majority in the country decided no more wishy washy things from “friends and allies”. If anyone accepts that approach then attacking Hussien and his regime was called for. Certainly Hussein was against us. As we are now trying to do, he looked for surogates to fight against America and Israel, paying large bounties to families of suicide bombers as only one example. If one reviewed the landscape of the Middle East in 2001, other than Iran there was not any one country therein more anti-American than Iraq. But that is history and needs no further argument between the two of us.

    As for American military power capability today, it has decreased rather dramatically since 2001. That has not been caused by a conscious set of decisions to weaken our military. It has resulted from trying to do far more domestically. Right or wrong, that is a matter to discuss separately. In 1988, when I retired from the Navy we had a very robust Navy. Today that force is a shell of what it once was. Our ability to project power against land forces has decreased dramatically and our ability to sustain forces on the ground is stretched too thin for today’s still dangerous world, at least in my view.

    I would need high level security clearances now to make a detailed case that America would be severly challenged to “invade Syria” today, as only an example. Certainly a “3 week war” would be unthinkable now and the money and manpower to “clean out that rat’s nest” would be far more challenging than just 6 years ago.

    Many Americans believe that IF we decide to use military power then we can “win” rather quickly. If nothing else, that idea has been debunked by viewing the military and national security attempts over the last 13 years. Yes, we can still muster overwhelming power, for now, at the point of attack. But sustaining such power for as long as it takes, forget it today in America, financially and politically.

    Obama and even right wingers have an inflated view of our military power today, in my view. In the end, technology can clear a battlefield, but win a war, no way. If nothing else, our failed efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that to be true as true can be. As Clauswitz said, “War is politics by other means”. American politics sucks today and thus our ability to actually win a war is challenged as never before, at least in my view.



%d bloggers like this: