When I was serving in the Army, a senior commander gathered his officers together for a tactical exercise. He began by floating a few scenarios and asking us what our response should be. What should we do, he wanted to know, if during the battle one of our supporting aircraft was shot down?
One officer gave a tentative answer: pause other operations and focus on recovering the downed pilot. After all, the Army never leaves a fallen comrade.
“Hell no!” — or something to that effect — was the senior leader’s unexpected reply. The battle we were envisioning wasn’t a skirmish; it was a slugfest, with tanks maneuvering, infantry scaling the high ground, and artillery raining from the sky. Pausing our attack wasn’t an option — we would retrieve the pilot once the enemy was defeated. The first priority was to win.
What about the risk of pushing forward without air support? somebody asked.
“You can rest assured,” the commander said (I paraphrase from memory), “that I’ll put your ass at risk.”
His reply stuck with me. It was a tough pill to swallow. After all, it was my ass that he would be risking. But he was right.
We had all signed up to defend the Constitution of the United States in armed combat. To fulfill that obligation, we would have to not only show up on the battlefield. We had to win the fight, and the fight could only be won by accepting risk. If we focused too much on protecting ourselves, we would lose and thereby fail to carry out our duty.
That lesson came to mind recently when I noticed a common refrain coming from those — federal agency heads, police unions, and their political backers — who have defended the aggressive crowd control tactics on display in Portland. The gist is: “We need to protect law enforcement officers.”
That sounds like risk aversion.
Now, risk aversion is by no means the only factor affecting the present situation between police and protesters. Politicians are attempting to exploit tension for electoral gain. Racial bias probably lurks beneath the surface. Some police departments may have been caught unprepared for the scale and intensity of this summer’s unrest, and so they are improvising — and making mistakes — as they go. And some situations, like the full-blown rioting in downtown Chicago last weekend, require a forceful response on their own merits.
Yet the rhetoric of risk aversion is there, and it probably resonates with the individual officers who have to do the risking. There are valid reasons for that. Officers’ lives are not expendable, and the people who are shooting fireworks at courthouses and trying to blind officers with lasers are breaking the law. Acting to neutralize perceived threats is an instinctive response to danger.
Accepting risk also gets harder the closer you get to the risk itself. I bought in to my commander’s attitude, but, as chance had it, I didn’t have to take it all the way: my unit did not get sent to war. Exposing myself to harm would have been more difficult if I were being shot at, especially for the first time, and so I am reluctant to denounce police officers who are now being confronted with hostile and sometimes violent crowds, some of them for the first time in their careers.
But accepting risk is part of the job. Just as soldiers can fail in their duty by shying away from risk, so can police. Law enforcement officers take an oath to protect the public and, generally, to uphold the Constitution. If they prioritize protecting themselves over fulfilling those obligations — such as by responding aggressively to defiant but peaceful protesters, or reacting disproportionately to petty vandals and provocateurs — then they are letting risk aversion get the better of duty.
Lest we think this only a police problem, however, we must back up a bit and examine ourselves.
Police officers are drawn from society, and there are good arguments that risk aversion has become commonplace across American society today. It manifests itself in such things as CYA (“cover-your-ass”) culture at workplaces, excessive bureaucracy, and, yes, trigger warnings and safe spaces. These things obstruct success (innovation, enterprise, open debate) by focusing too much on avoiding failure (lawsuits, bankruptcies, hearing hurtful things).
Countering a culture of risk aversion isn’t simple. There is a fine line between accepting necessary risk and embracing unnecessary risk. Going to a crowded bar during the coronavirus pandemic is foolish; being too afraid to go outside for a hike is probably paranoid. Yet many choices exist in the grey area in between.
An emphasis on duty — what we owe to others, whether explicit or implicit — can help to determine whether or not a risk is necessary. For a police officer, whose duty is to protect the public, that may mean accepting the risks that could come from choosing not to fire rubber bullets into a crowd, or from using clearly marked police vehicles.
On the other hand, perhaps it makes sense not to display individual police officers’ names on their uniforms. As a law enforcement friend pointed out to me, it is easy nowadays for someone to “dox” an officer (publish his or her address online). That opens the door to attacks on the officer’s family, who are not under the same obligation to accept risk and whom the officer also has a duty to protect. A system in which officers wear ID numbers that a court can trace seems a reasonable way to mitigate unnecessary risk while maintaining accountability.
Thinking about risk in this way can also help the rest of us to navigate the pandemic. We take our kids to the doctor to get their shots, even though doctors’ offices are the last place many of us want to be right now; we still have to protect our children from other diseases, so we accept that risk. But we postpone (again) the dinner we had planned, because we don’t need to do it, and we can reduce the risk to ourselves and others by staying home.
On the broader issue of risk aversion in our society, we may take some inspiration from another soldier. Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Alexander Vindman accepted physical risk to do his duty in Iraq, receiving a Purple Heart in 2004. Last year, he risked his career to testify before Congress — doing his duty, as he saw it, to the Constitution. He lost his career, but kept his honor.
Thus, when we — police, soldiers, and everyone else — have a duty to fulfill, let’s not shy away from putting our asses at risk. In the long run, better things may result from it.
John P. Caves III is a former Army officer and the author of The New Model Federalist, a series of essays on U.S. politics. While on active duty from 2013 to 2017, he traveled across the country and was stationed in Alaska and Oklahoma before returning to civilian life in his home state of Maryland. He currently does nonproliferation research at a Washington, DC-based nonprofit.