Boston and the Washington Navy Yard are Naval Diplomat stomping grounds. But the Boston Marathon bombings were at least the work of foreign-inspired terrorists. That barbarity was relatively easy to get your mind around. So was Major Hasan's 2009 killing spree at Fort Hood. Hasan at least had a purpose, if a malign one.
The Washington shootings, by contrast, were the work of one of our own, an ex-sailor evidently beset by demons within his own head. They seem purposeless. With regard to the victims and to the resilience of the U.S. Navy community in the capital city, I can hardly improve on the sentiments voiced by my pal Commander Salamander or by Kevin Baron, the editor over at Defense One.
Not to reduce this to an abstraction about strategy, but the incident does furnish a macabre reminder of how hard it is to defend a perimeter, even that of a compact site such as the Navy Yard. Clausewitz stresses being strong at the decisive place at the decisive time. Concentrating superior force — in this case, the Navy Yard police — at one point would be a straightforward matter.
But few forces can be strong at all places at all times. To use a mathematics analogy, trying to be strong at every point along a curve would be like integrating under that curve. This would be a resource-intensive endeavor to say the least. More likely, strength would be dispersed and thus attenuated. Controlling entry to and exit from military bases and other facilities helps simplify the problem. But as armies from ancient Rome to ancient China to modern France have found, even erecting walls backed by imposing firepower is no guarantee of airtight security. Neither Hadrian's Wall nor the Great Wall nor the Maginot Line accomplished much as a passive defense line.
Perimeter defense is hard in a more metaphorical sense as well. Those of us who work on base take physical security for granted, but bases face threats not just at many points but of many kinds. A comical example: the fences and chains built along the waterfront at the Naval War College after 9/11, apparently to keep al Qaeda marines from storming the beaches from Narragansett Bay.
The furor over whether gunman Aaron Alexis should've had his security clearance revoked over previous incidents involving firearms — neither of which resulted in him being charged nor convicted — is right and fitting. The introspection that follows traumatic events is a healthy thing for an open society, however annoying the feeding frenzy may seem at the time. Given the number of outside contractors and visitors of various stripes whom you encounter on base on any given day, you have to sympathize with those entrusted with fending off harm.
By all means, let's review our procedures and amend them as necessary. But the greats of strategic theory might nod knowingly. Stuff happens sometimes — no matter how thorough our precautions.