The Storming Area 51 Meme Highlights a People Power Weakness

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It’s a funny joke for a Facebook group. If only every single person who signed up did simultaneously launch a heroic assault on Area 51, a classified weapons testing and training facility in Nevada, USA, then surely the armed guards will be overwhelmed by the  sheer mass of humanity. From there, the survivors would get their prize of discovering the truth of whether there are aliens at the airforce base of not.

But it’s satire, and you already know why. Leave aside the language of ‘let’s get dem aliens’ and Naruto running in an attempt to outpace the bullets. Even if a hundred thousand (an incredibly generous turnout of 10% for such an event) showed up for what would be one of the largest battle in the Americas since the American civil war, the outcome is obvious. 50 cal machine guns, helicopters and armoured vehicles would cut down the horde like so many stalks of wheat before a scythe. This is a problem.

For the vast majority of human history, the very idea of democracy was a pipe dream that was considered bad just on its face. Plato considered it the second worst form of government, only marginally better than a tyranny, which he considered a natural product of democracy. Much ado, of course, is made of Athenian democracy in ancient times, but the truth is that this system was only for a tiny portion of the population and only last about 300 years. Then, apart from the occasional city-state or tribe, the idea completely went out of fashion.

That is, until guns came into play. It’s not a coincidence that the great philosophical movements associated with democracy, like the enlightenment, the social contract and even secularism, all came about within 400 years of the first firearm. Which makes sense, because suddenly the balance of military power was shifted from the powerful lords to the people they ruled. A mob of 1000 peasants with swords is easily beaten by 100 knights in armour at a chokepoint. With guns, that arithmetic radically shifts.

While clearly history is complicated and there were many other factors at play, the trend became so pronounced that for a while even elite soldiers as a concept became meaningless. Napolean’s elite Imperial Guard for example was more of a morale booster than an actual battle asset , rarely deploying into battle to preserve their reputation. By the Boar War, the highly trained regulars of the British army found themselves having a very hard time dealing with a handful of farmers in the countryside. However, things were changing.

The First World War gave some warning signs. Tanks, airplanes and machine guns are all expensive and require special skills to use properly. Yet the twentieth century saw many developments that also aided people power in the rawest sense. Derivatives and variations of the infamous Kalashnikov, or AK-47, are still the most widely circulated firearms in the world, with over 100 million in existence. Improvised explosives, the internet and cars too are powerful tools for a population if they ever face the grim prospect of having to best a government by force.

IEDs have proven to be an effective, if horrific, staple of modern warfare.

Modern insurgencies have, historically speaking, a spectacular chance of achieving at least some of their goals. While outright victory is rare in the current era (not because of the lack of capability or commitment, but because of evolved tactics to deal with overwhelming force), the overwhelming majority of wars post-1990 ended with settlements or ceasefires. Nowadays, if you want to end a war, you must turn to politics.

Even within the description of the tools given though, it’s notable that the balance is shifting starkly and seemingly irreversibly from people. Cars can be monitored, even if for now the US Supreme Court has ruled trackers without a warrant as unconstitutional. Your internet usage is fiercely sought after gold, both for the spying agencies of many countries, but also for private corporations looking for data to help improve their algorithms.

And don’t even pretend that mere ownership of a gun is going to make a difference in this day and age against a first world country. Even ignoring how regulated they are in almost every single country on the planet, the tactics that militaries now employ make it virtually impossible to seriously stand up to them toe to toe. After 18 years of deployment in Afghanistan for example, the USA has only had to bury 2000 it’s service men and women. Afghanistan has lost more than 100000 in the conflict. Never mind the inherent risk in being the first to revolt.

See the 2016 Malheur Wildlife Refuge Occupation for details on how it goes.

Never mind also, the nature of how the soldiery uses guns is shifting too. For the first time in half a millennium, emphasis is shifting away from having more soldiers on the battlefield, but on having a smaller number of highly trained specialists. From advanced training tactics, to expensive specialist equipment to highly sophisticated support networks and logistics, to the consideration of economics and public opinion as a weapon, the truth of the matter is that overwhelming numbers in a battle is no longer the guarantee of victory it once was.

Go on, try besting these elite soldiers with your neighbourhood ruffians.

Perhaps that is for the best. The long insurgencies and civil wars that plague much of Africa, Asia and South America are destructive. Toppling governments often results in chaos, more death and ultimately a reinstatement of a regime indistinguishable from the old. And maybe democracy isn’t the ultimate good, and technology is going to allow us to reach that evolutionary highpoint in our politics.

Yet if the technology of force projection continue along the trends they are going, we might find it very hard to keep or justify power to the people. And since the political scientists haven’t discovered a superior system, this is a conversation we ought to be having now.

CCTV security cameras outside entrance to the Ministry of Defence, Westminster, London, England, Britain, UK