Despair Meta Miscellany

Cover, Dispersion, and the Defense of Schools in Depth

The principal problem with liberal gun rights policies in the modern age is the same problem that has bedeviled all modern warfare: firepower. What do you do when a single rifleman with enough ammunition can wipe out hundreds of people per minute?

This was, of course, a problem with which militaries were much concerned between 1914 and 1918 in particular. One might have expected that the principles that they developed in response would have been put to use already by school defense planners, especially since those principles govern the way all armies today deal with the same problem of firepower that schoolchildren now face.

But they have not been applied.

To my knowledge, the principal principle employed today by schools is that of concealment. If a shooter enters the building, classroom lights are to be turned off, doors are to be locked and barricaded, and children are to hide.

Concealment is, indeed, one of the methods that World War One tacticians identified as a means of dealing with firepower.

But it’s just one, and far from the most important—especially when the enemy has a rough sense of where you are. If he knows you’re behind a wall, or a door with a few chairs and desks up against it, he doesn’t need to know exactly where you are. With enough firepower, he can shoot up the entire wall or the entire door, and everyone behind. Just so, the modern soldier is taught to distinguish between concealment and cover.

Cover as in armor or concrete: stuff that stops bullets and negates firepower.

Cover is another method that World War One tacticians identified as a means of dealing with firepower. But it, too, is not enough. Cover works, but only if you can prevent the enemy from closing with you and pulling you out of your cover. In war, that is done by marrying cover with firepower of your own. You can close on a tank that has no gun, but not so easily on a tank that has a gun.

But it’s hard to marry a school with firepower of its own. The trouble has to do with the element of surprise. You need to have a lot of guards on duty at any given moment in order to minimize the advantage an attacker gets from surprise. Guards get bored and fail to notice things. They panic. They run. And they get shot before they can reach for the arms that they have careless cast aside. You would need a garrison effectively to support an armored school.

Absent such a garrison, you can armor your doors and make desks and chairs from concrete, but all the enemy needs to find is one unlocked classroom door and he’s in—and will have plenty of time to step behind every concrete desk or chair therein.

Cover, too, does not exhaust the principles developed by World War One tacticians.

Another is: dispersion.

Modern weapons can bring astonishing amounts of firepower to bear on discrete areas, but they can’t bring astonishing amounts of firepower to bear on everything at the same time. That is especially true for a lone rifleman.

The more dispersed the targets, the longer it takes to hit all of them.

Which brings us to one of the principal school design flaws from the perspective of modern defense: schools concentrate students. Once the shooter has entered a classroom, the walls of the classroom corral his targets whereas modern tactics demand that targets disperse in order to defend successfully.

But the most important lesson that tacticians learned in World War One was something else: combination.

A successful defense cannot be mounted using any one of these principles alone. Concealment alone won’t do it (the enemy will just shoot all the concealed places). Cover won’t do it (the enemy will just close with you and pull you out). Dispersion won’t do it (given enough time, the enemy will find a bullet for every target).

You have to use them in combination.

If you disperse and conceal yourself behind cover, the effects of the enemy’s firepower are much reduced. It will take him longer to find you, make it harder for him to hit you, and take him longer to hit all of you.

This was the rationale behind the defense in depth developed by the Germans toward the end of the war.

Rather than concentrate thousands of defending troops in a frontline trench against which the allies could bring to bear massive firepower, the Germans created a deep patchwork of trenches, lightly manning each. They took advantage of natural obstacles, like hills, by stationing troops on reverse slopes. And they devolved authority onto commanders of small teams of defenders whose job was to adjust their positions dynamically as the battle evolved to maintain dispersion. This approach soon became a staple of modern tactics.

Modern militaries deal with firepower by deploying cover, concealment, and dispersion in combination. The least schools can do for their students is to deploy same.

The first and most important change that must be made to school defense is to eliminate the corralling effect of classroom walls. As soon as an attacker is known to be inside a school, the walls separating the classrooms from the outside world must disappear. Make them garage doors, say, and program them to spring up at the first sign of trouble. (A more fanciful approach is illustrated below.)

Interior walls should be armored and stay in place, as one doesn’t want temporarily to increase the number of available targets—concealment and cover still matter within the building—but the exterior walls should disappear, allowing students and teachers to disperse as fast as their legs will carry them.

But that, alone, is not good enough.

Rather than disperse into open fields enabling our rifleman to mow down fleeing students like a World War One machine gunner overlooking no-man’s land, students must disperse into concealment and cover.

To achieve this, schools must be ringed by concrete blocks in irregular patterns (irregular to deny the shooter an unobstructed field of fire in any direction). (Even better, they should be great concrete busts of historical figures, so that they both teach and protect.) As soon as the outside walls go up in response to a threat, students must be able to flee into cover and concealment of this kind. The blocks must be spaced closely enough to conceal and cover, but not so closely as to prevent students from continuing to run and run and run; for they must not stop behind these blocks, but weave through them, continuing to disperse (according to arrows conveniently painted throughout this field of cover) until they have arrived behind the cordons set up by first responders.

Here the box-like outside walls of a schoolhouse are tethered to a boom which jerks the walls away at the first sign of trouble. Students are then free to flee to safety in all directions using the cover and concealment provided by a dense assemblage of irregularly-spaced concrete blocks.

In this way, the rifleman’s firepower is almost completely negated. In seconds, his targets disappear behind cover and concealment. He must chase them down on foot, close with them, one by one, and each time he pauses, all the other targets recede further from him. He cannot see them. He cannot shoot them from afar.

A country that gives each person a right to that hallmark of modern warfare—firepower—must give its students the benefit of modern defensive combat tactics. It must give them the defense in depth.

Of course, another approach would be not to honor an individual right to modern firepower in the first place.