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#19: Why Scouting Failed
A group at EXIT is studying the 1911 first edition of the Boy Scouts Handbook, with the goal of finding good, old things worth restoring — but also diagnosing how the organization went wrong, and how to avoid their mistakes.
By the first paragraph of Seton’s introduction, it’s obvious that the original Scouting program was a reaction to the same forces we fight today: urban hyper-specialization, alienation from the “real world” and from each other, the decay of religion, etc.
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Their answer was to retvrn to wilderness living for a solid month each year — but that seems pretty unrealistic, and also too recreational: a sabbatical from your normal bug life in the city. Their goal for Scouting was to prepare city kids to properly appreciate this annual wilderness vacation: which seems like the kind of thing that people in an extremely prosperous and healthy and stable society would dream up to do.
(It’s likely the case that this was a cover story for the benefit of mamas who didn’t want their babies to grow up to be paramilitaries — but, as often happens, the face changed to fit the mask.)
Boys don’t want to learn a more sophisticated form of escapism: they want to prepare to be men in the real world. Apart from a few official recognitions (Lockheed will give you a 0.5% pay bump at entry level if you’re an Eagle Scout — up to $300/year!), Scouting awards don’t mean much — certainly not in the status hierarchies young men care about.
But the Real World for adult men also sucks. Who wants to prepare their sons to inherit an email job? What initiation ritual could you possibly concoct to make a young man excited for that kind of life? Why would any boy aspire to that kind of manhood?
The good news (arguably) is that while we are softer than our great-great-grandparents were in 1911, we are almost certainly closer to some genuine, non-recreational experiences that require survival/paramilitary skills. If we could develop those skills alongside our sons, we could solve this problem, along with many others.
Where to start?
Our friend Clay Martin advises building a small group of likeminded friends, patterned after a Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) or “A-Team”. I like this framework for a Scouting alternative because it represents the minimum viable skill set to get things done independently in a hostile environment — which is a decent working definition of competent manhood, and a much more comprehensible goal than “building character”.
In other words, this is not a Youth Program — the purpose is to build a genuine irregular ODA, capable of controlling its surroundings in an emergency. It involves training young men, certainly, but their moral improvement is not the point. (That’s not a target you can hit by aiming at it.)
At its most basic, an ODA has five roles to fill:
18B (Weapons): firearms handling, combat sports, stalking/tracking, physical leadership, physical fitness
18C (Engineering): construction management, “protecting” vital infrastructure, logistics/supply, camp management, emergency preparedness
18D (Medical): First aid, health/wellness, camp sanitation, physical fitness, animal husbandry
18E (Communications): field communications, opsec, “protecting” IT/communications infrastructure, software development, penetration testing
18F (Intelligence): developing contacts, mapping networks, identifying resources, assessing threats, elicitation, human intelligence
A fully staffed team has ten members: a Junior and Senior in each specialty.1 Every member of the team must be competent to assist the senior specialist in his domain — the Engineering Sergeant has to know how to handle a splint and a tourniquet, the Weapons Sergeant needs to be able to work the radio, etc.
So you can imagine a program where fathers and sons work together to qualify for a civilianized, but still rigorous version of each of these roles. Each candidate — regardless of age — would start by meeting a general proficiency standard across all specialties, which would qualify them for a Junior/Assistant position, assigned according to the team’s needs and their own abilities.
The Junior, then, would be a rough equivalent of “First Class Scout” — the generalist rank before you start accumulating merit badges — but this rank would be significantly more rigorous than an Eagle award. The Junior should be able to perform basic tasks in all five specialties independently, and competently assist an adult professional in more advanced tasks.
Once he has demonstrated general competence, the candidate chooses one of the five specialties and works toward Senior rank. The Senior should have adult professional proficiency in his specialty — a Senior Delta should have an EMT credential or better, for example. The Senior must be able to perform sophisticated tasks independently, and effectively supervise Juniors.
When the boys reach Senior rank, they should be placed in Senior positions, leading and training their little brothers.
A distributed institution can’t be captured.
The vulnerability that eventually did the Scouts in was its hierarchy. It only took a few bad actors at the top to change its policies, alienate its base of support, and drive it into bankruptcy. But even before that, the BSA was hamstrung by liability concerns: boys need danger and independence to grow into healthy men, and no institution with pockets as deep as the Boy Scouts could possibly risk such a program.
So this curriculum will not belong to an institution. Credentialing will be outsourced wherever possible to existing institutions, and verified peer-to-peer. Valuable trainings like “how to protect your local electrical transformer from ne’er-do-wells” and “how to extract valuable information from a protected network (for your job, as a professional penetration tester)” can be conducted freely if it’s just in a book you found.
Our boys need to grow up into something better than office drones, and we may need them to be competent at this kind of thing before long in any case — so we’re going to make it happen. If you’re interested in contributing to this or any of our other projects, get in touch at exitgroup.us.
In a Special Forces ODA, there are also three leadership ranks (18A, 180A, and 18Z) — but in his book, Clay Martin argues that the provisional and civilian character of an irregular ODA makes command roles irrelevant, unless you intend to shoot deserters and insubordinates. A Senior and Junior in each position works for our purposes.