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Time to stop believing this military Smack Game

The defence and security establishment functions exactly like one of the oldest confidence tricks. But to make the game work we have to believe that Only They can save us from All Of Them out to get us. If only that submarine had crashed somewhere a bit more private.

The Smack Game is a kind of con. It plays on the rational but unfounded fears of the Mark and parts the Mark from his money by giving the impression that only the Grifter has the capability and knowledge to protect the Mark from the source of his fears.

The best known variation is some form of the ‘coin match game’ in which the Mark is drawn into some minor illegal street gambling. The Mark plays the game against another punter – and wins. The punter claims its a fraud and goes to get the police. In fact both the punter and whoever is running the game (and possibly also a fake policeman) are all the Grifters. The man running the game persuades the Mark that they’re all going to jail if they don’t buy off the other punter. So the Mark quite happily gives up his money to avoid this fate. The dynamics are easy – rope ’em in, make ’em scared, make ’em believe on you can save them, get ’em to hand over their money.

Another well known version is the UK defence apparatus. You are roped in by its widespread tentacles – men (usually me) with plausible sounding voices and titles always involving the words ‘security’ and ‘expert’ (never clear to me what makes them expert). Often places with some important-sounding organisation or a university. Never really clear who funds this organisation or for what purpose (The International Centre of Threat Assessment or some such). But the assurance is always the same, always – we are under Much More Threat than us poor everyday folks understand. You see Osama Bin Laden has a Bond-villain-like mega-complex of high-tech underground bunkers in the Tora Bora mountains and a mini-army well equipped and ready to kill us all. Sadam Hussain has Weapons of Mass Destruction and can kill us in under 30 minutes. And an armada of terrorists are as we speak sailing on Scotland’s oil rigs to blow ’em up and leave us all shivering in our beds.

The phase two: Look at Our Toys. This bomb can fly through the streets of a small town, carefully dodging members of the public on its way to blow up A Bad Guy. This bomb is called the Abracadabra (they acquire such memorable names) and it can blow up a bunker and its terrorists But Not Kill the Hostages! A snip at a billion pounds. And you can be confident that if you give us your money we will sort this out for you.

The Smack Game only works if you can control all information – if a real policeman walks by, the game is up. Likewise, if there is any open scrutiny of the threat (does anyone really get the jail for playing cards on the street?) or the real ability of the conman (can he really just make this all go away for £50?), it doesn’t work. Hence ‘National Security’. You can’t catch out the security services in manufacturing the fear because any sliver of evidence that the fear isn’t there is quickly packed up under ‘national security’ and you don’t get to hear it. Likewise any reason to lack confidence in the defence establishment’s ability to save you from all danger is also rapidly covered up.

Unless the defence establishment manages to ground a nuclear submarine just off Skye where people can see it. That’s too difficult to cover up. So a full report is produced to achieve the only remaining self-defence strategy – ‘it was an isolated incident’. And so we get a plethora of details as to what went wrong in the official report. Not all the details – this took place the day after Trafalgar Day, the annual Royal Navy piss-up. Not mentioned in the report. But what is there is embarrassing enough. The Commanding Officer was in the shower and left the control of the vessel to someone sitting in a part of the submarine with no maps. There is loads more embarrassing stuff but that gives you the flavour.

The report states that there was a “significant lack of appreciation of the proximity of danger”. And by danger they mean the land. So one might have reason to doubt the capability of this lot. But we’re not allowed – it would be unpatriotic to point out that we have absolutely no idea if our armed services are actually any good or not because we don’t have the information. We’re told they are the best in the world, but then what else are they going to say? How do we know they’re any good? The Afghan triumph? The arial bombing that Western military forces now use as the go-to strategy? I mean, you can do that by a drone controlled like a computer game. Or what about Iraq? After gradually grinding down a country by destroying its defence apparatus over a decade, cutting its supply of defence equipment until it is using old, rusting kit. Strangle the economy. Then we go in with the most expensive weapons known to man and win. Proving what?

I know, I know – this is all anti-patrotic and possibly treason (oh, so many weapons in the hands of the defence establishment and only some explode). But in everything from cost control to successfully identifying a UN building from the air even if the word UN Building is written on the top in giant letters, we know the defence establishment makes giant mistake after giant mistake. And that’s only the stuff they can’t hide.

My point is simple. This Smack Game requires us to have confidence that Only They can keep us safe. But if we are managing to stay safe despite all the blunders, might we manage to stay safe anyway? Could it be that no fake policeman is really coming to take us to jail and that giving this man our money in return for peace of mind might be akin to throwing coins in a wishing well? Sure, there are some threats to the UK – many we cause ourselves by the actions of the very defence establishment that is ‘protecting’ us. But before you assume that A Very Big Bomb from a Very Expensive Boat is the only chance we have of making it through to teatime, browse the report and wonder whether you might just be getting played here.