22 February 2022


This is an invitation to a design fiction intended to inspire thinking about national service and the United States’ place in the world. Addressing the aesthetics & poetics can open us to imagining more broadly what a thing might be like in the world.

A riddle

If police are the instrument of the state for responding to threats of violence at the local scale, with soldiers the corresponding instrument at international scale … while firefighters are the state’s instrument for responding to urgent local-scale non-violent threats … what is the corresponding international-scale version of firefighters?

Shouldn’t there be one?

(And yes, that is mostly a lie about what cops and soldiers do. We need to grapple with that, too.)

The work

As things stand now, we send the US military to respond to things well outside the soldier’s normal ambit: Marines delivering supplies to people displaced by natural disasters, the Army Corps Of Engineers building roads, the Coast Guard doing search & rescue of people lost at sea, and so forth.

The United States should be doing more of this work. It is good on the merits, good for the US on the global stage, and good for Americans.

But why send the military? The institutions of the military are ill suited to the work, in several ways.

The institutions

What is the right alternative to military organizations?

There are NGOs like the International Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières which have strengths and weaknesses and methods and limitations to learn from.

The US has the Peace Corps, which is profoundly un-military in its sensibilities in almost every way: loose unto fragmentary, committed to amateurism, shaggy and intellectual. That is good if you need a few doctors to help open a new hospital or a few bright-eyed young nerds to wire up internet in schools.

The US Peace Corps is not equipped to helicopter in 24 hours after a flood to house 30,000 sudden climate refugees. For that you need some of the discipline, tight organization, and brisk vigor of the military. Or firefighters.

If the US is to build such an institution, it will need its own distinct outlook, attitude, and style.

The style

Civilian national service needs esprit d’corps, like firefighters or the military, but with its own unique texture. A way of walking and talking which instills the values and frame of mind appropriate to the work. A bit of the cocktail of both bravado and caution which firefighters have. A big serving of the humanistic dedication of doctors’ Hippocratic Oath. A bit of military Can Do Attitude. Some of EMTs’ flinty pragmatism.

I have a proposal for how that might look. I have no confidence that it is a good idea; I fear that this proposal is wrongheaded in a number of ways, which is why I have written it up, in hopes that it may inspire folks to think about it and come up with something better.

Put them in uniform, to have them stand out and stand together, something which reflects all of these flavors. Functional pockets. Proof against the elements. Rugged. Distinctive like a firefighter’s helmet. Grubby like military fatigues … but without the threat, without the camouflage. If you are showing up to help for real, you want people to see you coming.

That road-sign yellow that construction workers wear in the rain because it stands out so well for the eye is called Hi-Viz Lime. Put them in jackets made of the stuff, with some distinctive cut or pattern. Make that the emblem of who and what they are. Make it look cool.

Nobody calls them the US Development & Aid Service or whatever. They call them Limecoats.

The romance

They have a credo in Latin which means something like “See Us Coming To Help”.

They swear an oath to never handle weapons, to always aid anyone in need, to place others’ lives ahead of their own.

Limecoats turn up as characters in schmaltzy romanticized TV procedurals about Heroes. Get little kids saying they want to grow up to be limecoats.

Create extravagant honors and memorials for limecoats who die in the line of duty.

It needs to be cool, and heroic, and romantic, as we have painted cops and soldiers. This is an easier story to tell because it would not be built on a lie, it would be the routine heroism of aid and care and building things.

What might that be like?


And there are some red flags — or perhaps hi-viz lime ones — which we have to face if we are as attentive to social justice as we should be.

These poetics have more than a whiff of the colonialist, the toxically masculine. How to we design a culture which steps around those bear traps? How do we build something which does the work better than those hoary old models have?

Is there a way to make a project which is not poisoned by the relationship which the US has with the world — sponsored by the US but transnational rather than national or international?

I frankly do not know. I worry that these doom the idea from the jump. Asking about that, about whether we can find a way through it? That is part of what a design fiction is for.