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Book Review: "FM 21-76 Survival", by U.S. Army

Maybe it was just coincidence that besides “Crazy Rich Asians”, the other three books I read during Thanksgiving break comprised of the Holocaust, cancer, and Machiavelli. Or maybe I’m a harbinger of toxic negativity (😦 which if so I am actively trying to change). Regardless, one thing I do like about my personality is its utilitarianism. I like to do things that will be useful in some way, and I need to see its usefulness before putting my heart into it. I purchased this book after the 2016 election, because reasons, and because I thought it would be genuinely informative and entertaining.

After reading it, I’d say it’s informative to a degree, but it might be a little on the dry side, and maybe a bit outdated and out of context for the average civilian. To its credit, the manual does state how important it is to stay calm, collected, and focused on the task at hand, keeping in mind your particular reason to survive. It doesn’t really say anything about why you should survive besides that not doing so violates your Code of Conduct (seriously). It doesn’t bother with political correctness at all (e.g. Tsetse flies, which transmit sleeping sickness, prefer dark-skinned natives to whites), and sometimes it doesn’t have any good advice (e.g. for a skull fracture, handle the individual gently – that’s it; to be honest I can’t do better). It’s a little all over the place in terms of trying to cover everywhere a U.S. servicemember might need to survive (the Arctic to the Sahara to the Amazon, in 270 pages), and the diagrams on how to build traps and snares aren’t as informative as I would have liked (I don’t think I can construct one just by looking at the picture, and the diagrams don’t come from IKEA). This book clearly serves only as a complement to actual military training, likely more advanced training, say for the U.S. Marines or Army combat troops. Considering I’m probably more valuable to the military as an egghead and won’t be drafted for my strong physique (if it ever comes to that point, which I hope to God it never does), I don’t think I’ll get this training unless I paid through the nose for it privately. And if I actually get drafted for combat duty, there really must be nobody else on this planet left.

There’s maybe three heuristics I would encourage people to do if they actually want to practice what this book preaches:

  • Actually go out and practice these techniques: Hunting trips, or multi-day camping trips with minimal gear, should be a decent, crude substitute for actual survival. The big difference is the desperation and the emotional distress, which will definitely make a huge impact on your physical performance in the field. Keeping your mental cache warm with knowledge of how to build a fire with flint and steel, how to gut, butcher, and preserve meat, and how to build or seek shelter will come in handy when reducing your stress levels. It’s definitely not enough to just read.

  • Ease into more and more difficult training: I like to go shopping at Trader Joe’s, and I buy a lot of the frozen dinners to keep on hand when I’m too busy to cook and don’t want to pay out the nose to eat out. Trader Joe’s is really nice for young professionals because they have these varying levels of prepared food: Frozen dinners, then frozen dinners you need to cook in a pan, then raw seasoned food you need to cook in a pan, then just raw ingredients. Training for survival could be similar; do a number of exhausting day hikes, then stay outside on the weekend, then take Thursdays and Fridays off every so often, then do a multi-day trip.

  • Try each thing a little bit, then more and more: One constant heuristic this manual preaches that I’ve read before is when trying new foods (wild berries, weird fish, etc.) is to eat a little bit, wait an hour to see if you don’t die, then eat a little bit more. If you don’t die, hooray you discovered a new food source! When building a fire, get the initial sparks cozy in a nest of tinder, then stack small logs on top of it, moving up until you have a fire the size you want (though the manual recommends many small fires vs. one large fire).

Now, keep in mind that this book is about survival, not evacuation. Of course you should pack a disaster kit for the occasional disaster you need to evacuate from. The difference between survival and evacuation is whether there’s a civilization to come back to. The best way to combat what I was fearing (societal collapse) is to go on the offensive: tackle the threat and eliminate it before it drives you out your home. Max Levchin talks about this in this great article on survivalism I found:

One measure of survivalism’s spread is that some people are starting to speak out against it. Max Levchin, a found of PayPal and of Affirm, a lending startup, told me, “It’s one of the few things about Silicon Valley that I actively dislike – the sense that we are superior giants who move the needle and, even if it’s our own failure, must be spared.

To Levchin, prepping for survival is a moral miscalculation; he prefers to “shut down party conversations” on the topic. “I typically ask people, ‘So you’re worried about the pitchforks. How much money have you donated to your local homeless shelter?’ This connects the most, in my mind, to the realities of the income gap. All the other forms of fear that people bring up are artificial.” In his view, this is the time to invest in solutions, not escape. “At the moment, we’re actually at a relatively benign point of the economy. When the economy heads south, you will have a bunch of people that are in really bad shape. What do we expect then?

Planning for a life of last resorts sucks. Go live, and just keep your thumb on the pulse of the world.