Dancing at Armageddon

"Mitchell begins with a simple thesis: survivalists are not necessarily crazy or stupid. Rather, he writes, survivalism is a creative response to the stresses of modernity. . . . Provocative and surprising. His book is an important attempt to clarify and contextualize a movement that thrives on mainstream society's fringes."—Publishers Weekly

"One of the first, and certainly one of the most readable, looks at the survivalist movement. . . . While adherents are often caricatured as dispossessed, paranoid loners, Mitchell reveals them to be not only stereotypical Rambo wannabes but also businessmen, doctors, and other professionals who are looking for a little adventure in our increasingly antiseptic, detached culture. Mitchell explores various sociological and psychological theories about participation in the survivalist movement and discovers that it is about more than an outsider's need to get power. Rather, the movement allows people often marginalized by society to exercise their creativity and gain success. . . . Insightful."—Library Journal

Read an interview with Richard G. Mitchell, Jr.



An excerpt from
Dancing at Armageddon
Survivalism and Chaos in Modern Times
by Richard G. Mitchell Jr.

Chapter 2: The Craft of Valuation

The Coffeehouse

Friday night, 11:30. The trendy coffeehouse near the beach in Santa Monica is packed. The after-something crowd turns out to critique Los Angeles' performing arts over lattes and cappuccinos. I'm working on this manuscript in the corner. Two movie industry executives take the table next to mine. Both are fashionably thin and tanned (it is December). She: late thirties, wearing a short, fur-trimmed vest, a silk blouse with little holding it together in front, boots, and a long velour skirt, slit from ankle to mid-thigh. He: forties, wearing designer-wrinkled olive linen pants and a matching jacket over another designer's sweater and accent scarf. His beard looks as shampooed and permed as their hairdos. They have just come from a preview screening of their studio's next action moneymaker (Bruce Willis does something violent and heroic).

They talk shop, drifting comfortably back and forth between English and French. He jokes. She coos. They discuss distribution and marketing, the nutty flavor of soy milk in their lattes, the script revisions that should have been made. Then comes accounting, percentages and bonuses, how and how much they stand to profit. With money imaginarily in the bank, it is time for survivalism.

They speak of their stock and options. Then with cheery pessimism they concur: the stock market can't last much longer. Yes. Oui. Agreeing nods. It is probably time to sell, to protect themselves.

Both: A crash is coming.
He: Perhaps it's even planned.
She: The insiders will know.
He: There is a priority list of those who will be told, who can get their money out before it all goes under.
She: We should buy a little place, some land we could live off.
He: There isn't any left. All the land is too expensive.
She: I heard about a this place, just across the bay from where we stayed at Puerto Vallarta.
He: What's it like?
She: It's a little island. Practically no one lives there. They don't have electricity, just candles and kerosene. We could grow our own garden and catch fish. It never gets cold.


It is a brave new world. Decades of stifling government regulations are finally gone. Business opportunities flourish. Inflation is low, growth brisk. There is uncertainty of course, but the possibilities seem vast. Marketeers with modern savvy and methods, and glittering offers, reach small, rural, working-class investors. Little bits of capital, together, will create big leverage, big profits, high returns and solid futures, they say. Even the government approves, or seems to. People listen, dig into their savings, invest. Profits begin to pour in—for some. The rest wait their turns, encouraged by the marketeers' testimonials and small payments. Months go by. Real jobs diminish. Real prices soar. There are flaws in the plan. Capital does not capitalize production but is consumed by the marketeers, the top of the pyramid. The schemes begin to collapse, first privately then in public announcements. The government freezes the marketeers' remaining assets but little is left and few care. The schemes have failed. The government that encouraged them has failed.

In the south, protesters take to the streets, raid government arms depots, blockade roads, call for the president and his government to resign. In the capital, riot police beat back rebellious throngs, killing dozens, wounding hundreds. Enraged bands take control of regional governments. Federal jets bomb insurgent villagers in their homes. The president announces his government is stepping down. The next day Congress declares a national state of emergency and imposes a curfew and media censorship. The day after that, Congress reappoints the president.

Rebellion spreads from the rural south to populous centers throughout the country. The military effectively collapses. Armed vigilante squads roam the streets, unleashing indiscriminate automatic weapons fire. Rescue helicopters attempting to evacuate foreign nationals are hit, shoot back. The loose opposition finds a name: The Organization for Security and Cooperation. Those without allies or allegiance or guns flee. Thousands pour across the borders. Thousands more head toward the coast in hopes of escaping the looting and violence. A haphazard flotilla of leaky fishing boats, luxury yachts, and commandeered government ships takes to the open ocean to escape the chaos. Some sink in storms. Some are blown back to the mainland. Some are repelled or sunk by warships of surrounding nations. A few craft slip through, reach relative safety across the fifty-mile straight. Survivors plead for asylum. One of these is the fleeing former Minister of Defense.

The president, now with little authority or power, tries a desperate ploy. He orders police stations in the north to hand out guns to citizens willing to proclaim allegiance to his government. Hundreds, then thousands respond. By nightfall of the program's second day a new sort of vigilante, men wearing civilian clothes and ski masks and brandishing machine guns, sets up checkpoints on major roads, searching cars and busses for opposition members and stolen weapons.

Violence escalates. The streets of one coastal town fill with corpses of secret police murdered by antigovernment crowds. Inland, near the capital, another city rebels. Mutilated torsos of special forces troops fester at curbside. The government responds, turning armored vehicle guns on a hospital filled with rebel wounded, beating staff members, taking hostages.

Unlikely international forces assert themselves. Greeks send troops to evacuate Chinese, Jordanian, and Syrian diplomats and their families from embattled enclaves near the capital. The Italian navy exercises its might, intercedes, provides a neutral diplomatic meeting ground aboard one of its warships off the coast. The major European powers act; they arm, embark, and land an international military force by sea and air to restore order. Calm settles over an occupied nation. The rebels retreat into scattered countryside strongholds. Some talk of elections. Some talk of all-out war.

Survivalist fiction?


Springtime in Albania, 1997.

Commodities and Creativity

Imagine that the coffee house couple are right. Imagine what happened over there happening here, a kind of Albania in America. Imagine inflation, depression, devaluation of stocks or bonds or the dollar, shortages of food or fuel or other resources. Breakdown could follow, then violence, civil strife, even nuclear war. Now imagine there are ways to prepare, material ways, economic ways, prophylactic prudence in the American tradition. Anticipate these events. Preserve capital, invest strategically, maximize market advantage. Emulate the Boy Scout, the busy summer squirrel. Stockpile necessities, guard them against dangers. Begin with two maxims, one applicable to all survivalism, the other specific to marketeers' efforts to persuade survivalists. What you have is what you will need. What you will need is for sale.

What You Have Is What You Will Need

One premise is common to all survivalism: trouble is coming, but manageable trouble. The talked-of cataclysm ahead may destroy, confuse, destabilize, but only selectively. Necessities now available from traditional sources—retail goods, military security, government services, church leadership—may dwindle. But prepared survivalists can fill the gaps, for themselves and perhaps for others. In the disrupted future, survival readiness will neutralize institutional and systemic failures. No matter what the future may hold, what you have will be the foundation for what you need. As such, survival readiness is relative and tenable, not absolute and tested. Preparations are not evaluated against benchmark standards. Calorie consumption rates or roentgen shielding capacity, the number and distribution of enemies, the strength of their faith and firepower¾all should be known. But pertinent facts do not make programmatic imperatives. They serve other purposes: as punctuations and embellishments to survival storytelling; as evidence that scenarios crafted to fit individual circumstances are grounded in reasoned practicality. Consider a few short examples built on premises of economic troubles.

New Yorker Kirk Schmidt, twenty-nine, is married to an engineer. His scenarios hinge on "economic collapse" and its consequences. Early evenings he attends college, working toward a degree in business administration. Late nights he devotes to his hobby, making survival plans to suit his lifestyle. "My hobby is investments to build a secure future," Kirk says. "If a bomb hits New York City I am doomed, but I don't think that will happen, really. New York City is a stimulating place to live and is great for investment and the future. I live in a condominium and advocate them for all to save money and energy." Kirk emphasizes energy dependence as the weakest link in our economy, but he has a plan. "I am investing to make big money so I can build a solar house in the country and pay cash for it." Away from the city things will be safer. Meanwhile, Kirk makes a living. "I manage a store that sells insulated windows and doors, and I see how interested the general population is in saving energy."

Dr. Ronald Smallfield and his wife live in Los Angeles. They describe themselves as Anglo-Saxon Episcopalians in their early sixties whose politics are "conservative, hard money, Republican but not radical right." Their interest in survivalism grew out of their "concern about the deterioration of the monetary system and breakdown of the social structure of the country, especially the large cities." Dr. Smallfield feels his horticultural expertise developed through thirty years of orchid cultivation will complement his medical background as an essential postdisaster skill. Mrs. Smallfield runs an interior decorating business and has a lifelong interest in "sewing, designing, stitchery," and related crafts, which she views as her contribution to family survival preparations.

Carol Kennworth, like Kirk Schmidt, illustrates a survivalist corollary: what you plan for now will be what you will need later. Good intentions, backed by a good story, count for action among survivalists. Carol, thirty-five, attorney-at-law, lives with her spouse and children in urban New England on a comfortable six-digit income and belongs to Mensa's roughly one-hundred-member survivalist "special interest group." The obviously intelligent members hold no meetings, recognize no leadership, and share only the "Survivalist SIG Report," a six-page monthly mimeoed newsletter compiled from the contributions of the most active participants. Carol describes herself as a political conservative with a Protestant background and distinctive tastes. Likes: "classical music, opera, and playing the piano." Languages: fluent "French and German, a little Spanish and Hebrew." Enjoyments: international travel, "acquiring knowledge about history and other cultures," and "a good debate and free exchange of ideas" with "healthy, self-confident, uninhibited" people. Prospects: "I have become a 'survivalist,'" Carol reveals, "mostly because I do not believe most people have an objective standard of values, which should be a common ground for all. This lack of objectivity has infected our government and our people." She can see the possibility of "shortages and riots due to economic pressures" and the "ensuing military effort to control same, eventually leading to a war-time economy and possible nuclear resolution." Her plans: a joint retreat venture with "six or seven families who might wish to purchase with me a large tract or farm, put vacation houses on it (now a tax shelter and when needed a fallout shelter)." But these partners should be compatible, "well-educated professionals," preferably "atheistic or agnostics, persons who have successfully completed psychoanalysis, and . . . who adhere to the principles of Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged."

While these snapshots do little justice to the subtlety of the valuation issue, they immediately make obvious both the relativity and intrinsic attractions of survivalist scenario building. Survivalism fits lifestyles and budgets.

What You Need, You Can Buy

Marketeers promote a streamlined survival. There are troubles ahead but ways to cope. It is a matter of being in the right place at the right time with the right stuff. And acquiring the right stuff seems simple. In the gospel folk song "All My Trials," faith trumps finances. Salvation is not for sale. "If religion was a thing that money could buy," the song proposes, "then the rich would live and the poor would die." But they cannot and do not, claims the song. Marketeers claim differently. Religion does not matter much, but the song's null hypothesis is reasonable. Protection can be bought. Survival is for sale.

What is for sale? Shelter, security, staples, implements, accessories, and anything else expected to sharply accrue or preserve value when disruptions occur. Full coverage of all survival-for-sale items would make for a daunting volume in its own right. To illustrate I'll sample the stock in a limited arena, products and services offered to secure goods and people in safe havens, nooks and crannies, shelters and retreats, and other locales theoretically resistant to harm or removed from trouble. Stroll through the survivalist market. Consider the offerings. Note their diversity. But remember, appearances are not meanings. Commodities are not culture. Not everything advertised for a purpose serves that purpose. Not everything for sale is sold.


One can "learn how to hide almost anything" in The Stash Book. Use Hidden Doorways to build sequestered nooks and crannies "in houses, cars, motorcycles, bicycles—even one's own body." Keep valuables safe from government inspection (or FDIC protection) in Swiss Security Vaults (located in Aurora, Colorado).


What about the bomb? While the Reagan administration recommended shovels and dirt, the Todds showed us more detailed plans, working drawings of a "Blast-Upgradable Hazard-Resistant Earth-Sheltered Residence" (see also Chester et. al. 1984, 24), just purchased for twenty-five dollars from the American Civil Defense Association, publishers of the Journal of Civil Defense and the TACDA Alert since the Kennedy era. Off-the-truck handy havens can be had, too. In the 1980s "The Egg," Underground Shelters' cement box, Stormaster Shelters' concrete ellipse, and Survival Center's quonset provided 60 to 120 square feet of backyard-buriable shelter for up to five persons for two weeks of radiation- or mayhem-induced encapsulation. Sans freight, installation, water, food, air, or toilet facilities, these shelters ranged in price from the cost of a quality compact car to a luxury sedan. By the late 1990s fiberglass and thermoplastics put Radius Defense's "P10 Disaster Shelter" at the head of the ready-made shelter field. The P10 provides space, nutrition, and hygiene basics for a family of four for two months (or twenty visitors for a long weekend). The P10 offers air and water filtration systems and keeps undesirables out with bulletproof portal covers and multiple entrances disguised beneath fiberglass rocks and "almost impossible to detect," displaying "no thermal signature, little or no metallic . . . or radar signature."

Fortified Homes

Unitized shelters sound dark, dank, odoriferous, crowded, or worse, a bad investment? How about a fortified home? Architect Joel Skosen's firm, Survival Homes Corporation in Portland, Oregon, specializes in residences with camouflaged, hardened interior strongholds and redundant heat, light, air purification, and alarm systems. If the customer insists he will add bulletproof windows and machine-gun ports, but Skosen recommends against them: "You never want to make a house look like an obvious fortress. Those who want in can always move up a bigger gun. There is no way you can design a home to withstand RPG rockets and tanks. That's why I design these homes so you virtually cannot tell inside or out that they are any different from a conventional home."

Fortified homes are more comfortable than underground shelters but quadruple the cost of conventional construction. The land and Skosen's fees are extra.

Retreat Property

Retreat properties offer alternative attractions as vacation or retirement destinations, rental income, or tax write-offs. Amenities now, security later. The area around Grants Pass in southern Oregon is periodically depicted in popular rumor as a hotbed of survival retreats. These rumors are exaggerated but not groundless. Southern Oregon has qualities appreciated by survivalists and others alike. Small, picturesque communities are scattered sparsely among the forested mountains. Local government, by citizens' intent and fiscal necessity, is laissez-faire. Being located far from major population centers fosters provincial isolationism and perhaps diminishes the risk of mass immigrations in times of crisis. Rainfall is adequate to green the scenic rolling hillsides and nourish crops without irrigation. The prevailing winds keep temperatures moderate year round and, some say, minimize the risk of radioactive fallout. The southern Oregon scenery and greenery are attractions enough for some. Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Russell Meyer, cartoonist creator of the comic strip Broomhilda, moved there in the '80s, along with Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Blues Band, who purchased his own large farm. Widely read survivalist-author Mel Tappan lived in Rogue River during the 1970s and '80s while writing Survival Guns (1976), his numerous articles in Guns and Ammo and Soldier of Fortune magazines, and editing the "Personal Survival Letter." At Tappan's urging a few joined him in retreat, but of these Tappan was demographically disappointed. "Too many doctors and lawyers" retreated to Oregon, he complained, but "not enough plumbers, electricians, or carpenters." Bob McQuain, a former TV bit-part actor from southern California and 1982 Grants Pass Realtor of the Year did not complain. Retreat properties then and now are his specialty: expensive, but in chronic undersupply. During the 1980s "the really big ranches—five hundred to eight hundred acres"—were in high demand, "but there were just not that many around." "Imagine what it's like," he reminisced, "when a client calls me who has a million dollars or more to spend, and I don't have anything worth that much to sell him."


By the end of the 1990s, with the continuing scarcity of large ranch properties, wealthy buyers began building 4,000“6,000-square-foot homes on smaller lots with Skosen-style sophisticated shelter systems and even congregated in walled subcommunities—"survivalists suburbs," McQuain called them.

The commercial retreat community idea is not new. In 1977 Peg and Larry Letterman acquired 1,089 acres of semiarid range land in southeast Washington and began developing Ponderosa Village, 202 plots with the promise of "increased security from possible economic and social deterioration" but without water or sewage treatment. By century's end 170 lots had sold or resold and 47 were owner occupied. Perhaps the most ambitious of all commercial retreat developments was the Terrene Ark, a subterranean condominium complex in the southern Utah desert proffering both security and comfort: independent power generators and water and air filtration, but also "an attractive retreat residence" with "furnishings anyone would be proud of." The Ark promised central air conditioning, an underground recreation hall, jogging track, library, and even a kennel for the family pet. For those willing to remodel, a Sacramento-area realtor began offering perhaps the ultimate in secure real estate in the late 1990s: decommissioned Titan I missile complexes. These circa 1965 facilities sited on roughly fifty-acre plots featured 160-foot-deep silos for three Titan I missiles (not included), really strong hatches, subterranean power generating, command and communication domes, antenna silos, utility elevators, living spaces for 150, honeycombs of personnel tunnels, a helicopter pad—priced for quick sale in the new millennium at under two million. Equally secure Atlas missile sites were cheaper but came with only five acres of land. Locations and availability varied.


Planning "getaway" vehicles, routes, and schemes is a perennial topic with potential for survivalist-oriented commerce. Emergency jacks, auxiliary lights, chain saws, winches, tools, spare parts, maps and navigation gear, and performance upgrades are commercially available to outfit the family car, truck, trailer, 4 õ 4, or motor home for unsettled times. Less common are more stout terrestrial transport. Used armored military vehicles can be purchased as mobile fortified homes (Lee 1997). Joel Skosen recommends frailer but more lithe alternatives. He outfitted one customer with an ultralight aircraft for reaching his reinforced seaside retreat from his workplace in the urban center. For upscale offshore retreats, Alain Bories, a French marketeer, promoted two models of motorized sailboats, the Arche de Noé and the Voilier de Survie. Each had a steel hull, electromagnetic pulse shielding, a deck washing system to remove fallout contamination, bulletproof ports, and all-electric controls operated from the sealed master cabin.

Some scenarios are built around a single, key item. A student of mine, Mary Ann, who knew I would be interested, showed me her recently purchased car. It was twenty-three years old, plain but well cared for, a no-frills 1971 Mercedes four-door sedan featuring efficient diesel power, a manual transmission, manual windows, cloth upholstery, rubber floor mats, no air conditioning, no tape player, and a distinctive accessory. In the trunk, purchased from a survival supply catalog, sat a forty-gallon auxiliary fuel tank. The retired couple who sold the car warned Mary Ann. The economy could collapse at any time; fuel will not be available at any price. But the couple had a plan: relatives to help, rural property, some stored food, security measures. The car was the key to it all. It was their "getaway vehicle." With care and adequate warning they figured the fuel-frugal diesel would make it nonstop twenty-two hundred miles from western Oregon to their retreat in southeast Texas.

Bad News

A wealth of bearish advice, pessimistic projections, and "secrets" are available from self-proclaimed experts, in periodic flyers, newsletters, and books. When the Todds came to Hank's house for the first time, they brought along well-used copies of some classic recommended reading: Jerome Smith's The Coming Currency Collapse (1981), Douglas Casey's Crisis Investing (1981), and Howard Ruff's 1979 bestseller, How to Prosper during the Coming Bad Years, as well as recent copies of Ruff's newsletter, "Ruff Times." Many more publications of like kind can be had. So popular (and inaccurate) are these dire projections that entire careers have been built around forecasting fiscal failures, then explaining why these predictions are only marginally off timetable. Spin-offs and imitations of Ruff's work have appeared annually for more than two decades.

Survivalist-oriented commodities are more obvious than markets, markets more conspicuous than the meanings of the marketplace. Concealment, shelters, retreats, getaway vehicles, commercial forecasting services, and a myriad of other attention-getting items are on the figurative shop shelves. But these are the symptoms, not the substance, of survivalism. Inventory is not analysis. The meaning of the marketplace does not reside in items for sale but in the ways survivalists act toward and interpret the whole—the products, the processes of marketing, and their own roles therein.


Copyright notice: ©2002 Excerpted from pages 27-36 of Dancing at Armageddon: Survivalism and Chaos in Modern Times by by Richard G. Mitchell Jr., published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2001 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of University of Chicago Press.

Richard G. Mitchell, Jr.
Dancing at Armageddon: Survivalism and Chaos in Modern Times
©2002, 280 pages
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 978-0-226-53244-8
Paper $19.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-53246-2

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