Trauma, hemorrhagic shock, or sepsis can incite systemic inflammatory response syndrome, which can result in early acute lung injury (EALI). As EALI advances, improperly set mechanical ventilation (MV) can amplify early injury into a secondary ventilator-induced lung injury that invariably develops into overt ARDS. Once established, ARDS is refractory to most therapeutic strategies, which have not been able to lower ARDS mortality below the current unacceptably high 40%. Low tidal volume ventilation is one of the few treatments shown to have a moderate positive impact on ARDS survival, presumably by reducing ventilator-induced lung injury. Thus, there is a compelling case to be made that the focus of ARDS management should switch from treatment once this syndrome has become established to the application of preventative measures while patients are still in the EALI stage. Indeed, studies have shown that ARDS incidence is markedly reduced when conventional MV is applied preemptively using a combination of low tidal volume and positive end-expiratory pressure in both patients in the ICU and in surgical patients at high risk for developing ARDS. Furthermore, there is evidence from animal models and high-risk trauma patients that superior prevention of ARDS can be achieved using preemptive airway pressure release ventilation with a very brief duration of pressure release. Preventing rather than treating ARDS may be the way forward in dealing with this recalcitrant condition and would represent a paradigm shift in the way that MV is currently practiced.