First off, let’s be clear: the COVID-19 pandemic is not a “war” in the classic military sense. The tendency to apply a war lens to non-war events can sometimes obscure the full range of tools and approaches at our nation’s disposal, and doing so cavalierly can easily do more harm than good.
But with that key caution in mind, I’d suggest there are still important lessons from recent US wars that can be helpful as we grapple with COVID-19. Both the current pandemic and our recent wars have embodied important tests of our national leadership, particularly the ability to achieve desired outcomes in times of crisis while protecting our national security and the lives of Americans. There is much we can and should learn from our humbling and unsettling military experiences during the past nearly two decades.
The first important lesson is that we need to avoid magical thinking. In places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya we were often captivated by dreamy visions of the postwar world (e.g., the war will pay for itself, the local population will eagerly embrace us, democracy will quickly take root, etc.). Similarly, with regard to COVID-19, we should focus on what potential outcomes are actually attainable, rather than merely wishing upon a star for fatalities to decline to zero and for our economy to swiftly recover.
A second lesson is the need to dig in and prepare for a long-term effort. In our recent wars, we repeatedly discovered we could not neatly wrap things up by an arbitrary date. In a similar way, COVID-19 is unlikely to wither away by a given day we circle on the calendar. Any approach with a reasonable chance of success should be primarily conditions-based in nature, rather than calendar-based. Lasting progress against COVID-19 will require a robust, multifaceted approach, and it will require time, resources, leadership, and patience.
But perhaps the most pressing lesson is the need to develop a coherent overall strategy. As we initiated military action in Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011, we failed at the most basic level to develop a rigorous strategy for what would unfold “the day after.” We achieved notable battlefield success in the early phases, only to discover that we had no agreed-upon plan to deal with nearly anything that happened next. So what unfolded instead? Chaos, confusion, insurgencies, thousands of deaths, and other deeply negative outcomes. Ultimately we spent even more time and resources trying to rectify situations that likely would’ve been easier to manage if we’d more fully thought about the strategic and long-term implications of our military actions. We are still dealing with the lasting consequences today.
Similarly, with regard to COVID-19, a coherent strategy is vital. Such a coherent strategy would likely include intensive measures to prevent further spread of the virus (including procuring ample personal protective equipment, building robust medical capacity, aggressively pursuing a vaccine, and implementing extensive testing across the entire country), as well as rigorous steps to respond to existing COVID-19 cases (including detailed contact tracing and support to those Americans impacted or put in distress). It would entail mobilizing sufficient resources in support of a clear, achievable goal, with a recognition of the difficulties likely to get in the way—precisely what we didn’t do when we first went into places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
Similar to how these wars had ebbs and flows over time, it is entirely possible there could be similar fluctuations with respect to COVID-19. At certain points we may find temporary success, but then endure a debilitating second wave of infections, a third wave, and so on. However, unlike our recent wars, we cannot “choose” whether to engage in this struggle; the pandemic has already been thrust upon us. And just as multiple administrations found themselves in tough predicaments at certain key junctures (often of their own making), unable to go back in time to undo previous decisions, our nation is in a similarly difficult quandary today.
Our recent wartime missteps can and should inform our actions regarding COVID-19. There will be no easy victories, no shortcuts, and no skating by without a coherent strategy—unless we are willing to endure an even more staggering loss of life. With a recognition of how they apply (and equally importantly, how they don’t) to the current pandemic, these humbling experiences should help guide our decision making during this global crisis. Many thousands of lives still hang in the balance.
Brendan Gallagher is a US Army lieutenant colonel in the infantry who has completed multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He holds degrees from Johns Hopkins and earned a PhD from Princeton as a fellow with the Advanced Strategic Planning and Policy Program. This piece reflects themes in his book The Day After: Why America Wins the War but Loses the Peace (Cornell Press, 2019). The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Lt. Col. Angela Webb, US Air Force