If Covid-19’s a war, here’s how we fight

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on April 10, 2020. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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The first rounds sounded harmless enough, like pellets dinging distant tin cans. Then the bullets suddenly surrounded me in stereo. I fired back reflexively through the pitch black. I yelled to my subordinate soldier to radio for help. The two of us wouldn’t last long without reinforcement.

He never responded. I sent the message myself while firing to suppress the attack. I thought he’d been hit, but later learned he’d run on foot back to base. Alone, I fired for what seemed like a dark eternity, and emptied the very last bit of ammo I had. That’s when I heard the cavalry drive the attackers off.

That was spring 2003 in the Iraq War. I’ve been thinking about that terrible moment a lot these past few days as I read accounts of our medical professionals reaching the end of their resources. Even worse than running out of bullets or ventilators may be the corresponding feeling of loneliness that saps the will to keep fighting when everything looks lost.

Covid-19 already has taken more American lives than US soldiers who died in the post-9/11 wars. It will soon overtake those troops killed in Korea, Vietnam, and maybe even World War I.

Calling this a war isn’t empty rhetoric. The enemy’s microscopic, but this type of adversary has already killed more people than all the human wars in history combined. So it’s time to think hard about how to fight. We may not all wear camouflage, but our new face-mask-uniforms signify that every American citizen’s now been drafted into an army waging war on Covid-19. Many will need at least some basic training and principles to follow in this ongoing fight.

It starts with stance. A way of thinking. As a member of the military, I get a lot of disturbing questions nowadays. A week ago, a high school friend wrote with worry “about riots breaking out.” The same day, a college roommate reached out to inquire about the likelihood of nation-wide martial law. Our local city council member shot around a panic-stricken email concerned about a looming “lockdown.” A friend forwarded a text predicting a “mandatory quarantine” enforced by the military, sourced by someone identified only as “Elroy’s brother” who “works at the Pentagon.”

Of course, Americans are right to be jittery now. But first things first, we’ve got to stay calm. I’ll never forget the motto a crusty old Special Forces veteran burned into me when I was a lieutenant: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” He kept saying it over and over. Our platoon had been training all day and the result was always the same. We’d hear the signal to stop, and he’d say, yet again, “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”

To confront the natural panic that comes in a global pandemic, we need a mantra, and “slow is smooth, smooth is fast” counteracts the anxiety that’s more present in the air than the virus itself. Panicky thoughts are as poor a foundation for action as firing a cannon from a canoe. We all need a momentary pause, an extra second, to sort out the enormity of each incoming bit of information.

When calm, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that our ability to coordinate in large numbers is what’s won us big wars before and made us the planet’s most dominant species. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson’s “theory of eusocial evolution” acknowledges that natural selection remains predominant, but humankind’s development privileges “highly cooperative behavior” into the physiology of group members. We’re world-beating team players, at our best, and even from a safe social distance we’re capable of working together to defeat threats even as dangerous as a fast-spreading, invisible, lethal virus.

The same solidarity applies to soldiering. That’s how we win. When scholar Stephen Biddle dug into what makes the difference between victory and defeat in battle in his book “Military Power,” he found that it wasn’t necessarily the tools or the technology. The difference was in the way forces fight. How they’re employed—how effectively they coordinate and cooperate—tells us much more about battle outcomes than the stuff combatants bring onto the field.

The generals leading us in this Covid-19 war wear suits instead of uniforms, but they still provide orders and some clarity while advancing against our common enemy. They remind us that slow is smooth, smooth is fast. They remind us we may feel alone, but we’re really together.

And most important, they remind us that even in the dark, if we hold on, the cavalry will come.

 

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