A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 5, 2020

What the US Would Be Doing If It Were Really Fighting Covid-19 Like A War

Since its founding - including the American Revolution, the Civil War, the World Wars of the 20th Century and every other in between or after - the US has entered the conflict unprepared, dismissive of the threat, divided about its need to get involved and uncertain of how to proceed.

That it has prevailed in most of them is due to ingenuity, leadership, economic surge capacity and the skills and determination of its people. It is not clear that the country's current national leadership is capable of harnessing those attributes. But this is what it would take to do so. JL

Brook Manville interviews General Stanley McChrystal (USA, Ret) in Forbes:

First, integrity—so people develop the trust to get on board. Next, candor, about the existential nature of the threat. The best strategy for a coronavirus war will build a broad network of learning and action. War means everyone accepting real sacrifice. Develop and agree to a strategy free of politics. The strategy has to be 'all-in.' Federal leadership must take the broader view. In a war, leaders owe respect to each other, to followers and to partners. Shift messaging towards a challenge-based narrative of the on-going strategy.
The U.S. government is now predicting a coronavirus death toll of perhaps more than 200,000 Americans—so it certainly seems we ought to be fighting this pandemic “like a real war.” Many officials, including our president, have repeatedly invoked the analogy. But what if we were going at this enemy not “as if”—but as the real thing? What would conducting an actual war against this terrifying virus look like? Because right now, with the variety of policies in this or that state, our daily doses of mixed messages in press conferences, and persisting questions about overall strategy, it still feels more “wannabe” than full-bore fight. What would it be to get deadly serious now
I posed the question to a leader I’ve interviewed before, a man with plenty of blood-and-guts experience on literal battlefields: Retired General Stanley McChrystal, former head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the Middle East. McChrystal successfully battled Al Qaeda for several years after 9/11, capturing or killing many of its leaders. A now- retired career military commander, he’s been described by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates as “perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I’ve ever met.”In our wide-ranging conversation, focused on conducting “a real coronavirus war,” he articulated some key conditions and attributes, and reflected on how America could now raise its game.  Seven thought-provoking insights emerged:
1. War means everyone accepting real sacrifice. McChrystal argues that our nation hasn’t really done this since World War II—giving up some freedom, money, and people willing to die for the cause. Of course, we have pockets of that now, and many people are fighting the good fight, but overall “we’ve lost our collective ability to understand sacrifice in absolute terms.”
2. Develop and agree to a strategy free of politics. It’s the nature of democracy to encourage debate, but beyond a certain point, it’s counter-productive. The general reflected on an observation once shared with him by Henry Kissinger: “Since World War II, it’s become the political norm for the opposition party to keep bludgeoning the administration—so what happens is the war policy always shifts from how to win to how to get out. We need to come together on some national decisions now.”
3. The strategy has to be “all-in.”  As McChrystal insisted, “We have to stop separating the virus battle from the economic battle—they are intimately related, both part of the same war. And then we need to assemble and align every resource needed, from all sectors, and drawing upon all our talent. When we harness those together, in a unified way, we also have to be totally committed to winning, whatever it takes. In World War II, we were willing to carpet-bomb and even nuclear bomb the enemy, and have a lot of young men die. I don’t think we’ve yet made a comparable level of commitment to this coronavirus fight.”
4.  Federal Leadership must take the broader view. McChrystal referenced Ben Franklin’s famous quote of “hanging together or hanging separately.” He was blunt about the current implications: “We can’t fight this war as fifty different states. The Federal government has to be bigger and more visionary, coordinating, but without micro-managing.”
5. In a war, leaders owe special respect to each other, to followers and to partners. Whether at the local, state or Federal level, leaders must constantly exhibit certain critical values, to unify the effort.

“First, integrity—so people develop the trust to get on board.” Next, candor, about the existential nature of the threat: “Give the American people a true and broad enough understanding of where we stand and what we are honestly facing. Leaders will have the resources to do that, and they must take advantage of maps, graphs and other tools for their communications (as many now do).” Most important, they must demonstrate that they are putting their own heart in the do-or-die fight. “Franklin Roosevelt sincerely believed that the Great Depression would destroy the social and economic construct of America. He deeply felt—and communicated —that with the New Deal we were fighting not just for the good of the nation but also the entire world.”
6. Shift messaging towards a challenge-based narrative of the ongoing strategy. Strategy in a complex war always evolves, but McChrystal stressed that requires that “you have to keep focused on communicating the big picture. People are eager to know not just yesterday’s accomplishments, but what challenges lie ahead, and what we’re going to do to meet those challenges. They want to hear who across our broader alliance of co-fighters are making progress, and how—so they get a sense of a large-scale and coordinated battle underway. Forward-looking, fact-based but not sugar-coated reporting motivates people—but you can’t create false hope. More talented people will want to join an effort they see is gaining momentum, but they can also be inspired to help tackle the setbacks.”
7. The best strategy for a coronavirus war will build a broad network of learning and action. McChrystal concluded by suggesting that the kind of cross-boundary, agile and continuous learning network that he had once created for JSOC would suit the coronavirus war. “In the Middle East, we brought together lots of different entities (military units, CIA, other intelligence units, allies, etc.), and slowly got different silos working as a team of teams—operating as needed in their various domains, but at the same time learning together. To do that, we created cross-boundary relationships, facilitated regular and honest video briefings, and kept reinforcing a culture of knowledge-building collaboration for action.”
“I think the model could work for coronavirus—creating a more integrated and flexible network among medical people, logistics, governors, manufacturing, scientists, and the like. The Federal government can play a role in coordinating it all, and helping to flexibly setting priorities as they change—but the central group has to understand its role is about supporting and guiding the network, not micromanaging it—and certainly not publicly insulting members. In the end, leadership should aspire to make this network global—the knowledge of how to battle Covid-19 goes well beyond our own shores. If this is war, we have to rally the resources of everyone who has something, knows something, or can do something to beat the virus.”


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