March 25, 2020

Military Mind and the Pandemic

Military personnel build a field hospital at the Ostra Sjukhuset hospital area in Gothenburg on March 23, 2020. - The field hospital with 20 intensive care units, will meet an expected increase of people infected by the new coronavirus COVID-19.
Military personnel build a field hospital at the Ostra Sjukhuset hospital area in Gothenburg on March 23, 2020. - The field hospital with 20 intensive care units, will meet an expected increase of people infected by the new coronavirus COVID-19.

“The streets of many American cities and towns are nearly deserted. News reports offer viewers and readers communities tightly shuttered as if bracing for an incoming hurricane. But it is not a hurricane that finds Americans avoiding one another ‘like the plague.’” This is not a passage from the latest news article on the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic. It is from a chapter entitled ‘Pandemic’ in a 2009 book by one of the sharpest US strategic thinkers, Andrew F. Krepinevich, ‘7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century.’

The world has been struck by a disaster of the kind which Donald Rumsfeld would have certainly put into the box labelled ‘known knowns.’ A global pandemic that sends shockwaves across human civilisation is not a scenario that comes as lightening out of a blue sky. It has happened before in human history. It has been captured by art, literature and cinema—both from historical and dystopian futuristic perspectives. And it has always been part of scenario planning by local, national and international crisis management authorities as well as NGOs, think-tanks and universities. One can hardly find a modern-day national security strategy that does not reference the threat of a pandemic, or at least an epidemic, and does not prescribe ways and means of tackling them. Estonia’s National Security Concept of 2017 states: “With globalisation and open societies, the probability of the spread of epidemics and epizootics has increased and the state must be always ready for prevention and their elimination.”

There were so many seminars, wargames and simulations, articles and reports, and media opportunities to showcase shiny new gear as well as determined action during crisis management exercises. But when push came to shove, very few countries proved to be ready to deal with such a threat by effectively containing it at the very first signs of trouble: only some Asian countries (Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong) learned their hard lessons from a SARS outbreak in 2003 and managed to keep a lid on the situation this time around. The rest of the world is paying the price of complacency, papered-over deficiencies, rhetorical rather than real readiness, political and bureaucratic cover-ups and, in some cases, even deliberate dismantling of structures for anticipating and managing such disasters.

It is not a big surprise then that, when the going gets really tough, the cavalry is called in. One country after another—China, Iran, Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, UK, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Albania, Estonia, Lithuania, USA, Malaysia, to name just a few—are mobilising their armed forces and national guards (or their equivalents) to boost their responses to the pandemic. The military are, or will be, asked to provide transport for vital supplies such as oxygen for hospitals, enforce quarantine measures, screen travellers at borders, supply medical material from their stocks, build and man hospitals, and even handle the growing numbers of deceased, which overwhelm funeral services. In Lithuania, there have been calls for the military to take over management of the crisis from the incompetent political authorities (minister of health) altogether. The narratives of war and battle proliferate, with medical staff being compared to frontline soldiers, and with societies as well as economies being mobilised for war-like effort and sacrifices. The crisis demands extraordinary measures, and the military is being thrown into the mixture.

This is not unprecedented. Whenever a major natural or man-made disaster strikes, the armed forces become if not the first, then at least the second resort for governments in generating their response. Most countries have the required legislation in place that enables the use of the armed forces to support civilian authorities in non-military crises and emergencies. Military fatigues were a common sight in such enormous disasters of recent times as Hurricane Katrina in the US, Boxing Day tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the triple disaster of 3/11 in Japan, and countless other episodes.

The armed forces prepare to fight wars. This is a contingency that tests, stresses and stretches to the limit all human faculties—physical, mental and psychological. As organisations, they are uniquely configured to face the most testing conditions of war. This includes a spectrum of capabilities that very few other organisations combine and match—from command and control to logistics and materiel management, from medical support and CBRN protection to transportation and engineering, from intelligence and surveillance to strategic communications and even in-house research and development, and so on and so forth. Facing critical shortages in the capabilities of civilian agencies during a major disaster, the governments naturally fall back on those military capabilities.

More importantly, to succeed in wartime, the armed forces must possess certain qualities of character, ways of thinking and frames of mind which give them an edge when under pressure from rapidly developing events. Many civilian organisations tasked with crisis management would do well to emulate and nurture those qualities in their own structures. Here is just a few of them off the top of my head, but essential in the face of the pandemic.

First, the mindset of readiness and strong leadership are key. Despite the fact that most of their lives the military spend in peacetime conditions, being constantly prepared and ready is part of their DNA. If they become slow moving, unwieldy bureaucracies where procedure is more important than the desired effect and end-state, they cease to be fit for purpose. Looking at how some public health authorities responded to the rising wave of the pandemic, one cannot help but think they are packed with bureaucrats and lack true leaders ready to deploy whatever they have well before the attack takes place. Shifting to a wartime footing requires leaders constantly ready for it, not minds in denial of it. And readiness entails a lot of non-stop and rigorous planning that constantly adjusts courses of action and resources as a dynamic situation quickly evolves and uncertainty increases.

Second, intelligence makes all the difference. Although it is never perfect, never complete, never fully reliable or fully accurate, it is the basis of all military decision-making. Navigating through the ‘fog of war’ is impossible without intelligence. Many public health and political authorities ignored the early warning signals of the pandemic and some governments failed to launch the necessary efforts to collect as complete a picture of the spread of the infection within their borders. The WHO implored—‘test, test, test.’ This is the equivalent of continuous intelligence gathering in wartime. South Korea showed how this can make a difference. Most of the rest either are not able to replicate this example due to the shortages of test kits or are rising up to the challenge way too late.

Third, and related to the above: the military are trained to think of time as an absolutely critical resource that cannot be recovered when lost and that speed as well as initiative matter a great deal. Once the spread of the pandemic kicked into exponential growth in many countries, their authorities found themselves constantly behind the curve, reacting rather than shaping the events and losing valuable time as a result of half-measures, tepid responses or plain complacency about the escalating situation. Those who have been on the frontlines of many epidemic outbreaks are right to be frustrated by the lack of speed as well as lack of understanding that the best solutions are never perfect, but they must be quick and come early.

Fourth, logistics is everything. As the saying goes, ‘nothing happens until everything moves.’ Governments are now scrambling to ensure supply of critical medical goods and equipment, while the supply chains are disintegrating or getting choked by export restrictions, closed land borders, grounded aviation and strained production capacities. Our hospitals now resemble the frontline military units who have well outpaced their ‘logistical tail’ while bravely charging ahead. The public health authorities are frantically trying to plug the gaps and catch up with the demand for materials, such as personal protection equipment (PPE) and ventilators. Some observers have already compared the situation to sending military troops into battle without helmets and weapons. The military are not necessarily always natural geniuses in managing wartime logistics (or, at the top, even fully appreciating its vital importance), but they learn a lot from military history and sometimes their own experience about the consequences of getting it wrong.

Fifth, it is in the mindset of the military that redundancy is very important. One must have reserves of literally everything because losses will inevitably happen and will have to be quickly replaced and also because in war all efforts have to be scaled up considerably. In war and strategy, as one strategic studies scholar, the late Professor Colin S. Gray, once observed, quantity is a quality in itself. Public health systems, on the other hand, have been functioning under the modern-day global ‘just in time’ delivery networks, through which everything can be supplied at fairly short notice and in an orderly fashion even if a local crisis erupted. Large stocks of equipment, materials, medications and other components that could make scaling up efforts and prolonged functioning without resupply possible have often been regarded as uneconomical and unnecessary, so kept at a bare minimum. Quality and the optimisation of resources trumped quantity. In 2014, the ICDS report proposed to the Estonian parliament and government establishing a dedicated fund to finance crisis preparedness measures by public and private entities (e.g. hospitals), including building up stocks of supplies and equipment or constructing extra infrastructure capacity, which would not otherwise be done from regular annual funding or would be deemed unnecessary in peaceful times. The government clicked ‘like’ but then did nothing.

Last, but not least, resilience is not an empty buzzword. Some analysts are rushing to declare its failure in the face of the pandemic, but perhaps they look at it from the wrong end of a stick, as if it starts somewhere at the high level of NATO and the EU. Resilience starts at home, with individuals, communities, organisations and a whole-of-society approach. Through a variety of techniques and practices, military structures aim to maintain the cohesion of units and the performance of individuals under the duress of war. These can, should and, in some cases, are replicated by broader societies during crises, such as the ongoing pandemic.  To take just one example, think of such a powerful principle as ‘no one left behind’ that underpins military morale in combat. Many governments and societies have embraced this in the face of the coronavirus pandemic—no residents or citizens left behind the closed borders, no vulnerable such as elderly left abandoned in self-isolation, no company allowed to go under. This is as powerful a message as it can get under the growing duress of the pandemic.

Many other aspects of national and community resilience—from the surge in grass-roots leadership and voluntarism to innovative problem solving and powerfully uniting rituals—are on full display these days and deserve another article. The point is that military organisations and their members internalise many elements of resilience as part of their work and life, and therefore, can inspire, guide and support their parent societies in times of need if given the right opportunities. But, as the military know full well, the road to resilience starts well before hostilities of war break out and often rests on the ability to maintain some healthy focus on worst-case scenarios even when times are relaxed and peaceful. Security analysts, scenario planners and futurologists had given the decision-makers plenty of food for thought and action to be prepared for this pandemic, but their warnings and advice had been ignored or neglected, if not written off as panic-inducing fearmongering.

There are certainly many other facets of the military mind and organisation that are attractive when dealing with this crisis: unity of command, discipline, understanding of the impact of friction and chance, and so on. All of this, however, is not meant to idolise the military and advocate militaristic responses to the crisis, despite the attractiveness of war metaphors and military qualities. The armed forces are not infallible and sometimes lose wars even before they begin. Military plans often collapse at the first exchange of fire, while the challenge of war throws out of the window all the unrealistic and overconfident assumptions, misguided assessments and inadequate concepts. The Prussian field marshal and military theorist Helmuth von Moltke Sr famously observed that no war plan survives contact with the enemy.

As anyone involved in the daily struggle to sharpen NATO’s military tools in the face of aggressive Russia would attest, keeping the armed forces fit for purpose or turning them around to meet new or re-emerging old threats is a massive and time-consuming undertaking. Men and women in uniform can be as bureaucratic, obstinate, slow, disorganised, inflexible, narrow-minded, clueless and blindsided as their civilian counterparts. And civilian agencies as well as civil societies—particularly medical workers—are showing these days many wonders of bravery, fortitude, resourcefulness, innovativeness and endurance that can equally serve as inspirational examples for military learning.

Last, but not least, we should not forget that using lethal force rather than saving lives is what most of the armed forces are trained and mandated for and from where the special character of the military flows. Putting them in charge of or just in a dominant function in some particular regard is not the wisest solution in a civilian crisis. This is not a war with an unpredictable enemy that tries to deceive and outsmart us every step of the way. The success in ‘flattening the curve’ of this pandemic rests on the behaviour of our governments and societies. In democracies, the military should not be in a position to dictate or impose those behaviours. But when eventually the situation gets back to normal, many of those with a major role in and responsibility for crisis management would do well to learn quite a few tricks from the military book of coping and prevailing in the face of adversity. And re-read those dark scenarios of dystopian future(s) lining the bookshelves or collecting dust in the archives. There is no good excuse for failing to properly prepare for other ‘known knowns.’