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COVID-19: If We’re Truly ‘At War’ With the Virus, How Are Our Leaders Doing?

Stephen Maurer, Adj. Em. Prof. of Public Policy | April 12, 2020

Soldiers in China.Pundits and politicians have spent weeks saying that the nation is “at war” with COVID-19. At one level this “World War COVID” rhetoric is absurd. After all, the virus has no tanks or guns.

Yet the governance issues are similar. Normal civilian government – building a bridge, say, or tweaking Medicare – is incremental. Progress comes from small steps with predictable risks. Wars, on the other hand, force leaders to place large and unpredictable bets. As the Prussian General Helmuth von Moltke observed, “No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.”

For COVID, the risks are mostly about ignorance. To take just one example, consider that the University of Washington’s state-of-the-art simulations warn that actual cases could vary by 60-75% on either side. That’s disturbing, and we like to think that a clever leader can guess the “real” number more accurately.

But can she? The whole point of simulations is to show what outcomes to expect across the range of reasonable assumptions. So leaders who insist on guessing will sometimes get lucky. But they can’t beat the house odds consistently, and we should expect setbacks no matter who leads us.

That said, some leaders are better than others. Military history teaches us to judge them by at least four crucial issues.

The first is whether the country should declare war at all. Shortly after 9/11, political scientist John Mueller wrote a book claiming that the American response had been “overblown.” After all, more people die in bathtubs than terrorist attacks. But of course, that was never the issue. What we really care about is how many Americans would have died absent the War on Terror.

For COVID, this seems like an easy call. After all, economists and regulators typically assume that human lives are worth $9m each and a short, sharp bout of social distancing should cost roughly one month’s GDP ($2 trillion). Put the numbers together, and the country should declare war if it would lose two million Americans otherwise. This is easily possible in the simplest models where 60% of the population ends up being infected with one percent mortality. Granted that the real model could be more optimistic, skeptics should bear the burden of showing this is true.

The next two issues concern “winning,” i.e., how actual outcomes compare to doing nothing. One issue is how well society uses what it knows. Militaries try to think through problems ahead of time, and then tell their soldiers “to fight like you train.” Here, the most obvious COVID question mark involves face masks. Asian countries concluded long ago that masks improved social distancing. Yet America only embraced them last week. Did the government fail to do its homework?

The third issue is how quickly countries learn and adapt. Many wars start off disastrously, so good leaders must be able to drop bad ideas quickly. This is the essence of Napoleon’s advice that commanders should “Never reinforce failure.” More generally, leaders must also be decisive. You can’t learn unless you occasionally fail.

Finally, leaders who do find a winning formula should stick to it. The Pentagon’s “Powell Doctrine” warns that tweaking a successful strategy to squeeze out extra savings is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Conversely, leaders should avoid the “mission creep” temptation to stretch a working strategy in pursuit of ever-larger goals. This is the wrong time to try out Medicare-for-All or the Green New Deal.

Worst of all, wars are dynamic: A strategy can be appropriate one day and outdated the next. Probably the hardest part will be knowing when success is durable enough that the country can start returning to normal. Looking back, FDR timed this moment exactly right, letting war production peak in 1944 without delaying victory. Getting this right for COVID will be the biggest test of all.

The final issue involves personnel. Every peacetime bureaucracy accumulates dead wood, so we should expect a certain number of firings early on. Yet we also know that even the best commanders fail, and every firing is disruptive. Lincoln fired six generals before hiring Ulysses S. Grant. Historians generally agree that some (Burnside) were incompetent, others (McClellan) timid, and still others (Meade) may have been fired in error. Regardless, Lincoln’s enduring genius was to stand by Grant – no small feat given the latter’s disastrous early loss at Shiloh Church and high casualty counts thereafter.

Which leaves the biggest question of all: When should voters fire the President himself? Wars make everyone risk averse, and it seems clear that Americans would never have agreed to FDR’s third and fourth terms without the shadow of a world war.

Despite this, we can imagine some voters comparing Biden and Trump’s pronouncements and wanting a change, especially if the crisis seemed to be waning. So far at least, most of the finger-pointing has revolved around the CDC’s delay in producing test kits. At the moment, we know very little about whether the President might have been able to learn about and reverse this bureaucratic incompetence.

In the meantime, history offers a precedent that every American can look up to. Then-congressman Harry Truman first became a national figure investigating corruption in World War II. Yet the Truman Committee’s success was about more than saving money. Its real triumph lay in convincing a skeptical public that it would investigate failures impartially, and without regard to politics.

Here’s hoping Congress members will bring a similar attitude to World War COVID. One suspects that leaders from both political parties have made plenty of mistakes. It will only compound the tragedy if we insist on ignoring half of these lessons for fear of hurting our ideological friends in the next election.