Main Image Credit A pile of face masks used for PPE. Courtesy of nursetogether.com/ /Wikimedia
The use of martial language by politicians in managing the current pandemic obscures fundamental differences between waging war and managing a health crisis.
The deluge of wartime rhetoric emanating from governments in response to the coronavirus pandemic is understandable. In appealing to communal solidarity, in rallying the resources of the nation, and in the face of a mounting body count, the idioms of conflict seem well suited to the moment. But it is important to appreciate that this is not war. If we mistake this as such, we risk learning the wrong lessons from the successes and shortcomings of our response.
The first difference is the nature of the adversary. However deadly, a virus presents a consistent threat. The measures to tackle it may be drastic, but once settled upon, victory comes from the consistency and thoroughness of their implementation. By contrast, an enemy in war endlessly adapts their methods. The Blitz began as air raids and expanded to area bombing. The RAF eventually gained control of the skies, only for Germany to develop cruise missiles, and as these were pushed out of range or intercepted, ballistic missiles began to come down. Success in war is not just about efficiency and refinement – fundamentally, it is about adaptability.
The second significant difference is the diversity of threats in war. The pandemic may be impacting different regions at varying rates, and the second order effects of the virus and mitigation methods are numerous. However, they can be mapped, and all come down to a single fundamental mechanism: disease transmission. This gives governments a clear focal point for their response. Imagine, however, if the UK was also experiencing power outages. Imagine that our food supply was threatened. Imagine there was no capacity in the army to build hospitals, because the army was fighting abroad. Would the government be able to manage these concurrent crises?
The third key difference is that the response to a pandemic is entirely defensive. The object of policy is mitigation. By contrast, a purely defensive policy in war is simply to prolong defeat. Victory and its resultant security rests on the effective carrying out of offensive operations. Mitigating the damage of enemy action is therefore only meaningful if it enables subsequent power projection. In terms of government processes this matters, because warfare does not only demand crisis management, but proactive strategy. Given the lack of proactive activity, whether in building up stocks of PPE, or internationalising the response early via the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to avoid competition for critical supplies, or simply continuing other critical tasks such as Brexit planning or the Integrated Review, it should be asked whether our government processes are too reactive.
It should also be noted that the psychological impact of war on a population is very different. We know what exposes us to risk with coronavirus. We know who the most vulnerable people are. There are things we can do individually and collectively that make a tangible difference. Stay home, save lives. In war, because the enemy ‘gets a vote’, the threat is much less predictable. In 2015 and 2016, I spent many long evenings on the phone to friends in Sana’a. I could often hear the growl of Saudi Arabian aircraft in the background, and the occasional explosion. Sometimes the phone would cut out, and I would be left holding the receiver not knowing whether it would ever be answered again. For my friends in Sana’a, they could not stay home to stay safe; they just had to live with death looking over their shoulder.
It is also worth bearing in mind that we can quantify – with a reasonably high degree of confidence – the worst-case scenario if we fail to prevent the spread of coronavirus. By contrast, defeat in war is to lose any certainty about, or the capacity to dictate, the future. There are a host of other differences. Wars do not tend to see a drastic rise in unemployment; indeed, they usually result in the opposite. And instead of a high rate of attrition among the elderly and the sick, war tends to disproportionately kill off the young and the healthy.
There is one important similarity between this pandemic and war: no one is ever fully prepared. If they were, it would not be a crisis. The threat of pandemics had been predicted; mechanisms to respond were in place, but until they were put to the test, the stress points and bottlenecks were not clear. Exercises might iron out some kinks in these systems, but they cannot replicate uncertainty, and just as fog pervades in war, decision-makers lacked solid data in the early stages of the pandemic. Wars never look quite like their participants anticipated. There will be setbacks, defeats and casualties. Resilience and the capacity to recover is therefore critical.
Over the following months, we will see a panoply of pronouncements concerning what the current health emergency teaches us about how we structure our society, run our economy, ensure our security, and how the government makes decisions. We are destined for a painful post-mortem. But given the pain that coronavirus has inflicted, and the grief that many people will still be feeling as we undertake that review, we must acknowledge that not all future crises will look like this. We must have the humility to recognise that security cannot be absolute. And we must be clear that this was not war.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Jack Watling
Research Fellow, Land Warfare