ML Cavanaugh

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.

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 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 might be the corresponding feeling of loneliness that saps the will to keep fighting when everything looks lost.

COVID-19 has taken more American lives than U.S. 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 killed more people than all the human wars in history combined. So it’s time to think hard about how to fight. We might 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 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 nationwide 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. 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.

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, Ph.D., is a senior fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. Send feedback to author@mlcav.co or on Twitter @MLCavanaugh.

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a senior fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. Send feedback to author@mlcav.co or on Twitter @MLCavanaugh.

Tags

Load comments