In mid-March, President Donald Trump declared himself a “wartime president.” While the usual legion of media critics bellyached, Trump during the COVID-19 pandemic has rallied the country to a semblance of togetherness not seen since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
But the question remains, is it proper to regard the current struggle with a viral pandemic as war? Prussian soldier scholar Carl von Clausewitz asserted, “War is an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will.” He also noted that national policy should define the parameters of war and not the dynamics of combat that inevitably give way to enmity and hatred resulting in slaughter.
If the military objective of war is to break the enemy’s will, the COVID-19 virus, although a living entity, has no capacity for what Clausewitz defined as “enmity and hatred.” Thus, the virus also has no will to be broken and thus defeated. If, however, war is a life or death struggle that includes attacks on innocents with potentially massive casualties, then we are in a global struggle with a physiologically (though not psychologically) determined flow. After all, how many Germans or Russians killed in World War II were hardcore Nazis or Stalinists? The overwhelming number of the 70,000,000 dead victims of the Second World War were non-combatant civilians.
In strategic terms, the Trump administration adopted a strategy similar to the one Red Army Marshal Georgy Zhukov used to oppose the Nazi onslaught during Operation Barbarossa. Prior to the June 1941 attack on the Soviet Union, the Nazi blitzkrieg had ripped through Poland in a little over six weeks in the autumn of 1939 and then almost as quickly subdued Norway followed by the low countries and France in the spring of 1940. Adolf Hitler was confident the Red Army, ravaged by purges in the late 1930s and having struggled to defeat Finland in the Winter War of 1940, could be defeated in three to four months. Many of his generals were not so optimistic but hesitated to argue with the Fuhrer’s string of political and diplomatic successes and early military conquests. The Wehrmacht ‘s blitzkrieg in Russia required a quick victory because Germany had neither manpower nor petroleum and food resources to support a prolonged war of attrition.
For Operation Barbarossa, Germany marshalled 3,000,000 troops, including forces from Italy and Eastern European fascist regimes, to attack along an 1,800-mile front from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Red Army generals argued for a strong forward defense, but Zhukov recommended a containment strategy like Tsar Alexander I used to defeat Napoleon’s Grand Armee in 1812. Marshal Zhukov advocated withdrawing the best Red Army units, including their newest—but relatively few—tanks and heavy artillery, to be used after the German army’s offensive had been blunted with supply lines extended deep into Russia.
Operation Barbarossa proceeded rapidly. Within two months, Red Army casualties exceeded two million: half killed in action and as many captured and later starved, worked to death, or outright murdered in German prisoner of war camps. The German blitzkrieg romped all the way to Smolensk before stalling about 250 miles from Moscow. Infantry, lacking trucks, lagged behind panzers. Upon reaching Smolensk, German tanks needed to refuel and replace diminished tank rounds. Hitler also switched the objective from capturing Moscow to securing petroleum and food resources in the Caucasus and Ukraine. Then he gave in to generals focused on capturing Moscow. The delay used six weeks of precious time and fuel, both critical to German success. In December, when the Germans were within sight of Moscow, 800,000 of their soldiers were dead, missing, or wounded. Operation Barbarossa had stalled with German troops freezing in their trenches. Just as the Japanese were hitting Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Red Army counterattacked. Four days later the United States joined Britain and the Soviet Union in a war Germany could not win.
All of this might seem a digression from COVID-19, but the point is this:
War involves identifying the enemy, gathering resources, and then coupling resources to a viable strategy; thus, the United States is in a global war to defeat a dangerous COVID-19 onslaught. Victory in any war usually accrues to nations that devises appropriate strategies. So far, the Trump administration’s containment strategy is working. Unfortunately, politics can—and historically has—interjected its polemically driven objectives into struggles from the Peloponnesian Wars through our most recent struggles with Islamist fundamentalism; usually doing so to the detriment of attaining strategic objectives. War remains, as Chinese scholar-strategist Sun Tzu stated 2,500 years ago, “A matter of vital interest to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin.” It has to be taken seriously.
The COVID-19 War of 2020 is what it is. We are at war.
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