Generals, Winston Churchill said, are always prepared to fight the last war. Their early experiences of combat, their intellectual training, the received wisdom interpreting the most recent conflicts – all shape how they read the battlefield. These decisions and the interests of the institutions, which were built during the last war – the war machine, its dependent controllers and industries, the “military-industrial complex”, the security state – constrain the strategy and tactics chosen in the fog of war by the generals.
Usually, the last war was different to the one before our eyes – different opponents, different allies, different battlefield, different weapons, different balance of forces, different popular sentiments, and most importantly different war aims. But the differences can only emerge by testing the generals’ assumptions, thinking, decisions, prejudices, motivations and abilities. Reality – lost battles, tactical failures, soured relations with other countries, loss of morale – eventually kicks in, but at great cost with deep suffering. It is usually the foot soldiers and the citizens who pay the highest price, not the generals.
The generals do what people do – they defend their initial judgements. They deploy the weapons they know. They look for whatever evidence they can find in the confusion of human events to confirm their beliefs. They define themselves as in charge, and exclude those who dissent or who challenge. Unity, after all, is essential. We are all in this together, they say to critics and rivals. They excuse their errors and deceptions with their noble intentions. They fail. We all fail, but the generals parade for victories and produce propaganda to hide failures.
Usually, reality grinds out a slow siege against the generals’ grand illusions. History is full of long wars that went on too long and did not go to plan. In some cases, the war becomes the plan, and then we have the endless wars of the United States of America – Iraq, Afghanistan, NATO’s undeclared war against Russia since 1945 – in which the generals dare not stand down from their posture because it would reveal there was never a clear war aim, never a coherent strategy, never an open-minded assessment of the costs and benefits of their tactics inherited from the last war. They cannot change the posture because it would require admission they had failed, in the panic and fog of the onset of war, to heed the most essential advice dispensed by Clausewitz to military strategists:
“No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.”Clausewitz, On war
Sometimes, however, a civilian leader emerges who does not wait for reality to challenge the generals, but tests their strategies in the command room. After all, that is why military leadership is subjected to civilian command. The great civilian leader does not merely follow the military advice. They test, challenge and overthrow it. They sack their generals, who, after all, like all fallible humans are tempted by the power, patronage and favour of the court. Lincoln sacked many generals before he came upon the unlikely, morose, alcoholic Ulysses S. Grant, who would actually win the civil war, not use their office to promote their status and exploit the war for some other political, ideological or economic interest. Churchill too sacked generals and challenged advice, and it was this exercise of judgement, command and inquiry that was the essential attribute of his supreme command.
Churchill exercised one of his most important functions as war leader by holding military calculations and assertions up to the standards of a massive common sense, informed by wide reading and experience at war…. His uneasy relationship with his generals stemmed, in large part, from his willingness to pick commanders who disagreed with him—and who often did so violentlyEliot Cohen, Churchill and his generals: the tasks of supreme command
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, our civilian governments and public health leaders decided they were generals in a war against the virus. The airwaves were bombarded with talk about the war against the invisible enemy. Even the United Nations Secretary-General, the world’s supposed number one peacekeeper, got fired up by the opportunity to fight a career-defining war. In a statement on 26 March 2020, António Guterres said:
We are at war with a virus – and not winning it. The next 100,000 happened in just 12 days. The third took four days. The fourth, just one and a half. This is exponential growth and only the tip of the iceberg. This war needs a war-time plan to fight it. [my emphasis] Solidarity is essential. Among the G-20 – and with the developing world, including countries in conflict. That is why I appealed for a global ceasefire.UN SECRETARY-GENERAL’S REMARKS AT G-20 VIRTUAL SUMMIT ON THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
All human wars would cease, the world’s statesmen and stateswomen declared, and a new war against a barely understood RNA virus begin. This war was declared without knowing much at all about the enemy – its nature, its origins, its armaments, its tactics, its chosen battlefield. The war was declared against a non-human entity – a pathogen but not even an agent despite all the absurd rhetoric of this wicked, smart and unerring virus.
Mr Guterres spoke for global leadership when he defined the aims of this war as threefold.:
- “First, to suppress the transmission of COVID-19 as quickly as possible.”
- “Second, we must work together to minimize the social and economic impact.”
- “Third, we must work together now to set the stage for a recovery that builds a more sustainable, inclusive and equitable economy, guided by our shared promise — the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”
The first war aim was especially fatal. This aim would inspire the newly empowered generals of public health to believe, despite all they did not know about the enemy, that they had invincible weapons and they could eliminate the virus. Here was born that fantasy of omnipotence the zero-COVID strategy, pursued as an undeclared war aim by the unelected public health committees of so many countries, including Australia’s Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. Here was revealed how the generals would fight the last war, or at least misread the enemy and the battlefield with biases, entrenched interests, ideological fragments and prematurely closed science.
In retrospect, we should all have been alarmed when head of the United Nations declared pre-emptively that “suppressing” the virus as much and as quickly as possible “must be our common strategy.” No debate here. None of Churchill’s searching for an alternative view, or even two from Mr Keynes (“If you put two economists in a room, you get two opinions, unless one of them is Lord Keynes, in which case you get three opinions). Guterres went on to outline the essential elements of the generals’ strategy, hastily assembled in those first weeks of the war:
“It requires a coordinated G-20 response mechanism guided by WHO. All countries must be able to combine systematic testing, tracing, quarantining and treatment with restrictions on movement and contact – aiming to suppress transmission of the virus. And they have to coordinate the exit strategy to keep it suppressed until a vaccine becomes available.”UN SECRETARY-GENERAL’S REMARKS AT G-20 VIRTUAL SUMMIT ON THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
But did any of our civilian leaders really challenge, like Lincoln, like Churchill, the judgements, the thinking, the battlefield assessment of these newly appointed generals, drunk on their new fame, power and celebrity? No, they did not. And so we can say that the endless war against coronavirus, waged now for 18 months and encountering new allies of that damnable wild variant, arose, like many military failures from a failure to perform the most important responsibility of any wartime leader. As Clausewitz said
“The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking.”Clausewitz , On War
Now in the second half of 2021 – with many casualties of the invisible enemy, so much collateral damage of the general’s chosen methods of fighting their war, so many victims of “friendly fire”, so many compromises with the truth and so many noble lies – surely it is time for our public health generals to face reality. The vaccines are a miracle, achieved despite their skepticism. They work, but imperfectly. Treatments are neglected. Testing, tracing and isolating is not sustainable, except in the early stages of small outbreaks. Lockdowns do not work. The treatment is worse than the disease. Universal strategies exhaust us all, consume too many resources and do not work except in the simulated world of epidemiology. They cannot be sustained. This endless siege will destroy the city, its people and the besieging army.
The public health generals and their civilian supreme commanders need to heed Clausewitz’s advice:
“The best strategy is always to be very strong; first in general, and then at the decisive point. . . . There is no higher and simpler law of strategy than that of keeping one’s forces concentrated.”Clausewitz, On War
The generals in charge of the endless war against coronavirus have over-rated their strength, misread the battlefield, deployed their forces in the wrong places, and pursued grandiose and unachievable aims. They have pursued a universal strategy, as is the bias of public health, not a targeted strategy of focused protection as proposed by the Great Barrington Declaration. They have deluded themselves they can protect everyone, and neglected to treat anyone. They have wrought tremendous damage that will in time be recognised as one of the great catastrophes of the twenty-first century.
It is time for the true statesmen and stateswomen of the world to stop hiding behind this public health advice, and to start to challenge it. It is time to cease the endless war against the virus.