200,000 Losses Later, Some Lessons for the 'Wartime President' | Opinion

As of today, more than 200,000 Americans are dead from the coronavirus. Apart from representing a grisly milestone in its own right, the death toll signifies another macabre distinction: Roughly twice as many Americans have now been lost to COVID-19 as have been killed in all U.S. conflicts since World War II, including in Korea, in Vietnam, on 9/11, and in the global "War on Terror." That comparison is notable not least because of how America's leader frames the pandemic. Donald Trump casts himself as a "wartime president" obliterating the "invisible enemy." Yet the numbers are clear: As commander-in-chief, Trump has failed objectively at preventing mass casualties under his watch.

We've written elsewhere about the centrality of leaders in promoting military cultures—shared views and beliefs about how to fight and win wars. The war against COVID-19 is clearly distinct from wars faced by troops in distant theaters of battle. But despite his galling self-comparison to Winston Churchill standing on the precipice of victory in WWII, Trump is right about one thing: Americans are fighting a war—one with masks and ventilators, rather than with drones and grenades. Based on Trump's own insistence that he's a "wartime president," here are three key ways in which Trump has failed to apply lessons from the military in fostering a culture of public health in combating COVID-19.

1) Putting politics ahead of the "troops." Trump has made politics and political interests paramount to his war against the coronavirus, even at the expense of promoting national recognition of the scale of the crisis. By his own admission, Trump downplayed the deadliness of the virus—especially in the early days of the outbreak—to limit public alarm in an election year. Moreover, it's no secret that Trump's premature rush to reopen state economies was motivated by a desire to keep the country's GDP afloat to boost his re-election bid. Routinely, Trump has deflected attention to other issues when infection rates and death tolls from the Centers for Disease Control looked too grim.

In the military, however, the lesson from history is clear: Prioritizing politics can debilitate war efforts. Victories require sustaining the support of Americans both on and off the battlefield. Like Roosevelt during WWII, success demands convincing the U.S. public that the fight is winnable. But that doesn't mean dissembling about the enemy's risks, distorting what it will take to defeat the other side, or imposing unrealistic timetables for success to gain an edge at the ballot box. Instead, it means talking straight to Americans and letting them know that victory requires heroic sacrifices. With COVID-19, Trump has neglected to level with the American people about the perils of the virus and how its metastasizing can be stopped.

2) Issuing inconsistent "orders." Since COVID-19 first reached America, Trump has been nothing but inconsistent about the strategies required to defeat the virus. Consider: Trump is "all for masks," except for himself. He advocates social distancing, except at his rallies. Hesupports science advisors Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birxexcept when undermining them or rejecting their medical expertise. Trump's rhetoric has been riddled with mixed messaging about the role of science in fighting the disease and how Americans should protect themselves. The results have been unsurprising: dissonance and confusion about the imperative of adhering to mask-wearing, social distancing, and other protocols to slow the virus.

On the battlefield, by contrast, effective commanders in the U.S. military give unequivocal orders and expect their troops to follow. They leave no room for ambiguity, establish clear chains of command, and lay out contingency plans for every plausible scenario. That's important because, in the "fog of war," a lack of straightforward guidance can lead servicemembers to make suboptimal decisions, lose sight of their goals, and mistake what's required to accomplish the mission. With COVID-19, Trump has undermined the influence of medical and scientific professionals of all types—the very front-line commanders needed in a campaign to provide essential health instructions to the American people.

3) Failing to enforce "good order and discipline." Trump has shown an inexplicable and inexcusable resistance to implementing a crucial tool for curbing the coronavirus: rules regulating self-behavior. Take the case of masks. Overwhelming evidence suggests that masks are one of the most cost-effective ways to curb the spread of the virus. Consequently, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has come out forcefully in favor of a national mandate on mask-wearing, insisting he'd likely have the right to enforce it via executive order. Yet Trump has refused to entertain the idea, or even to encourage it at the state level. In fact, he's provided strong signals to governors that he's against such rules.

In the military, however, rules are vital to regulating battlefield conduct. Commanders know that training, education, and other efforts to promote military values are essential at engendering respect for official norms. Yet that doesn't supplant the need for rules—coupled with strong enforcement under the threat of punishment. Rules are important because they affirm the values and beliefs that U.S. servicemembers learn from their superiors. They make it clear that such principles are important. In fighting the coronavirus, Trump has declined to endorse simple rules that would reinforce good hygiene practices among Americans.

Stepping up to the Challenge

To be clear, even if Trump fostered a stronger, top-down culture of public health amid COVID-19, it wouldn't be a silver bullet in stopping the virus. Just like in the U.S. military, commanders can do everything right, but some U.S. servicemembers will still violate established military norms. Yet even modest improvements to norm adoption around public health would make a material difference. COVID-19 infections spread exponentially, so small steps taken early and in accumulation can prevent unnecessary fatalities. In the midst of a pandemic, there's no excuse for not taking every reasonable action that could spare American lives and make the virus less virulent.

Ultimately, being a wartime president isn't about pretending the enemy isn't at your doorstep or not taking responsibility "at all" when events go awry. It is about bravery, preparedness, and swift action at a time when hundreds of thousands of Americans are mourning. We've studied military cultures. We know that the war against COVID-19 is different from those faced by troops on real battlefields. Yet at its crux, navigating the country through crisis requires responsible leadership. That's true whether the victims are coming home in American-flag-draped caskets or dying alone in U.S. hospital beds. Now's far past time for the president to step up to the challenge.

Andrew M. Bell (@AndrewBellUS) is an assistant professor in the department of international studies at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University - Bloomington and served with the U.S. Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thomas Gift (@TGiftiv) is director of the Centre on U.S. Politics at University College London and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics US Centre.