How to Win the War on Coronavirus

Written by Col Randy Larsen, USAF (Ret)

I remember the first time I thought about World War III. It was October 22, 1962. As President John Kennedy addressed the nation about the “unmistakable evidence” of nuclear-tipped Soviet missiles in Cuba, my dad whispered to my mom, “This may be World War III.”

Thankfully, Dad was wrong. But during the first two decades of my military service, the possibility of WWIII between the U.S. and the Soviets remained a serious threat until the collapse of the Soviet empire. By the time I became a professor and department chairman at the National War College (NWC) in 1998, I had become convinced that the most serious threat to national security was not Russian or Chinese missiles, but a pandemic — either man-made or naturally occurring. I was so convinced, I hired Dr. Robert Kadlec — the first physician to serve on the faculty at NWC. Several of the “old cold warriors” on the faculty could not understand. They asked, “What is he going to do? Give us flu shots?” (Dr. Kadlec continued his work on the national-security aspects of pandemic preparedness during two tours on the National Security Council, and he now serves as the assistant secretary of preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services.)

Since the 1970s, scholars have defined national security with the acronym DIME: diplomacy, intelligence, military, and economics. (With the onset of the information age, some modified it to intelligence/information.) During the past several decades, many of my colleagues in the biosecurity and public-health communities, plus a bipartisan group of political leaders including senators Bob Graham (D., Fla.), Jim Talent (R., Mo.), Gary Hart (D., Colo.), Richard Burr (R., N.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.), have argued to include public health as a key element in national security. Unfortunately, most national leaders failed to listen. I suspect that may be changing, albeit, a bit late.

Not since WWII have all Americans been engaged in a war requiring a national mobilization. Not only did 12 million serve in uniform, but virtually every man, woman, and child in America was involved in one way or another. From war-bond drives, victory gardens, and ration cards, to women taking on completely new roles outside the home — building airplanes, tanks, and battleships — the entire nation participated in a united effort.

Compare that with the nearly two decades following 9/11. Shortly after that tragic day, President Bush told Americans, “Go back to the malls.” Understandable at the time. We could not let 19 hijackers destroy our economy. But as the war on terrorism dragged on, only the military and their families made the sacrifices. Less than a fraction of 1 percent of the U.S. population have been asked to sacrifice.

Suddenly, everything has changed. We are once again back to a reality like that of 1943. All Americans are once again involved. WWIII has begun. And it is not just a war against COVID-19, it is a war against infectious disease. WWIII will be a “good war” — a war between the human race and infectious diseases.

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