Sacrifice and Security: A Pandemic’s Lessons on Building ‘Consent’ as an Element of Strategy

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Americans too often resort to the metaphorical use of the term “war” when confronting societal problems, the “war on poverty” and the “war on drugs” being among the more famous examples. It should not surprise, then, that policymakers and pundits alike have turned to war as an analogy for the nation’s response to the novel coronavirus — or COVID-19 — pandemic. Critics, however, have been rightfully skeptical about the utility of comparing what we are going through to war. As Cynthia Enloe argues, mobilizing for war is far different than mobilizing a society to “provide effective, inclusive, fair and sustainable public health.”

If militarized metaphors are ill-chosen, the public debate over America’s pandemic response still offers important insights into not only how societies react to crises but also what strategists might learn from these public responses. What should strategic planners take from this moment in history as they think about war? Namely, that those involved in the making — and study — of strategy should consider the role of “public consent” as an element of strategic planning.



In a large sense, the inability of national leaders to communicate a coherent narrative to the American public and gain its consensus on why sacrifices are necessary to combat COVID-19 accounts for America’s relatively dismal response. Much of the ensuing debate has centered on tensions between sacrificing personal comforts for the greater good and preserving individual freedoms. Calls for social distancing and mask wearing have been wrapped into arguments over the infringement of civil liberties with some outraged protestors even linking mandates to the Holocaust.

Such tendentious “reactionism” has demonstrated that emotion plays an important role in how citizens decide what government initiatives they will or will not support. For those in the national security field, these public responses should merit attention. As the late Colin Gray noted, “societies and their cultures make war and peace,” not just policymakers. “War,” Gray contended, “is a social institution.”

Certainly, other historians and theorists of war have wrestled with this idea, B.H. Liddell Hart being foremost among them. In Strategy, first published in 1954, Liddell Hart spoke in retrospect of military commanders in the American Civil War, like Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, having to adjust themselves to “the psychology of a democracy.” As servants of a democratic government, they had “less rein” than an “absolute ruler, firmly in the saddle.” Thus, faced with these “inevitable handicaps,” officers needed to reconcile “with the inconvenient reality” that military efforts rested upon a “popular foundation.” To the British theorist, “even the chance of continuing to fight at all” depended on “consent of the ‘man in the street.’”

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, this sentiment would not have been unfamiliar, especially to Americans who had just come out of World War II. Laying aside the military, economic, and diplomatic implications of the “Mighty Endeavor,” the decision to undertake the 1944 invasion of France fulfilled another requirement — one that, for Gen. George C. Marshall, was a hallmark of American grand strategy: Strategy had to consider the role of morale on the home front.

In making this point, one needs only to recall Marshall’s most frequently quoted observation, a statement that has become a dictum in some circles. Why, Marshall was asked in 1949, had he been so persistent in pressing for the earliest invasion of Western Europe? Because, he replied, “a democracy cannot fight a Seven Years’ War.” This statement was Marshall’s way of acknowledging a factor that could frustrate the implementation of American grand strategy, however logical its formulation: the potential problem of war weariness.

Marshall had flagged this problem during the Washington Conference of 1943 when he addressed the implications of postponing an invasion across the English Channel. “It would mean a prolongation of the war in Europe, and thus a delay in the ultimate defeat of Japan, which the people of the United States would not tolerate,” he said. While casting a shadow on strategic planning throughout the war, the problem of war weariness became more acute in 1944 and 1945. Historian Charles Brower argues that a major consideration guiding the deliberations of the Joint Chiefs during the war’s final year was the requirement “to maintain the commitment of the American people to the president’s grand strategy.” And, no one was more emphatic than Marshall in stressing the need to develop strategy that could contain the problem of war weariness.

In using the term “war weariness,” historians are not putting words in Marshall’s mouth. He used the term himself when expressing concern about maintaining political will on the homefront during the period between the end of the war in Europe and the defeat of Japan. Perhaps paradoxically, the defeat of Germany — rather than reinforcing commitment to the war with Japan — could have had the effect of exacerbating what Marshall called the “great impatience” of Americans for a return to normalcy. He highlighted this problem in off-the-record remarks for the Academy of Political Science in New York in April 1945:

Once the fighting ceases in the European Theater the natural reaction of almost every man will be an overwhelming desire to return home, to get clear of the tragic scenes of destruction … to rejoin his family and resume his civil occupation. His family will be equally impatient and probably even more articulate. Appeals will be made to our representatives in Congress to bring pressure on the War Department. … The papers, columnists, the broadcasters, will carry the reflection of this great impatience.

With the global war’s end came similar debates on the merits of universal military training, a plan that proposed that “every able-bodied young American shall be trained to defend his country.” During the Truman years, however, domestic political considerations ensured that universal military training would ultimately stall in Congress. As military historian Russell F. Weigley maintained, “the American electorate wanted a return to tranquility after the long years of depression, New Deal social revolution, and war; they wanted their boys home from the army, not committed indefinitely to be called into it.” Public sentiments, in short, had proscribed strategic planning choices.

Even in an era of “limited war,” senior military officers and civilian policymakers alike fretted over maintaining the consent of men and women in the street. During the long American war in Vietnam, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, head of the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Saigon, in both official correspondence and in public forums, used the word “attrition” to express his concern over maintaining morale during what he considered would be a “long pull.” As Westmoreland wrote the Joint Chiefs in June 1965, he saw “no likelihood of achieving a quick, favorable end to the war.” Thus, he urged that “we should prepare US and world opinion for the rigors ahead.”

The following year, the general offered a public appraisal in which he warned that “there had been no lessening of North Vietnam’s resolve to prosecute the war.” Of note, at the same briefing, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared that the American people “must know that there will be no quick victory.” In this way, Westmoreland’s concerns over the staying power of the American home front thus helped propel the word “attrition” to the forefront of dialogue on the U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia. As the anti-war movement grew in strength after the 1968 Tet Offensive, those concerns proved well founded.

By the conflict’s final years, both President Richard M. Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, bemoaned the loss of public support as they attempted to depart the long, stalemated war in Vietnam. Writing to the president in September 1969, Kissinger warned of the increasing “pressure of public opinion on you to resolve the war quickly.” The “elements of an evaporation” of public consent were “clearly present” less than a year after Nixon’s slim electoral victory.

After Saigon’s fall in 1975, Nixon railed against the “disillusionment of the mid-1960s” that, to him, had been the result of a public “misinformed and misled” by the “shallow, inflammatory treatment of events by the media.” So much had public consensus mattered, the former president argued that defeat had been “snatched from the jaws of victory because we lost the war politically in the United States.” Clearly, by withholding its consent, the American public had commanded considerable influence over U.S. grand strategy and foreign policy.

More than simply expressing war weariness or opinions on the validity of foreign wars, American citizens could also object to the loss of their civil liberties as the state waged war against real and perceived enemies abroad. Debate over the 2001 “Patriot Act” — which enhanced, to unprecedented levels, the government’s surveillance powers — centered on the pull between national security and individual civil liberties. As criminal justice professor Michael Welch notes, critics asserted that “routine surveillance [was] bound up with political repression.” In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, however, far too few Americans felt any need to speak out against the trampling of their rights. To them, defeating the threat of global terrorism outweighed their concerns over “authoritarian rule in a post-9/11 America.”

Thus, understanding America’s historical deliberations over national security and individual civil liberties may help us better understand what seems, to so many, an irrational reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic response. Indeed, Americans should avoid — and condemn — facile attacks on today’s younger generation. Anyone who has read the work of C.J. Chivers or Sebastian Junger, for example, will realize that today’s young men and women can endure, even at great costs, the very worst of war.

Rather, the national pandemic response should encourage an examination of how strategists should consider the will of the people in their planning. A health epidemic is not war. It is far from it. But, current debates over how best to deal with COVID-19 do offer insights into the roles that sacrifice and civil liberties play in strategic planning.

Military officers, in particular, often examine strategy as a process of balancing ends and means, but rarely do they discuss how building public consensus should be part of the larger planning process. Shaping perceptions is not just about “influencing adversaries’ and allies’ behavior.” It also requires an effort at home. In short, strategic dialogue to build consensus must occur at multiple levels.

This unanimity may be more difficult to achieve in conflicts where the ends themselves are debated. For example, the pandemic “end state” likely will not emerge for many more months to come, generating angst and fear that support dissent against mandates for social distancing and mask wearing. Thus, when considering past conflicts like those in Korea and Vietnam, one might ask if consent from the American public was more difficult to attain because an armistice or negotiated settlement seemed unnatural to them. Writing in 1956, historian Walter Millis thought Americans found the Korean conflict “bewildering” because it “fitted none of the accepted patterns” of war.

There is no doubt that the international order is as bewildering today as it was in the mid-1950s. The most recent White House National Security Strategy offers a geographic laundry list of instability, radical ideologies, and threats to American interests — in Iran, North Korea, Syria, China, Africa, and so on. The world, we are told, is as dangerous today as it ever was. But, if leaders are going to call for U.S. intervention, especially of a militaristic sort, into any of these regions, then they should build compelling arguments to do so.

Are we at a moment in the nation’s history where Americans are less willing to voluntarily give their consent? Perhaps.

But, as Hew Strachan reminds us, strategy and war have long had “intimate links to the pursuit of national self-interest.” How to balance this pursuit with that of individual self-interests can be instructive for those engaged in national security. Pandemics are not wars — but strategists can nonetheless learn from them by following Liddell Hart’s counsel to “attune their strategy, so far as is rightly possible, to the popular ear.”



Gregory A. Daddis is the USS Midway Chair in Modern U.S. Military History at San Diego State University and author of Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men’s Adventure Magazines.

Col. (Ret.) Paul L. Miles, Ph.D., has taught military and diplomatic history at the United States Military Academy at West Point and Princeton University.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Capt. Brendan Mackie)