Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Home COVID-19 In the war on Covid, competence is the first casualty

In the war on Covid, competence is the first casualty

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Rashness is oftener the resort of cowardice than of courage – Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington


THERE is a wearying predictability about politicians’ use of military epithets. It is as though they seek to wreathe themselves in the whiff of cordite (Semtex in the case of the recently departed leader of HM’s Loyal Opposition).  In contrast, ex-military Parliamentarians seldom resort to martial metaphors. You sense in them a despairing awareness that the Covid ‘crisis’ is quite as much about self-inflicted political and economic harm as about public health but that they most keenly feel the total want of any unifying strategy – most ‘unmilitary’. Conversely our SoS for Health is full of bellicose metaphors which he brandishes with the same tone and depth of understanding he applies to ‘herd immunity’, and rather redolent of the Jonathan Pryce character in Pirates of the Caribbean.

So how might ‘a former professional’ and his erstwhile tri-Service colleagues apply dimly remembered military metaphors to the extant problem if re-installed in their nuclear bunker ‘somewhere near London’? No dreary exposé of the Estimate Process, Seven Questions etc. Nor the volumes of crisis management doctrine available online which have evidently been eschewed by just about every aspiring statesman of every hue who, to all appearances, remain determinedly confused. The PM’s ‘chief adviser’ probably regards it all as a mere data-processing problem but narrow secrecy – especially where there is no need for operational security – merely invites poor decision-making. Moreover doctrine is about how to think, not what to think – admittedly most ‘unpolitical’.

Military intelligence is invariably derided as an oxymoron by the bien pensant. Nonetheless military planning methods (derived as much from bloody failure as success) are designed to embed intellectual discipline and logic at the very point when psychological pressures and bovine stupidity are at their most acute. They are designed for crises and to exclude all forms of bias (even unconscious), from target fixation to confirmation bias, group think, specious modelling, and all the other early guarantors of failure. Ironically they are also designed to ensure nothing relevant is excluded from appropriate consideration. In comparison, hubristic academic spats about mathematical modelling displacing clinical evidence from Sweden are less consequential – usually.

You first quantify a threat by reference to the risk it poses and the probability that it will come your way. Much like the medical profession, your intelligence is sifted and updated continuously by quantity and reliability. With time of the essence, knowing enough must trump holding out to know everything. You identify key decision points. Therefore when the first virus landed (or we thought it had) the instinctive response was to take cover and evaluate. That initial lockdown gave time to observe think and plan – a rational, sensible and proportionate response to the perceived threat at that moment. However, the military quickly distinguish between ‘effective fire’ and ‘normal’ battlefield hazards. The former requires you to take cover; the latter merely requires you to take care. You quickly learn the difference.  

Crisis upon you, you recapitulate the 1st Principle of War: (a very careful, deliberate and considered) Selection and Maintenance of the Aim, mindful of all its consequences intended and otherwise. You cannot ‘defeat’ Covid any more than you can defeat terror: one is a virus, the other is a tactic. ‘Saving the NHS’ as an institution to the exclusion of care homes and lives invites that very same and wholly foreseeable collateral damage. It also exposes the original paucity of thought in selecting the Aim. Conspicuously, those homes without vacancies – and therefore hospital transferees – largely escaped ‘shell damage’ in the first barrage. That might itself be considered instructive of viral avenues of attack, susceptibilities etc.

It is a well-known feature of artillery fire that it causes most casualties in the first 5-15 seconds while people take such cover as is available to them. The torrid early salvos created many more casualties than all the subsequent fire despite an apparent intensification as measured by later bursts of testing. Logically you must therefore query quite what a positive Covid PCR test indicates if it no longer equates to ‘effective fire’ as a ratio of actual admissions and fatalities. You certainly do not expect so many of your injuries and subsequent fatalities to arise after admission to your medical system. It would seem the enemy has somehow managed to zero in on ‘wounded from other causes’. Early casualty reports of fatalities substantially overstated it at 1 in 25 whereas 1 in 200 is substantially nearer the mark. Such revisions are to be expected given multiple witnesses of the same event seen from different locations. These losses are unquestionably tragic but numerically somewhat meaningless unless set in the context of other and greater battlefield risks to life and limb. We focus on all casualties to the extent that we can mitigate their respective areas of risk while remaining operational across all capabilities and environments (surgical, psychiatric, paediatric etc). Implicit is an acceptance of some risk. It makes no sense to focus on one threat to the near-exclusion of all others, pretending you have a balanced posture while remaining distinctly lopsided.

Concurrently the MoD has had Covid artillery counter-measures in hand. Or rather it has framed an Urgent Operational Requirement for new Kevlar body armour with ceramic plates etc. The Government is agonising about signing the cheque despite much encouragement from its advisers, but we are by no means certain it will make a timely appearance. For all that Industry is promising, it is not yet delivering. We cannot therefore predicate our entire strategy (that word) on something to vaccinate us from high velocity Covid projectiles unless and until the armour is both manufactured and deployed. We have to plan on what is currently available and use it better, rather than wait for a relieving force that may never arrive or prove unequal to the task.

So, here we are in mid-October torn between barely heard advocates of (a) manoeuvre (our preferred and historic habit) and (b) digging in with no end in sight. The latter smacks of SAGE’s commitment to indefinite, attritional warfare modulated by political half-measures and rallying cries like ‘Circuit Breaker’ while we extend the trench system waiting for the fabled cavalry that did not see out the industrialised battlefield of 1914. When it comes to the 2nd Principle of War:  Maintenance of Morale, weariness and winter are both coming but magic bullets remain stubbornly on back order.

The unspoken job of the military is to give politicians options quite as much as to fight the contact battle. Tactical innovation such as broke the deadlock in 1917 is often key; better and more intelligent use of armour, aircraft and fire and manoeuvre. Suppose we stop marching in columns and keep mutual distance? Stop trying to defend everywhere and engage in key point defence of the most vulnerable? Avoid getting ‘fixed’ in position and fight on ground of our choosing and at speed rather than a measured plod up to the wire? Sounds like a plan . . .

But wait, we know our politicians all too well and – oh, the irony – while we serve to defend democracy rather than practise it, they would rather give us martial law. Right, they need both firm urging and a scientific figleaf behind which to hide and with which to disguise a pivot. We also recognise that requires leadership – an understanding of what needs to be done and the capacity to galvanise implementation with the bright beacon of hope. It will take moral fibre or a desperate chancer in a true Flashman funk (either will do) to leave a carefully prepared trench but when social, political and economic disaster beckons? This thing just needs a code name to fly. Something that Cummings fellow can claim for his own. Now, what was the old library at the Royal Military College of Science called?  Barrington Hall or something . . . does ‘Covid – The Great Barrington Degradation’ sound sufficiently martial? 

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Malcolm Hood
Resolutely ‘Mr’ but allegedly a retired Colonel. Gratified to discover his Staff College training comfortably bested a subsequent MBA. More interested in what works than in what makes you feel virtuous.

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