Critical N-95 respirators arrive at Bellevue Hospital where FEMA logistics and hospital personnel help unload the delivery on April 3, 2020. (K.C. Wilsey/FEMA)

PERSPECTIVE: Make Collaboration Great Again to Confront Coronavirus Pandemic

There has been a lot of militarized language applied to the pandemic, apparently in order to mobilize a whole of society response. But “combat,” “fight,” “war,” and most recently a “Pearl Harbor Moment” are completely inaccurate comparisons. The later analogy is completely inept as we didn’t have a four-month advance warning about the Pearl Harbor attack. Things would have been different if we had had a four month, or even four days, warning.

Throwing around militarized language and nonsensical comparisons have led to dangerous behaviors. We need to rethink how we talk about this situation so that we might survive it.

“War on coronavirus” is the wrong narrative. Living that narrative will get us into the same types of problems that the narrative “War on Terror” got us into. We cannot shoot it. We cannot bomb it. We have to use our heads and we have to influence populations. The only military analogy that might be apt is Stability Operations.

“War” is a mischaracterization of what is involved, who is involved, and what needs to be done. If this were a war, we would have a national strategy. If what we needed to fight were guns, drones, and other hardware, there would be no shortage. If this was a war, state governors would not have to plead for help from the federal government, and we would not see the shocking lack of planning in the richest, most powerful nation in the world – despite warnings that go back at least to the Bush administration.

If this is a military fight, then we have already lost. “America First” was never a good idea and now it is a dead idea. The virus has demonstrated that border walls, immigration controls, and the politics of isolationism are archaic.

The militarization of this threat is misplaced; it is dangerous on multiple levels. And it’s about to get more deadly if we don’t change the way we think about it.

The American civilian population, who were not around during WWII, is not accustomed to thinking of war as a whole of society endeavor. That is why Florida beaches were packed with college students during spring break. Now is not the right time to teach them what war meant to the entire world, civilians included, during the last world war. We have no time for that. The narrative we need has to ring true immediately and elicit the response that will save lives. If we need to teach a new generation what a narrative means, we are using the wrong one. The purpose of a narrative is to create an immediate “got it” in the mind.

Generation X and millennials don’t think of war as something that happens on the homeland. Even when the events of 9/11 brought terrorism home in a big way, we decided to “take it to them” before they brought it back to us. Those who went to Iraq and Afghanistan did so to avoid the involvement of the homeland.

The military notion of “mobilizing” is the last thing we need now. Actions based on that sort of wrong-headed talk will lead us down a death trap. We can do better.

We have the capacity to save lives without lifting a finger. The contribution we need now, from every citizen of the world, is to stay put. We should not be using language that “activates” people, but rather, calms them down. The energizing “go get ’em” attitude that is emboldened by militarized language is not what we need now. We need leaders who know how to say the right thing. Words are important. Narratives are powerful. We need leadership that implements narratives that stem from the head, the heart, and the moral backbone. We don’t need to evoke fighting spirit; we need to evoke a spirit of collaboration.

This is no time for competition. We need leadership that can unify the global community and demonstrate collaboration with other nations in order to preserve our mutual co-existence.  The language of competition, opposition, fighting, battle, blame, war does not do that.

The views expressed here are the writers’ and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Ajit Maan, Ph.D. is Founder and CEO of the award-winning think-and-do-tank, Narrative Strategies LLC, affiliate faculty of the Center for Narrative Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, Professor, Global Security, Future of War, and member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at Arizona State University. She is also author of seven books including Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Narrative Warfare, and the forthcoming Plato’s Fear.

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