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 [email protected] Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Ajit Maan, Ph.D. writes the Narrative & National Security column for Homeland Security Today featuring her original work and work by guest experts in narrative strategy focused on identifying active narratives, who is behind them, and what strategies they are deploying to manipulate and muddy facts to the detriment of America. She 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. Maan's breakthrough theory of internarrative identity came in 1997; she published a book by the same name in 1999 which was released in its second edition in 2010 (with the addition of the subtitle Placing the Self). Internarrative identity deals with one’s sense of identity as expressed in personal narrative, connecting the formation of identity with one’s life experiences. Maan’s theories are influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s writings in narrative identity theory, and she cites several of his works in her book (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 90). The connection between the interpretation of personal narrative in relation to the larger social group seems to be a key factor in the work of both Maan and Ricoeur. She states that “Following Ricoeur, I’ve argued that who one is and what one will do will be determined by the story one sees oneself as a part of. Going further than Ricoeur, I have suggested that a genuinely imaginative theory of narrative identity would be inclusive of alternatively structured narratives” (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 71-72). This seems to indicate that Maan believes in the role of identity in behavior, but she also recognizes that one can be constrained by society to accept a self-narrative that fits within existing cultural norms. Maan is also influenced by Jacques Derrida as well as Michel Foucault, as referenced in her article “Post-Colonial Practices and Narrative Nomads: Thinking Sikhism Beyond Metaphysics” (227). After establishing herself through her work on internarrative identity, Maan has now turned her attention to the analysis of narrative as a means of understanding (and combating) terrorist recruitment tactics. Her 2014 book, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, examines the scripts perpetuated by a wide range of terrorist organizations while also making important interdisciplinary connections between studies in the humanities and current world events (a workbook companion to the text was published in 2018). She collaborated with the late Brigadier General Amar Cheema on the edited volume titled Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare, published in 2016. Maan's 2018 book, titled Narrative Warfare, is a collection of articles examining the topic of weaponized narrative; her 2020 book, Plato's Fear, further examines the role of narrative and power. Her work was also the focus of Representations of Internarrative Identity, a 2014 scholarly monograph dedicated to the exploration of internarrative identity through diverse fields of study and from international perspectives. In addition to her contributions to academia, Maan has also been active in sharing her knowledge with a wider audience. In September of 2015, Maan began work on Narrative Strategies, an online blog dedicated to the application of strategic narrative to international affairs. That project formed the basis for a consultancy group of the same name, uniting military and academic experts in the cause of eradicating violent extremism around the world. ​ ​

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