“We are always fighting the last war” has been a common criticism of the military, at least since World War I. Generals are reluctant to change strategies, even when it’s obvious to everyone that a strategy isn’t working.
At the time of the American revolution, battles were fought by lining up soldiers armed with muskets facing each other and marching at each other. The American Minuteman in Lexington in 1775 decided they didn’t have enough men to fight a conventional battle, so they took cover behind trees, walls and whatever else was available. Then they picked off the British troops standing in formation on what they thought was the battlefield.
This guerrilla strategy worked very well and was often employed by the rebellious troops. But almost 100 years later when the south tried to secede, both Armies returned to the traditional battle formations. This proved to be a disaster. A soldier with a muzzle-loaded musket can shoot maybe three times a minute. The newly invented Gatling gun could fire more bullets than 150 men.
Confederate troops marched at walking speed toward the Union line at Gettysburg, giving the Union soldiers plenty of time to reload and fire. And on the third day, the Union Army set up 12 Gatling Guns, the world’s first machine gun, to cut down the approaching Confederates. The Confederate Army was destroyed.
But the military refused to change. And when World War I came along, tens of thousands of men died running across no-man’s land into the withering fire of the German machine guns. This still did not change the generals’ strategy.
World War I saw two other major inventions that would change warfare, the plane and the tank. While neither played a decisive role in World War I, planes had improved sufficiently that by 1921, Colonel Billy Mitchell was able to show Congress that even the unsinkable battleship could be destroyed by planes. And Congress cut his budget.
When World War II started, troops were no longer trained to attack machine guns head on, but the United States had a fleet of battleships, and very few planes. France had The Maginot Line to prevent Germany from driving into France.
The battleships were the main target at Pearl Harbor, whose warplanes got almost no push-back from the few old planes on the ground. And the Germans simply drove their tanks around the Maginot Line.
The next war, the nuclear war, was a standoff. “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) made every country pull back. We now had the power to end the world.
Even MAD is not foolproof. We came awfully close to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis and if President Kennedy had listened to his advisors and bombed the new missile sites Russia was setting up in Cuba, it is highly likely that nuclear bombs would have exploded on US soil.
We built up a huge nuclear arsenal, as did Russia, ready to fight WW III the same way we fought WW II. And even after two nuclear weapons reduction treaties there are today almost 15,000 warheads in the world in nine countries, including about 6,000 each in Russia and the US. Many billions are spent each year maintaining our bombs and the missiles, planes and submarines that launch them.
Nuclear bombs were useless in the Korean and Vietnamese Wars. So were the huge, extra-heavy battle tanks designed to win WW II should we ever fight it again. And much of the training we had given our Army was of little use in such wars.
9/11 introduced us to a new form of war. Terrorism. Our fighter jets and bombers were almost useless. Our radar watching for incoming missiles saw nothing. A couple of dozen Saudi suicide bombers hijacked three passenger planes and destroyed two iconic buildings and part of the Pentagon, killing more than 3,000 Americans. Two wars followed, becoming the longest wars in American history.
Now, before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are over, we have a whole new kind of war — with an invisible enemy, a virus. And it caught us completely unprepared, even though the world has seen this before.
We have no medicines that stop this virus and no vaccine. Even with a defense budget around $600 billion, we don’t have enough test kits, masks, protective clothing, respirators, hospital beds, ventilators, or trained staff. We have no plan.
And we may be at its mercy.
I believe we should start now to get ready for what we might call the “Virus Wars.” New Corona Virus won’t be the last to attack us.
We can use the defense budget to get ready for whatever comes. Cut back to 3,000 nuclear bombs (how much of the world would be left if they all went off?) and use the money to retrain the National Guard and Reserves to be the front-line defense against viruses.
There are nearly half a million men and women in the National Guard, which is funded by the federal government but reports to state governors. There are another half million more in the various Reserve units — Almost one million trained men and women who can be called up for duty in a matter of days.
The bulk of the military should be trained to seek out and test everyone who was exposed to someone who tested positive. Whether the test was positive or not, the soldiers would then make sure exposed people were quarantined for two weeks.
Other troops should have the equipment and training to set up field hospitals wherever they are needed. They should have plenty of Personal Protective Equipment, including enough to distribute to hospitals in areas that have more cases than they can handle.
These units could also be used to enforce regulations designed to reduce the spread of the virus.
When I was in the Army Reserve during Vietnam, people in some of our major cities were rioting. Someone got the idea of training units like mine for riot control. My commanding officer handed me a syllabus and told me to teach a class.
We were a day late and a dollar short. At the end of class I asked the troops if they wanted their guns to be loaded if we got called up to control a riot. The consensus was “No.” They knew they had not had nearly enough training. It would be chaos had we been asked to control a riot. We’d be as likely to shoot each other as anyone else.
You can’t start training for the next war at the last minute.