- - Wednesday, March 18, 2020

My colleague Victor Davis Hanson wrote in these pages last week likening the coronavirus outbreak to a war. He is right, but let me take the analogy a bit further. Sitting through COVID-19 is a bit like waiting through an incoming artillery barrage. Over the years, I’ve had some experience getting shot at as have many readers with time in war zones; I’ll leave it to them to decide if the analogy is apt.

Make no mistake artillery — including rocket and mortar fire — is much more immediately terrifying. That is particularly true of the noise. But what makes the two experiences similar is the loss of control. Unlike a direct firefight, artillery is impersonal. Unless you are in an artillery or mortar unit, you can’t shoot back. Resulting anger explains why very few artillerymen survive if enemy infantry eventually succeeds in overrunning their positions. As with being shelled, all one can do is hunker down and hope not to be hit.

There are obviously things one can do to try to minimize the risk of being hit by both artillery fire and the virus. Regarding artillery, finding the deepest hole available and making yourself as small as possible helps. In the case of COVID-19, good personal hygiene and frequent handwashing greatly lessen the chances of suffering a hit. Social distancing is the civilian equivalent of the constant demand that infantrymen not bunch up. The phrase “one grenade will get you all” is not a movie cliche and is just as apt with the virus as it is in combat.

If you take the proper precautions, your chances of living through an artillery barrage are reasonably good, but by no means assured. The same holds true with COVID-19. That uncertainty is probably the worst part of both experiences. Most will not get the virus, most of those who do will survive, but some will die; that’s a hard fact that we have to live with. What each of us has to decide is how to deal with that fact. Soldiers and others serving in war zones have no choice but to carry on with their jobs.

In today’s computer-rich environment, many workers will be afforded the opportunity to work from home as a way of minimizing the risk. But many in health care, service and manufacturing jobs don’t have that option. Like their military brethren, they have no choice but to soldier on in the trenches of the front lines. The concept of muddling through becomes operative.



Gen. George Patton was of the opinion that the best way to deal with an artillery barrage was to move through it. Craven coward that I am, Old “Blood and Guts” would have probably had to put one of his gold-plated pistols to my head to make me move. I certainly wouldn’t recommend heading to New Rochelle or any other hot zone as a challenge to the disease. However, those dedicated health care workers who daily report to their jobs in hospitals, doctors’ offices and nursing homes deserve the thanks of a grateful nation.

Another thing we need to remember is that — like artillery barrages — this crisis too will eventually pass. At some point the virus will run its course, vaccines will be found and better protocols for treating the infected will be worked out. The politicization of the crisis is in full swing already and will continue. Government leaders will have to continue to make decisions that attempt to balance public safety with the potential long-term damage to the economy that can result from those decisions.

I am frankly glad that I don’t have to make them, and every decision will be second-guessed. The Founding Fathers deliberately made effective federal action difficult except in the most extreme situations. The expectation was that state and local governments should lead except in extreme situations. That is as it should be. To date, the president and Congress have generally taken actions appropriate to their constitutional roles and should do only what states cannot.

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned in mitigating the fear of artillery barrages and COVID-19 is prayer. They say that there are no atheists in foxholes. I’ll freely admit that — in those instances when a lot of frightening noises were going on around me — I have had a number of intimate conversations with the Big Guy. I can’t say for sure if it helped, but I’m still alive and whole. The key thing is that it didn’t hurt.

• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who served as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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