How Narrative May Be Constraining the US Military’s Approach Toward the Pandemic

Reading Time: 11 minutes

When faced with a crisis, people and organizations often turn toward the familiar.  The US military is no exception.  The US military uses familiar military references to describe its approach toward the Covid-19 Pandemic.   An article in Army Times sums up this mentality classifying Covid-19 as an “enemy” of America and arguing the US military will “defeat” this national threat.  This may be the correct approach to the problem, and the point of this article is not to argue such an approach is necessarily incorrect.  Instead, the argument presented here will show how framing a problem through narrative can cause narrow thinking and inadvertently create a future fundamental surprise.

Planners in most organizations are uncomfortable with ambiguity, surprise, and unfamiliarity.  The first reaction is an attempt to frame the unfamiliar within in a familiar framework in an effort to avoid the ambiguity the environment is offers.  The most common form of this narrative framing problem occurs when planners are faced with a complex problem and they act as if it is simple.  The Cynefin framework offers a great description of how this occurs and the potential problems organizations create for themselves when attempting to address complex problems in a simple fashion.  

By taking a complex problem and attempting to pigeon-hole it into the simple category, planners are unwittingly throwing their organization into chaos.  Planners quickly become bewildered as best practices do not work as intended and this can lead to a seemingly inexplicable worsening of the situation.  The saying in the US Army is, “If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.”  But this parochial thinking is not solely endemic to the military.  As companies and other organizations achieve success specializing in a certain product or service, parochial thinking becomes more prevalent.  As Edward Lutwak warns, success begins to breed its own failure.  In this case, short-sightedness.

The Cynefin framework is a model of the four types of problems planners face and how they can best approach each type.  The four types of problems are: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic.  In the Cynefin framework, disorder appears at the center of the diagram, emphasizing that from any of the four problems one can make mistakes and fall into disorder.  The authors also depict a ledge between simple and chaotic to show that when planners attempt to force a complex problem into the simple category, they metaphorically fall off the ledge either into chaos or disorder.  The reason the Cynefin framework is appropriate to this discussion is straightforward.  If the US Army chooses an incorrect framing narrative, it runs the risk of classifying a complex problem as simplistic and falling over the ledge into chaos or disorder. 

In the Cynefin model, simple problems occur in stable environments where almost everything is known.  As David Snowden argues, simple problems come in forms such as snags in order fulfillment, where most aspects of the problem are known and solutions become self-evident.  In contrast, complex problems are the realm of unknowns confronting the planner with many interconnected issues that defy easy categorization.  Snowden argues we can only fully understand complex situation in retrospect.  Leaders have to develop an experimental environment where planners can experiment and safely fail.  Nassim Taleb argues that one way to do this is to run an organization through as many scenarios of the future as possible.   A potential problem arises when an organization coalesces around a particular rallying narrative because this narrative can constrain the breadth of future scenarios an organization considers.  When an organization falls back to best practices, feeling that the problem it is confronting is familiar and simple or, at worst, complicated, the familiarity of the rallying narrative can severely constrain thinking and action.

Cynefin is again an interesting model to consider regarding the constraint on action that can occur when an organization erroneously uses a narrative aimed at familiar or best practices when in reality the problem requires more novel thinking and action.  When organizations face with simple problems, the Cynefin framework argues all that needs to be done is sense, categorize, and respond.  With a simple problem the key is sensing the correct problem and then once the problem is categorized, something from the organization’s best practices should be sufficient to address it if the necessary resources are available.

In contrast, complex problems require a more active reaction with frequent reframing events as either more becomes clear about the environment or problem, or as the complex problem morphs and adapts.  In such an environment, there are so many moving parts, emergent patterns, and unknowns, that planners and organizations must probe the environment first, then sense the patterns that they can, understanding that many patterns and interactions will remain hidden, and then respond.  However, the response is not only likely to involve novel practices tailored to the complex environment and issue, but the response should ultimately be viewed as another probing event in that complexity often quickly obviates even appropriate responses as the environment changes or the enemy adapts. 

When the narrative chosen by an organization trends toward the familiar, comfortable, or simple, the organization runs the risk of signaling to planners and actors within the organization that all they need to do is apply best practices.  If the problem turns out to be complex, then this approach will lead to chaos and confusion as the organization struggles with the ineffectiveness of the best practices they have applied.  

The Case for Covid-19 Being a Simple Problem

While many authors offer polemic arguments insisting that the US military or some other organization is making a huge mistake by classifying the pandemic as a simple problem, this article will offer an argument for addressing Covid-19 as both a simple and a complex issue.  Despite what loud “experts” will tell you, classifying problems and adversaries is a difficult endeavor.  If one takes Taleb and other complexity theorists seriously, the best approach is to consider multiple ways of viewing a given problem.

Covid-19 is a coronavirus similar to Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the H1N1 flu (also known as the swine flu), and Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).  All four are coronaviruses and all four are zoonotic in nature, meaning they spread from animals to humans often emanating from “wet markets” around the world.  Wet markets are large animal slaughtering areas, often located in densely populated areas with little care taken to enact modern hygiene and disposal protocols.  Because these protocols are not adhered to, transmission of animal-borne disease to humans becomes more likely and epidemics/pandemics can occur.  

An interesting side note to consider for future pandemics involves the hit Netflix documentary Tiger King.  Scientists are now warning that the illegal exotic pet trade could pose the similar threat of spawning zoonotic coronaviruses as wet markets do. One of the benefits of Covid-19 is that it can serve as a warning that produces more holistic research into the modern epidemic/pandemic problem such that weaknesses come to light.  But this only occurs if we begin to expand our breadth of potential scenarios.

The H1N1, MERS, and SARS epidemics had other common features in addition to being zoonotic.  All three were frightening to the world, reached many countries becoming epidemic in proportion, and all three had high death rates.  The death rates ranged from seven to ten percent of those infected for MERS and SARS, but all three ended up infecting far fewer people than Covid-19. SARS ended up killing 774 people in 2002 and MERS killed 858 in 2012.  While the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports worldwide death rates from H1N1 in 2009 have ranged from 151,000 to 575,000, H1N1 was not as virulent in its spread compared to Covid-19, and H1N1 had a much lower overall death rate per infected person.  Nonetheless, all three also had minimal impact on the United States.  All three ended up being complicated problems for one reason or another.  SARS and MERS were easily dealt with because they did not transfer from person to person very well.  H1N1 had a very low death rate, comparable to the seasonal flu or a bit below, and herd immunity was achieved when only forty percent of the population had been infected.  One can see the logic in assuming, at least initially, that Covid-19 would follow a pattern similar to H1N1, MERS, and SARS.  Further, the worst of these three outbreaks appeared to be over in roughly a year.  Most coronavirus outbreaks lost steam in the hot summer months in nations around the world.  In recent history, these three cases set up a best or good practices response to epidemic and pandemic coronavirus outbreaks. 

Adding support to the argument that Covid-19 is a simple problem is the fact that past, best practices were effective.  The best practice in this case was to largely ignore the early stages of the infection and then respond late to the crisis.  When dealing with the outbreak, President Obama eventually declared a state of emergency in the United States, but individual states did not shut down economic activity.  Some schools shut down in early May, but the national response was rather muted compared to how states responded to Covid-19.  Over 60 million US citizens contracted H1N1, but only 12,500 of those infected died, which is well below the current Covid-19 death rate.  

The declaration of the national emergency by the Obama Administration allowed the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to fall into its best practices in response to H1N1.  FEMA traditionally responds to hurricanes and other localized natural disasters, which means this agency has honed the skill of quickly coordinating and transferring resources from one state to another.  Because H1N1 did not have a hospitalization and death rate as high as Covid-19, the practice of isolating small parts of states and shifting resources to those problem areas worked well in the case of H1N1.  Given that large-scale, stay-at-home orders and quarantines have a negative impact on the economy, it becomes even more attractive to assume all coronavirus events are similar and can be dealt with in a way that minimizes economic disruption.  

Although Covid-19 has a higher death rate than H1N1 and is far more virulent than SARS and MERS, it is still unclear whether it will follow a seasonal pattern and taper off as the summer progressed.  Further, it might fall into the one-year pattern of demise.  Recent epidemics seem to follow a pattern of being most deadly for a year and then recede after that time period.  H1N1 is persistent, but the death rate is so low and many nations have developed herd immunity, that its impact is largely inconsequential in western, industrialized states.  

The point of this analysis is that best practices worked in the past for the United States, which suffered very few casualties as a result of past novel coronaviruses.  Although the impacts of Covid-19 have been far worse, one could still hope that the summer months would experience a diminished impact and that the virus might go away entirely in roughly a year.  When planner attempt to categorize Covid-19, past epidemic events serve as the template.  However, Dr. Fauci has warned that we still do not know enough about Covid-19 to be sure how it will behave in the future, and this leads one to wonder if we are in the realm of the complex surrounded by unknowns.  

The Case for Covid-19 Being a Complex Problem

The Covid-19 death rate around the world, and especially in the United States, is not the primary criterion for determining whether it is a complex problem.  What would make Covid-19 complex is not its efficiency but instead its longevity, unpredictability, and adaptability.  The deaths caused by Covid-19 serve to make the potential complex problem more urgent.  When faced with a complex problem, solutions are possible, but management becomes a viable option as well as signaling that the problem an organization is facing is unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future.  For example, China is an adversarial threat to the United States, and while the United States and China could become allies tomorrow, that scenario is unlikely.  What is more likely is that neither China nor the United States will fully achieve dominion over the other, hence both will have to manage the other as a persistent problem for the foreseeable future (until one side collapses or capitulates or both sides find common cause and cooperate).  Covid-19 could be persistent problem demanding management rather than defeat.

While Covid-19 is a novel coronavirus similar to SARS, MERS, and H1N1, there are notable differences.  Covid-19 is more virulent than any previous novel coronavirus, but there remains some confusion as to how it spreads.  Covid-19 can spread through the air, necessitating the use of masks in society, but the distance it can spread and the length of time it can remain active in the air remains debatable.

Covid-19 also presents a number of different symptoms and the virus reacts differently on a case-by-case basis, causing confusion about proper treatment and benchmarks when a patient should seek professional and/or impatient care.  The initial life-threating risk Covid-19 seems to pose was an attack on a victim’s lungs.  The air sacs in the lungs become clogged, causing life-threatening difficulty breathing resulting in hospitalization, severe long-term damage in some cases, and eventually death for a about 1 to 3 percent of those infected.  

Covid-19 appeared, at first, to be a more dangerous form of H1N1 with a higher ability to infect.  However, Covid-19 presented a host of new symptoms.  Doctors began to notice that Covid-19 caused inflammation throughout the patient’s entire body.  This system-wide inflammation was responsible for producing blood clots that, in some, led to aneurisms and fatalities.  People failed to go to the emergency room despite having severe headaches and other severe systems of an aneurism for fear of catching Covid-19 (which they, ironically, had already contracted).  There is even some medical speculation that a new inflammatory disease found in children under 21 years of age is a variant of the virus.  All of this paints the picture of a virus that is far more complex than previous novel coronaviruses. 

One of the reasons H1N1 has slowed is herd immunity.  Immunity from the seasonal flu lasts about six months which, depending on when infected, allow a person to have immunity during a subsequent flu season.  The more people that contract a type of the flu, the less vectors that strain has to travel through, as a number of people will be experiencing immunity.  There is evidence now that Spanish Flu may have afforded survivors lifetime immunity, which would explain why it died out.  Six months of immunity affords one a seasonal but persistent threat, whereas lifetime immunity will eventually end the threat.  

Unfortunately, there is mounting evidence that having Covid-19 offers a very short period of immunity.  The immunity may last less than two months. Thirteen sailors aboard the US Theodore Roosevelt have become re-infected with Covid-19 less than two months after they were initially diagnosed.  Some of the 13 were showing symptoms again but testing flaws remain a concern at this stage.  If infection with Covid-19 results in such a short period of immunity, in the two-to three-month range, then people may not be afforded even a season of protection and the notion of seasonality may not apply at all.  Herd immunity also comes into question with such a quick re-infection window.

Herd immunity is a bit more difficult to calculate, as it varies depending on the person and the threshold a particular disease demands before such immunity is achieved.  For example, herd immunity was achieved with diphtheria after about 85 percent of the world’s population was infected, while nations have achieved herd immunity with H1N1 at around a 40 percent infection rate.  The problem with Covid-19 is that this threshold remains unknown and with a potential reinfection timeline of two months or less, herd immunity may not be an option with this particular virus.  Assuming herd immunity will solve this problem, as other disease problems have been solved in the past, may be a dangerous cognitive trap. 

The disruption and damage Covid-19 has wrought to national economies and social interaction has reached historical proportions.  Almost the entire Italian economy was shut down for months to the great detriment of Italian GDP growth.  Western European countries as a whole have been negatively affected, although to a lesser degree than Italy.  The United States suffered significant damage, with unemployment skyrocketing past 10 percent in a few short months, a recession, and some banking experts calling for a 40 percent or greater decline in GDP in the second quarter.

While this economic news is dire, many are hopeful Covid-19 follows a similar novel coronavirus trajectory and disrupts economies only once, perhaps twice (if there is a second wave).  What if Covid-19 is persistent?  This is the problem a familiar rallying narrative can cause.  It can result in planners and decision-makers following a planning path that is framed around best practices and what has happened before in similar cases.  This allows for fundamental surprise and confusion that could make economic impacts even worse over the long term.  

Conclusion and Implications

Simple problems are typically solved, or at least solvable, while complex problems require constant interaction with the environment, tend to be persistent, and often call for management over time rather than an end state and solution. This article is not an argument for Covid-19 being either simple or complex, but rather it serves to illuminate that the rallying narrative an organization takes on, in this case the US military, can constrain thinking on a problem and pigeon-hole it into the simple category.  The US military currently frames Covid-19 as a typical, albeit more extreme, version of coronavirus.  The US military speaks of fighting and defeating this disease, which means the narrative is appealing to a best practices approach.  Fighting is familiar for any military but managing a complex problem demands novel and adaptive approaches.  The US military may be correct, but if this is a complex rather than a simple problem, then it may be on the wrong track.  Confusion and surprise can ensue if the problem an organization is facing is complex when the narrative leads to a best practices approach.  This also stifles creativity in thinking and action.

A complex Covid-19 case would demand persistent management which may mean strategic shut downs in areas of a nation, rather than the entire nation, when conditions warrant.  This would allow for healthcare systems to avoid being overwhelmed and it could localize, rather than generalize, the economic impacts. A shift to distanced economic, educational, and social interaction where possible may also need to be implemented.  Moving military medical ships, like the USS Mercy, to aid overwhelmed hospitals in New York City is a simple action, but having the US Army National Guard help enforce quarantines, provide security around volatile protesters (protesting the economic impacts of economic shut downs or directives to wear masks), or aid in quashing local insurrections if economic deprivation becomes severe enough are the kind of complex military operations a persistent threat will offer.  Military planners need to consider the possibility that it is not a simple problem and be mindful that the best practices rallying narratives might be leading to an incorrect and ineffective approach. 

Dan G. Cox is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He has three published books: Terrorism, Instability and Democracy in Asia and AfricaPopulation-Centric Counterinsurgency: A False Idol, and Stability Economics: The Economic Foundations of Security in Post-Conflict Environments. He also regularly published in peer-reviewed journals and magazines. He has served as part of the NATO Partnership for Peace program helping to improve the professional military education system for the Republic of Armenia. He currently serves as the Reviews Editor for Special Operations Journal and on the Board of Executives for the Special Operations Research Association.