Ross Douthat: The coronavirus quagmire

Gen. George Patton, with a pearl-handled pistol, talks to French officers in France during World War II. Seventy-five years later, surprising color images of the D-Day invasion and aftermath bring an immediacy to wartime memories. They were filmed by Hollywood director George Stevens and rediscovered years after his death. (War Footage From the George Stevens Collection at the Library of Congress via AP)

“Americans play to win all the time,” George Patton told the Third Army in the spring of 1944. “That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.”

That was in another time, another country. When Patton spoke the United States was still ascending, a superpower in the making. But once our ascent was complete, our war making became managerial, lumbering, oriented toward stalemate. From Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan to all our lesser conflicts, the current American way of warfare rarely has a plan to win.

Those foreign entanglements are mostly wars of choice; the struggle with the coronavirus is a war of necessity. But though this invader is killing our civilians and hammering our economy on a scale unseen in any of our 20th-century wars, we’re currently headed toward the same sort of un-Pattonian strategy that we’ve pursued in other conflicts.

We’re containing the virus, limiting the damage, preventing worst-case scenarios — but we aren’t trying to actually stamp it out. Instead, we’re on a path to just live with it (and sometimes die with it) until we get a vaccine or herd immunity, choosing management and mitigation over suppression, a year of stalemate over a campaign to win the war.

Our strategy is not the utter disaster, the national embarrassment, that some of my fellow scribes insist on seeing in our numbers. Our per capita death rate remains lower than France, Italy, Spain and Britain. Our slow-to-ramp-up testing regime is now testing at a rate comparable to Germany’s. Our death curve hasn’t bent as fast as the hardest-hit countries, but it is bending, and faster than in Canada.

States like Florida and Georgia, maligned by the commentariat, have escaped the predicted catastrophes so far, and the New York experience remains very much an epidemic unto itself. Indeed, you can argue that if Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio had acted just a week earlier, America would look substantially better than its Western European peers.

So the United States in the age of the coronavirus is not, in fact, the “failed state” depicted in George Packer’s much-read Atlantic essay and similar polemics. The Trump White House has been predictably ineffective, but our gridlocked Congress has nonetheless found a way to pass sweeping spending bills — not good or perfect legislation, but a stabilizing force — and the Federal Reserve has moved more swiftly than in the last crisis to keep the economy from cratering.

Meanwhile, ordinary Americans have basically behaved responsibly, social distancing before it was required, accepting an unprecedented lockdown with only marginal protests (notwithstanding Twitter coverage), and going out gingerly rather than recklessly as lockdown orders have been eased.

But if we aren’t a failed state, we are still a decadent society. We are capable enough to avoid socioeconomic collapse, resilient enough to muddle through an era of mass death — but we have no nimbleness and little grand ambition, and so our capacities are limited when it comes to achieving more than just stability, more than what Matthew Continetti calls a “cruel new normal” of thousands of deaths every week or month.

Admittedly, we don’t know exactly how completely the coronavirus can be suppressed without a cure. There are a lot of mysteries with this illness, and many countries and regions that have escaped the worst of it so far have probably enjoyed some piece of good fortune — a warm or sunny climate, a youthful age profile, some poorly understood immunity — that can’t be translated into universal policy.

But we can still look at the places that have achieved suppression and see a range of plausible measures for a would-be General Patton of the coronavirus war. Masking. Testing. Tracing. And yes, mandatory quarantines.

We have twice been given time to scale up our capacities in these areas — first in the wasted month of February, then in the weeks of lockdown we’ve just endured. And we’ve made some progress, however halting.

But an assumption of futility hangs over these efforts — a mentality of “no, we can’t” that emphasizes all the ways that we aren’t like South Korea or Taiwan or Eastern Europe, all the impositions that Americans supposedly won’t stand for, all the ways that our exceptionalism and polarization and mutual suspicion will inevitably make our death toll rise.

Maybe some of this defeatism is justified as a judgment on Donald Trump’s inability to lead any kind of wartime effort. Maybe it’s justified as a judgment on our hollowed-out industrial capacities, our loss of what Bloomberg’s Dan Wang calls the “process knowledge” required to suddenly shift from making semiconductors to making swabs or masks. Leadership and industrial capacity can’t just be willed into existence; certain kinds of sclerosis can’t be easily escaped.

But the assumption that decadence is simply inescapable seems decadent itself. Especially when it leads to weird conclusions — like that Americans are too paranoid or cussedly libertarian to accept mandatory testing or temperature checks or mask-wearing or quarantines but that we will somehow just resign ourselves to closed schools and dead retail and empty restaurants and rolling lockdowns for months and months to come.

Americans are cussedly libertarian, obviously, in ways that would undoubtedly reduce compliance with any suppression campaign. But we’re libertarian in part because we live spread across suburbs and exurbs and rural areas — a spread that makes a certain amount of noncompliance less fatal to any suppression project than noncompliance in Seoul or Vienna. And there’s nothing in our history to suggest that our individualism precludes accepting tough, even authoritarian measures under the right conditions. A pandemic that’s already responsible for 1930s-level unemployment and more Americans dead than the war in Vietnam seems like it should qualify.

Maybe the America of mass mobilization belongs as much to the past as Patton, MacArthur, Ike. But nothing that’s happened so far in this crisis proves, definitively, that we the people lack the will to win — especially when the alternative is just enduring, and dying, for months and months to come.

So as we look for a post-lockdown strategy, maybe what we’re actually looking for are leaders — be they governors or legislators, Trump and his appointees or the Democratic nominee for president — willing to embrace the old-fashioned idea that in this struggle, as in the wars our country used to wage, there is no substitute for victory.

Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.