Since the coronavirus upended our lives, there’s a number that has been haunting me: 70 percent. That’s what experts believe could be the proportion of Americans ultimately infected with the virus. It was also, in the autumn of 2004, the estimated casualty rate of killed or wounded for my platoon as we prepared for the assault into Falluja, the largest battle of the Iraq war. Then, “70 percent” was like a code word for my fears. Fear is a virus, too, spreading person to person. I could feel fear spread through our ranks in much the same way I can feel it spread across America right now. In a crisis, like a pandemic or a war, there is an antidote for this kind of fear: leadership.
Donald Trump has cast himself as a “wartime president,” and so it follows he must provide the nation with the sort of leadership needed in war. Until his press briefing on Tuesday, Mr. Trump had played down the extent of the pandemic, hyped the effectiveness of unproven drugs and expressed his hopes to have “the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter” only to have recently extended the White House’s social-distancing guidelines until April 30.
If the coronavirus crisis is analogous to a war — and I believe that it is — Mr. Trump’s initial Easter forecast bears a chilling resemblance to the hollow promises made at the onset of other conflicts, such as our Civil War and World War I, in which the troops would “be home by Christmas.” To say nothing of another metaphor recently dusted off by the president and senior administration officials, “light at the end of the tunnel.” That was the phrase President Lyndon Johnson used during the Vietnam War.
President Trump’s supporters, like the Fox News host Laura Ingraham, argue that talk of unproven drugs and optimistic schedules for the lifting of restrictions give us hope. But hope quickly turns to despair when predictions are proved false. What happens when April 30 passes and America’s businesses are still shut? Or worse, what happens when they’re reopened on April 30 and we see a spike in coronavirus-related deaths in the weeks that follow, forcing another round of restrictions? The subsequent despair will far outweigh the little tokens of hope offered by the president.
Wartime leadership involves, most crucially, two things. The first is steely honesty in the face of grim facts. My company commander modeled this for me in his response to the estimate of 70 percent casualties within our ranks. He gathered the officers and staff noncommissioned officers. He told us that he didn’t know whether the 70 percent figure was accurate but that we should assume it was. He also told us that it didn’t matter. We had a job to do, and our competence in doing it was the only way to keep that figure down.
The second component of wartime leadership is affirming the capabilities of those you lead. The senior enlisted Marine in our division, a sergeant major and 30-year Marine veteran, excelled at this. Two days before the battle, he addressed a large group of us who were headed into the assault. He reminded us that we were part of a legacy stretching back to battles in the Argonne Forest in World War I, to Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima in World War II, to Hue City in Vietnam and up to this very day. He placed the battle we were about to fight in a broader context. We were Marines, he affirmed, a link in a chain. As those who came before us did, we’d rise to our challenge.
Mr. Trump seems as though he is coming to terms with the facts on the ground. In his press briefing on Tuesday he was more sober and direct than he has been at any time during the crisis, acknowledging an estimate provided by Dr. Anthony S. Fauci and Dr. Deborah L. Birx of a death toll from 100,000 to 240,000 Americans. “I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead,” Mr. Trump said. “We’re going to go through a very tough two weeks.”
In fact, the struggle against this pandemic will last far longer than two weeks. If Mr. Trump aspires to a legacy as a wartime president, he must, dispense with the equivocations and rosy predictions that have characterized his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. He has to deal with the American people honestly, be straight with us about the facts of this crisis while affirming that we’re completely capable of rising to any challenge as a nation. From Sept. 11 to Pearl Harbor and back to our nation’s founding, Americans know how to come together. “E pluribus unum”: It’s in our DNA. It’s also embroidered on the flag behind the president’s desk if he cares to look.
This was one of the lessons I learned in Falluja. The night before the battle, when I brought my platoon together for a last-minute pep talk, I’d benefited from the example of my company commander and the sergeant major. Standing by the trucks that would drive us to our jumpoff point, the platoon gathered in the headlights. And I knew exactly what to say. I didn’t tell them I hoped the casualty figures we’d heard were low or that I had a hunch the battle wouldn’t last too long. Instead, I told the Marines that I didn’t know what was going to happen when we entered the city. I told them that didn’t matter. We knew one another and could rely on one another. That would be enough.
We went on to fight in Falluja for more than a month. The 70 percent estimate proved inaccurate. Our casualty rate ended up higher. Eventually, though, the battle did end, and in a pleasant surprise it was just in time for Christmas.
Elliot Ackerman (@elliotackerman), a contributing Opinion writer, is the author, most recently, of “Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning” and the forthcoming novel “Red Dress in Black and White.”
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