Should medical doctors be solely entrusted to determine the higher policy of the state on how to defeat the coronavirus pandemic? Medical doctors risk their life and limb fighting the virus, much as the soldiers do in military warfare. The comparison is apt, and a study of the role of the military Generals in the conduct of war should give clues to the question posed above.
Georges Benjamin Clemenceau, a French statesman who led the nation in the First World War, is credited to have famously observed that war is too serious a matter to leave to the soldiers. This has been commonly paraphrased as “War is too important to be left to the generals.” The military generals are the top professionals who have devoted their life in the study and conduct of warfare and to conclude they should not be the ones at the very apex of decision-making about warfare does appear a bit odd.
Generals irrational during conflicts; civilian leadership to take decisions
Clemenceau’s observation is grounded on a concept called ‘Law of the Instrument’, also known as the Maslow’s hammer that states, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ The observation is based on a cognitive bias that involves over-reliance on a familiar tool. Barack Obama, following his speech to the WestPoint graduates of 2014 had tweeted from the official White House account, ‘Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
History of warfare supports Clemenceau’s statement. Generals, particularly those commanding a powerful military, tend to believe all differences and disagreements among nation-states should be resolved through warfare. US General Westmorland was the commander of the US forces during the Vietnam War from 1964-68 and the Chief of Staff of the United States Army from 1968-72. Despite the ignominious defeat of the US military might in the Vietnam War, to his dying day he continued to maintain the war could have been won with more troops and support from the US government.
Westmorland’s focus was primarily on defeating the North Vietnamese forces. However, his civilian bosses were looking at the bigger picture. They held that a likely military victory far outweighed the price the USA had to pay in increased troop fatalities and the negative fallouts in the political and economic fronts. General Westmorland was overruled. Clemenceau’s vision had prevailed, and in all civilised democratic nation-states, it is the civilian leadership and not the military generals who decide on warfare policies at the highest level. The generals, however, enjoy a relatively freehand on the conduct phase.
A holistic approach to address doctors’ issues
Doctors and specialists on virus-related diseases are the lynchpins in the current war against the pandemic, and their advice can only be ignored at the peril of defeat. Among the numerous recommendations proposed by the medical staff to fight the infection, lockdown is the only one which has generated a fair degree of controversy.
Field and mid-level doctors, some literally in tears, implore the government to enforce a total lockdown (minus movement of essential food and medical supplies) to avert a pandemic disaster. When the state’s inability to provide bare essential needs of the public under lockdown was pointed out, the reply simply was that this was not their concern as it is the responsibility of the state to fulfil the requirements. Here, the Maslow’s Hammer was on full display.
— Riaz Ali Turi (@RiazToori) April 24, 2020
For the doctors and the medical teams entrusted with controlling the spread of the deadly virus and curing the ones infected, effective lockdown is the only means to manage its mushrooming spread. For doctors, the negative consequences of total lockdown in a country like Pakistan were secondary.
The state functionaries at the highest level, on the other hand, have to take a more holistic approach. They concluded that given the social and economic conditions in Pakistan, a total lockdown is impossible to implement. And a lockdown where the state is unable to prevent serious violations by the public would be self-defeating. Besides, a lockdown extended over a couple of months or more would ruin the national economy to a degree where people would be out in the streets rioting and many more lives would be lost due to violence, hunger and malnutrition.
Decision making in Pakistan
In Pakistan, the top decision making echelon is the cabinet headed by the Prime Minister. It is this forum where the higher policy of battling the pandemic must be formulated. Advice and inputs of senior doctors as special representatives do form a part of the current decision-making process.
Perhaps doctors numbers during the cabinet sessions on the pandemic should be enhanced and their inputs given the requisite weightage. And once a consensus is reached on the policy, it would help if the doctors in the sessions convey the why and what of the policy mutually agreed upon to their junior colleagues in the field.
The continuing disagreement and acrimonious exchanges between the doctors and the state functionaries on the lockdown issue are undermining the public morale and are hugely detrimental to the ongoing anti-virus war effort. This issue must be amicably resolved as soon as possible.
Air Cdre (Retd) Jamal Hussain has served in Pakistan Air Force from 1966 to 1997. He was awarded Sitara-e-Basalat for his services in the year 1982. He regularly contributes articles on defence issues in the Defence Journal from Pakistan, Probe Magazine (Dhaka – Bangladesh) and national newspapers including Dawn, The News, and The Nation. He is the author of two books on ‘Air Power in South Asia’ and ‘Dynamics of Nuclear Weapons in South Asia’. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.