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Thinking the Unthinkable — and Responding Wisely

In 1994, I was in my first year as director of research for the U.S. Army's Strategic Studies Institute. Part of our mission was to consider how the Army might respond to various strategic threats.

By Dr. Earl H. Tilford

In 1994, I was in my first year as director of research for the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. Part of our mission was to consider how the Army might respond to various strategic threats. Fifteen very bright people, to include serving officers and civilians, most with doctorates in history, political science, and various technical fields, were encouraged to pose — and then address — difficult questions at the strategic level. I also traveled a lot. At the Atlanta Airport I purchased a copy of Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone. Within a week we were working with Georgia Tech’s Center for International Strategy, Technology, and Policy on a conference titled, “Strategic Impact of Global Microbial Threats.” This was of acute interest because Atlanta was preparing to host the 1996 Summer Olympics near the Georgia Tech campus.

The central questions revolved around what kind of threats might arise and how would the United States respond. There were a lot of scenarios raised.

One involved Iraq unleashing a non-lethal biological attack on the U.S. fleet operating in the Persian Gulf and on American units stationed throughout the region. The virus or bacteria involved caused extreme gastro-intestinal disfunction. With military personnel so incapacitated, Iraqi military forces would retake Kuwait to present the United States and regional allies with a “fait accompli.” Or, alternatively, what if a foreign power unleashed a biological agent that destroyed wheats and other grains with cascading effects that included losing livestock and inducing starvation? What would an American “strategic response” entail? To be sure, there were many tools with which to respond, and not all included military force.

In our “worst case” scenario, a pandemic very similar to the current Covid-19 event spread rapidly across the United States. First responders were soon incapacitated, and hospitals overwhelmed with patients. At the height of the pandemic, a hostile power undertook a cyber offensive aimed at shutting down vast portions of the power grid to include all the major metropolitan areas. Fuel pumps quit working. Food could not reach markets. The checkout counters at supermarkets no longer worked, meaning electronic currency transfers stopped. The move from “cash only” to barter and then to looting moved rapidly. Police, unable to receive calls for help, also ran out of the fuel needed to respond.

Such dire scenarios have been around for a long time. The earliest ones are found in the book of Exodus when pandemic after pandemic hit Egypt to include a form of genocide focused on gender and age. The 1957 Nevil Shute novel, On the Beach, addressed a post-apocalyptic world where the last vestiges of civilization in Australia awaited death after the proverbial nuke-fest among major powers. In Stephen King’s 1978 novel, The Stand, the human race faces near extinction after a manufactured virus is inadvertently released.

We humans have been thinking the unthinkable since the time of Moses. Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel, Jaws, almost wrecked the beach-going industry in the summer of 1975. Knee-deep wading was all the rage that year. Ironically, a make-believe super shark kept millions out of the water while very real microbial viruses failed to stop many party-bent collegiate spring breakers during the coronavirus outbreak.

What we need to think about right now is: what comes next? Absent a highly unlikely, but not entirely impossible, miraculous cure, the best way to approach this is exactly what we are doing: address the things we can as best we can.

Alabama football Coach Nick Saban calls this “The Process.” At its heart is stoicism. The Apostle Paul was steeped in it. Leaders from Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius to Prussia’s Frederick the Great and President George Washington practiced forms of stoicism. It is a process that emphasizes preparation for things you can affect to achieve — effects needed in the immediate future rather than long-range outcomes. Basically, in Nick Saban’s world of collegiate football, if 11 players do their individual jobs for the five to seven seconds each football play lasts, they determine the shape and form of the next play. If we break down the tasks we have to do for success in the immediate future without worrying too much about the final outcome, success builds on success. The comparison to stoic philosophy is most effectively done in Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way. Basically, this is growing by overcoming immediate challenges.

“Could haves, would haves, and should haves” are not going to matter much if we fail to do what is necessary this week to survive to address next week’s challenges. Doing the little things right is essential to achieving a better outcome. Keep faith and prayer, especially if, as James 2: 14-26 instructs, faith is coupled to working for the best.

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with the Institute for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.

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