Scorched Earth

Is an epidemic like a war?


  1. You have an identifiable enemy that is killing you.

  2. You have reasonably clear and achievable objectives. To be accurate, the USA has not fought with clear and achievable objectives for several wars now, but that’s because we’ve been idiots.

  3. You need collective action to achieve those objectives.

  4. Some of your people are going to die, and a lot are going to suffer, and the means you devise for the “fight” will cause some suffering, lots of opportunity costs, and probably some deaths.

  5. Reaching your objectives requires money. The more your economy is crippled, the harder it will be to reach your goal—and you will have additional deaths because people rely on that economy. For the USA that can mean crippled transportation systems that don’t provide cities the food/fuel/medicines they need; for a poorer country that can mean that farmers starve because the army has confiscated their crops.

  6. ”The enemy gets a vote.” You have to be ready to adjust your plans.

  7. You will do unhappy and unjust things: seizing goods, locking people up (“quarantine” comes from a 40-day detention)–and in war killing people.

  8. Your means need to be commensurate with the threat. Scorched-earth may be an appropriate tactic when Germans are invading the USSR, but it wouldn’t be appropriate if Mexico were invading the USA.

  9. Some people will get rich off the new requirements, whether drug or ammo manufacturers. You may have to intervene to keep this from getting out of hand, but you need them to benefit to keep supplies coming. “Useful profiteers.”

  10. Some people will try to use emergency powers to enrich themselves or entrench themselves in control. “Evil profiteers.” The tools and restrictions intended for defeating the enemy can be turned against your own people.

  11. Internecine quarrels about means and promotions and whatnot will be ugly, cause a great deal of damage, perhaps lose you your war—and are unavoidable.

  12. You need accountability for the results. If marching men out of the trenches into no-mans-land just gets them machine-gunned, somebody needs to be told to stop that.

  13. Wars are full of lies trying to nudge the population, cover up screwups, and prevent panic.

  14. You have to make decisions without enough information.

  15. You are afraid. Too much fear is bad–you lynch Germans during WW-I or fail to press on against the Confederates at Yorktown. Too little and the Barbarossa plan catches you by surprise.

  16. You can lose liberties for a time–forever if you aren’t careful.


  1. There is nobody who can surrender. You can kill enough human enemies to make them stop whatever they were doing. You can’t kill all the viruses. Smallpox was an exception—it was easy. Ebola is hard.

  2. As a consequence of the above, either the infectious agent or the treatment will keep on killing some number of your people forever. If you can reduce the rate to something small, your emergency is over. 0 deaths is not possible with dangerous disease.

  3. Everybody dies. You can defeat one foreign enemy, but one of the domestic ones (cancer, heart disease, murder) is going to get you sooner or later. The temptation for mission creep and battling the next disease (“it’s almost as dangerous!”) will probably be overwhelming.

  4. In a war, if you didn’t have a dedicated enemy when you started, you do now—you can’t just say “Oopsies” and stop. If you find a pandemic to be less of a problem than you thought, you can “just stop.” The hard problem will be getting the powers-that-be to admit they were wrong.

  5. Against an epidemic, your tactics will always partake of “scorched earth,” damaging your economy and future. In wars, that’s only sometimes true.

Yes and No

  1. It depends on the intensity. A mild disease is more like the random Muhammadans going on solo jihads in London. You can let the existing systems (police in one case, medical in the other) take care of the problem. A more dangerous disease is comparable to them being organized and funded, as with 9/11. You need to bring new tools to bear on the problem. Ebola would be like an invasion.

Extreme cases sometimes help define the boundaries of a problem.
Imagine an airborne virus with a 14-day incubation period, of which the last 4 days are contagious. It produces a hemorrhagic fever, with a 95% fatality rate. Suppose this breaks out in Brazil.

What should our reaction look like?

All travel to/from South America is frozen; not even citizens are allowed in if they’ve been there. Given the “4-day” asymptomatic contagious period, it may already be too late to stop it reaching Europe and the US, though it may take a few days to figure that out.

Divide the nation into small zones–NY metropolitan area, LA, etc–defined by the ease of internal traffic that you probably can’t stop from outside and the ease of blocking outgoing traffic. Lock down transportation between the zones–not even the military move from zone to zone. Shoot border crossers.

Inside a zone the local governments will have to lock down activity, and actively seal off infected areas. Remember the “weld the doors” claim from Wuhan? Plenty of people will die from lack of medicine or medical care, or even food, but 95% fatality is worse.

I wrote “4 days.” But are you sure if will always be exactly 4 days, and not sometimes 2 and sometimes 6? Your quarantine needs to be expansive, just in case.

Once it is spreading, count yourself lucky if only a third of the people die. The economy goes to hell, of course, but laissez faire would be worse. Remember what happened when European diseases hit the AmerIndians.

Carelessness is deadly.

Try another extreme. A plague, air borne, kills about 0.01% of the very old, though it sickens many.

There’s no emergency. Ordinary voluntary public health measures suffice. No new rules. It would be an overreach to try, since this is well within normal problems, and it turns out there’s no way to keep people from dying. This is more analogous to self-defense or police work than a war. Carelessness is no more than usually harmful.

Like most diseases, COVID’s danger lies between the extremes.

Granted, harmlessness may be in the eye of the beholder. I had a much younger friend die of the flu a few years ago. A disease that afflicts the very old won’t generate the same worry as one that afflicts children or pregnant women. And I would predict grave disagreements about the seriousness of a disease that only struck legislators.

Who gets to decide how serious a problem is, and what kind of information do they need? I have a strong impression that quite a few officials get their sense of danger from CNN and the other panic-mongers.

We have ways of estimating the economic dislocations of a “war on a plague,” though the officials in charge have apparently done some fudging in past years (no inflation??). The social dislocations eat into our social capital, and we have no good ways of measuring that. Loss of liberties tends to ratchet.

If we task a department with watching for dangers, it will have an interest in panicking, both to justify its existence and to avoid the blame it would get if it missed something. On the other hand, having nobody designated as responsible means your nation’s response will be sloppy and, as now, unaccountable.

Unfortunately, I can’t just set a bunch of thresholds and say “At 1% do this, at 4% start doing this too, etc.” What we need to do depends on the vectors–a fly-borne illness would need different methods. It would be useful to agree on some guidelines. Can we?

19 thoughts on “Scorched Earth”

  1. “It would be useful to agree on some guidelines. Can we?”
    No. Because there is no We. I’ll sacrifice for my family, my friends, my neighbors, my town, when we’re all in it together.
    I will not sacrifice for Andrew Cuomo and Joe Biden. I owe them nothing. They make none of the sacrifices they demand of others. They can rot in hell.

  2. The problem is lack of accurate information about teh presumed “epidemic”. For example, when the first thing we see about a new virus in (say) China is videos of bodies lying in the street, we have to take that very seriously indeed. But then what if scenes like that are never repeated anywhere else? Have we over-reacted?

    Information develops as a situation evolves. Maybe we learn that instead of the normal 28,000 people dying each day in China, the number dying has rocketed up to … 28,500. Maybe then we might ask ourselves if we are indeed over-reacting?

    However, that would require leadership willing to admit they had over-reacted. It is easier for them to double down, especially since they like the power of over-reacting.

    The only solution I can see would be to make the individuals who make the calls about how to react have real personal skin in the game. For example, a bureaucrat who recommends strong reaction which will impact citizens’ liberties automatically resigns and loses any pension. A politician who votes for or imposes that strong reaction automatically resigns and is banned from running for office again. After 3 years, they can be re-instated if an enquiry concludes they acted responsibly. This may seem harsh, but people need to lead from the front in a war.

  3. There are no “moral equivalents to war”, mostly because war is something that happens outside any morality. It is the absence of morality and sanity, and the minute you start equating other situations, other issues with war, you’re enabling people to abandon morality and sanity with regards to dealing with those things.

    I very much want to slap the ever-loving snot out of people that do this. War is absolutely NOT the metaphor or mindset you need to take up with regards to doing anything other than… Fighting a war. In war, you do whatever you have to do in order to win, and if that means massacring the innocents like we did by bombing civilians in Germany and Japan, wellllll… Don’t start none, won’t be none. You don’t treat civil things as though they were warfare–That’s how you get the Prohibition, the War on (some) Drugs, and a whole host of other epic stupidities.

    We have yet to run into a disease that possesses the sort of characteristics that you’d need it to have in order to justify “warfare”, and that sort of thing isn’t likely to come wandering down the pike, either. You’d need an intelligent disease agent with a power base that it needed to maintain so that you had something to attack, and a whole host of other things you just don’t have with anything we’ve run into so far.

    The problem with this mentality is that once you “declare war” on something in civil society, you’re basically throwing out the rulebook on how to conduct yourself morally, and excusing all sorts of excesses. They had a war on Demon Rum, once–How’d that play out? They did the same thing with smut, with narcotics, and other drugs–Did anyone win, except the moralizing control-freak sickoes behind it all?

    In all seriousness–Take this idea out in back of the barn, and put a bullet into the back of its head. It’s terrible on oh-so-many levels, and you really need to stop using this idea and the supporting verbiage behind it.

    War is an insanity in its own category, and needs to remain that way. You cheapen whatever issue you apply it to, outside of national survival. If you call it a war, that means you’re willing to murder the innocent in order to win, and in the context of disease or other civil issue, that’s kinda counterproductive, is it not?

  4. The non-other Kirk put my semi-formed thoughts into more coherent and detailed words that I could manage at the moment, so let me just sign on to his statement and add my own WTF?

  5. Its the dilemma at the door of the cave. People are very good at some things, and estimating risk is one of them. IF they have half way decent information to work from. Our ancestors mega times great stood at the door of the cave and pondered. Go Out? Might get eaten by large cat. Stay In? Roots and berries supply low, eventually will starve. In this context whether you can hear active growling, and whether it is saber tooth tigers or your children’s stomachs, is very important input.
    But of course with Covid we don’t get that. Maybe we should not expect it as this is a crisis that has shown it could topple governments (US….maybe eventually China?). The stakes are too high. You will have the guys wearing the fancier bearskins assuring us that there are tigers everywhere, even though none has been seen in years. Or that we can in a pinch eat rocks. Or any other type of nonsense that might be semi plausible.
    Humans are fallible. We have somehow lost track of this and now believe the guys and gals in the fancy skins. Most of them may even be doing their best in the face of a problem with no precedent in their lifetime, especially as few bother to study history for anything other than its use as a tool to control the present.
    At this point I’d settle for a large helping of modesty, admitting that they got some things right, many things wrong and that all they can do is try to improve the ratio.
    I’m not holding my breath.

  6. Brian, you have to remember… For these people, all the good things that happen are due to their brilliant planning and actions. Anything bad? It’s all just “bad luck”, and their plans and actions had nothing to do with it.

    If you go back and look at the various excuses/explanations offered up by Soviet planners for why things “didn’t eventuate in accordance with the five-year plan” of the day, well… You’ll find a lot of congruence.

  7. “The problem is lack of accurate information about teh presumed “epidemic”.”

    Not at all. We know a great deal about Covid and with sanity enough, to deal with this situation, could do quite well. However everyone appears to be crazy.

    So it goes. Human stupidity, is by far our greatest problem.

  8. PenGun

    I mildly disagree. And, putting it out there, I’m a retired MD with some background in Infection Control and in times past was part of the CDC’s surveillance system for “influenza like illnesses”.

    There are a lot of questions that nearly two years and Lord knows how many billions of dollars have not answered. I had a long post outlining a few but think, nah, generally discussion Covid on the internet just gets people riled up.


  9. Hey Penny, remember back in January of 2020 when you said HCQ plus Zinc was the proven cure? You were actually somewhat interesting in that brief time you weren’t just playing troll…

  10. Tim Wolter…”In this context whether you can hear active growling, and whether it is saber tooth tigers or your children’s stomachs, is very important input.”

    Nicely put!

  11. “Is an epidemic like a war?”
    Is an engineered bio-warfare attack a war?
    Sun Tzu is grinning in his grave. Talk about defeating an enemy without having to engage them in battle.

  12. The epidemic differs from war in that the enemy lacks intelligence, indeed, any direction at all. This remains true even if it was initially intended as a weapon. I note that there are reports of the central Chinese government instructing local authorities to construct many thousands “isolation” beds to deal with what they claimed to have eliminated more than a year ago. As usual, trust nothing from China.

    What the various government’s response follows almost exactly is the introduction of Communism in both Russia and China. Society is fractured by impositions from theoreticians and ideologues to solve the “problem”. Then, when the inevitable disasters occur, they are met with even worse impositions coupled with repression of anyone pointing out the failures.

    Successful businesses are completely dependent on the good will of their employees. There is no level of supervision that can make up for its lack. The airlines are in the process of being reminded of this as we speak. I expect that businesses trying to enforce a vaccine mandate are going to run into a brick wall where even the vaccinated will walk away before they buckle under to giving their employer the right to dictate personal medical decisions.

  13. when one examines the thinking of Chao Haotian, a former defense minister and still a prominent figure in chinese defense circles, one can surmise this was a potential biological weapon, and it was aimed at the key concession holders in prerevolutionary china, iran was a bystander, us uk france germany italy,belgium et al (the first insight came from nyberg, the second from mark steyn,

  14. “PenGun is now identifying as an MD epidemiologist. Is that male of female or fluid?”

    Can’t even get an old joke right. Its “How many sexes are there?”

    Four: Male, Female, Homo and Skim.

  15. A question for Mike K. Its become apparent that in America vaccinations are not given properly, and a great deal of the problems people face are because of this.

    Given properly, as both mine were, the practitioner aspirates the injection. That means they withdraw the plunger a bit, which will show you if you are in any veins or arteries, by returning a bit of blood. The vaccine should never be put into veins or arteries as that leads to many problems including myocarditis.

    Do you think a great deal of American problems with the vaccine come from this poor practise?

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