The annals of human endeavour are replete with tales of glorious heroism and gallantry in the face of death. In some cases, those involved were victorious in their struggle; in other cases, they were not.
As an example of the first, one might cite the conflict at Bannockburn in 1314 when an army of Scots led by Robert the Bruce defeated the army of England’s Edward II in a bid for Scottish independence—a battle where the flower of Scotland…stood against them, proud Edward’s army, and sent them homeward tae think again.
An example of the second is immortalized in Tennyson’s poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, describing the failure of a British attack at Baclava in 1854, in the face of superior Russian forces—theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die…into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.
Of course, one’s determination of the outcome, whether victory or defeat, depends to a great extent upon which side one was on. But in all such confrontations with an enemy, whether military or civil, whether in war or peace, there are at least two key factors that determine success or failure. The first is anticipation of and preparation for eventualities that might lie ahead; the second is mounting an effectual response to a threat if it materializes.
The efficacy of the second is, to a great extent, dependent upon the effectiveness of the first. Robert the Bruce was successful on both counts, prepared and ready to win; the British high command at Baclava not so much.
If both factors—anticipation of future threats and successful response when they occur—are to be significant, leaders are needed who embody a number of qualities; for example, a perceptive and analytical mind, a willingness to trust authoritative sources, a capacity to look beyond short-term outcomes, and the ability to act decisively.
Absent those qualities—if we are cursed with leaders who are inferior thinkers, mistrustful of others, focused on short-term gains, indecisive or erratic when called to action—the chance of a positive outcome at the end of a struggle is much reduced.
When we look at the battle currently embroiling us, combatting the Covid-19 virus overrunning the world, there are four broad scenarios we might identify: i) nations that were ill-prepared for a pandemic and are unsuccessfully battling it; ii) nations that, although likewise ill-prepared, are responding more effectively than might have been feared; iii) nations that seemed well-prepared, but for a variety of reasons are failing in the struggle; and iv) nations that were well-prepared and are successfully dealing with the scourge.
As you read and listen to news-reporting about the surge of the disease, you may be able to determine which nations fall into which category. Those in category iv), alas, are the fewest in number.
We might have expected that the poorest, least-developed countries would have been among those most likely to be ill-prepared and, therefore, least successful in contending with the virus. And that seems to be borne out as the virus spreads into the South American and African continents.
What we might not have expected, however, is that a nation purported to be among the most powerful the world has ever seen would have been so ill-prepared, and would have mounted such a dismal effort initially, that it currently has more fatalities than any other nation, ranking in the top four worldwide per 1 million population. And climbing.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the rally-cry to make that nation great again might now be recast as a prayer to make it whole again.
Anticipation requires foresight on the part of government; preparation requires a willingness on the part of elected leaders to spend what is needed to build bulwarks against a potential calamity. And both require courage on the part of those leaders—Churchillian courage, Rooseveltian courage.
But preparation cannot be accomplished, unfortunately, without educating a populace clamoring for lower taxes, to help them learn that protecting our future comes with a cost. The time to build the dike, and pay for it, is not when the flood is raging.
Effective response to a threat likewise requires courage, plus an ability to recognize that threat in a timely manner, and a willingness to act decisively to combat it. Denial delays effective action; vacillation aids and abets the enemy; inaction too often proves fatal.
We are reassured by many experts in their field that we shall survive this plague and come successfully out the other side. But we are warned by many of those same people that the worst is yet to come, that the other side is a good way off. I pray the first is true, and fear the second is, too.
Increasingly, my thoughts turn to the future, if we are to have one. There are harsh lessons to be learned from this pandemic, but I wonder if we will pay them heed. From my layman’s perspective, it seems inevitable that we shall face a similar situation again—not necessarily a plague, but perhaps a massive crop-failure brought on by prolonged drought, perhaps a critical freshwater shortage, perhaps a worldwide collapse of the fiat currencies we have come to rely on, or an unmanageable debt-crisis.
Whatever the predicament may be, will we have leaders in place who will have anticipated it and prepared us to deal with it—perhaps soon enough to prevent its occurrence? Will they be ready to respond to it in a timely manner, and to plan for an effective recovery?
Those questions will be in the forefront of my mind when I next journey to the ballot-box.