When analyzing the grotesque failures of our COVID response, I think it is useful to keep this quote from Sir Michael Howard in mind:
One can forgive early mistakes when confronting a novel threat. What matters is how quickly an organization can recognize its mistakes and make corrections. This is where Fauci and Co. failed and failed grievously. As the mistakes piled up, they insisted that they had all the answers and were well nigh infallible.
This is an aspect of military science which needs to be studied above all others in the Armed Forces: the capacity to adapt oneself to the utterly unpredictable, the entirely unknown. I am tempted indeed to declare that whatever doctrine the Armed Forces are working on now, they have got it wrong. I am tempted also to declare that it does not matter that they have got it wrong. What does matter is their capacity to get it right quickly when the moment arrives.
Michael Howard, "Military Science in the Age of Peace"
This is a recipe for catatrophe.
Americans used to be good at learning on the fly when the balloon went up:
In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition
We fumbled and we failed but we learned:
Despite the shock of Pearl Harbor, which crippled the battleship fleet and rendered the existing warplans obsolete, the Navy moved swiftly and with strategic focus.
Our most successful organizations consciously tried to learn from failure:
One was that they were unteachable. When America entered the war, we in Britian had been at war for more than two years. We had made many mistakes, and had learned something from them We tried to pass these lessons on to our new allies and save them from paying again the price that we had paid in blood and toil. But they wouldn't listen -- their ways were not our ways, and they would do things their way, not ours. And so they went ahead and made mistakes -- some repeating ours, some new and original. What was really new and original -- and this is my second point lastiing impression -- was the speed with which they recognized these mistakes, and devised and applied the means to correct them. This was beyond anything in my experience.
We also understood the need to clear the decks by removing failed or compromised leaders.
Every action-report included a section of analysis and recommendations, and those nuggets of hard-won knowledge were absorbed into future command decisions, doctrine, planning, and training throughout the service.Ian Toll, Pacific Crucible
We did none of these things with COVID.
When do disasters become catastrophes?
Why bureaucracies fail (II): Can experts admit to mistakes?
Why bureaucracies fail: Politics and enforced solidarity
The hubris of the learned and the perils of technocracy