The Pandemic is a Chain Problem
Chains are powerful. Individual links, not so much. (Shutterstock/Nikonaft)
The summer of 2002 in Annapolis, MD, was typically hot and sticky as the approximately 1200 plebes admitted to the Naval Academy’s class of 2006 assembled on the Yard for Plebe Summer, the six-week training period that precedes the start of the academic year for incoming freshmen.
For every student admitted in a given year, roughly twelve more apply, so everyone who makes it to the starting line is necessarily a high achiever with a long list of accomplishments. For those coming straight from high school, as I did, the standard is excellent grades, high test scores, proven athleticism, and leadership chops. I had straight As, a near-perfect ACT, a solid record running varsity cross country for five years, a Girl Scout Gold Award — and I’d won, somewhat incongruously, the local beauty pageant, making me the reigning queen of Ransom County, North Dakota. (Had I come from a more populous state, these accomplishments may have been insufficient. Part of the application process also involves securing the nomination of a Senator or Congressman, and my state’s representatives rarely fill their quota — unlike those in Texas, California, and Maryland, where the competition is astonishingly fierce.) Students coming with prior enlistments in the Navy and Marine Corps were equally accomplished, having distinguished themselves in roles like battlefield medic or nuclear engineer.
One of the first tasks of our detailers — the second class midshipmen (college juniors) assigned to shepherd us as we transformed from civilians to Sailors — was to take this crew of bright, proud individuals, and break us.
As I reflect, almost twenty years later, on the breaking process, I find myself wondering if other nations must spend so much time turning their military recruits from individuals into cohesive units. The thing that the detailers set out to break us of was our rugged individualism. American culture dearly loves the individual, succeeding alone against all odds. The settler, working his land without a neighbor in sight; the cowboy, singing ballads over his lonely can of beans; the humble billionaire, who started with nothing but an unlikely dream and a bit of seed money. These are our heroes.
It turns out that in a pandemic, our notion of a hero can be deadly.
Naval Academy plebes are expected to memorize, verbatim, reams of information to be regurgitated on command — items known as ‘rates,’ ranging from weapons fore-to-aft on a guided missile destroyer to the hometowns of our platoon-mates, from Teddy Roosevelt’s famous ‘Man in the Arena’ speech to the menus for the next three meals. We also memorized this poem:
On the strength of one link in the cable
Dependeth the might of the chain.
Who knows when thou mayest be tested,
So live that thou bearest the strain.
Those lines, drawn from a longer work titled “The Laws of the Navy” by Royal Navy Capt. Ronald Hopwood, constituted a new ethos for all of us individually excellent people. Within our platoons of forty, our squads of ten, we were made to take object lessons on the first two lines in particular, again and again.
The lessons went hard. We were used to being links, forged alone, responsible only for ourselves. Acting as a chain took practice. Time and again, we were made to understand that being individually on time, being individually in the proper uniform, being individually on top of our rates, meant nothing if the plebe next to us struggled.
One memorable day, our platoon headcount was one head short. The roommate of the missing midshipman was questioned:
“Sir, he’s in our room, sir!”
“Why is he still in your room?”
“Sir, Midshipman A — — is stuck in his shirt, sir!”
“And you just left him?!”
The lesson slowly became clear: we either succeeded together or failed separately. Individual performance — the third and fourth lines of the poem — only mattered insofar as it served the success of the unit. If 39 plebes were on time to formation, and one was left behind, struggling to extricate his arms from the tightly rolled sleeves of his camouflage blouse, 40 plebes were late. And, when the stakes were higher down the line — when we left the relatively safe confines of the Yard and Bancroft Hall for our warships and battlefields — you could swap the word ‘late’ for ‘dead.’
The pandemic is a chain problem. There is a meme that makes the rounds regularly, when the worst sides of American’s obsession with rugged individualism come to the surface. It got its start as the title of a 2017 HuffPost Politics article by Kayla Chadwick — “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People.”
While I appreciate the sentiment, I think living in a healthy (socially healthy, physically healthy) society requires more than simply caring for other people. It requires recognizing that “other people” are not, in fact, other — are, in reality, a part of your chain. Hopwood’s formulation makes two things clear: both the responsibility to be the best possible link you can be, and the impossibility of succeeding alone.
In fact, I would argue that these four rhyming lines are a blueprint for a nation that desperately needs to redefine strength, honor, and patriotism as the coronavirus continues to spread, almost uncontrolled, in many parts of the country.
How do we control the virus? By acting individually in the best interest of the chain — the nation — by wearing masks, socially distancing, frequently washing our hands. By monitoring ourselves for symptoms and staying home when we are sick. By listening to the evolving guidance of scientists and doctors as they continue to build knowledge of a pathogen only discovered months ago.
None of these are impossible things. There are days when I think I could do these things indefinitely if I needed to, for the good of the chain. (Another lesson I learned in the Navy? Perseverance. We called it “embracing the suck.”) But the truth is, indefinitely is not required if we all buckle down and do them.
During Plebe Summer, we were not allowed to jettison weak links. My platoon started with forty, and we entered the fall academic year with forty, forged stronger than when we arrived. Similarly, dismissing the pandemic by saying it only really kills the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions is simply not acceptable. Everyone is a crucial link, an irreplaceable human life, and there’s lots of evidence that even mild cases in the young and healthy can have long-term consequences. Every preventable loss and disability due to this virus is a failure on the part of the chain.
We can defeat this virus. We can win this fight. But only if we do it together.
Always tell someone how you feel because opportunities are lost in the blink of an eye but regret can last a lifetime.