Debrief — America needs a 'ferociously bipartisan' coronavirus commission

Debrief — America needs a 'ferociously bipartisan' coronavirus commission
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As George Santayana, a noteworthy supplier of popular maxims, said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

It is in this spirit that House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiWhite House officials, Democrats spar over legality, substance of executive orders Sunday shows - Trump coronavirus executive orders reverberate Pelosi: 'Of course there's room for compromise' on 0-per-week unemployment benefit MORE (D-Calif.) announced the formation of a select House committee to examine America’s preparation and response to the coronavirus pandemic, an outbreak that has already claimed more lives than 9/11 and 20 years of the War on Terror combined.

To be successful, however, any coronavirus commission needs to be scaled beyond the relatively narrow purview of a select committee — and its work needs to be ferociously bipartisan, a tough ask in today’s political climate.


History provides touchpoints to guide our way: the Tower Commission following the Iran-Contra affair, the 9/11 Commission (comprised of five Republicans and five Democrats), and the Iraq Study Group (again, a bipartisan group chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and Congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat from Indiana).

But first things first: Is a commission even warranted at such an early stage of America’s response to the global pandemic? Some have argued that this exercise is merely another partisan excuse to take pot shots at the Trump administration or to create needlessly excessive bureaucracy in a rash response to a still-unfolding national tragedy. Is now the right time to evaluate our response to coronavirus?

Without doubt, the answer to this question is an emphatic and urgent “yes.”

First, as a recently retired leader in the U.S. armed forces, I can personally attest to the importance of capturing “lessons learned” while an operation unfolds — and not waiting until long after its conclusion. 

As a career F/A-18 combat pilot, I had the honor of spending several years serving as a Topgun Instructor shortly after serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. At Topgun, students are immersed in lessons covering four primary phases of any combat mission: preparation, briefing, mission execution, and debrief.


Understandably, carrying out missions with precision is an utmost priority. But the most important phase of any flight is the debrief that occurs immediately after returning to home base.

The debrief is when pilots, other front-line operators, support personnel, and decision-makers gather to immediately discuss critical omissions from the briefing and how close — or how far — actual results strayed from desired outcomes. Debriefing is a critical component to ensure tomorrow’s mission turns out better than today’s. It’s also where information is rapidly disseminated to ensure easily avoidable mistakes aren’t repeated time and time again.

Second, our nation’s ability to predict future needs when it comes to coronavirus is already a pressing concern. Medical experts are warning of another cycle of coronavirus infections come fall, with Dr. Anthony Fauci stating “it will be inevitable that we need to be prepared that we’ll get a cycle a second time.” In light of this fact, time is of the essence.

Standing up a commission to study shortfalls in our preparation, coordination, information sharing, and response — both internally and internationally — is needed to ensure we operate better during a potential second wave of infections than we have during the first one.

Politics aside, professionals invite scrutiny. The simple truth is that leaders don’t run from facts and accountability — they welcome them. We now have an opportunity to collect and assess information very likely to pay dividends in a mere six- or seven-months’ time.

In my last tour of duty, I served as Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Most VA workers find racism 'moderate to serious problem' at facilities l Trump advisers were wary of talking military options over fears he'd accidentally start war Trump advisers were wary of talking military options over fears he'd accidentally start war: report Trump prizes loyalty over competence — we are seeing the results MORE’s chief speechwriter and communications director — first as an active duty officer and then for three months as a Trump administration political appointee. I witnessed firsthand the communication challenges and lack of focus that diminished both effectiveness and efficiency.

I shared many of these observations in “Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis,” a look at Mattis’s two years inside the administration. Then, as now, I emphasized the importance of learning lessons from hard-won experience: the necessity for an unwavering focus on big-picture success, the requirement to foster unity of effort — teamwork — within organizations and working together cooperatively to achieve national-level success.

So, does America need a Congressional commission to study the 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic? Yes, absolutely.

Using the facts and lessons we’ll undoubtedly uncover to predict outcomes for the future — to do better tomorrow than we’ve done today — is essential.

As we’re now discovering, our lives depend on it.

Guy Snodgrass is chief executive of Defense Analytics, a strategic advisory and communications firm in Washington, D.C. He is a retired U.S. Navy commander and most recently served as director of communications and chief speechwriter for former defense secretary Jim Mattis. He is the author of “Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis.” Follow him on Twitter @guysnodgrass.