Thirty-Six Months

In December 1944, thirty-six months after the United States declared war on Nazi Germany, the 101st Airborne Division was surrounded by German forces in the Belgian town of Bastogne.

Six months earlier, Allied forces had landed at Normandy and begun their resolute march toward the heartland of Germany. In December 1944, the Nazis launched a surprise counter-offensive in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium and Luxembourg. The Siege of Bastogne was part of this wider campaign that came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Hitler planned to drive a wedge between the Allied armies, crush the encircled forces, and deprive them of material support for continuing the war. If successful, he believed the British and American governments would sue for peace.

By mid-December, Hitler’s plan seemed to be working. The weary Americans holding the town of Bastogne were running low on food and ammunition. Even the weather seemed to be taking sides. Dense fog precluded air support, and freezing rain, heavy snow, and record-low temperatures took a toll on soldiers lacking winter clothing and proper boots. Rumors—later confirmed—of the massacre of American POWs at Malmedy further eroded morale. The 101st Airborne was outnumbered and had little hope of resupply or relief.

In Band of Brothers, author Steven Ambrose relates the desperation felt by one member of “Easy Company” during the Siege of Bastogne:

"During the sixteen hours of night, out in those frozen foxholes … it was impossible to keep out of mind the thought of how easy it would be to shoot a round into a foot. A little pain—not much in a foot so cold it could not be felt anyway—and then transport back to Bastogne, a warm aid station, a hot meal, a bed, escape" (Ambrose 289).

On December 22, General Anthony McAuliffe, commander of the American forces at Bastogne, received an ultimatum from the German commander:

"The fortune of war is changing … There is only one possibility to save the encircled USA troops from total annihilation: That is the honorable surrender of the encircled town" (Rappaport & Northwood 982).

The German commander gave McAuliffe two hours to surrender, otherwise, he would unleash an artillery barrage that would annihilate the Americans and the civilian population of Bastogne. 

I fear that today this would be considered a “reasonable offer.”

Fighting a war for thirty-six months is exhausting. How tempting would it be to surrender and “learn to live” with fascism? People were surely ready to “move on,” “get back to normal,” and “put it all behind them.” If the Nazis were to invade the United States, Americans had "the tools to protect themselves individually.” Anyway, Lord Haw-Haw’s radio show said Nazis were “not that bad.”

Just kidding, but you know where I’m going with this. It has now been exactly thirty-six months since America declared war on COVID-19. However, people are tired, and politicians are ready to declare the pandemic over. We have received an ultimatum, and our government appears willing to accept the terms of surrender.

On January 30, 2023, President Biden gave notice that his administration will allow the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) to expire on May 11. This decision was likely forced by a bill introduced in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives to immediately terminate all federal emergency actions in response to the pandemic.

Public Health Emergency declarations are authorized under Section 319 of the Public Health Service Act. PHE declarations allow the federal government to access funds, grant waivers, and modify Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance rules to respond to disease outbreaks and bioterrorist attacks. The first COVID-19 PHE was declared on January 31, 2020, and has been renewed every 90 days since then.

Ending the PHE abruptly would be madness, but even a delayed termination will have dire consequences. Many of the tools that hospitals and physicians have relied upon to fight the pandemic will come to an end. These include Medicare coverage for at-home testing and requirements that private health plans cover COVID-19 testing, vaccines, and treatments. The PHE has also allowed poor people to maintain continuous enrollment in Medicaid. Many states are now gearing up to kick patients off the program. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates between 5 million and 14 million people will lose coverage, with many remaining uninsured for the following 12 months.

The pandemic is not over. In fact, we are surrounded by COVID-19. During the last month, the US has averaged over 500 deaths per day related to the pandemic. The cumulative death count has now passed 1.1 million, and we continue to be an outlier in per capita deaths compared to our peer countries. Despite these dreadful statistics, only 15 percent of Americans have received the bivalent booster—and only 10.9 percent of South Carolinians. Each day the virus spreads unchecked through the populace we risk the emergence of new variants—strains that could be more contagious, more virulent, or more capable of evading our vaccines and therapeutics.

The fortunes of this war could change at any time.

When General McAuliffe received the German surrender demand, he did not need two hours to respond. He answered immediately with a four-letter word (newspapers of the day printed it as “NUTS!”). Regardless of the actual word he used, the message was clear: The Americans would endure.

One week later, the skies cleared, and Patton’s Third Army broke through the German lines. Having been cut off from the outside world for weeks, the defenders of Bastogne were surprised to find that back home, a worried nation had been intently following their plight. The “Battered Bastards of Bastogne” had become legend—even as the battle was raging. The source of their heroic status is aptly described in a history of the 101st Airborne:
"The elements of drama were there—courage in the midst of surrounding panic and defeat; courage and grim humor in the midst of physical suffering, cold and near-fatal shortages; a surrender demand and a four-letter word rebuttal; and real comradeship that developed among the miscellaneous groups who found themselves in a besieged city" (Rappaport & Northwood 1054).
Defeating fascism was the defining moment for the Greatest Generation. We look back in awe at their courage, integrity, and dedication to the common good.

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic may be our generation’s defining moment. Unfortunately, our response thus far has been disappointing. Rather than courage, we see a selfish refusal to endure even the most minor inconveniences of risk mitigation. Rather than integrity, we see the proliferation of misinformation and pseudoscience. Rather than dedication to the common good, we see an assault on the foundations of public health and disregard for the well-being of the poor, the chronically ill, and the elderly.

It has been only 36 months since we started this battle, and greater struggles may lie ahead. We need to redeem our national reputation as a people guided by courage, integrity, and brotherhood. It is much too soon to “shoot ourselves in the foot” by surrendering to the false comfort of pretending the pandemic is over.

That would be nuts.

Stephen E. Ambrose. Band of Brothers. Simon & Shuster, 2001-10-26. Apple Books

Leonard Rappaport & Arthur Northwood Jr. Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of the 101st Airborne Division. Pickle Partners Publishing, 2015-10-14. Apple Books.

What Happens When COVID-19 Emergency Declarations End? Implications for Coverage, Cost, and Access. Kaiser Family Foundation. Accessed 3 Feb 2023.

COVID Data Tracker. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 3 Feb 2023.

This article was published in South Carolina Family Physician.