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A Pandemic Is Not a War

Ishaan Tharoor comments on the rhetoric likening the coronavirus pandemic to a war:

Still, there are many ways in which the “war” analogy falls short. “War metaphors call for mobilization, for action, for doing something,” Veronika Koller, a linguist at Lancaster University in England, told the Atlantic. The current situation poses an altogether different demand — where the bulk of the world’s population is being asked to simply do nothing.

A pandemic is not a war, and thinking of it in these terms is likely to lead to the wrong responses. We saw some of this in the early weeks of the outbreak as many people reacted to the spread of the virus as if they were responding to a terrorist attack. People in many cities crowded into public places to show that they were not intimidated by the threat, but of course in doing this they exposed themselves to greater risk than they would have if they stayed at home. Perhaps it is unavoidable that people revert to the behavior that they used to cope with an earlier trauma, but in this case it was exactly the wrong way to respond to a pandemic. Viruses don’t care about our shows of defiance. A virus does not seek political victory or demand changes in our policies. To the extent that these things are ever “beaten,” it is through the ingenuity of doctors and scientists whose goal is to preserve as many lives as possible. The right response to a pandemic is to do all we can to protect the most vulnerable. Few things are less like war than this.

Declaring war on abstractions and inanimate objects has become a bad habit for our government in particular. We have had almost twenty years of the “war on terror,” which has trapped us in a futile cycle of militarized responses to a problem that cannot be solved by military means. Employing wartime language to describe a public health threat shows the extent to which our imagination has been impoverished by decades of pointless conflict, and it also shows how many of us have lost the ability to talk about the common good and social solidarity without falling back on the language of regimentation and mass mobilization.

Paul Pillar comments on the use of war metaphors:

Moreover, the COVID-19 “enemy” is even farther removed from the human volition involved in warfare than terrorism is. Bluster and shows of determination therefore don’t work. In referring to World War II, McChrystal cited Winston Churchill’s “we will never surrender” declarations, which served not only to sustain the morale of his countrymen but also to help deter Germany from attempting an invasion of Britain. Viruses, however, are not deterred.

One of the most curious things about the response to the pandemic here in the U.S. is that a federal government that has been addicted to threat inflation has struggled to take one of the more deadly threats to the country seriously enough. Unlike the typical overkill in response to small, manageable threats on the other side of the world, the federal government has responded to the pandemic sluggishly and with insufficient urgency. The U.S. launches invasions, turns entire countries into killing zones, and commits itself to open-ended conflict at enormous expense supposedly to thwart the very small threat from terrorist groups, but when it comes to taking the much cheaper, simpler precautions for coping with an outbreak it is like pulling teeth to get the government to fulfill its most basic functions.

Comparing the pandemic to war is also somewhat demoralizing when we reflect on our government’s record of waging war over the last half-century. There are scarcely any true successes in that record that we can point to that would give us confidence that the government can “win” now. Unfortunately, the only things that the government’s response has in common with previous war efforts is that the U.S. was badly unprepared for what came next and the president had an unrealistic expectation of how quickly the problem would be taken care of.

Pillar cautions us to recognize that the pandemic will not be resolved with a clear-cut victory:

Even those experts who are optimistic about development of a vaccine are not talking about eradication of COVID-19 in the way smallpox has been eradicated. Shoving aside other principles and priorities for the sake of “winning” a current “war” is inappropriate when what is needed are sustainable, long-term arrangements that accommodate interests of public health, economic prosperity, and political rights and liberties.

Some of the important changes that the U.S. will need to make include bringing our endless wars to an end, reducing the bloated military budget that was built around fighting the wrong threats, and allocating far more resources to providing hospitals and health care workers with the equipment, funding, and support that they need.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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