Stop calling covid-19 a war

By JACOB HAGSTROM | Special To The Washington Post | Published: April 20, 2020

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A couple weeks ago, a White House official remarked that covid-19 made President Donald Trump a "wartime president," and that the country now had a "clear battle plan." Journalists across the political spectrum have displayed projections for covid-19 deaths alongside the historical death totals for United States service-members in 20th-century conflicts; some have noted that the 100,000 deaths projected (one of the more conservative estimates) would eclipse U.S. combat deaths in Korea and Vietnam combined.

But however familiar to Americans, war is the wrong metaphor for our response to this pandemic. The comparison advances a misunderstanding of what war entails. Moreover, the use of military rhetoric may change the course of our response to this crisis in profoundly unhelpful ways. Because not only does war lead us to look for enemies and scapegoats, war solutions are directed from the top rather than resourced from local communities.

For much of U.S. history, designating a conflict as a war required attendant acknowledgments by the state and its citizens: an initial declaration of war, together with a coherent end-state and a plan for withdrawal from abroad. Wars have required broad sacrifices from society, which may help to explain why declaring war required careful legislative oversight.

But the United States has not fulfilled these conditions of legislative oversight or civilian sacrifice since World War II. Since then Congress has demurely authorized and funded the executive branch's use of deadly force all over the world — from Korea to Vietnam to the Middle East. Since the United States has embarked on these "limited" wars, the idea in government has been to avoid asking Americans to sacrifice for war: a booming military-industrial complex could produce guns and butter simultaneously.

And so, since fewer and fewer Americans stand to lose from war, political elites may feel freer to use the language of war. In doing so, politicians stand to gain from the emotional currency of war without risking clout. But there are costs to labeling any struggle as a war.

War rhetoric can unite one group of people in the righteous slaughter of another group of people. Though rosy accounts frame war as a time of coming together, military history shows that support for a violent cause can unleash violence more broadly. In the 1970s, as historian Kathleen Belew shows, white nationalists confused refugees from Vietnam who had supported the United States with the former enemy.

The 21st century's War on Terror has had similar results. The "with us or against us" mentality not only justified seemingly endless war abroad, but helped create the conditions for violent attacks on Muslim and Sikh Americans at home and discriminatory surveillance by the state that undermined Americans' civil liberties. In short, war unity is often superficial and exclusionary.

Of course wars, like the current pandemic, have body counts. But military history reveals just how dangerous it is to discuss crises in terms of body count. In the context of the American war in Vietnam, for example, U.S. Cmdr. Gen. William Westmoreland assured a visiting U.S. senator that he was killing the enemy at a rate of 10 to one. The senator responded that Americans didn't care about the 10; they cared only about the one.

Among the many lessons that the Vietnam War can teach us, surely one is that the numbers do not speak for themselves. In fact, the emphasis on a body count gave American soldiers an incentive to inflate the number of estimated enemy dead. In his memoir "What It Is Like to Go To War," Marine Lt. Karl Marlantes railed against a system that fetishized numbers above common sense and decency. Shooting at questionable targets and lying about the results of battle became routine. The body count proved unhelpful for assessing the reality of conditions in the field. Ultimately, the grim statistics came to be seen not as a predictor of victory, but merely as a measure of the vast difference in political support for the war between North Vietnam and the United States.

War requires targeting and then vanquishing an enemy through killing. But overcoming pandemic disease must be driven by saving lives and recognizing our shared humanity.

And yet, despite these differences, the wartime rhetoric and references to military history have only intensified. According to President Trump, "There's going to be a very, very deadly period, unfortunately . . . I really believe we probably have never seen anything like these numbers, maybe during the war — a world war. A World War I or II or something." He must have referred only to U.S. service members' deaths, which were 116,000 for WWI and over 400,000 for World War II. Total military deaths in those two conflicts are over 20 million. But the death toll was far higher when we consider civilians.

Trump's language, which frames the death toll only in the number of American service members, is not just historically inaccurate. It advances a narrow-minded, nationalistic view of the past that undermines our effort to fight against a disease that knows no boundaries.

But this also demonstrates another significant problem with a wartime framing: military solutions in times of war come from the top, via orders, which subordinates obey more often out of fear than anything else. We may be better off seeking solutions that come from our local, organic networks rather than from above as orders from a would-be "wartime" commander in chief. Already we have seen individuals and communities rising to the challenge of covid-19, accepting social distancing guidelines, making meals available to schoolchildren and the homebound.

Americans are very familiar with the language of war, of labeling enemies and trusting leaders to wage wars without oversight or accountability. The last time that we confronted a national emergency, one September morning a generation ago, we allowed our political leaders to label enemies and acts of war from the top with impunity. Let's not make the same mistakes again. The risks of covid-19 are too great, and the challenges too distinct from the wars we wage, to embrace war metaphors now.

Hagstrom is completing his PhD in military history at Indiana University. He was an army artillery officer from 2009-2014.