The Problems with using War Rhetoric around C-19

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First Published: Newsletter 16/08/2020
Author: Alexandria Thurnherr

Whenever we find ourselves within a moment of crisis, whether “we” should refer to an individual, some broader group such as a nation, or the whole of human society, there exists a natural instinct to compare the situation to other times of death, destruction and despair that have come to us.1 It is for this reason that sales of Albert Camus’ The Plague2 spiked in the early weeks of the pandemic. There is, of course, a certain logic to this, and it is not our intention to degrade the very idea of drawing parallels or comparisons between crises of past and present, merely to examine some of its nuances. To compare past crises to the present is useful not only for the sake of emotional reassurance and comfort – to say, in more or fewer words, that “this too shall pass” – but also in order to learn from the past so as to better respond to the crisis du jour. To better equip ourselves, both mentally and on a more material level, is the very purpose of studying history after all. Nevertheless, it is a wise thing to be conscious of which comparisons are made and to what ends analogies are used, and by whom.

It is for that reason that we have good cause to be suspicious of the extent to which both state forces and other powerful interests, such as the British press, have to make the main point of comparison wars, in particular the Second World War. In the last few months there have been a dozen examples on the front pages of the national newspapers alone of the use of such imagery and rhetoric, to say nothing of the actual text of the articles, any opinion pieces published, or the rhetoric that slobbers from the mouths of the lapdogs of the ruling class we refer to as the government.3

Lest any of you believe that this phenomenon is restricted to our sceptred isle, examples abound within the United States, both within and without the federal executive. Therese Raphael has been seen to claim in Bloombergthat “Hospitals Are Losing the Coronavirus Battle”, Dr. David Nott (a trauma surgeon and war doctor) has stated in conversation with NPRthat “When you're in a war zone and you're operating on somebody — any moment the hospital could get blown up or people could come into the operating theatre with guns and hold you ransom," and "It's very similar, really, with the virus, because you have to appreciate that it is an invisible enemy — and you have to make sure that the invisible enemy doesn't get you", and Andrew Cuomo (Governor of New York State from 2011 onwards)told citizens of New York to “Act like it’s a war”.4Naturally, President Trump, a man with imperialism in his bones and tendons made of bloodlust, has pushed such,as well speaking of nearing “the end of our historic battle with the invisible enemy5” and stating that “this virus is attacking 149 countries”.

Even world leaders more generally considered to be rational and sober (or at least to appear so when in the company of American officials) are in on the act. For examples from the continent and further abroad, consider the insistent declaration of Emmanuel Macron that “we’reat war”, Chilean Health Minister to president Sebastián Piñera Jaime Mañalich’s references to a “battle for Santiago”6, or the Spanish coronavirus broadcasts from General Villarroya.

It would be remiss of me not to note that in some senses, the analogy is an apt one. Wars, particularly the two world wars, have a tendency to last longer than initially predicted. Where World War One had haplessly overconfident cries of of “Over by Christmas”, we were given declarations that the US would be able to solve the problem “by Easter”, or that the UK could “turn the tide in 12 weeks”. Even in the best-case scenarios, one can expect many lives to be lost (although some countries, such as Vietnam, have lost almost no people at all), and the boundaries of what is assumed to be possible become far more fluid than they are in times of non-crisis.

Of course, the analogy does not carry over totally. The end of a war can be far more precisely defined than the end of a pandemic. The virus is more subtle an instrument of death than a Webley or Browning M2. Unlike a war, the pandemic cannot be won in any meaningful sense; certainly there is no hope of reparation from or treaty with coronavirus. Yet perhaps the most important difference between then and now is that whereas the Axis and its leaders could be ascribed sentience, that is not true of the virus. COVID-19 is not sentient, and has no means by which it might become so. The significance of this is that whereas it is possible for an army to be outwitted by an opposing general, or the Enigma machines could have been (but were not) too complex for the British to work out, no intelligence is involved except our own, against a force of nature.

Given how widespread this military rhetoric has so swiftly become, it is worth the time it takes to question whythis is as prevalent as it is. One could suggest any number of benign, non-sinister explanations for the universal adoption of such language. Let us examine these arguments, both because I would suggest that although they are woefully incomplete as explanations, andthat there is a degree of truth to at least some of them.

Firstly, one might propose that the point of this rhetoric is to properly impose the seriousness, the sheer moral gravity attached to this pandemic, without simultaneously imbuing a sense of panic into the public. Panic, after all, aids no one on this Earth. In a situation where to act irresponsibly may, should one happen to be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus, serve as the direct cause of the deaths of dozens of others, ensuring that the whole citizenry has absorbed the stakes is neither trivial in its executionnor something that can be put aside. Given that most recognise war to be, if not a crisis of our politico-economic system, then at least an event worthy of the highest seriousness(as is this), then the comparison is obvious from a purely pragmatic point of view.

Similarly, the Second World War is the only situation that is both well-known (if not necessarily well-understood) by the whole population of the United Kingdomand one in which it was plausible to suggest that the whole society was oriented towards a common goal (though always not for the same reasons, as shall be discussed later), in much the same way one could with reason, genuinely believe that we all have good reason to try and resolve Covid-19 as swiftly as possible (though definitely not for the same reason in our circumstances – whereas you or I wish for the pandemic to end soon in order that we and our beloved do not perish, the ruling class have entirely different reasons for that wish – and it is not totally outrageous to imply that the ruling classes of the UK and of the world more broadly have an interest in prolonging this pandemic for at least a few months longer than is necessary. It was not for no reason that the initial strategy of Cummings was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad” - again, we shall return to this point soon). Of particular note is that although the head of government, Winston Churchill, was a staunch conservative7, the war administration was a Conservative-Labour unity government, with Clement Attlee serving as Churchill’s deputy between 1942 and 1945. Similarly, current (at time of writing) leader of the Labour Party Mr. Keir Starmer has made it clear that he will not engage in “opposition for opposition’s sake”, going so far as to oppose unions and the labour movement and take the side of the Conservative government over the wearing of masks in schools. Thus it becomes possible to frame coronavirus as being ‘beyond politics’, as evidenced by the lack of fighting between the leaderships of the two parties.8All arguments, therefore,become one over how to accomplish the generally assumed goals, and any attempt to question those goals can be safely regarded as either distraction or deliberate intellectual sabotage.

What alternative, then, do I propose as the answer to the question of whywar rhetoric is as common as it has become? I mean to suggest, dear friends, that the ends are threefold. The first is a kind of suppression of dissent, not through the courts of the state, but through the far more pervasive courts of public opinion and most especially through prior restraint on the part of individuals and institutions. Put simply, the first end of war rhetoric is to make people and organisations feel as though it is either morally wrong or futile to criticise the actions that the government has (and has not) taken, and therefore refrain from such critique and complaint (a point briefly discussed earlier). It is reasonable to expect such an outcome because in times of war, to openly criticise the state can be an act of treason if sufficiently brash, and even if matters do not extend so far it is considered detrimental to morale and a kind of collaboration with the enemy. If we carry this logic to the pandemic, we arrive at the chain of logic is that to offer more than the most cursory and trifling criticism of the government might cause the public or some subsection thereof to lose faith in the state and its proclamations, thus causing them to ignore the health and safety advice and instructions, which will result in a greater spread of the coronavirus and, in turn, more deaths. As I have stated elsewhere, no propaganda is so effective as that which has truthful fondant over a deceitful filling, and so it is here; there is a kind of correctness at work here. However, individuals do far less to shake public confidence in the health and safety proclamations of the government than those running it, by the delivery of intentionally confusing messages to the public, disobeying their own lockdown orders(which led to demonstrable difficulties of the police to enforce the lockdown), and general incompetence.

It should be further noted that the structure of the military is approximately as vertical and dictatorial as it is possible to be. Should any member be incapacitated (either by being killed or some other means), the hierarchies are such that it is immediately known who is to replace them, and the ascension is likewise immediate. Furthermore, the most basic of training drills into the new soldier an instinct of obedience and deference. Such features are obviously important to a military, particularly in those sections which see active combat, in which any person can plausibly be killed at any time and the potential for dissent to lead to catastrophe is gargantuan. The civilian sections of democratic societies, by contrast, are (on at least some levels) horizontal, and open to dissent and protest. This is not in accordance with the desires of the ruling classes of the nation or of the world, and so any excuses will be seized to transform society such that what little horizontality persists is swept aside like dust before the wind. If the citizenry at large can be persuaded to adopt a military mentality, then they will be more likely to report their neighbours in a ‘Loose talk costs lives’ manner, as opposed to building solidarity and serving to help those who cannot help themselves. In the words of Alex de Tocqueville, “All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and the shortest means to accomplish it. This is the first axiom of the science.”

As a brief aside, there is one extra benefit to framing the present crisis in the manner of a war, in that it becomes far easier to talk about “NHSHeroes”. The problem with this is not that the actions and risks taken by NHS workers are not a genuinely heroic thing, but rather that when one becomes accustomed to thinking of them as “heroes” it becomes easier to think of their deaths as an inevitability, as opposed to the direct results of the government’s mismanagement and morally heinous priorities, wherein lives hold the worth of crumbled marble. A sacrifice is only noble where it is necessary.

One must never forget that although the whole of the nation has an active interest in the ending of the pandemic, the reasons for this being the case vary across society. For the urban and the rural workers, in addition to the middle classes, the interest lies in becoming safe from infection once again, as well as the knowledge that their beloved shall not succumb. The Petit-bourgeoisie9also have this motive, in addition to being much more capable of selling their wares once safety measures become obsolete, and no longer being dependent upon government furlough schemes and the like. The ruling classes, by contrast, have an altogether different motive. The economy, fuelled as it is by blood and muck, relies on the constant production and subsequent consumption of products, the actual usefulness of those products be damned and cast into sulphur. Thus, a situation wherein a great proportion of the population remains indoors is one in which they are not spending as much money on transport, on morning coffees, on all manner of frivolities and therefore is one in which the ruling classes are not making as much money as they possibly could be. No situation is more horrific to the bourgeoisie than this, no sight can sicken them so thoroughly. No mangled babe, no starving grandmother, no funeral pyre of the Earth itself can elicit from the bourgeoisie such moral opprobrium as can a profit cut smaller than it could be. Hence, the central committee of the ruling classes more popularly known as the government must find some way to keep up the illusion of normality, and if that should require the re-opening of pubs at a time when not all parts of the country have an R-value below one or the re-opening of schools even though children may be far more infectious than claimed, then so be it. There are many examples of governments, particularly centrist ones, sacrificing small allies for the sake of a short-lived extension to normality. The most pertinent example of this is of course Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement towards the Third Reich, but a more recent example would be Democratic complacency towards federal agents in Portland kidnapping protestors. And again we see it here.

Of course, the ruling classes, both within and external to the government have an opposing interest in prolonging this pandemic. Many words have been applied to these times of ours: harrowing, unprecedented, precarious, difficult, challenging. Doubtlessly, you can provide others yourself. Yet one term that has seen far less exposure than surely it deserves is chaotic. And whilst chaos is detrimental to the citizenry at large, particularly in the midst of a pandemic, there are some who know well how to enrich themselves through chaos. In the memorable phrasing of one Nathan Rothschild, “The best time to buy is when blood is running in the streets”. A lesson well learned by one William Rees-Mogg, father of Jacob. A world in chaos is one in which – to quote the elder Rees-Mogg again – the “sovereign individual” can rise to levels of—and this is not a word I use lightly—obscene wealth. And the avenues of Albion are slick with that sacred liquid now. And grown rich some have, with US billionaires adding in excess of $500,000,000,000 to their collective wealth in a three month period. The motive differs within the government. Whilst a needlessly prolonged pandemic has its obvious drawbacks (a death toll exceeding 60,000 being something of a bad look when seeking re-election), there are nevertheless certain profits to be had. For instance, the bulk of the national attention is drawn elsewhere for the duration of the pandemic, allowing for certain measures and bills to pass unnoticed that would have otherwise faced (greater) pushback.10

Returning to the question of war rhetoric, we find that it becomes possible to seek longer-term ends. In the words of an April article in Todo por Hacer: “Continuously utilising a relative vocabulary to this situation as if it were a military conflict has no further effect than to trivialise war and lose sight of how and by whom we are truly driven to misery.”11Put simply, using constant and insistent war rhetoric makes it easier to engage in future wars, thereby further permitting the expansion of ruling-class interests.

If all this should be true, one is well-entitled to ask for a remedy, some antidote to this. If, as has been claimed, the primary function of war rhetoric is to desensitise and pacify the public, what, then, can be done about it? Here we find ourselves in humility. Whilst I cannot claim any great certainty in either recommendation, I would humbly propose two possible means of retaliation (so to speak). The first is to attempt to switch the direction of this rhetoric. Rather than accept that there is a war on coronavirus, speak instead of the war on the common person, in which coronavirus is only the latest weapon, and to essentially try to divert the rhetoric as one might divert the force of a river. The second is more a matter of thought than act: it is to make sure to notice whenever such rhetoric arises, and to catch yourself should you find it creeping into your own thoughts and language. As previously stated, I cannot know how effective these remedies may prove. But it is possible that one might, by resisting the rhetoric, resist the mindset that is implied therein.

The following are humbly suggested as further reading:

Donny Gluckstein, “The analogy of war”, International Socialism, Issue 167 (2020)

N. Klein, The Shock Doctrine, Knopf Canada (2007)

Karen Khan, “The COVID Vaccine “War”: Screws Loose in our Moral Framework”, Non-Profit Quarterly, published 2020-08-14

1 Again, whomsoever “us” should refer to given the exact context.

2 Originally published in French as La Peste, The Plague is a 1947 absurdist novel in which Oran (a city in what was then French Algeria) falls victim to a plague.

3 One might note that speech is not the only means by which this can be pushed onto the public.

4 Toby Muse, “You don’t see anything. You just see lights.”, Delayed Gratification, Issue 38, p.96 (2020)

5 Note that this was the 24th of March.

6 John Bartlett, “They didn’t listen”, Delayed Gratification, Issue 38, p.116 (2020)

7 In the sense that he was an ardent imperialist and opposed to much progress – going so far as to vote against the establishment of the National Health Service, not in the sense that he had any particular loyalty to the Conservative party, as evidenced by his leaving it for the Liberal party on 1904-05-31. Not that they secured much loyalty from him either, given that he returned on 1924-11-06. This did not go without remark by his peers in the House of Commons at the time.

8 Of course, the pandemic is a deeply political phenomenon (both in how political ideologies and interest shape the actions of the government in each country as well as those of the broader population). What is usually meant when it is claimed that such-and-such issue is “not political” is that it is not partisan – in other words, that all parties (in the broad sense of the term, as opposed to the narrower ‘parliamentary party’ sense) within the accepted bounds of debate share (or claim to share) a common goal (in the war example, this would have been winning the war with comparatively few lives lost in that scenario, and to lose few lives to COVID-19 whilst keeping ‘the economy’ relatively intact in this one). The use of the term “non-political” to mean “non-partisan” is probably a phenomenon deserving of its own analysis, but such study is beyond the scope of this article.

9 For instance, shopkeepers, pub landlords, et cetera.

10 A pandemic is particularly useful for this, because where any protests do occur, it becomes possible to dismiss them out of hand as endangering public health, without having to engage with the actual issue at hand. Whether or not the protests are actually spreading the virus and a danger to public health is besides the point, of course. What matters is the pretence.

11 In the original Spanish: “Utilizar continuamente un vocabulario relativo a esta coyuntura como si de un conflicto bélico se tratase no hace más que banalizar la guerra como concepto y perder de vista cómo y quiénes verdaderamente nos conducen a la miseria.”