The Cost of Calling it a War

In some places in the world – Wuhan, northern Italy, New York City, to name three – the spread of COVID-19 has greatly resembled the impact of war. The virus has brought terrible suffering. It has taken lives. It has left thousands grieving. It has overwhelmed medical facilities and professionals. It has forced horrible decisions. It has exacted a stiff toll on the economic lives of cities, provinces, states, and nations.

Wars do that.

In response, governments have summoned organizational resources in a very similar manner to those required in war. They have issued orders restricting the freedoms of their citizens. They have sought to create supplies that had not previously existed, and direct them in unusual quantities to the places they are needed. They have recruited additional personnel to meet the needs. They have intervened in the economic processes of the world.

Wars do all that, too.

Further, governmental leaders have urged their citizens, out of a sense of patriotism and the good of the nation, to take on new tasks (while old ones cannot be done). Sewing masks for medical staff reminds me of the bandage preparation groups of the American Civil War. They have asked for sacrifices among the population for the good of all.

These things, too, happen in war.

It is not, however, a war, and there are steep costs to thinking about it as one.

This week, some business and political leaders came to the conclusion that the public health response to the spreading contagion came at too high a price. Dan Patrick, Lieutenant Governor of Texas, offered that he and those of his generation might offer to sacrifice their lives “in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren.” Fox News commentator Brit Hume endorsed the idea, saying, “The utter collapse of the country’s economy — which many think will happen if this goes on much longer — is an intolerable result.” The President of the United States, without any medical advice at all, suggested that Easter – April 12 – would be a good day to return to normal activity again.

It’s a war, they say, not on a virus, but in defense of an economy. They are summoning a patriotic fervor to defend the wealth of a nation, wealth that is held by a startlingly small portion of its population. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis, in 2016 the richest 10% of Americans possessed 77% of its wealth, up from 67% in 1989. 1% of American assets were (unevenly) divided between fully half of the population.

In other words, the sacrifices of war are being urged on a generation of Americans who have not benefited from the wealth they are being called upon to defend. It is true, I’m afraid, that in war a generation, generally of young adults, is called upon to sacrifice itself in defense of rights and privileges they frequently have not enjoyed.

That is why we must not call it a “war.”

We are engaged in a massive effort, yes. We are trying to preserve the public health from a spreading pathogen which can cause terribly acute illness and has a high rate of mortality. That is not, however, a war. A virus does not select targets. It makes no decisions based on strategy or in keeping with some “law of war.” It jumps from host to host as best it can without regard for anything except opportunity. Admirals and generals have no tactics for this response. Those trained in public health do.

We are engaged in promoting the healing of those infected by the virus. The number of people who require advanced care because of COVID-19 disease is stunning. Our hospitals are built for the number of people who are usually sick, not for this. Mobilizing the equipment and the personnel to care for the acutely ill is a herculean task, but it is a task of healing, not of death.

We are also trying to maintain the daily life of human beings. Some of that gets measured and described by economists: growing things, transporting things, making things, selling things, bringing things home to continue the life of the household. Other things rarely get measured by economists: conversations between friends that lift the heart, the acknowledgement of the sales clerk’s shared humanity, the sweetness of common prayer. All of these things are being stressed by the pandemic, and all of them will need help and healing to recover.

None of them will be aided by the language of war.

None of them will be strengthened by the guiding assumptions of war. “War is cruelty,” said William Tecumseh Sherman, and he demonstrated it. Cruelty will not help us.

We face pain, anguish, illness, death, and loss.

We must face it without cruelty.

As for those summoning us to sacrifice our kupuna for the wealth of some: The answer has to be a firm and unequivocal, “No.” May they ashamed of their callousness. Let their cruelty find no place in policy, in the hearts of the people, and especially not in a rising tide of tears for the sick and the dead.

It is not a war.

Photo by Eric Anderson.