It’s as if the war metaphors just write themselves, as if they are inevitable, the most obvious thing in the world. It’s as if we have no other language to describe what is happening than the language of war. We have workers on the frontlines, the virus is an invisible enemy we’re all fighting, battling its spread, struggling to defeat it. The hospitals are described as war zones and battlefields, doctors and nurses as warriors. I heard Bill DeBlasio, mayor of New York, calling for a “national enlistment effort” of healthcare professionals to fight the war; Amy Klobuchar urging a better response to “what they are rightly characterizing as a war”; Trump now portraying himself as a “wartime president.” Then there are the tools crafted in wartime that could be deployed in the current situation to reinforce the analogy. The government has recourse to the “defense production act,” enacted in response to the Korean War as a way to mobilize business and civilian activities for national defense.
I get it. We’re in an emergency, and natural disasters and wars are the only other large-scale crises we have for comparison. In the struggle to name this new reality, to make sense of it and try to get our bearings, we reach for the materials at hand. And as recent articles have noted, the war analogy is a common way for officials to communicate the gravity of a situation to a public who must be persuaded to act collectively in ways that are hard. If done in the right way (i.e. not the Trump way), it can help unify a country. At the same time, as these articles also note, war talk can sow fear and fuel xenophobia, when people need a visible enemy to blame.
But I’m uneasy about the war rhetoric for another reason. The great power and problem with representational forms is their ability to shape our reality. As George Eliot wrote in her masterpiece, Middlemarch, “For we all of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them.” She was talking about the dangers of forgetting that the language we use to represent our experience has material effects. Surrealist painter Rene Magritte reminded us of the same in his piece titled “The Treachery of Images,” but more popularly known as “This is not a pipe.”
The treachery of these war metaphors is that they normalize mass death and the horrifying conditions of those deaths. We will come to accept mass graves in a city park, deaths of elderly in nursing homes, deaths of children still in cages, deaths of prisoners who have not been sentenced to death, disproportionate deaths of essential workers who can’t get tested and who don’t have health insurance, traumatized healthcare workers and first responders, all as part of the unavoidable costs of war. The scarcity of testing, personal protective equipment, ventilators, hospital beds, hand sanitizers, etc. etc. will be chalked up to wartime conditions rather than utter mismanagement and the rapacious logic of capitalism.
In an essay I used to teach years ago, French theorist George Bataille writes about how war is one of those human activities whose meaning comes from extravagant expenditure. The glory of war is constituted not by how much is won, but how much is sacrificed, how much blood is shed in order to win. War becomes an aesthetic spectacle of extremes from which emerge our battle-tested heroes. Not just ordinary heroes, but superheroes, which is the other representational form that has multiplied in this pandemic. Superman hands his cape and emblem to a nurse in scrubs, our hearts swell, and we click “love” and share. Here, again, I see the perverse logic of war. We expect our heroes to make heroic sacrifices, to exhibit superhuman strength, bravery, and determination in the face of impossible odds. The greater the risk, the greater the heroism.
What is this American obsession with heroes, super or otherwise? Suddenly Andrew Cuomo is a hero; Lori Lightfoot memes abound. I suppose it gives people hope to imagine that one person or a handful of individuals, working heroically, can save us from this invisible, uncontrolled danger, especially when there’s such a lack of leadership at the top. But of course, Trump isn’t just going to let the hero spotlight just fall on others; he’s going to get in on the act, because he likes big things, the bigger the better. He has already convinced himself that he is handling this big crisis – no one could have known how big it would get – very well, it’s beautiful how well he’s handling it. If it’s 100,000 deaths in the end, he’ll have done an amazing job. Why declare a victory over a small, nothing of a public health scare that could have been contained months ago, when you could claim you’ve beaten a pandemic of epic proportions?
We should not accept these things, because they are not acceptable. We should not get entangled in this metaphor. This is not a war! This is a public health crisis that is being mishandled on a massive scale. This is death by negligence, incompetence, greed, and systemic failures born of that greed. Why must anyone be a soldier or a superhero right now? Why can’t essential workers simply be professionals allowed to do their jobs, allowed to use their training and skills under the most optimal conditions we can provide for them, whether it’s in the ICU or the grocery store or the post office? Why let Trump even pretend he’s a wartime president?
A friend shared on social media a photo of a nurse holding up a cardboard sign, “Please don’t call me a hero. I am being martyred against my will.” Wars romanticize death and loss as noble sacrifice. We need better metaphors. Or, perhaps we just need to speak more plainly. The federal government is a danger to its own people. Americans are dying because of failures big and small by those who are supposed to protect us. It’s a travesty. It should be a crime.