Fighting a War in the Middle of a Pandemic

The Government Tells Us We’re at ‘War’. Here’s Why I Believe That’s Wrong.

Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare

I often think of this immortal line when the topic of war is brought up. Spoken by Marc Anthony in Julius Caesar, from the mind of our finest English playwright, it is a glorious way of describing the onset of war as the unleashing of vicious hounds.

It is the untethering of our civil restraints that gird society in times of peace. Indeed, releasing hounds implies there is no turning back — once the ‘dogs’ are released, and havoc wrought, there can be no second thoughts.

As you may have realised, I refer to this quotation because we are told we are in a new war. A silent war, fought against a ‘deadly enemy’ that must be beaten, a war with many casualties already, one we must be ‘battle-ready’ for, and one we ‘must win’. We in the UK are told to gird ourselves for the fight ahead with a blitz spirit — to hunker down from the biological bombs and pathogenic panzers around us.

Rhetoric is a powerful tool. Its ability to influence and persuade people to a point of view, to a way of thinking, makes it the cornerstone of any democracy. As those in government derive their legitimacy from a democratic mandate, the ability to influence and turn the hearts and minds of an electorate towards their cause is vital.

In some sense, I can understand why we are hearing the metaphor of war being bandied about. It’s about a national effort. Of rallying together, of helping each other, of putting aside our differences and supporting our frontline healthcare ‘soldiers’.

It is a method of raising morale in dark times, and a call to selfless action. Doing your part to serve the greater good. It is a strand of rhetoric the US and the UK have leaned into heavily.

We have done so, as we are descended of the victorious Allies. We have victories in two World Wars built into our language, our cultural psyche. We have never suffered a world shattering loss in war. We are proud of fighting wars and sending in soldiers. Of winning.

Yet in some other countries, such language is noticeably absent. In Germany, their virus containment efforts are couched in cool-headed scientific terminology. One of the most obvious reason for this is that war is associated with loss for the Germans. When a country has been torn apart and overthrown by war, it affects the cultural mindset massively.

This feels to be a valid point, but it is also one set-out by English speaking commentators, thus skewed by our own cultural prism of war as an ultimate positive. We hold an implicit assumption that Germans would use war language if they could, if they had won their wars. The assumption is that war, terrible though it may be, as a means of last resort isn’t an inherently bad thing.

I disagree. I believe Germans don’t use war language like the English speaking world does because they have learned, through their very lived experience, their very history, that it does remain inherently bad. They have found out, brutally, that it could never be anything but. I don’t believe any country that has been invaded or overthrown in its history would think as the Anglo-American mind does; speak as we speak.

The liberal use of such language is a double-edged sword, one we should be wary of wielding. There are negatives that have arisen in our response to the Coronavirus by using such terminology that appears to have gone unnoticed by the majority of the populace.

One negative element of using this rhetoric is that it heightens the emotional volatility of the public. If we are in a war, our emotions are bound to run high. Issues become more intensely argued, more passionately fought. After all, war is a struggle of life and death.

In some cases, it can lead to a great outpouring of love and generosity. Take for example, the public reaction garnered towards Tom Moore, the 100 year old former captain who walked around his garden to raise money for charity. From such a humble act, millions of pounds were raised, and Cpt. Moore has received a knighthood for doing so. Does this not strike anyone else as an outsized response to such a small act of selflessness?

I believe the reason for this is because his actions have felt like a public service. Aside from the media reminding us that he did indeed ‘used to be a soldier’, Sir Tom was made out to still be fighting a war. When I questioned the public reaction to his actions, I was routinely criticised. I was told it’s about coming together, that ‘we need a feel good story’ at the moment, that what he did truly was amazing. It’s as if the man were a war hero. In a sense, he is.

There remains the other cutting edge to this blade however. Take the vitriol aimed at Dominic Cummings as he broke lockdown restrictions to take his disabled son to his parents’ house in Durham, (and less justifiably, for ‘testing his eyes’ on a trip to Barnard Castle.)

Yet you would have been forgiven for thinking that the man had sold nuclear secrets to Soviet spies. Dominic Cummings has made few friends in the media, and fewer still in the corridors of power, particularly in Whitehall. Yet I was shocked at quite how vituperate people became over this issue.

Yes, he shouldn’t have broken lockdown measures, and he should have considered his public facing role when he decided to do so. It was a misguided judgement call by the primus advisor to Boris Johnson. Yet the calls for his resignation (aside from those by his standard political opponents sensing blood in the water) and the sheer anger at the man seemed again, overstated. Cummings became a near pantomime villain. It was made out that he had betrayed the country. He had undermined our national lockdown effort.

Yet would there have been such anger, such language thrown at him, if the public discourse around the virus had been framed in something other than the Churchillian, bombastic and emotive language Boris Johnson decided to use? I believe there would not have been. Tempers would not have flared to such an extent as they did.

War is ruthless. It’s about winning. It’s about a singular purpose — defeating your enemy. Yet the danger of using such rhetoric is that it can eventually reduce us to some baseline assumptions. The most dangerous being the need for success. By any means necessary.

This is why it is so hard for Labour leader Keir Starmer to hold the government to account. Questioning the chain of command in times of war is frowned upon. We cannot afford to have indecision in matters of war, and therefore the critics become the criticised. The stakes are raised, and an urgency is imposed on all matters.

Who remembers Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s desperate race against the clock to get 100,000 daily virus tests established? His efforts appeared increasingly frenetic in reaching his goal. Any method at all to record an increased number of tests became fair to use. He would not fall at the first hurdle in his path. No matter the cost.

Using this language also diminishes the gravity of such statements. Much like the debasement of the currency of impeachment in the US, which Republicans were quick to dismiss as becoming a political tactic rather than a genuine check and balance on executive overreach and abuse of power, so the idea of war has become.

War is the greatest tragedy, the basest ill we face as a human race. By our ready declarations of war, we diminish its horror, its brutality. We as a nation have become inoculated against the severity of war, inoculated to the sacrifices required in fighting them.

Today we wage wars against obesity, drugs, piracy, high-prices, illegal immigration. Are these issues to be handled, or battles to be fought? Does the language we use to describe the world not influence how we decide to approach it? Our linguistic biases are something we overlook far too blindly.

If you invoke the spectre of war; if you let slip those dogs and cry ‘Havoc!’ as you do, you must win. There is no other option. To lose is to face condemnation. Look at the ignominy and scorn heaped on our predecessors for losing their ‘war on drugs.’

If anything, proclaiming the efforts to deal with the scourge of the drug trade as a ‘war’, as a struggle for survival, only served to militarise the conflict out of proportion, with all the corresponding issues that arose from this decision. Countries struggling to combat their cartels; innocent people struggling to protest against their police. No peace appears imminently foreseeable in either case. War was not the answer.

Thus our government is forced to fight for what becomes its political survival against the Coronavirus, allowing a ‘by any means necessary’ culture to ferment internally. A similarly toxic culture, originally propagated for the purpose of bringing down the liberal elite and media ‘enemies’ of Richard Nixon, ultimately led to his presidency’s own ignominious end.

Many commentators have recognised one aspect of where in this conflict we are most at risk of succumbing to this mindset, the hotly anticipated ‘Track and Trace’ systems. Such applications are of great danger to our individual privacy, yet we are told that by allowing applications to track our location, we can quickly trace and isolate possibly exposed individuals with military precision. It is a noble purpose, with a net-positive outcome as its aim.

Yet noble purpose or no, many security experts have warned against giving away these liberties so freely. Once such freedoms are ceded, they are rarely given back. Oftentimes the greatest injustices can stem from the loftiest ambitions, from the best and noblest of our ideas. Is the sacrifice of our individual privacy one of those necessary means needed to win this war? I fear not. Yet discussion over the system still abounds.

We should be asking if our goals cannot be achieved by assessing the situation from a different vantage point, with a more diversified terminological toolkit. Has the chosen language of our government helped or hindered our efforts to handle this unprecedented worldwide pandemic?

My instinct suggests not. I could be wrong. It could be that it was the right choice. That the benefits of tapping into such an emotional well-spring brought us together as a country when we all needed it most, and that the cool stoicism of a scientific approach would have been less digestible and understandable to a stressed and worried populace.

Yet was the extreme of placing the country on a mental war footing worth it? For a ‘by any means’ mandate in government? For a more volatile public reaction? For the suppression of accountability and criticism? We will never have a truly right or wrong answer — only a discussion worth having.

More awareness and care is needed in the metaphors we live our lives by. Our language serves to frame our view of the world and the obstacles in our path. How we address these issues impacts how we perceive them, which in turn influences our approach and mindset in dealing with them.

When it comes to wars, it is often the case that those who win them have been known to lose the subsequent peace. I would rather be winning in peacetime than have to be fighting any wars at all.

Havoc! Is this what they mean when they say the country has gone to the dogs?


Principles | Rhetoric | Trust | Self-Improvement