Was the "war" against a virus anything like America's other wars?
Just after noon (Tokyo time) on August 15, 1945, the Emperor Hirohito went on Japanese radio to announce his nation’s surrender — and so, World War II came to an end. If anything, the celebrations in the U.S. were even more jubilant than those that had greeted V-E Day three months earlier. In New York City, where two million people filled Times Square, the Times alluded to one cause of Allied victory in reporting that “the metropolis exploded its emotions… with atomic force.”
Here we are, seventy-seven years after V-J Day1, and I’m still waiting for the celebration of our victory over a different enemy: the novel coronavirus that has killed over 6 million people, including a million Americans — more than twice as many as died in WWII.
After all, we used to tell ourselves that we were waging war on COVID. Marking the 75th anniversary of V-E Day in May 2020, I noted how leaders across the political spectrum and around the world mobilized such metaphors against the global pandemic. In this country, Donald Trump urged Americans to act as “warriors” and take risks for the sake of restarting the economy. A year later, Joe Biden’s COVID coordinator still told the Associated Press that “we’re at war with this virus.”
And our government did just declare a kind of victory. Last Thursday the Centers for Disease Control significantly relaxed federal recommendations for social distancing, quarantine, and testing.
But it wasn’t so much a triumphal declaration as what one epidemiologist called “a concession to realism, to the way that a lot of people are handling this.” The threat of infection is still there, but at a low enough level that most people simply don’t care to keep fighting it. “There is no defined state that constitutes the ‘end’ of a pandemic,” another epidemiologist told New York Times readers the following day. “I do think we will reach a point where we move on from having the virus be a daily concern in our lives.”
For that matter, not all fighting wars end all that clearly. I’d rather what passes for the end of COVID go unmentioned than to have the public health version of George W. Bush landing on an aircraft carrier in 2003 to declare “mission accomplished” — six weeks into an unnecessary war in Iraq that would continue for years to come.
So no, I don’t expect today to be anything like “V-COVID Day.” But at the risk of speaking too soon2, August 15, 2022 feels like the right moment to take one last look at the metaphor. To ask, In what ways did our response to COVID actually resemble America’s many wars?
It’s not hard to understand why presidents and their people are drawn to the language of warfare. War talk easily conjures images of a nation coming together to mobilize its resources in a collective response to a crisis that threatens everyone. It feels good at some level to take part in such a struggle, to join a cause that can embody virtues and values that may otherwise be hard to see.
But I think we’re mostly trading on the memory of one particular war when we talk about fighting a war on COVID. “To this day,” said Donald Trump in March 2020, “nobody has ever seen like it, what they were able to do during World War II. Now it’s our time. We must sacrifice together, because we are all in this together, and we will come through together.”
But likening the war on COVID to our favored image of our nation’s “Good War” can make us miss some more meaningful comparisons, to much less popular conflicts that amplified other tendencies in the American character.
War divides us — and makes us demonize others
Most obviously, the war on COVID contributed to the increasing division of the United States. For all the early talk of Americans being “in this together,” the last 2+ years have seen more, not less, talk of polarization. Public health measures as previously uncontroversial as masking and vaccination served to help differentiate red and blue America from each other.
We don’t need to go so far as to draw comparisons to this country’s bloodiest conflict and talk about the potential for civil war. But we should remember that many of America’s wars have revealed and even worsened divisions in the American nation. Vietnam and Iraq are obvious examples, so consider instead a 19th century illustration. In 1848, a young congressman named Abraham Lincoln spoke for many Northerners when he called the Mexican-American War unconstitutional, ten years before he famously repeated Jesus’ warning that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” as a sectional crisis exacerbated by the annexation of Mexican land neared its fateful conclusion.
Worse yet, wars also lead Americans to demonize other people — both within and without the nation. And the war on COVID was no different.
You can’t fight a war without an enemy, and an invisible virus never made for a satisfactory villain. Inevitably, the fight against COVID got Americans looking for humans to blame and target — much like the early Cold War campaign against what was then called the "Communist contagion" quickly turned into the witch hunts of McCarthyism.
During the war on COVID, one group in particular came in for suspicion and outright attack — and not for the first time in American military history. After our former commander-in-chief found it politically expedient to call SARS-CoV-2 the “China Virus,” there was a surge in verbal and physical abuse of Asian-Americans. “I should not be surprised,” film producer Janet Yang said in April 2020. “We've seen it… in waves… World War II, we had an Asian enemy; Korean War, we had an Asian enemy; Vietnam War, we had an Asian enemy.”
War expands government power — and suspicion of government
Perhaps more surprisingly, some Americans began to demonize a man that other Americans held up as a hero: Dr. Anthony Fauci. Already head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the distinguished immunologist served as the public face of the government’s response to COVID under the Trump Administration and then became Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser. If you trusted Dr. Fauci, you tended to trust public authorities to use their power to respond prudently to the pandemic; if you didn’t, it was likely because Fauci came to symbolize the excesses of a government that (in that view) excessively limited individual freedom and needlessly damaged the economy.
Every war inflates government power, none more so than world wars whose scope and intensity demanded not just larger armies under presidential command, but unprecedented federal intervention in the economy. Americans have never agreed on the lessons to be learned from such episodes, but the debate over the role of the government in WWI and WWII may help explain the response to Fauci and other government authorities under COVID.
Those of us who lean left of the political center tend to view WWII in particular as demonstrating that the democratic state can act more effectively than the private sector alone to address public crises. If we expected the federal government to be best suited to marshal the resources and coordinate the efforts needed to defeat a pandemic, perhaps it’s because of how we remember Franklin Roosevelt’s remarkable ability to mobilize his country’s economy, society, and culture against the Axis.
On the other hand, there’s nothing like war to raise conservative hackles about government overreach at the cost of free individuals in a free market. During World War I, when Washington’s reach was nowhere near what it was in 1941-1945, Woodrow Wilson found himself accused of “war socialism” for imposing price controls on businesses. Then it’s no accident that one of the most important works in 20th century conservatism, Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, was published during WWII, in response to British planning for what became the welfare state. Hayek’s “specific fear,” according to his recent editor, Bruce Caldwell, was that, “for a war to be fought effectively, the power and size of the state must grow… ‘wartime’ (or when politicians try to convince us that it is such a time) is when those who value the preservation of individual liberty must be most on guard.”
War without sacrifice
That said, I wonder if the real reason that so many Americans were so resistant to following the government’s battle plan against COVID was that it had been so long since an American war truly represented a collective national effort fueled by shared sacrifice.
In other words, Americans could be told their country was fighting a war against a disease; they just didn’t expect that the effort should require anything of them.
For two generations now, since the draft went away at the tail end of the Vietnam War, Americans have entrusted the waging of their wars to an all-volunteer, professional military. Moreover, our wars in that time have been fought far from sight and without much direct personal cost to the vast majority of Americans. WWII not only demanded civilians to go without or to make do with less, but to pay more taxes. Yet in the early 21st century, successive Republican and Democratic administrations have asked almost no such sacrifices of the American people during the twenty years of the War on Terror.
Perhaps that explains both why so many Americans were at once so eager to celebrate nurses and other frontline workers — the War on COVID’s equivalent of a professional military — and to chafe at taking on any but the briefest share of that war’s sacrifices ourselves.
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Because of time zone differences, news of Japan’s surrender reached Americans on the evening of August 14th. The formal surrender wasn’t signed until September 2, 1945.
I’ve actually been drafting versions of this since the summer of 2020. But every time I started again, some new surge made it seem premature.