09 April 2020

Declaring war

The Monument to the Dead (PĂ©ronne, France, 1926), sculpture by Louis Faille (source)

Whether you approve or disapprove of Donald Trump, you can probably agree on this observation: he is always the hero of his own story. Thus, in his own words, in our time of pandemic, "I view it as a, in a sense, a wartime president." His former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon amplifies: "We are at war, and now by necessity he [Trump] is a ‘wartime’ president. Churchill rose to the occasion and secured his place in history. Trump’s moment is here, to grasp or to lose." [Source.]

I have very mixed feelings about this use of war rhetoric.

On the one hand: in stark contrast with some recent warlike U.S. involvements -- fake wars (on terror, drugs, inflation), proxy wars, secret wars, and endless military commitments in places like Afghanistan -- this near-global pandemic is imposing costs on our country and others at a scale comparable to all-out warfare. Even those not directly involved in illness, diagnosis, treatment, and research are forced to take risks, pay costs, lose income, or suffer family separations and tragedies. These kinds of risks and losses are just what a country might demand of us in wartime, with leaders exhorting us to accept these sacrifices in a cause greater than our individual fates.

War rhetoric, as Bannon implies, also imposes enormous expectations on national leaders. It is their moment "to grasp or to lose," depending on whether they have the competence and credibility to demand war-scale sacrifices. You can judge the current situation for yourself, but this article by Matthew Zeitlin makes interesting comparisons with Roosevelt's management of the USA's industrial mobilization in World War II.

To sum up the positive case for war rhetoric: it is one way to capture the national mobilization and motivation required by the potential scope of the crisis. The more effective the mobilization, the more likely the crisis can be mitigated, losses reduced, and lessons learned for the future. Returning to the World War II comparison, the agonies of World War II led to an era of international idealism (the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, disarmament treaties, and so on). Domestically, Roosevelt's Four Freedoms led to the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society -- all of which reflected FDR's wartime vision, however imperfect they were in practice. Maybe today's parallel to this postwar idealism would be to resolve to harvest the costly lessons of the pandemic, by (for example)
  • reforming health care financing, at long last, because nobody's health should be dependent on personal wealth or employment, and one person's infection is potentially everyone's concern
  • asking why some communities are more vulnerable to public health emergencies than others, and searching for solutions
  • restoring and improving our capacity to monitor global public health risks in the future.
On the other hand, war rhetoric has enormous risks. There are reasons that some politicians find this rhetorical tool irresistible. A real war traditionally implies centralized mobilization, even conscription, as well as all sorts of other powers generally forbidden to government in a democracy. Property can be commandeered, people conscripted, rationing imposed, civil liberties restricted, dissent limited, and maybe worst of all, the image of an "enemy" can be created to strengthen unity. If a virus isn't a vivid enough enemy, let's hint at the perfidy of the Chinese, the World Health Organization, George Soros, or some other fabulous villain.

(My mother, born and raised in Japan, heard about the forced removal of American citizens of Japanese descent from the U.S. West Coast. She remembered how the Japanese government pointed to this scandal as proof that the USA regarded all Japanese as enemies -- and, consequently, the Japanese should regard Americans likewise.)

The novel coronavirus is a deadly challenge and its defeat may require heroic efforts, but any national effort that diverts our resource by scaring us with scapegoats, wasting resources through chaotic mismanagement, dividing the country by prioritizing the creation of hero-politicians, or concealing information from the public, just makes things worse. The virus will be defeated only if we reject these diversions and, instead, unite and focus our efforts to:
  • prevent its transmission
  • monitor its spread
  • provide timely treatment, and 
  • research its prevention by vaccine, if possible.
Unfortunately, there are other, less direct, advantages for leaders beating the war drum, aside from the need for power and adulation. They can benefit from the country's distracted attention -- with people either prioritizing the need to pay attention to crisis-related news, or getting burned out altogether. During the current crisis, Donald Trump and his cabinet continue their campaign against environmental regulations, Obama-era health-care finance reforms, the press, and the network of inspectors-general that are supposed to guard us from government mismanagement and corruption. The journalists who ask questions about these and other awkward allegations, and their employers, are routinely insulted. Two examples from the last 24 hours: at a press conference, Trump dismissed the pleas of the U.S. Postal Service for help (reminder: there are over 600,000 postal employees); and a report in The Hill (not confirmed elsewhere as far as I know) states that members of the White House coronavirus team have been asked not to appear on the CNN network in retaliation for CNN not carrying portions of their daily briefings live. [Friday update: Heather Cox Richardson reports that this decision concerning CNN has been reversed.]

My final objection to war rhetoric has little to do with the current pandemic with its microscopic "enemy." I just don't like anything that strengthens the hold of "war" on the popular imagination, even as metaphor. We Christians are under instruction to love our enemies and serve as ministers of reconciliation, but the romance of war casts those who take Jesus and Paul seriously as hopeless dreamers. We have one legitimate war -- the one that Quakers call the Lamb's War. We oppose the beast of Empire portrayed in Revelation; we don't fight against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers and wickedness in high places. When the government begins brandishing war rhetoric, whatever the emergency or pretense, we should be on our guard: the Lamb's purposes are not necessarily being served.

Speaking of coronavirus and Revelation: "What would you say to people who think this is the end of the world." Wess Daniels on the Rework Podcast.

Is God judging America today? Margaret M. Mitchell looks at a Bible study attended by much of the USA's Republican leadership, seeking to understand how it might influence their attitude to the pandemic.

A coronavirus mystery: who paid for the Russian shipment of medical supplies to the USA, and why?

James Dyson designers present 44 science and engineering projects for schoolchildren at home during the pandemic. Thanks to openculture.com for the link.

And for those hungry for music, the Englewood Review of Books Web site recommends these twelve Tiny Desk concerts. To which I'd add Robert Cray, Tedeschi Trucks, and Gary Clark, Jr.

I hope this Moscow blues club will be up and running again after the emergency. In the meantime, here's a clip I first posted in 2017: Nathan James and the Jumping Cats with an aptly-named song, "I Found My Peace of Mind."

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