After weeks of downplaying the threat posed by COVID-19 as it spread across the world and into the United States, President Donald Trump was finally taking it seriously on March 18.
"I view it as, in a sense, as a wartime president," he told reporters in the White House's briefing room that day. "I mean, that's what we're fighting," he said, before invoking a now-oft-repeated metaphor about the virus as "an invisible enemy."
Framing the pandemic as a war serves mostly as a way for the president—and the government more generally—to sweep aside skepticism and dodge difficult questions about handling the crisis. Should we think twice before imposing export restrictions that will weaken global resilience to the virus? No time, this is a war! Should the government be able to order workers to stay home, then order them back to work against their will? Generally no, but this is war! Can we protect privacy while building a massive surveillance apparatus to track the spread of the disease? That might be nice, but this is war!
Some of that might make sense during an actual war—you don't want your domestic manufacturers selling goods to your enemies, for one—but it misses the point in our current crisis. There is no us-versus-them happening here. A virus cannot be cowed. It doesn't want our land or to change our regime, and it cannot be forced to surrender by throwing bodies at it.
As Daniel Larison noted in an excellent piece for The American Conservative earlier this month, "declaring war on abstractions and inanimate objects has become a bad habit" for the American government.
Indeed, America has spent 20 years fighting an amorphous "war on terror" that's outlived all of our initial enemies, consumed trillions of taxpayer dollars, and actually created new enemies by destabilizing the Middle East and North Africa. The federal government's "wars" on poverty and drugs have been equally unsuccessful and now serve mostly as federal jobs programs for bureaucrats and cops.
Less than three months after the first American died of COVID-19, and six weeks after Trump declared himself a wartime president, the disease has now claimed more than 58,318 American lives—the number that perished in the Vietnam War. Passing that symbolic threshold provides a useful way to comprehend the severity of the disease, but it doesn't make the war analogy useful.
Writing at The Bulwark, Jonathan Last notes that both the Vietnam War and the COVID-19 pandemic were made worse by incompetent government officials who lied to the American people. That's a worthwhile observation. Both crises undermined Americans' trust in institutions and presidents, and both overlapped and amplified existing cultural faultlines.
But the metaphor's usefulness ends there. For starters, Vietnam killed mostly young Americans, while COVID-19 is mostly killing the old—a distinction that might seem callous, but one that nevertheless changes how the crisis effects the national psyche. In many other senses, the war metaphor actually primes Americans to expect more bad government. Unlike an actual war, we shouldn't be calling for the government to do whatever it takes to keep us safe. Not only can it not actually do that, but its record of trying to is also rather bad.
"Comparing the pandemic to war is also somewhat demoralizing when we reflect on our government's record of waging war over the last half-century. There are scarcely any true successes in that record that we can point to that would give us confidence that the government can 'win' now," Larison writes. "Unfortunately, the only things that the government's response has in common with previous war efforts is that the U.S. was badly unprepared for what came next and the president had an unrealistic expectation of how quickly the problem would be taken care of."