Why It’s Wrong to Say We Are Fighting a “War” Against a Pandemic

March 25, 2020
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“War.” That’s the word political leaders and pundits increasingly use to describe the effort to stop the coronavirus. It’s the wrong word, and it can lead us to the wrong policies.

A pandemic is not a war, and neither are many other phenomena we have declared “war” on. Unfortunately, there’s a cost to using the wrong word in all these fights. It confuses our understanding of what we need to do, it demands national unity that suppresses legitimate political debate, and it leads us to use the wrong strategies to combat serious problems. It is certainly correct to say containing and treating the coronavirus is an important national mission. But it misapplies the rhetoric and tools of “literal warfare.” Slipping into martial rhetoric inadvertently harms both national security and disaster response.

To begin with, America’s record of declared wars on major national problems, such as poverty, drugs and terrorism, is more embarrassing and costly than Australia’s Emu “war.” The emu’s won in Australia, and in America, drugs are still winning, and poverty marches on.

Even when war is an appropriate metaphor—such as fighting terrorism—it’s hard to preserve the necessary nuance when using the term. Too often, metaphorically declaring war leads to using wartime tools inappropriately, and recreating war’s worst pathologies.

Why is the metaphor misleading? One reason is that literal wars involve mortal competition between strategic actors, usually states but sometimes terrorist groups. Diseases, drugs, and poverty are terrible problems but are not strategic actors.

Strategic actors pursue specific, limited objectives, and each combatant accounts for their opponents' behaviors. Wars evolve as one combatant parries the other’s attacks and innovations. Nonetheless, even unrestricted warfare is not unlimited. Nazi Germany’s insidious goals were capacious but not boundless.

While pandemics can be as deadly as war, and as important for international relations, war is a poor analogy. Both wars and pandemics require massive resource mobilization, but pandemics are not strategic. Without a strategic adversary, the structures and practices useful in war can become counter-productive.

In strategic competition, for example, deciding not to act is a plausible strategy and often the best one. Take Spain during WWII. Its government was fascist, but it chose not to ally with Europe's big fascist powers and thereby avoided catastrophe when the Axis eventually fell. Or take the Allies’ biggest action during that war, the invasion at Normandy. That was a strategic choice, but so was the decision not to invade Calais, Norway, or Bremen. Distributing troops across every plausible amphibious landing point on D-Day would have been disastrous. By contrast, not protecting against disease in every threatened location would be equally disastrous.  Inaction would cost lives.

Combatants in both war and pandemics must allocate scarce resources to different areas, but the nature of those choices is significantly different. Disease outbreaks are not weaker in one location for being stronger in another. In wars, however, strengthening resources in one theater weakens them in another. Take Nazi Germany’s decision to divert divisions from its Russian invasion (Operation Barbarossa) to bail out the Italian army in Greece. That diversion bought Russia time—crucial time—and it cost Hitler badly. By contrast, an outbreak of COVID-19 into South America purchases no space for Italy or Ithaca. The only difference between COVID-19 preparations in Montgomery, Alabama and New York City is timing and scale.

There may also be differences in how much centralization of power is needed. Strong central organization is necessary in war-fighting to avoid wasting scarce resources. Resource allocation is important in fighting pandemics, too, but too much centralization can be costly. It constrains independent action, outside the central government, by state and local government, charities, private healthcare providers, and research labs. That means less efficiency in developing drugs and treating patients.

Distributing as much information to as many actors as possible allows various groups to meet local needs and sometimes to develop new practices and medicines. We paid a price for over-centralization in the early days of the crisis when the CDC alone was responsible for creating and distributing test kits. They didn’t have enough kits, had many that were defective, and had no easy way to ramp up production of reliable tests. Fixing the problem required a public-private partnership, one of America’s strengths.

Sometimes, private actions alone can help, as long as the government permits it. No one had to tell Gloria Gaynor to start the handwashing challenge, Webtoon, to create a series of comics about sanitation, or Johns Hopkins University to create an interactive map of Coronavirus cases. Constraining these and other groups from independent action would have done nothing to improve response to the current pandemic, and may well hurt it. Fortunately, we are now cutting through those administrative bottlenecks—and saving lives by doing it.

Militarism in policy has one more cost that deserves a lot more attention: it potentially threatens our civilian democracy. As military operations and military organizations increasingly combat political challenges, the military inherently becomes more political, threatening the civil-military balance. Perhaps more importantly, in war, everyone must support the same policy, but coercing such unity outside of true wars is the death of democratic pluralism and political debate.

It is comprehensible why leaders use the “war metaphor,” but we must fight against this rhetorical drift. It is a useful metaphor for national mobilization and vigorous, concerted action by the central government—all good in fighting the spread of COVID19. But it impedes something equally important in a democracy, the decentralized, civic action we need to fight a contagious disease.

David Benson is Professor of Strategy and Security Studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. The views expressed here represent those of the author under academic freedom, and do not reflect the position of SAASS, the Air Force, the United States Government or any part thereof.

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