“Nous sommes en guerre”, Mr Macron says to the camera for the fourth time, “We are at war.”
The way we talk about things infects how we think.
Framing disease in terms of war is not a new phenomenon and in some respects, war is an appropriate analogy for engaging with the virus. Economically speaking, the COVID-19 pandemic is attacking national supply chains, influencing "economic co-operation and the division of labour” and triggering a recession; it is affecting us, in some ways, like war.
But there is a difference between analogy and metaphor - that difference lies in that the former declares itself a comparison, and the latter encourages us to think of the thing in question as the thing we are comparing it to. The utilisation of war metaphors can be advantageous. They can help us to interpret an unfair reality and invite thoughtful leaders to step up to the task. War is a language we can all understand.
However, metaphors have their limitations. “When a metaphor is used again and again and again, it really makes people experience something in those terms,” said Veronika Koller, Reader in Discourse Studies, at Lancaster University. But metaphors only represent that which they describe. We must be mindful therefore, when presented with metaphors, that they are useful tools for influence and distortion. In believing that we are actually at war, we become vulnerable.
"we must remember: war metaphors make us soldiers and the army is not a democracy."
The idea of wartime carries with it a sense of immediacy and priority—an assumption that the nation must operate on agreed principles. This creates an upsurge in public support for short-term action that might usually be called into question, like shutting down borders or exercising emergency powers. Combative language justifies measures of state security we might not otherwise be keen on. As China’s President Xi Jinping’s insists that the flag of the CCP should “fly high at the frontline of the battleground”, we must remember: war metaphors make us soldiers and the army is not a democracy.
Another problem with this overarching war rhetoric is that it allows us to paint the entire canvas of the crisis with the same soldierly brush. In allowing the COVID-19 public health emergency to become saturated with military language, we have contaminated our perspective and drained the conversation of the nuance required for useful analyses. Whilst there is a clear difference between ‘fighting’ the coronavirus in our nation and ‘fighting’ the coronavirus in our bodies, this indistinguishable, innuendo-laden language traverses the facts, warping how we look at the situation and, subsequently, how we deal with it.
"Many politicians would like us to see them as warriors and look to profit from wartime sentiment."
After Boris Johnson was taken into intensive care in April, First Secretary Dominic Raab assured the nation that the British Prime Minister would recover because "he’s a fighter". In recent years charities focusing on terminal illnesses have chosen to move away from using battle language when talking about patients. The language of ‘fighting’ illness is insensitive to those who ‘lose the fight’. It is not possible for a patient with the novel coronavirus to fight it—that’s the job of the medics.
This language is misleading. The poor in the United Kingdom are more likely to die from this disease, and that is not down to some abstract weakness of character. ‘Battle terminology’ is most helpful when people are fully in control of outcomes in a challenging or adverse situation”, says Dr Angharad Rudkin, clinical psychologist at Southampton University; so, battling through that last essay, or braving the traffic. Thinking about fighting your way to the front of the queue, whilst a bit aggressive, is an effective way to get your elbows moving. ‘Fighting’ the coronavirus, once it’s in your lungs, is not a question of how much of a warrior you are.
Many politicians would like us to see them as warriors and look to profit from wartime sentiment. But positing oneself as a war leader is a gamble. The problem is, Donald Trump, after pronouncing himself a “wartime president" has declared war on an enemy he can’t define. This could swing either way - he will be able to define success by his own measures (as the war is not a war, it cannot be won), but his citizens will be able to determine his failure by theirs. As Simon Tisdall points out: ‘war often leads to revolution.’
It’s worth noting that U.K. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s language is threaded with the cooperative ideas of solidarity and care, not conflict: “We are all taking part in a collective national effort to protect the vulnerable and each other, to secure our public services, and to save lives. This endeavour is underpinned by an important, simple idea – that we depend on each other. When you need it, when you fall on hard times, we will all, as one society, be there for you,” he said in a speech on April 8th, “To take care of you, until you are, once again, ready to take care of yourself and others.”
The British press, on the other hand, has reverted to a language of fortitude which places value on trauma and endurance, a mistruth designed to encourage a national sentiment of self-sacrifice and acceptable shortcuts. Within the metaphor of war, countless journalists are sinking their teeth into the wartime vernacular, giddy with glorious phrases and greater-good pride. 'Another 15 NHS heroes die in the battle against coronavirus’, the Daily Mail reported last month. "We will meet again" said the Queen, sipping on some diluted war spirit of her own, in her address to the nation in April. She was referencing a song popularised during WWII, after which many people did not meet again. Such sentiments give us hope, but we mustn’t conflate hope with certainty.
"A global pandemic should not demand death from its medical workforce in the same way that war demands death and sacrifice."
It isn’t all redundant. ‘Frontline medical staff’ is a fine and usable term. But why extend this metaphor? To do so - to frame healthcare workers as ‘fighting’ on the frontlines, to call PPE ‘ammunition’ - is to misrepresent the reality of the pandemic. Approaching medicine in the framework of war invokes the ‘necessity of chaos’, and invites us to abandon normality to seek resolution at all costs - an attitude we cannot afford to have. Crises mean a high level of stress in hospitals, rendering doctors and healthcare workers susceptible to fatigue, distraction, and disease. This means that following protocol is not just important - it’s essential.
Furthermore, framing a viral outbreak in this way alters how we think about those who die; much like war, the success of our engagement with COVID-19 will be measured in deaths, but military language implies that ‘deaths are collateral damage and might just need to happen so that we can "fight on the front lines", says medical rhetorician Lisa Keranen. Deaths on the ‘frontline’ become casualties, not preventable tragedies. A global pandemic should not demand death from its medical workforce in the same way that war demands death and sacrifice. This is not what doctors signed up for. ‘War is dangerous by definition, but danger should not be inherent to the hospital’. We must celebrate and support those who are doing their job – but to declare it sacrifice is to suggest they have a choice.
And now, to redirect national attention, nationalism is getting a tonne of press. British Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s support of The Sun’s campaign to award all NHS Staff a St George’s Cross is deflective. This behaviour is coming from the same individual who condemned people going to the park over Easter as ‘selfish’, a fortnight after the Prime Minister actively endorsed going to the park.
10 May 2020 A passerby in St James' Park stopped PM Boris Johnson and criticised his government's confusing stance on the national lockdown. Credit: Ben Cawthra/LNP
Again, not all militaristic language is misplaced. We do talk about ‘fighting’ viruses: epidemiology is host to a lot of militaristic language – language repurposed to help us understand specifically how a virus behaves, and what threat it poses to us. But this is language that should be confined to the bounds of scientific conversation – translating it into a wider metaphor of war misconstrues the scientific facts. Viruses will not respond to strategy, or to attack. The work we have to do is research, and defence.
"Viruses will not respond to strategy, or to attack. The work we have to do is research, and defence."
We cannot ‘win’ against the novel coronavirus, only adapt, and this is exactly how we should look at it. The phrase ‘when the war is over’ looks uncomfortable beside the phrase ‘the new normal.’ Placing people in a constant mode of war commits them to a state of anxiety and leaves them suspended and vulnerable to those politicians and agents who would capitalise on the suspension of the norm. We must adapt. Eventually, there will be a vaccine but, until then, the coronavirus will likely circulate in populations for a number of years. We must not be at war for all of this time.
It isn’t a question of not politicising the crisis. The crisis is political. But militarising the crisis draws a line around the state and asks us to look outwards, away from what really are political decisions. When the government makes a choice, it is engaging in political decision-making - to tell you otherwise is to tell you that democracy doesn’t matter when it comes to crunch time.
We cannot attack the virus, only defend ourselves from it. And yet, the very nature of calling something our enemy distinctly calls us to attack. So, as we, paralysed and armed, look outwards towards our “invisible enemy” – President Trump is so keen to disorientate people with that one – we turn to old habits: xenophobia and racism. As Sinophobia spreads across the world and Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini endorses the idea that African migrants aren’t social distancing at their markets, we are reminded of the ugly truth: blame doesn’t ‘land evenly on an atomised population - it is channelled down through the social structures that already exist’.
The blame game of battle language reinforces patriotic, statist thinking, and with our current political architecture we need to ensure that political entities that aren’t states are not caught in the crossfire (I know). The wartime impulse to attack something (to punish the enemy for our losses) has been illustrated devastatingly by Trump’s withholding of funding to the World Health Organisation, an organisation founded on the idea that ‘informed opinion and active co-operation on the part of the public are of the utmost importance in the improvement of the health of the people’. President Trump is less familiar with informed opinion.
Faced with a faceless enemy, we also end up blaming ourselves. We are encouraged to do so. The militaristic rhetoric pushed by our politicians and their press perpetuates a mass guilt that makes the population think less critically. Downing Street have mobilised such language in the wake of their public policy failures. Johnson has framed the COVID-19 situation as an assault on the national character, merging the nation into one entity and charging his exceptionalist, ill-advised response with a thread of blame.
The Imperial College Covid-19 Response team published a report on the 16th March that estimated a quarter of a million people could die in the UK without ‘strong suppression’ - on the same day, the government encouraged people to avoid pubs and work from home if they could. A second report four days later showed people to be willing but unable to comply to these guidelines. Three days after that, on 23rd March, support for businesses and a stricter lockdown was announced.
It is likely that hundreds of thousands of us were infected that week (quite possibly the Prime Minister too), between Johnson’s announcement that schools wouldn’t close (but we would all ‘lose loved ones’) on the 12th and his declaration that he was indeed going to lockdown the nation the day after he promoted going to the park.
In order to fabricate a sense of freedom, by peacocking their initial refusal to put in place appropriate social distancing and compromise the ‘ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pub,’ Boris Johnson and his cabinet, clothed in Churchillian rhetoric, carelessly handed death sentences to a fraction of our population. The government, assuring us that they were following the science, created a false sense of security which has subsequently evolved into a national guilt, a guilt that absolves the Conservative cabinet of their accountability.
"Boris Johnson and his cabinet, clothed in Churchillian rhetoric, carelessly handed death sentences to a fraction of our population."
The enemy is restriction, they assured us, and we would never take your freedoms. Now we must, they cry, because you can’t seem to take the initiative! You are the enemy! Lock yourselves away. It won’t feel like that freedom we told you was innate to your identity, but it is! We did tell you. We held briefings every afternoon for several days - don’t you watch the telly? We know we said some stuff about herd immunity, but we were confused - you’d have been too if you were the one fighting this battle. Anyway, we told you, and we didn’t want to make you feel bad so, yes, we didn’t actually enforce the stay at home. But you knew what to do. Come on. You knew what we meant.
The global response to Sars-CoV-2 (the virus causing COVID-19) is the greatest science policy failure in a generation. We knew this was coming. After the 2003 Sars outbreak, the US Institute of Medicine concluded that “the rapid containment of Sars is a success in public health, but also a warning. […] If Sars reoccurs […] health systems worldwide will be put under extreme pressure […] Continued vigilance is vital.” And yet, somehow, we delay preparing for crises until they arrive on our doorsteps, until we have to tackle them ‘on the beaches’.
When the next pandemic comes, we will likely be better prepared. But as well as preparing for the probability of crisis, we should work to reduce that probability. The emergence of the novel coronavirus and our biodiversity destruction come hand in hand; 'the risk of emerging infectious diseases such as COVID-19 from animals is on the rise, in large part because of our environmental footprint and the blurring between the natural and the built environments.' These zoonoses (caused by a pathogen that comes from an animal), are particularly dangerous because our immune systems aren’t familiar with their genetic signatures, which delays our ability to develop antibodies. A statement on the UN Environment website emphasises the importance of addressing the ‘multiple and often interacting threats to ecosystems and wildlife to prevent zoonoses from emerging, including habitat loss and fragmentation, illegal trade, pollution, invasive species and, increasingly, climate change’.
The international dialogue around COVID-19 indicates that in times of crises humanity, when it needs coordinated action, turns to three things: science, society and the language of the soldier. The analogy between the pandemic and war comes down purely to the idea of (inter)national survival. We can learn from that comparison. But we also need cooperation amongst countries to provide for coordinated international action – there is no enemy here.
"That this polarising language hasn’t been mobilised in the climate conversation suggests that the government isn’t keen to promote activity"
Whilst the poisonous ideals at the core of war language should be challenged, we therefore must also ask: why has the language of war not been introduced by statesmen to the dialogue of the environmental crisis, by the same politicians who so dexterously weave military language into their rhetoric? That this polarising language hasn’t been mobilised in the climate conversation suggests that the government isn’t keen to promote activity – and in a war between Extinction Rebellion and BP, it certainly doesn’t want to have to declare a side.
Climate change and the biodiversity crisis are complex issues that ought not to be reduced entirely to the language of war. We can resist it. But when the realities of the climate crisis are as unavoidable as the threat of this pandemic, we can be sure that some will revert to such rhetoric. And when our children look for an enemy to blame, they will look to us.
Even if Macron says six times in a speech to his nation that ‘we are at war’, the simple fact remains – we are not. This is a public health emergency. Sure, it might be a public health disaster, if you’re looking to inject some blame into your conversation. But it is not a war. Metaphors are useful, powerful and indeed quite beautiful things. But they are dangerous when we fail to see them for what they are: comparisons.