Much has been made of our war footing – our War on COVID-19; our sacrifices, our mobilization (or lack thereof) of national resources, our state and federal leaders and the extraordinarily difficult choices before them. One considers this and can’t help but recall our other wars on things: Poverty, Drugs, Crime, Terror, etc. Those of us with some experience in the shooting kind of war may also remember Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter now quietly draining away after 20 years. I don’t mean any of this to be critical. But having spent ten years in the Marines and then seven at CIA – and now watching the rapid developments in tech and government as we respond to this call to arms – I can’t help but wonder: what do we mean by war.
I get the metaphor: this or that represents a clear and present danger and we must all rally together, marshal our resources, and bring it to unconditional surrender. As a device it makes sense; when we’re told that we are (metaphorically) at war, we imagine the great gears of our national will turning slowly at first but then inevitably on through acts one, two, and three until curtain. We think: yes, we’re at war now, we’re taking it (this or that) seriously, and soon it will be well in hand.
But war connotates many things, specific to broad: it’s a violent clash of wills; it’s politics by other means and blood 1; it will cost lives and livelihoods; it will enrich some and destroy others; it’s chaotic and defined by uncertainty; it builds trust and wrecks trust; it lends to profound solidarity and deep division; it expends resources and spurs innovation; it’s equalizing and disempowering; it’s morally imperative and an outrage; it will change everything and it will change nothing. War may well be the right metaphor in the fight against COVID-19, but whether that’s good or bad is another question.
Certainly, there are parallels that have struck me over the past few months. Thinking of them now, however, I’ve struggled to prioritize them, to draw some interesting list of useful things to say. Mostly it’s still feelings and impressions, like a scent – a perfume, or cordite, maybe – that’s viscerally reminiscent of some old feeling, some baggage, some past experience that’s still beyond any conclusion. Considering it now, I recall the feeling in February when Camber started looking hard at COVID-19; the realization that before us lay a once-in-a-lifetime challenge, something that really mattered. Overwrought as the comparison is, it did feel something like those weeks before the shooting starts: the anticipatory time, when it’s quiet. Inessentials have suddenly disappeared and everything to come will matter profoundly.
Then throughout March, as we were supporting a White House Tech Task Force, the anticipation coalesced into solidarity, a sense of mission. On Zoom calls, representatives from Google and Amazon, small east coast firms and the west coast giants, all worked toward the same goals, trying to contribute however we could as our kids and dogs passed through the background. There was an intimacy to it. We were, literally, in each other’s bedrooms and home offices and kitchens, protocol and NDAs be damned, willing to set aside everything for one shared goal. It was like the proverbial tech startup in a garage, but at a massive scale.
But now it’s May. It’s after 1.3 million US COVID-19 cases; four million globally; 80,000 US deaths; 290,000 globally; trillions of dollars in debt and millions of people around the world with dwindling access to food and many millions more simply stagnant. Recall, also, that a primary historical impetus for so many revolutions – think of Syria, France, Russia – was very simple. It was hunger. Elsewhere (or, in the same places, maybe), it was excess and leisure. As a force in history, hunger and disease is well documented. Boredom, as Dean Inge noted, is underappreciated. Around the world today, we are just over the horizon from both want and monotony at dangerous levels.
Recall, then, that feeling back in February. At the time, I was self-conscious about it; overwrought, keenly aware of its presence, self-conscious of my inner Walter Sobchak and careful not to say too much. It’s the kind of low-level excitement you can’t control, the leading edge of adrenalin that happens when the back of your mind is prepping. It was knowing where this – this: war, metaphorical and literal – leads: that state of being halfway through the second or third deployment when everything has settled into routine – yours, and the enemy’s. There’s no quick strike that’s going to end the war, there’s just this daily slog that’s sometimes going to get people killed. Today, in mid-May, it’s clear how perfectly apt the war metaphor is. But not merely combat. Rather, it’s a campaign, like Ulysses Grant in the Valley, Hannibal across the Alps. It’s about massive logistical problems, resource shortages, loss, inequality, priorities, leadership, sacrifice, innovation, and irreversible change.
So, yes, it’s a war. We’re in a highly complex struggle in an uncertain environment where deliberate decisions and fidelity to means are essential. Indecision is a vacuum that the enemy will fill and sacrificing means for ends sucks purpose from the fight. Trendlines for the future of democracy, capitalism, American hegemony and the post-WWII order were all already clear before this. Now the crisis will accelerate those trendlines. Allegiance to first principles in daily choices – truth, justice, equality in care and opportunity; yes, these American values – will be how we win the campaign against COVID-19, and the wider metaphorical war for a better world.
The question is: in what way will this metaphorical war be like the literal kind. In our wars of the last century and of this one, we’ve seen the right way and the wrong way. We’ve been divided before, and united. We’ve been righteous and less so. The difference has been the acuity with which we recognize the threat, the extent to which we remain committed to our values. Yes, we all feel the growing sense of fear – that vague and nagging concern for this continued uncertainty. But we also have tremendous national capacity to build the weapons we need for this war – the test kits, the technology, the vaccines; the war materials. To this we need only add our will, our values. Untold lives and livelihoods depend on it.
1To combine and paraphrase Clausewitz and Mao