Not a war, and yet important: some thoughts on COVID-19, metaphors, and values.
Updated: Jul 31
On the Channel 4 news tonight there was a nurse from Northern Ireland. She said that the only way she could describe the feeling of waiting for the pandemic to hit was in comparison to Saving Private Ryan as the soldiers land on Normandy Beach, unsure of what is over the hill.
This essay is not a criticism of her. It is not her job to think of apt comparisons, much as it is not mine to risk my health and life to save those of others. She is right to say that the crisis is important, and she chooses a reference that easily conveys that - that of war and violence.
But the constant tide of war metaphors about the COVID-19 outbreak displays a poverty in our culture. I am not the first to say this. I am, alas, probably not the last.
This is not a war. There are many tragedies to come. A small one is that our culture has no space for the idea that something not warlike, not violent, might be important.
Ursula Le Guin’s writing explores this beautifully. Taking off my shelf the collection of her essays Words Are My Matter are various essays with pertinent comments. In her 2010 speech ‘What Women Know’ she notes that “In answer to the question What do we learn from women? my first huge generalisation is that we learn how to be human… how to walk, talk, eat, sing, pray… the basic skills, the basic rules.” She contrasts that with the role of fathers, who “often teach their children sex roles: the boys how to be manly, the girls how to be womanly… [which] tends to maintain hierarchy and uphold the status quo.” A status quo that is often the public history of war and heroised violence.
She continues to make a point she returns to often in her writing - that our society has the idea that “great art is made by men, that great literature is by and about men.” (I would comfortably replace the ‘literature’ with ‘art’). Le Guin describes how she had initially held that as an unquestioned assumption, before realising that her books had centred men rather than her own ‘womanly’ activities due to the expectations of reviewers, editors, and society. She describes having to learn how to write as a woman, “in my own skin instead of a borrowed tuxedo or jockstrap.” Not as a guardian of elementary, primitive knowledge, but as someone with equal permission to have new ideas, reason, science, art, and everything else.
The past decade has seen some changes since Le Guin spoke, but the fundamentals remain the same. Our culture is dominated by ‘manly’ things. Many characters hailed as feminist icons are are strong and empowered by virtue of being manly. Though we are permitting women to have manly qualities, we are less willing to celebrate womanly qualities.
Little of the above is original, but it is important context to the wider essay. One of the many threadbare bits of fabric that the pandemic is exposing is in our mainstream culture - that we cannot describe an important effort in terms that might be womanly and weak.
The front pages of newspapers scream of a war.
We valorise our NHS ‘heroes’ with a roar of applause, rather than the silence we offer the dead - and yet they are called heroes, to be as unquestioningly revered for their courage as ‘our boys’ on some distant front.
I do not wish to criticise the dedication and devotion of the NHS workers doing their duty at a time like this. It is the echo of how we praise soldiers that troubles me.
For when we describe how this so-called ‘war’ is to be won, we do not describe the acts of war. We do not describe the attitudes of war.
We describe care, and compassion, and healing, and collaboration between countries. We do not describe the clash of nations and the flow of blood from savagely-inflicted wounds.
We ask for the sacrifice of our society and social bonds. We do not ask for the communal sacrifice of our lives for the common good.
We suffer the pains of isolation in an age more prone to mental health struggles than any before it. We do not suffer the pain and desolation of bombs, shrapnel, and burning cities for ill-stated goals.
This is a struggle that is resolved by a shared community, not the conflict of them.
Were this a war, it would be the ideal struggle for the nationalists blossoming across the world. War creates a craving for authoritarian measures; for unquestioning loyalty to ‘our’ government rather than the hint that you might work for ‘them’. The valorisation of the figures of the state’s legitimate force - soldiers and the police. If you question them, you question and challenge ‘us’, and there are those who will accept any punishment you face (legal or not).
After all, the police are heroes too, aren’t they? They have become our warrior-guardians! And if you aren’t backing our heroes, can you be one of us? Are you… are you one of them?
You should obey them. After all, you might kill someone if you don't.
It seems worth noting that the reality of modern warfare is not the Hollywood vision of a solo hero turning the tide of a war between nations. It is usually asymmetric (which has started to appear in Hollywood’s narratives). It has, as ever, stated goals and reasons for starting. It is a product of systems more than individuals. It is fought by teams, coordinating huge forces to address the systems that lead to and continue wars. And though these things are true, what is really important when people start calling the efforts against COVID-19 a ‘war’ is what they think that word means. And that means we need to look at what mass culture says war is.
This false imagination of war turns COVID-19 into an enemy that can be ‘fought’ and ‘beaten’; an enemy with enough sentience to have ‘killed’ people rather than people dying of it.
This is obviously not true. The virus is not an enemy that can be dealt with like the enemy of a war, or by thinking of it as the enemy of a war.
Does COVID-19 hate ‘us’?
No. It’s a virus.
What is its casus bello?
None. It’s a virus.
Will it surrender?
No. It’s a virus.
While I’m sure many armies would have appreciated their enemies slathering them in alcohol, I doubt that often happens.
In war, we expect battles and skirmishes, victories and losses. We learn to hate our enemy, for how else can we possibly kill them? In the words of Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment, one cannot think of the enemy as human; the point of training is to have “a few weeks stabbing straw men until she could believe that all men were made of straw.”
In this struggle, we will need patience and care. We cannot hate our enemy, because it does not hate us back - what it does, it does by existing. We will need to think of humans everywhere as human, and deserving of support and love. It is a global issue, not a national one.
If we think of it as a war, it allows governments to bring in authoritarian measures - trying to bring them in for two years, before conceding limits to bring them in for two months, or in Hungary bringing them in indefinitely.
If we think of it as a war, we will murmur the same platitudes when the doctors’ body bags come in - dulce e decorum est… theirs not to reason why… into the valley of death rode the six hundred… - rather than "did this need to happen? Did hospital staff have to die just to do their job? In war, its tragedy and great deterrent is that death is an inevitable aspect of it. But working in healthcare, outside the sphere of ill-chosen metaphor, should not carry the same risk, surely? There are reasons we ban bioweapons and their sneaking contagion."
But if we don’t think of it as a war, we have no language to think of it as urgent. No language to think of it as important. Because to think of it as not-war would be to think of it as not-manly; not a thing to be dominated, controlled, and crushed, and thus it would be not-urgent and not-important.
Which is a bloody shame, because it’s exactly the wrong metaphor to use.
And that is a hole in the fabric of our Anglosphere culture that this pandemic has highlighted once again.
And as climate change takes its grip on the world, I suspect I'll revisit this thought again and again.
P.S. After writing this, I suddenly remembered reading this article about a similar question with the 'war on cancer'. In short, it argues that there is no one right way to talk about cancer. Although 'war' metaphors might be unnecessarily violent, and make people feel like failures for losing, 'journey' imagery is very passive compared to the idea of being a 'fighter'.
All of which is reasonable. The two points I'd raise in the context of this blog are
1. That members of our culture have nothing between 'fighter' and 'journey' to describe a difficult struggle is... arguably indicative of the void in our culture to describe not-manly striving.
2. There is a huge difference between an individual using war imagery when that individual is a private citizen and an individual using war imagery when that individual is the head of a government with control of the army and other apparatus of state power.
An unresolved aside on which to conclude a blog on this far-from-resolved issue.