The US was not prepared for a pandemic, but it was prepared for war. When President Trump declared a national state of emergency on March 13, 2020, he transformed the coronavirus from a “hoax” into an “invisible enemy.” In his daily press conferences, President Trump has repeatedly and explicitly announced the United States’ war against the virus. Similarly, in the March democratic presidential debate, former Vice President Biden argued, “we’re at war with a virus.” Several weeks later, the US Surgeon General warned the first week in April would be “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it’s not going to be localized, it’s going to be happening all over the country.” The urgent search for a a vaccine was compared to as “a global arms race,” invoking a Cold War era planetary competition between warring countries and ideologies.
Journalists and citizens alike fell into the narrative of war, using terms like the “home front” and “front line” to describe their daily life. Grocery stores, playgrounds, sidewalks, and churches transformed into war zones; a hug, wearing a mask, Cloroxing your mail, and sitting on your couch transformed into acts of war; and store clerks, doctors and nurses, furloughed employees, and parents at home with kids transformed into the front line. (The New York Times breaks down how women make up over half of essential workers right now in the US.) Along with these transformations is the sudden shift in American affect. Considering an apple in the produce section is anxiety-producing, turning on the news is dread-filled, tallying case and death counts is terrifying.
But the rhetoric of war performs quite a bit of often problematic and contradictory work, as many writers have already described. It incites solidarity and urgent action, and it also allows for the erosion of civil liberties. It generates patriotism, and it also overrides transnational solutions to a global pandemic. It renders the virus into the invisible, the diffuse, the global, and it permits national finger-pointing, like the “Chinese virus” and blaming Europe for the spread in the US. It creates the image of a wartime president tirelessly working to unite his country and get it “back to normal,” and it also sets the foundation for a wartime reelection.
The narrative of war also papers over the reality of the US government’s systemic and systematic lack of preparedness to handle a global pandemic. Several New York Times articles document a devastating timeline in which the president received advanced warning of the virus and failed to act. Additionally, submitted in February, the national budget proposal for 2021 called for $740.5 billion for national security, $705.4 billion of which was for the Department of Defense. It also proposed a cut to the budget of the Centers for Disease Control by $1.3 billion, 20% of its 2020 budget. Yet when the White House asked the Pentagon to gather 100,000 body bags, the visceral image sent shockwaves through the logic of America’s neatly divided fiscal planning.
The US declared war. And yes, it neatly fits with President Trump’s “us versus them” logic and the idea of protecting a great America from foreign invaders. But this sort of reading doesn’t explain why so many people across party lines have taken up war as an unproblematic, even useful narrative. When I started thinking about this post, I thought I would write about the problematics of war rhetoric in this context, but I increasingly began to wonder how such a war against a virus became thinkable and so easily taken up by national politicians, newscasters, and Americans going about their everyday lives. A critique of war rhetoric seems to elide a more complex reality: The war on coronavirus tugged on a historical narrative of a national politics increasingly gathering war closer to home.
It is not the first time that the US has declared war against a non-human threat. L.B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs” proclaimed war against issues. After 9/11, the Bush administration proclaimed its “War on Terror” and made war based on emotion thinkable. Yet these wars were never in reality about the non-human, and like most viruses, war ultimately finds a human host to sustain itself.
The wars on poverty and drugs became wars against low-income communities and people of color. Following 9/11, Muslim Americans and people of Middle Eastern descent quickly found themselves the object of national scrutiny and overt racism—whether they were going through rapidly intensifying TSA screenings at the airport or waiting in line at the grocery store. Similarly, the war on the coronavirus, as Anika pointed out in her post, quickly has become a rhetorical war on the Chinese, the Europeans, the WHO, even on low-income communities or communities of color (being blamed for their failure to socially distance or their preexisting health problems).
More broadly, wartime affect and technology bleeds into our everyday lives, psychosocial realities, and national politics. Joseph Masco (2014) traces the post-9/11 US security state—one which anticipates ever-proliferating, more abstract threats—to the Cold War arms race, which “taught Americans that they could live on the knife’s edge of total war, and could so in perpetuity” (109). At the center of this American sensibility was the nuclear bomb (Masco 2006). It became the ultimate symbol of apocalyptic destruction and introduced a politics grappling with high consequence, low probability events.
And indeed, this logic shows up in the US’s militarized public health approach. The War on Terror ushered in an ever-expanding category of biosecurity. Today, this definition not only includes intentional acts of bioterrorism, but also infectious and zoonotic disease. In 2001, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, under Dr. Anthony Fauci, announced a focus on studying and preventing infectious diseases most amenable to bioterrorism, with the logic that non-military-use antivirals would naturally follow (Masco 2014).
Masco (2014) points out that this dual-use approach is a relic of the Cold War, in which wartime technologies promised a foundation for basic scientific research and innovation. And indeed, weapon-based research has had a second life in cancer treatments, commercial-use fertilizers, and perhaps most conspicuously nuclear energy. Two weeks before the national emergency, I was a newly minted PhD candidate and had just started my dissertational fieldwork on the decommissioning of Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant. In 1979, the plant experienced a loss of coolant, resulting in America’s most publicized commercial nuclear accident. It exposed the fault lines in President Eisenhower’s 1953 “atoms for peace,” but it didn’t destroy the industry. Wartime technology continued to power our everyday lives, blending war with life in America. Today, roughly a third of Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant.
The domestication of nuclear energy is a story of a wartime technology materially and figuratively bleeding into our psyches, our bodies, and our homes. It is a triumphalist, even romantic story of a wartime necessity setting the stage for scientific revolution. However, this happy ending, in reality, never arrives. Today, there are roughly 20 American nuclear power plants set to close over the course of the next half century without a long-term waste solution (beyond the decommissioning process itself). Likewise, the anticipatory logic of biosecurity did not in actuality prepare the US for a global pandemic. Instead, America is stuck in a reality riddled with a lack of testing kits, contact tracing methods, medical-grade protective gear, employment, and toilet paper.
What the war on coronavirus has accomplished, however, is crystalizing a historical process, in which nuclear power played a pivotal role, of weaving war into Americans’ everyday life. But the basic question remains, is it really sustainable? If Americans can “live on the knife’s edge of total war,” how long can we—and the world—live in the United States’ war against the coronavirus?
Masco, Joseph. 2006. The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
———. 2014. The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Durham: Duke University Press.