January 5, 2022



About one hundred years ago, what we now call the First World War gave us, among other things, the notion of total war. Total war refers to the mobilization of the entirety of a country or society -- all the population, all the resources -- to contribute to the effort to win a war. The First World War, I think, merits being described as a total war.

In my adulthood, which I generously define as starting in the year 1990, my country the United States of America has been involved in what have been called wars, and I suppose there's reason to think they are wars. But it also seems to me that none of those wars have been total wars. The 1991 Gulf War, the 2003 Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan -- none of them merit being called total wars.

I submit that my country has not been involved in a total war in my adulthood, until now.

I further submit that since December 2019, my country, and indeed all of humanity, has been at war. The antagonist is a strand of RNA inside a lipid shell; the rules of engagement encompass the realms of science, mathematics, virology, immunology, epidemiology, public health, public policy. I'm referring of course to the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the SARS-CoV2 virus and its evolutionary descendants.

Some may dispute this way of thinking, particularly to dispute the connection between a war and something very much not a war. And this is where we enter the realm of metaphor theory, as I remember most vividly from the book Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. A metaphor, you will recall, is a figure of speech which connects two dissimilar things. Metaphors We Live By makes the point to highlight the connections made by metaphors in all caps, as in HAPPY IS UP and TIME IS MONEY and ARGUMENT IS WAR.

When it comes to the present pandemic, I'm impliclity using the metaphor MEDICINE IS WAR. It can seem astounding to connect so brazenly two so dissimilar things: Medicine involves caring and healing, a war is very much not. And yet, there are reasons to assume a war-like posture: a war has two opponents in a zero-sum struggle of life-and-death stakes, with mass-casualty levels that now exceed real-life actual wars.

Indeed, I submit that the reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic has fit the description of total war my closely than any other war, or indeed any other event, in my lifetime. And I like to think that I've been a dutiful solider in this war: I maintain social distancing, I wear masks whenever I go out, I promptly get vaccinated and boosted when cleared to do so, I go out only when absolutely necessary. All of this is easy for me to say: I happen to have enough privilege and resources so it is not a burden for me to do.

Ironically, I have supported this non-war war more than some people who have supported actual wars, and most of those actual-war supporters have given comfort to the enemy in this non-war. In other words, many of the actual wars my country has supported have been egged on by jingoist right-wing political elements in my country. Many of these same elements have also taken on macho posturing, thinking that they don't need to abide by science or sound medical advice, ignoring and/or belittling effective solutions like mask-wearing and getting vaccinated, deeming such sensible and effective actions as signs of weakness, and promoting dubious and ineffective "solutions" that frankly don't work and make things worse.

In a further irony, the same blaming actions and rhetoric that the pro-war factions levelled against antiwar opponents and documentarians can be levelled back, in spades, against those same factions in my country and around the world. I can forcefully say that the unvaccinated are weak, appeasing, pro-virus surrender monkeys who are strengthening the enemy and harming the economy and killing innocents. In order to defeat this foe, they need to drop their resistance and join the fight.

Photo credits: by NIAID - https://www.flickr.com/photos/niaid/49534865371/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92612457

Photo by pixel2013 on Pixnio