In a 1906 speech at Stanford University, William James defined the need for collective national service as “The Moral Equivalent of War.” Ever since—from the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps to the Peace Corps to AmeriCorps to the “wars” on poverty and drugs and terror—politicians of all stripes have attempted to persuade us under that banner to fight for various causes. In a speech on the energy crisis in 1977, President Jimmy Carter asserted that the necessity to “balance our demand for energy with our rapidly sinking resources . . . will be the moral equivalent of war.” In June 2010, emphasizing war more than its moral equivalent, President Barack Obama told Politico that the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico “echoes 9/11.” Four days later, in a speech at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, he declared that “This is an assault on our shores, and we’re gonna fight back with everything that we’ve got!”

Now, amid a global pandemic, the war rhetoric is ubiquitous. In mid-April, announcing government “guidance” on the path to ending the lockdown, President Donald Trump stated that he was leading America in a “historic battle against the invisible enemy” that amounted to the “greatest national mobilization since World War II,” but also that “based on the latest data, our team of experts now agrees that we can begin the next front in our war, which we are calling ‘Opening Up America Again.’”

Because the original goal of the war was to “flatten the curve”—to avoid overwhelming the health system—and because that goal has been achieved, some on the right say that the war is, in effect, over. Given the current numbers, they are willing to declare victory and go outside. But many on the left say that flattening the curve was just the first battle in a long war that must be continued—to keep anyone from getting sick. “We will fight to save every life we can,” New York governor Andrew Cuomo tweeted. In announcing the statewide lockdown in March, he stated, “I want to be able to say to the people of New York, ‘I did everything we could do.’” He added: “And if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.” In a press conference shortly afterward, he was even more explicit. “If you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy, then it’s no contest. No American is going to say, ‘accelerate the economy at the cost of human life.’ Because no American is going to say how much a life is worth.”

Under Cuomo’s logic that we should do whatever we can to save “just one life,” Americans would not be able to leave their homes and go back to work before the arrival of vaccines and antidotes. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden suggested as much: “Let me be very clear: No one is expendable. No matter your age, race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability. No life is worth losing to add one more point to the Dow.”

Not to be outdone, last week Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf insisted that “We Pennsylvanians are in a fight for our lives. The enemy is a deadly virus set on destroying us.” He then condemned some state residents for resisting the full lockdown. “Over this past weekend,” the governor said, “some have decided to surrender to this enemy. These are politicians who were elected to serve their fellow citizens. Others are business owners who have chosen to serve their customers by putting them in harm’s way. These folks are choosing to desert in the face of the enemy.” For Governor Wolf, the war must not end until the virus is completely vanquished. Staying at home and sacrificing one’s livelihood is heroism; going outside to salvage one’s income is treason.

After 9/11, Americans across the political spectrum often said that we should not abandon our civil liberties or change our way of life drastically in response to the threat. If we did, the thinking went, “then the terrorists will have won.” Nearly 20 years later, if we allow Covid-19 to kill our economy, then the virus will have won. While preserving life, especially for the most vulnerable members of our society, remains of the highest importance, real war involves real losses, of lives and treasure. It’s a fantasy to pretend that we’re in a war without acknowledging that there will be some sacrifice of both.

Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images


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