The Evasive Nature of Declaring 'War' on a Pandemic | Sojourners

The Evasive Nature of Declaring 'War' on a Pandemic

Image via REUTERS/Leah Millis

Whether it’s through economic sanctions, military assistance, or arms sales, the U.S. often attempts to make its instigations of war covert. Recent operations of the United States have gone as far as to deem some foreign armed forces as “surrogate” forces of the U.S., giving the U.S. authority to take command of foreign military operations. But whether the U.S. directly has troops on the ground, the end game becomes "America first" — gaining profits from arms sales, access to natural resources, or political influence over a regime.

However, in the White House press room, today, the war the Trump administration is touting most is his so called “war on COVID-19.” This tactic of naming a fight against a non-human entity is not unfamiliar as a response to crisis. We see titles like war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on terror, and now in the war on COVID-19.

The war on drugs in the United States did not result in a more sober society, but instead increased violence, especially against black and brown people, helping build our current system of mass incarceration and exploited prison labor. Following the 9/11 crisis, President George W. Bush pushed for the war on terror, which did not de-escalate terrorism, but rather brought mass surveillance, discrimination of Muslims and devastation to countries in the middle east. While the “war on poverty” seemingly produced positive social reforms, its focus and impact privileging white Americans cannot be lost amid LBJ’s escalation of war in Vietnam and surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr.

So, what does using war language while speaking about COVID-19 say? It dissolves the responsibility the U.S. has in actual, violent wars across the world.

While preaching this “war on COVID-19,” the U.S. has not relented in its wars abroad, neither scaling back its operations or ending foreign military assistance.

We see this clearly when the U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire in late March. Many countries heeded the call. Forces in the Philippines, Afghanistan, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Myanmar, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen, have joined the ceasefire according to Guterres.

But the U.S., with its hands in multiple wars, has remained silent about it. In fact, the U.S. government’s one public comment about the ceasefire was a tweet from the National Security council.

And yet, the U.S. engagement in the war in Afghanistan wages on and the U.S. is still funding the Saudi-led bombings in Yemen, and dropping airstrikes in Somalia.

In the Philippines, no order from President Rodrigo Duterte — whether to shoot drug dealers, quarantine violators, or violate women communist fighters — will lead the United States to limit military aid to the country.

Ongoing U.S. Sanctions against Iran have made COVID-19 even deadlier there.

While the pandemic awaits resolve, the Indo-Pacific command is already asking Congress to increase funding by 20 million to ward off China.

This continuing, if not escalated, military intervention reflects the history of a country perpetually in war and founded on war. War is the first language for the United States — something so familiar to our own tongue, we’re not even aware how we sound.

No generation in the history of the United States has lived without war, and some have hardly lived a year without the country at war. War is so normal to U.S. operations, it becomes invisible to us. Instead, the narrative of American exceptionalism becomes familiar — a narrative that makes the U.S. look like a noble hero, the world’s torchbearer of democracy, a peacemaker among worldwide conflicts, and now, the victor against COVID-19.

Crisis and pandemics then don’t end war, they become plot twists where the U.S. plays its most familiar refrain. We beat the drums of war, step into the story as a hero in the fight for freedom, and then in a final act, dare to call other countries to adhere to a global ceasefire, paying no heed to ourselves.

Pope Francis recently offered a different narrative around crisis, one in which “our joint fight against the pandemic” should “bring everyone to recognize the great need to reinforce brotherly and sisterly bonds as members of one human family.”

Pope Francis’ language of family far outlasts that of any presidential metaphors of war. It’s time the United States take those words seriously — to declare ceasefire from all U.S. military endeavors abroad, to act as one human family — and to end war. Not just during this pandemic, but always. 

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