On Memory’s Battlefield: The Pandemic as Our Next Forgotten War

The prospect of fighting is agreeable to those who are strangers to it. — Vegetius, Roman military writer, 4th century A.D.

Lights surround the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, placed as a memorial to COVID-19 victims. Alex Brandon, Associated Press. (“‘We Must Remember’: Biden, Harris Memorialize COVID-19 Victims,” NPR, 1/19/21.)

Since the first reports of coronavirus cases, we have been struggling with the problem of how to remember the pandemic. Some do not believe the pandemic even really happened; others believe that it was planned intentionally; others believe, against all evidence, that COVID-19 is a thing of the past. In the U.S., this is largely because the Trump administration spent most of 2020 forgetting about the coronavirus and encouraging the rest of the country to follow suit. In October, amid chilling reports of case growth and predictions of a “dark winter” ahead, the White House issued a commemorative coin reading “Trump defeats COVID” — an unusually ceremonious way of sweeping a public-relations crisis into the dustbin of history.

Perhaps as a reaction to those still in COVID denial, the media spent much of last year describing the pandemic as if it were a war. In March 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a national lockdown punctuating his televised address to the country with the sentence “Nous sommes en guerre.” It’s a common rhetorical move: plagues have been compared to wars since antiquity. But with this comparison, journalists and commentators specifically intended to raise the alarm about a near-term crisis and the costs of its neglect. (At the same time, US leaders were also busy framing the pandemic as a xenophobic war: the President’s preferred epithets for the SARS-CoV-2 virus were the “China virus” and our “invisible enemy.”)

As the global situation deteriorated, news accounts of the coronavirus increasingly referenced not just war in general, but also the historic wars we think we know best: the Civil War, World War I and II, Vietnam, and occasionally even the Global War on Terror. (With much less frequency, public commentary has invoked the Cold War, the Korean War, or the Gulf War — conflicts which we consider less close to home somehow.) Some of these reports have even stated national death tolls in terms of the casualty counts of the most iconic wars or invoked, for example, the “last helicopter out of Saigon,” suggesting that the pandemic is a new branch on war’s family tree. As David Bell pointed out in Le Grand Continent last spring, the war metaphor has a long history in Europe and the US: “It is thanks to this extraordinary history of 1793–1945 that the word ‘war’ has such incantatory power throughout the Western world. The irony, though, is that since 1945 the experience of full-scale mobilization for war has disappeared almost entirely from this world.” So is war the best way for us to remember the coronavirus pandemic?

So far, the answer has seemed to be yes. Many writers, including left-leaning ones, appear anxious to dignify the pandemic by comparison to a military effort — specifically, a military effort whose outcome is jeopardized by public indifference. It’s certainly reasonable to worry about the coronavirus pandemic disappearing in a kind of fog of war. The Vietnamese American author and critic Viet Thanh Nguyen has written “All wars are fought twice: once on the battlefield and once in memory.” Doesn’t this maxim anticipate our infuriating culture war over whether COVID-19 mattered in the first place?

Though it’s tempting to borrow the prefabricated cognitive, cultural, and emotional infrastructure that accompanies the idea of war, I suggest we should not reduce COVID-19 to a war in popular imagination — not even as a way to say “never forget.” In important ways, the pandemic is not “like World War II” or, for Americans, “another Vietnam”; taking refuge in history can blunt awareness of the challenges that currently confronting us. Nostalgic framings may even distract us from our own mistakes. Critiquing the media narratives that compared Britain’s struggling pandemic response to Dunkirk and other heroic episodes of World War II, historian of medicine Paul Weindling cautioned “A patchwork of historical metaphors poorly hides defects in provision and planning.”

On a more basic level, war is not particularly “good to think with,” as politicians have serially declared war on political and social problems — drugs, cancer, poverty, “terror” — and thus another so-called war doesn’t startle readers. Still, figures of speech — even tired ones — condition us to perceive in ways that may operate against our best interests. Lorenzo Servitje, author of the forthcoming book Medicine is War: The Martial Metaphor in Victorian Literature and Culture, has warned against comparing the pandemic to war, given that with this comparison we “uncritically invite all the connotative and historical baggage it carries.” If we claim the pandemic is a “war” against a virus, then we are socializing audiences to accept the usefulness and necessity of armed conflict as well as disease control measures, as anthropologist Saiba Varma has argued. When we think of wars as the correct response to a health crisis, we forget that war is also a means for national governments and private actors to enrich themselves and arrogate new powers— that “war is the health of the state.”

But the greatest danger, perhaps, of calling COVID-19 a “war” is that we don’t really remember wars: we ritually forget them. Over the last year’s accumulation of think pieces and historical reflections, many journalists have been surprised to rediscover how the horrifying influenza pandemic of 1918 was forgotten in real time, displaced from public consciousness by the traumas of World War I. Literary critic Elizabeth Outka has described the influenza pandemic as “the shadowed twin to the war, a disaster as unprecedented in its casualties and in its suffering as the war, yet at times locked into a paradoxical relation with it.” But not only did Americans forget the flu pandemic: we then went on to forget the war too. Historian Mark Levitch has written that World War I has long been “largely absent from American popular culture”:

By many standards, World War I’s longtime status as a forgotten war has remained unchanged in the United States since the 1980s. Percentage-wise, few Americans would be able to name a single World War I battle, and the war’s American heroes — once familiar, many still the namesakes of streets — are almost wholly unknown.

Comparisons to war are particularly complex in the United States, given that many the national public (or its cultural majority) has been encouraged to imagine that all wars inevitably end in American victory. A weak cultural schema for making sense of military defeats may make us liable to be misdirected by the use of war metaphors: instead of warning us of a possibly catastrophic failure, they encourage us to believe that we will prevail. When journalists compare COVID-19 to a war, they may be inadvertently defanging the pandemic — even promising the audience a deus ex machina.

Such wishful collective revision of history — essentially, a mass false memory — has surfaced in essays comparing the horrors of COVID-19 to the Vietnam War. Since last spring, numerous essays have suggested that the quagmire of Vietnam is somehow precedent for the pandemic in the US, pointing to prior history of executive malfeasance, intelligence failures, materials shortages, and a grim accumulation of death. Vietnam veteran David Gerstel wrote for the New York Times “Chance rules. Leaders lie. Deaths become statistics. The parallels between the disease and the war are everywhere.” Similarly, Parisian mayor Anne Hidalgo sparked controversy when using the war metaphor to ridicule the slow French vaccination campaign, stating that with such shortages, D-Day would surely have been a failure.

Comparisons between historic wars and our current situation contain a grain of truth — but only a grain. It’s true that wars have often served as a catalyst in revealing a country’s enduring blind spots, particularly inasmuch as leaders have frequently misunderstood history, underestimated opponents, and overestimated themselves. During past wars and throughout the public health disasters of the past year, many have accepted false reassurances from ill-intended leaders, hoping for the best. And there is indeed a family resemblance between imperial wars and pandemics: both are, in their own way, “mirrors held up to society.”

We should be suspicious of efforts to generalize from the experience of past wars to new ideological battlegrounds, however, as these lessons do not speak for themselves. Indeed, in the aftermath of World War II, the supposed “lessons of the war” proved extremely fungible, used both to justify the European project, and warn against the dangers of a German reconstruction or reunification. The “lessons of Vietnam” were used both to advocate for war in Iraq and Afghanistan and to argue against intervention. Lessons cannot easily prevent repetition compulsion around foreign wars, however, as author and Vietnam veteran Philip Caputo anticipated in his memoir A Rumor of War:

Finally, this book ought not to be regarded as a protest. (…) [The] war is over. We lost it, and no amount of objecting will resurrect the men who died, without redeeming anything, on calvaries like Hamburger Hill and the Rockpile.

It might, perhaps, prevent the next generation from being crucified in war.

But I don’t think so.

Beyond revealing an enduring absorption with the American defeat in Vietnam, these comparisons of Vietnam to COVID-19 also manage to leave out the Vietnamese. Essentially, it’s ambiguous whether they mean to compare SARS-CoV-2 to the North Vietnamese Army, to the Johnson and Nixon administrations, or to both. And curiously, though these commentaries tend to be couched as critiques of the Trump administration, they typically fail to acknowledge that North Vietnam won the war — albeit at great human cost.

Painting wars as tragedies for ourselves alone, authors thus default into national exceptionalism — which is itself part of the cultural fuel for disease transmission. Vietnam, for example, is a country, not a war — and inconveniently for the authors of these think pieces, America’s old enemy has been faring extraordinarily well vis-à-vis the pandemic.

But despite their many logical shortcomings, these comparisons may not even mean much to the average reader. Opinion polls have found that views about past foreign interventions and defeats shift towards approval and acceptance; as of a 2018 study, over one in four Americans holds no opinion about the Vietnam war’s morality at all. A 2012 poll showed 57% of French citizens viewed Algeria’s independence in a positive light — though as Macron announced earlier this week, there will be “no repentance or apologies” for past colonial abuses. Comparing COVID-19 to ignominious wars that are already half-forgotten is thus an extremely ominous gesture towards the future of national public health. The self-serving, mythologized way we remember our wars, and the fatalistic way we forget them, presage the pandemic as our next forgotten war.

Martha Lincoln, Asst. Prof. of Anthropology, San Francisco State University

A version of this essay appeared in Le Grand Continent on January 23, 2021.