War rhetoric around Covid-19 is an insult to every avoidable death
It is a known truism in politics that war is fabulous news for popularity ratings - especially for a right-wing leader. There's an inevitable 'bump' that occurs from 'rallying around the flag' and speaking in grave, stoic terms about the violent challenge ahead. Operation Desert Storm famously did wonders for George Bush Sr's flailing numbers in 1991, whilst his son repeated the trick in 2003 with a similar spike in support. Even the desperately ill-fated Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam gave Lyndon B Johnson a welcome upturn.
It doesn't necessarily have to be a conventional war - just as long as it can be packaged as such. 9/11 clearly had a seismic effect on every facet of American life, with the deeply emotional tremors lasting to this day. Of course no one in power would have wished for such a tragedy to occur, but the fallout was still weaponised by the neoconservative spin machine. It was sold as a 'war on terror', which did no harm whatsoever to the President's popularity. George W Bush's approval ratings subsequently rocketed from 51% to 90%.
In many ways the 9/11 example is greatly prescient. In his dystopian 2004 documentary The Power of Nightmares, Adam Curtis explores the strategic manifestation of an enemy that is more symbolic than physical. The fact that conventional military engagement is impossible doesn't really matter. What matters is the power and authority - and justifications - that a theoretical war situation allows you. The same playbook is now being used by authoritarian leadership to frame the coronavirus pandemic as war.
It is the reason why Donald Trump continually refers to Covid-19 as 'China virus', and is blatant in his declaration that, "We're at war, in a true sense we're at war, and we are fighting an invisible enemy." War allows for special measures, for the bending of rules around human rights and basic decency. It excuses mass hardship as the unfortunate price for the greater good. It even excuses avoidable death tolls in the tens of thousands. Perhaps most vitally, it paints criticism of any sort as unpatriotic and even treacherous.
Closer to home, Boris Johnson is deep in the throes of a perverse Churchillian role play fetish - and a willing media is feeding into that dangerous narrative. Charles Moore, Johnson's pick for the next chair of the BBC, spouts fawning guff such as 'May Boris and Britain get through this battle', whilst the BBC's Nick Robinson throws around terms like 'wartime leader' to describe a highfalutin press briefing. This complicity absolves the leadership of countless incompetences and serves only as client journalism.
Johnson knows exactly what he's doing when he opines "...in this fight we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted" and faux-eulogises, "...everyone from the supermarket staff to the transport workers to the carers to the nurses and doctors on the frontline." The second statement is especially perverse seeing as Matt Hancock responded to calls for a rise in nurses' pay with: "I’m sure there will be a time to debate things like that...now is not the moment." Unfortunately clapping doesn't pay the bills.
It is cynical bullshit of the highest order. No one 'enlisted' for anything. This is not a war. The public want to be protected, and for the government to do their job. Those working as doctors and nurses and shop workers did not enlist for the military or swear an oath to lay down their lives for Queen and country. This 'frontline' narrative accepts the inevitability of fatalities - it excuses them dying because that's what people conscripted to the 'frontline' do. Whilst those condemning them to such a fate hide in bunkers and fridges.
It is bad enough that self-serving Presidents and Prime Ministers swathe themselves in military metaphor and forcefully impose a fugazi 'Blitz spirit' onto the public, but the press should know better than to entertain such a wicked lie. At a time when strong opposition and rigorous journalism is needed more than ever to hold the government to account and potentially save lives, we have significant sections of the media only to happy to act as propaganda arms. War - what is it good for? Those in power and funeral homes.