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Covid-19 and the language of war

In her address to the nation on March 18 about the Covid-19 pandemic, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that this was a war without a human enemy. But Chancellor Merkel’s speech also highlighted the problems which arise when one uses the language of war in dealing with a pandemic. How does one wage a war without a human enemy?

Covid-19 and the language of war

Nothing rouses and galvanises a society like war-speak, note the authors, but the language of war fails when it is not applied to a proper noun, but to general nouns.

In her address to the nation on March 18 about the Covid-19 pandemic, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that this was a war without a human enemy.

Many saw this as an admonishment of the disconcerting language emanating from governments elsewhere, not least of which the White House which, until very recently, persistently labelled the pandemic a “Chinese virus”.

But Chancellor Merkel’s speech also highlighted the problems which arise when one uses the language of war in dealing with a pandemic. How does one wage a war without a human enemy?

It is completely understandable why such language is being used not only by politicians, but also by economists in warning of the repercussions of the pandemic on businesses and jobs. Nothing rouses and galvanises a society like war-speak, with its notions of crisis — and the overcoming of it — as well as the sense of togetherness and a shared fate.

Moreover, such language, imbued with a sense of urgency, makes it easier for resources to be mobilised and commandeered, and for demanding sacrifices. Sacrifices that, by virtue of there being a crisis in the first place, are willingly and happily made.

And, because war is widely understood in binary terms — win or lose — hopefully, at the end of the war, you win.

However, the phenomenon of war is not quite so simple. War is a contest of opposing wills: You have an agenda that is diametrically opposed to that of your adversary, a hostile Other; and, ultimately, only one agenda — hopefully yours — can exist at any given time.

This hostile Other has malicious intent against you and your identified In-group; it is purposefully plotting your demise. And hence you are justified in plotting and bringing about your enemy's destruction.

It helps that this hostile Other takes a physical form, it has a “postal code” upon which you apply your instruments of violence such that you can impose your agenda on your hostile Other.

Because bringing about another's destruction is no easy thing — at least it ought not to be — one of the things that the language of war does is to accentuate, magnify and vilify the Other's differences to such a degree that your exercise of violence on that out-group is not only justified and even lauded, but possible to begin with.

To destroy another human being, it helps to first de-humanise him. Except that the point of war is to convince your hostile Other that its best interests are to abandon its extant malicious intention against you.

Destroying your hostile Other may be the best means by which you ensure your agenda prevails, but destruction per se is never the necessary and sufficient condition for you to win your war against your hostile Other.

And this is one reason why the language of war fails when it is NOT applied to a proper noun, but to general nouns: War on drugs, war on poverty, war on terror (as opposed to particular terrorist groups), and so forth. The United States’ Global War on Terror (Gwot) created the onomatopoeic “Gee, what?”

Covid-19 is a pandemic, a particularly contagious one, that maybe has a geographical or country origin. But it is devoid of any intent, much less malicious ones; it flies no flag, carries no passport, it does not have a “postal code”.

And it is potentially coming for all of us. But war is effective as a policy instrument only when it is directed at an embodied threat.

There are elements of war that have an at least facile parallel to this pandemic. In war, there is the inevitability of error — sometimes attributable to human error, sometimes attributable to forces beyond human control, such as sheer bad luck.

Humourists refer to this as Murphy’s Laws of Combat.

The role that human error in war has, at least thus far, been only mediated, and there is no evidence that human error can ever be eradicated.

There is evidence of human behaviour in the midst of Covid-19 that flies in the face of the best medical and epidemiological advice, and this is something that can be controlled, but only up to a point.

But there are, like in war, structural factors and conditions that remain beyond the human capacity to control. If anything, it is as the saying goes: “We have met the enemy; he is us.”

So whether by design or no, the language of war, and all that posturing, in the Covid-19 campaign is manifesting in hatred, discrimination and even violence on the Chinese (however defined), or Asians (however defined), or whoever happens to be the enemy du jour next.

This is not only unhelpful, but will derail the global cooperation that is required right now. To say nothing of it being absolutely wrong.

Ultimately, though, the language of war when used in the context of fighting a pandemic will lead to frustrations because it implies a clear-cut definition of what victory (or defeat, for that matter) looks like, and an expectation that the post-war world will resemble greatly the pre-war normalcy.

The history of wars suggests that this expectation is precisely and only that, an expectation.  

In dealing with a pandemic, there can be no victory that is defined in unambiguous we-won-you-lost terms. The enemy isn't ever completely vanquished; it takes a beating and goes into hiding, waiting to emerge in a different form.

So yes, use the language of war to mobilise society and its resources, but don’t go overboard with it lest it becomes actual warmongering.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Adrian W J Kuah is Director of the Futures Office, National University of Singapore. Bernard F W Loo is Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. This is their personal comment.

Related topics

Covid-19 coronavirus MOH leadership pandemic Politics economy

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