In late March, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced, “We are at war with a virus that threatens to tear us apart.” Similarly, during a news conference on the U.S. coronavirus response, Donald Trump said he viewed himself as “a wartime president.”
It’s not the first time a U.S. administration has declared war on a thing, rather than a country. President Lyndon Johnson introduced the War on Poverty in 1964. Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs, and George W. Bush pursued the War on Terror. America has also waged war on cancer and the Ebola virus.
Research shows such invocations can create a “rally ‘round the flag” effect, bolstering the president’s support at home. This type of declaration can also emphasize the seriousness of the situation and create an analogy that puts the crisis in perspective.
But using wartime rhetoric can also have a downside. Here’s what research on U.S. foreign policy and civil-military relations tells us about the potential consequences of militarizing the rhetoric around covid-19.
War changes the rules — for better or worse
Labeling something as “war” provides those in power more leeway in their policy actions. As Rosa Brooks explains, the rules change when an administration is at war. Things that were once off the table are now in bounds.
Presidents can invoke the Defense Production Act and mobilize the National Guard, actions citizens might otherwise see as government overreach. Calling these actions wartime emergency measures, rather than steps to address a public health crisis, make them seem more palatable.
The rhetoric of war might be useful in mobilizing necessary resources, but this language can become problematic, especially when the situation has no clear end in sight. Here’s an example: intelligence services have called for increased surveillance of American citizens to monitor covid-19, including tracking suspected carriers’ locations by cellphone. Such actions can result in policy precedents that are difficult to reverse later.
Furthermore, presidents have used the cover of war to circumvent congressional and public oversight, cutting off debate on policies. During World War I, the relatively short-lived Sedition Act of 1918 criminalized certain criticisms of the government during wartime. Attempts to limit debate under the guise of “national security” even date to John Adams’s presidency.
More recently, President Trump has used the pandemic to try to discredit news outlets that are critical of his response. He further claimed his powers as president provide him “total authority” over America’s response to the crisis. But legal experts have said this is simply untrue. These expansive claims could risk eroding democratic norms even if Trump does not ultimately attempt to exercise this “authority.”
The military is not always an appropriate solution
Reasoning by analogy is risky, and war is often a poor analogy for other policy problems. Militarized language risks suggesting the appropriate response is a primarily military one. Research on American civil-military relations shows us that the public holds a strong sense of deference to the armed forces and responds positively to rhetorical invocations of the military.
The military is particularly good at logistics — deploying people and assets quickly. It can often be an effective tool outside of traditional warfare. But scholars also argue there are limits on what the military can do and a risk of mission creep. The military can’t solve all our problems.
Some challenges call for nonmilitary tools and expertise. Civilian government agencies already specialize in public health, disaster relief and economic policy. While they don’t always get things right, neither does the military.
In responding to any public health crisis, transparency and clear public messaging are crucial. The military, like other national security organizations, is used to operating in an environment where secrecy and operational security are paramount. But we don’t need to hide our plans from a virus.
Responding to the pandemic also requires policymakers to make value trade-offs, particularly regarding how to assess and balance competing public health and economic interests. This is something that ultimately can only legitimately be done by elected leaders — the military is not directly accountable to the public.
There is also evidence the military failed to appropriately respond to the pandemic within its own ranks. The firing of Capt. Brett Crozier and the subsequent resignation of acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly has called into question the military’s readiness to handle covid-19.
It’s unwise to equate ‘service’ with military service
Research shows Americans have more confidence in their military than in any other public institution. This can make it tempting to try to portray those key to the pandemic response — nurses, doctors, first responders, grocery store employees — as soldiers on the front line, facing an enemy that is “inside the wire.”
While the pandemic may finally see those who provide these types of service getting the appreciation they deserve, celebrating these individuals because they are like soldiers — putting themselves in harm’s way to fight an invisible enemy — risks reinforcing the notion that this is the only type of service that is valuable.
Americans trust medical scientists, nurses and doctors, and have even begun joining in with other nations to cheer and clap for them. But rather than narrowing any potential civil-military gap, calling them “front-line workers” and coronavirus “warriors” may actually reinforce the military’s elevated status if other service is only celebrated when it is seen as military-adjacent.
Furthermore, despite categorizing medical personnel as soldiers on the front line, the government has failed to adequately provide the personal protective equipment needed to fight the pandemic. This reinforces the long-standing special status the military has held in American society. Federal budgets devote far more resources to funding the military than other forms of critical infrastructure like the U.S. health-care system.
The rhetoric we employ to handle these types of crises matters. This pandemic can still be a crisis — and can still have heroes — even if it is not a war.
Jessica Blankshain (@jblankshain) is an assistant professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and the co-author of “Decision-Making in American Foreign Policy: Translating Theory into Practice” (Cambridge University Press, 2019). All views are her own and do not represent the views of the U.S. government, the Department of the Navy, or the Naval War College. Danielle Lupton (@ProfLupton) is an assistant professor of political science at Colgate University and the author of “Reputation for Resolve: How Leaders Signal Determination in International Politics” (Cornell University Press, 2020).