When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Sometime this month or next, the United States will hit a once-unimaginable milestone: one million dead from coronavirus. When that happens, the reaction from many will be muted. Americans are exhausted, most agree, and they are ready to put the pandemic behind them, whether or not the pandemic is done with them. We have hit so many milestones by now that these numbers appear almost meaningless to us. What makes one million more unimaginable than any of the rest of them?
Those who do attempt to drive home the staggering significance of this loss, as a few have already done, will almost certainly reach for a very specific set of comparisons. They will note that one million is close to the number of combined U.S. war dead from World War II and the Civil War; or they will say that the country has not experienced loss on such a level since World War II. They will speak of memorializing the dead and point to the war memorials that dot the National Mall as inspiration. As the U.S. struggles to move forward, they will discuss the recent past in a language that has become unquestioningly familiar in the last two years: the language of war.
We don’t often stop these days to question this comparison, but we should. After all, even though most of us will readily admit that COVID-19 is not a war in the traditional sense, the metaphor has shown incredible staying power. Each time we hit upon a new milestone and call upon war to understand it, we give it more power over how we understand the pandemic. At this particular milestone, which comes at a time when most of America has resolved to move past the last two years in one way or another, the comparison is even more dangerous: not only does it fail to fully describe where we are today, it risks dictating how this pandemic will be remembered. Before we begin to write the history of the pandemic, then, we must consider once and for all the presence of wartime language in our pandemic vocabulary – and reckon fully with its perils.
During the first week of the COVID-19 shutdown, the language of war was everywhere. By mid-March 2020, President Donald Trump had labeled himself a ‘wartime president,’ calling upon America’s wartime history to inspire citizens to meet the occasion. “To this day, nobody has ever seen [anything] like it, what [Americans] were able to do during World War II,” he argued. “Now it’s our time. We must sacrifice together, because we are all in this together, and we will come through together.”
That same week, memes invoking wartime imagery spread across social media. “Keep Calm and Carry On,” the famous British propaganda poster, was modified to read “Keep Calm and (Don’t) Carry On.” “Your grandparents were called to war,” read another. “You’re being called to sit on the couch. You can do this!” Shortly after the 75th anniversary of the end of the battle at Iwo Jima, a cartoon circulated reconfiguring the famous flag-raising photo with doctors and nurses taking the place of soldiers.
As an immediate reaction by politicians and the public alike, it made a certain kind of sense. The language of wartime connotes sacrifice: it suggests that while the current situation is dire and requires us to give up certain pleasures for the common good, it is also a state of unusual emergency and therefore temporary. There is a long rhetorical tradition in the United States of using the language of wartime to mobilize the public to come together and fight a common enemy: the war on poverty, the war on drugs, and thus the war on COVID. Accordingly, the plea from politicians and the public was relatively standardized in that first month: if war means a united front against a common enemy, then we are at war.
Metaphors are not reality, however; despite the resonance of this appeal, the pandemic was inescapably not a war. There was no draft. There were no ration cards, no victory gardens, no scrap drives. There were no drills for airstrikes, no blacked-out windows, no mass destruction of cities, no military casualty lists. There were no battlefields, no bombs, no armies joined in combat. Perhaps reflecting this dissonance, the plea for wartime unity didn’t last long.
Yet the language of war persisted as comparisons between military and COVID deaths began. On April 28, 2020, at 58,365 dead, U.S. coronavirus surpassed the military deaths of Vietnam, which claimed the lives of 58,318 Americans. On June 10, 2020, the nation reached the combined total of U.S. dead for every war since Korea. One week later, it surpassed the US death toll for World War I. By the end of January 2021, it was World War II. And on February 22, 2021, deaths from coronavirus hit half a million Americans – a number that was contextualized as matching the combined American military death totals from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. With the help of subsequent waves from new variants, the comparisons carried into the fall, as the nation passed different estimated totals for the Civil War in August and November, 2021.
Many media sites expressed doubt about the uses of these comparisons even as they published them. The Washington Post, for example, while reporting on the death tolls surpassing Vietnam in April of 2020, provided a long list of reasons why the comparison wasn’t necessarily a helpful one. The rate at which people were dying, for example, was incomparable: the highest monthly death toll at any time in Vietnam was in 1968, at 1400 people a month. The Post noted that this didn’t even reach the daily death toll from COVID-19 in late April of 2020.
But the most obvious reason such a comparison fell short, they argued, was the question of agency – the U.S. chose to get involved in the war in Vietnam, whereas the pandemic simply happened. Both death tolls represented a failure of the government, but they were different kinds of failures. Comparing the two elided some of those differences in both directions – they not only hid the particular choices by the federal government that led us to both of these situations, but they also hid the agency of state and local governments as well as individual Americans, who had a significant measure of control over their own responses to the pandemic beyond the federal government’s reach.
All the same, however, the Post dutifully reported each major military milestone along with other major media outlets, no matter how unhelpful some of its own writers suggested such a comparison was. Why?
Historian Mary Dudziak has argued that although we often understand war in the metaphorical terms given above – a temporary sacrifice, made endurable because it is not permanent –when we take a step back, we see throughout American history that the boundaries of war are never so simple and easy as they look on paper. Long after conflicts have ended, there are still soldiers on the ground maintaining occupying forces. Restrictions governing our lives often outlast the wars themselves. The trauma from war can last a lifetime. Wartime, she argues, has actually become the de facto status of the United States. It is peacetime that we lack throughout most of our history.
This suggests that Americans repeatedly reach for war as a metaphor because, despite our understanding of war as a temporary state, its pervasiveness means that we have little else in our shared national memory to draw on. The monuments on and around the National Mall, for example, suggest that Americans honor only two kinds of national memory: memory of individuals, and memory of war. In the former case, a person can stand in for an entire event – consider the Washington Monument as a stand-in for the American Revolution, or the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s statue as the embodiment of the Civil Rights Movement. In the latter category, war reveals itself as the only way that certain groups of Americans can be remembered at all. Here we can include the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, where disabled vets must stand in for disabled Americans more broadly, and the National Memorial to Japanese American Patriotism During World War II, which prioritizes its focus on the Japanese Americans who served in the armed forces during the war at the expense of fully unpacking the legacy of Japanese American internment.
Such a memorial culture suggests a depressing reality: perhaps the reason Americans keep framing the losses from the pandemic in terms of military casualties is because the idea of death on such a scale is only comprehensible through the language of war. Death by heart disease or cancer might speak to people on an individual level, but if our goal is to understand and comprehend the sheer scale of loss, we should intend to shock. Shock and scale require tapping into national memory in order to mobilize a national response. For a large portion of the American populace, then, it seems that the only shared national memory we could possibly apply here, the only thing that our nation has really prepared us to understand, the only thing that could really give this experience meaning, is – war.
This comparison is spilling into our future as well. The largest temporary national memorial to the pandemic, put up by the National Parks Service in the fall of 2021, relied heavily on the metaphor of war remembrance. In September 2021, 660,000 white flags were placed on the grounds of the National Mall to honor the 660,000 Americans who had died thus far from COVID-19. The installation, called “In America: Remember” was begun in the fall of 2020 by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg. The first installation, which numbered only 220,000 flags, drew comparisons to Arlington National Cemetery, a miniature, concentrated representation of national loss. Both iterations contained an element of the personal: the flags were put up by volunteers, and individuals could write on flags or offer a digital dedication to those they had personally lost.
Looking at Firstenberg’s exhibit, one might initially think of the AIDS Memorial Quilt that first covered the National Mall in 1987. The scale, the use of the National Mall to make a physical political statement, the idea that individuals could contribute to the memorial to honor those they’ve lost, all offer a clear parallel. But what the staggering visual as a whole suggested were the international installations put up to mark the centennial of World War I. In those cases, poppies or small bodies or crosses were laid out, row after row, or in some artistic formation, to attempt to show the sheer scale of death. Perhaps the most stirring of these efforts was “Blood Swept the Land and Seas of Red,” the successive installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London between July and November of 2014. Flowing out the side of the Tower and down into the field, the poppies were each made by hand by volunteers under the direction of artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper and were meant to symbolize individual British military fatalities.
Firstenberg’s exhibit, which from a distance appears as a white, fluttering sea, makes the same point. However, her work contains an indefatigable strain of American exceptionalism even as her work echoes international commemorative efforts. The title “In America, Remember,” which originally carried the tagline, “How could this happen…?” is a reminder that before 2020, many of us might have foolishly believed that such a thing might happen to some people somewhere, but it could never happen to us. Other countries might have reckoned with World War I’s terrible scale of loss at the dawn of the twentieth century and the many mass tragedies that have occurred in the 100 years since then, but the United States, committed now as ever to the notion of American exceptionalism, missed this message. The similarity between Firstenberg’s flags and Cummins and Piper’s poppies remind us that we are no more immune to mass tragedies than any other nation, even as her title drives home the fact that this time around, it’s the U.S. with the horrific death toll beyond the imagination of many other nations.
But this conflation of pandemic and wartime deaths elides the real problem with memorializing the pandemic as a war. Wars are a moment when people are asked, rightly or wrongly, to die for something. When nations go to war, they call upon their citizens to fight for their country’s honor, ideals, or even just continued dominance. Whether that cause is just or unjust, the state lays a claim upon their lives, and when citizens die, they are understood to have died for a purpose.
War memorials, therefore, attempt to find meaning in their deaths. Even those memorials that claim that that death was pointless, as many of the World War I memorials set up during the centennial did, focus their meaning on why those people died, and in doing so, voluntarily or involuntarily, situate the meaning of those people’s lives around the moment of their death. The individual names and lives on a war memorial are reduced to serving a greater purpose, which is to explain the conflict and its national significance. As individuals, their lives matter only insofar as they can tell us something about this greater story.
Pinning that framework on COVID-19 victims thus does them the greatest of injustices: it forgets how they lived, and how those disparate and diverse lives reflect the real toll of what America has lost in the last two years. By conflating those deaths with military casualties, by remembering this period of history as a war, we suggest that their deaths are tied with the nation state, and that therefore they have died for something. We ignore the senselessness and the sheer stupidity of their deaths in favor of reconciling this death with a larger story. Such an approach might fit within the framework of America’s favored national narratives, but it will not help us learn from this moment or move forward from it, for the language of wartime is utterly unequal to describing the COVID-19 pandemic. The sacrifices we were asked to make at the beginning of the pandemic were much more permanent than we anticipated – even now, we are still remote, still wearing masks, still accommodating the pandemic in our everyday lives. Though we all want the pandemic gone, we have not exactly rallied around that cause, domestically or internationally. When we reach the point where the pandemic is safely considered to be “in the past,” we will reenter a world bereft of over one million Americans. The greatest disservice we could do them and ourselves is to claim that they were soldiers, and that therefore their deaths had any kind of meaning.
We study history not to avoid repeating the past, but to learn what we can from it, and thus if we must remain so preoccupied with war in American history, we might consider taking a different lesson from it as we move forward.
After World War II, there was a large, national turn away from the traditional memorials used to commemorate the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and World War I, among others. At that moment, Americans recognized that the experience they had just endured was too different, too terrible, and too raw to honor with the kind of memorials to which they had become accustomed, and they turned instead to ‘living’ memorials: town halls, gymnasiums, hospitals, and the like, creating spaces that could be used by the living as they honored the memory of the dead. When the time comes to commemorate the COVID-19 pandemic, we might recognize this moment as a similar breaking point. To move forward, we will need a new kind of memorialization, one that refuses to be cowed by the weight of our past as it honors and mourns one million lives lost.
This essay was adapted from a conference presentation given last month at the University of Alberta. Opening quote from Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”