The coronavirus epidemic had scarcely arrived on US shores when the Trump administration declared “war” on it, in the grand tradition of the ‘War on Cancer’ or the ‘War on Drugs’. But these invisible wars don’t end well.
President Donald Trump declared war on the “invisible enemy” – Covid-19 – last month, pivoting on a dime from downplaying the pandemic to doing his best Churchill impression. The surgeon general and other officials have referred to the coronavirus outbreak as another Pearl Harbor. The struggle against the coronavirus, Americans have been told in no uncertain terms, is a war – but on whom?
This is hardly the first time Americans have seen their country go to war against an invisible foe. Washington’s insistence on declaring war against intangible enemies has given rise to the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, even the War on Cancer – all ruinously expensive enterprises that have left the issues they were meant to fight stronger than ever. Income inequality has soared since the ‘War on Poverty’ was declared in 1964, while the nation’s prisons (and cemeteries) are bursting with victims of the War on Drugs. And cancer is not just the number-two cause of death in the US – it’s also a leading cause of bankruptcy, the cost of treatment pushed skyward by the billions dumped into the ‘War on Cancer’.
Perhaps the most catastrophic failure has been the War on Terror, which attempted to marry ideological struggle with actual combat and set the Middle East on fire in the process. No one would mistake the drone pilots lighting up Afghan wedding parties for the men who put their lives on the line to storm the beaches of Normandy. But that hasn’t stopped the US military from trying to channel that righteousness, to the point of bringing back World War II-era uniforms.
The problem with declaring war on the intangible is that mission creep is inevitable without a concrete enemy. The War on Drugs ended up targeting drug users, while the War on Poverty ultimately victimized poor people. The War on Terror wasn’t satisfied with merely declaring war on terrorists, so it took out the entire Iraqi and Libyan governments, and tried to do the same to Syria.
Now, trigger-happy congressmen like South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham are trying to reorient the War on Coronavirus to become a War on China, urging the Trump administration to cancel US debt held by Beijing and hinting that the Communist Party must be “severely punished” for allegedly covering up what half of Washington insists on calling the “Chinese virus.” Lawyers and even small businesses are trying to sue China, while scapegoating pundits fan the flames of jingoism around the country.
Even if Trump manages to rein in his attack dogs, the War on Coronavirus is already turning into a war on America’s poor. With millions of newly unemployed Americans stuck at home, told they’re “not essential,” suicides – already epidemic in the US – are beginning to rise further, outpacing coronavirus deaths in some places. Millions more risk being evicted when their states’ temporary eviction bans expire in two months. CNN’s Chris Cuomo may liken sitting on the couch binge-watching Netflix to wading ashore at Dunkirk, but that’s cold comfort to those who’ve already fallen in “combat.”
With over half of every discretionary budget dollar going to feed the military beast, it’s easy to see why American governments see every struggle in terms of war. But war always disproportionately affects the poor and vulnerable. The War on Coronavirus will be no different. When all the Trump administration has is a hammer, everything might look like a nail, but there’s nothing stopping the president from trading in that same defective hammer for more useful tools.
By Helen Buyniski