Coronavirus Pandemic is Not a War

Wash Hands Stay Home

A pandemic is not a war.

To call the pandemic a war shows a failure of imagination. 

President Trump claimed he is a wartime presidentThe Governor of North Carolina said, “This pandemic is a war, and we need the armor to fight it.”  Finance gurus want to issue coronavirus war bonds.  Foreign policy pundits are saying absurd things like, “We need to fight a holding action on the economic front.”  The Head of NATO said we are fighting “a common invisible enemy.”

This is nonsense.  Wars are intentional actions that deliberately kill human beings.  An enemy is a person serving a government.  War is a political act involving the conscious decisions of moral agents.

A virus is a force of nature.  It has no intentionality.  A pandemic has no political agenda.  There are no enemies here.  There is no one to negotiate with.  There will be no peace treaty. 

The war metaphor makes us think in nationalistic terms.  But a pandemic is a global problem.  Nationalism prevents cooperative action.  We don’t need a wartime president.  We need a global team of scientists and doctors.  

The war analogy creates a morbid fascination with body counts.  This leads to lame statistical analogies.  People have compared pandemic deaths to the numbers killed in wars.  The Surgeon General said this will be “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment.”

These comparisons are uninformative.  Better comparisons would consider those killed by other infectious diseases, say AIDS or Ebola. 

This fascination with body counts implies that that we “win” when the count goes down.  But each death represents an infinite loss.  Dead people are not tally marks on some perverse scorecard.  Instead of counting body bags, let’s talk more about grief, mourning, and resilience.

The myths of war, as I have argued elsewhere, make it seems that a soldier’s death is vindicated by victory and the justice of the cause.  But in a pandemic, there is no justification or vindication. 

The rhetoric of war also gets infused with patriot and religious language that becomes propagandistic. 

When President Trump sent the Navy ship, Comfort, to New York,, he published a patriotic video and tweeted:With the courage of our doctors and nurses, with the skill of our scientists and innovators, with the determination of the American People, and with the grace of God, WE WILL WIN THIS WAR .”

Again, the idea of a war to be won is absurd.  Also absurd is the idea that the grace of God is involved in this, or in any battle.  Hurray for the doctors and scientists.  But the real work is about healing and mitigation, not about defeating an enemy.  This is an unglamorous effort, conducted one person at a time in sick beds and hospitals.  The American people don’t need to put on armor or steel themselves for battle.  We need to stay home, wash our hands, and wear masks in public.

Unfortunately, our imaginations are infected by militarism.  Patriotism is tightly woven around war.  We cheer on the war machine, despite morally problematic and endless wars.  If the “war” against coronavirus is like the war in Afghanistan, we are in trouble. 

Nor do we think enough about peace-building.  The pandemic calls for cooperative cosmopolitanism and creative community transformation.  Public health is not war.  It is peace-work. 

War rhetoric has led us astray before.  The “war on drugs” created a punitive system of mass incarceration, while thousands continue to die.  Drug overdoses killed 67,367 people in 2018.  The war on drugs failed because it should not have been a war. 

Instead of combat, we needed compassion.  People turn to drugs because of pain, depression, or a lack meaning and purpose.  The solution to the drug pandemic is a peaceful campaign of caring for those who suffer.

A similar rhetorical shift is needed for the coronavirus.  Let’s support the care-givers by giving them the equipment they need.  Let’s build inclusive infrastructure to support social-distancing in a time of economic turmoil.   Let’s provide compassionate care for those who suffer and grieve.  And let’s encourage the wartime president to stay out of the way of cosmopolitan science and the peaceful work of public health. 

Death Penalty and War

What do we want when it comes to war or the death penalty?

Fresno Bee, July 26, 2014

Federal judge Cormac Carney recently ruled that California’s dysfunctional death penalty is cruel and unusual because those who are sentenced to death are rarely executed. Since 1978 only 13 people have been executed in California, while more than 900 people have been sentenced to death. The average time spent on death row is 25 years. Execution in California is a matter of luck, not justice.


Carney argues that the arbitrariness of the death penalty means that this punishment is not working to deter crime. Nor is it working as retribution. Neither of these moral purposes is fulfilled when executions are infrequent and random. Carney does not deny that the death penalty can be justified. Rather, he maintains that the current system does not live up to its own standards.

Carney’s argument raises the challenge of idealism and perfectionism in thinking about state-sponsored killing. He concludes that if the execution system does not live up to the ideal, we ought not employ it. One obvious response would be to fix the dysfunction in the system and make it less arbitrary. But until that is done, the judge ruled that executions are cruel, unusual and unconstitutional.

We usually don’t demand this sort of perfectionism. Schools, marriages and sports leagues rarely live up to our ideals. However, we don’t abolish them. Instead, we aim to reform them to bring them closer to the ideal.

Usually it is not wise to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Perfectionism sets up a false dilemma: either perfection or abolition. The perfectionist false dilemma can lead us to jettison valuable but imperfect things. It can also cause us to give up the effort to reform and improve.

But state-sponsored killing seems to require a special and more perfect justification. If we are bothered by the arbitrary and capricious nature of the death penalty, then we should be even more worried about arbitrary and random killing in war. Consider the problem of collateral damage in war. Enemy soldiers are legitimate targets of justified warfare. But noncombatants — innocent civilians — are not supposed to be killed. Unfortunately, modern wars kill noncombatants in large numbers.

Defenders of the morality of war argue that civilian killing is permissible so long as armies do not deliberately target civilians. Critics of war reject this subtle moral point.

Critics argue that bad luck and accidental factors cannot justify the killing of the innocent. Following Carney’s reasoning about the death penalty, a critic might conclude that war ought to be abolished until we can ensure that wars are fought without creating collateral damage.

The analogy between war and the death penalty is not seamless. We presume, for example, that the convicted criminal is guilty of a crime and deserves to be punished, even though some death row inmates have in fact been exonerated. On the other hand, we presume that noncombatants are innocent and do not deserve the harm they suffer, even though the mothers and children of soldiers can work behind the lines to support the war effort.

A form of skeptical pacifism can result when we insist on perfectionism with regard to state-sponsored killing.

Until state-sponsored killing becomes less capricious and more deliberately targeted, the pacifist will say, states ought not kill.

Those not convinced by this argument will have to reconcile themselves to the apparent conflict between the arbitrary and random nature of state-sponsored killing and perfectionist idealism about justice.

A perfectly just system of state-sponsored killing would only kill those who deserve death and it would kill them in a fair and consistent way. A perfect system of state-sponsored killing would not bomb children or apply the death penalty in haphazard ways. It would give people what they deserve. And it would bring about good consequences. But of course, in a perfect world we would not need executioners or armies.

This line of thinking leaves us with a difficult decision. Should we demand perfection, or can we accept something less than perfection when it comes to war and the death penalty? This is a crucial and serious question for democratic citizens, since in a democracy state-sponsored killing is ultimately done in our names and on our behalf.

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Syria and morality of gas warfare

Syria prompts reflection on morality of war

September 6, 2013

Secretary of State John Kerry is right to claim that gas attacks in Syria should shock the conscience of the world. The problem is that much of modern warfare should also shock our consciences. Moral reflection cannot be one-sided; and it must be self-critical.

Reflection on the problem of chemical weapons points toward the general question of the morality of war. Why is it wrong to use weapons of mass destruction but not wrong to use other weapons?

The best place to begin thinking about this is the just war theory, a moral framework with deep roots in the Western philosophical tradition. Many of the ideas of the just war tradition are also found in contemporary international law, including ideas about war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The just war theory views some weapons as wrong in themselves. Rape and torture, for example, are rejected as inherently evil. Just warriors should not rape or torture — even if these things might help to achieve victory. Some will claim that, like rape and torture, weapons of mass destruction are intrinsically immoral.

But why are weapons of mass destruction more immoral than good old-fashioned explosives and projectiles? It doesn’t make much difference to those killed and maimed, whether the damage is caused by chemical agents or by shrapnel. It might be that the evil of WMD is that they cause slow, painful death. But this is not always true. Nuclear explosions instantly kill those at ground zero. Gas can be quick. And it is difficult to see why the slow, painful death caused by mustard gas is qualitatively worse than the slow, painful death caused by bullets, bombs and bayonets.

Another argument against weapons of mass destruction is grounded in the worry that these weapons are indiscriminate killers. They cause “mass destruction,” after all.

But the sheer number of casualties is not the primary concern. Rather, what matters is who is killed. Just warriors are allowed to kill enemy combatants — in large number if needed. But just warriors are not permitted to directly target noncombatants.

From this perspective, if poison gas or nuclear weapons could be used in a limited way on a battlefield — only killing enemy soldiers — then they may be permitted. But any weapon that targets noncombatants is wrong, whether chemical or conventional.

Some worry that it is not easy to control chemical weapons. Wind can blow gas into unintended areas. The primary moral concern here is accidental harm to noncombatants. However, the same criticisms apply to conventional weapons. Even precision weapons that aim to avoid collateral damage can end up killing noncombatants. Predator drones are more precise than other weapons. But drones have still killed the innocent.

Others worry about persistent aftereffects of nuclear or chemical weapons. But conventional weapons also leave behind lingering hazards. Unexploded ordnance is a problem, including land mines and bomblets left over from cluster bombing. And dangers may linger when depleted uranium shells are employed. It is not clear that chemical weapons are qualitatively worse than conventional weapons in terms of unintended consequences and persistent risks.

The good news is that the world is responding to some of these dangers. We have worked to destroy our own stockpiles of chemical weapons. That’s progress. But we haven’t signed on to a treaty banning landmines and cluster bombs. And we still possess thousands of nuclear weapons.

Consistency in the morality of war is difficult. It is tempting to make exceptions for “the good guys” and appeal to double standards. But the same principles that condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria can also be used to condemn American atomic attacks on Japan in 1945. Indeed, these principles can be employed to criticize incendiary weapons, napalm, white phosphorus, depleted uranium weapons, the use of torture and nuclear strategy.

One hundred years ago, the countries that are now condemning the use of poison gas in Syria employed it on the battlefields of Europe.

The nearly universal moral condemnation of the Syrian gas attacks is a hopeful sign that we have made progress in thinking about the morality of war. But we still have a long way to go. Further progress will result from a consistent and self-critical application of just war principles.

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