Don’t Wage War on COVID-19

What should we do if we don’t wage war? First, we should try to understand it.

Posted Mar 23, 2020

By Zef Art Shutterstock
Source: By Zef Art Shutterstock

In states of threat and high alert, we want to find “the enemy” and vanquish that enemy. That is one of the reasons why humans have almost always been at war since we have been on earth (see Yuval Harari’s Sapiens for a good review of that history). We are designed for war and should have been dubbed Homo War or Homo Wers, the Indo-European root for the word “war” which means “confuse” or “mix up.” Noticing more negative feelings than positive ones, primed to see what is “wrong” instead of what’s working, we are always on alert for harm and to protect ourselves against what we believe is harming us at any given moment.

What is war? It’s a situation in which a nation (or a person, a group, a corporation) is opposed to and fights with other groups or countries, typically armed with weapons. War can also be a struggle between opposing forces for a particular outcome, like the war on poverty, the war on cancer, the war on drugs and the war on terrorism. You are, no doubt, aware of these recent “wars” that have been destructively waged against vague forces and have neither ended nor succeeded in bringing about any kind of victory.

Instead, they have resulted in “attacks” on the vulnerable (e.g. “attacking” cancer with chemotherapy and making the sick person sicker without defeating the cancer, or attacking those people who use drugs and making them poorer and sicker by putting them into prison). The way that most wars end is that one side surrenders because it is defeated, followed by further enmity between them that rarely concludes. In other words, wars do not lead to stable and livable outcomes for those who are in them.

Why is this the case? In short, because the frame of mind that war induces in human beings is a pervasive confusion; it always increases and expands the sense of threat that continues during the war itself. This kind of confusion can be thought of as the “fog of war” or the increased uncertainty that occurs during a time of war. The Prussian general who is credited with naming the “fog of war,” Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), made the observation:

War is the realm of uncertainty; three-quarters of the factors on which action is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.

Of course, in more recent times, the filmmaker Errol Morris made the documentary “The Fog of War” that featured a lengthy interview with Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense between 1961-1968, who shares his painful observations about the brutal actions the U.S. took against Japan in World War II and his poignant personal regrets about his own actions in the Vietnam War. The movie is an excellent review of what is wrong with “waging war.”

And so, what should we do about COVID-19 if we don’t wage war? First, we should start by trying to understand it. We don’t yet know fully the nature of this virus or exactly how it will behave (see, for example, statnews/a-fiasco-in-the-making). We still don’t have enough reliable data about what the virus is, to know what kind of threat it poses. It will take some time and effort to collect data on large enough samples of people who have the virus and have no symptoms or have cold symptoms, or have severe respiratory symptoms, or who actually die “from the virus” (whether they have other existing conditions along with the virus that may be the cause of death) to understand the threat.

But in the absence of understanding the virus, we have made it into an enemy. It’s very easy for us to create enemies. I argue that we “need” enemies to feel “safe” and that we must work consciously against our own motivations continuously in order not to create enemies, especially among those we love and live with and those whom we oppose. Doing and writing about Dialogue Therapy for couples for the last four decades (young-eisendrath or see my books on couples), I have a clear view of human hatred, the humiliation-rage cycle, and the desire to blame and shame, especially during states of emotional or physical threat. If you are living with a partner, friend or spouse in your home now, in this time of tight restrictions or “lock-down” on your freedom, you probably know what I mean.

When things go wrong and we feel pain, or when we are in serious conflict over our needs, we have a powerful need to blame someone or something—and then to try to take control of that “enemy.” Since 2018, I have been recording a free podcast, ENEMIES: From War to Wisdom, in which I and my co-hosts (Eleanor Johnson and Jill Abilock) explore the dangers of polarization at home, at work, and in the world. We delve into war and the fog of war.

When we hear/see/feel a real or imagined threat, we all react by trying to protect ourselves (and our families) and to promote our own interests. And yet, making an enemy of a virus will not work better than our war on drugs did. We cannot conquer the virus. Instead, we must learn how to co-exist with the virus. After we understand it, we must discover and come to recognize our relationship with it. We know this much so far: this virus seems to have come to us from two other species, the bat and the pangolin.

These are animals that are slaughtered in “wet markets” in the Wuhan area of China where most of our Apple products are made, and where 5G is being developed. Chinese wet markets have entered into our own world in a large way because our corporations work in that part of China. We have created a high demand for products that come from factories in the Wuhan area and we have not looked deeply into the consequences of that demand.

But viruses, in general, and coronaviruses in particular, won’t allow us to get away with “making war” on them. They adapt and they colonize us as much as we must adapt and learn to live alongside them as our demands bring them and theirs into our realm. We must become savvy about their boundaries; they will become savvy about ours. Of course, there is much more to say about how to relate to the natural world in which new viruses keep coming into the human niche.

Here I want to emphasize only one thing: Let’s not “make war” on the virus. It’s an impossible and destructive intention. Instead, let’s learn about the virus and its needs in relation to us. Don’t get me wrong: I am not “feeling for” the virus. I am recognizing the limits and vulnerabilities of being human, the war-making species. We don’t rule this planet. We have to get along here. And our human world is a world of life-and-death, not a world of “life” separated from “death.” The two are bound together for humans on earth. We cannot wage war on one side without making war on the other.