Pandemic as Total War? Mental and Material Lessons


Jennifer Yip is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the influence of logistics on the strategic outcome and everyday experiences of war. She completed a Master of Philosophy in World History at the University of Cambridge and a B.A. in History at the National University of Singapore.

With the world embroiled in a grueling fight against the COVID-19 virus, references to “total war” abound. President Donald Trump has portrayed himself as a “wartime president.” “Ventilators,” declared New York governor Andrew Cuomo, “are to this war what missiles were to World War II.” Mike Fischer, a UK entrepreneur and philanthropist, invoked the “Dunkirk spirit” in his call for laboratories in the United Kingdom to offer resources for large-scale testing. The parallels to total war are not restricted to militarized rhetoric. Even before President Trump’s invoking of the Defense Production Act on April 2, pundits had highlighted World War II mobilization as a guide for the United States’ response to the crisis.

The bandying about of war references compels us to reflect more deeply on both the merits and limitations of such a comparison. The historical experiences of modern war shed the most light on two areas of the pandemic: the emotional and psychological as well as the material and logistical.

Emotional Parallels with Total War

The COVID-19 pandemic resembles not just any war, but total war. It scrambles all aspects of public and private life and demands society-wide mobilization. The world is now strapped into a rollercoaster ride of anxiety and frustration—even despair—powered by the uncertainty hovering over the most basic of concerns. Will there be enough food or medical supplies to go around? Where will we go? When will we be able to travel again? The pandemic is cruel because—like total war—it makes day-to-day survival increasingly unpredictable.

Throughout the pandemic, the world has undergone the same stages of the total wartime experience, albeit at different paces. First, disbelief of what seemed a remote possibility; then, a sense of coming under siege. But as societies settle into a new normalcy, they shift to less intense points on the emotional dial, coming to rest instead on listlessness. The boredom of stay-home measures has spawned new entertainment fads. Board games like Murder! were created to endure air-raid blackouts in the 1940s. Now, video games are enjoying record popularity: Nintendo’s Animal Crossing has taken the world by storm.

Pandemic society, like wartime society, oscillates between urgency and banality. For most of us, it is precisely this jarring combination that makes the experience so bizarre.

Trauma and Anxiety

First responders have begun to weigh in on the severe psychological fallout of this pandemic. “I feel like I can relate to soldiers in combat or veterans with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” a nurse in California remarked. Yuval Neria, director of trauma and PTSD at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, has suggested that not even World War II can compare to the scale of trauma that will result from this health crisis.

The use of total war as the standard against which to measure the severity of the pandemic’s psychological consequences will only take us so far. Some bristle at the suggestion that being forced to stay home and watch Netflix is as bad as enduring violent conflict. At the same time, claims that the emotional toll of the pandemic must be higher than that of total war is to risk trivializing the truly global and total nature of conflicts such as World War II. (British wartime civilians endured the carnage of nighttime air raids, one commentator remarked, but at least they could gather for dinner parties.) There is no need to rank global crises on a hierarchy of devastation and risk dismissing the gravity of one or the other. Identifying similarities between war and the pandemic does not have to involve a pity contest.

Instead, it would be more useful to consider how the undeniable psychological challenges of war could help guide us on how to cope with the challenges of the present. Putting the crisis in historical perspective will help us come to terms with our experiences. For example, many of the most relevant diagnostic frameworks derive from war—PTSD became a diagnosable condition in 1980 in the aftermath of Vietnam—and military caregivers can offer invaluable knowledge on coping with uncertainty and distancing. And it should not be forgotten that veterans themselves are especially vulnerable to relapses of existing psychological disorders under lockdown conditions. The mental exigencies of such unprecedented disruption are very real, and governments should prioritize the provision of mental health services to anyone who needs them.

The Logistics of Wars and Pandemics

While the world braces itself for an insidious battle with mental illness, it also has to grapple with a much more tangible challenge: supply chains.

There are two related but distinct problems here. The first problem is the scaled-up production of critical medical supplies, such as virus test kits, face masks, and ventilators. This has garnered the most enthusiastic comparisons to wartime industry. At the same time, social distancing and stay-at-home orders have forced non-essential sectors to grind to a halt, with catastrophic consequences.

This brings us to the second and more critical problem: distribution. Military historians habitually apply metaphors of circulation to logistics– “sinews,” “lifeblood”–because war bodies require the physical flow of supplies to survive. (See, for example, James A. Huston’s The Sinews of War or Julian Thompson’s The Lifeblood of War.) The same applies to pandemic-stricken nations, where the bodily metaphors are even more chillingly apt. There is currently no global shortage of food per se; in fact, the US has suffered an obscene amount of wastage in fresh produce. Rather, the crux of the global pandemic response lies in the timely delivery of food, medical supplies, and other necessities.

The policy challenge, then, is twofold. The first is to ensure that the workers of companies producing and distributing essential supplies are safe. This is an ethical duty on the part of both governments and corporations. If policymakers and corporate executives do not act, workers will, as evidenced by strikes by employees at e-commerce platform Amazon and grocery delivery service Instacart.

The second is to re-optimize and, where possible, localize logistical networks. In Singapore, for example, taxis are being redeployed as delivery vehicles for an online grocery service which aids both overburdened delivery teams and cabbies in need of work. Where long-haul deliveries cannot keep pace, local production alternatives should work with smaller distribution systems, such as bike couriers. Social media enables community-driven efforts at organizing distribution. A Singapore Facebook group has allowed hundreds of food businesses and retailers to communicate takeout and delivery options to customers. Such ground-up coordination has become crucial for the survival of these businesses, as centralized food delivery platforms charge lofty commission fees. It now has more than 22,000 members. In war as in pandemic, sometimes the most effective crisis responses are those which pool local resources and draw on community strengths.

The Search for a Decisive Victory

Military doctrines may differ in means, but their end is always the same: the permanent termination of conflict. A decisive victory against COVID-19 would mean its elimination. Only a vaccine—effectively distributed—could end the pandemic for good. But this could be more than a year away. Physical distancing measures slow the spread of the virus, but will not destroy it altogether. Herd immunity is not guaranteed and may lead to immeasurable casualties. Rapid victory, then, does not seem within reach. Rather, the ongoing battle resembles one of attrition. It entails a patient whittling-down of enemy forces—i.e., slowing contagion—while keeping one’s physical and mental strength intact.

The characterization of the COVID-19 pandemic as attritional highlights the cardinal importance of morale. The global community must fortify its will to fight precisely because, this time, there is no enemy will to break. While populations chafe at prolonged lockdowns and economic structures crumble, the virus, indifferent, can wait us out. We are trapped on the defensive until a safe vaccine enables us to take the offense. In the meantime, impatience and complacency will exact unbearable costs.

Drawing mental and material parallels to war hammers home the stakes involved in the ongoing crisis. The rhetoric might be daunting. But as the growing number of pandemic-related archival projects demonstrate, there are powerful commonalities in experience across the globe. This time, unlike all past conflicts, all of humanity is on the same side. To devolve into blaming and shaming along racial, national, or political lines would be a disservice to ourselves and to those who come after us. Instead, we should be building moral and material alliances across these lines and on all scales—from the local to the global—to end this historic fight.

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out more op-eds from Divided We Fall here.

Website Photo Jennifer Yip
Jennifer Yip
Doctoral Candidate at University of Pennsylvania | Website

Jennifer Yip is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the influence of logistics on the strategic outcome and everyday experiences of war. She completed a Master of Philosophy in World History at the University of Cambridge and a B.A. in History at the National University of Singapore.


chattykerry April 27, 2020 at 2:30 pm

I understand that this pandemic may feel like a war time scenario but there isn’t really an enemy apart from a simple if deadly virus. Just like every other species it is trying to be successful and multiply. I am driven to distraction by the euphemisms for this pandemic – troubling and difficult don’t describe how awful this must be for someone with no access to clean water or food.
If only we had a real common sense democracy with honesty and truth.

Bumba April 21, 2020 at 10:56 pm

The war metaphor has a history too. At least back to Lyndon Johnson and the War on Poverty. Wars on Drugs and Crime have long been political rallying cries. And then there are real wars. But the war metaphor gets people moving together and that’s already something. We’re going to have to be smart and resourceful with this “enemy” – who has us all under siege.


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