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War Metaphors and the Return to Campus

Applying the wrong logic.

May 20, 2020


Tim Burke’s piece this week about his thoughts on a possible return to campus in the fall is well worth reading.  Burke works at Swarthmore, a wealthy and elite residential liberal arts college near Philadelphia, so some of his reflections are based on that setting.  But the larger issues he raises transcend that setting.  


The piece revolves around an unhappy recognition that every possible solution to the question of returning to campus is unsatisfactory, in both practical and moral terms.  It’s the moral argument that captured my attention.  Notice the word choice in his framing:


“If we can’t all stay home and work on laptops -- and plainly we can’t -- there is part of me that thinks that we should all be on the same frontlines, in the same foxholes, enduring the same bombardments.”  After all, “[w]artime means shared sacrifice, shared danger, shared risk.”  There should be “solidarity in the inescapability of threat.”  


Burke is thoughtful enough to see some of the dangers in the war metaphor.  As he notes, correctly, “the metaphor has a pull,” offering the thrill of solidarity and a sort of valor, against the gray “reasonableness” of prudential calculation.  He ends the piece torn between head and heart, with his heart clearly siding with group solidarity against what is likely to be the first of many natural enemies.


Burke’s candor is admirable; my rejoinder here is in the spirit of suggesting that a good and thoughtful writer missed the mark in a particular piece.  But it’s absolutely a discussion worth having.  I’m grateful that he wrote it.


War metaphors have a long history.  William James coined the term “the moral equivalent of war” in a speech at Stanford in 1906, published as an essay in 1910.  James’ piece was an attempt to explain the paradox that such an ugly and barbaric enterprise as war draws its appeal, in part, by drawing on the best qualities of the people who fight in it.  Soldiers need courage, loyalty, strength, and dedication.  (James refers to “manliness,” which is another essay entirely.)  When James wrote of a moral equivalent of war, he was trying to find a non-military project that would call out the best in people for positive ends.  Seven decades later, when Jimmy Carter invoked James’ phrase, he was trying to do much the same thing.


In both cases, the efforts failed.  There is no moral equivalent of war, because war is an atrocity.  The War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror: all failed.  They got war wrong.


The narrative of “shared” sacrifice, danger, and risk covers many sins.  We fight wars now with independent contractors -- what, in a less refined age, were called “mercenaries” -- and drones, raining hellfire on people thousands of miles away while most of us forget it’s even happening.  Sacrifices in war are wildly uneven, even comically so.  Many actually prosper.  As Randolph Bourne put it, echoing Hegel, war is the health of the state.  Leaders in political trouble know that one of the easiest and most effective ways to gain support is to rally around a common enemy.  And it works precisely in the way James noted.  Some sacrifices are so deep and severe that they command respect, which is used as a cudgel against those who ask why the sacrifices were necessary in the first place.


Returning to the verdant campus of Swarthmore is about as far as an 18 year old can get from being drafted.  The sacrifice Burke offers in his piece is of people his own age.  The 18 year olds will likely shake off the virus if they get it; he might not.  But solidarity beckons.


No.  No, it doesn’t.


The point of staying away from campus is not to romanticize the people “on the front lines.”  It’s to prevent needless contagion and sacrifice.  You don’t stop the virus by throwing your body on it like a live grenade; that would just help it spread.  You stop the virus by depriving it of hosts and of chances to spread, at least until a vaccine comes along.  That may seem like the opposite of valor, but think it through: if I go out there, catch it, and spread it, who am I helping?  I’m not diluting it; viruses reproduce. If I die from it, will I have advanced the cause?  Or will I just leave my friends, colleagues, wife, and kids with a hole in their lives, and possibly with nasty infections of their own?  What would be the point?


“Sharing” sacrifice requires ensuring that there’s enough to go around.  The goal should be to reduce the need for sacrifice at all.  My gesture of solidarity is wearing a mask when I’m in public.  I’m sacrificing a haircut and a raise.  That’s far more useful than throwing myself into crowds could be.  I respect the folks in public-facing jobs by doing my best not to get them sick.  And in making political choices likelier to prevent future outbreaks from reaching this level in the first place.  That, too, is another essay entirely.


This perspective can be a hard sell when you’re young and impatient.  I see it at home every day, as The Boy paces his cage.  He wants out.  He feels the loss.  He feels the sacrifice.  He doesn’t like it.  I don’t blame him.  But this is what we need to do.


James’ invocation of a moral equivalent of war may have been awkward or premature, but it was based in recognizable truth.  War persists because it calls on our best qualities, even as it uses them for destructive ends.  This isn’t a war.  It’s a pandemic.  Applying war logic, or war metaphors, gets it wrong.  You don’t fight contagion by jumping into a crowd.  We who want to educate the young need to lead by example, even when it’s uncomfortable.  Or too comfortable.


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Matt Reed

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