Far from being a “great equalizer,” the coronavirus pandemic is a global stress test exposing with ever greater clarity the pre-existing divides: between the wealthy taking “coronavirus vacations” and the cleaners, caregivers, and other essential labourers forced to risk their own lives for unliveable wages; between the big corporations receiving bailouts and the workers struggling to buy food and make rent; between those for whom the terms of state violence–incarceration, occupation, military rule, war–are mere figures of speech and those who live with the reality of their brute force.
Comedians joke from mansion quarantine about being in “jail,” while prisoners and immigration detainees face mass infection and death. Celebrities grandstand about resisting “martial law” by taking their kids to “gymnastics camp,” while militarized police assault Black and Indigenous people out doing essential tasks. Western politicians talk now about being at “war,” when they have been making war on others all along. Apparently, “war” only registers when the waves of loss–instead of profit–finally wash up on Western shores.
The ubiquitous references to the “war on corona” by Western political leaders highlight the paradox: while the language of war is everywhere, the actual ongoing practice of military violence is shunted out of mind. With coronavirus, Donald Trump now refers to himself as a “war-time president,” as if his administration has not been dropping bombs on other countries (seven, to be precise) since the beginning of his term. If Trump is only now a “war-time president,” was his presidency previously a time of peace? Certainly not for those on the receiving end of the United States’ military interventions. As political theorist Mark Neocleous remarked, it seems “almost anything can be called ‘war’ except the actions that used to be called ‘war.’”
Critics across the political spectrum have analyzed the undesirable consequences of framing the pandemic through metaphors of war: the emphasis on measures of coercion rather than social care; the expansion of executive powers; the entrenchment of “enemy thinking” perpetuating divides between “us” and “them.” Few if any, however, have questioned the reduction of war to a metaphor in the first place.
The metaphorization of state violence is not an innocent move but a “move to innocence,” enabling equivocation of experiences across lines of domination. For example, as Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang argued in “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” “the easy absorption, adoption, and transposing of decolonization is yet another form of settler appropriation. When we write about decolonization, we are not offering it as a metaphor; it is not an approximation of other experiences of oppression.”
As the metaphorization of de/colonization obscures Indigenous dispossession, so does the metaphorization of war obscure war’s violence against those being invaded, occupied, or bombed from afar. Appropriating for themselves even the suffering of targeted populations (on top of their land, labour, and resources), the very societies responsible for waging war now also claim to be “victims of war.” Metaphorization collapses the distinction between those for whom coronavirus may be something like a war, and those experiencing coronavirus through and alongside the ravages of war; between those who have the privilege of regarding war as a metaphor, and those who do not.
For example, a journalist for Al Jazeera writes that with the coronavirus “war has invaded our homes [in the West] … It is our turn to know and experience the uncertainty, the worry, the hardship, the grief, the pain, the want, the trauma, and the sometimes paralysing fear that so many others, in so many places have known and experienced for too long.” Similarly, essays by psychologists liken the psychological impact of the pandemic to the “trauma” of living through a war–trauma serving as another specious great equalizer, the “one signifier for a plurality of ills” as medical anthropologists Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman critiqued. Under the clinical umbrella of trauma, even drone pilots and their targets are depicted not as opposite poles of a violent interaction, but fellow sufferers of a common “traumatized” state.
The reality-inversion is so complete that soldiers now claim to be “traumatized” by the religious practices of the people they have invaded: Ramadan broadcasts of the adhan (Muslim call to prayer) in American and Canadian cities during the pandemic are being decried for “triggering” soldiers returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. Air shows by military fighter jets, in contrast, are considered a therapeutic “coronavirus tribute”–the triggering effects on refugees terrorized by warplanes be damned.
To convey the magnitude of the pandemic’s devastation, newspapers report that “the coronavirus death toll in the United States [as of 28 April] exceeds the number of fatalities during the Vietnam War”–a comparison that excludes from the fatality count the 2.1-3.8 million Vietnamese who were also killed by the war, including in US military massacres such as the one at My Lai.
In The Nation, a columnist declares that “if this pandemic is a war, Trump is a war criminal”–and as with “America’s failed wars in Vietnam and Iraq … it’s left to working-class Americans, often people of color, to endure the brunt of the pain.” Once again, the burden of pain–and non-metaphorical war crimes–borne by the Vietnamese and Iraqi people themselves is erased, as are the current victims of Trump’s on-going track record of war crimes committed outside the “zone of being” of the United States.
Doctors who have previously worked in “war zones” like Syria are featured in media stories, testifying that the current conditions in US and UK hospitals are comparable or even worse. Omitted is the crucial difference that while Syria’s healthcare system has been obliterated by enduring war, the United States’ and United Kingdom’s have been eviscerated by funding war–the physical, psychological, and social costs of which have been largely externalized to other peoples and lands.
According to the Costs of War project at Brown University, annual US spending on the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health combined amounts to less than one percent of the costs of the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq: a disparity exacerbated by the Trump administration’s decision to further inflate the Pentagon’s budget while cutting from the Department of Health.
On 31 March 31–as the pandemic’s sweep revealed severe medical equipment shortages in American hospitals–the federal government placed a 4.7-billion-dollar order for seventy-eight new F-35 fighter jets, egged on by Republican and Democratic members of Congress alike.
Coronavirus Through War, War Through Coronavirus
Indeed, one of the few enterprises remaining operational during Italy’s coronavirus shut-down was the F-35 final assembly and checkout plant in Cameri, a critical link in American defence contractor Lockheed Martin’s global supply chain. In the United States, the designation of defense contractors as “essential” services–following industry lobbying to protect profit margins–has kept factory workers on the job, even with suspected COVID diagnoses, putting public health at risk to manufacture instruments of death.
While Trump’s description of himself as a “war-time president” implies that war is an exceptional state, the truth is that “the United States has been at war every day since its founding, often covertly and often in several parts of the world at once,” as historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has observed. Moreover, even “prior to its founding, what would become the United States was engaged in internal warfare [against Indigenous nations] to piece together its continental territory … inflicting hideous massacres upon civilians and forcing their relocations.” Not only have these internal and external wars continued through the pandemic, but the pandemic is a continuation of war through other means. Internally, with the further militarization of the border; the disestablishment of the Mashpee reservation, setting a precedent that threatens the territories of as many as one hundred other tribes, and the shoving of oil pipelines such as Keystone XL through unceded lands–creating “facts on the ground” while the “timing is good,” as one political leader enthused.
And on the external front, with the vitiation of the UN Secretary-General’s proposal for a global coronavirus ceasefire, so that the United States and Israel can proceed with their “counter-terrorism” operations; the acceleration of Israel’s US-backed plans to officially annex parts of the occupied West Bank; and the continuation of drone strikes in Somalia at a “blistering pace,” with what Amnesty International castigates as “zero accountability [and] no justice or reparations for the victims” as civilian casualties mount.
In many ways, drone attacks are the ideal form of warfare for a time of “social distancing.” While the physical deployment of soldiers risks exposure–“the United States has more than 75,000 troops stationed in countries that are experiencing [coronavirus] outbreaks, including South Korea, Japan, Italy and Bahrain,” as the New York Times noted on 29 February–drones permit infliction of lethal violence without incurring vulnerability in return.
While the eradication of viruses is likened to war, war itself has been reconfigured as what Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt called “social pest control”–in which the enemy is not simply an adversary to be fought, but a “criminal” or “parasite” to be annihilated. And indeed, the language of pestilence is prevalent in the “war on terror”: Islam is referred to as a “cancer,” Muslims as “cockroaches,” drone victims as “bugsplat.” Viral bugs are represented as war targets and war targets as bugs, enabling the expansion of state violence at both ends in the name of restoring the social body to “health.”
Ironically, then, the most pervasive applications of war powers–from settler colonization to counter-terrorism–are not technically recognized as “wars” at all. “War” in international law paradigmatically entails the right of both sides to use legitimate force: the fundamental principle of “equality of belligerents.” Here, in contrast, populations are subjected to overwhelming militarized violence but denied the right to resist in response, as in the colonial killing fields of decades past.
And so Somalis and Palestinians are deemed “terrorists” for attacking military targets, even if only with slogans or stones–while state killings of Somali and Palestinian civilians are written off as “collateral damage,” if they are disclosed at all. Police and military contractors terrorize Indigenous land and water protectors with weapons of war–while Indigenous people are criminally prosecuted for even non-violent resistance to pipeline invasions on their own lands.
“We see the continuity of claims about provisional or incomplete sovereignty,” legal scholar Aziz Rana explains. “Just as expansion into native land was not viewed as invasion” due to Europeans’ construction of sovereignty to exclude non-Europeans, “contemporary American policymakers argue that you can use specific kinds of violence, like drone attacks, in places such as Yemen (whether or not they are a hostile nation) because Yemen is fundamentally a failed state.” Somalia is also regularly described as a “failed state,” while the Palestinians have been denied any viable state at all.
Even as metaphorical wars proliferate–against poverty, drugs, cancer, and now coronavirus–war as a symmetrical legal framework is dismissed as inordinately restrictive and obsolete, permitting military violence in more naked form.
The War Metaphor as a One-Way Bridge
The limitations of the coronavirus war metaphor are revealed in its failure to generate widespread solidarity with people living under the reality of militarized oppression–for instance in Palestine and Kashmir. While memes liken the pandemic lockdown to being under occupation and blockade, these experiences are ultimately incommensurable.
As diaspora Palestinian political commentator Nada Elia points out: “No, life during the coronavirus isn’t like Gaza … On top of the siege, on top of already empty shelves, and the impossibility to travel, and poverty, and unemployment, and water and soil contamination, and the lack of basic necessities, Gaza now has to deal with the threat of the novel coronavirus [as well].”
In Kashmir, coronavirus compounds the pre-existing genocidal conditions of widespread torture, mass detention, extrajudicial killing, and rape, inflicted by a military contingent larger than the American army sent to occupy Iraq. A new domicile law passed by India in the midst of the pandemic further facilitates the settler-colonial assault.
Unlike the pandemic measures to which they are compared, the object of the occupations is not to save life but defeat it. The occupied populations are treated not only as the patient, but also the disease–against whom even the coronavirus “enemy” has been weaponized, as an opportunity to tighten the vice of surveillance and control.
While the success of the global pandemic response is measured by the number of recoveries, the occupations are measured by supposed “terrorists” killed. With the pandemic, governments are calculating how much life-saving PPE they can procure; for the Gaza blockade, the calculation was how few calories of food to let in to push the besieged to starvation’s brink. The pandemic lockdowns are depicted as temporary aberrations; war is the violent enforcer of a pathological status quo, and its extreme maldistribution of vulnerability, suffering, and death.
“Modern Western thinking continues to operate along abyssal lines that divide the human from the sub-human in such a way that human principles are not compromised by inhuman practices,” legal theorist Boaventura de Sousa Santos writes. “The legal and political civility on this side of the line is premised upon the existence of utter incivility on the other side of the line.”
Metaphor means literally a “carrying across,” but the coronavirus war metaphor is a one-way bridge. Experiences from the “sub-humanized” side of the abyssal line are selectively invoked to frame and center experiences on the “humanized” side, but not the other way around. Such false identification–pretending “we are all in this together”–is a dangerous counterfeit for genuine solidarity, a placebo treatment for injustice masquerading as the cure.
 Mark Neocleous, War Power, Police Power (Edinburgh University Press, 2014) 2.
 Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no.1 (2012): 3.
 Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood (Princeton University Press, 2009) xi.
 On drone pilots as trauma victims see Gregoire Chamayou, A Theory of the Drone (The New Press, 2013).
 The term is derived from Frantz Fanon’s “zone of non-being” in Black Skin, White Masks (1967).
 See Mathew Coleman, “Colonial War: Carl Schmitt’s Deterritorialization of Enmity” in Stephen Legg, ed. Spatiality, Sovereignty and Carl Schmitt: Geographies of the Nomos (Routledge, 2011).
 Frederic Megret, “From ‘Savages’ to ‘Unlawful Combatants’: A Postcolonial Look at International Humanitarian Law’s ‘Other’” in Anne Orford, ed. International Law and its Others (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
 Aziz Rana, “Settler Wars and the National Security State,” Settler Colonial Studies 4, no.2 (2014): 171-175. On the colonial construction of sovereignty, see Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
 John T Kirby, “Aristotle on Metaphor,” American Journal of Philology 118, no.4 (1997): 532.