“We are engaged in a war against the disease which we have to win.” – Boris Johnson 3/17/20
Anyone who has been paying attention to the news in the past year, no doubt, has been battered over the head with an excess of militaristic images and jargon, from Donald Trump declaring himself a ‘War Time President’ to the images conjured up in the mind of the ‘NHS frontline soldiers’ battling heroically against the ‘invisible enemy’ and the countless other expressions used endlessly. This incessant use of militaristic language and imagery by the government and the BBC has prompted a chain reaction of artists and public figures declaring N.H.S workers as ‘saints’ and even one image depicting them as blue-suited mask wearing angels with big fluffy rainbow wings and a glimmering halo. Anyone visiting from a year ago would be slightly baffled by the present canonisation of all NHS workers and the deification of the NHS, so what has prompted the shift in language and this drastic new appreciation of the NHS and those involved in the ‘fight’ against coronavirus?
Simply put, it is a popular method that governments across the world use to strengthen public belief in government policy by conveying a sense of urgency and emergency to the public through use of language and metaphors of war. Through the power of rhetoric and propaganda the public are led to believe that civil liberties must be curbed in order to ensure security or, in our case, health security; this process is also referred to as securitisation. However, it is not by sheer rhetoric and propaganda alone that the government enacts its policy; it also employs the use of ritual. This is seen by how the framing of ‘war’ to the British Public is reinforced by the war-like rituals that the public participate in like, clapping for essential workers at 8pm weekly along with the pinning of rainbows on windows across the U.K to show solidarity and support for the ‘frontline’ workers. And of course, it wouldn’t be a true war without the essential war-time speech from the Queen in which she even went so far as to reference the classic WWII song, ‘We’ll Meet Again’ written for Soldiers leaving their families, drawing a tenuous analogy to their sacrifice to our own by our acceptance of Lockdown.
However, historically this is not the first time and only time this linguistic trick has been pulled and in fact, it has been quite popular outside the U.K. Like the U.K, the U.S too has had its fair share of attempts to ‘wage war’ on different issues; the ‘War on Terror’ and the ‘War on Drugs’ both come to mind. The U.S government’s attempt to use the language of war to strengthen public support in its varied political struggles against drugs, crime and terrorism seem to have failed miserably. Public support for both the United States Government’s attempt to crack down on these issues is at an all-time low and in the case of the ‘War on Drugs’ the Government seems to be effectively reversing its policy by gradual relaxation of rules surrounding softer drugs across a third of the U.S as well as some states like Oregon even going so far as to decriminalise all hard drugs. Despite its later failure the initial effectiveness of this policy was quite astounding. Take for example the so called ‘War on Terror’, which caused a significant and permanent expansion to security in Airports and resulted in what many people now deem excessive curbs to civil liberties. To show one of the ways in which the Government used the framing of ‘war’ to their advantage you need look no further than the now infamous Patriot Act. The supposed ‘Patriot Act’ was passed shortly after 9/11 by the Bush Administration in an attempt to crack down on terror by introducing extensions to legal privileges on wiretapping, enhanced surveillance and further loss to civil liberties. The importance of language is emphasised by the government’s decision to use the name ‘Patriot Act’ which obviously suggests that the bill is being passed by sheer patriotic good will. The War effort against Terror become patriotic, and skeptics are deemed as unpatriotic deserters. This is a great case study of how the language of war is used to enable government policy, but also shows one of the ways in which this method can often be dangerous as it permanently reduced civil liberties of Americans and empowered government surveillance of private citizens.
The question then arises, could the War against Covid incur a 9/11 of Health Security and of Security in general – a major health crisis that allows a government to implement sweeping curbs on civil liberties? Such an example of exploitation of a crisis occurred under Viktor Orban’s quasi-fascistic government in Hungary where ‘Orban seized wide-ranging emergency powers and the ability to rule by decree’ according to the Conversation. This clearly shows how the governments often uses issues of ‘National Security’ and the framing of war to expand its power in this one particular example. The results of military rhetoric can also be seen with Donald Trump declaring his campaign against the ‘foreign virus’ from China and even Xi Jinping, himself, calling for a ‘people’s war’ against the virus. What unites these two men in their choice of language is their use of ‘the war against the virus’ for political gain. Trump declaring the virus to be ‘foreign’ and from China simultaneously allows him to take a jab at the rising Chinese Communist Party as well as further raise fear about immigrant populations within the U.S. Although, Xi Jinping’s government has also made equally outrageous claims that the virus originates from the U.S to further hatred towards America and the Western World and expectedly, fixates his language around the ideology of Communism with talks of a ‘people’s war’ against the virus. This highlights one of the central problems of ‘waging war against coronavirus’; that the government can often use the language of war nefariously to gain and expand political power by any means necessary. President Trump’s framing of the enemy as foreign and from China unfortunately resulted in a sharp rise in anti-Chinese attacks across America, showcasing blatantly the potential harm of war rhetoric.
However, more consequential examples across Europe occurred when the different Nations collectively decided that the appropriate response to ‘the threat of the invisible enemy’ was to impose exceptional measures such as lockdown and other general restrictions. Thus, issues of freedom of movement and decisions to open shops became matters of national security and subsequently were decided and policed by a new unrestricted government, a situation unthinkable a year ago. And still at the end of lockdown, as the public desperately cry out for freedom by any means, the government seeks to maintain the securitization of basic civil liberties through use of vaccine passports and even facial recognition to potentially limit your vaccine skeptical uncle from ever entering a pub again in his life. Once again, the process of securitisation and the government’s use of the language of war to facilitate this process highlights the importance of rhetoric and language of ‘war’ in producing a less tempered acceptable attitude towards difficult but important decisions in the public made by the government. The ability to make going to the pub or attending a public event an uncontroversial matter of health security truly speaks to the supreme power of rhetoric and propaganda.
Because of the media and government’s use of ‘war’
rhetoric and the subsequent securitisation of civil liberties, my generation has
never known a world without barriers at Christmas markets, machine-gun wielding
police at airports and mass government surveillance of private citizens and it now
seems that our children will never know a world without vaccine passports at
pubs and facial recognition at football games.
 This is not to make a statement on whether or not it is justified in each instance to curb civil liberties in the name of security.