World Leaders And Wartime Language


Nial Perry

As coronavirus spread, so did the comparisons to war. ‘Stock-piling’, ‘the front-line’ and ‘fighting the virus’ have entered our everyday conversations about covid. World leaders have propagated this comparison: The Queen hailed the United Kingdom’s wartime spirit in her May address to the country, whilst New York’s Mayor Andrew Cuomo said that ‘ventilators are to this war what bombs were to World War Two’. 

Likening a pandemic to a war is bold, but is it helpful? In some ways, yes. Warfare presents a digestible metaphor. Calling the pandemic a war helps the public to sympathize with the imposition of extreme measures, like lockdown and physical distancing, which would never garner support in ‘peace-time’.  However, this same simplicity makes war metaphors dangerous. As expert on militarization Federica Caso explains, ‘The language of war is imbued with fear’ which can fuel ‘hatred, antagonism and nationalism’. When leaders speak of war, they frighten their people into compliance. But fear easily generates aggression. Leaders risk exacerbating the rising rate of hate crimes, of which Asian people have been the primary target. 

Leaders are also using war-like language to legitimize their authoritarianism. Again, there are benefits to this. As Taiwan and New Zealand have shown, responding quickly and authoritatively to the virus is crucial; both countries shut down at the earliest signs of infection, and both now report a single-digit death toll. By contrast, President Trump’s response has amassed criticism due to his slowness and self-contradictionsWorryingly though, some leaders are exploiting language to govern more authoritatively, beyond what is necessary to contain the virus.

For example, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban used the virus’s severity as an excuse to strengthen his autocratic position. He passed a law through parliament – which his party dominates – giving him the indefinite right to punish anyone publishing fake news. What is ‘fake’ and what is ‘real’ is up to him to decide. The move was condemned by many as a ‘power-grab’ and an attack on free speech, which the European Union has since forced him to revoke. 

Similarly, President Duterte of The Philippines issued an alarming command, ‘shoot them dead’, encouraging police and military officers to murder protesters of lock down. He justified his command by describing the protests like guerilla warfare, saying: ‘if they fight and your life is threatened, shoot them dead’. His language demonizes protesters by portraying them as troublesome militants; in reality, most are desperate because of a lack of food supplies

The OWP discourages world leaders from resorting to the language of warfare. Though it facilitates a cohesive national response, it also justifies excessive force and dictatorial measures. Spreading information in a neutral rhetoric is much more productive, like the UK’s chief medical officer in his televised addresses to the nation. 

As countries around the world move away from lockdown, their leaders should move away from comparisons to war. We will spend years recovering from mass unemployment, the threat of a second wave and recession. These are complicated problems. Solutions proposed in the simplistic language of war will inevitably fall short.