The poster of a stern moustachioed Lord Kitchener pointing a finger and saying “Your country needs YOU” has become an iconic image of war-time recruitment, as has the more garish US version of Uncle Sam declaring “I WANT YOU”.
During this coronavirus pandemic, we are once more experiencing mass recruitment for battle. Former and contemporary imperial powers are using war-talk to recruit volunteers for the “front line” and urging everybody to “do their part”.
US President Donald Trump has spoken about “our war against the Chinese virus”; UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced, “We must act like any wartime government”; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of the “war against an invisible enemy”; meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron announced gravely: “Nous somme en guerre. [We are at war.]”
The “front line” is the hospital. Healthcare professionals are the “heroes” defending our lives and the nation.
We know intuitively there is no armed conflict in the sense of the Geneva Conventions, but equally we know that this war-talk is not simply idle talk. With their war-talk, (neo-)imperial nation-states are expanding their powers while thriving on latent ethno-nationalism, patriarchy and class stratification.
If we want an internationalism of solidarity, we must refuse war-talk recruitment.
Recruitment during emergencies
Social theorist Judith Butler has written about the “frames of war” created through the control over visual and narrative dimensions. Images of suffering women and children circulated in the media create support for military interventionism of Western states in the Global South.
Images recruit the general public into acquiescence through subtle manipulation. But recruitment during this pandemic is far more direct – transmitted directly from the leaders of countries to viewers and listeners at home who are demanding recruitment.
When emergency powers are implemented, these are welcomed as measures which will keep us safe. The police, or even the army, are praised for being tough on transgressors. There is a concerted effort of shaming individuals who are not abiding by the rules. Discussions about data/intelligence gathering technologies for enforcing the restriction of movement are normalised.
In this embrace of emergency powers, we tend to forget that emergency powers have a habit of sticking around far longer than the crisis requires.
Our attention is diverted through immediate demands: home-schooling, caring for the elderly and sick, arranging the next food delivery, worrying over income or job security, or even the latest Netflix craze. In critical theory circles, Giorgio Agamben’s warning against emergency powers becoming “the new normal”, is trending.
But, is anyone who worries (with or against Agamben) about the permissiveness of emergency powers a “coronavirus denialist”?
Do the laws of war apply?
The worry about over-zealous emergency powers comes from a familiarity with other forms of war talk – from the “war on drugs” to the “war on terror”. Indeed, we appear to be in a constant state of war. There is no more peacetime or war-time, there are only different phases of escalation.
International law has not stood by passively in the face of realist power politics. As Ntina Tzouvala recently observed, “International lawyers and institutions became an integral part of the militarisation of international affairs and of the expansion of the national security state [and its budget].”
For international lawyers, the laws of war have a rather Janus-faced nature; they both decriminalise the killing of other people and also set important limits on violence. The Geneva Conventions, among other things, provide protection for civilians, the wounded and sick, and prisoners of war. These laws are permissive in many ways, but also include restrictions. But the restrictions only apply in the case of a war against a human enemy.
In the absence of a human enemy, governments who view themselves as in a “war”, only take advantage of the permissive aspects, not the restrictive ones. Instead of framing the pandemic as a public health emergency, the framing as a war legitimises state actions which would normally not be acceptable.
Importantly, war talk allows for antagonism to be directed towards the “enemy”, instead of requiring the neoliberal state to explain years of underfunding of public services.
The spectre of an enemy
Although the enemy is invisible, war talk nevertheless creates the spectre of an enemy. And, because war is associated with the “other”, war talk has the tendency to create and build on ethno-nationalist sentiment.
As soon as borders close and decisions have to be made about whose lives to save, questions of belonging come under great strain, stoking xenophobia. Indeed, when the virus is referred to as a “Chinese virus” or a “foreign virus” by those in positions of leadership, ethno-nationalism is no longer latent, it is part of state propaganda. It gets worse. As we know from important studies on intersectionality, domination on the basis of race often goes hand-in-hand with the domination of women, and these intersect with drivers of class stratification.
Inequalities through war talk are particularly evident in the UK, a state which has tended to uphold racism, patriarchy, and turbo-charged capitalism when confronted with a crisis.
The parallels between the public school-educated officers and the working-class cannon fodder at the front line of the first world war are painfully clear. Indeed, it was these front-line fighters who had volunteered on the basis of Lord Kitchener’s poster campaign.
While enormously privileged Boris Johnson conducts his war cabinet, and celebrities and royals are able to access COVID-19 testing kits, the testing of nurses and paramedics has been most worryingly neglected. Not to mention the sacrifices that those dependent on food banks because of years of austerity will have to make in the name of the “national effort”.
Amid this public health emergency, we must refuse the normalisation of racism, patriarchy, and (state monopoly) capitalism. We must refuse recruitment for ethno-nationalism. We must instead celebrate moments of mutual support and care across borders without reverting to war talk.
We are in this together, but not on an equal footing. There are first glimpses of Western states showing solidarity with their neighbours. This needs to extend to the Global South. Solidarity must include the distribution of medical supplies and staff for treatment, support and coordination of research. This must include means to undo the structures of exploitation, which make the Global South so much more vulnerable to a public health crisis.
Solidarity is needed, not least because of the obligations owed from what was “normal” for Western states, namely global inequality stabilised through the neoliberal order. This is an opportunity only if we are committed to an internationalism of solidarity and call out war talk for what it really is.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.