5 May 2020   Leave a comment

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was interviewed by CNN‘s Dana Bash yesterday and he invoked the war metaphor when asked about the need to reopen the US economy. I have written previously about how misleading the war analogy is with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Christie’s remarks only reinforce my concerns. Christie made this comment:

“The American people have gone through significant death before. We have gone through it in World War I, we have gone through it in World War II and we survived it. We sacrificed those lives. … We decided to make that sacrifice because what we were standing up for was the American way of life. The very same way now we have to stand up for the American way of life.” 

The argument is seductive, but dishonest. We do indeed entertain risks in our daily lives and make choices about the risks that seem to be necessary to maintain a life that we deem worth living. Whenever we drive a car or take a medicine, we understand that there is a chance that the activity may lead to our deaths. Presumably, the choice depends upon a calculation of how great the risk is and how beneficial that activity is to our well-being. We can make even more complex decisions: getting to a particular destination may be worth the risk of getting there in a car, but not the risk of getting there on a motorcycle. We often judge others because we disagree on their calculations of risk, and, depending on our relationship with those others, we may even try to persuade them to change their calculations. Usually, that is a bootless enterprise.

The situation becomes very different when the state imposes risks. A well-functioning state will impose risks if it has made the calculation that the society as a whole will benefit from military action which may kill citizens who serve in the military. The US has historically been very cautious in entrusting such decisions to the state. Theoretically, only the US Congress can make the decision to go to war. That stricture was largely followed until after World War II. Since that time, the requirement has not been followed–a legacy of the Cold War and the possibility of a missile attack on the homeland (with nuclear warheads) which might not have allowed sufficient time for the Congress to meet and make such a declaration. Congress defaulted on its responsibility in the Vietnam War and since that time have passed some essentially vapid laws called “Authorization to Use Military Force” which Presidents use for any conceivable occasion.

Additionally, military service used to be an important criterion for selecting a President. The belief was that such experience was necessary to assure that the decision to go to war was not taken lightly. Of the 45 US Presidents, only 11 did not serve in the military, and most of them were in the 20th and 21st centuries (Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Clinton, Obama, and Trump).

Christie’s argument is very misleading. Americans have generally been very reluctant to go to war, even though their governments have not been as inhibited. The US has not, until recently in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, been able to create a volunteer army and has, instead, relied upon conscription to fight its wars–the American Revolutionary War, the American Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War).  The draft has always created political problems, and riots have often accompanied the use of the draft.

Christie’s argument should be reframed: some have been willing to sacrifice themselves. More often than not, most have been willing to sacrifice others. And those others have typically been those who are most vulnerable. The same seems to be the case in the current discussions about restarting the US economy in the face of COVID-19. I will continue this argument in tomorrow’s post.

Posted May 5, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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