I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
This is the opening stanza of W.H. Auden’s poem September 1st, 1939, which is about the day the Second World War broke out. I found myself returning to it the other day, just like so many others all over the world are turning to art in their self-imposed quarantines, some to try and make sense of the current situation, and others to distract them from it. “Uncertain and afraid”; “Waves of anger and fear” – these lines capture what goes through my mind daily as I try to keep up a sense of normalcy in my daily life. Here in the Netherlands, the sun is shining and spring is in the air – yet so is “the unmentionable odour of death”, the numbers rising every day. We are in lock-down until June 1st, though we are still allowed to go outside by ourselves.
My fascination with World War II has always seemed to me slightly voyeuristic – here I am, gazing at the past from the safety of the future – but in times like these, I also think it serves a very important purpose: it puts things into perspective. It shows us how normal people have coped with extraordinary situations in the past, and reminds us that even – or especially – in dark times, people will still find the light, no matter how small the joys or comforts. With curfews and restrictions being imposed on us for the greater good of society, the economy collapsing, a small number of heroes “battling” what is being treated as a foreign invasion, many people suffering and dying and others showing an opportunistic streak, it seems to me that the covid-19 crisis is the closest our society will get to experiencing war-time. Of course, I don’t want to suggest that the way people are suffering today is in any way similar to the suffering of people who experienced World War II. But what I want to show in this blog is that the language used to talk about the virus and the radical shifts taking place in our daily lives are reminiscent of the war.
I’m not the only one who has made this connection. When it comes to a global crisis that has repercussions for people from all walks of life and has a high death toll, it makes sense to take World War II as a frame of reference. In his special corona report, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver quoted Trump saying he was a wartime president, saying “It’s like World War II, only the enemy is invisible.” On social media, I have seen the message that “Your grandparents were asked to go to war; you are being asked to sit on the couch”. And on the Dutch satirical news programme Zondag met Lubach, host Arjen Lubach reprimanded Dutch people who ignore government advice about social distancing by saying: “Keeping our distance is the sacrifice we have to make. We should be able to do this! It’s not like we’re sacrificing our young men to go fight Nazis on the beaches of Normandy!”
Without placing either event in some sort of hierarchy of suffering, I want to see to what extent the two can be compared, and show how the war lives on in our collective memory.
Slogans, solidarity and heroism
To begin with, there is nothing like a crisis to bring people together, especially on the national level. Indeed, our behaviour during the pandemic is motivated mainly by solidarity and empathy: by staying home, washing our hands and keeping our distance from others we are not just protecting ourselves, but others, too. Slogans like “We’re all in this together”, “Stay safe, stay healthy” and “Treat each other with kindness” abound. Just like during World War II, when famous motivational slogans such as “Keep calm and carry on, “We can do it!” and “Make do and mend” were invented, slogans are essential for keeping up morale. These days, they’re spread as hashtags rather than posters, but the effect is the same – bigger, even, since these famous British phrases have been appropriated by people from other countries, like American celebrities saying “Keep calm and wash your hands”. To use a wartime slogan during a new and different crisis reminds the public not just of their nation’s (or the world’s) finest hour, but of what they’ve overcome together. This sends a clear message: during a crisis, everyone’s actions matter, and each person is part of a greater whole.
For all that Arjen Lubach compared sitting at home to fighting on D-Day to remind us how comparatively little we have to suffer to fight this pandemic, other public figures deliberately invoke World War II to give the public a similar sense of urgency and purpose as people would have at during wartime. One noticeable example of this was in a speech by Irish PM Leo Varadkar, who on March 17th stated that “Never will so many ask so much of so few” – a direct reference to Winston Churchill’s famous wartime phrase, “Never in the field of conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. In a speech on 20 August 1940, the “few” Churchill referred to were the British pilots slugging it out against the Luftwaffe during the pivotal Battle of Britain, putting a stop to any German plans of invading the British Isles; the “few” Varadkar refers to are the healthcare workers, cleaners, delivery drivers, bus drivers, retail and supermarket employees, mechanics, and others who are keeping countries running during these chaotic times. Healthcare workers especially are said to be on “the front line” of the crisis, spending every day “battling” the virus and its trail of death and illness.
By mobilizing wartime language, Vadkar too appeals to our collective memory of a time when people all over the world came together to battle a seemingly unstoppable enemy. Politicians, media personalities and journalists alike talk about the pandemic as if it is a battle: the virus is the enemy. Covid-19 is presented as an infiltrator, unstoppable and with a disregard for national borders, taking over the world by Blitzkrieg. Yet from the start of the pandemic in Wuhan, it was clear that the virus did come from society – it originated at a city market. And experts are already warning us that the way we collectively treat animals and nature in general means that viruses like covid-19 are expected to become far more common over the coming years. The pandemic is hardly a chance event, but the natural outcome of the state our world is in at the moment – economic globalization, for example, allowed it to travel as quickly as it did. It seems like a deliberate strategy from governments (including our own) to portray the virus as something foreign that has nothing to do with the way we run our society, because doing so implies that when the crisis has passed, all will go back to normal (even though it is clear that it will take years to bounce back from the economical carnage it has already created). By treating this pandemic as only a temporary disruption – a relatively short battle – policy makers are excused from making the structural changes it would take to dismantle the neoliberal world order, and taking the first steps to a better world where pandemics like this one don’t become common occurrences.
And where there is an enemy, the heroic “few” who are up to the task must step in to fight it. There is no doubt that healthcare workers are currently facing the most dangers, giving the most, and deserve boundless praise and compensation. Many healthcare workers have said that even if their contribution hasn’t been very big, our shows of gratitude (like the public clapping for healthcare workers on their balconies) make them feel seen and appreciated. Of course, this is wonderful – another sign of widespread empathy. Yet here, too, a persistent myth has begun to form that reminds me of the mythical Greatest Generation – those who experienced World War II. The term “hero”, as Keith Lowe explains in his excellent book The Fear and the Freedom: Why the Second World War Still Matters, is used very loosely when applied to those who fought in World War II, so loosely that for some it has lost all meaning. He interviews a veteran, Leonard Creo, an infantryman in the US Army who received a bronze star for bravery during the war, but who recognizes that what he did to earn it may have been blown out of proportion. Creo thinks the automatic reverence given to WWII veterans today is uncomfortable and absurd; Lowe says that “Creo did not choose to become a hero, it was a label foisted upon him, one that seems to have grown and developed over the years quite independently of Creo himself.” This highlights how the actual events and the way those events are remember can differ significantly. The way in which Allied soldiers were received in European countries solidified this idea. The liberating armies were collectively turned into mythical heroes, with the result that their often criminal behaviour – looting, raping, errant killings – has been overlooked for decades.
What I want to emphasise is that the term “hero” is one-dimensional and often abstract, and that using it liberally often has the result that it loses its meaning. In the current pandemic, it is being used to address people whose important role in society has suddenly come under everybody’s attention: they are “the few” are fighting an invasive enemy. In this case, the term “hero” doesn’t obscure their bad behaviour, but that of policy makers, who are making it seem as if all these “heroes” have volunteered to do this important work in this trying time for nothing more than a pat on the back and ther neighbours’ applause. Yet these groups of workers have had to deal with budget cuts for years, and are now essentially being forced to cope with something that our society has had a large part in creating. The reason why the virus is wreaking such havoc in countries like the US and the UK is, after all, because their healthcare systems are already stretched so thinly that they were in no way prepared for a crisis of this kind. Similarly, the “heroic” workers who stock our supermarkets are often paid minimum wage or less, often have no say about being put on “the frontline”, and are not receiving any extra compensation for this “sacrifice”; they have no choice, because they might lose their jobs if they say no. The term “hero” calls to mind strong, selfless, generous people working for the greater good, yet the reports we’re receiving back from “the front lines” are full of misery, and have certainly not been written by martyrs for the cause — on the contrary, the prevailing sentiment is that they can’t do this by themselves and are looking to the government for help. One example is this physician in New York, who stated in a Buzzfeed interview:
People read social media and newspapers and there is this idea that, Wow, these doctors are such heroes, going to front lines. They’re doing such a great job. In reality, I don’t want to be a hero. I don’t want to be brave. I didn’t sign up for any of this. I feel extremely vulnerable and kind of trapped. If I don’t do this, I’ll lose my job, and if I do it, I could die. And it’s not a heroic feeling. It feels like being thrown into the fire. You’re a body, and you can take care of a ventilated patient — give it a shot. I would way rather not be doing this.
Talk about “having greatness thrust upon you”.
Anxiety, “war-time” and utopia
The second wartime comparison I want to take a closer look at is the “war-time” itself. As of this moment, it’s still unclear how long the pandemic is going to last, how deadly it’s going to be, and how long we’re all going to be in lockdown. Like during the war, there is a pervasive sense of the future being put on hold, making it difficult to plan and think about the longer term. It’s a kind of limbo where we’re expected to preserve the normal way of things as much as possible while still complying with crisis measures in order to prevent catastrophe, even grasping for some measure of control and optimalisation.
To preserve an impression of normalcy and even productivity is, I think, essential for mental health reasons, but it seems clear to me that it is the warped sense of time that makes this difficult for a lot of people, me included, to be productive at all – to fill our days in meaningful ways. Despite the many virus-related anxieties we are suffering from – from the disease itself to going stir-crazy in our houses, the 24-hour news cycle, being laid off work, being unable to go to therapy, and so on – we are encouraged to show a level of self-discipline we’re not used to when it comes to work and to be as productive as possible. Social media recommends us countless ways to spend our quarantine-days from all sides, from innocent “10 Netflix movies to watch if you’re self-isolating”- type articles and at-home workouts to sanctimonious tweets saying “Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was in quarantine. What will YOU accomplish?”. Yet we have collectively accepted that the 9-to-5 working day has gone out the window and that productivity will be much lower, especially for those who have to homeschool their kids. We are subject to rules and regulations that keep us inside, tune in collectively for news broadcasts and press conferences from our leaders, and are constantly encouraged to put aside our individual needs and wants for those of the group. It has meant an abrupt break with the tyranny of clock-time – a letting go of formality, structure and sequence that for many creates anxiety and uncertainty. The upheaval is, of course, not as big as during the war, when all over Europe people went into hiding and into battle, spent nights in air-raid shelters, or lay awake terrified of the Gestapo’s knock on the door, but I would argue that our modern habit of checking our phones all the time, especially now, has created a similar disruption of our lifestyles, our ability to concentrate, and our thought patterns. We are forced into a state of constant alertness that makes us ultimately unable to give anything our full attention. Especially during the early days of the crisis here, when each news item conveyed important news and new regulations, I was reminded of Londoners and their air-raid sirens, which disrupted timetables and sleep schedules, forcing people to put their lives on hold if they wanted to live. This created a perpetual suspense and feeling of impending disruption, denying people the opportunity to make plans for the foreseeable future. On 26 January 1941, the English writer Virginia Woolf notes in her diary: “We live without a future. That’s what’s queer: with our noses pressed to a closed door.”
Woolf lived through WWI and experienced the start of WWII (she died in 1942). As the threat of war became imminent and then a reality in 1939, Woolf wrote in her diary that “What’s odd. . .is the severance that war seems to bring: everything becomes meaningless: can’t plan: then there comes too the community feeling: all England thinking the same thing—this horror of war—at the same moment. Never felt it so strong before. Then the lull and one lapses again into private separation.” I recognise this feeling of anxiety, of feeling that nothing really matters any more in the face of a global crisis – and yet I know that it’s crucial to hold on to that feeling that our actions and lives do matter. The thing is that, aside from signs in restaurant windows saying “Take-away possible” and empty city streets, there is little tangible evidence that something terrible is happening. Unlike in the war, there will be no bomb damage, no bunkers being built (though, to quote Auden’s poem again, us citizens in lockdown “conspire / To make this fort assume / The furniture of home”)–though there will be, and already are, mass graves for all the victims, so large they can be seen from space.
Uncertainty and disruption can also have their benefits, however. After WWII, people all over the world – from architects to philosophers to diplomats – hoped to create a better, fairer future: 1945 was “Year Zero”, and everything was possible. This postwar optimism, bordering on the utopic, is the reason why we have institutions like the UN and the World Bank. In the US, soldiers who had fought in the war could go to college on the GI Bill, giving unprecedented career chances to many. Even during the war, the lack of the ability to plan for the future allowed people to live in the moment and live each day as if it were their last (especially with regards to sexual and romantic relationships: antidotes to the death and suffering that permeated their daily lives). For many women and minorities, the war created opportunities that allowed them to glimpse the prospect of alternative futures, however improbable, across this rupture. Bombs exploded not just houses, but also the behaviour that came with them; housewives realised that their very identities weren’t dismembered if their houses were blown to pieces. And many women who had taken on wartime jobs suddenly imagined being able to keep these jobs and earning their own living. The idea of not living their lives in a linear way, moving from one socioeconomic productive moment to the next – job, children, house, promotion, grandchildren – became for many a vision of emancipation, which is also the reason why so many women joined the armed forces during the conflict.
But in many countries, the devastated economy and the heavy losses of war meant that utopic visions of the future often evaporated quickly. Right now, with reports of reduced air pollution making the rounds, people are cautiously optimistic that the covid-19 crisis may actually wake policy makers up, and inspire them to do things differently when the spread of the virus is under control. (Let supermarket workers earn a living wage, for a start.) But a new global recession is already sure to happen, meaning that the feeling of interconnectivity we are hyperaware of right now is just as likely to vanish as soon as we “go back to normal”.
“Hitler has his million men now under arms,” Woolf noted in August 1938. “Is it only summer manoeuvres or—?. . .One ceases to think about it—that’s all. Goes on discussing the new room, new chair, new books. What else can a gnat on a blade of grass do?” This phrase, What can a gnat on a blade of grass do?, has been on my mind lately. This pandemic reminds us that we are part of a larger whole, and that our individual actions matter, and that we are not alone. But it also reminds us how powerless and tiny as humans we really are when we are alone, and affirms how much we are all connected, and how much we take these connection for g ranted.
As I’ve shown, the portrayal of the covid-19 pandemic as a war that we must win is problematic in its own way. Yet the comparisons to World War II do have the positive effect of convincing millions of people all over the world that their individual actions matter, and that their suffering isn’t for nothing–which it isn’t, because staying inside literally means saving lives. By invoking the romantic idea of WWII as a time when we all pulled together, when the many owed much to the few, social cohesion is created in a time when each person is inclined to think mainly about themselves. It also helps to fight feelings of anxiety, isolation and a lack of hope. It would be nice if our policy makers came out of this with the same sense of resolve to hold on to these feelings of solidarity and connectivity, not just towards other human beings, but towards animals and nature as well.
W.H. Auden said it best:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.