Metaphorical militarisation: Covid-19 and the language of war
13 May 2020|WPS 2020

This article is part of ASPI’s 2020 series on women, peace and security.

‘[W]e are in a war against this virus and all Australians are enlisted to do the right thing.’

— Prime Minister Scott Morrison, 60 Minutes interview, 22 March 2020

Covid-19 is consistently framed as a war by both politicians and the media, and why not? This is an existential crisis that will change our lives, possibly forever, and addressing the pandemic requires decisive action, concentrated resources and community-wide cooperation.

Many useful analyses of the relevance of the women, peace and security agenda in responding to Covid-19 have been published that might be read as implying that the war metaphor is legitimate or accurate. But, in reality, WPS principles and feminist foreign-policy analysis help us understand that the war framing is fundamentally unhelpful for three reasons: it alienates and divides people and groups, it ducks accountability for change, and it is really unimaginative at a time when we need to develop more creative and inclusive responses to big challenges.

In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison leans towards metaphor rather than the outright war rhetoric of his counterparts in the US, the UK and France. His communications are also steeped in nationalism: he talks of summon[ing] the spirit of the Anzacs … [o]f those who won the great peace of the Second World War and defended Australiaand affirming that ‘Australians will always be Australians’.

Whether it’s coming from Morrison, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or Emmanuel Macron, the reference is clearly to World War II. As the renowned research professor Cynthia Enloe, who studies gender and militarism, writes, ‘leaders cherry-pick their wars and cherry-pick what they want us to remember about each war’. This sidesteps the complexity of war and conflict, while harking back to a less-contested, male and white ‘militarized nostalgia’ around sacrifice, leadership and making do. It assumes that ‘war’ is something we all understand and are inspired by.

But linking ‘Australianness’ to World War II to rally or reassure citizens in our Covid-19 response assumes cultural understanding and experience that are not shared equally. It ignores the reality that nearly half of all Australians were born overseas or have at least one parent who was born overseas and have Australian identities forged long after the war. It overlooks the fact that only 2% of Australians are old enough to have a living memory of the war. It is silent on the exclusion of Indigenous people from the process of ‘nation making’ through war and the ongoing exclusion of Australia’s frontier wars from official recognition. It ignores the contributions of Australian peace movements, in which women played prominent roles, and it fails to acknowledge that women’s contributions in war and in peace have been historically (and arguably contemporaneously) marginalised by militarised and masculine constructs of ‘bravery and service’.

When we use the language of war to symbolise something good and noble for the purposes of crisis messaging, we ignore the disproportionate impact of conflict on women and girls and their marginalisation from decision-making in both war making and peace building. Papering over the very real and painful experiences of women in war is a poor way to reassure a community. And it’s particularly tone-deaf given that our Covid-19 response is built on women’s unpaid labour in the home and poorly paid and underappreciated labour in the caring and teaching sectors.

War rhetoric can also, by design or otherwise, dampen critical discourse. Such rhetoric implies defence of an ideal way of life to which we yearn to return—‘[W]e must not allow [the virus] to change who we are as Australians’. By excluding the possibility of change, we place off-limits any examination of underlying inequalities that exacerbate the impact of the virus, which in turn ‘externalises responsibilities for the fact that our system is ill-equipped to protect people’.

War framing suggests an urgency in which ‘now’ is never the time for critique—in wartime, we band together, we do not criticise. This is sadly familiar for those working in WPS, where too often we are too busy with conflict or too anxious for a quick peace deal to hear from women or give them decision-making power. But a further lesson from Enloe is that the construction of post-conflict societies happens concurrently with conflict. If we want to imagine an alternative way of life to be constructed ‘post-war’, now is the only time we have.

But perhaps the most egregious issue with viewing our response to a major crisis through a war lens is its complete lack of imagination. It’s an indictment on us collectively that we can’t think of a peaceful frame of reference for our need for community and state action and solidarity in response to a shared challenge. If our only response to a threat like Covid-19 is to force it into a war construct and slap conflict metaphors all over it, then we back ourselves into a dangerously narrow understanding of security.

Such a habit does not bode well for a more inclusive reimagining of security that takes account of global challenges like climate change, or domestic challenges like economic inequality and pervasive domestic violence. It not only suggests a lack of imagination in how we frame responses to these challenges, but also raises the risk that any response (and attendant resources) will be militarised and/or co-opted by ‘hard’ security sectors. Instead, we need to be open to a conception of security that considers state and human security from multiple points of view, and that has other tools in the toolbox besides war.

War framing is easy—it provides a linguistic shortcut for the solidarity and sacrifice needed to move through a crisis—but it’s lazy, it limits our imagination and it denies us the opportunity for a more sophisticated and inclusive framing for how we meet complex security challenges.

Annabelle Lukin, associate professor of linguistics at Macquarie University, puts it best:

In the new kind of coming together that this virus is forcing on us, it’s time to put away the dangerous book for boys, and to turn away from one of our most beloved sources of strength, courage and inspiration.

We must give birth to new metaphors of unity and commonwealth. We might save even more lives than this deadly virus looks set to take away.