The War Nobody Wanted
“War is the continuation of politics by other means.”
-Carl von Clausewitz
One of the very few things the Joe Biden and Donald Trump agreed on during their 2020 election slugfest was the desire to end America’s “endless wars,” not least the futile 20 year quagmire in Afghanistan. The tragedy of a war that began as a successful purging of the threat of al qaeda ended in a stalemate without a clear objective. And while mistakes were made by both sides in finally ending it, including the Trump Administration’s hasty agreement to a date for withdrawal without commensurate concessions from the Taliban to Biden’s hastier and inept execution of that withdrawal, it was finally over.
But now Americans face a potentially longer war that was forced on us by nature and has an objective that is as unclear as the end game in Afghanistan: the war against Covid. We just passed two years since then President Trump assured us: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. It’s going to be just fine.” Well, we all know how that prediction turned out. But Biden’s Independence Day speech on July 4th of last year, while not nearly as disingenuous as Trump’s statement, sounds, in retrospect, almost as naive: “[t]his year, the Fourth of July is a day of special celebration, for we are emerging from the darkness of years; a year of pandemic and isolation; a year of pain, fear, and heartbreaking loss.”
The development of the vaccines in record time was miraculous, but it did not end Covid, as many hoped. But still, they prevented and continue to prevent the most severe consequences: serious illness and death. And yet, resisters remain, and our still comparatively low vaccination levels, especially for getting boosters, allow the scourge to continue to flourish with each new variant.
While Biden has offered a much calmer and reasoned approach to the virus, his ratings plummet as many expected him to bring a total end to the affliction and lead us back to normal. But “winning” this war has changing meanings, just as occurred in America’s most recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and, especially, Viet Nam, and it looks as though we are facing an ongoing slog, as we did in those wars, but one where we just can’t withdraw and admit defeat.
Of course it does not help that one political party opposes every effort, from vaccine and mask mandates to lockdowns, school closures and travel restrictions, as affronts to their “freedom.” While one can debate the efficacy of any of those options, it is hard to defend a “right to die” without government intrusion as a viable platform, but that is effectively what many Republicans are doing, not least Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who singularly stands up as a feasible primary opponent of Trump in 2024, and who is willing to tolerate record numbers of cases in his state as long as schoolchildren aren’t forced to wear masks.
Who would have believed that this country would become so partisan in its divisions that public health is now a political football? Yet, here we are. If this were the case when the polio vaccine was created, God knows where we would be today. But, with Covid on the verge of becoming an en-, rather than a pandemic, the battle will go on for the foreseeable future. Let’s hope it turns out better than our other endless wars.