Some things that are written age better than others.
I recall as a graduate student in history doing research at the Naval War College and gaining access to the classified papers of a notable admiral in the United States Navy. Buried in his 1947 thesis on the future of the atomic bomb in naval warfare, he predicted the use of tactical nuclear weapons: “What our forces did to the Japanese-held islands can be more easily repeated by atomic attacks.”
Thankfully, that prediction has not aged well.
Perhaps what follows will not age well either. But I am going to double down on concerns I expressed two weeks ago when I was still in Spanish quarantine watching events unfold there while Americans had not yet tasted, not really, stay-at-home orders and the very real prospect of much more than economic ruin.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have referred to our present fight against the Chinese coronavirus as a “war.” President Trump has used that phrasing. Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg have tweeted it. Dr. Fauci, too, has called it a war. The verbiage has even appeared in the headlines of the New York Times.
But of those currently employing this metaphor, only President Trump seems to understand that in times of war nations are confronted with two very grim choices: surrender their way of life to the invader, thus preserving life at a terrible cost; or fight on to preserve their way of life in the knowledge that casualties will be sustained. It is, as I say, a grim choice. And it is one that President Trump appears to well understand.
In recent days, Trump, who is faulted for everything from the fall of Rome to framing Tiger King’s Joe Exotic for attempted murder, has been most criticized for one theme:
“We have to open our country again.”
He has repeated it often. He has offered tentative dates for when this might happen. He had said it in numerous press conferences. Predictably, Democrats and their media allies have criticized this, the most obvious goal for any president in a wartime scenario. They have painted a picture of a president who is at odds with his medical experts, who rejects science, and who cares nothing for the American people. They have characterized him as a man who wants people to “die for the economy.”
But that’s a gross mischaracterization of Trump’s meaning. It’s not about “dying for the economy.” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, who said on Friday that their government plans to reopen the country soon, perhaps put it best: “The situation we are in is far more complicated than appreciating human life.”
In the modern West, epicurean as it is and having largely forgotten such ideals as sacrifice, these words find no more resonance than if he had said, as Churchill once did, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
What Trump and Frederiksen are saying is that reopening their respective countries as soon as possible is imperative if we are to save them not just economically, but also socially and politically.
And it’s the social consequences that few seem to be considering.
Societies function a bit like families. If you grow up in one where violence or corruption are the norm, it can become ingrained behavior generationally. The French penchant for strikes and riots, for example, has been passed down like a bad family trait from the French Revolution to the bane of French President Macron’s existence, the so-called “Yellow Vests.” The point is, many undesirable societal habits, so ruinous to much of the rest of the world, are not (yet) features of American public life for the simple reason that they have no precedent in this country’s history.
But what happens if precedent is set?
“So fateful was Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon,” writes historian Tom Holland, “that it has come to stand for every fateful step taken since. With it, an era of history passed away.”
With a total shutdown of the economy, government-ordered and enforced quarantines, mobilization of National Guard units, the push (and growing need) for near-total dependence on the state, and the specter of still more drastic measures, it feels like we are crossing several Rubicons all at once, daily even, the consequences of which are likely to reverberate for decades — or longer.
Unless we open our country again.
Returning the country to normalcy increasingly seems at least as important as a plan to curb the spread of the virus. No, it is more important. For while the American mortality rate for this virus hovers around 1.5 percent and the anticipated death toll varies wildly, this much is beyond dispute: the irreversible wreckage to lives will number in the tens of millions in this country alone if we do not return to work.
Let me be clear: I do not pretend to know how this should be done beyond taking reasonable precautions to protect those who are especially vulnerable: reopening the country in phases as Denmark plans to do? Preserving some kind of quarantine in densely populated cities like New York? Wearing masks and maintaining social distance for a time? I don’t know. That is for others to figure out. But it must be done or else that which we live for will be so dramatically altered as to be unrecognizable.
A word about the supposed breach between the president and his medical advisers:
Their missions are not the same.
Physicians are charged with saving lives. Winning wars does not fall within their purview. As jarring as it sounds, saving lives is not always the first consideration of a president. No doubt medical advisers would have told Roosevelt that sending boys to places like Okinawa and Normandy would be hazardous to their health. It is the responsibility of Trump’s medical team to offer their medical opinion, and it is his responsibility to weigh that opinion against the best interests of this country.
That is the nature of war.
As for those things we write that stand the test of time, for my college entrance essay 30 years ago, I took the then-unconventional view that China, not Russia, was the greatest threat to American global security.
Whatever the future holds for the above comments, that, at least, has aged very well.
Larry Alex Taunton is the Executive Director of the Fixed Point Foundation and a freelance columnist contributing to USA Today, Fox News, First Things, the Atlantic, CNN, Daily Caller, and The American Spectator. He is also the author of The Grace Effect, The Gospel Coalition Book of the Year The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, and the soon-to-be-released }. (Available for pre-order now) You can subscribe to his blog at larryalextaunton.com and find him on Twitter @larrytaunton.