“The Fake News Media is riding COVID, COVID, COVID, all the way to the Election. We are rounding the turn.”
– Donald J. Trump

“More than 225,000 people in this country are dead. More than 100,000 small businesses have closed. Half a million jobs are gone in Florida alone, think about that. And what’s his closing argument? That people are too focused on COVID … He’s jealous of COVID’s media coverage.” – Barack Obama

The “War on Crime” and the “War on Terror” both used the nostalgic World War 2 mentality of fighting a righteous conflict as a metaphor for galvanizing the support of the American public. It conjured the expectation of unquestionable loyalty for the cause, and cushioned the sacrifices that would be faced. But while the fight against COVID-19 used such military parallels in its early days, the analogy has been all but abandoned since.

On October 27, Milwaukee honored the deaths of 600 local residents due to complications from COVID-19. To symbolize the tragic loss of friends and family, rows of empty chairs were placed in MacArthur Square, with the County Courthouse as a background and City Hall in the forefront.

Having visited cemeteries around the world, there is an obvious distinction between civilian and military burial sites. While modern cemeteries have adopted the habit of uniformity, they still resemble a patchwork design. Military cemeteries, however, economize the usage of land and the methodical placement of identical headstones. With this experience in mind, the empty chairs not only symbolized the missing lives that would never sit on them, but the patriotic deaths of those “victims” who died in the “fight” to stop COVID-19.

It also, unintentionally, presented the recognition of the lack of respect for the sacrifices of those fallen Americans. As a nation, we mourn the loss of those who died to keep our nation free. Those lost on the frontlines of this healthcare crisis, and everyone interconnected to our social fabric, have barely been acknowledged publicly from the Trump Administration and their supporters.

The visual symbolism of Iwo Jima’s flag raising was juxtaposed with New York firefighters after 9/11. Where ever we lived, people felt connected to New York and its loss. The coronavirus pandemic is all around us, with connections to loss often under the same roof. But when public acknowledgement for doctors, nurses, essential workers, and the many other heroes does come the message has been attached to screams of “hoax.”

Try to imagine if such a narcissistic view of COVID-19 was actually applied to America’s past wars, where veterans were condemned as an expression of patriotism. To begin with, the pandemic has already claimed at least 220,000 Americans in 8 months. That is more than 4 times the number of soldiers killed Vietnam in close to 20 years. There are many comparable statistics that also compare to the Civil War and World Wars, but the way Vietnam was fought has a closer connection.

Vietnam was fought with the idea of attrition warfare. That is a military strategy consisting of belligerent attempts to win a war by wearing down the enemy to the point of collapse, through continuous losses in personnel and material. The side with greater resources – by default – became the winner. American leadership was willing to make such sacrifices, since their sons were not sent to war. The American public was less supportive.

The same situation is true in 2020, with the Trump Administration’s access to privilege health care and the notion of herd immunity for regular folks. It is a false idea that people become immune to a disease after infection and that makes the spread unlikely. As a result, the entire community is protected. However, the unproven scientific theory can only be achieved through vaccination, not standing back and allowing the illness to exterminate the population. That was the method Medieval Europe used to deal with the Black Plague – which claimed almost a third of the population.

Vietnam’s war of attrition has been repurposed for the pandemic, allowing people to needlessly die with the idea that the economy must be saved. As if no other option is available to save both human lives and the financial structure of the nation. And it has been contended from the beginning, what good is an economy if no consumers remain to purchase things.

Veterans of any war, but particularly Vietnam, would be enraged to hear how they fought and lost brothers in order to protect the American economy. Although, “The Vietnam War: A film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick” was a brilliant 2017 documentary that very clearly explained how economic interest were a driving force behind the ill-conceived war. But the public has since stood in unity to honor their sacrifices.

With COVID-19, people mourning the loss of their sons, daughters, parents, mentors, or who ever filled a special place in their life are repeatedly told from all levels of government and society that it does not matter. Wisconsin hit daily infection totals and deaths in October that surpassed what the entire nation experienced in May. All the sacrifices made early in the pandemic were meaningless, as the crisis continues to reach record levels.

Vietnam veterans know what this situation is like. They came back to a nation that did not understand their sacrifices. Not only did society not care, but they attacked the Veterans for their participation in the war. Yet it is this generation that blindly rejects the COVID-19 situation with denial and hostility.

In the early days of COVID-19, despite Trump’s lies and downplaying of the deadly problem, Americans felt like we were all in this together. That was until statistics showed how people of color were being disproportionately impacted by the illness. Along with that, White people wanted hair cuts and a return to normality. They had avoided the brunt of the problem that did not affect them, and had no sympathy or empathy for anyone who it touched.

That led to everything becoming political, but not because of politics. It was an ideological fight between the selfish and the selfless. A brown skinned worker was essential in processing pork. So White people could stay at home and enjoy the bacon that non-White people died to produce.

Mask mandates, proven as a first line of defense for public safety, was rejected over the twisted idea of personal freedom. If someone has cancer and decides not to seek treatment, that is their choice. But their lack of caring for the wellbeing of fellow citizens does not give them the right to infect others with cancer. It is called social responsibility, something entitled White Americans have lacked for a long time because of the false belief of their exceptionalism.

Even with skyrocketing deaths upending rural communities and white urban enclaves, COVID COVID COVID is seen as merely a political manifestation. And it will only get worse, and more divisive. The dubious promise of a quick vaccine is a failure as a strategy as well. North Vietnam had more bombs dropped on it than all in all of World War 2, and it did little to bring the war to an end. The people who deny the pandemic are the same Anti-Vaxxers who would never take an injection of the cure. The process has also been so tainted, even reasonable people have little trust and reason to fear a rushed vaccination could be more harmful than the coronavirus.

Even if Vietnam veterans were not literally spit on, it was a commonly told story. That understanding was reinforced by any time there was a story about how the public vented its anger to shame the young heroes. An attack on one was rightly felt as an attack on all. Now many from that era have stepped into the role that once hurt their generation so much. Even if a person has not been infected by COVID-19 or lost someone from the pandemic, the social callousness and political disregard is evident to everyone, influencing how ongoing encounters play out and perpetuate.

No one likes wearing face masks, but not wearing one shows a lack of regard for fellow citizens, for their wellbeing, and shared humanity. And it foments the hurt that has woven into the fabric of our community, crippled by the loss of so many from the infection.

Thousands of lives were sacrificed in Vietnam and it devastated a generation. History is repeating itself during this “War on Insanity,” but with no goal to strive for as a way to endure the hardships and sacrifices. The situation in America, and how the nation at every level is dealing with the pandemic, has made our existence pointless. The lost are treated with no regard, and those who hold onto their memories are bullied and intimidated.

The “War on COVID-19” has proven itself to be like every other modern American war. It is permeated with racism and fought by the poor to enrich the self-appointed ruling class. The perception of America being “Great” came during a time of competition with the Soviet Union. Many things were tolerated because we fought an ideological war with a common and external enemy. After the Cold War ended, instead of having hate for a distant foe, many Americans simply redirected their focus back home where they historically harbored ill feelings about their neighbors and fellow American citizens.

Thinking back to those rows of empty chairs set upon the field of grass overlooking downtown, if they had been carved from stone, etched with names, and adorned with flags, would they have been honored any differently? The invasion of Iraq already showed that we were unable to apply any of the lessons learned from Vietnam. And being embroiled in the Middle East for two decades in another war of attrition has seemly done little to offer further enlightenment.

Perhaps that is the truest reflection of American life, an existence designed to wear us all down. Not one that seeks to cultivate our light and spirit to make – as the Bible says – a Heaven on Earth. But instead, one that poisons our soul, extinguishes the notion of hope, and feeds our children on the black poison of despair.

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Lee Matz