woman walking wearing a mask


If One Favors Wartime Analogy, One needs an Exit Strategy

The “wartime” analogy

Few would disagree that we are living in a time of crisis. But few are aware that this crisis is not caused by something that fell from the sky, but was self-inflicted upon ourselves… we are inviting great depression. Perhaps it is too soon to start talking about the post-Coronavirus world. However, many countermeasures have been taken without due regard to how it will impact society in the long term.

In Japan, the turning point of the crisis was in late March to early April, where the wartime analogy started to be mentioned by many medical specialists. Late March saw an increase in activity, and resulted in the acute increase of cases and death in Tokyo. One of the victims was renown comedian Ken Shimura, a household name for most Japanese. Yuriko Koike, governor of Tokyo, started to use words such as “lockdown”, which were applied overseas, but was not legally possible option in the Japanese policy arsenal.

Speculation surrounded the governor’s press conference, and before the press conference had even begun, fresh food temporarily disappeared from supermarket shelves throughout Tokyo. A chain of fake news emails citing government officials went viral that the government would declare a state of emergency and Tokyo would be locked down. These were typical signs of panic facing an overly anxious public braced for “war”.

The actual emergency declaration issued on April 7 turned out to be much more measured and received in a relatively calm atmosphere. The government seemed to have learned from previous errors, such as the confusion generated from the sudden closure of all schools. The economic package of approximately 1.08 trillion Yen priorly announced likely had a calming effect as well. The Japanese reaction to the crisis is somewhat of an anomaly compared to other developed nations where there is no official lock down, rather only a heightened self-restraint request combined with “support money” rather than “compensation”. In the context of avoiding panic due notice and leaks were provided to the media well before the actual measures were put into effect.

Let’s put aside why Gov. Koike, mentioned to lock down Tokyo, which isn’t legal under current Japanese law. Some experts recommended such policy, and coverage from overseas suggest the same. What is turning out to be tragic in Japan is many of the infectious disease experts are not well equipped with the realities of legal, social and economic policy. The inevitable gap between medical necessity and policy reality thus are not properly bridged, leading to idealistic and often sporadic statements with very little follow-through.


Giving up one’s freedom willingly…

The primary issue with the wartime analogy is the concern towards human rights and property rights. It is difficult to argue against scientists’ arguments that human rights should take a backseat to saving lives. On the surface, such arguments may sound humane or just. The fight against a deadly virus should trump the preservation of the rule of law, or avoiding devastating damage to the economy.

The problem with the wartime analogy becomes evident when you actually compare it to warfare. What if the civil liberties at risk today were actually caused by war? Would we have a different response to it? Would we require more scrutiny before accepting severe restrictions to our freedom? I would certainly hope so. Proponents of democracies have long argued that certain liberties are worth fighting for. The modern democracy of the 21st century may not be quite so naïve. The lessons learned from the wars fought in the last two decades is that one should be extremely cautious in sacrificing essential liberties even in wartime.

Ever since the outbreak of the virus, there is mounting pressure for the government to act decisively. There has been outcries against rigid way in which the Japanese legal systems operate. Unlike its developed nation counterparties, the Japanese legal system, with its liberal Postwar Constitution at the helm, doesn’t allow for a lockdown, or curfew. The contrast is especially acute when compared to its Asian neighbors who have gathered praise during this crisis, South Korea and Taiwan, in some ways are constantly prepared for war due to their geopolitical environment. The same restrictions that seem to tie the governments hands in times of crisis, are the same restrictions that protect our rights.

And yet, there is so much voice that would have one believe that the law is a hindrance, and politicians are not decisive only because they are incompetent. Why would one, especially liberals, assume that the government has bad intentions in the context of war, but good intentions in the context of fighting a virus?  Attention is often focused on what is legally impossible, with little regard to what foolishness “have not been done” as a result of obeying the law. There’s a reason why Japan has avoided restrictions on individual rights as much as possible. The law is not intended to be convenient for government, but intended to protect individual’s right as much as possible.

For sure, the Japanese government is not worthy of praise for its creativeness nor its efficiency. But one could perhaps venture to say that it is a government that tends not to make critical mistakes compared to other countries. This is mainly derived by the rigidity of its bureaucracy, and the path dependency of its organizational culture. The somewhat self-degrading characteristic of the Japanese governments’ “too little, too late” response may turn out to be a blessing.

Of course, this isn’t to say that not having the adequate legal provisions to fight a crisis is a positive. The fact that Japan has no legal preparedness for such a crisis should fall somewhere between gross negligence and outright laziness, especially when Japan is a country that has faced countless natural disasters in the past. Having bestowed a liberal constitution is one thing, not making the required changes in the 73 years since is quite another.

Absolute War and Limited War

Anxiety and fear are the causes of group psychology that leads to people voluntarily giving up their freedom. The corona virus wasn’t widely recognized as a crisis until large amounts of people suddenly became ill in unprecedented ways. And as the severity of the virus became known, so became the expectation towards an equally drastic response to it. Only when a response strong enough had been put in place could the public feel comfortable.

How society reacted to today’s healthcare crisis has certain resemblances to the reaction seen towards terrorism. The most common response of those who were closest to the victims of terrorism was one of sadness. But many more responded to the news with rage. The shock caused by terrorism was such that many took the news personally and continued to support the war on terror, and the reservists volunteered to join the army and wanted to do “something”.

Why was the current crisis so widely compared to “war” even when it’s actually not? The answer lies perhaps in the sacrifice required by large parts of the public though lockdowns and stay at home orders. This resembles the sacrifice made in absolute wars fought during the first half of the twentieth century. The essence of characterizing a crisis as a war is derived from the sense that people share a common destiny. The notion that “we are all in this together.” In wartime, each person is expected to take part in the struggle to meet the common goal. There is a strong parallel between the respect given soldiers in wartime to that given to medical professionals today.

However, most of the wars that advanced democracies have fought in recent years are not absolute wars, but limited wars. Wars where the realities of the frontline and the normalness everyday life at home coexist. In some cases, these wars aren’t even called wars. These limited wars, or “peace time” wars are where the vast majority of the people do not bear a great burden, and the sacrifice is limited to the men and women on the ground.  As a student of the history of war, I am troubled by the casual analogy of made to it during this crisis. Learning our experience of absolute wars, all-out war is only justified when all other objectives become worthless. In other words, against a merciless enemy who is likely to enslave or slaughter the whole country, when negotiations or surrender become meaningless, leaving no option but to fight to the end. In an absolute war context, nothing else has meaning. There is no longer any point of writing a romance novel, or listening to a concerto, or eating a delicious meal. People’s conversations will only be about the war and whether or not they can win. One cannot miss the resemblance in the media, where there is nothing else to talk about right now.

Not to follow the mistakes of war

So far, citizens are only asked to stay at home. Those taking the risk are the emergency staff who isolate those who are infected, and the doctors and nurses that treat them. There is always the temptation to say one is willing to sacrifice as part of the greater effort. Such are the realities of a crisis, and indeed of a war.

What should not be overlooked, however, is the added responsibilities of our leaders to get things right in wartime. Namely to set the right goals. The many lessons learned, in Japan’s case from WWII is that one must not mistake tactical gains with strategic mistakes. Although quite controversial, the attack on Pearl Harbor planned and executed by Admiral Yamamoto was a tactical military success. At the same time, it was one of the most detrimental strategic failures history has ever seen that ended with the total destruction.

The current government’s goal would be to stop the spread of the virus by minimizing economic and social activities of its population, preventing the collapse of healthcare system. i,e, to flatten the curve. The government has set a clear goal of reducing public contact by 80%. A wide range of infectious disease experts agree on this point. The expected timeline where such severe measures are necessary is now to be one month, but there is no particular rationale for this. The weakness of economic and social lockdown policies is that they aim to control the infections, thereby blocking the process by which people acquire immunity.

In other words, the moment the lockdown is relaxed, the chances are high that the infection will regain its momentum. Thus, requiring a repeating of lockdowns every few months, until a vaccine or drug will be developed, perhaps in 1-2 years’ time. The lockdown strategy seems to be based on a realistic and pessimistic views, is actually based on a very optimistic notion.

To put it somewhat provocatively, democratic leaders are more likely to pursue a course of action that ends in 150,000 deaths, rather than to do nothing with 100,000 deaths. This seemed the sort of trade off made, unfortunately, by the Conservative Government in Britain who changed its policy direction, as it could not withstand the political pressure mounting from the media. Most democracies can fend off criticism caused by the collateral damage as long as they are seen to have done enough for the cure of the disease.

This dilemma is identical to the failed logic of many governments to pull out of unsuccessful wars. At the beginning of a war, the real sacrifice is often not clearly understood. The Bush administration, which waged the war in Iraq, banned estimates of the economic and or human costs of war effort. The military also hesitated to reveal the true cost because of the assumption that the administration would not provide the required resources the military really wanted. The military fought in good faith within the stated goal of the war in Iraq or a war in Afghanistan. When the Obama administration asked for more troops and additional funding during the Afghan war, the military didn’t say what it really needed. Once the true cost of the war was known, politicians would wince. Politicians want to accept the experts’ argument that they should endure another month, or to send another 5000 troops. And the myth that this incremental resource would enable one to turn the corner…Only to find out, in the case of Afghanistan, that after close to 20 years, the corner hasn’t still been turned.

I have committed much of my professional life to the research of war, and the injustices towards soldiers on the frontlines. However, the conclusion there was far from letting the soldiers make their decisions, rather to ensure a structure where leaders looked at the real cost of their decisions.

The toll of the cost of the coronavirus is yet unknown. I fear what the ever so popular wartime analogy suggests is that our leaders are making decisions without knowing their cost.


*This piece is a translation of Lully Miura’s op-ed “Japan’s Declaration of Emergency: Unknown Cost inflicted by wartime analogy” appeared in RONZA by Asahi-Shimbun on April 8th 2020.