Imagine a soldier, a career officer, proud that one or more of his children has followed her into the service, about to graduate from West Point, or Annapolis, or the Air Force Academy. Extended family has been planning grand celebrations to start new careers in fascinating assignments around the world. Fiancés have been waiting for school commencement to signal their right to commencement of marriage and new families.
Then, without warning, a big war breaks out. Shavetails with nothing but book learning and the stories their predecessors tell are getting orders to battle assignments they had never thought about. Not an aide to some prestigious research group or to an advisor to a congressman, but a platoon leader in some god-forsaken patch of land someone else is willing to kill to control.
Think of the shavetail lieutenant, desperately hoping for a Buster Kilrain sergeant to teach you how to do your job. Think of the parent, so proud of his medals, and so aware of the numbers of young officers who get sacrificed with their troops, for the good of the nation.
Of such people are novels and war movies made. Tales of gallantry, of hubris, of cowardice. All on the deadly field of combat where reputations are made or lost, myths are forged in life or death struggles. We find heroes for whom we can mount parades.
For some reason, we want swords or guns to be involved. The violence seems to convey heroism. But it has to be visible violence, technicolor qualified. Something to feel visceral about while watching.
I know a young man just graduating from medical school, wanting to focus on emergency medicine. A sportsman, active, aware of the trauma that can result from missteps on the playing field. Planning on a life of saving those who have driven their cars into trees, or been the victims of a thousand different types of calamities that arise in modern every day life. He parents glow with pride. And his fiancé, who has waited for her turn as his main focus, supporting him through school while building her own career managing businesses on the cutting edge, imagining the comfortable future that two young professionals can plan.
I know a doctor who has raised two daughters while building a successful medical practice and becoming a respected professor at one of the nation's top medical schools. This spring, she watched patients lie in intensive care. Watched some of them dying. She watches as medical students, the shavetails of the war on Covid-19, leave the classroom and step into the line of fire of viruses that don't go "bang," don't flash, but kill just about as quickly. She watches students she has taught and mentored and grown to care about leave school for the trenches that modern hospital hallways have become.
Doctors and nurses are more expendable than management, just as grunts and shavetails are more expendable than generals on a battlefield.
One of the medical students graduating this spring is her own daughter, destined for great things in a world of wondrous discoveries, innovations and progress in medicine. Now assigned to a life of trying to stay alive while trying to keep others alive, without adequate knowledge of this new microscopic killer, without adequate time to do everything that must be done, without even the minimum necessary testing and protective supplies.
These students turned overnight doctors are not the ones we make heroes of. Somehow dying of a bullet wound is so much more heroic that drowning in your own blood-filled lungs. No matter that you didn't choose the virus any more than a soldier chooses his bullet. But Jonas Salk saved more lives than any general ever.
Most of the shavetail lieutenants survive their wars. Some come home to write novels or scripts about their experiences. Once out of the service, their skills at killing, and surviving battles will have little use in civilian life. Many will live on memories, increasingly exaggerated with time, of gallantry in the face of carnage. At for-profit VFW bars they will share their memories with others unsatisfied with the way they are treated after their wars.
Most of the young doctors will also survive. Some will write articles and books on their hospital trenches, teaching a new generation of doctors what worked and didn't work in the face of an invisible enemy. Maybe teaching civilians how better to live to avoid or survive the next plague.
I have a niece who is a supervising RN in an emergency room in an inner city hospital. She helps train other nurses, and may well play Buster Kilrain to young doctors entering the profession at this time. She has three children at home. Imagine the worry she has for them, every day when she goes home from work. Imagine their fears, and the fears of her wider family.
Because her hospital is below the Mason-Dixon Line, management doesn't find it necessary to provide all the masks and gloves that the medical professionals think are minimally necessary. Doctors and nurses are more expendable than management, just as grunts and shavetails are more expendable than generals on a battlefield.
Doctors and nurses at least have some visibility. When a patient drowns in their own flooded lungs and dies, their bedding must be laundered, their rooms disinfected, the equipment cleaned and sterilized. Those jobs are critical. They are also menial—meaning paid very meanly.
The press covers the ambulances rushing to and fro with flashing lights and noisy sirens. They don't cover the trailers delivering produce and dry goods to the hospital kitchens or the orderlies delivering meals to dangerous rooms on dangerous wards. They don’t cover the fear and worry of the families of those who deliver the meals, clean the dishes after the meals and wash the linens people have coughed and spit up on.
Have you seen 1917, Sam Mendes' WW-I "road picture" following the journey of two soldiers on a mission? At the end of the road, the surviving soldier wanders through a field hospital. The soldiers in the trenches are the heroes. Our history classes rarely mention that the field hospitals were often established and staffed by Quaker and other religious volunteers. The men who went out onto the killing fields, unarmed under fire, to gather the wounded were volunteers—not heroes.
Too many liberals and progressives have bought into the corporate "liberal media's" characterization of the effort to treat and solve the Covid-19 medical issues as a "war on the virus." By definition, war talk is divisive and over-simplifying. To speak of an RNA strand encapsulated in fat as an "enemy" anthropomorphizes the virus, and distracts us from the truth.
If the virus is an "enemy," does it have allies? Do we? What we need is cooperation between everyone trying to learn about the virus. We could have allied with the WHO, when it offered us testing kits, early in the crisis. But we rejected those kits, "needing" to be self-sufficient, as a nation does in times of war. Now the WHO is an ally of another "enemy," China, which has more information on successfully isolating and treating the virus than we have.
This is NOT war. This is an international emergency. Rather than the language of war, conflict and combat, we need cooperation and collaboration. To study a virus which easily crosses borders, we need information and study that crosses borders. Wars close borders. Wars shut down information exchange. Merely by using "war language" to talk about the virus we close our minds to those activities that are most likely to lead us to solutions to this medical problem.
This is not the time for shavetail lieutenants and never-served politicians to be waving flags and military contracts. We need the young doctors, the experienced nurses, the dedicated orderlies, truck drivers and laundry workers. And we need the scientific researchers, at CDC in the U.S., at WHO around the world. Researchers in China, and Israel and Russia and Australia and Brazil. We need the real heroes who never make it to the silver screen.
And they need us. They need us to recognize who they are. They need us to stop talking about blame, and choosing sides, and fighting. They need us to start supporting their work, their global cooperation. Their use of knowledge rather than force to solve this pandemic.
They need us to modernize our language and thus our thinking; to recognize that the world will be saved by the doctors just graduating, by the farm workers keeping fresh food flowing to us, and by the diplomats keeping open channels of communication.
The soldiers will have their day. They always do. But this is not it. This is not the time for us to use soldiers' language, the language of division and strife.