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At War With a Virus

While war should normally be a policy of last resort, not confronting a determined enemy that poses an imminent threat can be deadly. Putting off the decision to go on the offensive against COVID-19 – treating a war of necessity as a war of choice – has proved extraordinarily costly in terms of lives lost and economic destruction.

NEW YORK – US President Donald Trump has labeled himself a wartime president, and many others around the world are using similar language. It’s a description that raises an obvious question: What does the history and nature of war tell us about fighting a virus?

While war should normally be a policy of last resort, not confronting an enemy that is determined to attack and poses an imminent threat can be deadly. Indeed, the enemy morphed from a local outbreak in Wuhan, China, into a global pandemic precisely because the Chinese authorities squandered precious weeks before confronting it. China’s leadership initially covered up the outbreak and allowed millions of people to leave Wuhan even though many carried the virus with them.

The United States also manifested a widespread initial reluctance to go to war. This comes as little surprise. War as a last resort is one of the tenets of “just war” theory, the body of thinking that emerged in the Middle Ages and was intended to make wars less common and less violent.

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