Over the course of a week, as the national death toll from COVID-19 marched steadily toward 90,000, President Donald Trump returned repeatedly to the idea that America is at war with the coronavirus. At a mask factory in Arizona May 5, an event honoring nurses the next day in the Oval Office and a wreath-laying at the National World War II Memorial two days later, he said Americans should think of ourselves as “warriors,” because “we can’t keep our country closed down for years” and that, as we have in the past, we would “triumph.” The idea is to encourage us to collective effort and common sacrifice, to exhort us to put country ahead of ourselves and our conveniences, to stay strong in the face of psychic and physical pain, isolation, fear and loss. And, of course, go to work, shop and dine out for the greater good, knowing that it may mean sacrificing our lives or loved ones. That’s what it means now to be a warrior.
But if we are all warriors, why aren’t the currently more than 85,000 American pandemic dead treated as patriots and honored for their sacrifices? The metaphor appears to stop at death’s door. Our war dead are buried in the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Our pandemic dead are more likely to end up in the anonymous ground of Hart Island in New York, a sort of potter’s field where it has long been considered a dishonor for a soldier to lie. It is a fate the national cemetery system was designed to avoid.
In fact, there is a conspicuous absence of any collective mourning at all. The reason is as simple as it is terrible: We share no understanding of these staggering losses as ours, as belonging to all Americans, as national.
Americans have a common set of expectations and rituals for responding to national losses, whether they’re from war, terrorism, school shootings, natural disasters or assassinations. We lower flags to half-staff. We hold candlelight vigils. We leave flowers, stuffed animals and messages of sympathy at sites that have witnessed horrors. We pause for moments of silence. We speak the names of the dead. We observe funereal pageantry from sidewalks, on television and online. We build memorials. This public repertoire includes a range of official and more organic responses; it is sometimes declarative and often ambient. It is always productive — of emotions, communities and common causes.
The pandemic dead have received almost none of this, and the omission is significant — even if the dying is still just beginning. Shared grief brings people together like little else. In the absence of the common bonds of kinship, place, language, faith or heritage, national identity is forged in ritual and the sense of shared experience among strangers, the vast majority of whom will never know one another. It is made of feeling and remembering together. The English poet Laurie Lee put it this way in “Lying in State,” about the public memorializing of Winston Churchill at his death: “Every resounding event seems to be followed by silence as history catches its breath. So it is this morning in this great bare hall — a silence like a fall of snow, holding the city and the world in a moment of profound reflection, reducing all men to a levelled pause.”
One of the best examples of this “levelled pause” came in a headline in Le Monde on Sept. 12, 2001: “Nous sommes tous Américains” — “We are all Americans.” Just thinking about it brings a lump to the throat. It is as perfect as it is devastating, not least because we know what comes after. We know the coalitions, wars and further terrorism these feelings will also fuel. The line between patriotism and nationalism is a thin one, and collective mourning feeds both.
But in the case of the pandemic, even Americans apparently are not “all Americans,” or rather some are less recognized in national kinship. The COVID-19 dead are disproportionately urban, people of color, immigrants, the undocumented, the incarcerated, the elderly in nursing homes and state care facilities, the poor, the uninsured, the chronically ill, service workers and delivery people.
Judith Butler, in her book “Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence,” writes that “the obituary functions as the instrument by which grievability is publicly distributed, an icon for national self-recognition.” This means “we have to consider the obituary as an act of nation-building.” There have been obituaries for some of the COVID-19 dead, it’s true, but the one big national “obituary” is missing. Butler was writing about the absence of obituaries for the war casualties that the United States inflicts, but her words could as easily apply to the pandemic about which Trump has said, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” For there to be an obituary, Butler wrote, “there would have had to have been a life, a life worth valuing and preserving, a life that qualifies for recognition.”
Other presidents, too, struggled to create such national obituaries. President Ronald Reagan led the grieving for the victims of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. But he also failed until the very end of his administration to acknowledge, much less seek to collectively mourn, the thousands who died of AIDS during that time. National mourning rituals are dependent upon who the dead are and what they represent.
Fierce collective grief and radical rage filled the vacuum of Reagan and later President George H.W. Bush’s omission in the first decade of AIDS, transforming the meaning of public mourning. Activists staged a “Bring the Dead to the White House” demonstration that coincided with a more elegiac act of public mourning, the exhibition of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the Mall. Participants hurled the ashes of their partners over the fence onto the White House grounds, with one activist explaining that although he thought the quilt was a good thing, “it’s making something beautiful out of the epidemic, and I felt like doing something like this as a way of showing there’s nothing beautiful about it.”
There have been no political funerals for the pandemic dead. In the absence of official national mourning, we’ve not seen many spontaneous memorials or vigils at all. Instead, plenty of flag-waving demonstrations to end stay-at-home orders and reopen businesses pop up all over the country. We’ve seen American Patriot Rally protesters armed with rifles in the Michigan State House as legislators debated whether to approve the governor’s request to extend the shutdown in that state. We’ve seen pandemic-fatigued New Yorkers rush to parks on the first warm day, barely distanced and some unmasked. But we’ve seen no comparable mass action for the dead.
The power of national mourning is not unique to the United States, but it is heightened here, made more potent by the rarity of common bonds among a sprawling and diverse population. In his first inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln famously appealed to the bonds that do exist as the “mystic chords of memory” — ties that stretch “from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land.” At the center of these connective strands has always been the “patriot grave.” Sixty years later, the less-quotable President Warren G. Harding stood before an enormous crowd at Arlington, a legacy of the Civil War that was by 1921 the country’s most revered patriotic site. The occasion was the interment of the Great War’s Unknown Soldier. In his eulogy, Harding described the national cemetery and its new tomb as “the heart of the Nation sorrowing for its noble dead,” positing a large and varied population made into one body — sharing a heart — through mourning and honoring the fallen. Since that day, the ritual of wreath-laying at the tomb, official and otherwise, as much by average people as by the elite and powerful, is a persistent re-enactment of this country’s motto, E pluribus unum: Out of many, one.
China recently observed a National Day of Mourning, and Spain plans to have a period of mourning when its lockdown eases. In the United States, we have not had so much as a collective moment of silence, even as the number of COVID-19 deaths exceeded the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. The American flag still flies high atop the White House. Instead, every reference to the costs of the pandemic seems to refer to individual losses and pain, the private grieving that is now rampant. This is not to minimize the personal trauma compounding the sorrow that surrounds these deaths, but we do need to acknowledge the collective toll, to all share in this grief — including those of us who have not experienced an immediate loss. A nation of “warriors” honors its fallen.
Micki McElya, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, is author of “The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery.” She wrote this article for the Washington Post.