Coronavirus Is Unlike Any War Americans Have Fought. Yet We'll Win It Too | Opinion

I keep thinking about American history in these days of war against a deadly virus, and why this war feels so much different than the ones we've suffered through before. And why so many of us being asked to do our part by doing nothing feels so strange. "Be a hero. Stay at home." No battle cry ever felt more unheroic.

"What did you do during the war on that virus back in 2020?" my 15-year-old daughter will be asked one day. "I skipped the last two months of school, spent half the day on Snapchat and the other half burning through every movie on Netflix," she'll reply. Not exactly a tale of sacrifice.

I keep thinking about three great American wars, and why we fought them. The Revolutionary War was fought to preserve the freedom we'd grown accustomed to during the years of salutary neglect by the British Empire, freedom enshrined in a freshly penned statement of our national values called the Declaration of Independence. The Civil War was fought to extend that freedom—and those values—to our African American brothers and sisters. And WWII was fought to protect our freedom here at home, and great swaths of the civilized world, too.

In all of those wars, lost lives were the price of freedom. And we knew that going in. This war is precisely the opposite: We're giving up our freedom to save lives.

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It's not a bad thing. It's just an odd thing. A necessary and prudent thing to do, this almost complete suspension of life in America. We're listening to our leaders, who are—for the most part—putting aside the pettiness of party politics for the good of the nation.

The American people have quietly gone about giving up the things we care most about: our work, church services, sports, concerts—life as we know it. And we did it quickly and with purpose. The fact remains that we Americans are always at our best in a crisis. In a war.

And though this is not a war in the traditional sense, the body count will soon approach war-like numbers. In some precincts in this country, it feels like war already. All around us, there are real warriors doing God's work fighting this virus: our nurses, doctors and first responders. And many business leaders are stepping up to the plate to fight this battle, too.

What is so odd about this crisis is that most of us are being asked to do what does not come naturally to us. We're not a people who do the nothing thing well. When you think of America, the word "idle" least comes to mind.

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I keep thinking about the first responders—those brave cops and firemen—running up the stairs of the flaming towers on 9/11, and the Cajun Navy in New Orleans during Katrina and Houston after Harvey. I keep thinking of the army of citizens who always arrive when there's a tornado or a hurricane or some other natural disaster. We spontaneously show up. Always, we Americans show up for one another.

This time, and with this enemy, the vast majority of us are compelled to sit at home in virtual house arrest—sans ankle bracelets—and watch this enemy ravage our country. We're watching this enemy kill our own citizens and decimate our economy, and all we can do is shelter in place? For a nation filled with good Samaritans, it's an empty ask. A frustrating and deeply unsatisfying rallying call. Helplessness is what we feel, most of us. But never hopelessness.

I keep thinking about those three wars of the past, and the first words of David McCullough's 1776. They were uttered by our nation's top military commander at the time. "Few people know the predicament we are in," wrote George Washington.

How bad were things in New York City back then? When British Royal Navy Admiral Molyneux Shuldham's fleet was spotted in the New York Harbor, it caused unimaginable chaos. "Alarm guns were fired and bells were rung, triggering a mass exodus," according to the U.S Naval Institute. "By the time the British finally attacked, its population was reduced to 5,000. A matter of weeks before it had been 27,000."

The price we paid for freedom was enormous. In a nation of 2.5 million, the Revolutionary War took the lives of 6,800 in battle alone. Adjusting for population, that's 800,000 lost lives today. Few living Americans could have imagined our recovery from the economic and social precipice, let alone our growth as a nation in the ensuing years. Fewer still could have predicted we'd create a Constitution just a few years later that not only solved the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation, but would become the legal architecture of a mighty nation.

I keep thinking about the Civil War, and the cost in lost lives to end the original sin of this nation: slavery. I keep thinking about one battle and one town: Gettysburg. Nearly 50,000 men were casualties of that battle in 1863; 7,000 of them died. "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here," President Abraham Lincoln lamented in his Gettysburg Address.

The official website for Gettysburg National Park begins with these words:

"Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin visited Gettysburg soon after the battle and was appalled at what he saw-ruined farms, homes filled with injured men, fresh graves of the fallen in every conceivable place on the field. Many of the Union dead lay in unmarked graves, only the fresh sod thrown over the remains identified the site as a burial. Heavy rains had washed away the earth from many of the shallow graves. Grotesquely blackened hands, arms and legs protruded from the earth like the devil's own planting, a harvest of death while the stench of death hung heavy in the air."

In a nation of 31 million, nearly 630,000 Americans were killed in a mere four years. In today's numbers, we'd be looking at 6.3 million dead.

America survived that national ordeal, and came out on the other end a stronger country. And a more just one.

I keep thinking of World War II and our response to the Nazi menace, as well as Imperial Japan's bloodlust. In what was the single biggest mobilization effort in world history, our nation shipped soldiers by the millions to the European and the Pacific theaters.

I keep thinking of all of those cities and battles we know by heart: Normandy (29,000 Americans killed), the Battle of the Bulge (19,000 killed), Okinawa (12,500 killed) and Iwo Jima (6,800 killed).

By 1945, 12 million Americans were serving in the military, 11 percent of America's total population—a staggering number. Over 416,000 gave their lives in WWII—a staggering sacrifice.

I keep thinking about General Dwight D. Eisenhower, specifically. And the hard decisions he was compelled to make every day, putting human life at risk to win the war.

He was asked once about the hardest decision he ever had to make. "To ensure the success of the Allied landings in Normandy," he explained to a gathering at Chicago's Drake Hotel in 1947, which included an 18-year-old student named Val Lauder, "it was imperative that we prevent the enemy from bringing up reinforcements. All roads and rail lines leading to the areas of fighting on and around the beaches had to be cut or blocked. If reinforcements were allowed to reach the areas of fighting there, the whole operation could be jeopardized. The landings might fail."

The plan was straightforward: drop the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions onto the mainland hours before the assault on the beaches. But there were doubts about the plan from an expert Eisenhower respected.

"Just days before the operation, a trusted aide and personal friend came to him, deeply concerned about the airborne landing," Lauder wrote for CNN. "He was apologetic about how late it was, so close to the jump-off time. But he'd gone over it, and over it, and felt it simply would not succeed. The casualties would be too great. He pleaded with Ike. 'Casualties to glider troops would be 90% before they ever reached the ground,' he said. 'The killed and wounded among the paratroopers would be 75%.'"

Those numbers were troubling on two counts. It would mean the loss of over 18,000 lives. Worse, there would not be enough survivors to ensure success of the mission. D-Day itself was in jeopardy. So, too, was the fate of the war.

"The man was absolutely sincere, absolutely convinced it wouldn't work," Eisenhower told a spellbound audience. "As a highly respected, capable officer, I trusted his judgment. I told him I'd think it over."

Face masks coronavirus
A barricade blocks the closed pier at Venice Beach as people walk past wearing face masks on March 27 in Venice, California. Mario Tama/Getty

It was just days before the largest amphibious invasion in world history, and Eisenhower was still uncertain.

"Weighing the situation, he went back over the planning," Lauder continued. "And he could never get away from the fact that if the airborne troops did not seize and secure the causeways, the men landing on the beaches would have little or no chance. The risk must be taken. His step slowing, turning to face the students, he said: 'I let the order stand.'"

With those words, Eisenhower seemed to shed the burden, Lauder explained. The tension went out of the room, she noted, "like air out of a balloon."

"The airborne boys did their job," Eisenhower told the audience. "And, I am happy to say, the casualties were only 8%."

Eisenhower later wrote in his WWII memoir, Crusade in Europe, "It would be difficult to conceive of a more soul-racking problem."

For many of us in America, these are the soul-racking questions we'll be asking in the weeks and months to come: When does the talk of real life trade-offs begin, and the sacrifice of our freedom—and life and property—end? And at what point do we get to answer that question for ourselves?

For a bit longer, we'll continue to play our part, doing what comes naturally to a country that was built from scratch: win this fight.

For you opportunists—either political or economic—we know who you are. Your craven selfishness is easy to spot. And for you naysayers who think America won't recover from this crisis, pick up a history book in your spare time and read about the resilience and character of the country you're talking down.

"I don't think we'll get back to normal," Governor Andrew Cuomo said the other day in a press conference. "I think we get to a new normal."

Cuomo is right. Once this virus is tamed, Americans will be raring to get back to normal. And it will be a new normal, because we will all be better prepared for the next outbreak or pandemic.

For now, we're all locked up indoors, rooting against this virus. And waiting patiently to be Americans again. Waiting patiently to be America again. A better and stronger America.

Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Coronavirus Is Unlike Any War Americans Have Fought. Yet We'll Win It Too | Opinion | Opinion