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David Bouchier: What Would Victory Look Like?

Image by Couleur from Pixabay

It’s now more than six months since most of us started re-arranging our lives for the convenience of the COVID virus — cancelling meetings, vacations, work, school, and much of our personal lives. It feels as if summer ended before it began, and here we are sliding towards winter.

The question on everyone’s mind is: how did we get into this mess, and how will we know when we are out of it? What would victory over the virus look like?

When a problem is out of control the traditional political answer is to declare victory and walk away. This has been the strategy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Vietnam and everywhere else where foreign adventures have gone badly. It’s a good strategy if the problem is a long way away, because the chances are that nobody cares. It’s not so easy when the problem is right here at home, and in our homes, and everybody cares.

An epidemic is not a war but the same old political strategy will probably be used, and indeed is being used: suppress the statistics, insult the journalists and the experts, confuse everyone with fake facts, and finally declare, in the face of all the evidence, “We’ve won.”

Victories are psychologically important, and we celebrate them for a long time whether they happened or not. We celebrate victories in war, in business, in sports, in politics, and even victories over ourselves (for example in defeating an addiction). An ideal victory has a clear and definite result. There are winners and losers, although over time we may forget which was which. Many Americans believe that the Vietnam War was a victory. Those who were in Saigon in 1975 will tell you that this was not the case.

So what would victory over the virus look like? The virus has no plans, no intentions and fights no battles. There are only three choices, as in a war: complete victory, complete defeat or containment. It is very hard to eliminate a virus once it is well established, so the best we can hope for probably is containment, in which the enemy doesn’t go away but stays around, ready to fight another day.

A premature declaration of victory would therefore be worse than defeat. Consider the Greek King Phyrrus of Macedonia, who was known for being aggressive, proud and reckless, and who, in the year 280 BC, won a great battle against the Romans, but at such a high price that both armies were virtually destroyed. King Phyrrus got to boast about it, which was what he really wanted. But the victory cost too much, and the Romans had their revenge later.

That’s where we get the phrase a Phyrric Victory — a victory that turns into a defeat. A declaration of victory over the virus, when all we have is containment, would be just like that. The politicians will claim a triumph, but the virus cares nothing for political rhetoric and will carry on as if nothing happened. Having celebrated our false victory in the usual sociable human way, we could end up echoing the rueful words of King Phyrrus as he contemplated the destruction of his army: “One more victory like that,” he said, “and we shall be ruined.”

Copyright: David Bouchier

With a tip of the chapeau to Roger–Pol Droit of Le Monde

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.