The New York Times has a remarkable front page commemorating the 100,000 who have died over the last 3 months during our struggle with COVID-19. It has the names of 1,000 of them (1% of the total) with a brief description of something personal about them — lest they be simply dismissed as a statistic. This milestone coming during Memorial Day Weekend, I observed that COVID-19 was on pace to be more lethal than any of our wars. Apparently not appreciating the significance of the phrase “on pace,” someone objected that World War II cost us 400,000 American lives.
But the second objection was more interesting. He complained that it wasn’t fair to compare COVID-19 deaths to “lives lost fighting for freedoms.” Memorial Day is to honor the men and women who died while in the military service. We don’t limit our respect to just those men and women whose lives were lost fighting for freedom. They did not get to pick and choose which wars or missions they were assigned to. We don’t honor the World War II death because he was fighting against Hitler while ignoring the casualties of the North Russia Intervention or Private Harry Eagan who died in the Sheepeater Indian War.
So should we minimize COVID-19 deaths as compared to military deaths? As I recall, we put 9/11 deaths way up on a pedestal with rhetoric comparable to how we’ve traditionally spoken of military deaths. The coronavirus is an enemy that has curtailed our freedom, damaged our economy, and generally threatened the citizens of the United States far more seriously than Iraq, North Vietnam, or North Korea ever could have. It’s implacable, insidious, and everywhere. Currently we’re losing a 9/11 worth of Americans every 2 or 3 days.
Is there a principled reason for valuing military deaths (including those who died during missions that did not protect freedom in any appreciable way) over COVID-19 deaths? Valuing 9/11 deaths over COVID-19 deaths? Or is it more of a reflexive cultural habit?