Long ago I spent a few months as an apprentice at a summer-stock theatre in Woodstock, New York (long before it became Woodstock). One of the plays we put on was Gore Vidal's Visit to a Small Planet, in which an urbane alien arrives as a tourist. What has he come to see? War.
"It's the one thing you do really well," the alien says.
Vidal was a witty and perceptive man, and I still miss his talent for outraging everyone. And in this case he was very accurate.
Especially in the century since August 1914, we have shown real talent in waging wars of all sizes, from global conflicts to individual suicide bombers. Every one of us has grown up in a culture nourished by war; chances are we wouldn't be here if not for being offspring of survivors. (I owe my own life to Adolf Hitler: he provoked my parents into joining the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, where as two very good-looking premature anti-fascists, they met and fell in love.)
War images and metaphors have dominated the English language for far longer than a century, but it certainly includes expressions like "trench coat," no man's land," "nuking," "toe the line" (said of troops lining up), and countless others. When the threat du jour appears, we are told that "violence is the only language they understand."
Violence is the only language any of us really understand; the threat of it keeps many of us law-abiding citizens, and we expect the authorities to be violent on our behalf against those who break the law.
Lyndon Johnson rallied Americans to a War on Poverty, and Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs. War, after all, was how their generation decided matters, though I can't recall either of those wars ending in victory.
Even without invoking war, reports on disease outbreaks sound like dispatches from the front as the experts battle, fight, struggle, and eventually defeat the enemy. The function of the enemy, after all, is to be battled, fought against, struggled with, and defeated.
Such terms can be useful for political communication, though they're less so for health communication. But when the authorities need support, war language is their dialect of choice.
Consider this scenario. Instead of urbane tourists, the aliens who arrive on Earth have no interest in sightseeing. They set down in West Africa in giant spaceships, pour out, and begin greedily feeding on the humans they find.
How will the rest of us respond to this? Alien invasion since The War of the Worlds has been just another metaphor for doing business as a western civilization, and we would automatically know that our only hope would be to unite and fight the invaders. I can recall General Douglas MacArthur, in his old age, wistfully wishing for such an invasion as a way to build a new alliance between the West and the Soviets.
Ebola at this point is a very unpleasant disease afflicting poor black people in whom the rich white West has no serious economic or strategic interest. It has only strengthened our stereotype of Africa as a continent of losers, too ignorant even to recognize help when they get it.
But the rich white West, while enriching itself still more in a global economy where Pakistanis build soccer stadiums in Qatar and Filipinos crew the container ships from China, still considers itself somehow immune from the sorrows of the poor. Twitter goes nuts when a couple of Ebola cases are flown home to the US. Ebola is the problem of poor black people, not comfy white Americans with broadband access.
Well, suppose we treated Ebola as the alien invader it is, even if it doesn't arrive in big flying saucers. Suppose we saw West Africa as the enemy's beachhead, from which it would soon advance. Then we'd see the MSF and the Samaritan's Purse people as commandoes, in hand-to-hand combat with something that will kill us next if they can't stop it.
If we saw West Africa like that, no humanitarian agency would post reports defining the gap between what's needed to fight Ebola (or cholera, or malaria) and what's been made grudgingly available. Hundreds of millions of human beings are struggling to stay alive, and their lives depend on the pennies we throw them.
Instead, billions of dollars would flow. Military engineers would arrive to build airstrips, like the Seabees in the Pacific, while hospitals sprang up and doctors and nurses poured in to staff them. Governments would find more billions to build systems for delivering drinkable water and effective sewage, and schools for the children who would now live past their fifth birthdays.
This would not be a matter of stamping out a forest fire and going home before all the hot spots were doused. This would be making West Africa Ebola-proof, and proof against many other endemic diseases, just as the Marshall Plan saved postwar Europe from generations of poverty, violence, and disease.
We'd glorify the front-line doctors (there's another war metaphor) the way we used to glorify soldiers who won the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Victoria Cross—not for taking lives, but for saving them.
And all we'd need to do this would be to treat Ebola, and a host of other diseases, as the alien invaders they are.