What happened to the spirit of 1942?

Illustration by Jaida Noble | We need unity more than ever, but we have created nothing but walls.

The pandemic sacrifices we make today should not be a matter of debate.

This March will mark the two-year anniversary of the first government-enforced pandemic lockdown. From the outset of the pandemic, there has been profound resistance to mask mandates, closures of public areas and limitations of services. 

Following the production of the first vaccines and the ensuing vaccine mandates, this resistance has melded with the anti-vax movement. Once a fringe conspiracy theory; often ridiculed and without popular support, vaccination resistance has evolved into a central rallying cry with strongly perceived legitimacy for many in the conservative right.

This development has not only fatally obstructed our pandemic response and damaged our prestige in the international community, but it has also served as the final brick laid for the intractable divide within our national identity. 

This divide has steadily grown larger in recent decades, arguably manifesting its potency following the controversial 2000 presidential election and steadily growing worse since. Today, our once healthy public discourse has been reduced to a shameless mudslinging contest emblematic of schoolyard squabbles and childish obstinance. 

There is no denying that the situation is appalling, yet from a certain broad perspective it makes some sense. Our society has not experienced such a universally impactful event in many years, so it’s not surprising we are bungling it so badly. 

Throughout the second half of the 20th century and the early 21st century, American society was, broadly speaking, normal and peaceful. The Cold War was frightening. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights era were both polarizing and deadly for some. 

Yet, for the majority of Americans, life was normal. These events did little more but give fodder for political debate.

In order to find a comparable event that actually hampered the normal functions of everyday life as COVID-19 has, we must look back to the dark days of World War II. Unfortunately, this comparison offers much condemnation and very little comfort. 

An excellent documentary series, “America Goes to War” available on Amazon Prime, details the life of everyday Americans during World War II. 

Government-mandated rationing limited access to everything from butter and jam to bicycles and shoes. Most Americans who owned a car received the “A” card; a gasoline ration card good for 4 gallons a week.  To further save gas, all forms of automobile racing were banned; including the popular Indianapolis 500 which remained canceled throughout the war. 

Throughout all of this, people grumbled and complained. Yet they held their head high and rose to the challenge with grace and composure. There were no protestations of government tyranny, no sneering equivalencies of “Let’s Go Brandon” targeted at President Roosevelt. 

Instead, Americans stripped their homes of luxuries like toasters and washing machines to donate as scrap metal. Women surrendered their nylon stockings to the war effort to be made into parachutes. People poured their savings into war bonds and planted victory gardens to grow their own food and tobacco.

This spirit of national unity and self-sacrifice which rose in America in 1942 carried the nation through the war and into a victorious state of peace. Yet, despite the nauseatingly constant reassurances from Target and Olive Garden commercials that state “We are all in this together,” the truth remains that not a shred of the spirit of 1942 exists in some Americans today.

It is beyond shameful that the same country who rallied so famously in the face of adversity just 80 years ago, is now nearly at the brink of a civil war over minor inconveniences like mask mandates and social distancing. It is disgraceful that the word of tyranny, once reserved for the true evils of Nazism and Japanese Imperialism, is carelessly bandied about at the mere mention of a vaccine mandate.

I think the key difference between the national unity of war-era America and that of modern COVID-19 America comes down to a critical lack of empathy. During the war-years, empathy was easy; everyone equally faced foreign domination. Everyone had a tangible villain in Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini to blame for their trouble and direct their energies against. 

It’s not so easy with COVID-19. Only select members of the population face fatal consequences from contracting COVID-19. For many, it seems like just a bad fever and they don’t see why they should make even small adjustments to their lives in order to stop the spread. The threat is not equal, so critically, the response has not been either.

Compounding the problem is that people like their problems to have a villain. It’s easy to understand a human threat, and it’s easy to rally against one. It’s not so easy with a virus because a virus is a force of nature, not a villain. Without a villain, anti-vaxxers have dreamed them up in the form of Dr. Fauci, Bill Gates, President Biden, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

I won’t lie and say that there haven’t been times where I’ve done my own fair share of grumbling. I have been a student throughout the pandemic and there have been many times when I’ve muttered obscenities under my breath at something I thought was ridiculous. This was not what I envisioned when I decided to go back to school three years ago and I dread the concept of possibly returning to remote learning this quarter.

However, I have been able to go to school, online or otherwise. I have been able to buy what I want when I want. I have been able to live a full life with some degree of normalcy. That’s more than I can say for my friend Alena who lost her father to COVID-19 a month before her wedding. That is more than anyone can say for people we’ve lost and their loved ones.

If getting vaccinated, wearing a mask and attending school online is all it costs to save our fellow citizens, then that’s a price we all should be willing to pay. 

Compared to what the war-era Americans gave up for their country, it’s a drop in the bucket, and shame on anyone who could be so selfish and ignorant as to cling to unfounded conspiracy theories to avoid doing the bare minimum in service of their country and their people. 

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