President Biden on the loss of 500,000 Americans.
A half-million dead.
Holy mother of god, a half-million dead.
The Washington Post designed some helpful visual aids for us to try to grasp the enormity of the butcher’s bill of this pandemic. One helpful calculation is that it would take a nearly 100-mile caravan of buses to carry that many of our fellow citizens, a line of buses on top of which the president could walk all the way from the White House back to his home state of Delaware. But the most signifying one to me is the calculation that, had there been a half-million American casualties during the Vietnam War, the Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall would be a wall 87-feet high. It would require doubling the size of Arlington National Cemetery in order to bury that many dead.
The fact that the 1918 flu pandemic still has a bigger body count is cold comfort. It’s the 21st goddamn century. The flu hit almost 60 years before the first coronavirus was discovered, 30 years before the founding of the Centers for Disease Control, and six years before Johan Hultin, the medical archaeologist who found the flu virus in lung tissue from a remote mass grave in Alaska, was born. Science marched on, as science will, provided we all agree that it should. When we don’t, we look up after a year and a half-million people aren’t here anymore. It’s unsettling. That butcher’s bill is powerful enough to knock everything we think we know askew. In The Republic of Suffering, her great book about the United States convulsed in civil war, historian Drew Gilpin Faust describes how the carnage of that era changed even the American concept of death itself.
Death’s significance for the Civil War generation arose as well from its violation of prevailing assumptions about life’s proper end—about who should die, when and where, and under what circumstances.
Mass mourning of this sort is something for which the country has lost its talent. Our wars are smaller now, and farther away. Mass death usually comes now from nature—Katrina, Maria, tsunamis in the South Seas—or from sudden isolated acts of slaughter, like that perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh or Mohammad Atta. Prolonged mass death, and prolonged mass mourning, runs contrary to the accelerated pace of our times. Taken together, they require the kind of deceleration that comes from contemplation and reflection, two other things for which the country has lost its talent.
It did not have to be this way. We were smart enough at the beginning to face the pandemic with everything we’d learned since the last one. We were smart enough at the beginning to differentiate between what we wanted to believe and what actually was. We were smart enough at the beginning to understand exactly what we needed to do. We just decided not to do it, and now a half-million of us are dead. This is a profound failure of every aspect of American society, as profound a societal failure as the Great Famine in Ireland.
It has not been an act of mass slaughter. It was an act of enforced surrender in which every public institution was complicit. It has not been a genocide, but something else. Years ago, General Thomas Meagher, who rose in rebellion in Ireland during the Famine and ended up in America, once said:
The sword of famine is less sparing than the bayonet of the soldier.
What we have seen over the past year is the slow unfolding of an unnecessary capitulation to ignorance that we thought was long dead and buried, like all those bodies in the Arctic that finally gave up the virus that caused the last great pandemic.
A half-million dead.
Holy mother of god.