“At War with an Invisible Enemy”:
Decoding War Metaphors in Pandemic Times

Christos Filippidis


The following text was written during the early phase of the SARS-CoV-2 crisis. Nevertheless, the analysis offered here strikes far deeper than the often-monotonous discussions one is accustomed to hearing among the managers of health, the priests of the economy, and the sovereigns of the clinic. 

As the author makes clear, it is not a question here of clarifying the origin of the virus, nor of denying its existence. Instead, the task that confronts us is to diagnose the dystopian condition we find ourselves within, while recognizing its counterinsurgent social engineering initiatives.

Weaving together Foucault, Agamben, Sontag, counterinsurgency manuals, as well as offhand comments by generals and sociologists, Filippidis aims to provide a new understanding of population governance rooted in a covalent interaction between biomedical discourses and the military sciences. The implications of this analysis extend far beyond the 2020 pandemic, addressing the thanatopolitics that lie at the very heart of eugenic modernity.

What is the “fundamental core” of biopolitics? According to Filippidis, the answer lies in the reduction of socio-political meaning to biological truths. Although the everyday functioning of the body politic long depended upon a continuous overlap between control and administration, modern governance often dreamed of liberating bio-reductionism from its dependency upon the vertical coercion of police, giving birth to a truly immanent, naturalized policing. Such a project was not merely the prerogative of conservatives or reactionaries. During the period between the First and Second World Wars, the eugenic tendency to treat the overall health of the “population” not only as a pre-political biological fact, but as a stock whose betterment the state is responsible for, can be found among intellectuals from both the right and the left. While its left advocates agreed that eugenics would likely only take on a distorted form under a capitalist society, as Diane Paul reminds us, the idea that “the fitter should be encouraged, and the less fit discouraged from reproducing” was nevertheless shared by all at the time.1

At the same time, medicalizing power also has a necessarily “thanatopolitical” pole. For Filippidis, it resides in the effort to confine error to an individual body and eliminate it before it can spread, corroding the “human terrain” and squandering human capital. If such a project must be interpreted politically as a confrontation between sovereignty and bare life, this is because it tends to leave the ill human body suspended in an exceptional territory where it is both“the danger and in danger.” Defending the multitude of its subjects against those dangerous bodies that dwell within it, sovereignty thus presents its own rule as a cure. As such, its war against its own population appears as a sanitary measure conducted in the name of health: just as the governability of a population will become the ultimate proof of its convalescence, congenitally ungovernable bodies will be considered not merely as abnormal but potentially incurable, merging with the traitorous ranks of the enemy. 

From Plato’s Kallipolis to MAiD in Canada, the threat presented by discordant bodies organizes the very fiction of a unified society. In the righteous condemnation of “irresponsible citizens,” a certain dream of a self-policing population perfects itself. If we wish to evade such scorn and prove ourselves to be good soldiers in this war for the health of society, we must administer our own risk and insecurity. In this way, biopolitical regimes enlist us in a continuous form of self-policing that, far from being a neutral matter of complying (or not) with rules imposed on us externally, becomes essential to how we “produce subjectivities” in late capitalist societies. Fillippidis’ call to decode these new “social engineering initiatives” must consequently be understood as an ethical injunction to resist such processes of self-production. 

Biopolitical war narratives were on display from the very outset of the COVID-19 crisis. As in every war, there was a demand for “both unity of the citizens against a ‘common’ enemy,” as well as a prioritization of the operational capabilities of the state. If, for Filippidis, the ensuing (de)mobilization resonated with the history of “(anti)colonial wars, ‘small wars’ and so-called ‘asymmetric conflicts,’” this is because in the convergence of counterinsurgency and the biological sciences, insurgency tends to occupy the position of a disease. Wherever the guerrilla lurks among the quotidian civilian body, the “civilian population” must become “the very terrain of the war” itself. 

Let us be clear once again: none of this is to deny the seriousness of Covid-19; nor is it to say that one shouldn’t take care of those at risk. It is simply to point out that so long as our “solutions” to such crises operate within the logic of biopolitical rationality, claims of “protection” will always at the same time remain rooted in counterinsurgent and eliminative thanatopolitical logic.

Idris Robinson’s proposal, in thesis 7 of “How It Might Should Be Done,” has largely been overlooked: “As the rebel-slaves did with the periodic outbreaks of yellow fever in Haiti, there is a hidden partisan knowledge to be uncovered surrounding the novel coronavirus pandemic that also can be exploited and weaponized against established power.”2 If the threat of insurgency under the war on terror appears in the form of a disease, and if our eugenic age treats disease itself as a potential insurgency in need of policing, then by highlighting the inextricable connection between biopolitics and counterinsurgency, Filippidis guides us toward that hidden partisan knowledge that lies at their intersection. 

—Julian Heron, December 2022

Prologue: Politics as Applied Biology3 

And so the time came when the renowned Foucauldian remarks on the management of the plague shed their theoretical and historical aura and entered the realm of living experience. The introduction of a (still) new virus in our daily life, at the beginning of 2020, unexpectedly brought to life the images described by Michel Foucault regarding the management of the plague-stricken town.4 In a rather less grotesque manner but with striking similarities, the descriptions of a town meticulously guarded by armed forces, and of a potentially death-bringing human corporeality ordered to freeze in (self)confinement, were dramatically revived in front of our eyes. In the vortex of these developments we felt the strong need to seek answers to the new questions flooding our everydayness, quickly imposing new ways of attributing meaning to human experience. Those voices that argued early on that ‘after the conclusion of this pandemic the world would never again be the same’ might initially have appeared to be making familiarly-apocalyptic fear-mongering claims. Yet, as the story has unfolds to date, these voices seem to have been proven right. Not because the disease has left its indelible mark on the course of human bio-history, but because during this acceleration of historical time the authorities, namely the political, police and military cadres, have ventured into new territory which they are already seeking to make permanent. In other words, they have occupied new and fertile ground within the social realm, which it now seems impossible to give it back. We have in mind changes in the perception of human corporeality and the ways we relate to each other as bodies, radical transformations regarding the management of living labor, and finally, an onslaught of prohibitions and imperatives that seek to transform the present state of exception into a normal governing paradigm, as Giorgio Agamben would say.5

What is at stake politically in the current pandemic is less about recognizing the vulnerability of the embodied self in the face of a dangerous world than it is about the importance of our bare biological life to sovereign power and its rituals.6 As Foucault remarks, “nothing is more material, physical, corporal than the exercise of power.”7 Since the outbreak of the pandemic and the diffusion of its spectacle, sovereign power and politics itself have spoken the language of doctors. Everything that had and still has meaning for our social and political lives must pass through a new interpretation of our symptoms and our clinical prognosis. This direct reduction of socio-political meaning to our most hidden biological truths is obviously not an innovation of our times; on the contrary, it exposes the fundamental core of biopolitics, the way our biological processes come to be semantically (re)figured and reconstituted as objects of state governance. As Foucault suggested, biopolitics is both individual and collective: at issue is both an “an anatomo-politics of the human body” and “a bio-politics of the population.”8 Through the recent expansion of mass surveillance and restrictive measures, what re-emerges is the demand for the management of our biological being. It is no coincidence that the question of health and disease surveillance and management was one of the main subjects of Polizeiwissenschaft, the science of police, during its development in Germany in the eighteenth century.9 It is also no coincidence that Medizinische Polizei, the so-called “medical police”10, formed around this emphatic interest for the health of population (or more precisely, in its labor power and the reproduction of the working class11), or that this biopolitical project was closely linked to absolutist political regimes12, and contributed to “an expanded concept of police power.”13 This convergence between medicine and the police is being consolidated and refined today at an unprecedented scale, highlighting a worrisome overlap between biology and politics14 in ways that bear striking similarities to Rudolph Hess's infamous remark that “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology.”15 

Body, Illness, Anomie

The intertwining of biology and politics, despite its modern frightening scale, is not, however, unprecedented. Anyone who considers the fields of anthropology and political philosophy will notice the prominent place the human body occupies in the processes of political and social meaning assignment. As Mary Douglas points out, 

the body is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious. The body is a complex structure. The functions of its different parts and their relation afford a source of symbols for other complex structures. We cannot possibly interpret rituals concerning excreta, breast milk, saliva and the rest unless we are prepared to see in the body a symbol of society, and to see the powers and dangers credited to social structure reproduced in small on the human body.16 

The human body is thus able to symbolize the functions of a complex structure such as society. However, references to the notions of threat and danger underscore a critical point: not only does the human body symbolize the smooth functioning of a living system, it also points to its potential destabilisation. When it serves as a political metaphor, it is the suffering body rather than the healthy one that forms the object. This is unsurprising, if we take seriously Foucault’s position that “life is what is capable of error … a living being dedicated to ‘error’ and destined, in the end, to ‘error.’’17 Still, most of the metaphorical appeals to the sick body do not aim to reconcile us with this inherent dedication to “error”; on the contrary, they highlight the urgent need to correct this error. If the metaphorical and symbolic wealth of the sick body, and of illness more broadly, has proven to be invaluable, this is because at the level of discourse the invocation of disease, and therefore of the possibility of death, constitutes a liminal object and hence an urgent situation: it signals an emergency that requires immediate intervention. 

As Susan Sontag observes, 

Modern disease metaphors specify an ideal of society's well-being, analogized to physical health, that is as frequently anti-political as it is a call for a new political order. Order is the oldest concern of political philosophy, and if it is plausible to compare the polis to an organism, then it is plausible to compare civil disorder to an illness. The classical formulations which analogize a political disorder to an illness—from Plato to, say, Hobbes—presuppose the classical medical (and political) idea of balance. Illness comes from imbalance. Treatment is aimed at restoring the right balance—in political terms, the right hierarchy.18 

In other words, disease has valuable metaphorical potential precisely to the extent that its presence in the fields of speech and semantics calls for immediate “therapeutic” intervention. It indicates the deregulation of the order of a system, and therefore the immediate need to restore it. The more fatal the disease, the more urgent this appeal for intervention becomes. As Sontag adds, “to use only fatal diseases for imagery in politics gives the metaphor a much more pointed character. Now, to liken a political event or situation to an illness is to impute guilt, to prescribe punishment.”19

Disease has the ability to symbolize a system undergoing a crisis that calls for “healing,” thereby legitimizing any (therapeutic) intervention. Paradoxically, it also offers a roundabout means of highlighting the smooth functioning of a system, since the actuality and the living experience of a healthy body are sometimes fully captured only when it is too late, when one of its functions has been already deregulated. The presence of illness within political thought echoes the well-known formula of Carl Schmitt, when he argued that, “the exception is more interesting than the rule. The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything: It confirms not only the rule but also its existence, which derives only from the exception. In the exception the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.”20 

Metaphorical uses of illness-as-exception constitute political imaginaries, imposing a distinctive political landscape of emergency. Illness-as-metaphor, designed to signal the presence of crisis in the operation of a system, offers a crucial discursive refuge of sovereign power. As Athena Athanasiou reminds us, “the medicalisation of the crisis has always been a symptom of totalitarianism.”21 

In short, the human body is closely connected with the processes of assigning (socio-political) meaning. The metaphorical employment of biomedical language carries a heavy political weight, representing (in)balances, diagnosing deregulations, and suggesting “therapeutic” solutions, particularly when the human body is both the danger and in danger, as is particularly the case with infectious diseases. As Sontag observes, “epidemic diseases were a common figure for social disorder.”22 Yet, apart from the symbolic and metaphorical dimensions, the relationship between the infected body and the political order/disorder can also assume more literal forms. To understand this more literal relationship, it may be helpful to consider the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. As Giorgio Agamben interprets it, this image announces in historical terms “the biopolitical turn that the sovereign was preparing to make.”23 This “biopolitical turn” is visible in a crucial detail of the frontispiece: the city at the centre of this image seems uninhabited. The only people circulating in the streets are the armed guards and “two very special figures situated close to the cathedral.”24 These two figures are plague doctors, and their presence alongside the armed guards reveals the strong connection between the notions of health and sovereignty.25 On the one hand, this mysterious coexistence testifies to the leading role of doctors in the ways of exercising power ― indeed, Hobbes clearly affirms, “the safety of the people is the supreme law”; on the other hand, it highlights the link between lawlessness, the plague, and the sovereign’s duty to cure the citizens in order to govern them.26 This link had already been highlighted by Thucydides, when he claimed that the plague of Ancient Athens led its citizens to no longer seek the good and instead to disobey the law, since they knew that sooner or later they would die.27 In other words, the spread of an infectious disease within the body politic signifies in a more literal sense the possibility of disordering a system, the possibility of its dissolution as a “body.” 

This connection is developed in an exemplary manner by Foucault’s account of the emergence of the disciplinary paradigm in the seventeenth century (the same period in which Hobbes was writing). As Foucault writes,

A whole literary fiction of the festival grew up around the plague: suspended laws, lifted prohibitions, the frenzy of passing time, bodies mingling together without respect …. The plague as a form, at once real and imaginary, of disorder had as its medical and political correlative discipline. Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of “contagions”, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.28 

Infectious disease, along with those who study it, therefore lies at the forefront of politics and the exercise of power. In Foucault’s account of the three modalities for exercising power —  sovereignty, discipline, and government — each is aligned with a distinct approach to the management of different infectious diseases: leprosy, plague, and smallpox.29 Without delving into the details, this classification points to the strong connection between infectious disease, social peace/order, and the exercise of power.  As we will see below, this connection makes its expected appearance today in the environment formed by the current pandemic. 

Given our ongoing dystopian condition, the urgent task today is not to clarify the origins of the virus, nor to deny its existence. To disregard it is unacceptable, as it would effectively mean erasing a large part of human bio-history, namely, the way in which viral potentialities relate to capitalist development itself.30 On the contrary, our task today must be to develop a historical diagnosis of the ways in which the current pandemic is linked to various forms of governance and the exercise of power. How is this virus being utilized today? How has it accelerated ongoing socio-political processes, promoting specific policies that were already in place? How has it revealed a new land allowing governing authorities to test out new political technologies, new modes of perception, and novel means for the production of the self? Far from conspiracy theories or narratives about a power bloc working out a plan for global control, such questions merely confirm what has long been an undeniable truth for policymakers as well as critical thought more generally: crises create opportunities for the state and capital; opportunities to restructure social relations, promote new ways of attributing meaning to the self, new forms of (re)production, and new methods of social control. As Foucault teaches us, the governance of the living and the exercise of power is enacted by “conducting conducts” and managing its possibilities.31 Within the current condensation of historical time, new social engineering initiatives are underway and therefore must be urgently decoded.

The Counterinsurgency Origins of Contemporary War Metaphors

The pandemic that has crept to the forefront of the “global community” is only the most recent episode in a panorama of global crises. Its prominent position is related, on the one hand, to the emergence of a new and rapidly spreading virus at the heart of the Western world — a relatively unusual fact, given that contemporary epidemics largely occur at a safe distance from the so-called “developed world,” with all this implies for their ontological status as memorable events.32 On the other hand, it touched a sensitive chord in today’s fearful modern societies, activating what Zygmunt Bauman has referred to as “the securitarian obsession.”33 Lodged within a poisonous dialectic between the uncanny and the obsessive, a specific narrative of war was employed from the very outset. At a rhetorical level, we witnessed dramatic speeches by heads of states and high-ranking politicians who directly likened this “health crisis” to a “war against an invisible enemy.”34 Such declarations came as no surprise. Ever since the identification of bacteria as agents of contagion, war and military metaphors have formed a recurrent narrative motif in the representations of a human body resisting the “invasion” of disease or the body politic defending itself against dangers, whether from without or within.35 

The notion of war confers a convenient dramaturgical quality upon the pronouncements of politicians and spin doctors, who respond by demanding unity between citizens against the “common” enemy, as well as a strong belief in the operational capabilities of the state. In the current case, the aim was (and still is) to shore up obedience to the newly prescribed disciplinary procedures ― to experience an individual responsibility to observe certain rules ― out of fear of spreading the virus, and in view of the finite capacity of existing public health systems. As Sontag recalls, 

The transformation of war-making into an occasion for mass ideological mobilization has made the notion of war useful as a metaphor for all sorts of ameliorative campaigns whose goals are cast as the defeat of an “enemy.” [...] War-making is one of the few activities that people are not supposed to view “realistically”; that is, with an eye to expense and practical outcome. In all-out war, expenditure is all-out, unprudent ― war being defined as an emergency in which no sacrifice is excessive.36 

It is this “urgent” and “unprudent” condition that lays the foundation for the political speeches in question.37 In the case of the current pandemic, the situation was presented in military terms from the very outset. The narrative of the “invisible enemy” allowed a particular semantic environment to be propagandistically imposed in which anyone was potentially dangerous and therefore subject to confinement and control. This war language and its implications come as no surprise, particularly when we consider the transformation in military theory and the modalities of war over the past century. 

The notion of an invisible enemy returns us to the history of (anti)colonial wars, to the “small wars” and so-called “asymmetric conflicts,”38. Such wars took place across the world between the great Western powers and local indigenous peoples who resisted and revolted, whether it was during the phase of New Imperialism — that is, the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, during which colonial powers expanded to various parts of the capitalist ‘periphery’ — or during the period following the end of World War II, which effectively initiated the gradual dismantling of the old colonial world. In order to wage these wars, the great Western powers (mainly Britain, France and the United States) were forced to develop new theories and new operational frameworks. It is in this historical context that the doctrine of modern counterinsurgency was developed, a totally distinct mode of civil-military operations designed with quasi-scientific rigor which, as is well known, was revived at the beginning of the twenty-first century during the U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.39 

The originality of counterinsurgency, as well as its usefulness for grasping the current condition, first became clear during the period following World War II, when its principal theoretical corpus was developed. In the context of the Cold War, with its strong dependence on nuclear weapons, the great Western powers were forced to redefine the means of intervention into the capitalist periphery. “The problem of Third World insurgency” could not be addressed by the powerful tools of the dominant Cold War approach, rooted in nuclear weapons and cumbersome conventional means; a more flexible operational doctrine was required.40 Those forces that were most effective in the open fields of interstate conflicts proved useless when confronted with “irregular enemies” and their small wars, which of course were anything but “small” when we consider them in their historical details.41 As a result, a new operational approach was gradually promoted, based in a radical conceptualisation of the enemy and the ways the latter could be dealt with effectively. 

This conceptualisation was largely determined by the fact that this enemy was invisible: he was deeply immersed in the population, with no obviously responsible officers, no clearly visible symbols, no open display of weapons and no application of the law of war. In short, he was indistinguishable from the civilian population.42 As the French colonel Roger Trinquier described his experience in the fields of Indochina and Algeria, “we are fighting an enemy who is invisible, fluid, uncatchable.”43 The action of this enemy, operating outside the realm of publicity, could not be defeated by traditional military means adapted to regular armies. They realised that within this invisibility, the insurgents’ advantage was a function of the relationship they enjoyed with the local populations and communities.44 In other words, the most powerful weapon of this irregular and invisible enemy was not classically military; it was related to their inscription within a specific population context. Consequently, military forces focused directly on the insurgents’ relationship with the materialities and socialities that defined these local populations; and it is here that the tremendous importance of counterinsurgency lies today.

As the U.S. Army counterinsurgency guru John Nagl points out regarding insurgency, “the civilian population is its main target and also the battlefield on which the war is fought. Key terrain in an insurgency is not a physical space, but the political loyalty of the people who inhabit that space.”45 Within these theories, what is imprecisely described as a “civilian population,” the “social milieu” 46 in which the invisible enemy is hidden and through which it is constantly supported, becomes the very terrain and theater of operations of the war. Counterinsurgency forces aim to intervene into this environment and transform it, in order to displace the invisible enemy both physically and politically. Having fully understood the meaning of Mao Tse-tung’s statement that the guerrilla moves within the population like a fish in the water, they seek to intervene directly into the water itself.47 This basic principle was confirmed and refined throughout the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, during which the so-called “human terrain”48 formed the centre of gravity for police-military operations, as important (if not more) as the physical terrain. In these irregular and asymmetric conflicts, where the enemies are invisible, the real operational target is not the enemy himself but the environment in which he lives and circulates.

This observation forced the cadres of war to modify their operational doctrines, provoking a shift away from traditional “enemy-centric” approaches toward more “population-centric” operational frameworks.49 This attention to the population does not always assume the more familiar form of massacres and death, but also assumes a more “productive”50 valence that seeks to shape daily life, to redesign the spaces where people live while transforming their social milieu, ultimately turning military operations into a biopolitical project of social engineering.51 

It is with these theoretical innovations in mind that we say that the war vocabulary wielded by politicians in their speeches of late comes as no surprise. Notions of the “invisible enemy” and “asymmetric threat” point to a different kind of war than those waged between regular armies. Not a frontal conflict, but a time-consuming war taking place deep within the human terrain. As Agamben observes, “to hear the virus spoken of in terms of war is unsurprising. The emergency measures obligate us in fact to life in conditions of curfew. But a war with an invisible enemy that can lurk in every other person is the most absurd of wars. It is, in reality, a civil war. The enemy is not outside, it is within us.”52 When we hear from heads of state and high-ranking politicians that “we are at war with an invisible enemy,” we can be sure that in order to defeat their intended enemy, the entire population will be transformed into a theater of operations, with interventions made into every corner of the human terrain in order to reshape it.

Insurgency as Virus…

It is not enough merely to identify military analogies in politicians’ speeches; we must also highlight their specific counterinsurgency tone.  As we have seen, the intertwining of medical and military language is not original to contemporary politicians. If we look, for example, at the doctrines and the rich literature produced today by counterinsurgency, we notice a particular preference of military theorists towards biomedical analogies. This preference is easily explained if we look at how counterinsurgency theory was constituted from the outset. As already mentioned, one of the main counterinsurgency objectives is the governance of the human terrain. To achieve this, military cadres need conceptual tools and ways of understanding the different social contexts in which they intervene. As Patricia Owens has shown, already from an early period in the rise of counterinsurgency, experts developed a battery of social theories that attempted to explain how modern societies were formed, paying particular attention to the conflicts, tensions, and resistances that the violent development of capitalism was giving rise to. As Owens notes, “because they were forged in response to the nineteenth-century ‘social question’ posed by the increasingly radical and violent demands of workers, women and natives,” such theories could provided insights useful to military formations.53 As a specific sociological theme, the infamous “social question” has long been at the heart of counterinsurgency.54 

Still, this sociological turn in military thinking does not reflect a purely instrumental use of social theory by military forces, as Owens sometimes suggests. It also reveals that, at the core of a part of social theories themselves, we find counterinsurgent predispositions and perspectives. This is particularly true of the discipline of sociology, whose early years were especially focused on the question of social (counter)violence and its deeper causes — which is to say, on the question of how to manage the various insurgent populations that were growing increasingly uncomfortable within the capitalist construct, whether it be radicalised workers in the metropolitan “core” or rebellious indigenous peoples in the “periphery.” Exemplary in this regard was “structural functionalism theory,” which held that societies are formed like biological organisms, the parts of which are all interdependent. And as it happens in the human body, so in societies the “healthy” and “normal” state is order, balance and stability.56 Yet this particular reading does not merely perceive social systems as biological systems; it also suggests specific ways of intervening. As Owens observes, “with its image of ‘society as a whole,’ structural functionalism provided the grounds for a military strategy involving the total restructuring of local ways of life.”57 If society is grasped as an “organically interdependent” system, counterinsurgent forces ought to strive to perceive the field holistically and understand the reciprocity of its interconnected components, since the transformation of any section of society implicates the transformation of all the others.58 

Counterinsurgency theory, having based itself from the outset on the new discipline of sociology, inherited the biological analogies inherent in those theories, which organized its understanding of social systems and, above all, ways of intervening therein.59 This is exactly where a peculiar biomedical language emerges; where the dark world of human pathology produces an imagery of emergency legitimating immediate “medical” intervention. Within these organicist representations, physical pathology is disguised as social pathology, and vice versa. Pain, bleeding, and injuries reflect corresponding arrhythmias and dysfunctions within the social body, raising an urgent request for healing. Nothing, however, is as dangerous to this “vulnerable” social body as insurgency. For this special case the theorists of asymmetric warfare reserve their most frightening metaphor; insurgency, they claim, is an infectious disease. As Colleen Bell notes, likening insurgency to a contagious disease is a common motif in the language of irregular warfare theorists.60 For David Kilcullen, perhaps the most prominent counterinsurgency theorist today, “insurgency is characterized…as a virus or bacteria that plagues the social body, whose immune system is already compromised.”61 The Canadian counterinsurgency manual also expresses a similar position: “An insurgency may be compared to a communicable disease. The insurgent ideology and its popular support are spread through a population by exposure to the equivalent of risk factors.”62

Biomedical analogies are not limited to diagnoses; they also indicate appropriate “treatments.” In the aforementioned manual we read, for example, how “a communicable disease is countered through a holistic and systematic approach involving a wide range of means: changes to behavior and the environment, such as the reduction of risk factors; isolation and quarantine; inoculation; and, treatment of the clinically infected.”63 In the same “therapeutic” vein, the penultimate edition of the U.S. counterinsurgency field manual claims that “the focus of COIN operations generally progresses through three indistinct stages that can be envisioned with a medical analogy: i) Stop the bleeding, ii) Inpatient care—recovery, iii) Outpatient care—movement to self-sufficiency.”64 Basing himself on this “holistic” and “therapeutic” rationality, Stanley McChrystal, a retired general and former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, developed a model of understanding “counterinsurgency warfare that likens that mission to the way in which the human body fights infectious disease”; after all, as McChrystal reasons, “human bodies aren’t the only things that get infected.”65 

It is certainly much easier for military theorists to seek refuge in the world of natural and biological phenomena in order to explain and ultimately to simplify the social complexity and “pathologies” of modern societies. The selective use of biomedical metaphors strives, in essence, to naturalise these “pathologies,” and their political causes in particular. Both social asymmetries and the social conflicts they engender are described as dangerous yet natural ruptures in the continuum of health. In other words, they are described in terms of a biological contingency that develops in a natural way. Yet the intertwining of biomedical and military language does not merely naturalize modern social asymmetries, it also naturalizes the very practice of “therapeutic” intervention, while also suggesting specific approaches and methodologies. If we return to the current situation, it is clear that the presence of war imagery and terminology in the pandemic management serves more than one purpose. It is not simply a rhetoric of urgency which, as Sontag argues, seeks to mobilize the masses ideologically and psychologically; it is also a military metaphor that points to specific modes of intervention. And, as we have seen above, in the context of an asymmetric war against an invisible enemy, these ways can only be population-centric

…and Vice Versa

As Bell writes, “the biomedical analogies used to articulate the challenges faced by counterinsurgents convey an important message: that defeating adversaries is best achieved through the knowledge and management of the host population.”66 And this message takes on a central importance whether war is likened to disease or disease is likened to war, as is the case today. With regard to the dramatic speeches in question, the importance of “the knowledge and management of the host population” is highlighted, as suggested above, through the notion of the invisible enemy, especially when we place this notion in its colonial and counterinsurgency contexts. The politicians who employ such metaphors may not be able to grasp the theoretical and historical weight of the words they utter. The same is not true, however, for the counterinsurgency theorists, who undertake to give these metaphors a more tangible form and integrate them into their appropriate context. Within the current pandemic condition we observe war metaphors becoming more specific and more honest. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is not simply, and in the abstract, an invisible enemy; it is an insurgency in itself. We are thus witnessing a critical semantic inversion. If in the aforementioned metaphors insurgency was likened to an infectious disease and therefore counterinsurgency to medical treatment, today we observe the use of an inverted analogy that likens the new virus to insurgency and medical treatment to counterinsurgency. This inversion is by no means an arbitrary conceptual construction; on the contrary, it commences from the point where viruses and insurgencies inevitably meet, that is, from the notion of the human terrain.

For example, in a relatively recent interview, McChrystal argued that the current pandemic situation reminds him of the early months fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq. Asked about this by a journalist, McChrystal tried to explain this comparison: “that [situation] was unexpected because we had been purpose-built as a counterterrorist force to operate as a traditional military unit and do sort of slow, periodic but very precise operations. And we got against al-Qaeda in Iraq, which emerged — starting in 2003 — as a completely different kind of organization. It was viral. It was amorphous. It constantly adapted. It was a bit like COVID-19.”67 This example comprises the epitome of the two-way semantic movement we have just highlighted: not only does an insurgency develop like a virus, but a virus develops like an insurgency. This interview is rich in advice for an effective pandemic management strategy, as if it was a military campaign. This advice, however, does not only concern issues regarding the organization of governmental agencies, different states and the responsible bodies. It also points to a specific operational approach on the field. It highlights, in other words, the critical importance of social engineering; that is, the appropriate management of the human terrain, the appropriate “fabrication of social order,” to put it in Mark Neocleous’s words.68 Whereas in classical counterinsurgency theories the aim is to cut the link between the population and the guerrillas, in the metaphoric structures that liken the pandemic management strategies to counterinsurgency the aim is to prevent the population from coming into contact with this new invisible enemy.

Central to this prevention is the “productive” use of fear. Answering a relevant question, McChrystal, who by the way works closely with the city of Boston to manage the pandemic,69 claims: 

You’ve got to tell them that there’s a serious problem, that they need to fear the enemy; they need to respect the enemy. But at the same time, you have to build their confidence that says, if you do this right, we can win this. A lot of people have used the analogy of a war, but we really haven’t asked the American people to sacrifice for a war since World War II. I think we could mobilize ourselves for what is a warlike threat from a virus that's producing things. And I think the American people want to contribute. They’re already scared. I think what we could do is use that as a unifying idea that says, this problem is big enough it requires everybody to focus – it requires some sacrifice from each of us.70 

The “productive” management of fear is preparing the field for intervention; in particular today, when the invisible nature of the enemy is able to exacerbate any phobic syndrome. For as Bauman claims, “fear is at its most fearsome when it is diffuse, scattered, unclear, unattached, unanchored, free floating, with no clear address or cause; when it haunts us with no visible rhyme or reason, when the menace we should be afraid of can be glimpsed everywhere but is nowhere to be seen.”71 In any case, McChrystal, as a high-ranking military officer, is only too aware that there is no war without psychological operations; that is, operations designed to create and form emotions. What is required here is the appropriate use of fear caused by this invisible enemy ― by death itself, in the end ― for the needs of reshaping the human terrain. A reshaping at the level of perceptions, at the level of expectations, and finally at the level of bodies, as this is indicated by the use of the concept of sacrifice. Because people have to change their habits, that is, all those elements that until yesterday formed their bodily presence in the world.

Decisive Point, an advisory firm focused on defence and national security and currently working closely with New York City officials to tackle the pandemic, is moving in a similar direction. As advisers Thomas Hendrix and Jay Long point out regarding the situation in the city, “the conditions on the ground bear striking similarities to our collective military experience conducting unconventional warfare and counterinsurgency operations in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.”72 More specifically, the two advisers emphasize that “the spread of COVID-19 follows a pattern similar to the phases of insurgency as outlined by the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine.”73 These analogies are employed to give a specific form to a specific problem, shaping the field in order to legitimate specific solutions. They problematize (in the Foucauldian sense) a situation, developing “the conditions in which possible responses can be given.”74 The responses, in this case, can only be population-centric. Seeking these responses and discussing with retired U.S. lieutenant general Michael Nagata, the two advisers convey a key lesson of counterinsurgency, as this is crystallized from the latter’s long experience in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations: “successful counterinsurgency prioritizes protecting the population over the important, but secondary, need to combat the insurgent.”75 Therefore, in combating the current pandemic, as Nagata points out, the strategy should prioritize “protecting the population first and foremost, with efforts to combat the disease itself, while crucial and necessary — particularly in light of the current absence of an effective vaccine — as a secondary goal.”76 

Here, the use of the word “protection” should not delude us; in essence, it means population control. The issue of population protection has been widely used in many episodes of the bloody history of counterinsurgency to conceal and beautify the practices of mass population control. As Owens describes it, “in reality, ‘protection’ means shelter from the violence of others in exchange for submission to the violence of the ‘protector.’”77 Yet, the political utilization of population protection is not, of course, counterinsurgency’s exclusive feature. On the contrary, it is more broadly a constitutive element in theories of governance. We saw it, for example, in Hobbes’s governmental rationality. We see it in John Locke’s thought, according to which “for the sake of protecting society from internal and external threats, the executive had prerogative power to act for the general good, even if it involved a breach of the law.”78 In a more contemporary context, the example of European migration management suffices to show how the notion of protection ― of the migrant populations in this case ― becomes the anteroom for mass incarceration and the well-known thanatopolitics implemented on border crossings and sea routes; or the example of the modern humanitarian-military nexus, legitimating the conduct of military operations in the name of a “responsibility to protect.”79 A similar misrepresentation resides in the overemphasis on the “protection” within the population-centric counterinsurgency approaches; to such an extent that it makes those in charge today speak of a “kinder and gentler” form of war.80 The normalized presence of the armed forces in the human terrain allows them to boast of conducting some form of “humanized” operations, apparently concealing their violent aspects. What is certainly true, however, is that any “humanization” of war arises from the very fact of placing human relations at the center of military interest. In other words, if certain forms of war appear more “humanized” today, it is because more and more forms of the human condition are being transformed into fields of operations.


Unfortunately, the above views are not expressed by a handful of marginal military voices. On the contrary, they seem to fully grasp the stakes of the current pandemic condition. Highlighting the critical point in which “complex and amorphous threats, like insurgencies and pandemics” meet, namely the human terrain, they focus on what comprises the priority today; that is, the civil-military “fabrication of social order” and the appropriate population management in times of crisis.81  These views are therefore indicative of the operational approaches that dominate the landscape of pandemic management; whether these are called by their name or not, even if we find differences from state to state, even if pandemic management strategies cannot ―and it would not be right to― be read as a coherent and homogeneous global campaign. The importance of these views lies in the fact that since the current pandemic is officially likened to war, with the result that those most suited to discussing it are those with military experience, and in particular those who specialize in dealing with invisible and irregular enemies. Not in order simply to repeat the metaphors of war that the governmental cadres have always been susceptible to, but to place this discourse in its appropriate context. To give, in other words, the necessary clarifications for the heavy content of these metaphors and for their even heavier mission. The metaphorical use and abuse of “war with an invisible enemy” is not an accidental analogy among others. It is an analogy that carries a heavy historical and performative weight, one that was always intended to prepare us for the imposition of martial law. It is an analogy that reminds us in a very unpleasant way that words truly do things.82

Images: Gregory Crewdson


1. Diane Paul, “Eugenics and the Left,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Oct-Dec. 1984): “The history of eugenics has been presented so often as though it were simply the extension of nineteenth-century social Darwinism, reflective of the same conservative values and the interests of the identical social groups, that we have nearly lost sight of the fact that important segments of the Left (as well as the women's movement, which deserves to be treated as a separate category) were once also enthusiastic about the potential uses of eugenics. Indeed, in Britain and the United States there once existed a movement popularly known as ‘Bolshevik Eugenics.’” 

2. Idris Robinson, “How It Might Should Be Done,” Ill Will, August 16, 2020. Online here

3. The present text was first published in Greek in the volume We Are At War With An Invisible Enemy’: Pandemic, Biopolitics and Counterinsurgency (Athens: futura, 2020). —IWE. 

4. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, Vintage, 1995, 195-200.

5. See, for example, Giorgio Agamben, “The State of Exception Provoked by an Unmotivated Emergency,” Positions Politics, 26 February 2020. Online here. And Giorgio Agamben, “Clarifications,” Ill Will, 17 March 2020. Online here.

6. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford, 1998.

7. Michel Foucault, ‘Body/Power’, in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, trans. Colin Gordon, Pantheon, 1980, 57.

8. Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Vol.1,trans. Robert Hurley, Pantheon, 1978, 139; Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–76, trans. David Macey, Picador, 2003, 243.

9. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–78, trans. Graham Burchell, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, 318, 324-325.

10. Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 58, 367.

11. As Paolo Virno points out, ‘[t]he living body becomes an object to be governed not for its intrinsic value, but because it is the substratum of what really matters: labor-power as the aggregate of the most diverse human faculties (the potential for speaking, for thinking, for remembering, for acting, etc.). Life lies at the center of politics when the prize to be won is immaterial (and in itself non-present) labor-power. For this reason, and this reason alone, it is legitimate to talk about “bio-politics.”’ See Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, Semiotext(e), 2004, 83.

12. Claudia Stein, “The Birth of Biopower in Eighteenth-Century Germany,” Medical History 55:3 (July 2011), 334.

13. Brendan McQuade and Mark Neocleous, “Beware: Medical Police,” Radical Philosophy 2.08 (Autumn 2020), 4. Online here.

14. See Agamben, Homo Sacer; and Roberto Esposito, Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy, trans. Timothy Campbell, University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

15. Roberto Esposito, Terms of the Political: Community, Immunity, Biopolitics, trans. Rhiannon Noel Welch, Fordham University Press, 80; Esposito, Bios, 112.

16. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Routledge, 1994, 116. 

17. Michel Foucault, introduction in The Normal and the Pathological by Georges Canguilhem, Zone Books, 1991, 22.

18. Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978, 76.

19. Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, 82.

20. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. Georg Schwab, The University of Chicago Press, 2005, 15.

21. Athena Athanasiou, Η Κρίση ως «Κατάσταση Έκτακτης Ανάγκης»: Κριτικές και Αντιστάσεις [The Crisis as a ‘State of Emergency’: Critiques and Resistances], Savvalas, 2012, 45.

22. Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, 58.

23. Giorgio Agamben, Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, Edinburgh University Press, 2015, 38.

24. Agamben, Stasis, 29.

25. Here, Agamben follows, in particular, the reading suggested by historian Francesca Falk.

26. Agamben, Stasis, 38-39.

27. Agamben, Stasis, 38.

28. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 197-198.

29. Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 9-10.

30. Chuang, “Social Contagion: Microbiological Class War in China” (2020). Online here.

31. Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” in Power (Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984), trans. Robert Hurley, The New Press, 2001, 341.

32. Athanasiou, The Crisis as a “State of Emergency”, 86.

33. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Fear, Polity Press, 2006, 130.

34. See, for example, the following excerpts from the speeches of the French President Emmanuel Macron, the former U.S. President Donald Trump and the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis: (i) “We are at war. Certainly, in a healthcare war. We are not fighting an army, nor are we fighting another nation. But the enemy is here, invisible, elusive, it progresses. It thus requires a call to arms. We are at war.” See BBC, “Coronavirus: ‘We are at war’ – Macron,” 16 March 2020 (online here); (ii) “I want to assure the American people that we’re doing everything we can each day to confront and ultimately defeat this horrible, invisible enemy. We’re at war. In a true sense, we’re at war. And we’re fighting an invisible enemy.” See Whitehouse, “Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Briefing,” 22 March 2020 (online here). (iii) “We are at war with an enemy that is invisible but not invincible … victory will come only if we all – each one individually – are proven disciplined soldiers in this ‘war of life.’ Because the enemy is invisible and insidious. So stay safe, stay home!” See Kathimerini (Athens), “Mitsotakis: We are at war, the enemy is not invincible,” 17 March 2020 (online here).

35. Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, 64-67.

36. Susan Sontag, AIDS and Its Metaphors, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989, 10.

37. Sontag, AIDS and Its Metaphors, 11.

38.  The notion of “asymmetry” was also used to describe the “confrontation” with the virus today. See CNN Greece, “Staikouras: The coronavirus is an ‘asymmetric threat,’ we are preparing measures for every possible scenario,” 3 March 2020 (online here); To Vima (Athens), ‘Pasteur Institute Director: The new coronavirus is an asymmetric threat’, 7 March 2020 (online here). 

39. For a critical reading of counterinsurgency and pacification see Mark Neocleous, ‘“A Brighter and Nicer New Life”: Security as Pacification’, Social & Legal Studies 20:2 (June 2011).

40. Austin Long, On “Other War”: Lessons from Five Decades of RAND Counterinsurgency Research (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2006), 6. Online here.

41. See also Mark Neocleous, War Power, Police Power, Edinburgh University Press, 2014, 5-6.

42. These are the four classical conditions for an equation with regular troops. See Carl Schmitt, The Theory of the Partisan: Intermediate Commentary on the Concept of the Political, trans. G. L. Ulmen, Telos Press Publishing, 2007, 24, 36.

43. Roger Trinquier, Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency, trans. Daniel Lee, Praeger Security International, 2006, 74.

44. Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 6; David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, Praeger Security International, 2006, 4; Frank Kitson, Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency, Peace-keeping, Faber and Faber, 1991, 49, 143.

45. John Nagl, forward to Counterinsurgency Warfare, by David Galula, ix.

46. Patricia Owens, Economy of Force: Counterinsurgency and the Historical Rise of the Social, Cambridge University Press, 2015, 28, 31, 241, 253.

47. Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 6, 17; Robert Taber, War of the Flea: A Study of Guerrilla Warfare Theory and Practice, The Citadel Press, 1970, 22, 120.

48. David H. Petraeus and Octavian Manea, “Reflections on the ‘Counterinsurgency Decade’: Small Wars Journal Interview with General David H. Petraeus, by Octavian Manea,” Small Wars Journal, 1 September 2013, (online here); Roberto J. González, “Embedded: Information Warfare and the ‘Human Terrain,’” in Network of Concerned Anthropologists. The Counter-counterinsurgency Manual or, Notes on Demilitarizing American Society, Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009.

49. Russell W. Glenn et al., ‘People Make the City’, Executive Summary: Joint Urban Operations Observations and Insights from Afghanistan and Iraq, RAND Corporation, 2007, xviii, 57 (online here); David J. Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency, Oxford University Press, 2010, 6, 9, 10; Owens, Economy of Force, 275-276.

50. See also, Mark Neocleous, ‘The Dream of Pacification: Accumulation, Class War, and the Hunt’, Socialist Studies 9:2 (Winter 2013), 8-9.

51. As Owens claims, “[f]or Foucaultians, populations living under counterinsurgency rule could easily be seen as the ultimate biopolitical subjects, those who can be regulated and governed at the level of population in a military ‘state of exception’ outside the normal legal framework. This is why Britain’s late-colonial campaigns in Malaya and Kenya were called ‘emergencies.’ Under dictate of military necessity, populations could seem to be reduced to ‘bare life’ inside various forms of camp-like spaces.” See Owens, Economy of Force, 32-34. After all, counterinsurgency was from its inception a purely biopolitical project, in the sense that it problematizes and regulates a series of crucial population phenomena; that is, a series of phenomena inscribed deeply in human corporeality (see, for example, the regulation of the vital needs of local populations, the organisation and surveillance of their daily lives and ultimately the organisation of living labor). One could even argue that in the last two decades counterinsurgency has been ‘completed’ as a biopolitical project through the massive use of biometric technologies in the field of population mapping.

52. Agamben, “Clarifications.”

53. Owens, Economy of Force, 25.

54. Owens, Economy of Force, 12-21, 62-69; Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, Penguin, 1990, 59-114.

55. Owens, Economy of Force, 24-25.

56. Owens, Economy of Force, 28, 218.

57. Owens, Economy of Force, 29.

58. Owens, Economy of Force, 29.

59. Owens, Economy of Force, 28, 124, 241, 252.

60. Colleen Bell, ‘Hybrid Warfare and Its Metaphors’, Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development 3:2 (Summer 2012); Colleen Bell, ‘War and the Allegory of Medical Intervention: Why Metaphors Matter’, International Political Sociology 6:3 (September 2012), 327. See also, Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb, Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion, and Terror, 1817–2020, The University of Chicago Press, 2021.

61. Bell, ‘Hybrid Warfare and Its Metaphors’, 234. Later, however, Kilcullen will distance himself from infectious disease analogies, describing insurgencies as ecosystems and biological organisms. See Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency, 196-198. 

62. Land Force, Counter-Ιnsurgency Operations: B-GL-323004/FP 003, Department of National Defence, 2008, 2-21.

63. Land Force, Counter-Ιnsurgency Operations; Bell, “Hybrid Warfare and Its Metaphors,” 233.

64. U.S. Army and Marine Corps, Counterinsurgency: Field Manual 324 & MCWP 3–33.5, Headquarters Department of the Army, 2006, 5-2.

65. Cited in Fred Dews, “How Is Counterinsurgency Like the Way the Human Body Fights Disease?”, Brookings, 19 December 2013 (online here). Similarly, in Kilcullen's thought “[i]nsurgency is ‘pathology,’ a disease that follows a cycle of ‘infection, contagion, intervention, and rejection.’” Cited in Owens, Economy of Force, 252. 

66. Bell, “Hybrid Warfare and Its Metaphors,” 234.

67. Rachel Martin and Stanley McChrystal, “How To Take A Leadership Role During A Crisis,” National Public Radio, 1 April 2020. Online here.

68. Neocleous, “A Brighter and Nicer New Life,” 193, 201, 203.

69. Bob Oakes, ‘Army General Hired To Help Handle Boston’s Coronavirus Response Talks Leadership, Readiness’. WBUR News, 6 April 2020. Online here.

70. Martin and McChrystal, “How To Take a Leadership Role.”

71. Bauman, Liquid Fear, 2.

72. Thomas Hendrix and Jay Long, “Military Experts: We Need to Fight Coronavirus like We Fight Insurgents on the Battlefield,” Fortune, 16 April 2020. Online here.

73. Hendrix and Long, “Military Experts.”

74. Michel Foucault, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations: An Interview with Michel Foucault,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984), trans. Robert Hurley, Penguin, 2000), 118.

75. Hendrix and Long, “Military Experts.”

76. Hendrix and Long, “Military Experts.”

77. Owens, Economy of Force, 246-247.

78. Owens, Economy of Force, 118. For a critical reading of the notion of “prerogative” in Locke’s thought, see Mark Neocleous, Critique of Security, Edinburgh University Press, 2008, 13-38.

79. Chowra Makaremi, “Utopias of Power: From Human Security to the Responsibility to Protect,” in Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions, Zone Books, 2010, 107-127.

80. Owens, Economy of Force, 245, 276.

81. Hendrix and Long, “Military Experts.”

82. For their vital contributions to the editing of this text, the author wishes to thank Roussa Kasapidou, Tilemachos Doufexis-Antonopoulos, Giorgos for building the necessary bridges, Michalis Paparounis (futura books) for his overall support, Ioanna for all her patience, understanding and encouragement, and Idris Robinson for his unconditional help, his insightful corrections and mostly for this unexpected and fruitful reconnection after so long, in this global mess. Of course, all errors remain mine.