In April 1861, President Lincoln asked states to provide militiamen for three months to put down a rebellion. Kaiser Wilhelm II in August 1914 told departing troops, “You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees.” U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said of conflict in Iraq in early 2003, “It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.” Each of those wars raged four years or longer.
The point isn’t that calamities drag out; the Gulf War of 1991 took only weeks. The point is that we can’t predict without a crystal ball or benefit of hindsight. Faced with Covid lockdowns in March 2020, I stocked up on canned goods in case this might continue all the way till June. By fall, that first illusion shattered, we spoke of getting back to normal soon after we had a vaccine. Summer 2021 looked promising until Delta came along. What next?
Covid-19 impacts more aspects of more Americans' lives more dramatically than any other crisis in my lifetime. Now as on the home front during World War II, resources are mobilized, events canceled, and travel restricted. Jobs are reshaped, office work done from home today, factory work done by women back then. Our supply chains are disrupted; their gasoline, butter, and sugar were rationed. We wear face masks; my East Coast parents hung blackout curtains.
Will the disruption go on for months? For years? Our World War II forebears had no way to know. Neither have we.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.