We know how a pandemic is supposed to end: we make sacrifices in our daily lives to support a ‘war’ on the pathogen, until medical science deploys a magic bullet to vanquish the invisible enemy. This is a comforting story, but it hasn’t ever happened yet. New Pandemics, Old Politics explores how the modern world adopted a martial script to deal with epidemic disease threats, and how this has failed—repeatedly. Europe first declared ‘war’ on cholera in the 19th century. It didn’t defeat the disease but it served purposes of state and empire.