The widespread use of military language to describe modern epidemics is often attributed to the popularization of the germ theory of disease. Whatever its origins, critics regularly deplore martial imagery in the medical context finding it by turns dangerous, humiliating, and offensive. This article examines the most famous of these critiques, Susan Sontag's rebuttal of disease-as-war language, and finds it problematic in a number of respects. Mass emergency response to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Hong Kong in 2003 offers a cross-cultural case study in the use of representations of war. Key to the argument is the proposition that disease-as-war language expresses something ‘real’ not illusory, vital not frivolous, about the community which employs it. The language is a vehicle for articulating social emotions of collective fear, patriotism, homage, and exculpation in conditions that presage collective death.