The Military Hasn’t Saved Us From Pandemic—Nor Should It

William M. Arkin, Newsweek, 25 May 2020.

All across America on this national holiday, the shadow of coronavirus cannot help but darken the day. So many people have died without remembrance and without their loved ones at their sides.

The toll is indeed daunting. Early on, the number of Americans who died from COVID-19 exceeded the number killed on 9/11. Then the number surpassed all the American soldiers killed in all of the wars fought in the past two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan. Coronavirus then reached another grim milestone, taking more American lives than the 33,600 who died in the Korean War. And then it surpassed the 58,200 who died during the Vietnam era. In fact, the number of Americans who have died from COVID-19 so far exceeds the number of Americans killed in all of these wars combined.

And yet despite this national calamity, the American military response has been wholly routine. With a nationwide crisis of unprecedented proportions, the military activated no more people than it did on 9/11. And it eventually deployed fewer people than it did in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. At no time did more than 10 percent of the National Guard deploy to America’s communities, and at no time did more than one percent of the 1.3 million men and women on active duty join in the external coronavirus response.

And yet as we honor those who have died in wartime, these numbers should be seen for what they are – clear demonstrations that the military is not the right institution for emergency domestic response. And coronavirus, despite hyperbole and despite the numbers, is also not war. If there is an added military tragedy on this Memorial Day it is that we confuse what is military with what is civilian, and we starve needed civilian organizations and capabilities in our military-first society.


From the very first days of the pandemic, when governors and politicians and both leading presidential candidates clamored for the military to be called out and the National Guard to be mobilized, men and women in uniform have played an outsize role. From New York to the smallest communities in the American hinterland, 45,000 members of the Guard selflessly left their own families to put themselves into harm’s way, moving materiel, performing testing, and delivering food. Over 5,000 military doctors and nurses fanned out across America to augment overwhelmed hospitals. The Navy’s two hospital ships moved to New York and Los Angeles. Military engineers and construction workers built makeshift facilities. At the peak of the military response, in the first week of May, just over 62,000 men and women in uniform were supporting civil authorities across the country.

But consider this: On September 11, 2001, by nightfall on the day of the attacks, over 8,000 members of the National Guard alone were deployed, either directly aiding recovery in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington DC, or moving to guard transportation hubs and America’s skies. By the first week of November, seven weeks after the initial attacks, the number of mobilized National Guard soldiers surpassed 47,000 – the same as the nationwide coronavirus peak. By the end of November – 11 weeks after the attacks – the absolute number of men and women mobilized topped 57,000, almost the same as the number mobilized this year.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 pretty much followed the same pattern. Some 51,000 guardsmen and women were eventually mobilized by the end of October, almost all of them serving in the Gulf states of Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. Overall, some 65,000 reservists and active duty personnel were engaged in the response, again almost exactly the coronavirus number.

If it weren’t for the fact that the military issued a constant flow of COVID-19 press releases and saturated social media with announcements that made it seem as if it had all hands on deck, if the military didn’t spend tens of millions of dollars on ridiculous flyovers, all these numbers might not be so remarkable. Nor is the military’s response to coronavirus necessarily scandalous. After all, it is not the military’s mission to be America’s public health force. Nor should it be.

What the almost identical responses to COVID-19, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina explain is that 65,000 is about the total of all the people that our near two million strong military can contribute to a civil emergency, no matter how bad it is. The vast majority of people in the military are young men and women with guns, combat Marines, sailors aboard America’s warships, fighter and bomber crews and maintainers, nuclear warriors. None of them are useful in a pandemic. Yes we can borrow the medical, engineering and logistical skillsets of many in uniform, but the remainder – and for good reason – exist to fight the nation’s wars.

Could the military have deployed more people – and quicker – had warfare, and military readiness for war, not eclipsed everything else? Perhaps. But no matter how serious the needs of the civilian population, the friction with national defense will never go away. We make a mistake when we heap every task on the military’s shoulders, but the true cost for society is in doing so we starve civilian society and institutions, ultimately weakening the foundations of a nation that the military is supposed to externally defend.

That our national defense force is not well suited for domestic emergency response should be further demonstrated in the secrecy that is an endemic part of all things military. The Pentagon decided early on in coronavirus that because of the requirements of military readiness – because it had to keep fighting in the Middle East and had to keep the nuclear deterrent operating and had to signal to North Korea and Iran that it wasn’t taking it’s eye off of its defense mission – it would not divulge specific information about coronavirus in specific units or on specific bases.

This secrecy was one of the causes of the disaster aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which eventually had more than 1,100 coronavirus cases amongst its 4,800 strong crew. Had there been greater transparency, had the Congressional delegation in its San Diego homeport had the facts, had the news media known what was developing in this hotspot, more radical measures would have been taken. But this hotspot was a military unit and consequently what was happening was secret. The tragedy aboard the USS Roosevelt was a product of the very friction that exists between military readiness and public health. Decision-makers far away in Washington insisted that the USS Roosevelt stay on mission while those who needed to know were kept in the dark.

Secrecy had another nationwide impact. As the National Guard deployed to the streets of America and as the military went through the motions of preparing continuity of government and other emergency measures meant for nuclear war, many Americans feared martial law and federal government overreach. Secrecy prevented a more transparent explanation of what the armed forces and the national security establishment was doing. And not only that, but the very civilian agency responsible for brokering federal assistance and resource to the states – FEMA – had the weird dual national security mission, leftover from the Cold War, of being responsible not just for disaster relief but also the lead agency in the above Top Secret continuity mission. The two missions are just not compatible.

As the military response demonstrates, the civilian need isn’t unlimited. Maybe 60,000 people in a national reserve is all we’re talking about – the actual military augmentation. Yes of course military transport and other capabilities should be borrowed when everyone is rolling up their sleeves in response. But the true lesson of coronavirus is not that the military needs more, it is that it is high time that we end our society’s guns versus ventilator mentality, that we fund and equip a robust civilian reserve. Wouldn’t our nation be stronger if we had a civilian response force? Wouldn’t it be stronger if we had a commissioned public health service with a strong reserve? Wouldn’t it be stronger if we had well-funded stockpiles of personal protection equipment and medicines? Wouldn’t it be stronger if we invested in an intelligence capacity that provided early warning of pandemics? Wouldn’t it be stronger if all of these needs didn’t have to compete with national security?

America should thank its warriors for mustering over the past three months – and it should honor those who have died fighting the nation’s wars. But the best way to pay homage to all of those who put on a military uniform and declare their willingness to sacrifice their lives on our behalf is to be crystal clear about what is war and what is not war, about what is the national defense and what are national needs, about what is essential and what is excess and discretionary.

In today’s polarized and angry world, there is much deterrent to criticizing the military institution, little incentive and even some danger involved, that in doing so, one will be accused of being unpatriotic or even disrespectful. So let me say, as an Army veteran and a scholar of the institution, that we have a magnificent military. It has a grave task, one that we should not take lightly.

But we dishonor those in uniform when we ask them to do everything. We dishonor them when we send them out to fight endless wars and pay so little attention to those wars. We dishonor them when we satisfy ourselves one or two days a year recognizing what they do. What is more, we weaken the fabric of our country when we confuse what is military and what is civilian, misallocating resources and starving civil society. Coronavirus should be a reckoning, not just in reorienting our focus. It should also be a wakeup call that maybe so much of what we think is essential for our national security isn’t, that the three month hiatus in military exercises and the worldwide stop movement was trivial in its impact on our national security, that it had no effect in our overall national need.

And so, even though Memorial Day exists as its own national holiday and shouldn’t be borrowed to mourn the civilians who have died from COVID-19, nor should the military be borrowed to make us feel better about our response. In fact, on this Memorial Day, when we think about the military and its role in American society, we should not only have a more realistic view, but we should ponder the implications of misreading the world situation at the cost of the very health and vitality of our society.

4 responses to “The Military Hasn’t Saved Us From Pandemic—Nor Should It

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