Don’t look now but, for all intents and purposes the US war machine has ceased to exist.
It’s not the case for defensive purposes. If the United States were to come under attack, the Pentagon would throw everything it has at the problem from ground troops to advanced fighter jets. If "fighting sick" was the only option, then that’s what it would have to do. Only after the smoke had cleared would it have time to tend to the sick, wounded, and dying, including those suffering from Covid-19.
But that’s never happened in US history with the exception of Pearl Harbor and the War of 1812, so it’s not what 95 percent of the US military is meant to do. Rather, it’s built for force projection, the ability to hurl firepower outwards from Timbuktu to the Hindu Kush.
That war machine is what Covid-19 is now laying low even more surely than it is laying low the economy. It’s doing so by insinuating itself into every last crack and crevice in military bases and onboard naval ships in which thousands of people work in close quarters that would make a civilian blush.
It’s taken the military several weeks to realize what’s going on and, judging from the mixed messages sent by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, it still hasn’t figured it all out. Esper told a press conference on Mar. 17, for instance, that the military’s mission was, first, "protecting our troops, their families and our personnel; second, safeguarding our national security missions; and third, supporting the administration’s whole-of-government approach to addressing this national health emergency." But as Craig Hooper points out in a perceptive article in Forbes, the trouble with those three goals is that they’re "inherently in opposition," meaning that it’s impossible to execute one without undermining the others.
The same goes for a mindless tweet put out the by joint chiefs of staff on Sunday assuring Americans that the coronavirus has had "no impact to our ability to conduct operations in the Pacific, Atlantic, & Middle East, wherever we need to go." But a ship in which corona is running wild is one that is unable to conduct operations in a dry dock much less in some distant war zone. The Pentagon wants people to believe it is (A) dealing with the health crisis and (B) still going about its regular business. But A is impossible without B coming to a screeching halt.
This was the thrust of a Mar. 30 letter by Brett Crozier, captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with a crew of four thousand. With thirty-three infected and many sure to follow, he immediately instituted measures designed to prevent infection. But, he said, "the current strategy will only slow the spread" on board a ship that is little more than a human rabbit hutch, one in which sailors sleep in triple bunks called racks, gather in crowded messrooms to eat food prepared by crew members who may themselves be infected, and squeeze past one another in narrow passageways.
"The current plan in execution on TR will not achieve virus eradication on any timeline." The only solution, he added, was to remove all but a skeleton crew for cleaning and maintenance and put the remainder in isolation.
On Tuesday, Esper told CBS News that he still had "not had a chance to read that letter … in detail," but added that he still hoped to "tak[e] other measures to ensure that we can get the carrier up and ready again to continue its mission."
It sounded like so much whistling past the graveyard since other carriers will invariably be stricken as well. And even after being cleansed and disinfected, they’ll find that life is very different when they put back to sea. Shore leave will have to be canceled given the likelihood of re-infection, while even something as routine as a visiting helicopter will pose risks. For the foreseeable future, America’s eleven aircraft-carrier battle groups will operate in a way that will place US power projection under the severest constraints.
The same goes for other military operations from manning lonely outposts in places like Djibouti to staffing bases in and around the Persian Gulf. With a military infection rate now exceeding that of civilian society, the simplest troop movements stir a pot that, from the standpoint of disease control, is best left undisturbed.
In Iraq, for instance, the New York Times reports that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is pushing a plan to move against Iranian-backed militias at a time when the pandemic is distracting the attention of hard-hit Iran. Militarily, the idea makes no sense since attacking militias with close ties to the Baghdad government will merely force the Iraqi government into its neighbor’s arms. But it makes no sense biologically since forcing Iran and its supporters to mobilize will spread the virus all the more across both corona-stricken nations, while drawing in thousands of US personnel from across the region will spread it among US military ranks as well. The result: more Covid-19 across the entire Persian Gulf and then more back in the US when those troops rotate home.
It’s absurd, which is why even Donald Trump has put it on hold. But Marines at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina were still required last week to stand in close proximity during formation and to engage in physical-training exercises involving "body drags" and "fireman carries" in which they touch, grab, and haul their fellow trainees. With the same undoubtedly taking place at other bases, it’s easy to see why Govini, a data analysis firm that works for the Pentagon, is now warning that military facilities are serving as conveyor belts for the spread of Covid-19 across vast swathes of the western and southern US, from Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia at one end to Wyoming, Nevada, Texas, and California at the other.
Instead of an asset, America’s overstuffed military is a growing liability. Rather than protecting the US, it’s dragging it down along with every other country it comes in contact with. What’s the point of an empire if its ultimate function is to undermine society all the more? When the Roman Empire was riven with plague from 165 to 180 A.D., it marked the end of the golden age and the beginning of what Edward Gibbon called the age of "rust and iron," a period of inflation, starvation, peasant uprisings, and ceaseless civil war. Is the US empire heading in the same direction?
Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics. He writes a weekly column for Antiwar.com. He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde Diplomatique and blogs about the Constitution and related matters at Daniellazare.com.