Article: The Military in the Time of COVID-19

By Nina Wilén

 Published in PRISM, VOL. 9, NO. 2 | 2021

Versatile, Vulnerable, and Vindicating

Since the eruption of the world’s latest pandemic, COVID-19 in December 2019, militaries throughout the world have taken on a variety of unfamiliar domestic tasks—an arena which is usually reserved for internal security forces. In Peru the military called upon 16,000 reservists to help fight the pandemic— an exceptional move that did not even occur during the fight against the rebel group Sendero Luminoso in the 1980s.
The Italian military found itself driving truckloads of deceased COVID-19 victims to mortuaries, provoking questions about possible post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). In Spain, the military has also
drawn international attention, not only for its assistance in imposing national lockdowns, but moreover for the revealing uniforms, with deep v-neck shirts and leather suspenders. This prompted both comments from mainly female writers, reflecting on the physical attraction of the male soldiers, and a deeper and more critical discussion on the role of the Spanish military during the civil war and the succeeding dictatorship.
The increased visibility, unfamiliar tasks, and closer cooperation with the civilian world have driven civil-military relations to new ground while at the same time suggesting questions about which domestic tasks should be allocated to the military. In this article, I explore these developments from a global perspective, then zoom in on select states for empirical examples. I identify what types of tasks militaries have performed during the current crisis and critically analyze how these tasks may impact civil-military relations and the military institution more broadly in the short and long term. This leads to probing fundamental military sociology questions concerning the apolitical nature and role of the military in society, especially in liberal democracies.
Drawing on a literature review of academic articles, “gray” literature, media articles, and informal discussions with military personnel from different countries, I identify three trends with regard to militaries in the time of COVID-19 and analyze the potential challenges that these present for the future. First, the pandemic exposes the military’s own vulnerability to health risks due to its close living and working conditions, while at the same time implying a risk of military personnel spreading the virus to the civilian population. Second, the pandemic has so far only marginally impacted the operational capacity of militaries, yet there are likely negative long-term effects if the COVID-19 situation persists for more than a year, related to strains on logistical, operational, and human resource capacities. Third, the higher visibility and closer connection with the civilian population during the current pandemic has confirmed the last two
decades’ development of military institutions toward being highly versatile organizations with increasingly important domestic roles.
This is likely to alter civil-military relations, invoking questions related to the military’s apolitical character.
In the first section, I revisit the military’s role in previous health crises, showcasing the historical aspect of current tasks. Thereafter, I make a
broad categorization of the tasks undertaken by the military during the current pandemic, emphasizing their versatility. In the third section, I identify and analyze trends during the pandemic, pointing
to different challenges that these trends are likely to have. In the conclusion, I reflect on how the military’s fight against COVID-19 has demonstrated its versatile character in a visible way that likely impacts civil-military relations more broadly and suggests risks to the apolitical character of the armed forces.

A Historical Role

Most national security documents and mission statements reserve a role for the military in national health crises or pandemics. The enumerated tasks range from more traditional military tasks such as building infrastructure, providing transport, and supporting quarantine measures, to the provision of military medics, facilities, and researchers to speed up research. Indeed, recent years have seen a call for armed forces to play a greater role in planning for,
and responding to, health events. While the current pandemic has demanded new, and at times unfamiliar, roles for the military in many states, there is a long history of using the military to curb disease outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics.

Historical studies have shown how recurrent periods of pandemic influenza between 1500 and 1900 disproportionately affected the military population, thereby making the disease not only a health
threat, but also a security threat.
This became more explicit during the “Spanish Flu” in World War I
between 1918 and 1919, when the wartime organization of British medicine framed the response to the influenza by articulating definitions and knowledge of the disease. In the United States, influenza and pneumonia sickened 20 to 40 percent of U.S. Army
and Navy personnel during WWI. Both France and the United States saw a “militarization of medicine” during the same period, making this a broader, global development.

In modern times, the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK in 2001, the Avian Influenza in 2006, the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, and the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa11 have
all seen varied types and levels of military response. In the UK in 2001, the army’s role was to “command and control” the response to foot and mouth disease, clearing backlogs of dead cattle and coordinating with civilians to keep diagnosis, slaughter, and disposal time to a minimum. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa prompted both domestic and regional militaries under African Union command to assist in the efforts to contain the spread of the virus, as well
as a wider U.S.-led effort under Operation United Assistance with the deployment of 2,692 U.S. military personnel as well as the launch of Operation Gritrock by UK forces. Given these precedents, the military’s central role in the current pandemic should come as
no surprise to observers. Yet the variety of responsibilities armed forces have been tasked to perform raises questions about military versatility and the effects it may have on civil-military relations and the concept of an apolitical military.

Highly Versatile Organizations

Militaries worldwide have participated in efforts to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus, drawing on their national command networks and pools of disciplined and available manpower, deployable
on short notice. Most of the efforts fall into three main categories; providing additional medical capacity, logistics and infrastructure, and support for internal security.