US Military may be uniquely situated to help in ebola crisis [updated]

[Sept. 19:  For a contra view see this column from @MeanCharlotte in the Los Angeles Times, reflective of views on the right that the military, at least under this president, is not the right tool for “wars” that are metaphorical rather than involving combat (“Ebola isn’t the Islamic State.  It’s a virus.”). Likewise, some of those on the left, particularly in Africa, who are suspicious of AFRICOM in concept, are leery of hidden motives. Many envision a deployment heavy on combat-ready “warfighters” to conduct a mission skewed toward policing or physical security in a way that I don’t expect to be what is planned or what will transpire.  Not disputing the basis for wariness based on experience with recent wars and some relief and development efforts, I “stick to my guns” (metaphorically) in seeing this crisis and the balance of options available differently.]

Regarding the AFRICOM deployment to lead/assist the U.S. response to the ebola crisis in West Africa, here is a link to a fact sheet describing the basic work of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick, Maryland.  The Institute was established in 1969 and has as a primary function ongoing work on botulism, plague, anthrax and ebola, among other threats to military personnel and to public health.  They do pioneering work on vaccines in these areas, for instance.

The U.S. military is not necessarily well suited for all the various tasks that it gets assigned because no one else in the U.S. government is staffed or funded or otherwise able to do them.  Addressing an infectious epidemic on a crisis basis is much more suited to military leadership, and our specifically planned for and developed capacities, than general “development” or disaster relief work, I believe.

The U.S. military has a huge medical capacity in its own right to serve the military itself, in peacetime and as deployed around the world, along with civilian dependents and others, separately from combat-specific capacity.  We have a volunteer military, but once you volunteer you are subject to being assigned on a “command and control” basis that makes the military more flexible in a crisis than a civilian governmental or private entity.  I am one of those people who have concerns that we should have more capacity in other parts of our government, including civilian development and diplomacy functions, but such concerns should not makes us unduly reticent to use the resources that are available to help address an immediate human crisis as best we can.

Likewise, I am not an advocate of promiscuous use of the military either for war or as a substitute development agency–see my post from  2010:  “Provocative Question: To Eliminate Redundancy, Should We Move USAID From DOS to DOD?” –so I understand the general concern or skepticism, but in this specific instance we in the United States, and people at risk in West Africa, need to make use of the resources developed and available through the military.

[Update: See this from Foreign Policy: “Can the U.S. Army Degrade and Destroy Ebola?” from an expert who had an opportunity to have input on the planning.]

Catching up on some prior must reads:

“John Githongo: corruption in Kenya is poisoning politics” from The Guardian, July 3.

“After Westgate: opportunities and challenges in the war against Al-Shabaab”, a Chatam House paper by Paul D. Williams, July.

.  .  .  As Al-Shabaab loses territory and its popularity among Somalis continues to dwindle, other clan- and region-based actors will become more salient as national debates over federalism, the decentralization of governance mechanisms beyond Mogadishu and the place of clannism will occupy centre stage. As a consequence, AMISOM’s principal roles should gradually shift from degrading Al-Shabaab towards a broader stabilization agenda: encouraging a national consensus over how to build effective governance structures; developing an effective set of Somali National Security Forces; and ensuring that the Federal Government delivers services and effective governance to its citizens, especially beyond Mogadishu in the settlements recently captured from Al-Shabaab. As it stands, however, AMISOM is not prepared to carry out these activities. More worryingly, nor is the Somali Federal Government.

One thought on “US Military may be uniquely situated to help in ebola crisis [updated]

  1. Was thinking about this very idea just the other day. The US military, particularly the USN and USMC, are agile and organized and have resources and capabilities well suited to solving complex and emergent problems in places far far away. Warfighting is but one thing they do. They also bring a host of capabilities: medical, engineering and construction, communications, sanitation… In the “fog of crisis”, what other organizations have this breadth and depth and can have impacts as large?

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