We Should Be Very Wary About the Growing Military Response to the Coronavirus Crisis

The reliance on the military for emergency response is a testament to the failures of the U.S. welfare state.

Sarah Lazare

National Guard troops stand by as people wait to be tested for Coronavirus at the State's First Drive Through COVID-19 Mobile Testing Center at Glen Island Park in New Rochelle, New York March 13, 2020. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

On March 18, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio went on CNN and pleaded for President Trump to mobilize the U.S. military in response to coronavirus. I want their medical teams, which are first-rate, I want their logistical support, I want their ability to get stuff from factories all over the country where they’re needed most,” de Blasio told Anderson Cooper. The only force in America that can do it effectively and quickly is the United States military.”

When we begin to feel the worst effects of the climate crisis, are we just going to hand the country over to unelected military brass?

The next day, March 19, was the 17th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a catastrophic act of aggression that would go on to kill more than 1 million Iraqi people, according to one estimate. Since 2003, that date has often been marked by anti-war protests, street blockades and demonstrations at military installations, but these actions have declined in frequency and scale as the years have passed, and on Thursday — in quarantine — that anniversary went largely unremarked.

But it needs to be remembered. As political leaders on both sides of the aisle fail to create an emergency response that can provide immediate, material relief for the millions of people desperately in need, we are seeing increasing calls to turn to the U.S. military and National Guard to fill in that gap. The desperation driving this trend is understandable, but we must not uncritically turn to military institutions as providers of medical teams” and logistical support” without looking at how the U.S. military itself is a purveyor of unconscionable violence, from its 2003 invasion of Iraq to its worsening of the present-day global pandemic, or how it could be used to crack down on people within the United States.

This is especially urgent as politicians move rapidly to pursue a military response. On Sunday night, President Trump gave orders to activate the National Guard in New York, California and Washington into federalized status, which means they will be paid for by the federal government but under the control of states. And Military Times reports that all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Washington, DC have each mobilized components of their Army and Air National Guard to assist in their state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” While the National Guard is a domestic force, it can be mobilized in times of war and national emergency, and it falls under the purview of the Department of Defense. Meanwhile, according to Newsweek, the U.S. military is preparing forces to assume a larger role in the coronavirus response, including the controversial mission of quelling civil disturbances’ and enforcing the law.”

There are already signs that governments around the world are using the crisis to expand the security state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is using the crisis to side-step legislative oversight, and an upcoming trial for corruption, to enact sweeping security” measures. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is also using the crisis to seize dramatic powers that allow him to criminalize the press under the name of protecting security. We should be wary of similar maneuvers in the United States.

The military’s role in the global crisis

If our concern were providing immediate relief and support for all people harmed and threatened by the coronavirus outbreak, regardless of national origin or residence, a good step would be to stop the U.S. military from perpetrating the harm it’s presently inflicting against people who are highly vulnerable to the outbreak. Five years of a U.S.-Saudi war and blockade on Yemen has left that country’s medical system decimated: The groups Physicians for Human Rights and the Yemen-based Mwatana for Human Rights have documented 120 attacks on medical facilities from March 2015 to the end of 2018 alone, leaving the country highly vulnerable to the virus. Why are calls for an immediate end to U.S. participation in that war not considered a high-priority emergency response?

When we fortify the military, we also reinforce the larger imperial apparatus it is part of. The Trump administration is acting on behalf of this imperial apparatus to tighten U.S. sanctions on Iran in the midst of a global pandemic, despite warnings that they are cutting off needed medical supplies and increasing coronavirus deaths. Iran is one of the countries hardest hit by this pandemic. Why isn’t ending these sanctions, just two-and-a-half months after the Trump administration assassinated Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani and almost drew Iran into direct war, considered a top priority in the fight against coronavirus?

U.S. military aid is enabling Israel’s 14-year economic and military siege of Gaza, one of the most densely populated places in the world, where there are now officially two confirmed cases of coronavirus. With a population of 2 million people, Gaza has only 62 ventilators. Why isn’t it considered a top priority for the United States to withdraw its military aid from the siege so that life-saving medicines and supplies can get through?

In Venezuela, where there are 42 confirmed cases of coronavirus, U.S. sanctions have helped push the country’s medical system to ruin, and are estimated to have killed 40,000 people from 2017 to 2018, in part by helping erode public health, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Where is the urgency around lifting those sanctions?

It is no mystery what is going to happen to the people living in these places if the United States doesn’t act immediately to relieve the tremendous harm it is causing. While there are no confirmed cases in Yemen yet, Altaf Musani, Yemen’s World Health Organization representative, said last week It is a perfect storm of a disaster should this virus introduce itself.” The same goes for all places where health systems and social safety nets are battered and weakened by U.S. war, occupation, proxy battle and aerial bombardments. By failing to take immediate steps to stop the harm it is doing in the midst of a global pandemic, the United States will bear responsibility for these deaths. Yet somehow this harm never factors into the domestic conversation about a military response to a crisis, even though, in a global pandemic, an outbreak in any one of these places impacts the whole world.

Not a public health organization

Discussions of the U.S. military in the context of a crisis only ever go in one direction: pouring more resources into the Pentagon. Understandably, people are desperate, and there is a dearth of large-scale institutions capable of converting abandoned buildings into hospitals, or quickly distributing tests, medical supplies and food — acts that will be necessary to dealing with the coming deluge of coronavirus patients. Mayors and governors may very well feel that they have nowhere else to turn but the military — a profound failure of our political system.

But the U.S. military is not a public health organization: It is a purveyor of wars, occupation and proxy battles, with 800 military bases around the world. We have every reason to think it would be a ferocious force policing the streets of the United States, prone to punitive responses at a time people desperately need food and rent money. When the National Guard was deployed to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it took on a largely punitive law enforcement role. As the New York Times reported on September 9, 2005, New Orleans has turned into an armed camp, patrolled by thousands of local, state, and federal law enforcement officers, as well as National Guard troops and active-duty soldiers.”

On March 17, Governor Gavin Newsom publicly floated the possibility of imposing martial law, a statement he later walked back. Meanwhile, according to Politico, the Department of Justice is seeking emergency powers to detain people indefinitely without trial, citing the coronavirus crisis. The possibility that we are on the verge of expanding government powers to detain and police people domestically has troubling echoes of the post-9/11 era, which saw politicians on both sides of the aisle ram through the repressive and sweeping Patriot Act.

Anti-war organizers are already grappling with the questions that a supposedly humanitarian role” for the military raises raises, particularly given the U.S. history of declaring a humanitarian mission to justify brutal wars. In a statement written for the anti-militarist organization About Face: Veterans Against War, activist and writer Drake Logan argues that, during the outbreak, We need to draw careful lines between what is acceptable military response and what is categorically unacceptable.” Logan writes:

What would be categorically unacceptable to communities in the U.S. is for soldiers to have their weapons and war-grade Kevlar — as well as other battlefield gear — out on our streets… We already have a highly militarized domestic police force which fills our streets with weaponry, and which daily kills innocent Americans who never have a chance to be innocent until proven guilty. We cannot afford more of the same from U.S. soldiers.

As Lara Kiswani, the executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, tells In These Times, A militarized response to this crisis would put those most vulnerable to this pandemic and historically marginalized communities at further risk of harm and marginalization. By instilling fear in people, such a response would discourage communities to seek critical services, or worse yet, criminalize the same people who are most at risk, in turn exacerbating this public health crisis.”

Expanding our political imagination

At the very least, the need to protect people from military force should be vociferously discussed in public forums. The fact that it’s not shows that, as a country, our government’s default posture is that of militarism, relying on the Department of Defense to perform duties that should be run by civilians. Over the long term, we must change this state of affairs. After all, the coronavirus outbreak is not the only crisis we face. When we begin to feel the worst effects of the climate crisis, are we just going to hand the country over to unelected military brass? Each time there is drought or a super-storm, are we going to expand the security state while shrinking the welfare state?

Instead of further fortifying the U.S. military during times of crisis, we need to build robust civilian social programs like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal that allow us to efficiently and effectively disburse medical care and social support both in the event of crises, and on the day to day. In theory, civilian-run, domestic institutions like FEMA should be playing this role, but having been gutted and given a limited purview, they’re not equipped to handle the scope of the current crisis.

But we also must not suffer from a failure of political imagination in the present moment. The United States should be spending trillions of dollars to keep afloat the millions of people who are losing their jobs in the midst of this crisis. We should be using all options on the table: transforming corporate offices and hotels into hospitals and housing for the unhoused, passing blanket moratoriums for water and electricity shut-offs, and letting people out of prisons, where the virus is spreading. Resources and job creation can happen by caring for the community and providing social goods for everyone, instead of militarization and coming in with guns and tanks,” Cindy Wiesner, the executive director of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, tells In These Times. There are ways we can make demands in this moment to have a paradigm shift about what well-being and safety mean.” Critical to all this, the U.S. military must remove its boot from the necks of people around the world, who desperately need a reprieve from war and sanctions in the midst of a global pandemic.

Hyper-militarism may be a tempting short-term emergency strategy, but it’s ubiquity is a testament to the failures of the U.S. welfare state. Replacing it with strong public institutions under civilian control as the go-to large-scale logistical institution in times of crisis should be an urgent priority – to get us through this crisis, and the next one.

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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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