The Military Can’t Save Us from COVID-19

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Capt. Richard Auletta briefs his staff before their shift change in the Joint Emergency Operation Command Horsham Air Guard Station, Pennsylvania.
Capt. Richard Auletta briefs his staff before their shift change in the Joint Emergency Operation Command, 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Horsham Air Guard Station, Pennsylvania. (Pennsylvania National Guard/Master Sgt. George Roach)

Alice Friend is a visiting research professor at the U.S. Army War College and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. (Twitter: @ahfdc) Jim Golby is an Army officer serving as a defense policy adviser at the U.S. mission to NATO and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the United States Studies Centre. (Twitter: @jimgolby) Starting in June, Alice and Jim will co-host the Center for Strategic and International Studies' 'Thank You For Your Service' podcast.

Is it time to put a military officer in charge of the federal government's response to COVID-19?

Some people think so. Since the outbreak in the United States began, myriad public officials have called for the military to contribute to the response. More recently, some voices have demanded a military official takeover. One such commenter advocated for an officer to be empowered to "commandeer resources from any agency," including "HHS, CDC, FDA, DHS, FEMA, and the Departments of Defense, Commerce, and State."

Although we share the desire to find a swift way to minimize the immense suffering resulting from this tragic pandemic, we disagree that a military institution or active duty officer ought to take over the federal response. The military should support civil authorities in the COVID-19 response, not lead them.

Reflexive calls for the military to assume a leadership role in what is a nonmilitary crisis are consistent with the public's almost-complete faith in the military as an institution. The average American believes that the military works and that most other government institutions don't. And in a crisis, it is better to be practical than doctrinaire about who is in charge.

This argument, however, assumes a military officer would be better at coordinating the federal response than a civilian with relevant leadership and epidemiological or disaster relief expertise. She wouldn't.

Although the federal government itself has at times faltered and sent mixed messages about the appropriate response to the pandemic, many state and local officials are acquitting themselves well in difficult circumstances. Americans have also looked to civilian public health experts and scientists who are demonstrating their competence in uncertain times.

Moreover, the chaos at the federal level is a result of politics, not a dearth of competent officials. Doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx are being limited by the need to navigate political constraints, not by their capacity to organize and apply their expertise. Perhaps a military officer would be able to sidestep political tensions, but the experiences of both active and retired general officers who recently have served in high-profile positions belie that hope.

As one of us recently tweeted, giving leadership to someone in uniform won't "drain the crisis of politics, but it may very well politicize the uniform."

To be sure, members of the military are stepping up to play an important role in our national pandemic response. Nearly 30,000 members of the National Guard have been mobilized; more than 4,600 active duty service members are contributing specialized expertise; and thousands of reservists are likely on the way to do the same.

But service members are not the only ones who are serving. Selfless and patriotic public servants, all of them civilians, have exposed themselves to risks and demonstrated noble leadership. Healthcare workers and scientists are stepping into the breach. Public and private sector leaders are making expensive decisions to protect their employees. College professors and preschool teachers alike are educating our nation online, managing their own family and health commitments as they strive to ensure students don't miss a beat. Service industry workers are risking their health to keep American citizens fed. And diplomats overseas are working to bring stranded Americans home as quickly as possible.

All of them are showing the kind of valor, sacrifice and leadership many in the country believed were the special purview of the armed services just a few weeks ago.

Yet schoolteachers, firefighters, police, doctors, nurses, librarians, social workers and even government technocrats have been here the whole time. After 9/11, and through Afghanistan and Iraq. Through the financial crisis and the opioid crisis. Service and leadership have been everywhere, not just in military uniforms.

This moment is therefore a possible turning point, one where Americans will either recalibrate how they think about shared duty and civic obligation or where we will only fall deeper into our tendency to over-rely on the military and under-resource other civic institutions.

None of this is to claim that service members should not play a large role in the COVID-19 response. The military can -- and likely will -- do more as the crisis deepens. But its efforts should be in the background and support of civil authorities, as they are now. Establishing a joint task force led by a three-star general to coordinate military efforts in support of civil authorities may be prudent. But that military officer should answer to the Secretary of Defense, not be able to task him -- or any other civilian cabinet official.

The federal response to the pandemic has been slow and uneven. And it is true that our civic institutions will sometimes let us down and fail to deliver on what Americans need. But, when they do, it is to other civilians -- not the military -- that we must turn.

The military can't save us from COVID-19, and we shouldn't ask it to.

-- The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Army War College, the Department of the Army, the U.S. Mission to NATO or the Department of Defense.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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