AIDS IS a matter of national security. That definition of the global epidemic, especially as it ravages Africa but also as it bears down on Russia, India, and China, became current toward the end of the Clinton administration.
Now, as noted by Jeffrey Sachs in The New York Times the other day, Secretary of State Colin Powell has accepted it. This is good news and, perhaps, bad news. The good news is that the American capacity to respond to a problem with serious money and real federal authority seems directly proportional to its relationship to national security concerns.
In the Eisenhower era, the unprecedented interstate highway project was justified as a national defense measure, like Hitler's autobahn, although even in the Cold War it was hard to imagine tanks chugging along I-95. After the Soviet Sputnik shattered American complacency, federal money poured into science education, with every microscope and slide rule seen as a kind of weapon. When President Kennedy proclaimed the intention to land a man on the moon, the aim was to win the race with Moscow - and, not incidentally, to spur development of the ICBM. Not even the Internet would have been created without its early military application.
As those references suggest, American energy, inventiveness, and organization, once fully mobilized, can truly transform the world, and as the very word ''mobilize'' suggests, nothing gets us going like a call to arms. That is why the recognition is so important that AIDS, even in remote places, threatens this nation as much as any conceivable threat of war. Responding to the epidemic can no longer be a matter of ''mere'' altruism, with AIDS relief an item on the list of America's scandalously underfunded foreign aid budget.
Once a clear self-interest is perceived, we become a nation of Minutemen, ready to pony up, drop everything, and fight. And God knows the AIDS-besieged people of Africa in particular need our firm alliance. For the most powerful figures in Washington - not just the surgeon general, but the secretaries of state and defense - to take up the cause of the most desperate millions on the planet is welcome indeed.
But the danger here is clear. Some problems, once militarized, get worse, not better. The obvious example is the ''War on Drugs.'' The scourge of illegal drugs surely involves criminal behavior, but at bottom, addiction is a public health problem that feeds on social breakdown. An approach defined as ''war'' has proven itself incapable either of addressing the medical needs of addicts or of repairing the social fabric to give addicts and dealers alternative choices. The war on drugs, instead of taking no prisoners, takes only prisoners, making Americans the most incarcerated people in the world. And just as the domestic war on drugs can finally be seen for the failure it is, we are exporting it to Latin America, the next phase of this disaster.
AIDS, even seen as threatening national security, must emphatically continue to be understood as a medical problem. Although still uncured, the humane and effective responses to this disease are well known, involving prevention education for all and aggressive treatment for those who test positive. Before militarizing our response to AIDS, we should recall that much of what is embedded in the warrior culture - America's as much as Africa's - not only won't help in this effort but will positively hinder it. The essence of HIV prevention education, for example, involves a debunking of prejudices about sex and gender on which the virus thrives - and that are still powerfully in place in the military mind.
The homosexuality taboo and the male supremacy assumption are two obvious examples; Pentagon pathologies about gays and women would certainly seem to disqualify it as an AIDS education center. How does the socially conservative military actively promote sex education, condom use, and needle exchange? And as for aggressive treatment of the already infected millions, this involves a challenge to pharmaceutical industry profit assumptions. The Pentagon has never shown itself to be a critic of corporations.
When we define AIDS as a threat to national security and respond accordingly, aware finally that the virus is no respecter of borders, we should be thinking of more than our physical well-being. Far more is at stake than the question of whether, ultimately, we and our loved ones will become infected or whether, even, world markets will collapse because of widespread social disintegration in Africa, Asia, Russia.
The real national security issue is whether the United States of America can any longer recognize its human bond with other peoples. If not, then our worst enemy has already defeated us, occupying our souls, turning America into a nation of, yes, prisoners of war.