A fact sheet released on Tuesday by the White House outlines an expanded government commitment in response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. “[T]he humanitarian crisis there is a top national security priority for the United States. In order to contain and combat it, we are partnering with the United Nations and other international partners to help the Governments of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Senegal respond just as we fortify our defenses at home.” The President’s plan includes the deployment of 3,000 troops to the region. “The United States will leverage the unique capabilities of the U.S. military and broader uniformed services to help bring the epidemic under control. These efforts will entail command and control, logistics expertise, training, and engineering support.”
I am, like most everyone else, pleased that the United States has finally, if belatedly, decided to send substantial resources to assist the impoverished communities and nations bearing the brunt of this infectious disease. Yet I can’t help but be put off by the militarization of the response.
The newly declared “war on Ebola” troubles me on several levels. First, I’m not convinced that sending uniformed troops to regions that have suffered excruciating armed conflicts over the past decades is a move designed to inspire trust or hope among the local population. One wonders how these troops will be used: Will they don shields and helmets while forcing residents of poor neighborhoods to stay put or to move to mobile treatment centers? Will they carry weapons? Will the appearance of foreign soldiers frighten urban residents into fleeing into the countryside?
Turning our attention inward, I am concerned that we come to rely on our military as the only governmental agency capable of responding to any sort of crisis. Do we not have the resources within national health agencies to respond to major health crises?
Military organizations and military culture are not the best way to respond to human suffering. Our America inclination to frame social problems in terms of war underpins our troubled history of crusades to stamp out vices and diseases (the two words often are used interchangeably) ranging from alcoholism to obesity to cancer. Declaring war on disease sends the message that the sufferer is somehow at fault and wars on disease too easily turn into wars on those who embody the disease. Over the past decades, our disastrous national campaign against drugs has been framed as the “war on drugs.” This set of racially charged policies, more aptly described as a “war on drug users,” and has led to local police departments being armed with military equipment (including tanks) and, tragically, to the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
While we might find comfort in the belief that with sufficient technology we can conquer any foe, the world is far more complicated than that. Even if military and medical might could eliminate every single trace of the virus in West Africa, the conditions that made the region vulnerable to the rapid spread of a new infectious disease remain in place. These conditions include deforestation and environmental degradation, rapid movements of populations into overcrowded cities, and yes – wars and other political operations that eat up resources that in other circumstances could go into building a viable and stable public health infrastructure.