American military personnel are getting sick in significant numbers in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. As The New York Times reported in a piece buried in the back pages of its July 21st edition, “The infection rate in the services has tripled over the past six weeks as the United States military has emerged as a potential source of transmission both domestically and abroad.”
Indeed, the military is sick and I think of it as both a personal and an imperial disaster.
As the wife of a naval officer, I bear witness to the unexpected ways that disasters of all sorts play out among military families and lately I’ve been bracing for the Covid-19 version of just such a disaster. Normally, for my husband and me, the stressors are relatively mild. After all, between us we have well-paid jobs, two healthy children, and supportive family and friends, all of which allow us to weather the difficulties of military life fairly smoothly. In our 10 years together, however, over two submarine assignments and five moves, we’ve dealt with unpredictable months-long deployments, uncertainty about when I will next be left to care for our children alone, and periods of 16-hour workdays for my spouse that strained us both, not to speak of his surviving a major submarine accident.
You would think that, as my husband enters his third year of “shore duty” as a Pentagon staffer, the immediate dangers of military service would finally be negligible. No such luck. Since around mid-June, as President Trump searched for scapegoats like the World Health Organization for his own Covid-19 ineptitude and his concern over what rising infection rates could mean for his approval ratings, he decided that it was time to push this country to “reopen.”
As it turned out, that wouldn’t just be a disaster for states from Florida to California, but also meant that the Pentagon resumed operations at about 80% capacity. So, after a brief reprieve, my spouse is now required to report to his office four days a week for eight-hour workdays in a poorly ventilated, crowded hive of cubicles where people neither consistently mask nor social distance.
All of this for what often adds up to an hour or two of substantive daily work. Restaurants, dry cleaners, and other services where Pentagon staffers circulate only add to the possibility of his being exposed to Covid-19.
My husband, in other words, is now unnecessarily risking his own and his family’s exposure to a virus that has to date claimed more than 150,000 American lives—already more than eight times higher than the number of Americans who died in both the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed.
In mid-August, he will transfer to an office job in Maryland, a state where cases and deaths are again on the rise. One evening, I asked him why it seemed to be business as usual at the Pentagon when numbers were spiking in a majority of states. His reply: “Don’t ask questions about facts and logic.”
After all, unless Secretary of Defense Mark Esper decides to speak out against the way President Trump has worked to reopen the country to further disaster, the movement of troops and personnel like my husband within and among duty stations will simply continue, even as Covid-19 numbers soar in the military.
America’s archipelago of bases
Global freedom of movement has been a hallmark of America’s vast empire of bases, at least 800of them scattered across much of the planet. Now, it may prove part of the downfall of that very imperial structure. After all, Donald Trump’s America is at the heart of the present pandemic. So it’s hardly surprising that, according to the Times, U.S. troops seem to be carrying Covid-19 infections with them from hard-hit states like Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas, a number of which have had lax and inconsistently enforced safety guidelines, to other countries where they are stationed.
For example, at just one U.S. base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, the Marine Corps reported nearly 100 cases in July, angering local officials because American soldiers had socialized off-base and gone to local bars in a place where the coronavirus had initially been suppressed. No longer. In Nigeria, where official case counts are low but healthcare workers in large cities are reporting a spike in deaths among residents with symptoms, the U.S. military arms, supplies, and trains the national security forces. So a spike in cases among U.S. troops now places local populations (as well as those soldiers) at additional risk in a country where testing and contact tracing are severely lacking. And this is a problem now for just about any U.S. ally from Europe to South Korea.
What this virus’s spread among troops means, of course, is that the U.S. empire of bases that spans some 80 countries—about 40% of the nations on this planet—is now part of the growing American Covid-19 disaster. There is increasing reason to believe that new outbreaks of what the president likes to call the “Chinese virus” in some of these countries may actually prove to be American imports. Like many American civilians, our military personnel are traveling, going to work, socializing, buying things, often unmasked and ungloved, and anything but social distanced.
Public health experts have been clear that the criteria for safely reopening the economy without sparking yet more outbreaks are numerous. They include weeks of lower case counts, positive test rates at or beneath four new cases per 100,000 people daily, adequate testing capacity, enforcing strict social-distancing guidelines, and the availability of at least 40% of hospital ICU beds to treat any possible future surge.
To date, only three states have met these criteria: Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. The White House’s Opening Up America plan, on the other hand, includes guidelines of just the weakest and vaguest sort like noting a downward trajectory in cases over 14-day periods and “robust testing capacity” for healthcare workers (without any definition of what this might actually mean).
Following White House guidance, the Department of Defense is deferring to local and state governments to determine what, if any, safety measures to take. As the White House then suggested, in March when a military-wide lockdown began, troops needed to quarantine for 14 days before moving to their next duty station. At the close of June, the Pentagon broadly removed travel restrictions, allowing both inter-state recreational and military travel by troops and their families. Now, in a country that lacks any disciplined and unified response to the global pandemic, our ever-mobile military has become a significant conduit of its spread, both domestically and abroad.
To be sure, none of us knew how to tackle the dangers posed by this virus. The last global pandemic of this sort, the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1919 in which 50 million or more people died worldwide, suggested just how dire the consequences of such an outbreak could be when uncontained. But facts and lived experience are two different things. If you’re young, physically fit, have survived numerous viruses of a more known and treatable sort, and most of the people around you are out and about, you probably dismiss it as just another illness, even if you’re subject to some of the Covid-19 death risk factors that are indeed endemic among U.S. military personnel.
Perhaps what the spread of this pandemic among our troops shows is that the military-civilian divide isn’t as great as we often think.
Protecting life in the COVID-19 era
Full disclosure: I write this at a time when I’m frustrated and tired. For the past month, I’ve provided full-time child care for our two pre-school age kids, even while working up to 50 hours a week, largely on evenings and weekends, as a psychotherapist for local adults and children themselves acutely experiencing the fears, health dangers, and economic effects of the coronavirus. Like many other moms across the country, I cram work, chores, pre-K Zoom sessions, pediatrician and dentist appointments, and grocery shopping into endless days, while taking as many security precautions as I can. My husband reminds me of the need to abide by quarantines, as (despite his working conditions) he needs to be protected from exposing top Pentagon officials to the disease.
Yet the military has done little or nothing to deal with the ways the families of service members, asked to work and “rotate,” might be exposed to infection. In the dizziness of fatigue, I have little patience for any institution that carries on with business as usual under such circumstances.
What’s more, it’s hard to imagine how any efforts to quarantine will bear fruit in a country where even those Americans who do follow scientific news about Covid-19 have often dropped precautions against its spread. I’ve noted that, these days, some of my most progressive friends have started to socialize, eat indoors at restaurants, and even travel out of state to more deeply affected places by plane. They are engaging in what we therapists sometimes call “emotion-based reasoning,” or “I’m tired of safety precautions, so they must no longer be necessary.”
And that’s not even taking into account the no-maskers among us who flaunt the safety guidelines offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to indicate their supposed love of individual liberties. A relative, an officer with the Department of Homeland Security, recently posted a picture on Facebook of his three young children and those of a workmate watching fireworks arm in arm at an unmasked July 4th gathering. The picture was clearly staged to provoke those like me who support social-distancing and masking guidelines. When I talk with him, he quickly changes the subject to how he could, at any moment, be deployed to “control the rioters in D.C. and other local cities.” In other words, in his mind like those of so many others the president relies on as his “base,” the real threat isn’t the pandemic, it’s the people in the streets protesting police violence.
I wonder how the optics of American families celebrating together could have superseded safety based on an understanding of how diseases spread, as well as a healthy respect for the unknowns that go with them.
Sometimes, our misplaced priorities take my breath away, quite literally so recently. Craving takeout from my favorite Peruvian chicken restaurant and wanting to support a struggling local business, I ordered such a meal and drove with my kids to pick it up. Stopping at the restaurant, I noted multiple unmasked people packed inside despite a sign on the door mandating masks and social distancing. Making a quick risk-benefit assessment, I opened the car windows, blasted the air conditioning, and ran into the restaurant without my kids, making faces at them through the window while I stood in line.
A voice suddenly cut through the hum of the rotisseries: “Shameful! Shameful!” A woman, unmasked, literally spat these words, pointing right at me. “Leaving your kids in the car! Someone could take them! Shameful!” I caught my breath. Riddled with guilt and fearful of what she might do, I returned to my car without my food. She followed me, yelling, “Shameful!”
Aside from the spittle flying from this woman’s mouth, notable was what she wasn’t ashamed of: entering such a place, unmasked and ready to spit, with other people’s children also in there running about. (Not to mention that in Maryland reported abductions of children by strangers are nil.)
What has this country come to when we are more likely to blame the usual culprits—negligent mothers, brown and Black people, illegal immigrants (you know the list)—than accept responsibility for what’s actually going on and make the necessary sacrifices to deal with it (perhaps including, I should admit, going without takeout food)?
Typically in these years, top Pentagon officials and the high command are prioritizing the maintenance of empire at the expense of protecting the very bodies that make up the armed services (not to speak of those inhabitants of other countries living near our hundreds of global garrisons). After all, what’s the problem, when nothing could be more important than keeping this country in the (increasingly embattled) position of global overseer? More bodies can always be produced. (Thank you, military spouses!)
The spread of this virus around the globe, now aided in part by the U.S. military, reminds me of one of those paint-with-water children’s books where the shading appears gradually as the brush moves over the page, including in places you didn’t expect. Everywhere that infected Americans socialize, shop, arm, and fight, this virus is popping up, eroding both our literal ability to be present and the institutions (however corrupt) we’re still trying to prop up. If we are truly in a “war” against Covid-19—President Trump has, of course, referred to himself as a “wartime president”—then it’s time for all of us to make the sacrifices of a wartime nation by prioritizing public health over pleasure. Otherwise, I fear that what’s good about life in this country will also be at risk, as will the futures of my own children.