To be at war is to be in active or vigorous conflict. According to world leaders, we are in active or vigorous conflict with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger welcomes baby boy Tennessee lawmaker presents self-defense bill in 'honor' of Kyle Rittenhouse Five things to know about the New York AG's pursuit of Trump MORE has declared the virus “the invisible enemy” and likened the response to World War II, saying he considers himself a “wartime president.” In the last Democratic presidential debate, former vice president Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says he didn't 'overpromise' Finland PM pledges 'extremely tough' sanctions should Russia invade Ukraine Russia: Nothing less than NATO expansion ban is acceptable MORE proclaimed, “We’re at war with a virus.” Overseas, French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronFrench Senate votes to ban headscarves during sport competitions New French law bans unvaccinated from restaurants, venues Europe's energy conflict fuels outbreak of realism about climate policy MORE says “we are at war” with COVID-19. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, also referring to COVID-19 as a “deadly enemy,” noted that they must act like a “wartime government … to win the fight.”
All of this rhetoric about “combating” the virus and “winning the war” plays on the subconscious. As citizens, we listen and conjure images of the military arresting moms with babies who are jogging and ignoring San Francisco’s lockdown order. But is this actually where we are headed in the “war” on the coronavirus? Or are wartime metaphors sensationalist and unwarranted?
Make no mistake: COVID-19 is a pandemic; a deadly virus that may kill more Americans in a single outbreak than have died in all the American wars or conflicts fought since the Revolution. These are unprecedented times in modern history. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic infected more than 60 million and killed greater than 10,000 people in the U.S. from April 2009 to April 2010. In less than two months, confirmed U.S. COVID-19 infections top 7,000, with more than 100 deaths. The numbers continue to rise at an alarming rate as worst-case U.S. casualty projections reach into the millions.
Considering these estimates, perhaps wartime metaphors are justified. That said, the more we hear about U.S. efforts to “combat” the virus, the more we collectively worry about what lies ahead.
Hollywood representations of pandemic response may send chills down your spine. From the military bombing a town in “Outbreak” to controlled evacuations in “I Am Legend” to restricting civilian travel in “Contagion,” military control in pandemic situations seems like the natural progression. These movies are well-researched, but their depiction of military-led societal governance extends into the extreme. As an example, references to martial law have made headlines in recent days. During a press conference discussing a possible statewide quarantine, California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomThe Hill's Morning Report: Biden takes it on the chin Newsom denies parole for RFK assassin Why California needs a Latino state supreme court justice MORE seemed to level a threat: “If you want to establish a framework of martial law, which is ultimate authority enforcement, we have the capacity to do that.” The concern of martial law even compelled Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioI'm furious about Democrats taking the blame — it's time to fight back The Hill's 12:30 Report: Djokovic may not compete in French Open over vaccine requirement Florida looms large in Republican 2024 primary MORE (R-Fla.) to dispel rumors via Twitter, spelling errors and all.
To be clear, martial law, or the temporary suspension of civil authority and imposition of military rule, is a muddy concept with an even murkier history in the U.S. Though there is precedent, the legal complexities and political implications of suspending habeas corpus and enacting forced military control in modern society have been a sufficient deterrent throughout history. Whereas a national curfew may be in our future because of growing concerns over COVID-19’s community spread, the U.S. is far from such an unwelcome societal imposition, despite the president’s wartime rhetoric.
Removing Hollywood-inspired fear-mongering and sensationalism and applying the lens of reality, we are more likely to see the U.S. Marines handing out toilet paper in a supermarket parking lot than patrolling the streets of American neighborhoods enforcing curfews at gunpoint. Save for systemic societal fracturing and civil unrest, the U.S. military will not soon be enforcing national quarantines in Pleasantville, despite what the movies tell us.
Assuming the military won’t enforce lockdowns, what can or will the military do in pandemic response? Pandemics may result in significant increases in requests for Department of Defense (DOD) assistance from civil authorities if they become overwhelmed in response. When local and state governments are extended beyond capacity they request support from the DOD. When requested or under immediate response authority, the military can provide defense support of civil authorities (DSCA) to local and state governments to “save lives, prevent human suffering, or mitigate great property damage within the U.S.” Under DSCA and during a pandemic response, military support is similar to what we have seen to date: Navy hospital ships deploying to New York and the West Coast, or the Army Corps of Engineers potentially supporting construction of mobile medical sites, per New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s suggestion.
During pandemics, the National Response Framework stipulates that the DOD will support other agencies under Emergency Support Function (ESF) 8: Public Health and Medical Services. With unmatched logistical capabilities, military forces may assist in casualty clearance, patient evacuation, or staging efforts to and from medical facilities and other field sites as required. Military forces also may provide food, water and transportation security as requested. Beyond this, the DOD maintains a “Pandemic Plan,” a playbook of sorts defining its roles into three pillars of pandemic response: preparedness and communication; surveillance and detection; and response and containment.
So, rather than leading the effort as Hollywood depictions would have us believe, DOD instead will play a contributory role in domestic response. Most of us are more likely to see state National Guard troops supporting civil authorities than we are to see the armed forces in our streets. There are hundreds of Guard troops operating in over a dozen states and supporting civil authorities.
Though we eventually may see active duty troops in our communities, they will be there to help. These troops bring extraordinary logistics and personnel surge capabilities to bear on the nationwide COVID-19 response. They have an ethos of service and duty that society looks to in times of crisis. Despite references to war, we aren’t fighting each other. The nation’s military forces are not about to strip our rights to due process. We are past prevention in the U.S., so there may be greater military involvement nationwide as we progress into the response and containment phase.
In the event of civil unrest or societal fracturing, the military would be called upon to “restore governmental function and public order.” However, this does not call for martial law. For now, let’s all have a little more faith in society and hope that the only combat any of us sees in the near future is in the fight over toilet paper at the big box stores.
Ryan P. Burke, Ph.D., is an associate professor of military and strategic studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy, a non-resident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and a veteran Marine Corps officer. The views expressed here are his and do not reflect the official position of the United States Air Force Academy, United States Military Academy, Department of the Air Force, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.