The US military should be winning wars, not fighting Ebola

These feelgood humanitarian missions suggest that money’s being spent in the wrong place —and that we’re not facing up to failure in the Middle East

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

As a general rule, soldiers should be employed in the business of soldiering — preparing to fight or actually fighting (preferably infrequent) wars. In response to the Ebola outbreak afflicting West Africa, the Obama administration has decided to waive that rule. His decision to do so has received widespread support. Yet the effect of his decision is to divert attention from questions of considerable urgency.

Drawing on the increasingly elastic authority exercised by the US commander-in-chief, President Obama has directed the deployment of up to 4,000 troops to Liberia, ground zero of the epidemic. These are not war fighters but support troops, mostly construction engineers and medical personnel. A president with a pronounced aversion to putting boots on the ground is doing just that — albeit boots that will arrive largely unaccompanied by guns.

Liberia Races To Expand Ebola Treatment Facilities, As U.S. Troops Arrive
U.S. Air Force personnel offload equipment from a C-17 transport plane outside of Monrovia, Liberia

Although the particulars of what the Pentagon is styling Operation United Assistance may be unique, the concept — military forces responding to disasters that outstrip civilian capabilities — is decidedly not. In the United States and elsewhere, there exists a well-established tradition of doing just that. Nor is this tradition by any means confined to domestic emergencies such as hurricanes in Louisiana or floods in North Dakota. It has long had an international component.

As far back as 1923, for example, US Army units in the Philippines rushed to Japan to offer aid in the wake of a great earthquake that devastated Tokyo and Yokohama. (Japanese gratitude expired some time before 7 December 1941.) More recent examples are legion — some acts of God, others acts of human folly or sheer malice, but all producing intervention by US forces: Bangladesh in 1991; Somalia in 1992; Indonesia in 1994; Haiti in 2010; Japan in 2011; the Philippines last year. The list goes on.

Liberia Races To Expand Ebola Treatment Facilities, As U.S. Troops Arrive
U.S. Navy microbiologist Lt. Jimmy Regeimbal tests blood samples for Ebola

The United States is hardly alone in offering assistance to countries afflicted with the Ebola virus. What distinguishes the American effort is the preferential role allotted to the military in delivering that assistance. The reasons for doing so are as much symbolic as substantive.

In the United States today, the armed forces alone command the complete confidence of the people. Americans view their military as omnicompetent and in possession of vast capacities for action. They take it for granted that the troops — well-trained, well-disciplined and selfless — can successfully take on the most difficult problem. From this perspective, if you want to stop the further spread of a dread disease, who better to turn to than American soldiers? They are the world champs, the gold standard, not only the best in the business but the best ever. So sending in the troops is Washington’s way of signalling seriousness.

Military leaders are not oblivious to the reputational benefits that can accrue from playing along. Billboards and television spots somewhat expansively advertise the US Navy as ‘A Global Force for Good’. Engaging in humanitarian activities allows the US Army, US Air Force and US Marine Corps — along with the United States as a whole — to claim a piece of that mantle as their own.

What’s the harm in doing so? If the Pentagon helps contain the spread of Ebola, the people of West Africa will benefit directly and the rest of us indirectly, by sparing us from this scourge. What could possibly be wrong with that?

A US army captain speaks with a Liberian policeman

Two things. The first is that sending troops means using non-specialists to perform tasks requiring specialised skills. The second is that it provides an excuse for ignoring the US military’s performance when assigned tasks within their actual area of presumed expertise.

I do not write as someone possessing particular knowledge in the field of international public health. Yet it seems pretty evident that dealing with infectious diseases is a complicated business that has become more complicated still in an age of globalisation. We don’t need this latest Ebola outbreak to make that point.

Yet the developed world shows a limited willingness to invest in preventing or responding to global health crises. The United States itself provides a telling example. With a military budget of somewhere between $700 billion and $800 billion a year, it contributes just slightly more than $200 million annually to the World Health Organisation. The temporary commitment of US troops to Liberia may make it appear that the United States is a global leader in such matters. It’s not.

Liberia Races To Expand Ebola Treatment Facilities, As U.S. Troops Arrive

In that regard, the diversion of military assets to non-military requirements offers prima facie evidence of resource misallocation. It’s like the city that spends all its money to raise up a formidable police force only to discover that what it really needs is a bigger sewage treatment plant. Of course, you can always put cops to work burning human excrement but there are better — that is, more effective and cheaper — ways to solve the problem.

Furthermore, let us posit that Operation United Assistance — has a military ever sallied forth under such a bland, uninspiring banner? — does accomplish its mission and helps stop the further spread of Ebola. We should pray that it does. Even so, will success in Liberia compensate for the US military’s failure to achieve comparable success in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite vastly greater expenditures over a vastly longer period of time? Even if United Assistance exceeds all expectations, the larger question of why operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom fell so far short of expectations will remain.

What ultimately matters is what boots on the ground with guns accomplish when sent into action. Military forces exist to win wars. If they can’t do that, then good deeds performed when the guns are left at home don’t count for much.

Iraq-and-Syria-debate-coffee house imageThe Spectator is holding a debate ‘Iraq and Syria are lost causes: intervention can’t help’ at 7pm on Wednesday 22 October at Church House, SW1. Speakers for the motion will include John Redwood and Patrick Cockburn, and against, Douglas Murray, Ed Husain and General The Lord Dannatt. Chairing the debate will be Andrew Neil. For tickets and further information, click here.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Andrew J. Bacevich, currently George McGovern fellow at Columbia University, is writing a military history of America’s wars in the Middle East and nearby.

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Show comments
  • fdjhhjuiiuoiu

    This is ridiculous the Uk are also sending troops- they didn’t sign up for that, we should be trying to contain it not sending hundreds of soldiers to contract it

    Please sign and share. Petition to release Marine A is heading for 87,000 signatures-
    please take 1 minute to sign it needs 100,000 to go to Parliament


    • rtj1211

      Perhaps containing it involves controlling the movements of people??

      How do you do that??

      Using a military presence, perhaps??

      • Blindsideflanker

        We used to have something called border checks, where we had the sovereignty to refuse entry of people we didn’t want here.

    • Blindsideflanker

      I would be very concerned if I was one of the 750 troops being sent to Sierra Leone, for I would doubt that the Government has my best interests at its heart, especially as they would view the deployment of the troops as a grand international gesture which would trump the personal safety of the troops.

  • rtj1211

    Actually, I can see benefits in using a military-style organisation in many ways. Of course, you need medical specialists and a few others at the top, directing strategy and what needs to be done.

    But if you need boots on the ground to set up isolation areas, organise road blocks to quarantine infected villages etc etc, well, you either need a police force or a military force. As we don’t have any international copper brigades, it would appear that the military is the only option left standing.

    Biggest advantage is that you say ‘Go, go, go’, and they’re gone in 10 minutes. No namby pamby debating the issues with them. They just do as they’re told, get on a plane and do what they’re told to do.

    What’s actually key is making sure that what they’re told to do is right.

    • Blindsideflanker

      I didn’t think you were for isolation areas, well certainly not isolating us from the disease.

  • Damaris Tighe

    An untrumpeted (I wonder why?) army medical team that’s sent to disasters across the world is Israel’s. They were the first to arrive in Haiti. Some Haitians were so grateful they gave their newborn babies Hebrew names.

    • noslack2327

      Because Israel is generally guilty of war crimes. LOL

  • BoiledCabbage

    Perhaps the US Engineers could disable the airport in Monrovia?

    Most flights have been suspended apart from Brussels Airline flying to……Brussels – and this route is possibly becoming the vector through which the disease reaches the US and Europe. The Dallas man flew through Brussels

    It shows that west Africa is incapable of quarantine. Perhaps the elite need to go shopping in Paris? Whatever, given the fact that this – and other airports in the region – are the export nodes for this disease, and there is no legal process of closing their airspace – there is really only one option – in the interests of the world – and that is to bomb the runways.

  • global city

    You rather get the impression that political correctness is going to lead to Ebola gaining a foothold across the West.

    • BoiledCabbage

      The NHS will soon be chartering special flights to bring the afflicted directly into the UK – think of the PR opportunities for Cameron?

  • Peter Stroud

    But the UK is doing the same thing. We are sending a team of medics and Royal Engineers, to build and man some specialist units.

  • John Carins

    Why are we spending all of that money on International aid and in the end having to use the military? The military budget has been cut and yet again the military is the final fall back position because of the ineptitude of governments and other organisations. It makes my blood boil.

  • trace9

    It’s feminisation. Armies – of nurses.. I heard the US Marines are considering reducing the size of their overlap on their caps to suit the female head – & look sooh much nicer – & less awfully imposing..

  • Roger Hudson

    The US Army built the Panama Canal, I prefer to see them building, helping in disasters rather than killing people. Army just means order, discipline, planning and hard work.

    • Christian

      Not quite, the latter part of it had a few us army engineers directing it.

  • The United States government, as tasked by the USSR & Allies, is using a fake Ebola crisis in West Africa to force the introduction of 4,000 troops into the region, the purpose for the deployment being to train, arm and operationalize fake “Jihadists” there, ensuring that there will be no exploration for oil in West Africa, which Russia, the #2 global exporter of oil, doesn’t want, since Russia’s economy and current military modernization program depend on relative high oil prices. Libya’s oil exports were removed from the global market back in 2012, if you recall.

    Notice that not one political party in the West demanded verification of the collapse of the USSR, and the media failed to alert your attention to this fact, including the “alternative” media. When determining whether the “former” USSR is complying with arms control treaties, what does the United States do to confirm compliance? Right, the United States sends into the “former” USSR investigative teams to VERIFY compliance, yet when it’s the fate of the West that’s at stake should the collapse of the USSR be a ruse, what does the United States do to confirm the collapse? Nothing!

    It gets worse–the West also never (1) de-Communized the Soviet Armed Forces of its Communist Party officer corps, which was 90% officered by Communist Party members; and (2) arrested and detained the 6-million vigilantes that assisted the Soviet Union’s Ministry of the Interior and police control the populations of the larger cities during the period of “Perestroika” (1986-1991)!

    The fraudulent “collapse” of the USSR (and East Bloc) couldn’t have been pulled off until both political parties in the United States (and political parties elsewhere in the West) were co-opted by Moscow & Allies, which explains why verification of the “collapse” was never undertaken by the West, such verification being (1) a natural administrative procedure (since the USSR wasn’t occupied by Western military forces); and (2) necessary for the survival of the West. Recall President Reagan’s favorite phrase, “Trust, but verify”.

    There can be no collapse of the USSR (or East Bloc nations) without…

    Verification, De-Communization and De-mobilization.

    The West never verified the collapse of the USSR because no collapse occurred, since if a real collapse had occurred the West would have verified it, since the survival of the West depends on verification. Conversely, this proves that the political parties of the West were co-opted by Marxists long before the fraudulent collapse of the USSR, since the survival of the West depends on verification.

    The above means that the so-called “War on Terror” is a USSR & Allies-tasked operation being carried out by the co-opted governments of the West, the purpose being to (1) destroy the prominence of the West in the eyes of the world, where the West is seen (i) invading nations without cause; (ii) causing chaos around the globe; and (iii) killing over one-million civilians and boasting of torture; (2) destroy the United States Armed Forces via the never-ending “War on Terror”; the ultimate purpose of the aforementioned to (3) bring about the demise of the United States in the world, opening up a political void to be filled by a new pan-national entity composed of Europe and Russia (replacing the European Union), a union from the “Atlantic to Vladivostok”; which will (4) see the end of NATO.

    Now you know how Bolshevik Russia survived in 1917; how the West “lost” China to the Communists in 1949; why the Eisenhower administration turned a deaf ear to the anti-Communist Hungarian uprising in 1956; why the Eisenhower administration in 1959 was indifferent to the Castro brothers’ Communist fidelity, actually used the CIA to overthrow the Batista government; why the Nixon administration abandoned Taiwan for Communist China, and signed treaties/provided economic aid to the USSR; why the Nixon administration refused to tell the American People that over 50% of North Vietnamese NVA regiments were actually Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers (attired in NVA uniforms), thereby (1) ensuring the Vietnam War would be lost; (2) destroying the prominence of the United States abroad and at home; (3) breeding distrust between the American people and their government; and (4) securing Communist victories in Southeast Asia. Working in the background within the political parties of the United States and Great Britain were Marxist agents doing their best to (1) ensure the survival of Communist nations when they popped up; and (2) sabotage any policies that would bring down a Communist nation. That’s why after the fake collapses of the East Bloc nations and USSR there was no mandatory Western verification process to ensure the Communists weren’t still in control.

    • Tiger

      Wake up Rumpelstilskin !!

      That’s ancient history that you are paranoid about, methinks.
      (Seeing – A Red under every bed !!)
      Senator McCarthy would be proud of you !

      You seem naiive. And deluded. With all due respect !

      What verification to the fall of the USSR do you think was possible. None. Or Envisaged. None ! Its SELF EVIDENT !

      Or don’t you read the news or TRAVEL across Europe & around the world.

      You seem to be like these 2 japanese soldiers who survived long after the end of WW2 hiding deep in some bunker / tunnel system.

      When they emerged / were found – they were shocked – and required many months of deconditioning to accept that the WAR WW2 – was OVER !

      You seem to harbour similar illusions / delusions.

      Take it easy ..! Bon appetit !!

  • davidofkent

    It’s perfectly clear (as it always has been) that our leaders love the Armed Forces because they can be ordered off to some place or another to face personal danger whenever our leaders feel the need to do a bit of strutting on the world stage. I think it would help if our leaders were to accompany our Armed Forces to war or Ebola-stricken parts of Africa.

  • Ambientereal

    Huge risk with little possibilities of success. What can a few soldiers do in the middle of many millions of people with extreme needs, not only concerning Ebola but also malnutrition and widespread crime and violence. I´m afraid that the envoys could themselves be victims of attacks of different nature. A quite difficult scenario. I don´t see a way out.

  • Terence Hale

    “The US military should be winning wars, not fighting Ebola”. Maybe Ebola is the war. The terrorist on their travels have captured much, they could have biological weapons.

  • Carter Lee

    First, of all these are largely Military Police and Engineering troops trained and equipped to do precisely what they are doing and not combat troops. Second, the U. S. Army has not distinguished itself (except in its own mind) in over fifty years of small and medium sized wars.

    They are over equipped, overly kinetic, road bound, and so casualty adverse that
    they use overwhelming massive artillery and air support for even the smallest opposition thus creating more enemies than they eliminate.

    They have a counter-productive tendency to see every issue as a nail and they
    are the hammer. They are largely trained for a type of force on force maneuver warfare against powerful conventional foes such as the Red Army. That almost no other states in this day and age can compete in this fabulously expensive type of war seems not to have occurred to them.

    Therefore, in unconventional warfare against insurgencies such as ISIS or the Taliban they are too heavy, poorly trained and even worse physically conditioned and lack the gritty morale necessary to put up with extended periods of rough living in the field necessary to produce results.

  • Bonkim

    A little out of the author’s depth. US Military has an effective medical and public health component. What matters is the organisational and control skills that the US military has that will show the way to the others how to manage such situations. Much of public health is managing people, organising disease barriers and controlling people from spreading the disease – Some strong arm action will also be require to maintain order. Unlikely that a civil medical team will achieve as much in a strange land.

  • Bar Abbas

    In some related video we find an excellent overview of the farce and fraud known as Obamacare: http://bit.ly/1ozau75

  • Laguna Beach Fogey

    Fighting wars…such as the one soon to erupt in the US itself.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “The US military should be winning wars, not fighting Ebola”
    Face it, world over-population is the more pressing issue.
    You’re all heart, Jack.

  • victor67

    “US military should be winning wars not fighting Ebola”
    Perhaps the virus will be an easier nut to crack than the Iraqi’s and Afghans

  • One of Andrew’s weaker arguments. I would be happier if the news releases said specifically that it is the US Army’s Corps of Engineers which is being sent to Africa, and the absence of that specific disturbs me greatly. The Corps is seldom referred to as “troops.”

    Roger Hudson, in an earlier comment, says that the US Army built the Panama Canal. Specifically the USA Corps of Engineers did that.

  • msher

    Baghdad is in danger of falling. It is the political pundits who keep saying the public is war weary. That changed the second the 1st beheading video was seen. The public wants to be safe from those savages. Baghdad falling is unthinkable. Instead of being at fund raisers, Obama should be ordering troops – paratroops if necessary – into Baghdad to shore up the Iraqi army. No boots on the ground – but we are going to lose Baghdad to a well-financed, well-coordinated hostile army? While Obama keeps repeating no boots on the ground? What is our military for? Not for fighting ebola, but to fight enemies who intend to kill us. Boots need to be on the ground NOW to save Baghdad.

  • GraveDave

    In the United States today, the armed forces alone command the complete confidence of the people.

    International Rescue. Thunderbirds are go. Pink plastic dolls on strings flying super jet ships. WASP.
    Ah, those were the days.

  • zoid

    why is the us having to send troops in at all?…

    …i thought that the existence of the un was meant to deal with all this sort of stuff?(….once the delegates, sons and daughters of heads of state and the scion of the elite have finished the 12 course lunch and filled out their exxes form of course…)

    likewise the un should be providing the boots on the ground to combat isil…

    …after all, if it cannot either respond to a massive public health or a grave humanitarian crisis, then why are the world’s nations paying in billions of their collected taxes to it each year?

    obama clearly wants a global ‘like’ for the us armed forces for their intervention in west africa without the embarrassing bodybags in election year which would inevitably come back from syria/iraq…oh how wrong it could all go.

    troops are for fighting wars, not ‘police actions’, ‘peacekeeping’, being social workers or aid workers….

    • Suzy61

      Indeed, the UN. Once again conspicuous by it’s absence. This useless, self-aggrandizing, weak and corrupt organisation serves only itself….unfortunately, at our expense.

  • Freedom

    Speaking as an American, I want the U.S. Army being all that it can be wherever we, the citizens, want it to be. I love our soldiers and, as with my Boxer dog that would defend me to the death if need be and vice versa (she loves me as I love her), I am just as concerned with protecting our forces against needless harm as I am willing to deploy our forces in protection of our country. It’s a two-way street.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      God help us.

      • Perky Purebottoms

        Don’t worry: we’ll rescue you, too, if and when the need arises.

  • rtj1211

    Look, if you want to control movements in a country based on health, then you need two things:
    1. The medical community issue permits allowing travel for healthy people.
    2. A set of road-blocks and other barriers to travel manned by people skilled at that sort of thing. If you’re telling me that the military aren’t any good at road blocks and controlling movements you’re off with the fairies.

    The military have a role for Ebola due to skills they possess which are relevant to the situation. Just as technology developed for military application has often made billions in non-military applications down the line. You’re not going to tell me that the research carried out by military R+D should be repeated again just because its application is not going to be military, are you??

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Face it, Iraq’s gone tits up and somebody has to carry the can.

  • Who was left in power after the Americans invaded? I daresay that has more to do with the aftermath, rather than where the Americans invaded.

  • Heddrick Steel

    ***US military’s failure to achieve comparable success in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite vastly greater expenditures over a vastly longer period of time***
    We have been just one sustained push away from victory twice in Iraq and twice in Afghanistan. The politicians, however, won’t let us win. God only know why, but politicians prefer these extended, installment wars that allow the citizenry to shop and dine while the troops bleed…in one year rotations. The US military hasn’t failed at anything. The politicians, on the other hand, must be ancient ritualists glorying in annual human sacrifice.