If ever a headline summed up American foreign policy, it would surely be this one:
“U.S. Military to Battle Ebola Virus,” proclaims The Wall Street Journal, entirely without irony. One can almost see them now, camouflaged troopers brandishing their rifles at bedridden patients: “Come out of his body with your RNA up!”
The military will not, of course, actually be pointing weapons at ebola patients (we hope); rather, they will be deployed to “coordinate international aid, build treatment centers and train health-care workers” from a new command and control center in Monrovia, Liberia.
Call it a case of the world’s largest hammer looking for nails to pound. Military training can encompass a great many specializations, of course, including some that are potentially relevant to controlling a disease outbreak, but the reality is that most of our servicemen and servicewomen have rather a different focus. If their skills are relevant to a crisis like West Africa’s ebola outbreak, it is more by accident than design.
No fault of the military. In theory, we have other agencies to deal with health and humanitarian crises, and indeed, the CDC and USAID have personnel deployed to combat the outbreak already, with more on their way. Those are the professionals who really are — at least in theory — trained to “battle” a virus on foreign soil. It’s their job, not the troopers’.
And yet, and yet, and yet. Three thousand military men and women? Three thousand more, on top of those already deployed to West Africa.
There’s no shortage of work to be done, certainly. Setting up treatment clinics and training centers takes a fair amount of manual labor, which the military is as qualified to provide as anyone. But do we really need to send trained soldiers (with all their attendant equipment) just to put up buildings and run phone centers?
America’s reliance on the military for large-scale overseas endeavors isn’t healthy, and it isn’t cheap. Trained soldiers with weapons don’t belong in charge of peaceful aid missions, and it’s a waste of their training and equipment to have them there. If America wants to invest in foreign aid (which I think worthwhile), it should do it through strengthened aid offices like USAID, the Peace Corps, and specialized services like the CDC and USGS, not through the military.
Most overseas crises that touch on American safety, it turns out, aren’t land wars. We can hit them with our multi-trillion-dollar hammer all we like, but it won’t turn them into the kinds of nails that the military is equipped to pound.