Opinion: Is the ‘war on Ebola’ really a mission for our military?

A medical worker with the Liberian Red Cross wears a protective suit while watching local residents in Banjol.
A medical worker with the Liberian Red Cross wears a protective suit while watching local residents in Banjol.
(Dominique Faget / AFP/Getty Images)
Guest blogger

Boots on the ground! Just weeks after Doctors Without Borders told the United Nations that curbing the Ebola epidemic, and the subsequent riots and chaos in West Africa, would require a military response, President Obama announced that he’ll be sending up to 3,000 U.S. military personnel to Liberia to “battle” the Ebola virus.

The irony of the situation aside -- so far Obama has shied away from planting any boots in Iraq or Syria, where there is actual combat going on -- the president’s latest military move represents a startling transformation of metaphoric language: from describing reality to creating reality.

A “war” against some perceived evil has been a favorite metaphor of politicians and policymakers for decades. There was President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and President Ford’s fire-engine-red “WIN” buttons (the “WIN” stood for “Whip Inflation Now”). More recently there’s been the “Republican War on Women,” not to mention the “Republican War on Science.” And, of course, the “culture wars.”


In the name of eradicating diseases, mostly by raising research funding for cures, we’ve had the “war against AIDS,” the “war against breast cancer,” and the “war against Alzheimer’s.” So the idea of a “war” against Ebola, a highly contagious and deadly disease that has so far killed at least 2,630 people in West Africa and threatens to kill several hundred thousand more within a few months if left unchecked, is certainly an apt one.

But it’s supposed to be a metaphorical war, not an actual war! Ebola isn’t the Islamic State. It’s a virus. You can’t bomb a virus, and you can’t shoot it dead with a rifle, either. In fact, since right now Ebola is incurable -- the only “treatments” that doctors and nurses can give consist of painkillers, fluids, nutrition, and palliative care (see the World Health Organization website for more information) -- the closest thing to anything arguably “military” that our soldiers could do would be to force patients into quarantine centers. That would make America extremely popular in Liberia.

Furthermore, although some military personnel are medically trained and others know how to build field hospitals quickly, most of them are trained to fight real wars, the kind with tanks, guns, and grenades. That’s the purpose of a military force, and when a military force is deployed, there’s supposed to be an actual military purpose. Otherwise, using military troops in what is essentially a civilian errand of mercy is a waste of money, training, talent, and ultimately, lives, as U.S. servicemen and servicewomen succumb to the disease, as some inevitably will. Healthcare workers clad head to toe in HAZMAT-style protective suits have already perished, and there is no reason to think that our troops will be magically invulnerable.

That hasn’t stopped Obama, though, from trying to pull a military purpose for his planned Ebola adventure out of thin air. In his speech Tuesday framing his announcement, he declared that Ebola poses “a potential threat to global security.” Well, yes, in the sense that malaria and unclean drinking water pose threats to global security. Or smoking and not using the seat belts in your car.

I’m all for helping Liberia, an endemically impoverished country, contain and, I hope, eradicate a ghastly and frightening disease. But using our military to do so is piling folly onto folly.

Charlotte Allen writes frequently about feminism, politics and religion. Follow her on Twitter @MeanCharlotte.


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