Troops on streets? Not so fast. US military sends hospital ships.

Why We Wrote This

Conjecture over the military’s proper role in supporting the U.S. pandemic response obscures the reality on the ground, where National Guardsmen are already deploying to support civil authorities.

John Minchillo/AP
National Guardsmen are in formation at the Jacob Javits Center, March 23, 2020, in New York. The city's hospitals were just 10 days from running out of "really basic supplies," Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday. He has called upon the federal government to boost the city's quickly dwindling supply of protective equipment.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

States are struggling to support health systems that are increasingly strained by the coronavirus pandemic. As in past emergencies, states have called up their National Guard to help with logistical challenges. That mobilization has fueled social media speculation that troops will soon be policing American cities.

Not so, insists the Defense Department, which is keen to stress that the military is definitely not on the march. Indeed, the idea that martial law is imminent belies a history in which the use of such powers are exceedingly rare. By contrast, the National Guard has long played a role in aiding civil responses, from Hurricane Katrina to border protection. 

In times of crisis, many public officials want to call in the troops to show they’re taking threats seriously, notes retired Col. Mark Cancian at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But that doesn’t mean putting Guardsmen in charge of law enforcement. 

For now, the active-duty military’s most visible role will be in deploying hospital ships to New York and California to relieve pressure on emergency wards. Behind the scenes, troops will also be moving medical supplies into place. Supply chain logistics is a military strength. As the Army saying goes, “Amateurs talk strategy, experts talk logistics.”

As political leaders across America call for more troops to fight the coronavirus, Pentagon officials are pushing for a U.S. military role that is decidedly, well, unmilitaristic.

This will be no small challenge, they privately allow, as all states and territories have declared emergencies, and governors have activated some 12,000 of their National Guardsmen. Last week, President Donald Trump separately announced the call-up of thousands of National Guard troops for New York, California, and Washington. And naval hospital ships are being deployed to take the pressure off coastal city hospitals. 

These rapid developments have triggered a spate of social media posts speculating that these call-ups mark the beginning of martial law to tamp down civil unrest. Defense officials have been quick to shoot down these conjectures, with only a hint of exasperation. 

There has been no behind-the-scenes “conspiring” to use the National Guard “to do some sort of military action to enforce shelter in place and quarantine,” Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard, said in a briefing with reporters last week. Asked if U.S. troops would help carry out curfews, or take on other law enforcement roles, General Lengyel was unenthusiastic. National Guardsmen could, he allowed, but he didn’t see any great call for this.

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

It is an illustration of a tension between public officials under pressure to “do something” during national upheaval and a military anxious to demonstrate its deference to civilian control. In times of crisis, many public officials want to call in the troops “almost as a symbolic act,” a sign they’re taking things very seriously, says retired Col. Mark Cancian, senior analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies – even as the Pentagon is trying to stay far away from anything resembling military rule on the streets of America.

Martial law has been used rarely in U.S. history. In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, for example, trial by jury was suspended and Hawaiians – more than one-third of whom were of Japanese descent – were issued identity papers they had to produce on demand. The National Guard, on the other hand, is frequently called out by state governors, mostly during national disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the California wildfires of 2019.  

Complicating matters, public officials “don’t always fully appreciate what the military legally can and cannot do,” notes Colonel Cancian. 

For starters, the Posse Comitatus Act (PCA) of 1878 bars active-duty troops from policing fellow citizens – including seemingly innocuous jobs like dispersing crowds – unless there’s an invasion of foreign troops or an “insurrection.” The mass looting of grocery stores for toilet paper likely wouldn’t qualify here, Colonel Cancian says.

A presidential declaration or a congressional statute can override the PCA, a move that Kori Schake, director of defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, sees as a possibility to protect medical workers and deliver supplies to hospitals, for example, if the pandemic continues to worsen. That said, “it ought to be a last resort,” she says.

Tony Dejak/AP
Members of the Ohio National Guard assist in repackaging emergency food boxes for distribution at the Cleveland Food Bank, March 24, 2020. Around the country, Guardsmen responding to the coronavirus emergency are now helping to transport medical supplies, distribute food, and even direct traffic at drive-through testing sites.

“Lousy policemen”

Barring such a move, the National Guard can legally take on law enforcement duties – though it’s not at the top of its to-do list. 

“The reason is that soldiers make lousy policemen” – and they know it, says Colonel Cancian. “It’s nothing wrong with them personally, but the way they’re trained. Policemen are [ideally] trained to look at people and say, ‘These are citizens that need to be protected.’ Soldiers are trained to look at people and say, ‘These are threats that need to be neutralized.’”

For this reason, when U.S. troops deploy to the U.S.-Mexico border, as they have in successive administrations, they support law enforcement chiefly through “administrative, logistical, and operational support,” a Defense Department report last year noted. 

As the old Army saying goes, “Amateurs talk strategy, experts talk logistics.” It is keeping the supply chain running during times of crisis that is the U.S. military’s secret weapon for winning wars of all sorts. 

Many of these logistics in the coming weeks will involve moving medical supplies into place and providing hospital beds, defense officials say. President Trump has dispatched the Pentagon’s two hospital ships to try to relieve city emergency services. The USNS Mercy arrived Friday in Los Angeles, while the USNS Comfort should dock in Manhattan early this week. 

These ships are more helpful for treating trauma than dealing with infectious disease, since the bunk-style beds don’t have segregated recovery areas. They can, however, along with temporary treatment tents set up by the military, be used to free up space at hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients.

“As trauma patients come in, instead of going into the hospital, they would go into the field hospital, where we could treat the broken legs, the lacerations, the falling-down-hit-your-head type of stuff. We can handle them in our big open bays,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said at a recent press briefing. 

Distraction and war games

The U.S. military can also help provide vital transportation links. But even as all this is happening, military strategists will be keeping an eye trained outward, says Dr. Schake. “Our military are good strategists, and good strategists worry in this time of national crisis that our (foreign) enemies might try and take advantage and do something damaging to our national interests.”

This may include disinformation campaigns on social media that stir up fears of martial law, Secretary Esper said Tuesday. “We probably have external actors, countries that want to sow chaos in the United States and are injecting some of this into the ecosystem.”

Against this backdrop, one recurring theme in military war games “is the temptation to overcommit – then you don’t have resources for subsequent challenges,” Dr. Schake adds. For this reason, “There’s a tendency for the military to always want to keep something in reserve.” 

This might come in handy for America’s allies as well, Mr. Esper added. “As the coronavirus hits different countries differently, and as they react differently over time, it may present [national security] challenges for us,” he said. “With allies, it may be incumbent upon us to help them.” 

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Monday, March 30. As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.