Ebola: The kind of enemy the US military excels at fighting

You get the opposite impression from much of the discussion in the US, though.

US soldiers surveyed a construction site for an Ebola virus treatment center with their Liberian counterparts outside Monrovia last week.

On cable news, it's easy to find both calls for the Obama administration to ramp up its military effort to "destroy" the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – and warnings that the president's deployment of up to 4,000 troops to help contain Ebola in Liberia and its neighbors is a disaster waiting to happen.

But that gets it backward. The mess in Syria and Iraq is complex, with competing ethnicities, ideologies, religious sects, and divergent interests among so-called allies. That makes addressing the two countries' interleaved civil wars a daunting prospect. But Ebola? A danger with far more potential to damage the US than IS is right in the US military's wheelhouse.

Yet from fringe conspiracy theorists, who also suggest the videotaped beheadings of American and European captives are staged, to television figures like Gretchen Carlson at Fox News, there is doubt that the US military can do much good by taking on the disease – and overblown fears that it could do a great deal of harm.

While the feminist writer Naomi Wolf is among a looney fringe who believe the US troop deployment is an Obama White House plot to infect soldiers and bring Ebola home, thereby justifying (somehow) a fascist takeover of America, doubts about the US effort are far from confined to the paranoid edges of society.

Ms. Carlson shared a jumbled "take" this week on the Ebola initiative, hopscotching from the IRS, long waiting times for veterans, and the murder of the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in Benghazi, to this conclusion:

"What more and more people seem to be asking about Ebola now isn't that they are necessarily scared about actually getting the disease, but that they're scared the government agencies responsible with helping us if we do get sick might not be up to the task. So if Ebola becomes a bigger issue, the question still remains: will we be safe?

But the Ebola mission is the kind of thing that the US military excels at. Problems requiring expertise, discipline, and the ability to mobilize resources and people quickly in service of an achievable, clearly defined mission is what soldiers and officers dream of.

Gen. David Rodriquez, head of the US Africa Command, defined the mission yesterday. "Preventing the spread of Ebola is the core task of this effort. This is a key requirement in everything that we do in this operation, and this applies both to our support efforts and the protection of our own people," he said. The current plan, he said, is for up to 4,000 military personnel to be deployed for six months at a cost of roughly $750 million. In addition to three mobile labs deployed to Liberia, which is bearing the brunt of the outbreak, four more are being ordered up.

The military component of the US effort against Ebola is expected to be in place by the end of this month, and the current plan is for the soldiers to build 17 treatment centers across Liberia, establish a large training center for local health care workers, and open a US military logistics depot in Senegal.

While killing ideologies in foreign societies is something the US has failed at repeatedly throughout history, its ability to deal with pathogens or major engineering problems, or win specified military victories (think "toppling Saddam" versus "creating a democratic, stable and US-friendly Iraq), shows a history of success.

The US military has had to confront the risk of disease since its inception. Historian Tom Schactman argues in a new book that George Washington's controversial decision in 1777 to inoculate all members of the Continental Army against smallpox was his "most important strategic decision of the war." In 1776, smallpox killed more of Washington's troops than the British did. After he decided at winter-quarters that year to use a pre-vaccine method of exposing soldiers to a weakened form of the disease, infection rates among the troops fell from 17 percent to 1 percent. 

The US military-led construction of the Panama Canal, which began in 1904, is another famous example of confronting and containing disease. At the time, much of the medical establishment still rejected the discovery that mosquitoes were the vector for malaria, and little was done to control the insects as construction began. A decade earlier, a French effort to build a canal through the Isthmus of Panama had ended in ruins, with the loss of more than 20,000 lives, and the US was determined not to meet the same fate.

Nevertheless, by 1906, 85 percent of the canal workers had been stricken with either malaria or yellow fever, slowing progress to a painful crawl. Col. William Gorgas, whom the US military had appointed as chief medical officer for the canal project, believed the research that showed the connection between malaria and mosquitoes, and his intuition told him they transmitted yellow fever as well. But the $1 million mosquito eradication plan he presented in 1904 was scoffed at in Washington as ludicrously expensive and unlikely to work.

But President Teddy Roosevelt relented as the project appeared doomed, and a 4,000-man team was mobilized. By 1910 malaria and yellow fever had practically vanished from the canal zone. The canal was finished in 1913. The experience in Panama helped establish the controlling of infectious diseases as an important military priority. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention grew out of the Army's World War II malaria control effort.

The Navy Medical Research Unit likewise grew out of earlier malaria control efforts and now  has labs in four countries (as well as three locations in the US). US military medical research has helped develop the vaccine for Japanese encephalitis, strains of hepatitis and typhoid, and has dramatically improved treatment of diseases from malaria to cholera.

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