Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of reports on the lasting impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on the U.S. military.
More than a year after COVID-19 effectively shut down the U.S., the Defense Department still has 6,235 active-duty troops and 31,500 National Guard members across 54 states and U.S. territories administering vaccines, conducting testing, storing goods and more.
The military is no stranger to homefront assistance: from hurricane and wildfire relief to food bank distribution, uniformed personnel have been called on for decades to provide domestic support during crises.
But in a time when Americans seem more divided than ever, experts say the military is caught in a difficult balancing act: to lend civil support where needed without detracting from core strategic missions so it can remain ready for the next fight. Pandemic response and other domestic crises over the last year have made that task even more complicated. And changing American expectations regarding the military may heighten the tension.
“I think we’re heading in sort of a dangerous direction where people are becoming increasingly willing to turn to the military for things that they probably shouldn’t be turning to the military for, without thinking through the longer-term consequences of what that means for their government,” said Jim Golby, a senior fellow at Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in civil-military relations and military strategy.
Kathleen McInnis, a national security expert who testified before Congress in January on civil-military issues, added that repeatedly turning to the military to provide civilian functions may erode trust in local governments and other civilian institutions.
“The fact that the military has gotten the lion’s share of national security resources over multiple decades, the fact that we’ve talked about the necessity for interagency reform and bolstering up civilian institutions, yet we keep sending tasks over to the military to perform,” she said. “We seem to be sliding into these broad roles and missions for the military without really having a national conversation to determine whether this is appropriate.”
In some ways, it’s not surprising that the U.S. military has been the resource of choice to support COVID-19 response and other domestic missions. The Defense Department not only has substantial resources, it also has speed, logistics and capacity that “other organizations just don’t have,” Golby said.
“Another reason why there’s sort of an interactive effect right now: We are seeing the wars draw down, and there is a reduced public appetite or public desire to remain as engaged overseas,” he said.
The number of military members on pandemic duty in the U.S. far surpasses troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan; there are now fewer than 2,500 U.S. service members each in Iraq and Afghanistan, the lowest number since operations began there, according to the Pentagon.
So far, Golby said, American response to the military’s domestic missions, particularly virus response, has been a “net positive.”
Kori Schake, another civ-mil expert and director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed.
“That the military is helping at vaccine sites is great because it’s not a threat to civilian control of the military, but it is a reminder that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Guardians are actually part of our broader community and want to be helpful,” said Schake, a former national security official in the George W. Bush administration.
Positive reaction amid decline in trust
However, some of that goodwill has been undermined by events in 2020 that called the military’s political neutrality into question.
In response to Black Lives Matter protests, Schake said, then-President Donald Trump “wanted to send a message about warfighting in a domestic civil contact” by using troops as police forces and, in some cases, “looking to override the will of local elected officials in [certain] states,” she explained.
In Washington, D.C., military helicopters flew low over a June 1, 2020, protest in support of law enforcement. It was seen as an “aggressive response” to crowd control.
On the same day as the aggressive helicopter maneuvers, Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley came under scrutiny for participating in uniform in a politically loaded photo op alongside Trump in Lafayette Square after protesters were forcibly cleared out. By the end of June, Trump warned he’d increase the Guard presence in places like Portland, Oregon, to quell weekslong protests.
“We are telling them right now that we are coming in very soon,” Trump said at a press conference at the time. “The National Guard. A lot of very tough people. These are not people that just have to guard the courthouse and save it. These are people who are allowed to go forward and do what they have to do.”
Earlier that month, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said state leaders had been hesitant to use Guard members in the first place. “You don’t reduce violence by putting soldiers on our streets,” Brown told reporters. “It’s actually what President Trump wants.”
The incidents damaged civil-military relations, Schake said. After that, the military wanted to be “less visible” domestically, she said.
“That’s part of the self-correction that was probably overcorrected in advance of [the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol],” she added.
After the Capitol riot, military leaders were questioned over the Pentagon’s slow response in sending National Guard troops to reinforce the struggling police presence.
A Ronald Reagan Institute survey conducted in February found trust and confidence in the military had declined. Only 56% of Americans said they had a “great deal” of trust in the institution, compared to 70% in 2018.
The approach the military must take to future domestic missions to maintain and rebuild trust is complex, the experts said. Like McInnis, Golby said Guard or active-duty personnel can and should help in short-term events when local, civilian organizations are overtaxed by the responsibility. But when “short-term Band-Aids turn into long-term solutions, it creates new problems for the military and normalizes military involvement in civilian tasks,” he said.
Regardless of mission duration, the DoD needs to communicate clearly and consistently with the public on the domestic issues it’s involved in, the experts said.
If the military is asked to intervene in times of crisis, troops should be easily identifiable, wearing unit patches or insignia that clarify their status, Schake said. Some mistook law enforcement dressed in paramilitary uniforms during the D.C. protests for soldiers, and “that felt incredibly ominous to Americans not to have that kind of accountability.”
“I think DoD very quickly understood that the American military always wants to be on the side of accountability in domestic support operations,” she said.
Another good-faith gesture to preserve public trust is limiting military gear given to local law enforcement.
Schake said better training and policing will keep the military from “being harassed into circumstances that are damaging to the relationship between our broader society and our military.”
But trust in the military “is going to decline no matter what,” predicted Golby.
With drawdowns overseas and the concurrent decline in troops being put in harm’s way, “I think there’s going to be a natural reset, where people will be more willing to criticize the military,” he said.
At home, despite the demand for the military to support the COVID-19 response, discomfort with heavy domestic use of the military has been obvious.
“I think if we had COVID without Lafayette Square, it would probably be a very positive story, and there’d be a lot more pressure to draw the military into fixing all our domestic problems,” Golby said. “But the fact that we did draw the military into some domestic problems, and a lot of people think it didn’t go very well, it probably cuts against some of that broader positive impact from the COVID response.”
Even with “ethical, competent, clear leadership” among senior ranks in the military, deciding how and where troops should be involved in meeting a broad swath of expectations is going to be “incredibly difficult,” he said.
“It’s hard to get the balance right,” Schake agreed. “It’s a constantly evolving ‘right’ answer.”
— Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.