American military personnel are getting sick in significant numbers in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. As The New York Times reported in a piece buried in the back pages of its July 21st edition, “The infection rate in the services has tripled over the past six weeks as the United States military has emerged as a potential source of transmission both domestically and abroad.”
Indeed, the military is sick and I think of it as both a personal and an imperial disaster.
As the wife of a naval officer, I bear witness to the unexpected ways that disasters of all sorts play out among military families and lately I’ve been bracing for the Covid-19 version of just such a disaster. Normally, for my husband and me, the stressors are relatively mild. After all, between us we have well-paid jobs, two healthy children, and supportive family and friends, all of which allow us to weather the difficulties of military life fairly smoothly. In our 10 years together, however, over two submarine assignments and five moves, we’ve dealt with unpredictable months-long deployments, uncertainty about when I will next be left to care for our children alone, and periods of 16-hour workdays for my spouse that strained us both, not to speak of his surviving a major submarine accident.
You would think that, as my husband enters his third year of “shore duty” as a Pentagon staffer, the immediate dangers of military service would finally be negligible. No such luck. Since around mid-June, as President Trump searched for scapegoats like the World Health Organization for his own Covid-19 ineptitude and his concern over what rising infection rates could mean for his approval ratings, he decided that it was time to push this country to “reopen.”
As it turned out, that wouldn’t just be a disaster for states from Florida to California, but also meant that the Pentagon resumed operations at about 80% capacity. So, after a brief reprieve, my spouse is now required to report to his office four days a week for eight-hour workdays in a poorly ventilated, crowded hive of cubicles where people neither consistently mask nor social distance.
All of this for what often adds up to an hour or two of substantive daily work. Restaurants, dry cleaners, and other services where Pentagon staffers circulate only add to the possibility of his being exposed to Covid-19.
My husband, in other words, is now unnecessarily risking his own and his family’s exposure to a virus that has to date claimed more than 150,000 American lives -- already more than eight times higher than the number of Americans who died in both the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed.
In mid-August, he will transfer to an office job in Maryland, a state where cases and deaths are again on the rise. One evening, I asked him why it seemed to be business as usual at the Pentagon when numbers were spiking in a majority of states. His reply: “Don’t ask questions about facts and logic.”
After all, unless Secretary of Defense Mark Esper decides to speak out against the way President Trump has worked to reopen the country to further disaster, the movement of troops and personnel like my husband within and among duty stations will simply continue, even as Covid-19 numbers soar in the military.
America’s archipelago of bases
Global freedom of movement has been a hallmark of America’s vast empire of bases, at least 800of them scattered across much of the planet. Now, it may prove part of the downfall of that very imperial structure. After all, Donald Trump’s America is at the heart of the present pandemic. So it’s hardly surprising that, according to the Times, U.S. troops seem to be carrying Covid-19 infections with them from hard-hit states like Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas, a number of which have had lax and inconsistently enforced safety guidelines, to other countries where they are stationed.
For example, at just one U.S. base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, the Marine Corps reported nearly 100 cases in July, angering local officials because American soldiers had socialized off-base and gone to local bars in a place where the coronavirus had initially been suppressed. No longer. In Nigeria, where official case counts are low but healthcare workers in large cities are reporting a spike in deaths among residents with symptoms, the U.S. military arms, supplies, and trains the national security forces. So a spike in cases among U.S. troops now places local populations (as well as those soldiers) at additional risk in a country where testing and contact tracing are severely lacking. And this is a problem now for just about any U.S. ally from Europe to South Korea.
What this virus’s spread among troops means, of course, is that the U.S. empire of bases that spans some 80 countries -- about 40% of the nations on this planet -- is now part of the growing American Covid-19 disaster. There is increasing reason to believe that new outbreaks of what the president likes to call the “Chinese virus” in some of these countries may actually prove to be American imports. Like many American civilians, our military personnel are traveling, going to work, socializing, buying things, often unmasked and ungloved, and anything but social distanced.
Public health experts have been clear that the criteria for safely reopening the economy without sparking yet more outbreaks are numerous. They include weeks of lower case counts, positive test rates at or beneath four new cases per 100,000 people daily, adequate testing capacity, enforcing strict social-distancing guidelines, and the availability of at least 40% of hospital ICU beds to treat any possible future surge.
To date, only three states have met these criteria: Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. The White House’s Opening Up America plan, on the other hand, includes guidelines of just the weakest and vaguest sort like noting a downward trajectory in cases over 14-day periods and “robust testing capacity” for healthcare workers (without any definition of what this might actually mean).
Following White House guidance, the Department of Defense is deferring to local and state governments to determine what, if any, safety measures to take. As the White House then suggested, in March when a military-wide lockdown began, troops needed to quarantine for 14 days before moving to their next duty station. At the close of June, the Pentagon broadly removed travel restrictions, allowing both inter-state recreational and military travel by troops and their families. Now, in a country that lacks any disciplined and unified response to the global pandemic, our ever-mobile military has become a significant conduit of its spread, both domestically and abroad.
To be sure, none of us knew how to tackle the dangers posed by this virus. The last global pandemic of this sort, the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1919 in which 50 million or more people died worldwide, suggested just how dire the consequences of such an outbreak could be when uncontained. But facts and lived experience are two different things. If you’re young, physically fit, have survived numerous viruses of a more known and treatable sort, and most of the people around you are out and about, you probably dismiss it as just another illness, even if you’re subject to some of the Covid-19 death risk factors that are indeed endemic among U.S. military personnel.
Perhaps what the spread of this pandemic among our troops shows is that the military-civilian divide isn’t as great as we often think.
Protecting life in the Covid-19 era
Full disclosure: I write this at a time when I’m frustrated and tired. For the past month, I’ve provided full-time child care for our two pre-school age kids, even while working up to 50 hours a week, largely on evenings and weekends, as a psychotherapist for local adults and children themselves acutely experiencing the fears, health dangers, and economic effects of the coronavirus. Like many other moms across the country, I cram work, chores, pre-K Zoom sessions, pediatrician and dentist appointments, and grocery shopping into endless days, while taking as many security precautions as I can. My husband reminds me of the need to abide by quarantines, as (despite his working conditions) he needs to be protected from exposing top Pentagon officials to the disease.
Yet the military has done little or nothing to deal with the ways the families of service members, asked to work and “rotate,” might be exposed to infection. In the dizziness of fatigue, I have little patience for any institution that carries on with business as usual under such circumstances.
What’s more, it’s hard to imagine how any efforts to quarantine will bear fruit in a country where even those Americans who do follow scientific news about Covid-19 have often dropped precautions against its spread. I’ve noted that, these days, some of my most progressive friends have started to socialize, eat indoors at restaurants, and even travel out of state to more deeply affected places by plane. They are engaging in what we therapists sometimes call “emotion-based reasoning,” or “I’m tired of safety precautions, so they must no longer be necessary.”
And that’s not even taking into account the no-maskers among us who flaunt the safety guidelines offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to indicate their supposed love of individual liberties. A relative, an officer with the Department of Homeland Security, recently posted a picture on Facebook of his three young children and those of a workmate watching fireworks arm in arm at an unmasked July 4th gathering. The picture was clearly staged to provoke those like me who support social-distancing and masking guidelines. When I talk with him, he quickly changes the subject to how he could, at any moment, be deployed to “control the rioters in D.C. and other local cities.” In other words, in his mind like those of so many others the president relies on as his “base,” the real threat isn’t the pandemic, it’s the people in the streets protesting police violence.
I wonder how the optics of American families celebrating together could have superseded safety based on an understanding of how diseases spread, as well as a healthy respect for the unknowns that go with them.
Sometimes, our misplaced priorities take my breath away, quite literally so recently. Craving takeout from my favorite Peruvian chicken restaurant and wanting to support a struggling local business, I ordered such a meal and drove with my kids to pick it up. Stopping at the restaurant, I noted multiple unmasked people packed inside despite a sign on the door mandating masks and social distancing. Making a quick risk-benefit assessment, I opened the car windows, blasted the air conditioning, and ran into the restaurant without my kids, making faces at them through the window while I stood in line.
A voice suddenly cut through the hum of the rotisseries: “Shameful! Shameful!” A woman, unmasked, literally spat these words, pointing right at me. “Leaving your kids in the car! Someone could take them! Shameful!” I caught my breath. Riddled with guilt and fearful of what she might do, I returned to my car without my food. She followed me, yelling, “Shameful!”
Aside from the spittle flying from this woman’s mouth, notable was what she wasn’t ashamed of: entering such a place, unmasked and ready to spit, with other people’s children also in there running about. (Not to mention that in Maryland reported abductions of children by strangers are nil.)
What has this country come to when we are more likely to blame the usual culprits -- negligent mothers, brown and Black people, illegal immigrants (you know the list) -- than accept responsibility for what’s actually going on and make the necessary sacrifices to deal with it (perhaps including, I should admit, going without takeout food)?
Typically in these years, top Pentagon officials and the high command are prioritizing the maintenance of empire at the expense of protecting the very bodies that make up the armed services (not to speak of those inhabitants of other countries living near our hundreds of global garrisons). After all, what’s the problem, when nothing could be more important than keeping this country in the (increasingly embattled) position of global overseer? More bodies can always be produced. (Thank you, military spouses!)
The spread of this virus around the globe, now aided in part by the U.S. military, reminds me of one of those paint-with-water children’s books where the shading appears gradually as the brush moves over the page, including in places you didn’t expect. Everywhere that infected Americans socialize, shop, arm, and fight, this virus is popping up, eroding both our literal ability to be present and the institutions (however corrupt) we’re still trying to prop up. If we are truly in a “war” against Covid-19 -- President Trump has, of course, referred to himself as a “wartime president” -- then it’s time for all of us to make the sacrifices of a wartime nation by prioritizing public health over pleasure. Otherwise, I fear that what’s good about life in this country will also be at risk, as will the futures of my own children.
This article has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.
Andrea Mazzarino co-founded Brown University’s Costs of War Project. She is an activist and social worker interested in the health impacts of war. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at the Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of the new book War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With no ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas in sight and Houthi forces in Yemen still firing missiles and drones at commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the EU’s efforts at addressing conflict in Gaza and its broader regional ramifications keep flailing.
After weeks of discussions, the EU officially launched its naval operation in the Red Sea on February 19 to protect international commercial shipping from Houthi attacks. The Houthis claim they wantto force a ceasefire in Gaza. Yet, while the ceasefire remains elusive, the attacks impose real costs on EU members: the EU commissioner for economy Paolo Gentiloni recently estimated that the rerouting of shipping from the Red Sea has increased delivery times for shipments between Asia and the EU by 10 to 15 days and the consequent costs by around 400%.
Around 40% of the EU’s total trade with the Middle East and Asia passes through the Red Sea.
Protecting that shipping route thus is an important collective economic and security interest for the EU. Yet only four countries — France, Germany, Italy and Belgium — out of the 27 member states have agreed to provide warships for the new operation. Spain, which refrained from using its veto power to block the initiative, nonetheless declined to participate, having expressed concerns from the outset that any armed operation would reduce pressure on Israel to agree to a ceasefire in Gaza.
A bigger question is how effective this new EU operation will be in countering the Houthi threat given its purely defensive mandate to provide “situational awareness, accompany vessels and protect them against possible attacks at sea.” Accordingly, the participating EU warships will be authorized to fire on Houthi targets only if they themselves or commercial vessels they are to protect are attacked. That rules out pre-emptive action against Houthi missile batteries or related targets.
The defensive nature of the operation, however, may not be enough to convince the Houthis to refrain from attacking the European ships. In fact, Houthi leaders warned Italy, one of the new operation’s chief promoters, that it will become “a target if it participates in attacks on the Houthis.”
If this threat comes to fruition, will the EU authorize offensive action against the Houthis, potentially drawing itself into a wider conflict? Will it rely on U.S. hard power for protection given that Washington is already engaged against the Houthis through “Operation Prosperity Guardian,” in which a few EU nations – Denmark, Netherlands and Greece, as well as non-EU NATO members Britain and Norway -- are also participating?
Would such developments not lead to a de facto merging of the U.S. and EU-led operations under Washington’s lead — an outcome Europeans sought to avoid and which is the very reason why they launched their own mission in the first place?
That these are not abstract questions is underscored by the failure, so far, of scores of U.S.- and UK-led strikes to degrade the Houthis’ capabilities to the point where they would no longer pose a significant threat. Indeed, just as the EU announced its mission, the Houthis hit a British cargo ship which was at risk of sinking in the Gulf of Aden in what the Yemeni rebels claimed was their biggest attack yet. The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations confirmed the incident, though it did not name the ship.
Ironically, the safest way for the EU to avoid a direct military engagement with the Houthis, apart from testing their vow to stop attacking shipping if Israel ends its Gaza offensive, would be to reduce the number of targets in the Red Sea by encouraging ships to reroute. But such an outcome would, of course, vindicate the Houthi strategy to impose costs on the Western powers for the failure to stop the war in Gaza.
And that brings us back to the mother of all conflicts in the Middle East: the continuing war in Gaza. The EU’s approach so far has been to delink Gaza from the crisis in the Red Sea and the broader escalation in the region, including clashes between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Yet mounting tensions on that front show that its approach is not working.
Some actors in the EU understand the urgent need for a ceasefire in Gaza as a necessary condition for regional de-escalation. The EU high representative on foreign policy Josep Borrell has been particularly vocal in his criticism of Israel. He suggested limiting arms sales to Tel Aviv on the grounds that such transfers violate EU guidelines that ban sales to countries accused of violations of the international humanitarian law.
A Dutch appeals court recently ordered a halt to exports of F-35 jet parts to Israel on the same grounds. However, it is highly unlikely that the EU as a whole would adopt such a position, given that a number of countries – especially Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary – strongly support Israel.
A stronger point of leverage could be to suspend fully or partially the association agreement between the EU and Israel. The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner. In 2023, that agreement enabled 46.8 billion euros worth of bilateral trade. The prime ministers of Spain and Ireland, Pedro Sanchez and Leo Varadkar, respectively, asked the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to “urgently review” whether Israel is violating the human rights clauses included in that agreement. On February 19, the Spanish foreign minister, Jose Manuel Albares, insisted that the review should be completed in time for the next EU foreign ministers meeting on March 18.
A full suspension of the agreement seems very unlikely even if the Commission finds Israel to have violated its human rights obligations because that would call for a unanimous decision by all member states. A partial suspension would require a qualified majority: 55% of member states (or 15 out of 27) representing 65% of the EU’s total population.
Notably, the only precedent for taking such an action came in 2011 when the EU suspended an association agreement with Syria in response to mass violations of human rights by the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Meanwhile, the EU proved unable last week to issue even an official appeal to Israel not to follow through with its plans to carry out a ground invasion of Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza, which has become the last refuge of nearly a million refugees from elsewhere in the enclave. In the face of a veto threat by Hungary, the other 26 member states instead issued a joint statement warning of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences should Israel move ahead with such an invasion.
Notably, however, Hungary was isolated in its opposition to the appeal as Germany and other member states that have traditionally been reluctant to criticize Israel’s conduct of war were on board. That is a step forward, but it’s too little and it comes too late. As long as the EU keeps avoiding imposing real consequences on Israel for its conduct, it will keep losing influence in the Middle East.
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Mike Shoemaker VP F35 customer programs, FMS, Domestic and Partners talks during the inauguration ceremony of Sabca's new production hall for the horizontal tailplane of the F-35 fighter aircraft, in Lummen, Thursday 10 March 2022. T BELGA PHOTO JOHN THYS.
Instead of reevaluating its maximalist national security strategy, the Biden administration is doubling down. It is proposing a generation of investment to expand an arms industry that, overall, fails to meet cost, schedule, and performance standards. And if its strategy is any indication, the administration has no vision for how to eventually reduce U.S. military industrial capacity.
When the Cold War ended, the national security budget shrank. Then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and deputy William Perry convened industry leaders to encourage their consolidation in a meeting that later became known as the “Last Supper.” Arms makers were to join forces or go out of business. So they ended up downsizing from over 50 prime contractors to just five. And while contractors needed to pare down their industrial capacity, unchecked consolidation created the monopolistic defense sector we have now — one that depends heavily on government contracts and enjoys significant freedom to set prices.
In the decades since, contractors have leveraged their growing economic power to pave inroads on Capitol Hill. They have solidified their economic influence to stave off the political potential for future national security cuts, regardless of their performance or the geopolitical environment.
Growing the military industrial base over the course of a generation would only further empower arms makers in our economy, deepening the ditch the United States has dug itself into for decades by continually increasing national security spending — and by doling about half of it out to contractors. The U.S. spends more on national security than the next 10 countries combined, outpacing China alone by over 30%.
Ironically, the administration acknowledges in the strategy that “America’s economic security and national security are mutually reinforcing,” stating that “the nation’s military strength depends in part on our overall economic strength.” The strategy further states that optimizing the nation’s defense needs typically requires tradeoffs between “cost, speed, and scale.” It doesn’t mention quality of industrial output — arguably the biggest tradeoff the U.S. government has made in military procurement.
Consider, for instance, the B-2 bomber, the F-35 fighter jet, the Littoral Combat Ship, the V-22 Osprey, and many other examples of acquisition failures that have spanned decades. More recently, the Government Accountability Office has reported that while the number of major defense acquisition programs has fallen, both costs and average delivery time have risen.
So what is the military really getting from more and more national security spending? Less for more: Fewer weapons than it asked for, usually late and over budget, and, much of the time, dysfunctional. Acquisition failures are a major reason the Congressional Budget Office projects that operations and maintenance spending will significantly exceed the rate of inflation for the next decade — a considerable budgeting issue for a military that seemingly has no plans to reduce either its force structure or its industrial capacity. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Biden’s new National Defense Industrial Strategy specifically states there is a need for the U.S. to “move aggressively toward innovative, next-generation capabilities while continuing to upgrade and produce, in significant volumes, conventional weapons systems already in the force.” Ironically, the military has spent over two decades developing the F-35, next-generation technology that the Pentagon still hasn’t greenlit for full-rate production.
Throwing more money at an industrial base comprised of businesses too big to fail won’t increase the quantity or quality of its output. But that’s exactly what the strategy urges. One of the priorities is to “institutionalize supply chain resilience.” It’s an important goal, but one the administration proposes the Pentagon tackle, in part by investing in “spare production capacity,” what the strategy defines as “excess capacity a company or organization maintains beyond its current production needs.”
But building factories to sit empty is not supply chain resilience. It’s wasting money on unnecessary infrastructure, creating a profit motive for arms makers to make more weapons. And for an industry constantly sounding the alarm about the need for consistent “demand signals” from Congress, the Pentagon’s plans to invest a generation of U.S. taxpayer money in “spare production capacity” sounds a lot like throwing the demand-supply principle out the window. In that case, the U.S. might as well consider nationalizing the defense industry, which already lacks competition and relies almost entirely on the government. Why not eliminate the profit motive? It’s not like making money drives contractors to produce quality products on time or within budget.
Besides supply chain resilience, another priority laid out in this strategy is “flexible acquisition.” The stated goal is to reduce costs and development times while increasing scalability. In pursuit of that goal, the administration proposes “a flexible requirements process” for multiyear contracts, and the expansion of multiyear contracting writ large. It reasons that as priorities shift in an “evolving threat environment,” so too should contractors’ deliverables. But pairing flexible requirements with an increasing number of multiyear contracts is a recipe for disaster.
Before Russia attacked Ukraine, multiyear contracts were relatively rare — limited to major aircraft and ships. The Congressional Research Service notes that estimated savings on these programs have historically fallen within the range of 5% — 10%. But those are estimates, and they may not apply to other munitions now produced under multiyear contracts. The report also confirms that actual savings are “difficult to observe,” in part because the Pentagon does not track the cost performance of multiyear contracts.
Just because multiyear contracting is more common doesn’t mean it’s cheaper. And while the Pentagon argues that multiyear contracts give contractors the so-called demand signal they need to ramp up production, contractors don’t usually spend their extra money on identifying efficiencies or making capital investments to increase output at a lower cost — and the Pentagon isn’t checking.
The strategy also proposes “aggressive expansion of production capacity.” It notes that during peacetime, weapons acquisition tends to focus on “greater efficiency, cost effectiveness, transparency, and accountability.” Taking caution not to assert that the United States is in wartime, the strategy contrasts peacetime acquisition policy with “today’s threat environment,” calling for “crisis period acquisition policy” that revitalizes the industrial base and shifts focus from efficiency and effectiveness to ensuring that military contractors are “better resourced.” But contractors don’t have a resource problem, and “crisis acquisition policy” puts the United States on a “permanent war footing.”
Lawmakers must challenge the administration’s maximalist national security strategy by interrogating its push to expand military industrial capacity so drastically. It’s critical that they do, not only because the U.S. is limited in what it can produce and provide to other countries but also because arms industry greed is boundless — and without off-ramps or constraints, the U.S. government may find in 20 or 30 years that it’s in a ditch it can’t get out of.
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Israeli soldiers operate next to the UNRWA headquarters, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in the Gaza Strip, February 8, 2024. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
The U.S. intelligence community has found Israel’s claims that employees of a U.N. aid agency took part in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack to be plausible, but it cannot conclude more definitively because it has not been able to independently verify the charges, according to new reporting from the Wall Street Journal.
The Israeli government charged last month that 12 staffers at the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) — which facilitates humanitarian aid to Palestinains throughout the region — either participated or assisted in the Hamas-led atrocities and that others have close ties to the terror group.
UNRWA fired the 12 employees and donor counties, including the United States, have since paused funding, moves that have increasingly become more controversial as the Israeli government has yet to provide clear evidence for its claims. The agency says it will soon run out of money amid the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
According to the Journal, the U.S.’s National Intelligence Council assessed with “low confidence” that a small group of UNRWA staffers participated in the attack. The intel assessment, the Journal reports, “doesn’t dispute Israel’s allegations of links between some staff at Unrwa and militant groups” and that, according to U.S. officials, “Israel hadn’t shared the raw intelligence behind its assessments with the U.S., limiting their ability to reach clearer conclusions.”
"This assessment casts further significant doubt on the veracity of Israel's claims against UNRWA, which remain allegations without confirmed substantiating evidence,” Chris Gunness, a former UNRWA spokesman and now Director of the Myanmar Accountability Project, told RS. "If Israel has allegations against UNRWA, it should hand them over to the internal and external investigations currently underway: one by the U.N.'s Office of Internal Oversight and the other headed by a former French minister. Only when the information has been authoritatively assessed should anyone draw conclusions.”
For years, factions on the right in Israel, along with their supporters in the United States, have been working to close down UNRWA with the apparent belief that the U.N. agency lends credibility to Palestinians' assertions of ownership over land Palestinians argue was taken by Israel. UNRWA also regularly submits a roster containing the names of its staff to the Israeli government, which in turn signs off.
“Those donors who based their decisions to defund UNRWA on unconfirmed information should restore funding and only take a decision when they have a proper understanding of what took place,” Gunness added.