Why Isn’t the Military Mandating COVID-19 Vaccines?

Service members need to be protected against the coronavirus. This isn’t a close call.

Illustration of a tank with a vaccine needle in the place of its gun
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Updated at 2:20 p.m. ET on July 28, 2021

COVID-19 vaccination has become yet another front in the war by elected officials and media figures to draw the military into politics. Representative Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican, has introduced legislation to prohibit vaccinations being made mandatory in the armed forces and has been scaremongering on Twitter about potential dangers that vaccine mandates pose to military readiness. A group of seven Democratic lawmakers led by Representative Jimmy Panetta of California recently wrote to President Joe Biden, urging that his administration make vaccinations mandatory for everyone in the military.

As a matter of military preparedness, service members should be vaccinated. This isn’t even a close call. The vaccines are highly effective against a virus that continues to spread rapidly and mutate into new variants, and serious side effects from the shots are extremely rare. Few acts contribute more to operational readiness than getting vaccinated against a disease that’s killed more than 600,000 Americans and has previously hamstrung the operations of a carrier group.

As of June 30, about 68 percent of active-duty troops have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, Military Times reported. When National Guard and Reserve component forces are included, though, only 51 percent of service members are even partially vaccinated. In comparison, 49 percent of the general U.S. population is fully vaccinated. Given that both of the vaccines most commonly used in the United States require two shots, the military as a whole appears to be lagging behind the general public in COVID-19 vaccination.

The proportion varies across military services too. The Navy leads the other branches in vaccination; 77 percent of active-duty members have received at least one dose, compared with 70 percent in the Army, 61 percent in the Air Force, and 58 percent in the Marine Corps. The acceptance rate has increased since the vaccines were first offered to the military in mid-April (at that time, 48,000 Marines declined to take the vaccine). In March, Army Lieutenant General Ronald Place said, “We’re seeing individuals who may have been initially wary about the vaccine now come forward and ask for” it. But rates have slowed in recent weeks.

More than a dozen vaccines are mandatory for service men and women, including annual flu shots. Those who decline to be vaccinated for COVID-19 face no penalties, but they remain responsible for their duties and deployments. As the journalist and Navy veteran Andrew McCormick has pointed out, the leaders of a hierarchical organization have been left pleading with subordinates to follow their example.

So far, the Pentagon hasn’t required service members to be vaccinated because the vaccines have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration only under an emergency-use authorization. Service men and women have to give their “informed consent” to receiving a medical intervention that has not yet received full approval. Removing that legal requirement would take a presidential waiver. And Biden has previously said he did not believe that COVID-19 vaccines should be mandatory for anyone.

The federal law prohibiting mandatory military vaccination before full FDA approval is designed to prevent the military from being used as a test bed for medical treatments before their use in the general population. In the current situation, though, civilians are already being vaccinated, so the military isn’t being asked to do something to prove the case for general use. Moreover, the operational readiness of military units would be compromised by coronavirus outbreaks. Finally, many service men and women live among civilian communities and could be vectors for spread of the disease.

Military commanders have wide latitude to determine potential restrictions on service members based on local conditions. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, General Robert Abrams, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea, tailored force-protection measures in coordination with the South Korean government. The decisions caused friction with the White House because then-President Donald Trump was still disavowing the seriousness of the pandemic. The current commander in South Korea, General Paul LaCamera, has just reinstituted mask mandates and restricted travel.

The reasons vaccination rates vary across the branches probably have little to do with politics. The Navy’s higher rate of uptake is likely attributable to publicity over the 1,200 sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt who contracted the virus last year during a cruise of the Western Pacific. Because of the outbreak, the vessel’s commander, Captain Brett Crozier, asked to evacuate and quarantine the ship’s sailors. He was subsequently relieved of command by the secretary of the Navy. General awareness may also be higher in the Navy because of the pandemic requirement to quarantine for two weeks before and after being at sea, and also between port calls.

One practical reason that vaccinations in the military lag the general population is that service members are younger and healthier. Across the country, young adults, who have a relatively low risk of death from serious disease, have substantially lower vaccination rates than older adults. The national median age is about 38. Enlisted men and women in the U.S. military as a whole are, on average, 27. The average age of even officers in the U.S. military is 34.5.

But the main drivers of vaccine refusal in the military community are worrisome. A survey in December 2020 by the advocacy group Blue Star Families showed that 49 percent of service members did not plan to be vaccinated, and 54 percent of military spouses weren’t planning to. The reasons for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine mirrored those of the general public: 70 percent of people surveyed who declined to be vaccinated expressed distrust of vaccines’ development or timeline, or concerns about safety, and 58 percent preferred to wait and see if additional side effects arose. A full 28 percent reported in December 2020 that they didn’t believe the coronavirus was a threat to them or their families; 27 percent distrusted most or all vaccines.

Medical experts consider concerns about vaccine safety to be largely unfounded. As Marine Lieutenant Colonel Thomas B. Turner, responsible for vaccine efforts at Camp Lejeune, said, “We have to inoculate the force from the virus, and we have to inoculate the force for vaccine misinformation … The key to addressing this pandemic is building vaccine confidence.”

The Army is reportedly making some preparations for mandatory vaccinations in September if the FDA gives the vaccines full approval. In the meantime, the Pentagon’s reluctance to take a stronger stand for vaccination may itself be undermining confidence. Not long ago, I had a casual conversation about the issue with a soldier at Fort Hood in Texas. I didn’t take down his name at the time, but in hindsight his explanation of why many weren’t getting a shot was revelatory: “Because if it was really important,” he said, reflecting the time-honored cynicism of the rank and file, “the military would make us do it.”