Close quarters have historically contributed to the spread of disease in the military, whether on ships or in boot camps or at overseas bases. For instance, the 1918 Spanish-flu epidemic first appeared in the U.S. at the Army’s Fort Riley, in Kansas, and spread rapidly from there, eventually killing nearly 700,000 Americans within a year.
“All of this was entirely predictable. How could it have not been predictable?” Andrew Milburn, a Marine colonel who retired last year, told me. The original sin, in his view, was Esper’s decision to delegate safety standards to commanders. The result has been a patchwork of different restrictions and regulations across different services and units. The Army halted basic training in March and then reversed itself. The Navy is delaying new boot-camp arrivals by a week after a recruit tested positive. The Marines kept training going until its own outbreak of more than 20 recruits at the Parris Island recruit depot forced it to stop accepting new arrivals until mid-April. The Marine-barracks gym in Washington, D.C., was still open last week as the rest of the city shut down. The Marines haven’t relaxed grooming standards across the service, again delegating the decision down the chain; at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina barbershops remain open on the base, albeit with restrictions, even as the governor has ordered “non-life-sustaining” businesses to shut down across the state.
“This was one time when hierarchical decision making was really, really needed,” Milburn said. “And it just didn’t happen.”
Esper has defended the decision to delegate and even announced enhanced counternarcotics operations, deploying more cramped ships, helicopters, and planes to the Southern Hemisphere and putting yet more service members in risky close quarters. “There seems to be this narrative out there that we should just shut down the entire United States military and address the problem that way,” Esper said at a press conference on Wednesday. “That’s not feasible.” This kind of delegation also isn’t Pentagon-specific; the country as a whole lacks a unified response to the virus, with individual governors deciding when and how severely to restrict residents’ movements.
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The military is a highly bureaucratic organization that values toughness, sacrifice, and, maybe above all, standard operating procedures. That culture applies to all kinds of illnesses. “In the Marine Corps, the typical solution [is to] have Motrin and drink water,” said a Marine lieutenant colonel who spoke with me on condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to talk to the press. “And there are times when that’s not the appropriate answer.”
Tom Crabtree, who spent 24 years as an Army surgeon, told me that this approach to treatment was common enough that people referred to Motrin as “Ranger candy.” While he doesn’t see the “Carry on” ethos as unique to the military—“I see the same things at Walmart”—the implications for America’s safety in the world are entirely different. “It’s a very simple fact: A healthy military is a capable military. For all the things that it needs to do and can do,” he said. “An unhealthy military is not.”