Monday, April 12, 2021

Vaccine Hesitancy as Crisis in Civ-Mil Relations

 Yesterday, I tweeted this

and got some pushback--that not everything implicates or is implicated by civil-military relations.  I was inspired by this amazing article by Risa Brooks, Jim Golby, and Heidi Urben, but they are not to blame.  

What did I mean by this?  To be clear, I am not saying that the refusal for many Marines to vaccinate harms civilian control of the military or undermines norms of civ-mil relations.  What I meant (and it might have been a leap, judge after reading below) was that the crisis in civil-military relations has pernicious consequences.  So, I am going to address my logical leap here and not the first part of my response to Kori Shake as Risa, Jim, and Heidi do a great job of identifying the crisis.

I forget which of these three dynamics I had in mind last night were, but I think all apply here.  They relate to the legacy of Huntington--skepticism of civilians; the apolitical orientation of the senior officers leaves the military unprepared for politicized issues; and, ironically, greater partisanship within the military means political identities have greater influence.  This is all guess work as I have no survey data of which Marines are doing what (yo, Jim, get on that!).  And yes, in all of this, I am very much a Brooksian.  Don't blame her for my interpretation of her work--disciples always lose stuff while translating the doctrine!

First, the military has been deeply breathing and ingesting Huntington's notion of professionalism for decades, and a core part of that is that the military is a profession.  That those in the military not only have expertise on the use of force, but damn near exclusive expertise.  This has bred some contempt over the years for civilian expertise on all things military.  All one has to do is tweet about military stuff online and get pushback from those who question the credentials of the non-military folks who enter these conversations.  This is the weakest, perhaps, of my claims, but civilians telling Marines what to do, even when it comes to things outside of strictly military matters, probably does not go over well.* 

*Caveat: I tend to be biased in my views of Marines for a variety of reasons.  For one, I didn't interact with any in my year in the Joint Staff as my fellowship allowed the Marines not to fill their billet that year in the Balkan moshpit of despair in J-5's Central and Eastern European Division.  For another, I am still annoyed that the Marines focused on Helmand, which was not where population-centric COIN was supposed to focus, and undid efforts to create unity of command by insisting on having their own change of command back to Marines in the US. 

*Update/Caveat 2: It may be that the 40% number is overblown as some Marines may be declining to get the shot via the normal pathway because they received vaccines via

A second dynamic, one that more clearly builds on Brooks's stuff, is that military leaders have long sought to be apolitical (I will get to partisan in a minute).  Which has meant staying silent often (but not always--note statements after Charlottesville and other key crisis points) about stuff going on in the political realm.  As vaccinations have become a political issue in the civilian world, I have not seen (perhaps I have missed it) the senior officers messaging about vaccinations, pushing back against the politicization of vaccines.  Having the senior officers say that vaccinations are the right thing to do, necessary for the national interest, would be political--they would be taking a side in a hot political issue. And they may be avoiding that.  

A third dynamic, which really does speak to the crisis in civil-military relations, and where the distinction between political and partisan lays, is how increased partisanship within the military may be leading to problematic outcomes.  Brooks, Golby, and Urben have written together and separately about the distinction between a politically astute military and a partisan military.  That the latter is a real problem especially in this time where one party is, well, broken.  What I was really thinking about, if I recall correctly, is that we see a significant number of Marines acting on their political identities--that vaccines are almost as identified with Democrats as mask-wearing (I wonder how observation of mask wearing mandates have varied among/within the services--more testable hypotheses!)--and choosing not to vaccinate.  

 Perhaps refusing to vaccinate is not so much about partisanship but other dynamics. I did read a great thread this morning explaining why nurses have not been vaccinating as much as we might expect, but that is not so much about partisanship and more about experiences within the medical community.  I could be reaching a bit too far, but it seemed to me that as I read the news about the Marines and had read the piece by the trio, the pieces fit together for me.  If the military was not so partisan these days, if the senior leadership had been more willing to engage on issues of policy, and if there was more respect for civilian expertise, perhaps the vaccine hesitancy would not be so prevalent.

And for those who wonder why the military does not order the troops to vax, I believe they can when a vaccine has gone through the entire normal approval process.  Right now, the vaccines have been approved via an emergency expedited process.  

Anyhow, I may be wrong about all of this--which is why this is the Semi-Spew, where things are half-baked.  I'd appreciate any clarifications, suggestions, etc. 

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