Tag: Ebola

An Ebola Manifesto for the Military Profession

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

There are three conclusions for the military profession to be drawn from the present Ebola outbreak: the threat is enormous, but ultimately manageable; the desired ends are currently vastly under resourced; and the profession’s lack of intellectual focus on the outbreak may result in the nation bumbling towards unnecessary, potentially catastrophic, strategic shock. 


A selection, on the threat Ebola poses:

There is also a major qualitative factor that makes Ebola much more threatening than nearly any other contemporary threat.  ISIS may do some pretty horrible things on video, but ISIS can’t stop you from showing affection to other human beings.  It’s been remarked that Ebola’s “cultural casualty” has been human contact. One journalist posed the seemingly impossible, but very real scenario in West Africa: “imagine trying not to touch your 2-year-old daughter when she is feverish, vomiting blood and in pain.” We often curse terror groups that use children as human shields; Ebola similarly uses human decency against us by preying on our need for human contact and comfort. Consider that in Sierra Leone, people now tap their chests in place of a handshake.  This is part of the government’s “A-B-C” public health campaign there – “Avoid Bodily Contact.”  Ebola poisons relationships just as much as it does bodies; we might come to a point where “STD” means Socially Transmitted Disease. 

ISIS may strike but does not have the ability to impact our way of life like Ebola.

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What to Read if You Need to Make an Epidemic Strategy in a Hurry

By Major Andy Forney

The other day, while at the gym, I had the unique experience of viewing CNN’s frontal assault-style coverage of Ebola in the United States. Talking heads, all looking very serious, discussed the prospects of the disease’s transfer among the general public, oftentimes framed with a odd red, white, and blue tinted microscopic image of the virus. The gym had thankfully muted the sound, but the baleful pictures and serious looks seemed to be pulled from a “how-the-zombie-apocalypse-started” montage from the latest horror movie. I wondered briefly if the Ebola patient in Dallas had somehow managed to be on the missing Malaysian plane from last summer. And, from my perspective, such coverage seemed to be working; I witnessed at least two customers at my local brick-and-mortar commercial bookstore holding copies of Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone in just thirty minutes.

            It is not that The Hot Zone is a bad book, or that the experts on CNN do not possess the background to discuss Ebola. Rather, both Preston’s book and cable’s news coverage do not allow those attempting to formulate a strategic response to the Ebola crisis at home, and more importantly in Africa, to think dispassionately about their subjects. The United States appears to be groping towards setting a precedent for using elements from the entire DIME spectrum to respond to pandemic threats. And for the first time, military force looks to become the primary factor in the U.S. response. Strategists, military and civilian alike, now face the daunting task of crafting a strategy that most effectively stops the viruses spread, and then sets the conditions to preclude or limit future pandemic-size outbreaks.

            In this light, what are the best books to read about epidemics, society, and strategy? Frankly, no one books answers these questions. The Hot Zone provides a page-turning read with a nice account of Ebola’s first outbreaks, its morphology, and dramatizes its future spread, but does not place the virus adequately within a joint/inter-agency response campaign. As I looked through my bookshelves, I gravitated to a handful of books that I think best illustrate two central themes we must consider as we look at disease in modern world history: first, how disease and epidemics can quickly destabilize societies and cultures and have real-world strategic impacts; and second, how quickly epidemics and their responses become politicized.

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On Ebola: Calculating Geostrategic Landpower Requirements

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

In his famous 1998 set of BBC Radio Reith lectures, military historian Sir John Keegan described war as a “protean activity” that “changes form, often unpredictably” like a “disease” that “exhibits the capacity to mutate and mutates fastest in the face of efforts to control or eliminate it.”  Today, some have used similar themes in describing ISIS.  Columnist Maureen Doud has noted that ISIS “has rampaged like a flesh-eating virus through the region,” while her colleague at the New York Times, Tom Friedman, writes about ISIS that we can only “contain these organisms, until the natural antibodies from within emerge.”  And, ISIS certainly can seem like a horrible malady that will not end.  Particularly when coupled with all the writing on the 100th anniversary of WWI.  We’re told that our modern world bears many similarities to that of a century ago – Margaret MacMillan of Oxford has argued that we’re complacent, while Christopher Clark of Cambridge has assessed that we could be “sleepwalking” into another global conflagration.  When we think about war in our world, we can’t help but consider that ISIS might be a catalyst for a much larger war.

But it’s worth wondering – when we compare ISIS and the Ebola outbreak –  what is the more likely and more dangerous threat to the United States and world?  It has been estimated that ISIS numbers approximately 30-40,000, with roughly 100,000 supporters.  Consider that ISIS can only coerce so many people into their ranks – they are limited by what they can “infect” by religion and geography.

In comparison, the current Ebola count stands at 7,400 infections and 3,400 deaths, which admittedly is lower base rate than ISIS.  Yet it has much greater growth potential.  In Liberia the virus is doubling every 15-20 days while in Sierra Leone it takes 30-40 days (Global Public Square with Fareed Zakaria, 28 September).  The CDC has said that the worst case scenario puts the spread at 1.4 million by January.  And it could get much, much worse.  An epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota believes that it could go airborne.  Moreover, it could get “airborne” another way.  Were Ebola to make its way into a megacity like Lagos, then there would be eight daily chances for the disease to make the flight to the United States.  This potential might compound what is clearly a growing threat and turn it into a durable one.  

So far, this has all been quantitative – we ought to consider the qualitative description of what we’re facing.  First, Ebola can infect anyone.  It is truly indiscriminate and will strike regardless of religious or tribal affiliation, which enables it a wider spread than ISIS.  With ISIS, we can target that organization’s material capabilities (i.e. the current airstrikes); Ebola is a much more problematic “target set” in this regard – what good are our strike capabilities?  Of course, ISIS shocked the conscience of the world by killing journalists; Ebola would literally kill everyone as “it” has no conscience.  And what is perhaps most worrying – as bad as they are, most members of ISIS have some morale that we can potentially degrade. In comparison, Ebola has no will to erode.

So, consider this thought experiment – what if we knew for certain that ISIS would double in a month?  Then again. And so on.  That’s the Ebola outbreak’s track record.  One could think of this Ebola outbreak like a persistently growing earthquake – shaking first for a month at 3.0 on the Richter scale, then a month at 4.0, then 5.0 – until, like the 3-11 quake that hit Japan, eventually we get to 9.0 and catastrophic strategic effect.

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