About one-third of military service members are refusing to take the coronavirus vaccine. In some units, refusal rates exceed half of members. At a time when the virus remains as dangerous as ever, this is bananas. Yet the military says troops who decline the vaccine will face no repercussions or changes to their assigned duties, meaning even uninoculated troops will remain deployable around the country and the world. What the hell is going on?
The deal is, federal law prohibits the mandatory application of medicines within the military that are not fully licensed by the US Food and Drug Administration. The three coronavirus vaccines currently available in the United States—the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and, as of Saturday, the Johnson & Johnson versions—are approved on “emergency use authorizations,” meaning the drugs are technically still experimental. Full approval could take years, during which time hundreds of thousands of service members will apparently remain susceptible to, and potentially vectors of, Covid-19.
There’s good reason for this law—the government and military have nasty histories of experimenting on people, including service members, without their knowledge or consent—and in fact it’s been put to the test.
In 1997, the military instituted a mandatory vaccination program for anthrax. Upon receiving that vaccine, huge numbers of service members complained of debilitating side effects. (The vaccine may also have been a factor in what’s known as “Gulf War syndrome,” a multi-symptom illness of unknown origin related to service in the 1991 war.) Lawsuits ensued, and in 2004 the D.C. Circuit court determined that the government had violated federal law by mandating the medicine, specifically because the vaccine in question was proven to prevent cutaneous anthrax infection, though the military sought to prevent against inhalation anthrax, the most deadly form of the disease and the one most likely to be associated with a bio-attack. But the FDA hadn’t adequately studied the vaccine’s use against inhalation anthrax, the court found, meaning it didn’t meet the standard for mandatory military distribution.
Following further testing, mandatory anthrax vaccinations resumed in 2007, with troops risking court-martial and even separation from the service if they refused the vaccine. (Fun fact: Jake Angeli, the Viking-helmeted “QAnon shaman” of Capitol riot infamy, was kicked out of the Navy in late 2007, after two years as an enlisted sailor, for this very reason, Task & Purpose reported.)
With the coronavirus vaccine, the Pentagon surely would want to avoid similar, protracted legal battles. Military leaders have expressed frustration at low vaccine acceptance rates—the AP reported they had hoped the military might serve as an example to the public. But the law is clear.
There are critical and obvious differences, though, between the anthrax case and America’s present predicament, which I think should cause the government to reconsider its approach.
First, during the last major anthrax scare in the United States, in 2001, the disease killed five people. Covid-19 has killed more than 500,000 Americans, with more deaths in January 2021 than during any previous month of the pandemic.
Second, anthrax is not contagious. Coronavirus is, clearly. And new, even more infectious—and more virulent—variants are on the rise. That in mind, it’s worth noting the military is a highly mobile profession, and that service members aren’t self-contained on bases. Many live off-base and often, as a group, play significant roles in their respective communities. In other words, an unvaccinated troop poses a risk to more than only their fellow service members.
It’s not clear if service members refusing the vaccine will participate in the military’s efforts to distribute the vaccine domestically, though that would be ironic. I asked the Pentagon about this. “That’s a good question,” a public affairs officer told me, though an emailed request for further comment was ultimately not answered.
And third, many service members aren’t giving very good reasons for refusing the vaccine. With anthrax, there were serious questions about the vaccine’s efficacy and evidence of significant side-effects. By contrast, evidence from large vaccine trials and more than 24 million completed vaccinations in the United States so far show that the coronavirus vaccines are very safe (though the second doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines can pack a wallop). Fears about side effects from the coronavirus vaccine are only natural, and military leaders should address them compassionately. But some members refusing the vaccine are instead citing misinformation, such as that the vaccine is a tracking device (it isn’t); partisan objections, in the same way that some Republicans view masks as a political statement; and even the novelty of self-determination. “The Army tells me what, how, and when to do almost everything,” one soldier told The New York Times. “They finally asked me to do something and I actually have a choice, so I said no.”
In the seven years I spent in the US Navy, I was vaccinated for at least anthrax, smallpox, hepatitis A and B, typhoid, yellow fever, and, every year, the flu. When my unit was deployed to East Africa, under Special Operations Command, we were given pills to prevent against malaria. These were said, perhaps apocryphally, to cause bizarre dreams and mood swings, so most of us left the pills in the bottle. Then a few guys actually got malaria. The commanding general was furious. New guidance from my boss was: “It’s funny. If you get malaria, it’ll be the general who kills you.” We took the pills.
Now, commanders are jumping through hoops to push the coronavirus vaccine. They’re convening town halls, hosting question-and-answer information sessions, and posting photos and videos of themselves receiving shots. The message: Please, please follow my lead.
It’s an uncomfortable position for leaders, in an organization that hinges on an expectation of compliance. One commanding officer in the Washington, D.C., area told me that the optional vaccine has also opened a door to obvious partisanship and misinformation in the ranks. This officer has strenuously encouraged subordinates to receive the vaccine but is hamstrung by an influential member of the command who declined it because, this person explicitly said, “it feels partisan.” In any other circumstance, it would be incumbent on a leader to squash rhetoric like this, as a matter of what the military calls “good order and discipline.”
There are impacts on operations, too. If a member who refuses the vaccine winds up testing positive for the virus—not an unlikely scenario, with cases still high—that person is of course moved to quarantine. An unequal burden in turn falls on troops who did take the vaccine, who must flex to cover the infected member’s duties. Another officer relayed a story to me in which an unvaccinated sailor was due to be deployed but contracted the coronavirus and ultimately missed the unit’s departure.
Mandatory vaccination may not be the answer, but clearly something is broken here.
The law does provide one way around the informed-consent requirement for the military with experimental drugs: The president can waive that requirement, if it is deemed in the best interest of service members or national security to do so. I won’t presume to say President Biden should do this, but the question feels worthy of consideration.
More practically, and soon, the Defense Department should confer additional tools to military leaders to help compel vaccine acceptance. The military could introduce incentives for taking the vaccine, in the form of a financial bonus—like some US companies have done—or time off (the military loves time off). Or, without making the vaccine mandatory, commanders could be empowered to relegate subordinates who refuse the vaccine to a limited set of duties. Those troops could also be required to live on base, in barracks, until they receive the vaccine. (To readers not in the know: This is a near-nuclear suggestion; it would have the desired effect.) Importantly, the latter two proposals shouldn’t be viewed as reprisal. They’re commonsense measures, to the benefit of public health. And common sense, at least, should not be optional.