Standing up Straighter against COVID-19?

When did calling in the military—mobilising the Australian Defence Force (ADF)—become the obvious solution to preventing disease outbreaks in this country? Listening to testimony at the Victorian government’s hotel-quarantine inquiry and to questions at Premier Daniel Andrews’ daily press conferences, it’s hard not to conclude that the failure to deploy the army to the hotels, and instead engaging private security guards, was the main reason the coronavirus slipped out into the community. In early July 2020, as the second wave of COVID-19 infection was swelling in Melbourne, it appears that Prime Minister Scott Morrison ‘pleaded’ with Andrews to let the ADF assist with ‘planning and logistics’, ‘with the lockdown of affected suburbs’ and ‘to ensure persons from these areas do not travel outside these zones’. There was some quibbling about whether this offer had included staffing quarantine hotels, but no one seems to have doubted the value of military intervention in a public health crisis. According to Morrison, nothing less than the defence force was needed for ‘enforcement of public health compliance’. Or as federal health minister Greg Hunt put it, ‘At the end of the day, if there are uniforms there, people will stand up straighter’. For Hunt, the appeal of using the military for this work was as much about an intimidating appearance as it was about expertise. He assumed that the visual impact of a representative of the armed state would enforce desired personal conduct by Australian citizens. If only, if only we had employed the steadfast army rather than feckless security guards! So went the common refrain. 

In the twenty-first century, Australia increasingly has come to rely on its defence force to intervene in NT Aboriginal communities and, more generally, to combat bushfires and floods. Such militarisation of civil problems has only recently become the routine, even normal, response here. But these days, it seems that every challenge that besets the nation must be framed as a battle, placing us regularly on a war footing, under military command. Marilyn Lake and others already have alerted us to the relentless militarisation of Australian history and society, as promoted by former prime minister John Howard, which has made ‘war and militarisation ubiquitous in Australian life’. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare again our intense, though somewhat novel, devotion to military metaphor and model, which nowadays infiltrates and reshapes even how we react to a public health emergency.  

While the militarisation of public health is relatively recent in Australia, there is, not surprisingly, a long history of recourse to the army to manage disease in places like the United States. It is, after all, a country that calls its chief health officer the surgeon-general. The US Public Health Service emerged in the late nineteenth century out of army medical departments hardened through ‘Indian fighting’ and imperial hostility and bloodshed. For a long time, Americans habitually have depended on the National Guard to combat disease and to recover from hurricanes. Since March 2020, almost 50,000 men and women of the Guard have been fighting across the United States to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. But this wasn’t the way we dealt with public health in Australia—not until this century, anyhow. So, how did the ADF’s ‘Operation COVID-19 Assist’ come to look so normal and necessary here? 

Operation COVID-19 Assist  

When defence minister Linda Reynolds announced Operation COVID-19 Assist on 1 April 2020, she did not intend it as an April Fool’s Day joke. She had never been so serious. Led by Major General Paul Kenny, who had spearheaded counter-terrorism efforts, the operation was meant to reinforce and expand the capacities of state and territory authorities to respond to the growing pandemic. ‘There are already around 570 ADF members providing support’, Reynolds noted, ‘including contact tracing, planning assistance, and assisting police with mandatory quarantine for international air arrivals’. By September 2020, almost 2800 defence personnel were deployed to fight the virus in this ‘proactive national response’. Although Victoria had been regarded as ‘slow off the mark’ to enlist military support, the rise of a second wave of infections now apparently required the marshalling of more troops there than anywhere else. Almost one thousand personnel had fanned out across the state, most of them involved in damping down virus transmission in aged-care facilities, with others at police checkpoints, testing suspects and tracing contacts. They weren’t needed for quarantine by then, since international flights to Victoria had halted and the hotels had closed. In the other mainland states, hundreds of ADF personnel patrolled hotels and airports to support ‘quarantine compliance management efforts’, while others policed state borders, though they are not authorised to enforce the law. 

The myth of flawless ADF management soon gained currency during the pandemic, especially in Victoria. It was assumed that other states avoided a second wave solely because they relied on the ADF, rather than resorting to purportedly reckless or ignorant security guards. Yet New South Wales from the beginning used private security contractors—and continues to do so—without major mishap. To be sure, one guard at the Sydney Marriot contracted the virus while working at the quarantine hotel and then helped out at Paddy’s Markets a few days later. But the lapse in infection control and failure to isolate did not provoke an uncontrolled outbreak, mainly because the NSW health department’s case detection and tracing were more efficient than Victoria’s. Moreover, evidence of the ADF’s superior capabilities in infection control is scanty at best. Stories abound of ADF personnel at Sydney airport approaching incoming international passengers close enough to take personal luggage out of their hands and put it on the buses, wearing neither gloves nor masks. All the same, we want to believe that the military, those sons and daughters of ANZAC, must be better than civil authorities at public health tasks. How did this come to pass in Australia? 

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A spreading delusion of efficacy 

In 2007 some 600 ADF personnel invaded more than seventy Aboriginal communities as part of the Northern Territory Emergency Response or ‘Intervention’ launched by the Howard government to stamp out alleged child sexual abuse. Under the command of Major General David Chalmers, a veteran of the 2001 Timor-Leste campaign whose grandfather was severely wounded at Gallipoli, the military mostly provided logistical and administrative support for attempts to manage and control supposedly dysfunctional outback Indigenous families. The federal government implied that the practical, no-nonsense tactics of these ‘peace-keepers’ could crash through any bureaucratic obstacles, such as the Racial Discrimination Act. As it happened, many remote communities feared that the troops might use force to take away their children again, and some families fled. There was no compelling reason to call in the ADF, and subsequent enquiries found that measures it took were ineffectual and distressing. Although mobilising the troops received bipartisan support, many commentators at the time worried that these actions might imperil the respected ‘apolitical’ status of the ADF. There was still a sense that this is not the way we do things in Australia.  

Few qualms were expressed some twelve years later when Australians confronted devastating bushfires along the east coast. ‘As the fire front bore down’ on his grandfather’s nursing home outside Canberra in February 2020, Tom Sear saw that ‘army personnel were poised with military vehicles to extract scores of the frightened, immobile elderly… It was a comfort to know that there was help at hand when it was needed’. An industry fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Sear appreciated the appeal to Australians of metaphors of war and battle, especially in a crisis like that black summer. It seemed appropriate, then, for ADF reserves to be called up to help control the fires. ‘There are few Australians as well equipped to plan for fighting adversity, designing capability and assessing lessons learnt once the action has taken place.’ Sear concluded: ‘If these fires are like a war, then only a war-fighting organisation can write the plans to keep us safe’. In the past, Australians had depended on volunteer firefighters ‘to keep us safe’, but evidently times have changed.  

By mid-January 2020, almost 2000 ADF reservists had been attached to the task forces of Operation Bushfire Assist 2019–20, under the command of Major General Justin ‘Jake’ Ellwood, a veteran of campaigns in Kosovo, Timor-Leste, Iraq and Afghanistan. Military personnel mostly supported state authorities, undertaking damage assessments and early recovery efforts. In Victoria, they aided evacuation efforts by sea and air from fire-ravaged Mallacoota, flew in emergency supplies of food, water, fuel and medicines, and contributed to some targeted ‘fire protection work’. Defence forces from New Zealand, Singapore and Papua New Guinea also provided support. ‘It’s your Defence Force and we are here to serve you’, said ADF chief General Angus Campbell. Calling in the military thus has become the new normal in Australia. Just as the nation is now constantly on an internal war footing. 

Following the US military model of disease control 

Unlike Australia, the United States has a long history of using soldiers as a civilian labour force, especially in public health work. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the ‘enlisted laborers of empire’, as historian A. Hope McGrath called them, built crucial infrastructure across the expanding continental United States and throughout its new imperial possessions. At the Mexican border in 1915, for instance, Brigadier General John Pershing put men in his command at the disposal of the city of El Paso, where they worked to clean up the Mexican district known as ‘Chihuahuita’. Pershing’s soldiers hosed down streets, burned garbage, and destroyed houses if they were deemed unfit for occupation. The following year, as President Woodrow Wilson federalised state militias and sent thousands of men to the southern border, more soldiers took on public health roles there—testing, inspecting, quarantining and confining the locals. During this period, Pacific and Caribbean colonies became laboratories or ‘crucibles’ where military hygiene interventions and public health initiatives could be tested. In imperial settings, military officers and enlisted men found experimental spaces to study epidemiology and to elaborate doctrines of public health and sanitary control. As the army attempted to manage the personal hygiene of local inhabitants throughout the Philippines, fought yellow fever in Havana, and segregated sufferers of leprosy at Culion Island—to cite but a few examples—it gained considerable knowledge and experience in public health work.  

Given these historical connections between the military and public health, it is perhaps unremarkable that US governors have mobilised the National Guard to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting in late March, more than 46,700 women and men of the Guard have been deployed in US Army uniforms on a variety of public health projects. They are working in all fifty states in what is the largest activation of the force since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York called up members of his state’s Guard to build a containment area around New Rochelle. In Minnesota, medics in the Guard have been performing nasopharyngeal swabbing to collect samples at long-term care facilities, as well as organising contact tracing. These citizen-soldiers or ‘weekend warriors’ as they are sometimes called, have tested workers at meat-packing plants, transported medical supplies to correctional institutions, run temperature screenings at airports, sanitised children’s centres, and helped food banks and school districts to supply families. They have also provided mortuary assistance, assisted in manufacturing PPE, and strived to transform huge spaces like the Javits Centre in New York City into temporary healthcare centres.   

In recent months, members of the National Guard—wearing the same US Army uniforms as those who deliver masks to schools and conduct COVID-19 tests—have also been sent to manage protests and enforce curfews as thousands of Americans took to the streets to demonstrate against the wanton police killing of Black people. Soon, the same reservists, though perhaps not in uniform this time, will be supervising polling stations. This type of work—policing crowds and responding to protests—represents the familiar pattern of the US government using the army for domestic law-enforcement and social-control projects. In 1892, for example, the state militia was called in to break the strike at the Homestead Steel Works in Pittsburgh. A few years later, in 1894, federal troops ended the blockades that the American Railway Union had established, effectively putting an end to the Pullman Strike. President Lyndon B. Johnson, responding to state leaders, sent National Guard troops to Detroit, Chicago and Baltimore to quell race riots in the 1960s. Attorney-General Robert Kennedy sent more than 30,000 federal marshals and federalised National Guard troops to protect African American student James Meredith from angry white mobs as he attended classes at the segregated University of Mississippi. President George H. W. Bush, reacting to a governor’s request, sent troops to suppress riots in Los Angeles in 1992. And so it goes on. Increasingly, it seems, governments in Australia are eager to follow the lead of the United States in militarising social life and health services. 

The way we live now 

In Australia, such military intervention, while ever more routinised and rationalised, still often conflicts with an older civil regulatory and legal framework. But this, too, will soon change. The Morrison government plans to amend the Defence Act to make it easier to deploy the ADF domestically at times of national emergency. As Morrison declared in August 2020, ‘there is now a clear community expectation that the Commonwealth should have the ability to respond in times of national emergencies and disasters, particularly through deployment of our defence forces in circumstances where the life and property of Australians have been assessed to be under threat’. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, and in the wake of the 2014 Lindt cafe siege in Sydney, the Defence Act 1903 (Cth) already has been amended to allow the call-out of the ADF in response to domestic terrorist incidents. Now, in accordance with community expectations, the federal government wants to legitimise and legalise the mobilisation of the ADF to combat natural disasters such as bushfires and pandemics—and, as lawyer Michael Bradley has pointed out, potentially to suppress social and political conflict. So that Greg Hunt and Peter Dutton can make sure we all stand up straighter.  

For twenty years or more, Lake and others have been warning us about the militarisation of Australian history and culture, denouncing the rise of the cult of ANZAC, but COVID-19 has revealed even deeper pathology in our body politic. Increasingly, we seem to distrust or discount the institutions of civil society, rejecting public or democratic forms of expertise and competency, resorting instead to the myth of faultless and irreproachable military forces. Once we might have called such militarisation of our daily lives ‘un-Australian’, but now it appears to epitomise our national yearnings. And so we march in lockstep into the post-COVID-19 future.  

About the authors

Pamela Maddock

Pamela Maddock is a historian of US empire and military medicine. She currently teaches at the University of Sydney in American Studies and Writing Studies.

More articles by Pamela Maddock

Warwick Anderson

Warwick Anderson is Janet Dora Hine Professor of Politics, Governance and Ethics at the University of Sydney and an honorary professor in the Centre for Health Equity (which he founded) in the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne. His books include The Cultivation of Whiteness (2002, 2006), Colonial Pathologies (2006), The Collectors of Lost Souls (2008), Intolerant Bodies (2014, with Ian R. Mackay) and Spectacles of Waste (2024). In 2023 he was awarded the John Desmond Bernal Prize of the Society for Social Studies of Science, in recognition of lifetime achievement in science and technology studies.

More articles by Warwick Anderson

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