The coronavirus crisis is creating dissent within the ranks of the armed forces. This is a worrying development for the capitalist class, and a harbinger of explosive developments to come.
It is a well-known feature of revolutionary history that the individual soldiers and sailors who make up the armed forces can be affected by the overarching mood in society and play a key role in the class struggle. The cramped quarters of Navy warships have been likened to “floating factories,” and given the proletarian background of most of their crews, these conditions can breed a fierce class hatred.
Add a deadly virus to the already volatile mix, and the stage is set for a social explosion.
In late March, after a port stop in Hanoi, an outbreak of COVID-19 began to ravage the crew of the US Navy’s Nimitz class supercarrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Routine safety measures were no match for the virus on a ship with 4,500 sailors interacting in close quarters. By March 31, as many as 200 members of the crew had tested positive for COVID-19—a figure that would continue to multiply in the following weeks.
Faced with a desperate situation, Captain Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the ship, sent an open letter to the Department of the Navy, urging them to authorize on-shore quarantine measures and to provide more support for members of the Roosevelt who had contracted the disease. In fact, the Roosevelt had been forced to make an early port call at the US Naval Station in Guam due to the spreading infections. The letter was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, embarrassing and infuriating military leaders at the Pentagon.
The response from the Navy was not supportive. On April 2, Thomas Modly, the then-Acting Secretary of the Navy, relieved Crozier of command and ordered him removed from the vessel. An online video was posted of Crozier leaving the vessel, with the Roosevelt’s crew on deck cheering him and chanting his name. To the rank and file, an officer standing up to leadership at such a high level to advocate on their behalf is almost unheard of. Then, Modly, who previously sat on the Defense Business Board of a $42 billion consulting firm, actually flew all the way out to Guam—at a reported cost of $243,000—to personally berate the crew, calling them “stupid,” and Captain Crozier “naïve.” His profanity-laden rebuke was also leaked by members of the crew.
Modly was defiantly heckled by the sailors, and after the subsequent public outcry, he resigned on April 7. As of the writing of this article, there have been over 1,100 positive cases of COVID-19 among the crew of the Roosevelt—including Crozier himself. One crew member, a junior enlisted sailor, has died. The crew continues to languish in port as Crozier’s dire prediction came true. This saga of higher-level commanders ignoring the warnings of the people “on the ground” is all too familiar to the military rank and file.
Plummeting morale, rising discontent
The public heckling of Thomas Modly was a significant event. No matter how unpopular the leader, service members will almost always “sit there and take it,” both out of a sense of professionalism—and out of fear of punishment. The response of the Roosevelt’s crew reflects a population on edge, and provides a snapshot of the growing discontent among the ranks of US imperialism’s “special bodies of armed men.”
The declining morale was already an unfolding process before the pandemic broke out. As the slow-burning foreign interventions, proxy wars, and plodding imperial gambits of the US ruling class drag endlessly on, support for these imperialist ventures has plummeted among the ranks. A 2019 study showed that 51% of service members wanted to leave the military, and only 45% would recommend joining to others. 64% of US veterans say that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were “not worth it.” An increasing number of veterans and active-duty service members are beginning to speak out against the wars, and as new fronts in the game of imperialist chess open up in Africa and elsewhere, incidents like that on the Roosevelt will only increase.
American imperialism currently has over 200,000 troops overseas, stationed at roughly 800 bases. In normal times, there are around 5,260 daily military flights. These include combat sorties and cargo hauls, but also personnel movements. These are important vectors for worldwide disease transmission—and a major factor in the climate crisis.
In fact, an astonishing report from Brown University concluded:
"Since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the US military has emitted 1,212 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. In 2017 alone, CO2 emissions added up to 59 million tons—more than many industrialized nations including Sweden and Switzerland … War and preparation for it are fossil fuel intensive activities and along with being the single largest consumer of energy in the US, the Department of Defense is the world’s single largest institutional consumer of petroleum."
While orders have been given to halt most non-essential and personal travel, current guidance does not suspend mission-essential operations. Flights are still being made, and the flow of new recruits to basic training bases—new grist for the mill—have not stopped. The machinery of imperialism grinds on.
In another, less-publicized incident, soldiers stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state leaked to the Army Times that they were still being made to conduct PT, formations, and field training—crammed 20 to a tent—in violation of Department of Defense directives. The media attention ultimately forced the facility to suspend training.
The comments from rank-and-file soldiers and low-ranking officers featured in the Army Times article show the widespread discontent and fear spreading throughout the ranks of the armed forces at the inability of military leaders to take effective action against the spread of the virus:
“There is not much health awareness out here … We’re still crammed inside tents with hundreds of people sleeping within 2–3 feet of each other … Using latrines with no hand soaps in them.”
“It’s cold over here so we do layouts indoors in enclosed spaces that clearly violate the social distancing recommendation.”
“Two of my soldiers had direct contact with someone [whose] spouse tested positive and [it’s] business as usual.”
“[Military leaders are] paralyzed with indecision … So few leaders are willing to make informed common sense decisions to limit the risk to soldiers … They stall, hoping that a higher command will make the decision for them.”
“I have expressed my concern to my chain of command who has my back but once it goes to the [battalion] level it’s just brushed aside.”
The article also reported the case of an Army aviation unit being directed to prepare to airlift COVID-19 patients to hospitals, without being provided with masks, disinfectants, or any medical guidelines:
"In lieu of masks, aircrews were told to simply limit the amount of talking near any patients and open the windows or take off the doors in flight, the aviator said; there’s also no plan handed down to quarantine aircrews if they’re repeatedly transporting coronavirus patients."
At the time of writing, the US Department of Defense has recorded over 7,000 infections among its military and civilian personnel. Across the military, service members are being confined to their barracks, dorms, ships, or their own homes. Deployments have been extended, and Temporary Duty Assignments have been canceled as bases implement heightened health precautions—but cases continue to rise.
Class fault lines revealed
In these conditions of dysfunction and discontent, military leaders are undoubtedly haunted by the recent 45th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, which marked the defeat of the US in Vietnam amid widespread mutinies and soldier resistance. In the course of that war, the Pentagon documented half a million cases of desertion, and at least 900 incidents of “fragging”—the deliberate killing of officers by soldiers.
Entire garrisons had to be disarmed by military police, and the ground war largely disintegrated as a result of soldiers’ refusal to follow orders and active resistance to the leadership. It was an example of how the armed forces can break down along class lines under specific circumstances, given the presence of factors like a powerful anti-war movement in the general population, combined with high combat death rates and conscription.
As a result, the Pentagon drew certain conclusions and the entire military was restructured in an attempt to cut across a repeat of those events. The military is no longer made up of conscripts, most combat missions are performed by special forces or drones, and information is effectively sanitized and kept out of public view. And yet, despite these measures, service member opposition to the current wars, has been on the rise, especially among veterans. And although it has yet to approach the levels of discontent seen during Vietnam, revolution is a molecular process, and gradual changes in quantity can lead to sudden changes in quality.
Despite the military’s methods of indoctrination—designed to imbue soldiers with an outlook that sets them apart from the general civilian population—the fact is that the vast majority of the rank and file of the armed forces come from a working-class background. 62% of enlistees come from households making less than $60,000 a year. 40% of the US military members are nonwhite, and only 9% hold a bachelors or associates degree, compared to 45% in the general population.
In many cases, soldiers are recruited on the predatory basis of the “poverty draft,” with the promise of a stable income, housing, healthcare, education opportunities, and an escape from the deprivations of capitalism. But the empty nature of these promises is revealed by the rates of homelessness and mental illness among veterans.
One in four military service members has been diagnosed with a mental illness. Among veterans, this is not merely a result of PTSD. It is also in large part a product of being lured from their familiar surroundings and aggressively “declassed,” purposefully alienated from the civilian body at large—to be molded into more effective enforcers of capital.
The brutality of this imperialist apparatus turns some people into monsters and others into burnt-out husks unable to adapt to the socialized exploitation of a crisis-ridden capitalist economy when they leave the service. This is just one more way that the workers, the poor, and the youth are sacrificed on the altar of capitalist profits—at home and abroad. But if there’s one lesson to be drawn from the revolutionary history of the world over the last century, it’s that once mass consciousness is infected with the spirit of revolution, all institutions are affected—and bets are off.
An epoch of world revolution
Time and again, revolutionary ferment in society has spread to the ranks of the armed forces, who cannot help but identify with mass movements that are composed of people they grew up with, their families, friends, and neighbors. Particularly when the ruling class opts to respond to a social upheaval with violent repression, this can be the “breaking straw” that provokes a complete breakdown of the chain of command.
This was evident in the Arab Spring in 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt where there were widespread reports of fraternization between the ranks of the army and the people in the streets. In many cases, the army would protect demonstrators against police attack. Precisely the same scenes were repeated last year in the revolutionary mass movements in Sudan and Ecuador.
More than ever, the ruling class is keenly aware of the heightened risk of open class conflict. According to a “Political Risk Outlook” published by the strategic consulting firm Maplecroft, a quarter of the countries on the earth’s surface experienced a surge in civil unrest, mass protests, and revolutionary situations last year. The report summary concluded by describing 2019 as the “new normal”:
"The pent-up rage that has boiled over into street protests over the past year has caught most governments by surprise. Policymakers across the globe have mostly reacted with limited concessions and a clampdown by security forces, but without addressing the underlying causes. However, even if tackled immediately, most of the grievances are deeply entrenched and would take years to address. With this in mind, 2019 is unlikely to be a flash in the pan. The next 12 months are likely to yield more of the same, and companies and investors will have to learn to adapt and live with this “new normal.” "
Bloomberg recently ran an opinion piece under the headline: “This Pandemic Will Lead to Social Revolutions” as a blunt warning to the ruling class, of what awaits after the quarantine period is over:
"In particular, COVID-19 exacerbates preexisting conditions of inequality wherever it arrives. Before long, this will cause social turmoil, up to and including uprisings and revolutions … behind the doors of quarantined households, in the lengthening lines of soup kitchens, in prisons and slums and refugee camps—wherever people were hungry, sick and worried even before the outbreak—tragedy and trauma are building up. One way or another, these pressures will erupt."
This “building pressure” is by no means limited to the poorest parts of the world oppressed by foreign imperialism. The Pentagon is also weighing its options for confronting the eventual and inevitable rise of civil unrest in the US, given the Depression-like scenarios on the horizon. There is even talk of activating the Insurrection Act, passed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to enable military forces to directly enforce order in domestic situations where the normal operation of law enforcement breaks down.
What does all of this mean for revolutionary socialists? It is a reminder that the coming decade will look nothing like the decade that followed the 2008 crisis. We cannot treat revolution as though it’s a feature of bygone periods of history. We’re living today in an epoch of world revolution and we must prepare accordingly, by building a Marxist leadership that can sink roots in the working class and transmit a socialist program as widely as possible—including among the ranks of the military—in preparation for the historic class struggles to come.