News | March 19, 2021

The Military in the Time of COVID-19: Versatile, Vulnerable, and Vindicating

By Nina Wilén PRISM Vol. 9, No. 2

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Dr. Nina Wilén is the Director of the Africa Program at the Egmont Institute for International Relations and Assistant Professor at Lund University. She is also a Global Fellow at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Airmen deployed a Transport Isolation System for the first time in the Indo-Pacific to safely transport a COVID-19 patient. (U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, July 17, 2020)
Airmen deployed a Transport Isolation System for the first time in the Indo-Pacific to safely transport a COVID-19 patient. (U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, July 17, 2020)
Airmen deployed a Transport Isolation System for the first time in the Indo-Pacific to safely transport a COVID-19 patient. (U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, July 17, 2020)
Airmen deployed a Transport Isolation System for the first time in the Indo-Pacific to safely transport a COVID-19 patient.
Airmen deployed a Transport Isolation System for the first time in the Indo-Pacific to safely transport a COVID-19 patient. (U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, July 17, 2020)
Photo By: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command
VIRIN: 210318-D-BD104-031

Since the eruption of the world’s latest pandemic, COVID-19 in December 2019, militaries throughout the world have taken on a variety of unfamiliar domestic tasks—an arena which is usually reserved for internal security forces. In Peru the military called upon 16,000 reservists to help fight the pandemic—an exceptional move that did not even occur during the fight against the rebel group Sendero Luminoso in the 1980s.1 The Italian military found itself driving truckloads of deceased COVID-19 victims to mortuaries,2 provoking questions about possible post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). In Spain, the military has also drawn international attention, not only for its assistance in imposing national lockdowns, but moreover for the revealing uniforms, with deep v-neck shirts and leather suspenders. This prompted both comments from mainly female writers, reflecting on the physical attraction of the male soldiers, and a deeper and more critical discussion on the role of the Spanish military during the civil war and the succeeding dictatorship.3

The increased visibility, unfamiliar tasks, and closer cooperation with the civilian world have driven civil-military relations to new ground while at the same time suggesting questions about which domestic tasks should be allocated to the military. In this article, I explore these developments from a global perspective, then zoom in on select states for empirical examples. I identify what types of tasks militaries have performed during the current crisis and critically analyze how these tasks may impact civil-military relations and the military institution more broadly in the short and long term. This leads to probing fundamental military sociology questions concerning the apolitical nature and role of the military in society, especially in liberal democracies.

Drawing on a literature review of academic articles, “gray” literature, media articles, and informal discussions with military personnel from different countries, I identify three trends with regard to militaries in the time of COVID-19 and analyze the potential challenges that these present for the future. First, the pandemic exposes the military’s own vulnerability to health risks due to its close living and working conditions, while at the same time implying a risk of military personnel spreading the virus to the civilian population. Second, the pandemic has so far only marginally impacted the operational capacity of militaries, yet there are likely negative long-term effects if the COVID-19 situation persists for more than a year, related to strains on logistical, operational, and human resource capacities. Third, the higher visibility and closer connection with the civilian population during the current pandemic has confirmed the last two decades’ development of military institutions toward being highly versatile organizations with increasingly important domestic roles.4 This is likely to alter civil-military relations, invoking questions related to the military’s apolitical character.

In the first section, I revisit the military’s role in previous health crises, showcasing the historical aspect of current tasks. Thereafter, I make a broad categorization of the tasks undertaken by the military during the current pandemic, emphasizing their versatility. In the third section, I identify and analyze trends during the pandemic, pointing to different challenges that these trends are likely to have. In the conclusion, I reflect on how the military’s fight against COVID-19 has demonstrated its versatile character in a visible way that likely impacts civil-military relations more broadly and suggests risks to the apolitical character of the armed forces.

A Historical Role

Most national security documents and mission statements reserve a role for the military in national health crises or pandemics. The enumerated tasks range from more traditional military tasks such as building infrastructure, providing transport, and supporting quarantine measures, to the provision of military medics, facilities, and researchers to speed up research. Indeed, recent years have seen a call for armed forces to play a greater role in planning for, and responding to, health events.5 While the current pandemic has demanded new, and at times unfamiliar, roles for the military in many states, there is a long history of using the military to curb disease outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics.

Historical studies have shown how recurrent periods of pandemic influenza between 1500 and 1900 disproportionately affected the military population, thereby making the disease not only a health threat, but also a security threat.6 This became more explicit during the “Spanish Flu” in World War I between 1918 and 1919, when the wartime organization of British medicine framed the response to the influenza by articulating definitions and knowledge of the disease. In the United States, influenza and pneumonia sickened 20 to 40 percent of U.S. Army and Navy personnel during WWI.7 Both France and the United States saw a “militarization of medicine” during the same period, making this a broader, global development.8 In modern times, the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK in 2001,9 the Avian Influenza in 2006, the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic,10 and the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa11 have all seen varied types and levels of military response.

In the UK in 2001, the army’s role was to “command and control” the response to foot and mouth disease, clearing backlogs of dead cattle and coordinating with civilians to keep diagnosis, slaughter, and disposal time to a minimum.12 The Ebola outbreak in West Africa prompted both domestic and regional militaries under African Union command to assist in the efforts to contain the spread of the virus, as well as a wider U.S.-led effort under Operation United Assistance with the deployment of 2,692 U.S. military personnel as well as the launch of Operation Gritrock by UK forces.13 Given these precedents, the military’s central role in the current pandemic should come as no surprise to observers. Yet the variety of responsibilities armed forces have been tasked to perform raises questions about military versatility and the effects it may have on civil-military relations and the concept of an apolitical military.

Highly Versatile Organizations

Militaries worldwide have participated in efforts to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus, drawing on their national command networks and pools of disciplined and available manpower, deployable on short notice.14 Most of the efforts fall into three main categories; providing additional medical capacity, logistics and infrastructure, and support for internal security.15

Providing Additional Medical Capacity

A large number of militaries have mobilized their medical expertise to combat the spread of COVID-19. In the United States, 30,000 National Guard service members offered frontline care to community-based testing and distributed medical supplies and personal protective equipment to support hard-hit communities.16 In Israel the military intelligence technology unit has been working on the conversion of simple breathing support devices into more advanced ventilators, in addition to producing low-tech masks.17 In Sierra Leone, building on their experience fighting Ebola, military doctors have treated patients in the 24 Military Hospital.18 In Somalia, militaries have joined to form the “Coronavirus Army” which sets up water points and makes sure that people keep their distance, even in crowded camps of displaced people.19 Military factories have shifted production to make medical supplies in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay, whereas the Brazilian and Peruvian militaries are designing and producing respirators together with private sector and university researchers.20 Perhaps most surprisingly, the military is involved in strategic planning to create health policies. In Argentina for example, the Joint General Staff’s Bureau of Health is “developing care protocols for high-risk patients in coordination with civilian agencies.”21 The collaboration with civilian agencies is also evident when it comes to logistics and infrastructure.

Kenyan soldiers serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia ( AMISOM) present plans to prevent the Spread of
COVID-19 in Dhobley, Lower Jubba region. (AMISOM Photo, April 25, 2020)
Kenyan soldiers serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia ( AMISOM) present plans to prevent the Spread of COVID-19 in Dhobley, Lower Jubba region. (AMISOM Photo, April 25, 2020)
Kenyan soldiers serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia ( AMISOM) present plans to prevent the Spread of
COVID-19 in Dhobley, Lower Jubba region. (AMISOM Photo, April 25, 2020)
Kenyan soldiers serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia ( AMISOM) present plans to prevent the Spread of COVID-19 in Dhobley, Lower Jubba region.
Kenyan soldiers serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia ( AMISOM) present plans to prevent the Spread of COVID-19 in Dhobley, Lower Jubba region. (AMISOM Photo, April 25, 2020)
Photo By: AMISOM Photo
VIRIN: 210318-D-BD104-032

Logistics and Infrastructure

Armed forces across the world are trained to respond to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including bioweapons. As such, many militaries have protective equipment which makes them not only one of the institutions best prepared for disasters such as pandemics, but also the most medically protected (although exceptions exist as the next section shows).22 Militaries are also trained to mount logistical operations at short notice and have the equipment and personnel to quickly move large numbers of people and items from one place to another. Similarly, they are trained to build infrastructure in diverse contexts, including under duress and tight time constraints. These skills have been put to use in the fight against COVID-19 by several different states. In Sweden the armed forces have deployed field hospitals and supported people in risk groups with grocery shopping and have provided vehicles and equipment.23 In India military aircraft have transported medical supplies throughout the country.24 Armed forces across the world have also been tasked with planning and providing repatriation and evacuation flights for citizens abroad. In an unusual case, the Italian army was tasked with removing coffins from Bergamo’s cemetery when funeral services were overwhelmed.25 In China, the People’s Liberation Army’s role in fighting the pandemic was central from the beginning, in part due to the fact that the Central Military Commission’s Joint Logistics Support Force is situated in Wuhan, the first epicenter of COVID-19. Tasks have included supplying medicine to hospitals and providing food to the local population under lockdown while helicopters from the Central Theatre Command have airlifted supplies to devastated regions.26

Soldiers from the Rhode Island National Guard perform multiple tasks at a COVID-19 test site located at Rhode Island College, North Providence, RI. (Rhode Island National Guard, May 6, 2020)
Soldiers from the Rhode Island National Guard perform multiple tasks at a COVID-19 test site located at Rhode Island College, North Providence, RI. (Rhode Island National Guard, May 6, 2020)
Soldiers from the Rhode Island National Guard perform multiple tasks at a COVID-19 test site located at Rhode Island College, North Providence, RI. (Rhode Island National Guard, May 6, 2020)
Soldiers from the Rhode Island National Guard perform multiple tasks at a COVID-19 test site located at Rhode Island College, North Providence, RI.
Soldiers from the Rhode Island National Guard perform multiple tasks at a COVID-19 test site located at Rhode Island College, North Providence, RI. (Rhode Island National Guard, May 6, 2020)
Photo By: Rhode Island National Guard
VIRIN: 210318-D-BD104-033

Support for Internal Security

More traditional security-related tasks such as controlling borders and enforcing lockdowns have also fallen on both police and military forces across the world. These domestic patrolling duties have passed without major incidents in some states, like Italy and Spain, while in others they have led to tensions between security forces and the civilian population. In South Africa, the military failed to live up to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call to act as a “force of kindness,” using water cannons and rubber bullets to enforce lockdown.27 Similarly, President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador ordered the police and the military to “be tougher with people violating the quarantine,” advice that was strictly followed according to reports documenting arbitrary detention and excessive use of force.28

In recent years the boundaries between internal and external security forces have become increasingly blurred due to new transnational security threats, such as organized crime and terrorism.29 In some states this development has been mirrored in the growing significance of intermediary gendarmerie-type security forces.30 Yet deploying the military domestically for security purposes is likely to have effects on the broader civil-military balance and is still an exceptional measure in most states. Recent developments may tip the scales in either direction, leading to increased securitization of society if the armed forces excel, but negatively impacting perceptions of the utility of the military in times of medical crises and humanitarian response in cases where the military is used for repression.

Trends and Challenges

The tasks performed by militaries during the current pandemic clearly show that they can be very versatile organizations, performing a diverse variety of functions in society. This confirms the past two decades’ development during which armed forces have taken on new tasks such as peace operations, military assistance missions, counterterrorism operations, and a growing role in domestic security matters.31 The latest pandemic has thus confirmed military adaptability. Yet how has this crisis affected the military, both internally, in terms of risks and capacity, and externally in civil-military relations? More generally, how does such resourcefulness during the current crisis impact the apolitical character of the armed forces?

Health Risks for the Military

It is in the nature of their work that armed forces personnel are frequently operating in close quarters and shared living spaces. This in turn implies that these personnel are particularly at risk of infection by the COVID-19 virus.32 As an observer noted, “Social distancing runs counter to virtually every facet of military life, where service members of all ranks have been trained to see ‘lethality’ and ‘readiness’ for combat as higher values than their personal well-being.”33 Indeed, an American politician even suggested that soldiers could voluntarily become infected with COVID-19 to “provide an immune workforce and research antibodies.”34 While military personnel on average are young and fit—and thereby less likely to get serious infections from the virus—they are not immune. Their central role in the fight against the virus and their working and living conditions increase their risks of infection and could, in addition to posing individual health risks, also amount to wider security risks.

Military deployments to operations in different geographic locations also increase the risk of both catching and spreading the virus. The case of Captain Brett Crozier, commanding officer of a U.S. aircraft carrier, who was stripped of his command post after raising alarm over a serious coronavirus outbreak on the warship is an example of this. He drew attention both to the health risks the military was facing and to the failure of protecting them. Ultimately, more than 1,100 of the warship’s crew of about 5,000 tested positive for the coronavirus.35 In a somewhat unusual arrangement to prevent the spread of the virus between militaries, the Romanian army has been deployed to make sure that soldiers and officers from Operations Resolute Support and Freedom Sentinel wear masks and keep their distances in canteens in Kandahar, Afghanistan.36

Some states’ security forces have been particularly badly hit by the virus. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country’s primary fighting force, has lost several senior commanders to COVID-19, leading to difficult political decisions on replacements.37 In the United States, the Pentagon reported 6,493 service members with coronavirus in June, a number which had increased rapidly during the preceding month, although reporting has been limited to a certain extent to reduce global perceptions of reduced American military readiness.38

To contain the spread of the virus, militaries worldwide have imposed cautionary measures, including quarantines of their service members before and after deployment, heightened hygiene routines, and cancelled non-necessary training exercises. Yet the militaries’ central roles in the COVID-19 pandemic are not only exposing them to the physical health risks of catching the virus, but also to mental health challenges. The European Organisation of Military Associations and Trade Unions (EUROMIL) cautions about the mental health risks related to members of the armed forces who have been designated to carry out unusual tasks without specific preparation.39 The Italian military personnel tasked with transporting truckloads of deceased COVID-19 victims is one such example, possibly resulting in PTSD for some.40 Delayed rotations for military members deployed to missions abroad due to COVID-19 and mandatory quarantines are also likely to have repercussions on individuals. Previous research has shown that uncertainty with regard to deployment length increases tension between military members and their families/partners at home,41 adding more stress to the deployment and ultimately, also the homecoming.

Effects on Operational Capacity

The pandemic has also affected armed forces’ opportunities for training and education, which could have negative long-term effects on operational capacity. Several larger multinational training exercises have already been cancelled or delayed to a later date. Aurora 2020, a military exercise that was supposed to take place in Sweden with the aim of practicing operations with 16 NATO countries and Finland has, for example, been postponed,42 while the remaining part of another major Arctic military exercise in Norway, Cold Response, involving approximately 15,000 troops, was cancelled due to the health risks for military personnel.43 Other exercises have been scaled down, like the Defender 2020 exercise, which would have involved the largest deployment of American troops to Europe since the Cold War.44

Military exercises, whether national or international, are often complex undertakings requiring excellent interoperability, effective communication, and detailed logistics planning. These capacities necessitate regular hands-on training and fine-tuning to maintain adequate skill levels. While cancelled exercises are unlikely to have long-term effects if training is resumed relatively quickly, the many disruptions to military education both at home and abroad will probably negatively affect operational capacity for some militaries.45 This is especially the case for disruptions in training of highly specialized units, such as special forces or fighter pilots. The limited number of specialists and the expensive training and equipment needed to maintain their skills make such specialized units especially vulnerable to disruptions.46

Yet while training exercises have been postponed, military operations worldwide have for the most part been maintained: as one observer notes, “Troops may be distracted and diverted, but war does not pause for viruses.”47 Whereas the terrorist group ISIS’ “al-Naba” newsletter advised its members not to travel to Europe to carry out attacks in the beginning of the pandemic,48 this advice did not encompass other continents. The various terrorist groups in the Sahel—which has become a global hotspot for terrorism, trafficking, and organized crime—have continued to unravel stability and security in the region,49 just as armed conflicts overall have remained unabated, despite UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ plea for a global ceasefire to fight the virus.50 In June, the UN peacekeeping chief, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, told the Security Council that terrorist groups and other criminal groups are capitalizing on the pandemic in the Sahel region to undermine state authority and destabilize governments.51

States have adopted different stances with regard to international counterterrorism operations and military assistance missions during the current pandemic. The French-led counterterrorism Operation Barkhane, together with the regional G5-Sahel Force, has launched several operations in the Sahel during the past 6 months, whereas other military assistance missions encompassing train and equip measures worldwide have been cancelled and yet others have been modified to comply with new health measures. The United States has, for example, repositioned its troops in Iraq in a smaller number of bases to limit exposure to COVID-19, while Dutch and British forces have suspended training activities with local Iraqi forces. Troops that catch the virus abroad in a non-permissive security setting are exposed to both health and security risks, as they may no longer be able to guarantee their own security in addition to the risk of not getting adequate medical care in environments with poor health systems and limited infrastructures.52

In some cases, military assistance missions have adopted measures that have enabled the training to continue, albeit behind plexiglass or via WhatsApp videos.53 While such measures can maintain some connectivity and allow training to continue, they are unlikely to be as efficient as face-to-face training and instruction, especially between partner states which have language and cultural barriers that make real-life training all the more important.

Some states have continued their military assistance training as usual after an initial quarantine period and with heightened focus on maintaining enhanced hygiene facilities. An interlocutor from one of the partner forces to a state in the Sahel explained the reasoning behind maintaining training schedules during the pandemic as a matter of trust and continuity: “If we leave when they are facing an increased threat from terrorist groups, we risk losing the trust we have worked hard to win.”54 Cancelled military exercises could thus erode partner countries’ capacity to respond to security challenges, and their trust.

The longer the current situation extends the greater the risk of undermining military capacity to perform critical functions in external defense. While current estimates regarding the duration of the pandemic vary, researchers caution against the quality of rapidly developed vaccines and the likelihood of manufacturing them in massive quantities at an affordable price, making it quite possible that the pandemic conditions will last for more than a year, perhaps even outrunning their course before an effective vaccine is widely produced and distributed.55

The longer the pandemic lasts, the more the logistical capacities and human resources related to deployments abroad are likely to suffer, as quarantine measures before and after deployments delay rotations and require separate infrastructure for the quarantined personnel, which in turn demand additional planning and resources. In addition, the need for vast testing capacities implies an additional stress on already strained human resources. In general, the economic stress resulting from the pandemic is more likely to result in long-term setbacks to defense budgets and new technological investment in the defense industry.56

The demand for military personnel to perform domestic tasks will also affect the armed forces’ capacity, organization, and labor division more generally. This demand is likely to speed up internal structural shifts and reorganization plans, as the military may be forced to revisit its internal labor division and preparedness for similar scenarios in the aftermath of the current crisis. In addition, the requirement to provide operational support to civilian governments can create tensions for professional militaries, as there is a risk of opportunity costs in terms of military readiness and maintaining skills for warfighting when armed forces are tasked as an auxiliary domestic emergency service.57 The suspension of multilateral training exercises abroad is also likely to have a negative effect on military preparedness for working in an international environment with other forces, thus compromising interoperability between allies. In the long run, the increased demand to perform domestic tasks could also result in a possible identity crisis, whereby soldiers question the core functions of their organization.

An Outsider Inside—Civil-Military Relations in a New Light

The military’s traditional role as the protector of the territorial integrity of the state has positioned it as an external security force occasionally performing domestic tasks.58 The past two decades of warfare against terrorism have nevertheless seen a tendency to augment the military’s involvement in domestic security matters, resulting in a more visible presence with patrols in the street and at airports and train stations in some countries.59 This trend notwithstanding, the variety of domestic tasks allocated to the military during the present pandemic is likely to bring a new perspective to civil-military relations in many states. This can paradoxically result both in an aversion and increased distance between military and civilian populations in some states, and in a closer civil-military collaboration and increased appreciation of the armed forces in others.

Apart from countries under military rule, the response to the COVID-19 threat has been led by civilian governments, using the military as a tool to contain the spread of the virus. The way in which governments have used their armed forces has differed significantly, with some semi-authoritarian states pushing the military to clamp down on breaches of lockdown measures, while others trust the military with important responsibilities in terms of logistics and planning. However, performing unpopular tasks, such as enforcing quarantines or preventing civilians from doing what they feel they need to do, may result in deteriorating civil-military relations.60

Forcible impositions of lockdowns have already led to confrontations between citizens and armed forces, which in turn are likely to contribute to popular distrust of government motives.61 In countries with a history of military abuse, such as South Africa, the damage done during the current pandemic is likely to have long-lasting implications for civil-military relations in spite of the fact that most forces have behaved respectfully and professionally.62 Similarly, in countries with weak civilian institutions and relatively nascent democratic structures, the prominent military role during the pandemic could have wider implications that will likely outlast the course of the pandemic.63 In such cases, the civil-military balance may become skewed, resulting in an emboldened and politicized military prone to intervene directly, or at least to use its new position to receive more resources and be more involved in defense affairs.64

In other countries, civil-military relations may move toward a closer collaboration under civilian supervision, where the military’s versatile capacity is recognized and appreciated by the wider population. A good example is provided by a clip showing two military officers from the Galicia VII Brigade in Spain accompanying an older lady and carrying her shopping that went viral at the start of the pandemic.65 The military was seen as a supportive, empathetic, and protective force for the whole population which garnered popular support. Belgian military medical personnel supporting staff in nursing homes is another example of a national military taking on an unusual role in the current context,66 showing the armed forces’ flexibility and ability to plug in capacities where needed. While taking on these types of domestic support roles may undermine the military’s capacity to perform core tasks in the long run, such roles can also increase the public’s understanding of military versatility and increase its domestic popularity. These supportive tasks may therefore help to improve civil-military relations and increase the armed forces’ legitimacy.

Navy Seaman Ezequiel Vega receives the COVID-19 vaccine at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda,
Md, as part of Operation Warp Speed. (December 21, 2020 Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Sarah Villegas)
Navy Seaman Ezequiel Vega receives the COVID-19 vaccine at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md, as part of Operation Warp Speed. (December 21, 2020 Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Sarah Villegas)
Navy Seaman Ezequiel Vega receives the COVID-19 vaccine at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda,
Md, as part of Operation Warp Speed. (December 21, 2020 Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Sarah Villegas)
Navy Seaman Ezequiel Vega receives the COVID-19 vaccine at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md, as part of Operation Warp Speed.
Navy Seaman Ezequiel Vega receives the COVID-19 vaccine at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md, as part of Operation Warp Speed. (December 21, 2020 Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Sarah Villegas)
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Sarah Villegas
VIRIN: 210318-D-BD104-034


The many diverse tasks armed forces throughout the world have undertaken during the current pandemic have accelerated their development as highly versatile organizations.67 While this may not appear as a notable observation to scholars of military studies, civil-military relations, and particularly to military officers for whom this is a well-known development, it may be a revelation for the wider public, which views the military as a mono-task organization. The pandemic has thus brought the military’s multi-utility to full display in many countries, provoking questions about the military’s tasks and roles in society, and more broadly about its identity. The armed forces’ frontline positions in unfamiliar tasks during the pandemic, combined with their close working and living conditions, have exposed their vulnerability as a possible hotbed for the virus and as a transmitter of the latter to the general population. In short, the pandemic has made it clear that protection needs to go both ways: military members deserve the same right to protection from the virus and its consequences as civilians, while the armed forces also need to ensure that they do not expose civilians to increased risk by acting as transmitters of the virus.

Evidence of military versatility suggests additional questions about core military roles in society. Observers concerned about the decline of military operational capacity as armed forces are called upon to perform supportive domestic functions also need to answer questions about which tasks the military should be tasked to perform. Should the military maintain and further develop its current versatility to be able to assist in future similar scenarios, or should its tasks be narrowed down to more traditional military duties linked to external security? Given the current volatile security environment which includes threats as diverse as great power competition, terrorism, wars, climate change, and pandemics, there is a need for either a versatile organization which has the capacity to handle and respond to each of these threats, or a new labor division where these tasks are outsourced to different actors. Either way, the military’s core tasks must be clearly defined in order to provide adequate financial and material resources.

The new and unfamiliar tasks given to the military during the pandemic have also brought about new perspectives for civil-military relations. Whereas in some states, the military’s multitasking in the domestic sphere has enhanced civilian appreciation for its services, in others its use of excessive force to perform unpopular tasks has damaged its legitimacy and disrupted civil-military trust-building. In states where civilian institutions are weak and the military has taken over a large number of state services, questions about the civil-military balance and the military’s apolitical role emerge.68

In democratic states, military subservience to elected civilian government has long been an accepted rule. The military is supposed to advise civilian politicians and officials yet has no right to impose its judgements on those civilians. While this is a prevalent norm in most democracies, there has been a tendency for the military to take on a more political stance in some states during the past few years. In the United States, for example, both military officers and civilians have started questioning the military’s apolitical position, with military officers at times even speaking out against presidential decisions.69 Whereas civil-military relations in the United States might be considered exceptional, with a President who has actively tampered with implicit and explicit rules regulating the relationship, the pandemic has driven the military more deeply into domestic affairs—in some states even as far as political planning and decisionmaking. A military that slides deeply into domestic politics is problematic even for longstanding democracies, as it risks undermining the very essence of what democracy stands for; elected officials making the final decisions.

The current pandemic has therefore also brought back old questions regarding civil-military relations and the military’s apolitical role in society. The pandemic has clearly shown that these issues are context-dependent and justify different responses at different times. The exceptionality of a pandemic may therefore bring about new answers to old questions, while some remain open for continuous debate. It also suggests how new institutions and policies might be needed to ensure that militarization of domestic and global problems does not become normalized. PRISM

The author is grateful to colleagues J. “Franky” Matisek, Sven Biscop, and Simon Stattin for useful comments on an earlier draft.

This article is part of a larger project entitled “The military as an ‘agent of change’ for gender-relations in post-conflict societies? Evidence from Mali and Liberia,” which is financed by the Swedish Research Council, n°2018–04958.


1 Kristina Mani, “The soldier is here to defend you. Latin America’s militarized response to COVID-19,” World Politics Review, April 21, 2020, available at <>.

2 Elvira Pollina and Agnieszka Flak, “COVID-19 Italy: Military fleet carries coffins of coronavirus victims out of overwhelmed town,” National Post, March 19, 2020, available at <>.

3 Janice Williams, “The Elite Spanish Army’s Very Revealing Uniforms are Twitter’s New Obsession,“ Newsweek, March 23, 2020, available at <>; Catherine Baker, “Who designed these uniforms—Tom of Finland?“ the real story behind these viral photos of Spanish soldiers,“ Prospect, March 24, 2020, available at <>.

4 Christopher Dandekar, “New times for the military: Some sociological remarks on the changing role and structure of the armed forces of the advanced societies,” The British Journal of Sociology 45, no. 4 (1994), 637–654; Timothy Edmunds, “What are armed forces for? The changing nature of military roles in Europe,” International Affairs 82, no. 6 (2006), 1059–1075; Philippe Manigart, “Restructured Armed Forces” in Handbook of the sociology of the military, eds. Giuseppe Caforio and Marina Nuciari (New York: Springer International Publishing, 2018).

5 Christopher Watterson and Adam Kamradt-Scott, “Fighting Flu: Securitization and the Military Role in Combatting Influenza,” Armed Forces and Society 42, no. 1 (2016), 145–168.

6 Ibid, 147.

7 Carl R. Byerly, “The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918–1919,” Public Health Reports, no.125, 2010, 82–91.

8 Michael Bresalier, “Fighting Flu: Military Pathology, Vaccines, and the Conflicted Identity of the 1918–1919 Pandemic in Britain,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 68, no.1 (2011), 87–128.

9 Edmunds, “What are armed forces for?”

10 Sivan Kohn, et al., “Pandemic influenza preparedness and response in Israel: A unique model of civilian-defense collaboration,” Journal of Public Health Policy 31 (2010), 256–269.

11 Adam Kamradt-Scott, “Saving Lives: The civil-military response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa,” The Lancet 387 (2016), 13–15.

12 Angelique Chrisafis, “How the brigadier has mopped up chaos and won farmer’s support,” The Guardian, March 30, 2001, available at <>.

13 Kamradt-Scott, “Saving Lives.”

14 Euan Graham, “The armed forces and COVID-19,” International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), April 8, 2020, available at <>.

15 Erica Pepe and Amanda Lapo, “Europe’s armed forces and the fight against COVID-19,” IISS, April 9, 2020 available at <>.

16 Terri Moon Cronk, “Military Medicine on Front Lines of COVID-19 Response,” Defense News, April 10, 2020, available at <>.

17 “Armies are mobilizing against the coronavirus,” The Economist, March 23, 2020, available at <>.

18 Umaru Fofana, “Sierra Leone’s military hospital ‘makes history’ in COVID-19 patient surgery,” Politico SL, May 20, 2020, available at <>.

19 Oxford Research Group, “COVID-19 and the Prospects for Peace in Somalia,” WarPod, Episode 14, May 25, 2020, available at <>.

20 Mani, “The soldier is here to defend you.”

21 Ibid.

22 See for example, Al Mauroni, “The Military is not the nation’s emergency room doctor,” Modern War Institute at West Point, February 5, 2020, available at <>.

23 “The Corona Virus and the Armed Forces,” Försvarsmakten (Swedish Armed Forces), available at <>.

24 Quint Neon, “Indian Army Sets Up 9,000 Hospital Beds for COVID-19 Patients,” The Quint, April 2, 2020, available at <>.

25 Pollina and Flak, “COVID-19 Italy: Military fleet carries coffins.”

26 Graham, “The armed forces and COVID-19.”

27 Joseph Cotterill, “South Africa uses water cannon and rubber bullets to enforce lockdown,” Financial Times, 29 March 2020, available at <>.

28 “El Salvador: Police Abuses in COVID-19 Response,” April 15, 2020, Human Rights Watch, available at <>.

29 Risa A. Brooks, ““The Military and Homeland Security,” Policy and Management Review 2, no 2 (2002). Donald J. Campbell and Kathleen M. Campbell, “Soldiers as police officers/police officers as soldiers: Role evolution and revolution in the United States,” Armed Forces & Society 36 no. 2 (2010), 327–350.

30 Derek Lutterbeck, “Between Police and Military: The New Security Agenda and the Rise of Gendarmeries,” Cooperation and Conflict 39, no. 1, 45–68.

31 Edmunds, “What are armed forces for?”; Manigart, “Restructured Armed Forces.“

32 Tangi Salaün, Sabine Siebold, and Luke Baker, “Europe’s armed forces face a war against coronavirus as military infections rise,” World Economic Forum, April 7, 2020, available at <>.

33 “COVID-19 and the US military,” IISS, July 2020, available at <>.

34 Rachel E. Greenspan, “Marianne Williamson clapped back at Andrew Yang’s proposal that we infect a portion of the military with COVID-19,” Insider, April 7, 2020, available at <>.

35 David Welna, “In a reversal by Navy, sacked Captain of USS Roosevelt will not be reinstated,” National Public Radio, June 19, 2020, available at <>.

36 Email discussion with U.S. officer, July 26, 2020. Author’s files.

37 Saeid Golkar and Kasra Aarabi, “Will COVID-19 inhibit Iran’s ability to suppress protests?” Middle East Institute, June 3, 2020, available at <>.

38 Amanda Macias, “U.S. Military coronavirus cases surge as Pentagon lifts travel restrictions,” CNBC, July 2, 2020, available at <>; email discussion with U.S. officer, July 26, 2020.

39 “Armed Forces and COVID-19,” European Organization of Military Associations and Trade Unions (EUROMIL), available at <>.

40 “COVID-19 and Military Personnel’s Right to Health,” OSCE-ODIHR, DCAF, EUROMIL webinar, May 28, 2020, available at <>.

41 Lindy Heinecken and Nina Wilén, “No place like home? Postdeployment Reintegration Challenges Facing South African Peacekeepers,” Armed Forces & Society (2019), available at <>.

42 “Exercise Aurora 20 is postponed,” Swedish Armed Forces, April 3, 2020, available at <>.

43 Shawn Snow and Diana Stancy Correll, “Major Arctic military exercise canceled over coronavirus fears,” Military Times, March 11, 2020, available at <>.

44 “Armies are mobilizing against the coronavirus.”

45 “How will COVID-19 impact U.S. military readiness?” The Cipher Brief, April 23, 2020, available at <>.

46 Sim Tack, “COVID-19: How pandemics disrupt military operations,” RealClear Defense, March 28, 2020, available at <>.

47 Ibid.

48 Aitor Hernández-Morales, “ISIS tells terrorists to steer clear of coronavirus-stricken Europe,” Politico, March 15, 2020, available at <>.

49 Nina Wilén, “Belgian Special Forces in the Sahel: A Minimal Footprint with Maximal Output?” Egmont Africa Policy Briefs, May 14, 2019, available at <>.

50 António Guterres, “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” United Nations Web site, March 23, 2020, available at <>.

51 “Terrorist groups exploiting COVID-19 in Sahel, UN peacekeeping chief tells Security Council,” UN News, June 5, 2020, available at <>.

52 Tack, “COVID-19: How pandemics disrupt military operations.”

53 Email discussion with officer deployed in a military assistance mission, July 2020.

54 Discussion with soldier deployed in a military assistance mission, May 2020.

55 Byram W. Bridle and Shayan Sharif, “Fast COVID-19 vaccine timelines are unrealistic and put the integrity of scientists at risk,” The Conversation, June 15, 2020, available at <>.

56 Emmaleigh Eaves, “How will COVID-19 affect global defence spending?” Army Technology, August 25, 2020, available at <>; Tack, “COVID-19: How pandemics disrupt military operations.“

57 Graham, “The armed forces and COVID-19.”

58 Zoltan Barany, The Soldier and the Changing State: Building Democratic Armies in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012); Brooks, “The military and homeland security.”

59 Delphine Resteigne and Philippe Manigart, “Boots on the streets: A ‘policization’ of the armed forces as the new normal?” Journal of Military Studies, 8, 2019, pp. 6–27; Risa A. Brooks, “Paradoxes of professionalism: Rethinking civil-military relations in the United States,“ International Security 44, no. 4 (2020), 7–44; Campbell and Campbell, “Soldiers as police officers/police officers as soldiers.“

60 John Allen Williams, “The military and society. Beyond the postmodern era,” Orbis 52, no. 2 (2008), 209.

61 Alex De Waal, “COVID-19 in Africa: ‘Know your Epidemic, Act on its Politics,” London School of Economics blog, March 31, 2020, available at <>.

62 Andrew Faull, “State abuses could match the threat of COVID-19 itself,” IISS, April 2, 2020, available at <>.

63 Mani, “The Soldier is here to defend you.”

64 Ibid; Graham, “The armed forces and COVID-19.”

65 Laura Taylor, “Heartwarming video of military in Spain’s Gijon help old lady carry her shopping to her house,” EuroWeekly, March 18, 2020, available at <>.

66 Karim Fadoul with X.L, “Coronavirus: l’armée belge intervient dans deux maisons de repos à Jette et Lustin” RTBF, April 8, 2020, available at <>.

67 Edmunds, “What are armed forces for?”; Manigart, “Restructured Armed Forces“; Dandekar, “New times for the military.“

68 Mani, “The Soldier is here to defend you”; Graham, “The armed forces and COVID-19“; “Armies are mobilizing against the coronavirus.”

69 Ronald R. Krebs and Robert Ralston, “Civilian Control of the Military is a Partisan Issue,” Foreign Affairs, July 14, 2020, available at; Max Boot, “A Few Good Men. Trump, the Generals, and the Corrosion of Civil-Military Relations,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2020, available at <>; Brooks, “Paradoxes of professionalism: Rethinking civil-military relations in the United States”; Richard M. Wrona Jr, “A Dangerous Separation: The Schism Between the American Society and Its Military,“ World Affairs 169, no. 1 (2006), 25–38.