Mandatory COVID-19 vaccines again puts Pentagon in cultural crosshairs

The Pentagon‘s looming COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all troops threatens to push the military into the middle of yet another divisive culture battle, this time over personal health choices versus the collective responsibility to prevent deadly outbreaks in the ranks.

At the direction of President Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said over the weekend that he is moving “expeditiously” to determine how quickly the military can carry out vaccination requirements. The dramatic step will surely prove unpopular in some corners of the armed forces, but legal scholars say it is virtually certain to hold up in court. The necessity also underscores the difficulty the Pentagon has encountered in its vaccination drive.

Substantial numbers of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines aren’t fully vaccinated despite an aggressive push by Mr. Austin and top commanders across each military service. Defense Department officials are recalibrating their response to the surge of the deadlier, more contagious delta variation of the coronavirus, just as their civilian counterparts have to do.

Pentagon figures show just over 1 million troops are fully vaccinated. That includes active-duty forces, reserves and National Guard troops.

As of June 30, about 68% of active-duty troops had received at least one shot, officials said.

Those figures have been trending upward but still reflect significant vaccine skepticism. Some analysts and military insiders say bitter partisan battles have engulfed the nation’s response to the pandemic and the divisive issue of mandated vaccinations is viewed through very different lenses depending on political leanings or stages of life.

“In saner days, compulsory military vaccinations against a global pandemic which has killed over 4 million people wouldn’t have been too controversial,” said J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman who is now an analyst with One America News Network. “Yet since America’s top medical experts destroyed their own credibility by injecting themselves into politics — e.g., describing President Trump’s political rallies as ‘superspreader events’ while Antifa-[Black Lives Matter] riots somehow weren’t — it’s easy to understand skepticism in the ranks.”

Furthermore, the Defense Department isn’t pushing for vaccine mandates in a vacuum. It comes against the backdrop of an ongoing anti-extremism initiative that critics say is too broadly defined and could inadvertently sweep up conservatives and Catholics in the ranks as “extremists.” The Pentagon vehemently denies this charge.

Pentagon leaders also have had to fend off charges both in the conservative media and on Capitol Hill that the military has embraced “critical race theory,” the primary current battlefield in the culture wars between left and right. Mr. Austin recently said that isolated incidents of instructors at some military institutions teaching aspects of critical race thinking do not equal an endorsement of the overall theory, which essentially puts racism at the center of American history dating back centuries.

The push for mandatory vaccinations clearly differs in many ways from those cultural fights. But with a significant portion of Americans choosing not to get a shot, there’s also a strong undercurrent of opposition to any efforts by federal, state or local governments to force Americans to roll up their sleeves.

To combat that sentiment, military leaders are casting the mandatory vaccine push as a way to ensure America’s fighting force is fully healthy and ready to defend the nation. Outbreaks of COVID-19 last year cast a heavy cloud over military readiness, capped by the celebrated incident of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which was forced to cut short a Pacific mission because of a massive outbreak of the disease among the crew.

Moving quickly

Mr. Austin told reporters recently that he‘s prepared to quickly enact the president’s directive.

“I’ll go back and consult with my medical professionals … and we’ll outline the steps for the way ahead,” he said at a press conference in Manila. “We’ll move this expeditiously, if possible. You know, quite frankly, I’m inclined to move towards making sure that everybody is properly protected.”

“We’ll look at this with our medical professionals and the service secretaries, the chiefs, and they will outline that timeline. But we won’t let grass grow under our feet,” he said. “The president directed us to do something, and we’ll get after it.”

By instituting strict safety measures in the early days of the pandemic, the Pentagon has kept the COVID-19 death count in the ranks remarkably low. The Navy reportedly lost two sailors to the virus late last month, bringing the total military death toll to 28, according to the most recent Defense Department figures. That number does not include civilian Defense Department employees or contractors.

The military has seen a total of about 313,000 cases, with just over 4,300 of those cases requiring hospitalization. As a whole, more than 613,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.

Even as the delta variant has driven up case counts in parts of the country, so far there has not been a dramatic increase of cases, deaths or hospitalizations in the military.

Moving forward, some legal scholars and military analysts say that mandated vaccines would not only protect the nation’s soldiers and sailors but also could lead vaccine-wary civilians to change their minds.

“I believe vaccinations ought to be required for the military. Among other things, it would set the right example for the rest of the country,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., now the executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University.

Gen. Dunlap said that the military could as a matter of policy allow for religious exemptions, though such a step wouldn’t be legally necessary.

“Given the threat of COVID, I don’t think the Constitution requires religious waivers,” he said.

Unlike the Trump era, when there was clear public disagreement on a host of issues between the commander in chief and Pentagon leadership, Mr. Biden and top military officials so far seem on the same page with respect to COVID-19 and mandated vaccinations. Specialists say that agreement will go a long way.

“Since the Biden administration logically hired ideologically aligned people who follow instructions to run the government, it will be a lot easier for them to accomplish their goals compared to the previous administration,” Mr. Gordon said. “They will largely do whatever they want.”

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