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Ending the Military COVID Vaccine Requirement is a Mistake
Undermines readiness, politicizes the military, indulges conspiracy theories—and for what?
Republicans managed to hold up the defense appropriations bill until they got Congress to force the Pentagon to stop requiring troops to be vaccinated against COVID. It's a stupid decision, and bad for the country.
The American military mandating immunizations goes back to before there was a United States, with George Washington ordering inoculation against smallpox during the Revolutionary War. For decades, U.S. military personnel have had to be immunized against dozens of pathogens—measles, hepatitis, polio, etc., plus some extra ones specific to deployment location—and it's been a nonissue. Some troops surely didn’t love it, but they all did it.
But then a swath of the American right turned denying the seriousness of COVID and embracing, or at least humoring, unscientific fears and conspiracy theories about vaccines into identity politics. There's no logic- or evidence-based objection here. It's simply that for today’s Republican Party, "We" are the people who denounce public health officials, who treat COVID vaccines as scary and a terrible imposition on freedom, in opposition to “Them,” who trust public health officials and encourage vaccination. This identity politics can be seen in, for example, Florida Governor and 2024 GOP hopeful Ron DeSantis courting antivaxxers, most recently by announcing state investigations of “adverse events of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines” and “new, aggressive actions to hold the federal government and Big Pharma accountable.”
The fact that over 13 billion COVID shots have been administered worldwide, and antivaxxers’ fear of vaccine-caused mass death hasn’t come close to happening does not dissuade them. (If they were open to large-n scientific evidence, they wouldn’t be antivaxxers). And for many Republican politicians who do acknowledge reality, antivaxxers now make up too much of the party base to challenge.
Fewer immunizations harms military readiness—a COVID outbreak shut down an American aircraft carrier in 2020—which undermines national security.
Singling out the COVID vaccine politicizes the military, granting exemptions based not on an immutable characteristic like race, religion, or gender, but on a partisanship-juiced belief one can easily change. That undermines both national security and the long-term viability of American democracy.
We’re not talking about government mandating vaccination for private citizens or businesses mandating vaccination for employees, which arguably violates individual conscience and bodily autonomy. (There’s a good case it doesn’t, because respiratory infections spread to others, but at least it’s an argument.) We’re talking about the military, where personnel have to follow orders.
One of the best things about U.S. military culture is its nonpartisanship. We don’t have Republican troops and Democratic troops, we have American troops. No matter their origin or worldview, they go through the same basic training, follow the same overarching orders, take the same immunizations. We call them members of the “Armed Services” because they serve the country.
Congress forcing the Defense Department to reverse its national security-based decision to mandate COVID vaccination won’t destroy America’s warfighting capabilities. But it will weaken the military, and drive a partisan wedge between personnel, for one of the worst possible reasons.
It’s a completely avoidable step down a dangerous path.