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Republicans are doing their best to get our military sick

The GOP demand to end the Covid vaccine mandate in the National Defense Authorization Act is foolish on multiple levels.

Congressional Republicans have spent the better part of the last two years whining about the Pentagon vaccinating the troops against Covid-19. Thanks to a provision that they demanded be included in the latest defense spending bill, and Democrats hoping for bipartisanship, the GOP will get its wish: the military will have to rescind its mandate that service members be vaccinated against Covid.

In the grand scheme of bad Republican behavior involving the military, this latest affront isn’t as bad as, say, lying to start a war of aggression — but it’s built on false pretenses all the same. 

First, it is simply incorrect to say that soldiers have legitimate grounds for refusing the Covid vaccine. Like most widely available vaccines, these are some of the safest treatments in the history of medicine. There have been only a handful of adverse events after literally billions of doses administered. There is a microscopic risk of heart swelling with the mRNA shots (something like a 2 in 100,000 chance at worst), but it’s something like an order of magnitude less than the (still very small) risk of death incurred when seniors take a daily aspirin.

It is simply incorrect to say that soldiers have legitimate grounds for refusing the Covid vaccine.

Besides, the risk of the same heart condition caused by a case of Covid without vaccine protection — which is virtually inevitable at some point given the virus’ extreme contagiousness — is many times greater than for inoculated patients.

Second, refusing the vaccine puts other soldiers at risk, which runs counter to the usual GOP worries about the military’s preparedness. Contrary to anti-vaccine propaganda, the first wave of vaccines were super effective against the original virus, and new research from Britain shows the updated Omicron-specific vaccines are quite good at preventing infection today.

It follows that those who refuse to get vaccinated are putting their fellow soldiers at risk, especially those who might be immunocompromised. At least a few service members and civilian Defense Department staffers could die from this decision, adding to the reported 317 military members, contractors, civilian employees, or family members who reportedly have already died of Covid. Conversely, when United Airlines implemented a vaccine mandate, it saw employee Covid deaths drop from one per week to zero.

Third, this sets an appalling medical precedent. If soldiers can refuse Covid vaccines because Fox News and Facebook told them a bunch of lies, then there’s no reason they can’t also refuse to take vaccines for adenovirus, influenza, measles, mumps, polio, rubella, tetanus (which are currently mandated) or other illnesses that might crop up. It may be just a matter of time before conservatives turn against vaccines in general, as anti-vaccine lunatics are increasingly influential in the GOP.

If uptake for these other vaccines falls enough, then herd immunity will be broken, and military bases will become potential breeding grounds for disease. And if, God forbid, a war were to break out, this danger would be greatly increased. Anyone familiar with military history knows that due to crowded and often unsanitary conditions, epidemic disease is commonly a big killer in wars, sometimes by a giant margin. Of the hundreds of thousands of Napoleon’s soldiers who died in his invasion of Russia, perhaps half of them were killed by disease.

If, God forbid, a war were to break out, this danger would be greatly increased.

As a side note, it’s particularly rich to see Republican members of Congress asserting civilian control over the military over this and only this issue. They were happy for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to be bombing multiple countries, toppling the government of Libya, and assassinating American citizens, without congressional authorization, year after year, but now that the mean old Pentagon is trying to protect its service members from the worst pandemic in a century, they’re reacting with scalded outrage.

Fourth, this sets an appalling military precedent. The whole point of the military command structure is that troops have to obey commands from their superiors, which may include actual lethal risk like charging into enemy fire. If Fox News-addled troops can run squalling like little babies to members of Congress whenever they get an order they don’t like, what’s next? Skipping training? Demanding deployment to different countries? Being allowed to drink on patrol?

Finally, as someone who served in the Peace Corps in South Africa, this whole spectacle is pathetic on a level that is hard to describe. During my training, we had to get a shot every couple of days, over the course of about two weeks. We all put up with it because that was a condition of service, and, of course, because we didn’t want to get sick. The idea that we could just decline didn’t even occur to us. 

That a bunch of right-wing nuts could join the actual danged military and then decide they get to pick and choose what vaccines they want is a level of entitlement that puts even the most ridiculous caricature of an Oberlin social justice warrior to shame. These snowflakes need to suck it up, stop whining and demanding special treatment, and get their shots — or pick another line of work. If the medical requirements for serving in the military are too traumatic and triggering, there are plenty of other jobs out there.