This week President Biden’s mandated that all members of the US Armed Forces (military and civilian) be vaccinated against COVID-19. While mandatory civilian vaccination is a political landmine subject to religious and other objections (even if some of those objections are unfounded), Biden as commander-in-chief, has the authority to order mandatory military vaccination. Currently, active-duty military members are subjected to other mandatory vaccinations, depending on where they serve, and COVID-19 is now just one of many shots that troops must take in order to remain fit for duty. Soldiers, airmen, and sailors even receive vaccines for smallpox which was officially eradicated by vaccinations in 1980. Those who refuse may face discipline, including a court-martial.
Vaccinating our troops has a history as long as the republic. On Feb. 5, 1777; General George Washington reported to Congress his unilateral decision to combat a smallpox outbreak. With the mortality rate approaching 16%, nearly 90% of all American Revolution War deaths resulted from smallpox. “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure,” Washington reflected in a letter to Dr. William Shippen Jr, then-director general of the Hospitals of the Continental Army, on Feb. 6. Washington ordered Shippen to launch the first mass inoculation of any military in history—a move that saved the army and undoubtedly helped ensure the survival of the United States.
Smallpox, like COVID-19, was virally transferred by person-to-person contact. Washington was lucky enough to have survived an infection during the 7 Years War but he knew well that many did not and that those who survive are incapacitated during their recovery. His decision to inoculate the troops was a tactical rather than humanitarian act. Troops in hospital beds win no battles.
Like today, there was fervent skepticism and fear of inoculation. Unlike today, however, many of these fears were justified. Unlike today’s vaccinations (which contain an inactive strain), 18th-century inoculations inserted the live virus (via pus from an active sufferer) into an incision. The person contracted smallpox, but typically a less severe form—leading to a greater likelihood of survival. Still, the patient required quarantining for a roughly four-week infectious period before acquiring lifelong immunity. It was risky and time-consuming but offered better odds than the alternative.
As the nation and the military today face another “invisible enemy” in COVID-19, we should applaud President Biden who took a page from history and followed Washington’s precedent to maintain military readiness and national defense.