Gender Equality, Penn Pandemic Diary

Penn Pandemic Diary, Entry #34: Military Logistics and Gender in the Time of COVID-19

June 5, 2020
By Shira E. Pindyck | Penn Pandemic Diary

Shira E. Pindyck is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and a Perry World House Graduate Associate.

The U.S.N.S. Comfort, docked outside of New York City at the end of March was a powerful image. Dedicating the 1,000-bed hospital ship to the battle against the COVID-19 signaled not only the severity of the outbreak, but the government’s decision to dedicate some of its vast military resources to assist with the response. Similarly, President Donald Trump recently announced that the U.S. military would lead “Operation Warp Speed,” an effort to deliver a vaccine to 300 million Americans by the end of the year.  

Putting the Defense Department to work figuring out complicated supply systems, providing transport, and offering medical care has some logic:  organization and logistics are generally considered what militaries do best. Yet, when considering the role of the U.S. military in COVID-19 response, we must remember its resources and systems are predominantly designed to serve male servicemembers. After all, just 16 percent of the U.S. military is female.

That reality begs the question: are militaries equipped to provide disaster relief for the entirety of the civilian population?

First, some context. Like many other graduate students, the spread of COVID has halted my dissertation fieldwork for now: I had hoped to spend part of the spring/summer conducting interviews with personnel in the Israel Defense Forces and the U.S. armed forces.  As a result, much of my time during the past few months has involved panicked projections of when I would (or wouldn’t) be able to complete my dissertation, and what my future chapters would look like if travel to field sites and archives proved impossible in the long run.

At the same time, the very military organizations I examine, and their capabilities to assist in the fight against COVID, have been front and center in the news. Yet the gendered implications of such assistance have been completely unexamined. In short, I have been thinking a lot about military logistics and gender-based retrofitting (or lack-thereof) of military platforms and systems.

Militaries are predominantly masculine institutions, prioritizing combat, physical strength, and a dichotomous, essentialist perception of gender. The prototypical soldier is, put simply, male. Military logistics seek to ensure that such a soldier gets to where they need to fight when they need to fight, and that they are equipped with what they need to fight, including ammunition, fuel, and equipment to food, clothing, and medical supplies – all at the lowest possible cost.  

Economists describe how firms utilize labor to supply the demands of the most common consumers. Likewise, the military demands equipment to serve the needs of the most common soldier, avoiding costly variation if possible. Thus, the cost of altering sanitary kits, for example, for deployed soldiers often outweigh the perceived benefits of providing items needed by female soldiers. This relationship is mirrored by civilian sectors as well: medical and drug tests are often based on male physiology.

The degree to which militaries are designed for male bodies extends to weapons and equipment as well. The opening of services and roles to female soldiers has necessitated retrofitting equipment and bases with separate bathrooms and bunks, and redesigning airplane cockpits for pilots/aviators of varying heights and weights. It is no coincidence that the potential “cost” of such retrofitting has historically been an obstacle to the inclusion of women in certain spaces of military organizations. For example, early arguments in the U.S. for restricting women from service on submarines was related, not to the dangers of combat, but rather habitability and privacy issues in confined spaces and the costs of retrofitting submarines to accommodate both sexes.

However, the ability to adapt and tailor facilities for disaster relief may also be linked to a military’s ability to protect itself. Close quarters in the military – for example, in boot camps, on cramped ships and planes, or at overseas bases – have historically contributed to the spread of disease between military personnel. The Spanish Flu epidemic first appeared at the US Army’s Fort Riley, from where it spread to the rest of the country with devastating effects.

Moreover, gendered military culture and standard operating procedures also value sacrifice and toughness, which often applies to the treatment of illness. The “Carrying on”culture is so common, “Ranger candy” is a well known nickname for ibuprofen and water. Despite the recent COVID-19 outbreak aboard the U.S.S. Roosevelt, Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, the vice director for operations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted that the ship would able to perform its mission and was “ready to sail.”

My research suggest militaries that invest in institutional changes towards gender inclusion, may be better equipped to make other kinds of changes as well. In other words, are militaries that invest in gender-based retrofitting of ships to ensure that both women and men can serve aboard better equipped to adapt their ships for other purposes, such as isolation practices?  Are militaries that invest in logistical changes to provide the health and human services to all personnel, regardless of gender, more adept at providing aid during a global crisis such as the current pandemic?

Arguably, if a military is flexible enough to alter its approach to treatment, allocation of resources, and other standard operating procedures, it may be better able to adapt. That includes assisting a society in crisis more broadly. Indeed, my research has shown that the Australian Defense Force has made some of the most substantial investments in gender inclusion across NATO-member nations, and is also a particularly adept military when it comes to assisting with disaster relief.

COVID-19 of course is challenging even the most adaptive militaries. The good news is this presents a real-time example to study the comparative capability of disaster relief across militaries. It may make clear the necessity to re-examine the gendered aspects of our medical and military resources.

The views expressed in the Penn Pandemic Diary are solely the author’s and not those of Penn or Perry World House.