Too often, American politics lacks a sense of history. Critics of the president's decision to send several thousand military personnel to West Africa to build temporary medical centers and treat Ebola patients forget that American military medicine has long been a crucial instrument of foreign policy. When U.S. national security has been threatened before -- and anyone who looks at the map of Africa can see what it would mean for Ebola to break out east to Mali, Niger, and Yemen -- our soldiers and health care workers have played critical roles. And their work has not only kept us safer and improved others' lives, it has often helped advance medical knowledge.
Perhaps the best example is that of Walter Reed's Yellow Fever Commission in Cuba in 1900. Yellow fever was a horrible scourge that was a central part of the infectious disease era that we once thought was behind us. For hundreds of years Americans from Philadelphia to Memphis to New Orleans lived in dread of "yellow Jack." Yellow fever hampered France's attempts to build a canal in Central America. With thousands of American troops occupying Cuba, Washington feared that they would bring the Fever back with them on their return home -- much like current fears about people coming back from Africa. When the Army Surgeon General sent the ambitious and brilliant Major Reed to Havana, there were various theories about the odd epidemiology of yellow fever, as it skipped from house to house and block to block. Through a series of dogged, ingenious and dangerous experiments, Reed determined that the vector of yellow fever was a mosquito, a theory that the Washington Post had called "silly and nonsensical."
The way Reed did his experiments not only led to saving countless lives, his approach also advanced medical ethics. He asked his volunteers to sign forms indicating that they understood the risks of the experiment, which seems to be the first time that was done. And there were serious risks. A young doctor and a nurse succumbed to yellow fever in the course of the experiments. But there were no deaths among the soldiers or Spanish workers who volunteered.
At the moment Americans are not going to West Africa to conduct experiments on Ebola. But when one or more of the experimental vaccines are judged ready for use (probably at least one within the next few months), or when a post-exposure medication is ready for human testing (the U.S. Army is already studying appropriate doses of ZMapp and has been on the trail of Ebola for years), don't be surprised if military personnel have a role in making medication available.
Of course, not all the medical care or medical experiments done under the rubric of U.S. national security have been so admirable. From biological and chemical weapons to ionizing radiation experiments, I am among the many who have written extensively about grave ethical violations that resulted in human suffering and even death. But when there is good to be done and we have the means to do it, while also going to the source of a threat in order to protect ourselves, let's at least honor a venerable tradition.