The current debate over "Swine flu" brings to mind another negative aspect of warfare that is rarely discussed. In addition to the obvious waste of life, consumption of capital and other resources, and expansion of state power, war can also play a key role in spreading disease.
What’s the connection with "Swine flu"?
The currently feared potential pandemic involves a type of Influenza A virus known as subtype H1N1. H and N refer to the Hemagglutin and Neuraminidase proteins found on the surface of the virus. H1N1 is the same subtype of Influenza A that caused the 1918 pandemic. Fortunately, the current version is, thus far, not as virulent as the 1918 variety. The 1918 flu (commonly called the Spanish flu) was the deadliest epidemic in the history of the world.
It is estimated to have infected 1/3 of the world population. This means about 500 million people were infected. An estimated 40–50 million died. This influenza pandemic had some characteristics that were never seen before and have never been seen since.
Typical influenza pandemics have a mortality of less than 0.1% but the mortality rate for the 1918 flu was 2.5–3.5%.
Mortality typically hits the very young and the very old and infirm the hardest but the 1918 pandemic killed mostly young adults. 99% of the deaths occurred in people less than 65 years old and half of all deaths occurred in people 20–40 years of age.
How does this relate to warfare?
World War I started in Europe in 1914. By 1917 the nations and armies comprising the Allied and Axis powers were prostrate, depleted, and near exhaustion. The stalemate was characterized by the trench warfare known as the "meat grinder." The horrific conditions there are well known to even the most casual students of history. In addition, much of the civilian population of central and eastern Europe were starving because the British had blockaded the North Sea ports and prevented the importation of food and medical supplies as well as military materials.
At this point the US entered the war. The American Expeditionary Force brought thousands of young American soldiers and sailors with fresh weapons and supplies of ammunition to European shores. They also brought the virus that mutated into the most deadly microbe in the history of mankind.
Although it is probably impossible to determine the true origin of the disease, the earliest outbreak in the US was at Fort Riley, Kansas among troops training for the A.E.F. The first cases were noted in early March, 1918. In August a more severe form of the viral illness erupted in Brest, France. Brest was one of the main ports for the shipment of men and matriel from the US. From there it quickly spread across Europe. This more virulent form of the virus was then exported back to the US. It first arrived in Boston in September, 1918. Boston, of course, was a port through which large shipments of men and war supplies passed.
Though the war was probably not responsible for the extreme virulence of the disease, it certainly contributed greatly to its spread. Never before had there been such a massive gathering and transportation of men from disparate regions. The brutal living conditions in the trenches and the devastation and malnutrition in the cities and countryside of Europe no doubt created conditions conducive to the spread of disease. The lowering of resistance brought about by a reduction in the efficiency of response of the immune system due to stress and malnutrition certainly played a role as well.
It is ironic that one of the early victims was Randolph Bourne who died in December, 1918. He is famous for noting that "war is the health of the state." Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the health of the people.
October 13, 2009