As the Coronavirus continues to dominate media coverage and outbreaks keep all of us on edge, I'm reminded of the effects pandemics have had on history—specifically how they shaped history.
For some, this epidemic probably brings to mind the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. Others who read books such as The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John Barry are reminded of an even more devastating contagion from the last century.
But we can go back even further to learn how pandemics have shaped society and the outcomes of conflict.
So, let's go back over 2,400 years ago...
Related: Explore History's Deadliest Diseases
Pericles had the perfect plan! The Athenians moved behind the walls of the city, letting the Spartans attack across land. They would wait them out in a Fabian Strategy. Food wouldn't be an issue because Athens could rely on its maritime imports to keep them fed. Money wasn't a problem, because they had plenty in the bank. Meanwhile, their fleet projected combat power into Spartan territory, raiding coastal cities and shaming the Spartans. Not only would Pericles avoid fighting the Spartans on their terms, he would also sow doubt of Spartan superiority among the Peloponnesian League by attacking the "home front." As Athens and Sparta finished the campaigning season in the first year of the war, Athens believed their strategy was working as evidenced by Pericles's Funeral Oration.
As the second year of the war began, disease struck in Athens. The Plague of Athens caught everyone by surprise, and as Thucydides points out, "there was no ostensible cause; but people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head..." The plague swept through Athens, killing men, women, and children. With it came devastating effects on society.
Thucydides wrote that lawlessness broke out as men watched others die and private property came up for grabs. The unforeseen disease affected Athenian will; they questioned the value of Pericles's strategy and the war itself, ultimately sending envoys to Sparta to seek peace.
The Athenian experience with the plague should remind us of the power of the unseen. Disease can reshape society. It can influence the outcome of war. And although we have not experienced the devastating effects of contagion on a mass scale in modern times, we may only be standing in the proverbial eye of the storm.
One can argue that microscopic parasites could be placed on equal footing with geography, war, and migration in shaping the world that we know today. In Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill, the author traces the history of mankind, pointing out how disease proved a major factor in the trajectory of our species. First, he points out that disease served to break down communities of people, enabling them to be absorbed by larger groups. He writes that,
"Such human material could then be incorporated into the tissues of the enlarged civilization itself, either as individuals or families and small village groupings ... The way in which digestion regularly breaks down the larger chemical structures of our food in order to permit molecules and atoms to enter into our own bodily structures seems closely parallel to this historical process."
He observes that the plague led to changes in European society in the 14th and 15th centuries. In England, the Black Death of 1348-1350 led to changes in the social fabric of society, increasing wages and quality of life for serfs. McNeil even suggests that diseases in Europe created enough social upheaval that it successfully set the conditions for Martin Luther's Reformation.
He further argues that disease set the conditions for European expansion into the New World. For example, Hernando Cortez, who had less than 600 soldiers, was able to conquer an Aztec empire of millions in the early 1500s with the help of contagion. Within fifty years of his landing, the population of central Mexico shrank to a tenth of its size. This catastrophic drop in population levels had significant impacts on religion, defense, and their society in general, paving the way for European expansion in the region.
McNeill is not alone in his argument. In Bacteria and Bayonets: The Impact of Disease in the American Military History, David R. Petriello argues that contagion played a major factor in the successful colonization of North America and the American experience with war. Smallpox and other illnesses depopulated the regions surrounding the colonies, giving the settlers the space to grow.
Most Americans have heard the story of how an Indian named Squanto helped save the Plymouth settlers by teaching them planting techniques and guiding them through the peace process with surrounding tribes. However, it was disease more so than goodwill that saved the Pilgrims. The author writes, "When Squanto wandered into the Pilgrim's' world he did so as an exile. Had it not been for the epidemic visited his tribe ... Squanto himself would not have been seeking out kindred human company."
While the U.S. military responds to the threat of the Coronavirus, this isn't the first time it has battled contagions. Long ago, before soldiers stood in lines to get way too many shots before deployments, commanders dealt with smallpox, influenza, dysentery, and venereal disease, as it affected 30% of armies up through World War I. These outbreaks, more than likely, had an impact on the outcome of key campaigns.
In the Revolutionary and Civil War, disease took important leaders out of important battles the eve of engagements. And it caused commanders to hold off on taking advantage of fleeting opportunities in both conflicts, as they had to wait for replacements to arrive. It has only been in recent history, that we have brought disease's impact on war under control.
Vaccinations didn't become common practice until World War II. As Petriello observes, "Whereas there were 102,000 cases of measles in World War I with 2,370 deaths, there were only 60,809 cases in World War II with only 33 deaths reported."
Thanks to technological advances in medicine, it has been almost a hundred years since disease sat in the front row of a national security conversation. However, things are changing. We've seen how the Coronavirus is affecting markets, diplomacy and even troops serving abroad. Maybe it's time we reexamined our preparedness for these outbreaks.
In the end, Pericles succumbed to the plague, and Athens lost an important leader. Those who came after him chose a different strategic path for the city, which ultimately proved costly for the Delian League. This incident during the Peloponnesian War is worth making us pause and think about the role of contagions in human history and conflict. It has wiped out cultures and set the conditions for the successful expansion of others. It has served as a significant factor in wars of the past. Finally, it may yet play a major role in world affairs again.
While the Coronavirus may pass without any long-lasting effects, it's worth asking military leaders an important question, "Are we really prepared?"
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