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Book Review – The Great Influenza

1918, United States

On 07 October, Colonel Charles Hagadorn sat in his headquarters, despairing the death of young soldiers under his command in Camp Grant, Illinois. The toll was 500 and rising, more than 100 in the previous day alone and more likely to perish. The year was 1918, and the enemy was Spanish Influenza.

Hagadorn had devoted his life to the Army and his men. He cared deeply about his troops but Hargadorn had ignored expert advice and had failed to change the conditions in the camp that had fostered the influenza outbreak. As the death toll rose, he felt responsible for his men’s death and so, consumed by guilt, took his own life with his pistol. Hagadorn was not listed as a casualty of this ‘battle’ and his sacrifice did not stop the influenza enemy.

The Great Influenza is recommended reading for military leaders and strategists whose decisions are pivotal for the prevention of and response to disease threats. Respected book reviewers have already ensured that John M Barry’s recount of the Spanish Influenza was a New York Times bestseller and with good reason. I can confirm it makes for the compelling reading of a thriller with our ‘heroes’ battling against time and the disease. In this case, the battle took place inside a laboratory rather than a desolate battlefield.

More casualties than World War I

Whilst the subject of influenza is not a traditional military topic; perhaps you’ve been involved in a discussion about World War I casualties only for someone to pipe-up, “Yes, but did you know more people were killed by the Spanish Influenza that followed the war?”. I have heard this comment a few times, and probably even made it myself to impress – but the truth was I knew very little about it. The Great Influenza fills in the gaps.

Military decision-making and the actions of commanders and senior health officers is intertwined in the story of the Spanish Influenza. This was a time of war with soldiers living in close proximity and who were moved around the world. This provided the conditions for a lethal virus that could begin with mild viral symptoms in the morning and progress to death by evening. An estimated 50-100 million people (2-3% of world population) died from it.

Could we manage a similar threat today?

Infectious disease will stop military operations when large numbers of soldiers are affected. Senior leaders and strategists should be aware of this. However, enduring infections of warfare such as Malaria are better known to strategists and historians.

There is a growing appreciation for the resurgence of infectious disease in regions experiencing prolonged conflict. Syria has recently seen a return of poliomyelitis likely due to reduced vaccination rates. However, it was the unique ability of the Spanish Influenza pandemic to kill young and physically fit people which should cause us to ask whether today’s military could manage a similar threat? Furthermore, how might we protect ourselves against a ‘viral weapon’, often utilised in science fiction, such as the recent acclaimed near-future novel American War by Omar El Akkad.

Today’s medical services still have very few options to treat influenzas. Prevention and effective leadership at times of risk remain the key defence. For military commanders looking for a relevant change from combat-related reading, I recommend adding The Great Influenza to your reading list.

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About the Author
James Savage is an Army Medical Officer. He spent eight years as an infantry officer prior to changing trades.