Professional Readings Archives

Reading #160

How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America

  • By: Mr. John M. Barry /
  • Published: November 2017
  • Read More
  • Access: Open
  • Type: Public
  • Friday, March 9, 2018

Acting Director MG Robert “Bo” Dyess’ Comments:


One hundred years ago this week, an Army cook at Camp Funston, Kansas, reported to sick call with symptoms of influenza. Within three weeks 1,100 Soldiers had been hospitalized, 237 developed pneumonia, and 38 died. While tragic, Soldiers dying of disease was common enough and the death of 38 Soldiers on the Kansas prairie did not merit notice in the fourth year of the Great War. History would show that these Soldiers were the first to be felled by a deadly strain of influenza; one which would increase in lethality over the next year. Spread by men on their way to Europe, and by those returning home from camp on liberty, the flu virus mutated, became far more lethal, and within a year established itself as the most lethal pandemic ever recorded. We can draw important lessons from the course of this pandemic, our national reaction to it, and its eventual conclusion.

Striking in successive waves across the globe, the influenza pandemic of 1918 shook a society already battered by staggering losses after four years of war. Wartime legislation meant to restrict anti-war opinions, coupled with government censorship, restricted the flow of information to the public and increased the sense of bewilderment and alarm about the mysterious illness. Aside from implementing preventative measures, there was little the country could do. Victor Vaughn, head of the Army’s Communicable Disease Division wrote at the height of the outbreak, “If the epidemic continues its mathematical rate of acceleration, civilization could easily disappear…from the face of the earth within a matter of a few more weeks.” By the pandemic’s conclusion, between 50 and 100 million people across the globe were dead, including 670,000 Americans. In 2018 terms, 2.13 million citizens would have been victims to the virus.

The pandemic and subsequent response contained similar themes to many of the topics we discuss today. The “Spanish Flu” actually originated in Kansas, possibly as a combination of avian and swine influenza viruses. It was not an agent of a foreign adversary, but a natural disaster - a viral assault on the homeland. Within our current conceptual framework, we frame this by describing actions within the homeland as occurring in the “Strategic Support Area,” the location where our adversaries may attempt to disrupt and degrade deployments and reinforcements attempting to gain access to the Operational Support Area. In 1918 the Spanish Influenza achieved this very effect through its concentration at training sites and its outsized impact on the healthiest in the population. Soldiers awaiting deployment to France were hospitalized and quarantined. Wartime restrictions on news reporting and active censorship delayed and inhibited information sharing about the spread and lethality of the virus. The confusion, lack of central direction in the early days of the pandemic, and absence of public reporting that resulted from wartime censorship in 1918 is similar to the information warfare that our adversaries seek to practice today through disinformation and malicious cyber activities. While we can look back on the 1918 pandemic as a tragic intersection of circumstance, today we can envision a contemporary adversary deliberately coordinating a strike within our Strategic Support Area while simultaneously waging an Information Warfare campaign to sow confusion.

Defining the operational environment using a common lexicon is only the beginning for us as capability developers and integrators. We must continually challenge our assumptions, refine our concepts, analyze and integrate our solution strategies, and develop recommendations for implementation. We must use the lessons of the past to inform the development of capabilities for the future.

Were another pandemic to occur, initiated by chance or by an adversary, the work we’ve accomplished would provide the foundation for mitigating and defeating it. The Army Operating Concept tells us how we will fight; the Multi-Domain Battle Concept tells us how we will fight in a multi-domain environment. The Army’s Campaign of Learning has informed the development of doctrine, organizations, and materiel - all analyzed within the Capabilities Needs Analysis (CNA) process. Identified gaps in our homeland defense capabilities have been mitigated and implemented in strategy documents.

The virus that was first identified at Camp Funston on March 4, 1918 mutated and changed faster than American, and ultimately global, populations could react. Society in 1918 was not prepared to deal with a rapidly evolving threat, and ultimately the pandemic only ended when the virus burned itself out. Today we are preparing for the next contingency, and to be successful we must be able to adapt faster than our adversary, whether that adversary is an unthinking virus or a conscious actor.

The following Army Warfighting Challenges are directly related to this week's topic:
#1 Develop Situational Understanding:

How to develop and sustain a high degree of situational understanding while operating in complex environments against determined, adaptive enemy organizations.

#2 Shape the Security Environment:

How the Army influences the security environment and engages key actors and local/regional forces in order to consolidate gains and achieve sustainable security outcomes in support of Geographic Combatant Commands and Joint requirements.

#4 Adapt the Institutional Army and Innovate:

How to improve the rate of innovation to drive capability development and deliver DOTMLPF-P solutions to the warfighter at a pace that meets operational demand within the existing constraints of the acquisition and budgeting processes.

#5 Counter Weapons of Mass Destruction:

How to prevent, reduce, eliminate, and mitigate the use and effects of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high yield explosives (CBRNE) threats and hazards on friendly forces and civilian populations.

#6 Conduct Homeland Operations:

How to operate across multiple domains and with multiple partners to defend the homeland and mitigate the effects of attacks and disasters.

#19 Exercise Mission Command:

How to understand, visualize, describe, and direct operations consistent with the philosophy of mission command to seize the initiative over the enemy and accomplish the mission across the range of military operations.

Continuous feedback, collaboration, and teamwork are keys to the success of the Campaign of Learning and driving innovation in the Army. Please use the Army Warfighting Challenges as the framework to contribute your ideas and recommendations with respect to this topic to improve our ability to innovate as we develop the current and future force.

The Army Warfighting Challenges (AWFC) framework may be accessed here:

For previous weekly readings go to: ARCIC Professional Readings

  1. Army Operating Concept, TRADOC Pam 525-3-1, 30 October 2014
  2. Multi-Domain Battle

All the best,