Past and Present
Bubonic plague in Jaffa, yellow fever in Haiti, and typhus in Russia are rather prominent examples of how insects and disease have influenced war. Although not as dramatic or influential, these diseases and others were present in other campaigns in Napoleon's long military career. From Piedmont to Waterloo, countless French soldiers and other belligerents suffered from dysentery, typhoid, syphilis, scarlet fever, smallpox, measles, pneumonia, plague, typhus, malaria, and yellow fever. Millions of service days were lost because of the debilitating effects of these diseases. Napoleon estimated that one out of eight in his command was sick at any given time. In Spain during the 1808 campaign, one soldier in four was sick (Etling 1988).
Because of advances in medicine, and the understanding of disease transmission, infectious disease does not have the effect on war today that it once did. However, ancient diseases follow the soldier to this day. Infectious diseases, such as cholera, that were once thought to be under control are showing amazing resilience and resistance to our medicines. In Somalia, dengue and malaria threatened U.S. troops. Sand fly fever affected soldiers in Operation Desert Storm. In Bosnia, U.S. and U.N. personnel monitor the embattled region for outbreaks of typhus and malaria.
Although diseases do not have the drama of charging cavalry, firing cannon, and smoking muskets, their influence on military history must not be overlooked. In an era where generalship was once thought to be all-important, we have seen that disease can render a general's plans worthless. A better understanding of the effect of insect-borne disease on the general and the foot soldier undoubtedly will enhance our understanding of history.