A hotly debated aspect of the global response to the Port-au-Prince earthquake has been the role of military forces in providing aid and security. Several dominant narratives have emerged:
- The always popular ‘They’re looting! What savages!’ This can be used as either a justification for one’s indifference to the situation or as a call for an aggressive posture. Pretty standard media response after any disaster that affects a non-wealthy demographic. (Just once I’d like to see CNN helicopter footage of Tori Spelling looting in a burned over Malibu neighborhood.)
- The “How dare you say they’re looting!” The BBC’s Matthew Price assures us that no one in Haiti would dream of getting violent over food and water and instead are peacefully expiring in the streets from the fumes of Western paranoia, arrogance and stinginess.
- The U.S. hegemonic invasion line taken by Chavez, Cuba and the usual gang of disgruntled European political figures. This isn’t helped by the Heritage Foundation kinda sorta maybe y’know almost hinting that we ought to be doing exactly that.
It is apparent that in discussing global events, shades of grey are not popular. Bold strokes get pageviews but offer little in the way of constructive thinking. Unfortunately this overshadows discussion of the practical matters of the relief effort. Like the seemingly incongruous fit of military forces to a rescue and repair operation.
To most, “military” calls to mind a destructive force projected against a country’s enemies. True, but the ability to project force requires a massive portable infrastructure that can sustain troops, allies and civilians in dangerous and deprived circumstances. The upshot of the U.S.’s massive spending on defense is that their portable infrastructure is far more extensive than that of NGOs dedicated to disaster relief. Airdrops, water purification, clearing port facilities and building and operating airstrips are all functions that the military excels at beyond the capabilities of NGOs or the private sector. Haiti’s crumbling infrastructure was inadequate to accommodate a massive influx of aid, personnel and equipment even before the earthquake. When the quake crippled the primary airport and clogged port facilities with crane wreckage, the U.S. military (and the F.A.A.) was pretty much the only game in town for getting things running again.
What particularly interests me is how this sort of relief work has become more and more integrated with the core mission of the U.S. military. Think of projecting “soft power” and giving targeted aid to developing areas as the equivalent of preventative care, hopefully preventing the need down the road for the chemotherapy of military intervention when societal breakdown foments violence and desperation. The example foremost in my mind is the lack of large-scale, competent reconstruction and restoration/extension of basic services like electricity and running water in the wake of U.S. military “victories” in Afghanistan and Iraq. The ability to provide these, along with a basic measure of security, are a primary battlefield between an insurgency and a government, as shown in Iraqi insurgent attacks on the power grid and the present Maoist Naxalite uprising in India. When the controlling power in a region cannot provide the basics of life, they lose their support. Using the mobile infrastructure building capacity of the U.S. armed forces is an important way to boost support for friendly governments and bolster the rule of law.
Further, distributing aid in a damaged area is a rough business. Even before the earthquake, the U.N. has been having a tough time fighting armed gangs, defusing food riots and adequately distributing aid in a country ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt. In desperate situations, there’s a sharper sense of survival of the fittest. With the Haitian police force largely overwhelmed, some men with guns riding along with the rice and tents might not be a bad idea.
The trouble with doing this in Haiti is that the U.S. military has a long history of invading and occupying small, weak nations in the Western hemisphere. The U.S. has serious work to do to repair the its image. An efficient, dedicated response to Haiti’s infrastructural challenges would go a long way towards that work.