Saturday, January 23, 2010

Haiti and the US Military

Any criticism of relief efforts in face of a disaster as unfathomable as the earthquake in Haiti requires caution. Indeed, some aid groups have said the challenges in Haiti are greater than those that followed in the wake of the 2004 Asian tsunami. Nonetheless a couple of observations might be in order: We know that immediately following the earthquake the US military assumed the lead role in directing search, rescue, and relief efforts. We also know that various aid organizations, most prominently Doctors Without Borders, reported difficulties and delays getting their people, equipment, and supplies into the country.

There’s no reason to assume the US military was trying to stall or derail efforts to aid the Haitians. On the contrary, the Armed Forces seemed to be trying to do the best job they could.

The problem though, is that when the US military assumes authority over a situation, Job One will be that of providing “security.” The idea of allowing aid workers or doctors into areas before you’ve figured out how to get your troops there becomes unthinkable or irresponsible. In discussing what to do, the counsel of experienced aid providers will not avail against US commanders’ assessment of what needs to be done.

The militarization of authority in times of disaster was also the story of Katrina, but a story obscured by the unbridled cronyism, gross incompetence, and colossal disdain for governance of the Bush Administration. In the years after 9/11 FEMA had been folded into Homeland Security with the result that all disasters or circumstances of extreme distress become immediately matters of security subject to military rather than civilian authority, despite the fact that Homeland Security is a civilian agency. As the Homeland Security website affirms, “While the Department was created to secure our country against those who seek to disrupt the American way of life, our charter also includes preparation for and response to all hazards and disasters.”

What these recent responses to disasters reveal is how severely the idea and prestige of civilian authority has been eroded over the past two decades. Bush regularly misstated that his oath of office bound him to defend the nation (and not the US Constitution), an error that Obama compounded in his acceptance speech for his Nobel Peace Prize when he described himself as a “head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation.”

Interestingly, in that speech Obama paid lip service to the idea that security doesn't begin with boots on the ground, acknowledging that "security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive. It does not exist where children cannot aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within."

But what he asserted in one breath he retracted in the next when he defined the threat of global climate change in terms that extolled military leadership: "it is not merely scientists and activists who call for swift and forceful action -- it is military leaders in my country and others who understand that our common security hangs in the balance."

The point to be made here is that our well being demands that military power and interest always be subordinated to civil authority and that we should not need to justify the measures we think best by first determining whether or not they accord with the military’s security protocols.*

It will take some effort to restore the idea that security does not precede, but follows from, meeting the material, emotional, and social needs of people, both in times of acute distress and as a matter of course, but it's necessary that we do so. Perhaps a handful of those Haitians who survived the quake but perished because search and rescue teams hadn’t reached them three or four days later, or because their injuries weren’t attended to in a more timely fashion, might be alive today if US military security had not been the default posture after the quake. But as I said at the outset, one has to be careful here, because the challenges of delivering aid after such a disaster mean such tragedies will occur despite the best efforts of would-be rescuers. The real point here is that we should not allow the exigencies of disasters and extreme situations to undermine further the principle that the military serves us and not the other way around.

*Perhaps not so coincidentally last week an NPR report on the conditions in Haiti was followed immediately by a story about a lawsuit being brought by New York Public school students against the NYPD, alleging abuse by officers as they carried out what is now a standard use of police in public schools. According to the report: "School safety used to be handled by the city's school system, but in 1998 it was transferred over to the police department. There are now more than 5,000 unarmed safety agents assigned to the city's 1,500 schools, plus another 200 police officers. And metal detectors are routinely deployed in high schools."

As someone who served on a school council in Chicago in the wake of the Columbine shootings, I can testify from experience how difficult it has become to insist that the demands of some other principle, say, education, supersede those of security, when the guys with the guns are insisting they know best.

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