11 February 2007

Training in Hell, for Hell--and High Water

The appalling costs of war can be measured in the dead, the maimed, the homeless, and the good things that could not be accomplished because the resources were expended making war. War is an evil thing, and spawns other evils such as famine, disease, and pillage.

Is it possible that war spawns good as well as evil, at least in some cases? Certainly ridding the world of Hitler's Nazi machine could be considered good. Mad dictators are always threats to their own countries and their neighbors.

But on a smaller scale, is it possible that war may spin off other goods besides relieving a population from tyranny and oppression? Robert Kaplan suggests that a nation can be enriched by the proficiency of warriors--can reap large benefits from the competencies that fighters gain in overcoming the immediate challenges of war.
What I'm talking about is a kind of "warrior working class:" high-school graduates, but who can speak foreign languages, often exotic languages; know their way around capital cities from Brazaville to Mombasa, to all kinds of places; can deal with NGOs and others better and better; and, obviously, know how to fight.

But most of what they do, ironically, falls into the realm of disaster relief. Now I'm starting to warm to my theme. In any given week, U.S. Special Forces Command is involved in about sixty-eight countries around the world. This was a typical summer for me with the U.S. military. I spent the first half of it in Algeria, the second half in Nepal, where we are also active. In these sixty-eight countries—Colombia, the Philippines, Djibouti, Somalia, all these training missions to Thailand, Singapore, training at the Jungle Warfare School in Brunei, other things—what I have found is that the fewer American troops we have on the ground, the lower beneath the media radar screen it is, the more it attempts to nip a problem in the bud when it is still on page 11—before it gets to page 5, even—the more bang for the buck the taxpayer gets out of it.

....The distinction between disaster relief and combat is much less than you think. It is only the training for expeditionary combat that enabled the marines and sailors to perform so well in Indonesia. Combat and relief is about quick insertion. It's about access. It's about establishing security perimeters the moment you're on the ground, because after you have a natural disaster, be it an earthquake, a flood,or a hurricane, normal security systems get swept away along with everything else, and if there wasn't lawlessness before, there is now.

....What we have seen in Indonesia and New Orleans, and what we'll see more of, is the militarization of relief assistance, because of the lawlessness that erupts after a natural disaster, because the military, precisely by training for combat, is best equipped to provide relief fast, because it has the assets, air and sea assets. What's the first thing you need after a disaster, normally? Fresh water. The USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN can pump—pumped, in fact—hundreds of millions of gallons of fresh water onshore in Indonesia. They ramped that up, because the sailors did not take showers for two weeks in order to get more water available for the civilian people onshore.

....Another issue here is that we are going to see more and more of these disasters, for the simple reason that you have vast urban populations living on environmentally, seismically, and climatically fragile places for the first time in human history. Two-thirds of China lives in a flood zone.

I did a cover piece in The Atlantic last June about how the U.S. military sees China, in terms of rising to China's "shop till you drop" policy on building nuclear submarines and acquiring them. But there's an irony in all of this. While the U.S. military Pacific Command is now formulating how to contain a rising Chinese military power, they also know that the first time U.S. troops go onshore in China may be for disaster relief, ten or twenty years from now. How they perform may have a great impact on stabilizing U.S.-Chinese relations. In an era of global mass media, whatever the politics are between two countries, if there is a massive disaster, that country simply, politically, cannot say no to any foreign element that has the assets and is able to provide relief on the spot.

....But the military on the ground, these NCOs, these noncoms, are getting really good at things.

The military does not pay people to sit around and do nothing, unlike most civil service jobs and university jobs. The military trains its members in skills, and puts them in situations where those skills will be used. Whether a wartime disaster or a peacetime disaster--the military trains for disaster. As bad as war is, being unprepared for war and disaster in a world such as this one is worse.

The media focuses on the returning caskets, and the returning amputees, post traumatic syndromes, and brain damaged service members. For every casualty, there are hundreds returning with more skills and more insights on the world. War is surely hell, but surviving war with your learned competencies intact can be good for everyone you deal with in the future.

As Kaplan noted above, the military tries to extinguish a fire before it becomes noticeable. The military is sometimes given a mission that does not allow that type of preventive warfare to be carried out. The military has to train for all sorts of missions that political leaders might assign.

The military focuses on "getting things done." That means a focus on the competencies of a task. Given that government schools, universities, and popular media focus on anything but competencies for real life, the military acts as a useful counter-point to most of the rest of an affluent--and corrupt--society. As long as the military remains firmly under civilian leadership, that "can do" focus on practical competencies can be channeled into constructive uses for the society.

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