It is almost impossible to think of a silver lining in a calamity of the magnitude of the earthquake in Haiti. Yet if anything can be done to provide a positive legacy to this tragedy, it would be a massive and long-term reconstruction that would place the country on a road to a better future.
Given Haiti’s population pressures, lack of resources, corruption and other factors, the challenge would be daunting. Nevertheless, the broad international outpouring of support and emergency aid suggests that the will might be there — if it could be harnessed at the United Nations. Certainly a more effective international response mechanism should result.
It may happen; it probably won’t.
I would suggest another — less ambitious, but certainly valuable — outcome, and one over which the United States has more control. That is to establish a “disaster relief” corps as a separate instrument of the U.S. military forces.
The Haiti earthquake offers an ideal pretext to add an Eleventh Division to the U.S. Army and create a special force dedicated to natural disaster relief.
Dozens of arguments against such a decision would arise if any step in this direction were to be undertaken. An army is organized to use force, “to win wars,” will be one refrain; “the Army is already overwhelmed by engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, South Korea and Bosnia, etc.” Or, “we already do it.”
Similar “alternate” units have been suggested before, for example, to develop a special “peacekeeping” division. In 1994, in the wake of the end of the Cold War, in a period of “small” wars and civil strife in Somalia and, among other places, Haiti, a move was made to designate the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum in New York as a “peacekeeping” division. The Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., would train U.S. forces as peacekeepers to help quell unrest in a number of civil wars and complex “low-intensity conflicts.”
That move was nixed pretty quickly — and unfortunately, in the sense that U.S. forces were very soon immersed in peacekeeping and “peace building” operations in the Balkan crises of Bosnia and Kosovo.
After initial delays due to the breakdown of air control facilities and deaths of many Haitian and U.N. leaders, U.S. forces have responded rapidly to the crisis in Haiti. The effort, under the overall supervision of the U.S. Agency for International Development, has been effectively organized by the Southern Command, based in Miami.
Within hours, assessment teams, medical emergency groups and the 82d Airborne at Fort Bragg were marshaled to go to the beleaguered island nation. The speed with which these efforts were pulled together reflected well on the Pentagon and other agencies, not to mention the White House.
The U.S. Army and other forces such as the Marines, the Navy and Air Force, undergo intense training for such emergencies, and are prepared for “full spectrum operations” — from 24-7 relief operations to full-scale combat.
Yet, the benefits of a specially trained and organized disaster strike force would be considerable.
One, it would improve the response time, even if only marginally. Far less organizing would have to be done once intelligence and communication lines outlined the scope of the problems. If available, state National Guard units could be included in appropriate regions.
Second, it would reduce the inevitable strain on the regional command responsible for the area where a natural disaster occurs. Third, the availability of such a force could serve to recognize the outstanding work done by U.S. forces around the world in response to hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, floods and other disasters. These forces seldom get the credit they deserve.
Last, the existence of such a force, and its respected professional capabilities, could go a long way to reversing the unfortunate, and largely undeserved, image of the United States military as the main instrument of American foreign policy.
As for the very real argument that the Army and other forces are overburdened by current commitments, there is one very credible answer — a draft.
If presidents and members of Congress knew that a large percentage of their constituents, perhaps their own sons and daughters, could be called to the front lines, they might not be so quick to discount diplomatic efforts and plunge into wars.
Short of a draft, a very difficult step to take politically, individuals would have the option of serving in the disaster relief division. It is long past time for Americans to have a requirement of public service for at least two to three years of their lives. It would also reduce the unemployment ranks.
Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign
correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He may be reached at email@example.com.