A recently retired Air Force medical officer bases this opinion piece on his real life experience on the cusp between humanitarian work and military operations in a dozen countries over a couple of decades. While the thrust of his arguments may be well known in diplomatic circles, it is less common in the world of the uniformed military. –Ed.
When former President George W. Bush told the world we would “act preemptively” to protect and defend our national interests, few people other than Americans thought this was a significant shift in foreign policy. To the rest of the world, we have always used the military first, in threat of force or deed. The U.S. leans on its military pillar more than any other instrument of power. We have the most agile and adaptable military force in the world and we count on it for response, whether that response is related to defense or to relief. We use our military arm to reach across the globe to react to events from insurgencies to natural or man-made disasters. The military is exceptionally equipped and trained to deploy for a wide variety of incidents. Our ability to mobilize and transport personnel and material rapidly to any place in the world implies that the military is an ideal response force for every contingency. The Air Force can move a significant force quickly, within hours, or the Navy can move everything needed, within days or weeks. They bring everything needed to conduct the operation, are capable of self-sustainment, and are prepared to stay for any duration, as necessary.
We trust our military to conduct its missions professionally and we give it more responsibilities with each successful operation. They are similar to the employee who always comes through for us when we ask them to do anything, so we go back to them every time. If you’re asked to do something once, it’s a favor, twice it’s your job, or in the case of the U.S. military, it’s your mission. Once it becomes a military mission, it requires funding, personnel, and training. The machine feeds off its successes and grows to meet future developments. It isn’t a traditional self-licking ice cream cone conundrum, but it is a perpetuating cycle of success that drives consumption of requirements and guarantees itself more missions. Some of these “emerging missions” are better suited to political, rather than military forces. To effectively guarantee our own secure future, the U.S. must shift focus in policy and action to other branches of the government. Specifically, it must “elevate diplomacy and development alongside defense,” as U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton continues to emphasize. The State Department must take the lead in U.S. Foreign Affairs.
A Profound Foreign Affairs Paradigm Shift
The State Department must be authorized to organize, train, equip, and recruit on a massive scale, i.e., on a scale equivalent to the military arm. State must take the lead in international disaster relief, development, and assistance.
We have a military-first approach to our response to natural disasters. In President Obama’s official statement on the earthquake and devastating tsunami in Japan, he said, “We currently have an aircraft carrier [group] in Japan, and another is on its way.” It’s assumed intuitively by the American public that a carrier brings relief operations to the stricken area, but the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way. Considering that we have between 40,000 and 50,000 military personnel and their families living in Japan, these actions arguably appear imperialistic to most of the world. It isn’t obvious to them why we might send a carrier to augment that force. Certainly, it isn’t common knowledge that a carrier group brings hundreds of emergency first responders and a forward surgical capability. An aircraft carrier carries dozens of rotor-lift aircraft for rescuing stranded survivors. There also happens to be a significant security force that can establish order and secure treasure for the Japanese. A carrier group looks like an invading force, ready to take advantage of the disaster instead of aid in its relief. When you hear military spokespersons respond to media inquiries referencing Operation Tomodachi, they sound defensive. It’s not the first time uniformed Americans have had to defend their relief efforts.
When the U.S. responded to the earthquake in Haiti last year, Haitian President Rene Preval was asked by the media how he felt about the U.S. military invading his country. U.S. Special Operations took over the Port-a-Prince international airport and set up relief operations there, while simultaneously building a seaport near the destroyed Haitian port. These actions were portrayed as opportunistic measures for seizing Haiti for America. The airport occupation was attacked particularly harshly in the press as a debacle, because we placed severe restrictions on operations. In actuality, it was a brilliantly conducted operation, as the military increased throughput from dozens of aircraft a week to hundreds a day. They also regulated the order of arriving supplies to better facilitate relief. However, having the military conduct this mission caused international tensions were there should only have been cooperation.
Humanitarian response is not a military-specific competency, yet the Army, Navy, and Air Force are all conducting studies to create tailored medical humanitarian response capabilities. They have requested, and have been given the funding to organize, train and equip for these roles. Both European and Pacific Commands host major annual training exercises to practice their humanitarian responses. These exercises precipitated our successful responses to tsunamis in the Pacific and earthquakes in North America and Europe. Lessons learned from these exercises improve their skills each year. “Getting better” equates to getting more resources for future operations. This is an area where the State Department can take the lead. The results of these studies, and their subsequent resource gains, can be released to the State Department for implementation.
Nation building is another area not inherently a military function, but ours has a corner on the market. We’ve made great improvements in our post-combat capacity building by documenting lessons learned after making significant mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are two operations where we went on the military offensive and then took responsibility for the cleanup. The military is still struggling with the effects of juggling development functions with its security missions. “Bomb vs. Bread” arguments still resonate from these operations. We’re perceived as an occupying force, instead of a capacity building partner. Our rules of engagement require us to protect ourselves with arms and armor. We’re building utilities and industry, while simultaneously enforcing rule of law. Our contractors and civilians are wearing military uniforms, so there isn’t a distinction between the military occupier and the capacity builder. This same military-first approach to assisting post-pro-democracy insurgencies in Egypt, Libya and other parts of Africa and the Middle East will likely fail as well.
Crisis Response Requires People
The Obama Administration understands the need for more emphasis on “partnering” and has made a little progress by increasing personnel allocations in the development sector but there is no whole-of-government philosophical adjustment. The State Department is increasing the numbers in the Crisis Response Corps ranks to a paltry 1,200 people, compared to the more than one million military members available for deployment.
After Secretary Clinton visited the Democratic Republic of Congo and said we need to build medical capacity there, Army and Air Force Africa Command representatives went to San Antonio with Congolese Surgeon General staff to evaluate the Air Force deployable medical systems for that role. Why would this mission go to DoD instead of DoS? Resources! In the case of medical resources, the military are highly skilled and experienced from perpetual rotations through combat and non-combat zones. On every mission, they collect lessons learned and improve responses for the next time. They are proficient medically, with the highest survival rates in the history of warfare. Our armed forces earned their status through experience and by having a government committed to training and equipping them appropriately. Allow the State Department to build their ranks with these experiences and we’ll gain a competent development force without the stigma of an occupier.
Deployment Requires Training
The State Department should run training centers or training bases to prepare its “troops” more appropriately for deployment. DoD elements scramble to correct deficiencies when tasked “outside” of their lanes. They build training centers, and then ask for and receive the personnel and money to operate them as effectively as they know how to, but they are limited by doctrinal perspective. This combat-oriented cadre lack the proper education themselves to be effective as instructors. They lack language skills and cultural awareness of the places they’re training troops to deploy. In one three-month training platform that prepares members to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan to assume mentoring roles (capacity building through training), there is less than one hour per week dedicated to language and cultural training. Yet, one full day of training for medics is dedicated to breaching houses to secure quarters in case their convoy is unable to continue to its final destination. For teams going to Afghanistan, Dari is offered for language training. Dari is spoken by a small percentage of Afghan soldiers. In most cases, Pashtu training would be more appropriate. In 2008 there were no available Afghan role players, so Iraqi expatriates filled in during role-playing mentoring scenarios. A limited understanding of culture suggests that this is an acceptable substitution. By now though, DoD is correcting some of these deficiencies. They will get better at the training, but this is a role that they never should have been tasked to accomplish.
Case in Point: Army Master Sergeant Deso
Our military members are exceptional at executing missions directly related to their core competencies. When asked to conduct combat operations, air or sea interdictions, or global engagement, there are none better. Mistakes occur, however, when we ask them to work outside of their competencies. They are not entirely at fault for these mistakes, because training falls short of requirements.
A case in point: Army Master Sergeant Christopher Deso is a U.S. Army National Guardsman, on his second 365-day deployment to Afghanistan. For his day job back home, he is an elementary school teacher. He is married and has two beautiful young children. He is more than six feet tall, physically fit, and leads weekly fitness improvement classes for other troops. He achieved his goal to bench press 300 pounds before he went back home. He’s a highly proficient and professional Army medic as well. He volunteers for every outside-the-wire humanitarian medical assistance mission.
On one mission, he held a malnourished two-year-old girl while examining her. She hugged him and held on to him as if he was a teddy bear. Americans see this “Army Strong” soldier doing good for the civilians in Afghanistan and they feel proud.
But if you change lenses and look at this picture from any other nation’s perspective, something other than pride develops. Army rules of engagement dictate wearing full body armor anytime you deploy outside the wire. Now you see a big, strong man wearing body armor holding a frail civilian child who is extremely vulnerable. If you look closer, you see that he’s hugging the little girl to his chest, where he holsters his pistol. It’s a very strong image, but not the type we should be sending. Sergeant Deso is amazingly caring but is encumbered by the rules he’s required to follow. Rules that military planners aren’t prepared to change. This mission is better suited for State Department-trained professionals.
An experienced educator of more than a dozen different nation’s students, I too made mistakes in Afghanistan. After stumbling to identify my mission the first few weeks, I settled into my military-indoctrinated comfort zone and began training my Afghan National Army counterparts in military tactics, techniques and procedures. I should have worked with them to improve their medical delivery effectiveness. Eventually though, I trained them on general leadership principles. A friend of mine sent me two sets of K’NEX toy ambulances for a team-building lesson. I pitted the Noncommissioned Officers (NCOs) against the officers in a timed exercise to see which group would build their ambulance the fastest. The NCOs took up their task and began putting their ambulance together quickly, but the officers did nothing. I entreated them to get moving, but they refused outright to “play with a child’s toy.” I was dumbfounded that they couldn’t get past the toy and visualize the lesson I was trying to deliver. But, I felt absolutely ignorant when my interpreter told me they didn’t participate because they wouldn’t have accepted to be defeated by their NCOs. I should have anticipated and avoided that potentiality. I see that clearly now, but blinded as I was with a military focus, it never dawned on me someone wouldn’t follow my instructions without question.
It requires funding
This year’s budget proposal allots $550 billion in Defense and $50 billion in State and USAID together. The disparity between defense and diplomacy is obvious and persistent. Of course, the vast majority of funds cover capital and equipment for ships, aircraft, armor, and the expense of current combat operations. It covers personnel costs too. The size of the budget is based on requirements. The more requirements an organization is given, the more resources it requires, and so on. We must reverse this process and put those requirements, with their resources, in the State Department.
This isn’t an exercise in cutting Defense for the sake of making cuts. It’s a scalpel trimming approach to transferring requirements and resources to the government agency more appropriately oriented to deal with these particular emerging missions.
It requires commitment
This will take a great leap of faith and commitment. It can’t be done gradually. It must occur overnight. Start by collaborating with military planners and embed State Department officials into existing military planning cells and global exercises. Advertise, recruit, and grow. State should hire educated people who are committed to Partnering and Development, and train others for the variety of functional areas to make their own experts. It should build bases and/or convert military bases into State Department-run forward bases for deployment.
It requires leadership
The days of hiring colleagues and friends for key international posts should have passed. Advertise, recruit and hire the best-qualified international specialists to lead the State Department as it re-takes the lead in Foreign Affairs. Educate and train a cadre of language and cultural experts in all the global regions. Promote and hire college graduates with anthropology and language degrees. As the military reduces its foreign affairs missions, hire those experienced separating military members into these emerging State Department fields.
The road ahead
What should our role be in pro-democracy insurgencies? Make no mistake: The U.S. military is not the appropriate relief tool for post-democracy revolutions in Africa and the Middle East. Military planners are in their planning cells; building contingency plans for each nation in revolt right now. This is a task the State Department must accomplish instead.
We can no longer send the military first to help relief operations as in Haiti or Japan. We can’t send the military to secure Libya’s democracy, Egypt’s, or any other nation’s. Assistance, development and partnering are required. Assistance that isn’t repulsive to the rest of the world. This Administration knows it, believes it, and wants to change it. They need help. They need for all of us to understand what we’re doing wrong and what steps we have to take to change.
Major Joseph Lyons is a retired U. S. Air Force Medical Service Corps officer His last assignment was as Administrator for the Expeditionary Medical Support (EMEDS) course, the Air Force’s deployable medical system. He taught medical command and control, emergency management, and disaster preparedness to more than 6,000 American and international students over the past four years and served in 13 different countries on during a 23-year career.