This article argues that although there is no shortage of operational lessons to be learned from humanitarian military assistance and intervention operations, the conceptual and political limitations which precede and frame them are essential limiting and conditioning factors and should themselves be counted as lessons. A number of conceptual difficulties are introduced, the first of which concern the problems of institutional learning. These are followed by a consideration of the way in which political acts and omissions create and/or amplify disaster vulnerability. In the final section, the more problematic interventionist military humanitarianism is given emphasis over non-coercive assistance, since the former requires the closest calculation of political interests and costs, measured against humanitarian purposes. The article concludes that although work can be undertaken to maximise the humanitarian effectiveness of such missions, the soldiers deployed for that purpose are working against a set of politi cal values, both explicit and implicit, which are likely to increase both the number and severity of the disasters militaries will be required to address.
National armed forces exist for the purpose of achieving political ends by military means. This is one of the fundamentals of the organisation of states and the state system, as true today as in the era Clausewitz described. There is no need to suppose that genuine humanitarian concern is somehow tainted by association with political calculation and the workings of its bureaucratic machinery. Indeed, at first sight, there is every reason to be pleased that an apparently widening range of humanitarian issues fall within the compass of responsible and responsive government.
For a state to employ military forces to mitigate disasters within its own borders is an unsurprising instance of self-interest and of the proper functioning of the organisation of political community. A failure to so act would generally be regarded as an indicator of state-society relations in critical condition. Likewise, state-to-state military assistance for purposes determined by the recipient, even when the objective is humanitarian rather than more strictly military in character, is familiar political and diplomatic practice. Humanitarian intervention--that is forcible action undertaken by one state against another for declared humanitarian purposes--is a remarkable development in international politics, but the fact remains that countries are not configured or disposed to act altruistically without a sense of the political and other ramifications of their actions.
So the purposes for which nations train, equip and commit armed forces are determined from within a political arena; and the decisions governments make to deploy soldiers have a political character, for all that they might also have a humanitarian purpose. These are uncontentious assertions, but they provide the context for the remarkable surge of interest in humanitarian intervention and assistance since the ending of the Cold War.
As non-coercive humanitarian military assistance became subsumed under "humanitarian intervention" from about 1990 (in perception if not in fact), public appreciation of the politics of disasters has narrowed very considerably. Although the establishment of institutional "lessons learned units"--notably within the United Nations (UN) Department of Peacekeeping Operations (1)--and a proliferation of reports and studies on various aspects of humanitarian intervention are welcomed, they also have the effect of diverting attention from the extent to which the surrounding political structures and dynamics--governmental and non governmental; national and international--are closely bound up with "creating" disaster vulnerability. Dramatic and morally consequential humanitarian interventions also mask the extent of political disengagement with vulnerable peoples and places--unless or until action becomes a dire necessity. …