Magazine article The Spectator

What's an Army Good For?

Magazine article The Spectator

What's an Army Good For?

Article excerpt

In the case of America, the answer is now practically everything - except perhaps winning wars

As a general rule, soldiers should be employed in the business of soldiering -- preparing to fight or actually fighting (preferably infrequent) wars. In response to the Ebola outbreak afflicting West Africa, the Obama administration has decided to waive that rule. His decision to do so has received widespread support. Yet the effect of his decision is to divert attention from questions of considerable urgency.

Drawing on the increasingly elastic authority exercised by the US commander-in-chief, President Obama has directed the deployment of up to 4,000 troops to Liberia, ground zero of the epidemic. These are not war fighters but support troops, mostly construction engineers and medical personnel. A president with a pronounced aversion to putting boots on the ground is doing just that -- albeit boots that will arrive largely unaccompanied by guns.

U.S. Air Force personnel offload equipment from a C-17 transport plane outside of Monrovia, Liberia

Although the particulars of what the Pentagon is styling Operation United Assistance may be unique, the concept -- military forces responding to disasters that outstrip civilian capabilities -- is decidedly not. In the United States and elsewhere, there exists a well-established tradition of doing just that. Nor is this tradition by any means confined to domestic emergencies such as hurricanes in Louisiana or floods in North Dakota. It has long had an international component.

As far back as 1923, for example, US Army units in the Philippines rushed to Japan to offer aid in the wake of a great earthquake that devastated Tokyo and Yokohama. (Japanese gratitude expired some time before 7 December 1941.) More recent examples are legion -- some acts of God, others acts of human folly or sheer malice, but all producing intervention by US forces: Bangladesh in 1991; Somalia in 1992; Indonesia in 1994; Haiti in 2010; Japan in 2011; the Philippines last year. The list goes on.

U.S. Navy microbiologist Lt. Jimmy Regeimbal tests blood samples for Ebola

The United States is hardly alone in offering assistance to countries afflicted with the Ebola virus. What distinguishes the American effort is the preferential role allotted to the military in delivering that assistance. The reasons for doing so are as much symbolic as substantive.

In the United States today, the armed forces alone command the complete confidence of the people. Americans view their military as omnicompetent and in possession of vast capacities for action. They take it for granted that the troops -- well-trained, well-disciplined and selfless -- can successfully take on the most difficult problem. From this perspective, if you want to stop the further spread of a dread disease, who better to turn to than American soldiers? They are the world champs, the gold standard, not only the best in the business but the best ever. So sending in the troops is Washington's way of signalling seriousness.

Military leaders are not oblivious to the reputational benefits that can accrue from playing along. Billboards and television spots somewhat expansively advertise the US Navy as 'A Global Force for Good'. Engaging in humanitarian activities allows the US Army, US Air Force and US Marine Corps -- along with the United States as a whole -- to claim a piece of that mantle as their own. …

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