Haiti's Army: Echoes of Feudalism Beleaguered Past Leaves Country in Military Limbo

By Harry Levins Of the Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 19, 1994 | Go to article overview

Haiti's Army: Echoes of Feudalism Beleaguered Past Leaves Country in Military Limbo


Harry Levins Of the Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


LATELY, WE'VE read much about the Haitian army and its long odds against the Americans parked offshore.

But the stories never ask a basic question:

Why does Haiti even have an army? What Armies Do

In wealthy lands like the United States and Europe, armies traditionally serve one of two purposes:

Armies stand guard at home against foreign foes. (Think of the French army spending most of this century looking warily east toward Germany).

Armies venture abroad to carry out their government's foreign policy. (Think of the U.S. Army in both world wars, in Korea and in Vietnam.)

In Haiti, neither purpose fits.

Forget about a foreign policy.

Not since an early 19th-century adventure in the Dominican Republic have Haitian soldiers ventured across a border. Today, Haiti can't afford a foreign policy; it has too many problems at home.

And setting aside this year's showdown with the United States, Haiti has no foreign foes to stand guard against. Mostly, that's because Haiti has little to lure an invader. The place is rich only in disease, poverty and illiteracy.

Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, which gets most of the island's rain and thus most of the island's wealth. Inside Haiti, the peasantry is denuding the forests, turning the real estate into a Caribbean desert.

The Dominican Republic already bleeds Haiti of cheap farm labor. Whatever else Haiti has, the Dominicans don't want. Thus, Haiti faces no threat from within Hispaniola.

Outside Hispaniola, there's always Cuba. But even if the Cubans were in the mood for foreign adventure (which they aren't), they could get to Haiti only by crossing the water - water owned by the U.S. Navy.

Nearby Costa Rica is so confident of the American military umbrella that it disbanded its army after a coup attempt in 1948. Since then, Costa Rica has got along quite nicely without an army.

So what purpose does Haiti's army serve?

"Basically," says military author James F. Dunnigan, "armies like Haiti's protect the people who are living off other people. It's a nationwide extortion racket." Street-Corner Soldiers

In peacetime, citizens of a liberal democracy like the United States rarely notice their army.

Only in wartime do we see crowds of GIs in airports and train stations; only in times of disasters or riots are we jarred at the sight of American soldiers standing on street corners, rifles slung from their shoulders.

The norm of a liberal democracy is peacetime; and in peacetime, the U.S. Army shrinks, as it is shrinking today. In peacetime, the Army retreats to the red clay, slash pine and solitude of places like Fort Benning, Ga., there to rehearse, largely unnoticed, for the next round of wartime.

But relatively few humans live in liberal democracies. Most live under some degree of oppression from their own governments. In such countries, the citizens see the army on every other street corner, because the army is the major tool of oppression.

"Haiti doesn't really have an army," says Dunnigan, who has researched the world's armies for several books, such as "A Quick & Dirty Guide to War. …

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