Comment, Comics and the Contrary.
I have not posted on the Asian tsunami disaster; there really was nothing that I could sensibly add and no reader is likely to be unaware of the scale of the tragedy.
Of course, it has not taken long for the relief efforts have become overtly politicised, with Gordon Brown proposing to suspend debt repayments from the affected countries
, Jan Egeland (UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs
) describing the initial response of America (and other rich western nations) ‘stingy
’, Jeb Bush beginning his 2008 Presidential campaign
and gung-ho American commentators
embracing, even celebrating the effect of the American response. No, not that it will save lives and rebuild communities, but that it will undermine the UN, the Great Satan*. With this tsunami diplomacy, comment becomes appropriate.
But credit where it is due; the US military has performed in a humanitarian role
and it is likely that these actions, particularly the immediacy of these actions, will have saved many lives and alleviated much suffering.
Be wary, however, of descriptions of that categorise the cost of the US military actions as part of the total aid provision. They are not. The running costs of the two naval battle groups deployed to help in Sumatra are just that: running costs, and as such are costs that are incurred whether the battle groups are sailing in circles or performing humanitarian relief operations. The US Navy is not a commercial organisation; the sailors involved in the relief operations are not foregoing profit making activities. The cost of deploying these two battle groups to Aceh is not very much different to the costs of having them perform their planned exercises, with the benefit of exposing their personnel to a real, but low-risk training environment, winning friends in the Islamic and wider world, and very possibly gaining access to and suppressing a militant Islamic group. Colin Powell has linked the aid to fighting terrorism
. In Aceh, efforts to “dry up pools of dissatisfaction which might give rise to terrorist activity” might well mean aiding the Indonesian military in their operations against separatist rebels, who are already accusing the Indonesian government of using the disaster as cover for renewed military and security operations
. I wonder if the costs of this support is included in the public boasts of aid packages.
When I question the need for such a large military – whether here in Britain or in the US, many people present examples of the humanitarian work that the military performs. Indeed, the recent recruiting campaigns for the British military have placed an emphasis on this aspect of the armed services. The example of the US Navy in Sumatra will be used to bolster this defence of militarisation. But it should not.
These tasks could be performed by an ‘army’ of what we might call civil or, forgive me, social engineers. This army would not need to be armed, and would not need to inculturate its members into an undemocratic psychology of faith in authority or an anti-humanitarian mindset of nationalism. The training in these brigades could be concentrated on the acquisition of the sorts of skills and knowledges that are required to rebuild communities. There would still be a role for the military, of course, a necessary evil, but there is no need to use the argument of humanitarian disaster response to justify the maintenance of large standing armies. Rather, it should demonstrate the need, even the obligation, for the rich nations to build demilitarised forces of humanitarian action.
*According the best-selling ‘Left Behind
’ series of books – a cornerstone of Christian conservative popular culture.