“It needs to be almost a military campaign” — ALMOST?

With the official death toll now uncomfortably above 100,000, John Budd of UNICEF said, of the relief efforts in Indonesia, “it needs to be almost a military campaign.”

ALMOST? Pull your head out, John. The ONLY organizations in the world equipped for this kind of operation are major militaries. You need aircraft carriers, infantry transport, massive supply lines, portable airfields, mobile hospitals, and that most maligned of temporary governments, “martial law.”

In Lucifer’s Hammer (Science fiction about a meteor-spawned tsunami that wipes out all Pacific coasts, among other things) Niven and Pournelle tell us that “civilization is three meals away from collapse.” The greatest danger the survivors, the refugees, the millions of homeless in Southeast Asia currently face is not pestilence nor famine. Those horesmen have already ridden into town, and they’ll reap their share. War, however, is the apocalyptic rider we must now concern ourselves with. The survivors are at risk from each other. Not all starving people will resort to murder to save their own lives, or the lives of their children, but not all of them have to. It only takes a few, maybe one in 20, or even one in 100. The only way to stop them is to be better armed, highly visible, extremely organized, AND able to feed everyone.

I’m not trying to make the survivors out to be warmongering, savage rabble. I’m simply pointing out that they are people, just like you and me, and they won’t just lie down and die if there’s no food to be had. Civilization is three meals away from collapse.

The UN, UNICEF, the Red Cross, and others are ill equipped to deal with the complete fall of civilization across a large swath of geography. They don’t have the full suite of tools at their disposal. I hope that the United States, for one, doesn’t make the mistake of simply handing the UN a wad of cash. We should be leading the charge with ships and planes, with personnel and materiel, and demonstrating that the most powerful military force on the planet is good for more than just hurting people and breaking things.


31 thoughts on ““It needs to be almost a military campaign” — ALMOST?”

  1. While I agree with the sentiment, I think the UN needs to be handling this. We’re a *little* tied up right now keeping the peace elsewhere, for better or worse.
    I mean, when was the last time the UN did anything military without the US? (That’d be Bosnia, and they made such a mess of it they came crying to us for support.) This kind of thing is exactly what the UN forces are trained for, so let’s get the BLUE helmets mobilized before we start relying on the good old US again!

    1. Maybe I don’t know enough about what the blue helmets have besides helmets and trucks. Last I checked they were an occupying force, not equipped for large-scale invasions. Given the loss of infrastructure over there, I suspect what we need is more along the lines of D-Day than simply standing around and handing out supplies. They can’t get the supplies in place yet, and the airdrops of unguarded supplies have the potential (if supplies are tight, or people panic, or both) of inciting very deadly riots.

      You’re right, we have full hands with Iraq and Afghanistan, and I’m not about to advocate abandonment of those operations.

      1. The blue helmets are just other nationalities troops, working under the UN Banner. The UN doesn’t have any troops of its own.

  2. Part of the immediate response from the U.S. was to task a aircraft carrier (and group?) to head to the area to aid in relief. The U.S. military will have a big part in assistance.

    One thing I found interesting and sad yesterday (and I don’t have the whole story on this) is that apparently politics still trumps relieving human suffering. Israel was prepared to send a group of 150 workers to Sri Lanka to set up a field hospital, and the Sri Lankan government refused it due to the partially military composition of the team. Israel is still going to send a smaller relief team with supplies without the military component. News story is here.

    1. I heard on NPR this morning that two battle groups have been dispatched to the area. Whether that means “carrier” battle groups or no, I dunno, though I’ve read elsewhere that war at sea thes days consists of carriers and things to protect the carriers, so I tend to expect it does indeed mean two carrier battle groups.

  3. And I’m sad to say that despite our sending the Lincoln and the 3rd Marines over there, that I don’t think this is going to be handled right. It’s gonna be too little and not in the right spots. The scale of this thing is… awesome. It would take more “can do” spirit than I truly believe humanity posesses. 🙁 Sure we’ll try. But I just don’t see it happening. 🙁

    This really ought to be Earth’s current hot potato. There’s nothing on the planet more pressing than this. If it takes a planetwide Apollo project, that’s what we ought to do (and what it may take). It’ll be expensive as all hell, but we ought to just eat the cost. But I don’t see it happening. 🙁

    I hope that I’m pleasantly surprised.


    (resident pessimist)

  4. I hate to point this out, but the US military isn’t being very successful over in Iraq at trying to do something other than hurting people and breaking things… our troops aren’t trained for peacekeeping roles, and it shows.

    1. I don’t think the South Asia disaster should be compared very closely to Iraq. Howard’s statement, which I mostly agree with, is that we need to be there and be better armed. I expect it is inevitable that some things will happen, but I also expect that just being there, helping, with more guns than hungry survivors are likely to find is going to to a long way towards preventing a lot of things.

      1. That’s an excellent point…. just the presence of armed, trained soldiers would probably be enough to keep most people from losing the vestiges of humanity. Particularly if those armed soldiers were the ones handing out food & supplies.

        You know, I’ve been listening to the total amount of money raised here in the US to go towards the disaster – it’s amazing; some organizations were pulling in a million dollars a day.

        Think if we held a fundraiser to pay down the deficit people would be generous? With that level of giving, our childrens’ children might not have to pay 70% of their income in taxes to keep the government from going broke…

  5. Keep in Mind…

    …that at least two of these places (Sri Lanka and Indonesia) were already having civil wars at the time of the tsunami. They’re in “pause” right now – but for how long?

    We’ve already sent the Lincoln Carrier Battle Group and the Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Assault Group to the area. But even 10000 people and a few dozen helicopters will get swallowed up in this disaster. The logistics are going to be a nightmare: the CAG and the AAG can mosly support themselves, but everyone and everything else that goes in has to be supported as well.

    1. Re: Keep in Mind…

      On NPR this morning, a governor of one of those two places (driving to work in the snow, I don’t try very hard to keep the details straight) said that the civil wars have stopped and that opponents are actually working together. He was quoted as saying this is the only good thing to come out of this disaster so far.

      How long? Who knows, but hopefully it will be meaningful to some important people in the respective movements. “We’re all helpless before tsunami” or something.

  6. I agree that the UN is not equipped to handle this. Unfortunately the American millitary is overstretched.

    To be perfectly frank, this is best handled by closer neighbours such as my country (Australia) and in particular Japan (which has a huge and well-equipped military that doesn’t DO anything). I don’t know what New Zealand is doing but I sure hope they’re pulling their finger out across the tasman. The only thing their joke of a military is good at doing is peacekeeping, so now’s their time to make themselves useful.
    (Also, where’s Canada in all this? This seems like something the Canucks would be good at.)

    1. Canada has donated $40 million (plus the gov’t is matching dollar-for-dollar all donations raised by private citizens) and sent over aid workers to help out (though I’m not exactly sure what their role is).

      1. “(plus the gov’t is matching dollar-for-dollar all donations raised by private citizens)”

        Good policy idea! I really like that one.

        And I forgot, the Canadian’s logistical capabilities are insufficient for them to assist in this operation. I remember now in Afghanistan they were reliant on Australia’s Hercules aircraft to provide their logistics (and got pissed at us because we shipped the beer before their supplies. :D)

        1. They were probably more pissed you weren’t sharing the beer.
          Canada’s military is used to doing more with less.
          Unfortunatly we (along with australia and other ‘2nd tier’ militaries) are doing most of the work of the UN Peacekeeping forces. We also have troops in Afghanistan supporting the UN/NATO operations there. Canada doesn’t have much in the way of available forces. Our Disaster relief team will be heading to one of the areas apparently, but once again, we don’t have the heavy airlift to move them. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of our medical teams isn’t sent, along with one of our destoyer groups.

  7. In Lucifer’s Hammer (Science fiction about a meteor-spawned tsunami

    I’m rather surprised to hear you say that, given how much of a Niven fan you come across as. Hamner-Brown was a comet.

    (I’m not missing the point of the post, just commenting because I didn’t expect to see Howard Tayler make a mistake. 🙂

        1. Asteroids are celestial bodies that have mildly elliptical orbits (usually), and that do NOT exhibit comas or tails.

          Comets are celestial bodies that have highly elliptical orbits, and that have a coma and/or a tail on their approach to the sun.

          Meteors or meteoroids are ANY celestial body that streaks visibly in the sky. The word “meteor” also refers to the streak of light they leave behind.

          Meteorites are the bits left behind when a meteor or meteoroid reaches the ground.

          Thus, Hamner-Brown was both a comet and a meteor, and presumably left behind lots of meteorites, though the story never focused on that.

          1. I was being silly and flippant (I know what the difference is) – the “meteor that filed a flight plan” is an old pilot’s joke. And like most old jokes, it’s not very accurate 🙂

      1. Mmmmm. Delicious matters of meanings and conversational implicature.

        On the first ground I’ll yield, and on the second ground I’ll say I was justified. 🙂

    1. You people and your nits. 😉

      A better nit to pick would have been “why did you not hyperlink to the book for those wanting to pick up a copy,” or “what page was that on again?” I’m sure I misquoted the authors. And my 16-word summary of the book can’t POSSIBLY have done it any justice.

      1. Lucifer’s Hammer on Amazon.com, for those who’d like to order it.

        I’d say your sixteen words didn’t do it justice… but if I spent sixteen hundred words (or maybe even sixteen thousand) in a summary, I’m sure I couldn’t do justice to the book either. You’ve heard the tale of the editor who couldn’t find a single word from the book to remove, right? 🙂

    1. Indeed. It’s nice to see the U.S. government actually pull ahead of Pfizer in money pledged (or maybe that was Pfizer and the next two together – regardless).

      …Especially considering that (I hear) Bush’s about to request another $80 billion for his war.

  8. A voice pro UN

    I beg to differ. The military can be geared towards relief work and they are needed for airlifts, but in general specialized forces – the UN – are better IMHO. UNHCR and other aid organizations have collected experience in decades of relief work, whereas the army has to set up a make-shift operation. How many soldiers have expertise in looking for victims in piles of rubble? (I am not talking of getting your comrade out of combat zone) How many soldiers know, how to assess damage to infrastructure? If martial law should become necessary, most of the countries concerned have working armies of their own. You would never allow e.g. russian soldiers on your ground to ensure martial law in case of emergency, why should they.

    Right now, people in the affected areas do not need highly specialized aid, but basic stuff in mass quantities. Plastic sheets to ward of / collect rain, cooking gear, tents. Stuff set aside in UNHCR central ware houses just for catastrophes like this. Do not talk civil aid small. UNHCR has just now started a massive airlift operation, delivering 400 tons of relief aid to the Aceh area alone.
    UNHCR news: Massive UNHCR airlift gets underway for tsunami victims
    Even more dearly needed: clean water. I am German, so the following will be German-centric (I am sure similiar stuff is happing in other Western countries as well): The THW (Technisches Hilfswerk – the German catastrophy response units, a public civil service) has brought and is opearating 3-4 water purification plants, cleaning 6 to 12 tons of water per day each. They also bring down specialized prepackaged containers (UN?), which contain complete hospitals for 30.000 patients, including 3 months worth of supplies IIRC.

    However tempting this is, relief aid should not be the stage for an advertising campaign (“look at me, how good my army is at helping”), but should be about getting stuff done. Organizations like Oxfam have been on spot for years, knowing the people, having people speaking the local language. They can go, where foreign military will not be allowed to go. Army forces can lend tremendous amount of immediate help, but I do not see them equipped to do the main work, sorry.


    1. Re: A voice pro UN

      Well, they can certainly free up the specialists. They do represent a massive well organized and equipped pool of labor. Plus, they don’t have the history of corruption that the UN does.

      I haven’t heard anyone accuse the US of using this disaster as a PR opportunity. It would really suck if we get blamed for helping too little, then get blamed for helping too much at the same time. :/ I’m pretty sure that we the people are going to send more aid in government, corporate, and private donations, as well as more logistical support, than any other country.


      1. Re: A voice pro UN

        I reread my last paragraph, the first sentence was ill-written. I am sorry for implying that anybody is using the relief efforts for PR and would like to appologize where I have trodden onto toes.


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