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Recently, one of my esteemed fellow Ricophiles said the following: “Our armed forces should be the most efficient in the world at killing people and breaking things.”
Though I probably wouldn’t use such hair-raising terms, I agree. Sometimes, the only thing that can make a very bad situation marginally better is a whole lot of lethal force, energetically applied.
However, the reality is that our armed forces are already being used for other things … namely, humanitarian response in the aftermath of natural disasters. We should have our troops do more of this, more deliberately, and with a whole lot more fanfare.
As I discovered when my son became a Marine, the military is deployed on humanitarian missions across the world for one simple yet suggestive reason: the American military has an astonishing ability to marshal and deploy large numbers of motivated, skilled, physically and mentally fit young people (mostly men). We’ve developed this ability so as to send these young people into combat, but the skills are transferable to other emergencies, such as when there’s an earthquake in Haiti or a tsunami in Japan.
I don’t know all that much about the workings of the military, but I know about law enforcement, and especially about the work of game wardens in Maine and other states.
My humble suggestion, or fantasy, is that the United States military should serve not as the world’s policeman, but as the world’s game warden.
This is not as pacifistic as it sounds. (I’m not a pacifist.) Game wardens have guns, and they know how to use them. Few are aware of this, but Connecticut game wardens were among the first law enforcement officers on-scene at the Sandy Hook massacre, and in a splendid demonstration of “improvise, adapt and overcome,” they secured the scene, formed a perimeter, and helped evacuate the surviving children. Had Adam Lanza not already been dead, they would have terminated him without hesitation and with extreme prejudice.
Do we have a barricaded gunman? An active shooter? A bunch of Sovereign Citizens? Game wardens have the training, equipment, and flexibility to respond even to novel, ambiguous, or fluid situations with the use of force.
Has a Girl Scout troop gone missing in the woods? Is there a desperate family hoping their drowned child’s body can be recovered? Has a big swathe of Aroostook County gone under water in spring floods, stranding and endangering civilians? Is the continued existence of the endangered piping plover threatened? You name the emergency, and the chances are good that game wardens can handle it.
I vividly remember when, during a flood in northern Maine, a Maine game warden commandeered a front-end loader to scoop people out of the second floor window of their flooded house.
“But how did you know how to operate a front end loader?” I asked. He just smiled and shrugged. These guys can do anything!
Our troops can do anything, too. They can kill people and break stuff, but they can also rescue people and build stuff — they always have been able to do these things. They have always served as first responders, but we don’t acknowledge, advertise, or celebrate this as much as we should.
In fact, I imagine a bunch of our extra battleships being retrofitted (preferably at the Bath Iron Works — jobs for Mainers!) to serve as hospital ships, resupply ships and emergency evacuation vessels. “UNITED STATES NAVY: EMERGENCY RESPONSE VESSEL” should be written in big letters on the side of such ships, and there should be a big ceremonial fuss made when they are launched — the first lady or first gentleman smacking a bottle of champagne upside the hull, lots of Tweets and posts and whatnot — so that the US receives maximum publicity for the good works we’ve been doing all along.
Some of you might object that openly preparing, equipping, training, and using troops as first responders would dull our fighting edge. My response would be as follows: First, we’re already doing it, so why not reap the PR benefits? America needs (and deserves) a reputation for showing up when people are in trouble.
Second, if we need to have a professional armed force in readiness whether we’re actually fighting a war or not, humanitarian responses to natural disasters offer valuable opportunities for gaining experience, so we can maintain at least the ancillary skills that a military deployment demands. Among the issues that plagued the start of the First Gulf War, to name one example, was a lack of practical experience in moving men and materiel from point A to point B.
Third, if American parents knew that a son or daughter who joined the military would be primarily responding to humanitarian disasters (“helping people”), even liberal parents might have fewer qualms. (I speak from experience on this).
This could have the happy effect of increasing enlistment but also enhancing ideological diversity and not only in the ranks, but in liberal-land, as those who have served alongside conservative comrades leave the service and rejoin their families and peers. The wisdom gained from exposure to a wider variety of human situations is sorely needed in liberal-land. (Again, I speak from experience!)
Operation Unified Response, which followed the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, is a good example. Despite accusations from predictable quarters that the US was using the earthquake as an excuse to occupy Haiti, the results were pretty spectacular from the point of view of those we helped, and a source of pride and joy for those who served.
“As we close our time in support of Operation Unified Response-Haiti, I look back with great pride on the contributions the Navy and Marine Corps team made to the people of Haiti,” said Lt. Col. Robert Fulford, the commanding officer for Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment. “We represented the heart and compassion of the United States, directly translating into tangible impacts in the lives we touched — from Petit Goave, Grand Goave, Leogane and Carrefour.”
Helping people — representing the heart and compassion of the United States — is satisfying in a way that breaking stuff and killing people (let alone merely training to break and kill, but never actually doing it) isn’t, however necessary it might be. I’ve met Marines who have served in both Iraq and Haiti, and they talk about Haiti in a very, very different way — helping people who really need your help makes memories that feed rather than drain the soul.
Yes, I know: Blowing things up can be fun (my son, generally a gentle man, found it so). But helping people is joyful. Being recognized as a source of help and a representative of a compassionate nation is deeply fulfilling.
But what about the problem of evil in the world?
Obviously, one could hope that the US’s response to humanitarian disasters might help set a new and different standard for what a superpower ought to be doing with that super power. Apparently, there was chagrin in European circles when the US proved able and willing to help Haitians in a way that the Europeans had not; the world could do worse than enter into a game of humanitarian one-upmanship, where Putin’s Russia competes with the EU and the US for the “most compassionate and least evil” prize.
Still, as I say, I’m not a pacifist. And, as my son assured me, “Every Marine is a rifleman, Mom.”
So every member of the armed forces should continue to be trained in the basic skills of the warrior, even if some might go on to develop a speciality in, say, organizing post-disaster refugee camps, controlling disease vectors, or PTSD-prevention. Just as any large American law enforcement agency has a SWAT team whose specialty is overwhelming force, the military would retain units whose sole concentration would be developing expertise in killing people and breaking things. Should a war break out, they would form the nucleus of what could swiftly be converted into a traditional, kill-’em-all-and-let-God-sort-’em-out army.
I agree that it is futile to expect the military to impose democracy where none existed before (though they’ve done their best when asked, and at times have worked wonders). But in addition to breaking stuff and killing people, our troops are remarkably good — and could be even better — at rescuing and protecting people. Let’s find a few good men, let them do more before breakfast than most people do all day and be all they can be. Let them be wardens.