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.
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.
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.
What’s the harm in doing so? If the Pentagon helps contain the spread of Ebola, the people of West Africa will benefit directly and the rest of us indirectly, by sparing us from this scourge. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Two things. The first is that sending troops means using non-specialists to perform tasks requiring specialised skills. The second is that it provides an excuse for ignoring the US military’s performance when assigned tasks within their actual area of presumed expertise.
I do not write as someone possessing particular knowledge in the field of international public health. Yet it seems pretty evident that dealing with infectious diseases is a complicated business that has become more complicated still in an age of globalisation. We don’t need this latest Ebola outbreak to make that point.
Yet the developed world shows a limited willingness to invest in preventing or responding to global health crises. The United States itself provides a telling example. With a military budget of somewhere between $700 billion and $800 billion a year, it contributes just slightly more than $200 million annually to the World Health Organisation. The temporary commitment of US troops to Liberia may make it appear that the United States is a global leader in such matters. It’s not.
In that regard, the diversion of military assets to non-military requirements offers prima facie evidence of resource misallocation. It’s like the city that spends all its money to raise up a formidable police force only to discover that what it really needs is a bigger sewage treatment plant. Of course, you can always put cops to work burning human excrement but there are better — that is, more effective and cheaper — ways to solve the problem.
Furthermore, let us posit that Operation United Assistance — has a military ever sallied forth under such a bland, uninspiring banner? — does accomplish its mission and helps stop the further spread of Ebola. We should pray that it does. Even so, will success in Liberia compensate for the US military’s failure to achieve comparable success in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite vastly greater expenditures over a vastly longer period of time? Even if United Assistance exceeds all expectations, the larger question of why operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom fell so far short of expectations will remain.
What ultimately matters is what boots on the ground with guns accomplish when sent into action. Military forces exist to win wars. If they can’t do that, then good deeds performed when the guns are left at home don’t count for much.
The Spectator is holding a debate ‘Iraq and Syria are lost causes: intervention can’t help’ at 7pm on Wednesday 22 October at Church House, SW1. Speakers for the motion will include John Redwood and Patrick Cockburn, and against, Douglas Murray, Ed Husain and General The Lord Dannatt. Chairing the debate will be Andrew Neil. For tickets and further information, click here.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
Andrew J. Bacevich, currently George McGovern fellow at Columbia University, is writing a military history of America’s wars in the Middle East and nearby.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10