The Military Moves In

As the Navy and Marines arrive in Haiti to bring relief, Ret. Army Col. Ken Allard on where to land the choppers, how to police without invading, and lessons of disaster relief missions past.

01.14.10 11:07 PM ET

With flotillas of ships and fleets of aircraft now closing in on Haiti, what critical contributions can the U.S. military make? More than any other resource available to a government, a well-drilled military force specializes in bringing order out of chaos. In Banda Aceh, New Orleans, and now in Haiti, Western navies—particularly the U.S. Navy and Marines—do this job better than anyone else on earth. But caveats are also important because military force is the bluntest of blunt instruments, uniquely susceptible to Murphy’s Law. Thus far, Murphy has cooperated. The aircraft carrier Carl Vinson altered course out of Norfolk, Virginia, swiftly loaded relief supplies in Florida, and steamed toward the disaster zone.

In Haiti, the military must first be concerned with the logistics of survival, like the 50,000 gallons of drinking water that the typical battle group can supply each day.

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But the initial deployment is likely to be the easy part. In the absence of a Haitian military, the U.S. will inevitably assume the uncomfortable role of a de facto constabulary force. The history of American interventions, both in Haiti and elsewhere in the hemisphere, is a cautionary tale, suggesting the need for coalition-building and burden-sharing as well as international mandates. But first the American contingent must arrive and begin its most critical missions: Take charge, save as many lives as possible, and swiftly surrender control back to competent political authorities. Doing all that means recalling lessons learned from peacekeeping missions as well as past efforts at disaster relief.

1. When in charge, take charge. Haiti descended in an instant from failing to failed state, with pictures of the collapsed presidential palace, felled by the quake, driving home the harsh new reality. The next major problem: setting priorities for the thousands of humanitarian agencies now mobilizing to gather funds and ship relief supplies. This cornucopia is descending upon a country without a functioning infrastructure: damaged roads, ports and airfields with few reliable communications. Deciding who shall go where to deliver what, when and to whom are basic calls which must be centrally managed and controlled—at least for now. Remember General Russ Honore, the hero of Hurricane Katrina—“the black John Wayne” as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called him? Same idea here.

2. Plans never survive the first engagement, but planning is essential. As a Katrina survivor and NBC News embed, I watched as General Honore explained to a young civilian reporter that disaster relief, logistics, and planning were hard but synonymous. “Because if logistics were easy, we would just call ‘em tactics.” Especially in Haiti, the military must first be concerned with the logistics of survival, like the 50,000 gallons of drinking water that the typical battle group can supply each day. Where should that water be pumped onshore? A close second: the logistics of search and rescue. Which staging areas can best extend the reach of helicopters, essential to reach trapped survivors, evacuate the injured, and ferry the most critical supplies?

3. Accurate situational awareness means effective planning. From New Orleans to Afghanistan, the military has pioneered the use of geo-spatial intelligence—which is like Google Earth on steroids. Its operational integration has allowed computer fly-throughs of future missions, persistent surveillance of potential targets and and eliminating landing zones where terrain slope might be a hazard for helicopters. These same capabilities can allow a task force commander in Haiti to get a fast, accurate, three-dimensional picture of the area: Which places are most devastated and where can the task force do the most good? And, in light of the aftershocks hitting the country: How has that situation changed over the last 24-36 hours?

4. Some supplies are more important than others. Even if your only experience with amphibious operations was watching the first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan, you can understand landing zone priorities. Before bringing the heavy earth-moving equipment ashore, are the diesel supplies already there—and can the fuel be pumped into waiting tanks? Sometimes these choices are agonizing. If repairing port facilities will help to expedite shipping (usually 90 percent of all supplies), then should the welding kits to fix the overhead cranes be landed before the MASH unit? With virtually every item sent to a humanitarian crisis that’s supplied by an outside agency skilled in public advocacy, saying “not now” is where the task force commander really justifies his salary.

5. Security uber alles. As the late Molly Ivins once observed about the speeches of my old MSNBC buddy Pat Buchanan, some things sound better in the original German. Security is one of them, simply because people pushed past the limits of survival can easily turn on each other. Either the security force is empowered to act swiftly and preserve order—or the whole relief effort collapses into anarchy. One of the best decisions made at New Orleans was deploying the red-bereted paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division. Their deliberately understated presence on the streets of the French Quarter halted any real violence before it ever began.

6. Beware the temptation to do too much. In Somalia and Bosnia, the military learned that their mandates could only be temporary. Those private humanitarian and religious organizations that will do the prolonged heavy lifting in Haiti can be neither commanded nor controlled—but rather only persuaded by legitimate political authority.

7. Or too little. Finally, what all of us can do best right now is simply to open our checkbooks and to give our favorite charity the means to demonstrate that in Haiti we really are our brother’s keeper.

Colonel Ken Allard (U.S. Army, Ret.) is a draftee who eventually served on the West Point faculty, as dean of the National War College and as a NATO peacekeeper in Bosnia. He wrote the military review of the U.S. engagement in Somalia. His most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War, is a memoir of his 10 years as an on-air military analyst with NBC News.