The USS Kearsarge assault ship (pictured right) is just two days from the first stop on its four-month tour of South America doling out free medical care. It’s all part of the Pentagon’s new strategy for effecting “generational change” in the world’s neglected, unstable coastal zones. But for the hundreds of military doctors, dentists and nurses packed inside Kearsarge’s rocking steel hull, the Pentagon and its theories probably seems very far away. For them, this mission is work.
But is it the right kind of work for any military force? It’s an open question …
All day every day in the week prior to landfall in Nicaragua, Kearsarge‘s medical personnel hunch over tables in the ship’s expansive medical ward (the second-biggest in the Navy) and divide mountains of pills into individual-size plastic baggies. In the belly of a 40,000-ton ship, thousands of miles from home, counting your thousandth pill of the day, it’s understandably hard to see the forest for the trees. Many of the doctors and nurses I’ve spoken to said they never questioned the mission, even in private.
Which is perhaps why Commander David Damstra, the mission’s senior Navy surgeon, spent most of our meeting on Thursday talking about the technical details of his mission: how many doctors he’s got and of which specialties, what kinds of surgeries they’ll perform and the methods for getting patients to Kearsarge then back home (helicopters and boats, in case you’re wondering).
But never mind all that. I wanted to know whether the mission is even a good fit for the military. Sure, Damstra’s people, representing a dozen different military forces, are undoubtedly highly skilled. But they’re soldiers, sailors and airmen, for the most part trained to look after other sick and injured soldiers, sailors and airmen. These doctors wear uniforms. Some of them are even trained to carry weapons. But where we’re going, there are just sick civilians, whose only previous exposure to a military might have been in less, ahem, friendly circumstances. In light of this, can military personnel really make good humanitarians?
All over the world, many agencies have answered this question with a resounding NO. In Central Africa, civilian aid workers are often reluctant to work alongside military peacekeeping forces because they don’t want their charity associated with weapons, uniforms and potentially oppressive governments. The U.N. doesn’t allow the E.U. army in Chad to enter the very refugee camps that the troops are supposed to protect. They all fear the creeping “militarization” of what should be strictly peaceful functions. Even U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last month warned against a similar militarization of U.S. foreign policy, which he said should remain squarely in the hands of the (unarmed) State Department.
So can military personnel make good humanitarians? Damstra (pictured right) thought about it for a moment then said, yes. Indeed, in certain places, he said, humanitarian operations require military help. Take, for instance, Puerta Cabezas, Kearsarge’s first stop on Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast. Operation Smile, a U.S. charity that donates plastic surgery to kids with severe cleft palates, has long wanted to visit Puerta Cabezas help scores of deformed children there. But the town is highly isolated and very, very poor. To get there with the right equipment requires a sophisticated logistical operation, of the kind at which Kearsarge excels. So Operation Smile staff will be meeting Kearsarge in Puerta Cabezas, and the civilian and military doctors will form one team, using the ship as a floating surgical hospital.
“What we bring is operating rooms and surgical capability to where these people live [since] they couldn’t get to Managua [the Nicaraguan capital] themselves,” Damstra said. But the Navy doesn’t have the skill repairing cleft palates that Operation Smile does, so the sea service couldn’t perform this mission alone, Damstra said. “There are certain scenarios where a partnership can accomplish what organizations alone could not.”
But Damstra admitted that for many kids, coming aboard Kearsarge for surgery could be a terrifying experience. To help take some of the hard edges off their mission, the Navy is inviting a family member to accompany every surgical patient who comes aboard. That’s a burden on the transports and on the staff who must screen all visitors for tuberculosis, but it’s worth it to put a friendlier face on what is, deep down, still a military operation, albeit one that’s giving out free medicine instead of free ass-kickings.
It was a good answer Damstra gave me, but it still didn’t settle the issue in my mind. Sure, it’s great that the Pentagon is shifting away from solving all of our security problems with overwhelming firepower. “Soft power” really is a better strategy in many cases –- but it’s still just that: a strategy. Kearsarge isn’t sailing to Puerta Cabezas for the crew’s health or for fun: she’s going to gradually, subtly shape the world in the ways we Americans and our allies want it shaped. This is war by radically different means.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Quite the contrary. But it is something we should be conscious of. And the next time some unfriendly leader like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez points to the Navy’s soft power operations and accuses the U.S. of trying to rule the world, we shouldn’t be surprised.