For some reason, Mental Floss has re-published online my feature article from last year on U.S. Navy hospital ships. The timing is fortuitous, in any event, for the USNS Mercy has recently embarked on a medical tour of the Pacific.
In recent years, the Navy has started dispatching dozens of hospital ships — some as big as shopping malls — to aid developing nations. The crews consist of doctors, nurses, engineers, pilots, volunteers, and even acupuncturists, all there to help. But as Mental Floss reporter David Axe learned while visiting the Kearsarge ship in Nicaragua, the Nashville in Gabon and the Comfort in Panama, these missions aren’t about altruism; they’re about winning friends and influencing nations.
The U.S. Navy has been in the medical business for decades, often setting sail in response to earthquakes or hurricanes. But until recently, these missions were for emergencies only, and not part of a bigger diplomatic strategy. It took the Iraq War to change that.
After years of failing to pacify Iraq with firepower, the Pentagon decided it needed to think outside the arsenal. The result was a new theory called “soft power.” The idea is to send the military into potential conflict zones — along with other government agencies and civilian volunteers — years before any fighting breaks out. The troops hand out free medical care, aid local governments, and build roads and schools. Basically, they do anything they can to be of assistance.
By giving everyone a helping hand, soft-power programs hope to improve the United States’ image and leave a lasting, positive impression of America on the citizens of other nations. “It’s about influencing generations to come,” says Navy Commodore Frank Ponds.
Beginning in 2006, the Navy sent ships to places where conflicts were simmering. Then, in November 2007, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made soft power official policy during a speech at Kansas State University. Now, it’s all the rage at the Pentagon. There is at least one major soft-power mission to Asia, Africa and Latin America each year, meaning U.S. Navy ships are already becoming an increasingly common sight all across the world.