When U. S. forces enter other lands, often it is with guns blazing and aircraft bombing -- or at least with the explicit threat that they soon might be. What, then, are all of these U.S. troops doing in northern Iraq and Bangladesh? Among other things, they are exercising what is emerging as an expanded post-Cold War military mission: humanitarian relief.
In what the Pentagon has dubbed Operation Provide Comfort, U.S. transports have helped haul more than 13,000 tons of relief supplies to Kurdish refugees. More than 10,000 U.S. troops are assisting the hundreds of thousands of hard-pressed victims of the uprising that followed Operation Desert Storm, the U.S.-led war against Iraq.
And, in Operation Productive Effort, an eight-ship task force with 4,600 Marines and 2,965 sailors has dropped anchor in the Bay of Bengal to help 10 million survivors of an April 30 cyclone that killed more than 100,000 Bangladeshis. "It is great to be here doing the reverse role of a soldier," a Navy commander told the Associated Press. "People think soldiers are trained only to kill. This is not so."
Pentagon spokesman Louis A. "Pete" Williams denies any wider significance to this flurry of humanitarianism. "It's very much a case-by-case basis," he said. "If you look at the situation in northern Iraq, that is a result of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In Bangladesh, it's a matter of matching up the United States military's unique ability to respond quickly with a great number of helicopters and hovercraft. There's really no other place to go for that kind of a response."
In its various annual reports this year, however, the defense establishment puts a heavy new stress on its ability to deliver not only bombs and paratroopers anywhere on the planet, but also rescue and relief services.
"The humanitarian and civic assistance programs of the Department of Defense have significantly advanced U.S. national security objectives," Defense Secretary Dick Cheney thus tells Congress in his 1991 annual report. "Provision of such non-lethal excess [Pentagon] material as medical supplies, clothing, tents, trucks, construction equipment and food has assisted people in need in over 40 nations and strengthened our security relationships with friendly governments."
This is hardly a new role for the U.S. military. The Air Force claims to have carried out 360 humanitarian operations since World War II. But at a time when the Soviet Union is in full retreat and last year's Third World boogie man -- Iraq -- has been humbled, the services are eager to talk up non-traditional, budget-justifying roles. And so, alongside the focus on counter-narcotic operations that was the leitmotif of last year's budget presentations, the emphasis is now on humanitarian missions.
"We can no longer plan our deployments on traditional assumptions of Cold War confrontation," Adm. Frank B. Kelso, the chief of naval operations, recently told Congress. "During the coming decade, deployed naval forces will still perform their traditional missions of deterrence, routine presence and crisis response," he said. "However, they will increasingly be called upon to perform such missions as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, counter-narcotics operations and peacekeeping."
The Army's 1991 report to Congress echoes that view: "Traditionally, [our] expertise has been used in connection with military operations; however, these skills are now being applied in innovative ways," it says, by providing "health, technical, and management assistance to nations to further their development
and promote their stability."
Not all such missions are overseas. "Outside the Storm," a new morale-building pamphlet heralding the Army's post-Persian Gulf war "vital missions and important work," touches on the war on drugs and "protecting planet Earth," even reprinting a syrupy ode to environmentalism from the 1989 Sierra Club Wilderness Calendar. But it also spotlights the 2,700 troops deployed in the wake of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and the 23,171 National Guard troops activated last year for domestic crises, including "providing security for armories being used as shelters for the homeless."
The Army booklet also devotes a section to "helping Panama rebuild." As after most other American wars -- though not Vietnam -- Operation Just Cause, the December 1989 invasion to bust Manual A. Noriega, has led to Operation Promote Liberty, a "nation-building" effort to restore some of what was destroyed. "Everyone has benefited," the Army reports. "U.S. soldiers gain from doing their jobs, getting good training constructing buildings, paving roads or treating patients. The people of Panama get much-needed medical treatment, new roads and better school buildings."