We Need a Humanitarian Mission at Home

NEAL R. PEIRCE

December 21, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

The dispatch of 28,000 American troops to a remote corner of Africa to feed hungry people, provide medical care and restore civil order is being hailed as a profound turn in American foreign policy.

But the Somalian mission may mean just as much at home. If it's worth deploying American troops on a humanitarian mission halfway around the globe, what about America? Couldn't, shouldn't, we be using our huge military manpower pool and its logistical skills to feed hungry kids, house the homeless, provide basic public health in America's own troubled cities?

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn of Georgia, already a potent Capitol Hill figure and sure to be even more influential under the Clinton administration, was already making the case in June:

''Our society faces numerous domestic challenges as daunting as any potential foreign threat to our national security. While the Soviet threat is gone, at home we are still battling drugs, poverty, urban decay, lack of self-esteem, unemployment and racism,'' said Mr. Nunn. The military, he added, ''certainly cannot resolve these problems'' but still can play ''a proper and important'' domestic role.

Mr. Nunn talks of troops setting up food banks and distributing food to malnourished kids, reopening shuttered public housing units, renovating broken-down schools, providing job training for poor youths, and delivering infant immunizations and other basic health services for Americans who are now denied them.

The Cold War self-destructed in 1989, but it took Operation Desert Storm to dramatize the American military's dramatic transformation. A battered American institution appeared reformed and remotivated, strong on the qualities of personal discipline most glaringly lost in the broader American society, remarkably successful in motivating the races to work together with mutual respect.

Congress also voted for dramatic force reductions -- 122 military base closures in the near future, 400,000 trained military personnel going into civilian life. And forward-thinkers inevitably began to see an increasingly compelling domestic-military connection.

''National security today is more than simply military concerns,'' says Ty Cobb, head of Business Executives for National Security, based in Washington. ''There's common agreement that economic security is equally important. Human security is the foundation without which the military questions become irrelevant.''

Precedent has been established for a military domestic role. The Army ran the Civilian Conservation Corps for hundreds of thousands of young men during the Depression. The Turkish and French militaries, reports Army Times, have operated ''highly successful, long-term community help projects.''

The issue now to be faced may not be the whether of an expanded military domestic role, but the how. There's clear military opposition, from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell on down, to diverting active duty personnel from exclusively military assignments.

That view is far from universal. Anyone who's been in the military knows a lot of training is repeated ad nauseam, that time could be found for worthwhile community projects.

But prospects for involving the hundreds of thousands of newly mustered-out personnel -- people with training, discipline, accustomed to service, goal-oriented, many of them minorities who'd easily relate to inner-city youth -- could be the most promising of all, says William McIntosh, Cobb's associate.

Fifty former sailors, soldiers and Marines, for example, have just been trained at the Marine base in Quantico, under a Department of Health and Human Services grant, to serve in troubled inner-city public-housing projects as role models and community-sensitive housing managers, counselors and coaches.

Retired Rear Adm. W. Norman Johnson, now dean of students at rTC Boston University, has an ingenious plan to give troubled kids from foster homes and homeless shelters a new living environment. Starting in 1993, if his proposal wins support, he'd have 150 to 200 Boston youngsters move into Massachusetts' )) Fort Devens, now slated for closing. Fifty newly discharged military personnel would live on the base with the kids, acting as mentors, supervising their activities.

During the day the kids would be bused to their Boston schools. But Admiral Johnson, who grew up on the streets of Boston's heavily black Roxbury neighborhood, is enthusiastic about the new world that would open to them. They'd have supervised homework, structured recreation, activities like golf, swimming pools, libraries, training facilities rare in their lives. On weekends, the vets would lead them in inner-city activities such as graffiti removal.

Mr. Johnson wants youth to remain in the program for at least two years -- enough time to forge a whole new set of life experiences and expectations.

With Boston University running the program, they'd be able to take advantage of internships in such fields as bio-medicine, or work toward BU scholarships.

Mr. Johnson says some of the expenses would be paid by state social service moneys now being expended for foster homes. But most of all he sees multiple opportunities: ''You're using the bases. You're providing jobs and skills for the vets. You're reducing violence, educating the kids and providing role models.''

Can hundreds of experiments like this be devised? Can we turn the traditional military killing model into a societal healing model? The jury will be out on those questions for several years. But the potential social and economic benefits would be immense.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban issues.

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