THE U.S. Marines -- outfitted in crisp desert uniforms (whose leopard-spotted, speckled pattern we got to know in local jTC boutiques after Desert Storm), festooned with equipment whose purposes we can only guess at, begoggled, supplied with infrared gadgets for seeing at night (television's latest trick is to show us Somalian scenes through night-vision), and manning the world's highest-tech military equipment -- have descended, in one of the oddest encounters of recent times, on Somalia.
The Marines are a benevolent yet entirely alien force in Somalia. The pictures on television are studies in wordlessness. The arriving forces and the local population are, for the most part, unable to speak with one another. The Somalis gape at the Marines in silent wonderment, and the Marines look back with a kind of cop-on-the-beat detachment.
American viewers, in a daily demonstration of the difference between seeing and understanding, witness starving Somali people who nevertheless remain curiously indistinct. Only their suffering speaks, eloquently; the rest is unknown. The reporters rarely talk to a Somali. The remarks of the Marines, when interviewed, are laconic: "I think the mission is going good," and so forth. Normally, military forces extend their supply lines from the rear to the front. In Somalia, they must first build a "rear," and only then extend the supply lines forward. "If you want a forklift, you have to ship it in yourself," Marine Commandant Gen. Carl Mundy noted on the McNeill-Lehrer NewsHour the other day.
The mission, as explained by the Bush administration, is of a simplicity that corresponds with the poverty of our knowledge about the country in whose affairs we are intervening: We are there solely to provide food. The planning of the Bush administration and the feelings of the American public have concentrated, to the credit of both, on this goal.
Inevitably, however, other realities have been creeping in. The most salient has been the issue of guns. Armed gangs have been a principal cause of the disaster, for they loot and steal the aid meant for the starving. That is why the U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, whose letter to President Bush describing the breakdown of order in Somalia reportedly was crucial in Mr. Bush's decision to intervene, believes that disarmament of the Somali gangs, whether by force or by purchase of their weapons, is necessary. He further believes that the United States committed itself to this goal. However, the commander on the ground in Somalia cordially disagrees, having committed his forces to seizing only such weapons as they happen to come across in carrying out their humanitarian mission.
This issue is the leading edge of a far deeper one. The famine that Americans have seen on television and care about consists in a lack of food, but behind that famine stands another, which might be called a political famine, and which consists in a lack of government. It's an affliction large parts of the world, including a considerable portion of Africa, now suffer. In past times, a political famine in a country was called a power vacuum, and was regarded as a temptation. In the late 19th century, such a vacuum led to the infamous "scramble for Africa," in which European powers competed to be first to plant their flags in the upper reaches of the Congo, in Morocco, in Fashoda. The armies then had conquest, not famine relief, in mind.
It is a measure of the difference between those days and our own that power vacuums, whether in the Balkans, in Africa or somewhere else, are more likely to be seen as dangers to be shunned than opportunities to be seized. The scramble for Somalia has been a reluctant one. Feeding the hungry is a service of government, and the formation of a government, by local people or the international community, is the burdensome and unwelcome responsibility that lies behind the heartening pictures on our screens of Marines passing out food to the starving people of Somalia.
Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.