Advice for US Troops in Haiti

Thomas Ricks is a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter who was formerly the military correspondent for the Washington Post. He’s well-regarded by the military, and has incredible access, as shown by his two thorough books on the Iraq War, “Fiasco” and “The Gamble.”

Ricks loves digging through obscure military documents and the writings of everyday soldiers. He publishes some of his findings on his blog on the site.

A few days ago, he published an article by retired Marine colonel Gary Anderson which gives advice to US soldiers doing humanitarian work in Haiti. It’s really interesting, common-sense stuff, and Anderson shows a lot of respect for the non-government relief organizations. Here are some excerpts:

Don’t be afraid to use non-traditional sources such as reporters, NGOs, and missionaries in the ongoing assessment. That angry reporter or Non Governmental Organization (NGO) worker, who wants to know why nothing has been done for village X, has just given you a piece of your assessment puzzle.

As soon as possible, get permission to fly non Department of Defense personnel in military aircraft. This…always gets overlooked until some overly officious Air Force Master Sergeant won’t let a desperately needed civilian doctor on an airplane.

Sea-base the operation as much as possible. Every American who spends the night on shore is one less Haitian that will get food or water that day. Ruthlessly weed out uniformed “tourists” who don’t have a real function.

Wherever possible, use local security forces to secure distribution sites. The last thing you need to have on CNN is American troops clubbing desperate villagers like baby seals at a relief distribution site.

Whatever you do, don’t do air drops–you are likely to kill more people than you help by crushing them with pallets or by starting riots.

Keep Your Relations with NGOs and IOs Professional. Most of these people are more likely to join the Peace Corps than the Marine Corps, but they are professionals in their own fields and will be as results-oriented as you are in their own way. Some have never dealt with the military before and may have an attitude when you first meet them. The best way to confront that is head on. Tell them, “We are both here to get a job done. Let’s leave our personal feelings at the door. You may even find that I’m not a war criminal.”

Don’t get involved with the disposal of human remains. Think how you’d feel watching your grandmother shoved into a ditch by a Russian bulldozer. CARE and some of the other major NGOs are funded and know how to stand up ad hoc mortuary companies to bury people in ways acceptable to the local culture. This will also get some needed money pumped into the economy. They are also smart enough to keep an eye on the local entrepreneurs. At some point in the operation, they will start to run short of bodies. Gruesome as it sounds, some of these people in past disasters have dug up bodies to get paid for burying them multiple times. You would never have thought of that; leave that sort of thing to the pros.

Avoid going high tech. Mobile surgical field hospitals and reverse water treatment purification units are wonderful things, but you stand the risk of raising local expectations so high that they won’t want to part with them, and they wouldn’t be able to maintain them, even if you could leave them.

Sadly, those who will die from immediate injuries sustained in the earthquake will likely have done so by the time you get there. What will really be needed are internists with qualified interpreters who can treat the invariable gastrointestinal diseases that will follow from drinking bad water.

You can download the full article as a PDF here.

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