The US military role in disaster relief inevitably will increase—Robert Kaplan

A theme of F&V dating back to the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina has been the need for better institutional design and coordination in disaster relief. For instance, on September 1, I called the then-slowly-emerging response to this disaster a Test for government reorganization under DHS.

In that post, I noted that back in 1993, after Hurricane Andrew, several specialists in disaster response had testified before the senate that the military should be given a much greater role in the government’s handling of natural catastrophes.

On October 22, CSPAN’s BookTV re-aired (right before the ridiculous segment on the electoral college) a terrific presentation at AEI by Robert Kaplan. He was talking about his new book, Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground. (The segment originally aired on October 15.)

The book itself sounds fascinating. As Kaplan said, he has travelled and lived for extended periods with military units in mostly unnoticed (though not secret, he noted over and over) operations all over the world, including places like Algeria (!), Colombia, Georgia, and Yemen.

One thing that really caught my ear in his presentation was a theme he articulated regarding the military and disaster relief. Among the operations he was present for was the aid operation by the US Navy after the south Asian tsunami. He said this sort of operation, as well as the military’s (late) engagement in New Orleans were the sort of operations that would inevitably become more common in coming decades.

The reason, he said, is not just that the US military is uniquely capable of mounting such operations in settings where, just as in wartime, public order inevitably breaks down. Also because to a greater degree than at any time in human history–and increasingly so–we have large dense population centers all around the world in flood plains and sesmic zones. In other words, the scale of major disasters will only increase, and militaries (not only our own; he also mentioned Canada and France as being well versed in relief operations) will be called in to provide relief and security.

He specifically outlined scenarios of military involvement in a New Madrid earthqauke that could devastate St. Louis and Memphis, and US forces being on the ground in China after a major flood.

It was not clear to me how much of this discussion is in the book, but it was clear that he was envisioning something very important and, I would add, that needs to be more explictly prepared for.

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