[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Joshua Foust, Host:
“As any student of aid and development should know,” Nathan Hodge writes in the prologue to his book Armed Humanitarians, “efforts to aid the developing world have often done more harm than good.” This is inarguably true, and Hodge goes on to explain at great length how the U.S. military, as it follows in the footsteps of the aid community, seems determined to make the same mistakes.
The basis of this push within the military, Hodge explains, is the assumption that aid and development reduces violence. In fact, the opposite is often true—many societies tolerate shockingly low levels of development in exchange for stability from a predatory government that enforces civil order; similarly, there is a growing body of evidence that the provision of aid can prolong and deepen the human cost of conflict.
The challenges presented by Armed Humanitarians are not especially new. In his 2004 book of the same title, Robert DiPrizio argues that “soft security, humanitarianism, and domestic political concerns” drive the American impulse to intervene in other countries. He used that framework to examine the post-Cold War practice of interventionism, from Northern Iraq and Somalia to Haiti and Kosovo. The idea of using a military to accomplish humanitarian goals have been a major focus of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy—the lack of a singular global rival practically required it to justify the ever-growing DOD budget. What is new, however, is the extent to which this has become routine.
Hodge traces the development of “armed social work,” as David Kilcullen famously called it, from the start of the war in Afghanistan through the present day. He follows the vaguely fraudulent gurus, flush with catch phrases and colorful powerpoint presentations, who harangued the military into becoming concerned with business development, governance, and relative poverty levels. He follows the embarrassing missteps in the early days of the Iraq War, where a catastrophic military victory left an institutional vacuum the military tried desperately to fill. The civilian agencies of the U.S. government – USAID, the Department of State, and others – did not have the means or policies in place to help the civilians displaced and disrupted by conflict. By default, the military stepped in.
One of the most interesting stories Hodge tells is arguably the most important developing in the militarization of humanitarian work: the Provincial Reconstruction Team. The PRTs represent a dramatic departure from normal military operations: they are joint civilian-military units whose primary responsibility is the long-term political and economic development of a small area. PRTs are, literally, armed humanitarians, not obsessed with killing the enemy but using the instruments of development to undermine him.
PRTs inspired a wave of opposition from traditional relief groups. As the military took on more and more humanitarian missions in the 1990s, tension built up between the relief agencies—CARE, Oxfam, Save the Children, and so on—and the military. One of the key problems was a mismatch of resources: the U.S. military in particular has vastly more resources and capabilities than even the Red Cross, so when they began to participate in relief work the aid agencies felt crowded out by the “competition.”
Soon after the creation of the PRTs in Afghanistan, the Taliban insurgency began a wave of killings against aid workers. In 2004, the relief group Doctors Without Borders dramatically halted all its operations after five of its workers were slaughtered. In a statement, the group blamed not only intransigence on the part of the government in Kabul, but also the deliberate blurring of lines between military and relief work. They’re not alone: Oxfam have become outspoken critics of the militarization of aid, as have scholars who focus on the topic. Even today, when they have re-established their presence in Afghanistan, Doctors Without Borders goes to elaborate lengths to highlight their refusal to participate in any military-funded activity.
The shift in military policy that fomented this militarization is remarkable. Hodge frames the problem as a sort of crisis of personality: the military passionately wants to do what it was designed to do (that is, fight wars), while being told to perform a mission it is not especially good at (that is, develop communities in conflict zones). The result is typically military: large-scale, liberally coated in money, and unsure about its ultimate purpose or methods.
There are other stories Hodge tells – how the inadequacy of the government in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan spurred the creation of a massive corps of armed contractors, the rise and inevitable misuse of the CERP program, and the way personnel security worked against American strategic objectives—each of which probably deserves its own book. Hodge’s mixture of reporting and research makes for an easy, breezy overview of all of these issues, and presents them (appropriately) as a growing knot of unsolved problems we must eventually face.
Nathan Hodge has assembled a straightforward, well-reported accounting of the most recent evolution of America’s expeditionary fighting—and development—spirit. It serves as an excellent introduction to many of the concepts and pitfalls the foreign policy establishment now faces as it struggles to come to grips with the future of 21st century conflict.