The U.S.’ reaction to last week’s devastating earthquake in Haiti has, in many ways, been gratifying. Whadya know — we actually care a little.
Sure, there will always be Rush Limbaughs and Pat Robertsons sticking their dicks in the metaphorical mashed potatoes with predictably hate-filled racist outbursts. But so far, anyway, the reactions of the public, commercial media, and the federal government have been overwhelmingly decent and compassionate.
Concern for Haiti’s plight is so widespread, in fact, that it’s seeping into the parts of culture otherwise isolated from normal human reality. Perez Hilton, the popular celebrity gossip blogger best known for sketching penises and cocaine on paparazzi photos, is now sketching halos on photos of celebrities who have announced large donations of money to Haiti. Nothing to do with Haiti, but he also has a nip-slip beach photo of Carrie Prejean if you’re interested.
Two days after the quake, President Obama announced that the U.S. military would take a leading role in our humanitarian relief effort in Haiti. Roughly 3,500 women and men from the 82nd Airborne Division, as well as 2,200 Marines, should be in Haiti by now. Accompanying them offshore will be the Navy’s USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship with 12 operating rooms.
I don’t think there’s any serious doubt the U.S. military’s presence will save Haitian lives in the short-term. Haiti lacks the infrastructure, expertise and machinery to mount a recovery operation. By securing and managing the airport in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, the U.S. military is opening up the bandwidth through which flows aid and recovery. That means more doctors and medicine to treat the injured; more food, water and clothing to nourish the 300,000 people who, according to the United Nations, lost their homes; more trained rescue workers to locate survivors still buried under rubble; and sadly, more earth-moving equipment to quickly bury the dead, thus slowing the spread of illness.
But once the short-term rescue operation is done, is it good for Haiti to have U.S. troops around?
History suggests no.
The U.S. has a long history of sending troops into Haiti. The results have never been all that great for Haitians. Just to be clear, that’s not just my opinion. It’s the U.S. Army’s opinion.
Rummaging online for a detailed history of U.S. military intervention in Haiti, I found a refreshingly candid history on the website of the U.S. Army’s Combined Arms Center’s Command and General Staff College.
From 1915 to 1934, the U.S. Marines occupied and governed Haiti. The mission had two goals. The first was to pre-empt German imperial expansion in the Caribbean. We wanted the Caribbean in our sphere of economic and political influence. If you’ve ever consumed a beer brewed in the Caribbean, you know that particular mission was accomplished.
The second mission was to modernize and stabilize Haiti’s government. That mission failed. Miserably. U.S. troops didn’t understand Haitian culture, didn’t respect Haitian people, and had no idea how to operate without aggravating the country’s deeply rooted racial tensions.
Even when our troops were gone, we continued to exert a negative influence. Haitian President Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who held office from 1957 to 1971, used America’s fear of Communist expansion in the Caribbean to convince the U.S. to arm a vicious private security force loyal only to Duvalier, and later to his son, “Baby Doc,” who was president from 1971 to 1986.
In other words, after trying and failing to build civil institutions, we did a 180 and started investing in warlord-ism.
In 1994, the U.S. invaded again. Our intentions were better this time. We wanted to restore the democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide after he was overthrown in a violent coup. The intervention was a tactical success, meaning we showed up and quickly restored the overthrown guy. But chaos continued to define Haiti’s politics, while poverty and violence defined life for Haitian people.
Based on our past experience, we can expect the U.S. military to be quite good as sort of a 911 service, but not much beyond that. In Haiti, it’s still every man, woman and child for themselves. Haiti is a Hobbesian nightmare our military can’t fix.
Just to be clear, I mean Thomas; not the stuffed cartoon cat.
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