For more than a week, most Americans have been transfixed by televised images of immense human suffering within our borders in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
But one aspect of this unfolding catastrophe has been overlooked or simply taken for granted, especially in light of the unseemly and disedifying political blame game now underway. That is the magnificent performance of the men and women of the U.S. armed forces, warriors engaged in a mission of mercy for fellow citizens caught up in desperate circumstances.
Consider just three televised vignettes that most Americans have probably seen repeatedly by now.
The first is that of Army National Guard troops from more than 40 states unloading and distributing palletized relief supplies in innumerable locations with dispatch and efficiency. The overall impression is uniformly one of purposeful activity; there seems to be no one standing around waiting to be told what to do. Remember also that these citizen soldiers are our neighbors, people we deal with every day at the local town hall, post office, or hardware store, among many other settings. And they’re doing a job of work that no other organization in the world could pull off.
The second is that of Army reservists who took just eight hours to move more than a thousands poor souls stranded on a highway overpass in downtown New Orleans for six days and nights. These were special-forces reservists based in Florida who’ve already served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. Anyone with military experience would recognize instantly from the way they carry themselves that these are the best of the best at the tip of the spear. But even more striking was the genuine decency they demonstrated in caring for frightened and bewildered people, many of them elderly, who had undergone an unspeakable ordeal.
The third example comes from the regular Army, the paratroopers of the 82d Airborne Division. This unit is America’s strategic reserve, part of which is always on alert for deployment anywhere in the world within 24 hours. And it’s the finest light infantry unit in the world. Right now they’re rescuing people with small boats and sleeping on the tarmac at the New Orleans airport. Here’s how the division commander, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, put it earlier this week:
He says he and his soldiers spend their days on the streets, and their nights sleeping on the ground at the airport. He says there are no toilet facilities and no showers, and there are only MREs and water to eat and drink.
But Caldwell says they can “go for weeks like this.” And he adds, “At least we’ll have homes to go back to.”
Guardsmen, reservists, and regulars are all doing splendid work in dire circumstances. Their performance brings to mind Orwell’s remark during the Second World War that you and I sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to do violence on our behalf. In this case, capable, brave, and generous men and women who are warriors first and foremost are carrying out a mission of mercy that no other institution could even contemplate.
Two features of this undertaking deserve mention. One is logistics, the art of getting men and materiel from Point A to Point B with all the necessary support to accomplish the mission. It’s an old military adage that amateurs talk strategy while professionals talk logistics. Right now some 65,000 troops from all branches are deployed and hard at work in the affected Gulf states, along with nearly 400 transport helicopters and 20 warships. To take just one example, the Coast Guard alone rescued more people in a couple of days than were rescued all last year along America’s 12,000-mile coastline.
The other is the deeply admirable culture of the U.S. military, something that’s regrettably invisible to some of our fellow citizens. This is an institution capable of turning on a dime from high-intensity warfare to humanitarian relief operations. And it’s an institution that cares and reflects deeply about moral concerns (like the just-war tradition) and the role of an all-volunteer military in our democracy. In a multitude of conversations over the years, military officers have made crystal clear that their mission is doing what’s right as opposed simply to what works, regardless of the moral consequences.
By all means, let’s have a debate about the performance of the guys (and gals) in suits sitting in offices in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Washington. But let’s also make clear how much we all owe our men and women in uniform for their splendid service and sacrifice.
–John F. Cullinan formerly served as a senior foreign-policy adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops, focusing on international law, international religious freedom, and human rights.