Hurricane Katrina exposed the country’s weaknesses in disaster preparation and disaster relief. Americans affected by the storm and those watching it on TV expected a quick, competent response to rescue those stranded, feed those hungry, and secure those vulnerable to the chaos that ensued. While the congressional hearings are just beginning and blame is volleyed among local, state, and federal officials, one thing is clear: The Defense Department’s Joint Task Force commander, Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, will survive the inquiry as a hero, because Defense was so integral and successful throughout the relief effort.
The military’s success has sparked anew the debate on the proper role of the military in a democratic society. Though traditional boundaries between the military and civilian authorities have been blurring over the decades, Katrina raises an important civil-military relations question: What should be the military’s role in disaster relief and other non-warfighting activities in the United States?
Nature Can Be a Devastating Enemy
Recently, President Bush urged Congress to consider this question and whether the Defense Department should play a primary role in disaster relief. Currently, the military is only the lead to dissuade, deter, and defeat enemy attacks upon the U.S., the population, and critical infrastructure. As the Strategy for Homeland Defense and Consequence Management makes clear, the Department of Defense only provides support to civil authorities in other circumstances. But as hurricanes Katrina and Rita made clear, nature can be a devastating enemy. If we focus on the result and not the cause of the devastation, then the Defense Department should play more than a supporting role in disaster relief. To the disappointment of many in defense circles, no other federal or state agency is as well-resourced and as competent as the Defense Department.
Initial responses to the President’s call for an increased role of the military as America’s 911 force object on the grounds of Posse Comitatus. In 1878, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act to prohibit the use of the military in a law enforcement role. While few civilians grasp or care about the historical reasons for enacting Posse Comitatus or the legal distinctions between active duty military (Title 10) and the National Guard (Title 32), the effect of the Act was to remove America’s most capable force from a direct role in operating within the United States.
The Defense Department is the only department in government that has the personnel, equipment, and command and control capabilities to rapidly respond to disasters within the United States. The current challenge facing the country is when to employ the military. The approach outlined in the National Response Plan and current history suggest there are not unambiguous answers.
Since it is an act of Congress, it can be changed. In fact, Congress and the president have consistently expanded the use of the military in domestic affairs because the security and disaster relief challenges can frequently exceed the ability of local governments and other federal agencies to respond. For decades, for example, the military has assisted law enforcement to combat the illegal flow of drugs. More recently, the military has been preparing to respond to a nuclear, chemical, or biological event. The reasoning is simple: The task of preventing or cleaning up a mass casualty event is too great for local officials, so the real question is when should we employ the military. The approach outlined in the National Response Plan, as well as current history, suggests there are not unambiguous answers.
Since 9/11, there have been calls for expanding the role of the military in non-traditional spheres. My colleague Jeff Norwitz argues that the nature of counterterrorism requires that the Defense Department engage more on U.S. territory than it currently does. The Defense Department, however, has not been eager to employ forces on domestic soil. In fact, it wasn’t until 2002 that Northern Command was created to plan, organize, and execute homeland defense and civil support missions. This new role has meant deploying surface-to-air missiles around the national capital, conducting combat air patrols over American cities, and developing an awareness of threats in the maritime approaches to the United States. We no longer think of terrorism as a problem to be addressed by law-enforcement agencies alone. It’s time we revised our thinking about natural disasters as well.
Viceroys Abroad, Why Not at Home?
These images show the positive contributions the military made in the wake of the hurricanes: vaccinating Americans, repairing buildings, and providing clean water. These are the types of things the Defense Department has been doing for people all around the world for decades. American service members have built schools in the Balkans, so why shouldn’t they do the same in the U.S.? The American military delivered food to tsunami victims in Indonesia, so why shouldn’t it deliver food to hurricane victims in the Gulf Coast? And American soldiers and Marines provide security in Iraq and Afghanistan, so why shouldn’t they in times of crisis in New Orleans? Historical reasons and deference to local authorities are not sufficient answers.
There is no reason to think that that military would abuse an expanded role helping Americans or that an expanded role would run counter to American political culture. Public-opinion polls consistently show that Americans trust the military to do what is right. A January 2005 Harris Poll shows that 63 percent trust the military compared to only 22 percent who trust Congress.
There is no reason to think that the military would lose its war-fighting edge if it were engaged in domestic relief operations. The current defense structure relies on dual-capable forces for domestic consequence management and other non-combat activities. Multipurpose platforms like aircraft carriers or amphibious landing ships consistently prove their worth in flexibility. Responses after the Asian tsunami or hurricanes Katrina and Rita illustrate that the Navy can use its ships to stage search-and-rescue operations, to serve as floating hospitals, and to produce much-needed water for disaster-stricken areas (millions of gallons a day).
Nor would the war-fighting tradition be dulled while performing “soft missions” like disaster relief. As I explored in the book America’s Viceroys, the military has been fulfilling an important role in diplomacy and non-war-fighting missions for decades. For example, it was Gen. Anthony Zinni who maintained relations with countries in Central Asia long before Afghanistan became important to the United States. It was Gen. Charles Wilhelm who assisted Bogotá’s efforts to stabilize Colombia. And it was Adm. William Crowe who created diplomatic opportunities throughout the Asia-Pacific region. These non-war-fighting missions did not undermine their effectiveness as military officers.
There are many more examples of military leaders proving they could broadly represent the United States, negotiate difficult treaties, and meet the challenges civilian leaders designate. With the shortcomings of the D.C.-based bureaucracies and limitations of local governments to respond to major events, military leaders have a distinct advantage over their civilian counterparts: The military breeds success; the officer promotion system ensures that only the best rise to the top and once there these officers are endowed with large planning staffs, solid command and control capabilities, and an infrastructure to move personnel, equipment, and supplies.
And senior military officers continue their non-war-fighting roles during “retirement.” Admiral Crowe represented the United States in London; Admiral Preuher served in Beijing; General Zinni was Pres. George W. Bush’s special envoy to the Middle East. Consequently, the military has a reputation for getting things done and its “can do” attitude towards any crisis is what provoked the current discussion on disaster-relief duties. Why shouldn’t we see military leaders fill similar positions within domestic security? Lieutenant General Honore is perfectly qualified to be the secretary of Homeland Security. Vice Admiral Allen could no doubt lead an enlarged FEMA that has disaster preparation, mitigation, and response capabilities. The long-term question is whether civilian agencies can develop competence and strong leadership equal to that of the military. If the Department of Homeland Security cannot overcome its bureaucratic shortfalls and leadership deficiencies, then the Defense Department will be looked at to perform more and more domestic non-combat missions.
The military is a proven contributor to foreign policy. Why can’t it make the same contributions to domestic policy? In a time of crisis, the United States doesn’t need a coordinator; it needs a leader. Civilian-controlled military officers offer this leadership. Why shouldn’t the Defense Department be the lead organization for domestic disasters?
–Derek Reveron is the editor of America’s Viceroys: the Military and U.S. Foreign Policy, associate professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College, and a former intelligence analyst for the FBI.