Saving, Not Invading

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, here’s an idea: bring the troops home. Retrain them. And use them for disaster relief.

Coast guardsmen hoist a resident into a helicopter as they respond to search-and-rescue requests this week following Hurricane Harvey. Brandon Giles / Department of Defense

“What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about,” Madeleine Albright asked General Colin Powell in the 1990s, “if we can’t use it?”

Albright, then the US ambassador to the United Nations, was frustrated by Powell’s insistence that the United States only use military force when its vital interests were threatened. The US, she seemed to suggest, had to deploy the military for its own sake.

Two decades later, the US military is more overstretched than ever. It has close to eight hundred bases in more than seventy countries. It’s been in Afghanistan for sixteen years with little to show for it, and will probably be there for at least another three for little more reason than inertia. It’s drone bombing several countries, even though members of the military, including high-ranking officials, openly acknowledge that such strikes perpetuate the very terrorism they’re trying to eliminate.

It’s a counterproductive killing machine. There could be a different raison d’être for the military, however — a task which the enormous manpower, wealth, and resources of the US military could be directed toward that would bring tangible benefits to millions of people: disaster relief.

The destruction and flooding wrought by Hurricane Harvey has overwhelmed the federal government’s ability to respond. After Harvey rolled through Texas over the weekend, Brock Long, the head of FEMA, pleaded for ordinary Americans to assist the federal response effort. “Helping Texas overcome this disaster is going to be far greater than FEMA co-ordinating the mission of the entire federal government,” he said. “We need citizens to be involved.”

At the time 8,500 federal employees had been dispatched, augmenting local police and firefighters. They’ve since been joined by hundreds of volunteers from California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and numerous other states, some simply ordinary citizens with boats. They’ll soon be assisted by 24,000 National Guard troops and more than two hundred volunteers trained as part of the Surge Capacity Force program.

Even so, it hasn’t been enough. As the New York Times reported on Wednesday, “the scale of this storm has pushed many emergency workers beyond their limits,” with 911 operators overwhelmed and the Coast Guard inundated with more than a thousand calls an hour.

And once the immediate disaster relief is carried out, the scale of the damage will require further manpower and resources. The number of homes that have been damaged or destroyed has officially reached one hundred thousand. Bridges, roads, and other infrastructure have been severely damaged and require rebuilding. Yet there’s a shortage of workers with the necessary skills to carry out such work.

That’s where the armed forces comes in. The United States currently has 1.3 million military personnel around the world, as well as another 800,000 in reserves. It has 11,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan, far more than the number of FEMA employees deployed after Harvey. According to 2015 Pentagon figures, it has nearly 50,000 personnel stationed in Japan, nearly 40,000 in Germany, nearly 12,000 in Italy, and more than a thousand in Belgium.

What if, instead of being sent to fight and die in forever-wars, these young men and women were retrained and redeployed to assist in disaster relief back home?

There are clear precedents. Through programs like Senior Corps, Americorps, and Learn and Serve America, young Americans already do vital work in education, the environment, and, indeed, in disaster relief. Before that, Americans were employed in public works programs during the New Deal, building dams and bridges and hospitals.

The military’s usefulness in disaster relief is already evident. Besides the National Guard (which is routinely tapped when natural disasters strike), the military has also provided helicopters, amphibious vehicles, inflatable rafts, trucks, and more for the Harvey relief effort. Active duty troops were likewise mobilized to make rescues following Hurricane Katrina. And in Cuba, renowned for its hurricane preparedness, the military plays a key role in pre-disaster evacuation, helping move residents’ belongings to safety.

Of course, it would be overkill to deploy a million troops domestically to deal with even something as ruinous as Harvey. But Harvey won’t be the last climate disaster. With sea levels rising and the ocean warming, extreme weather events will become both more common and more severe in the future. By one estimate, any given area in the world will see 60 percent more extreme rain events, even if warming is kept under two degrees celsius. Coupled with the increased frequency of wildfires, it’s clear the United States will need a permanent, well-trained, and well-equipped civil defense force to help carry out preparation, evacuation, rescues, and the clean-up and rebuilding effort afterwards. Why not redirect the manpower and some of the resources of the military toward this effort?

The US military is not only a site of colossal waste, it inflicts untold suffering around the world and severely harms those it deploys. So what, as Madeleine Albright once asked, is the point of having it? Perhaps if it was put to work dealing with extreme climate disasters, we would find out.