There has been a lot of criticism of late by some civilian humanitarian actors that the United State military, especially since 9/11, has militarized humanitarian assistance and development in attempts to win hearts and minds and in doing so is trespassing in the “humanitarian space.” Critics have gone on to say that the biggest threat to humanitarian actors and their humanitarian space is the United States military and its post 9/11 doctrine. They point to casualties among the staff of non-governmental humanitarian organizations (NGHOs) in places such as Afghanistan to make their point.
It is true that the United States Army has republished its counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, the latest version being the October 2006 FM 3-24. The Army also published in October 2008 its landmark FM 3-07, Stability Operations. Both these bodies of doctrine recognize that there are civilians on the battlefield, and that they matter very much. The Army has become ever more engaged in humanitarian assistance and development in regions of violent conflict, as have our Marines, Seabees, and in the littorals, our Navy with its young Maritime Civil Affairs Group (MCAG). Officers and Seamen from the MCAG are serving or have served worldwide in places like the Horn of Africa, Central and South America and the Philippines. The Navy has also used its USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy to great effect in the littoral humanitarian space. Just this summer, the USNS Comfort took 650 medical professionals to seven Latin American countries where they provided urgent medical care to tens of thousands of needy civilians.
So how is this history and not current events? Well, it is both. First, a little chronology is in order. The term “humanitarian space” was coined in the 1990s by the then director of Doctor’s Without Borders. Granted, the term began circulating before 9/11 and the recent publication of FM 3-24 and FM 3-07, but those manuals were based in history of modern warfare. FM3-24 (COIN) and FM3-07 (Stability Operations) draw from the U.S. Army’s experience in Mexico in the 1840s, the Philippines in the late 1890’s and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. FM3-24 also draws on the British experience in Malaya in the 1950s. When Republic of Korea General Paik Sun Yup fought communist guerrillas in the Chiri Mountains in 1951, he was tutored by LTG Van Fleet, USA, who had tutored the Greek Army to victory over communist insurgents in the mountains of Greece. All these operations involved great charity as well as great violence, and Soldiers in all cases proved to be very compassionate humanitarian actors in their own right. From the 1960s onward, Medical, Engineer, Dental, Veterinarian Civic Action Programs (MEDCAPs, ENCAPS, DENTCAPS, VETCAPs) would become commonplace, standard operating procedures for the U.S. military and its allies. The U.S. Army began playing “civilians on the battlefield” at the Joint Readiness Training Center and various other training sites in the 1980s, before the term “humanitarian space” was coined and well before 9/11. And let us not forget the Greatest Generation. Commensurate with the planning for Operation OVERLORD, the amphibious assault of Europe, the U.S. Army began final planning for Operation ECLIPSE, the reconstruction and stabilization of Europe. The execution of Operation ECLIPSE required our Army to conduct extensive humanitarian assistance, development, military government and support to civil administration.
Though hearts and minds were certainly a motive in all these good deeds performed by the U.S. military dating back to our war with Mexico, the bulk of our military’s involvement in humanitarian assistance and development can be traced back to U.S. military regulations and international law. Civil Military Operations (CMO) were first codified in General Scott’s General Order #20 during the Mexican-American War. This order protected Mexican civilians from lawless acts by American Soldiers and instilled marshall law in occupied territories. In concert with martial law, Scott initiated public sanitation projects in cities his Soldiers occupied. These projects provided paid employment to Mexican labor and protected the health of both the Mexican civilians and the American Soldiers. During the Civil War, GO # 20 morphed into GO# 100, which was later used in the Philippines as well. GO #100 was much of the inspiration for the Hague Convention of 1907, which stated in part “The authority of the legitimate power having in fact passed into the hands of the occupant, the latter shall take all the measures in his power to restore, and ensure as far as possible, public order and safety, while respecting, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country.” The Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civil Persons in Time of War, 12 August 1949, (link at right)goes several better, stating “to the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate.” Article 59 of the Convention touches on civilian humanitarian actors: “If the whole or part of the population of an occupied territory is inadequately supplied, the Occupying Power shall agree to relief schemes on behalf of said population, and shall facilitate them by all means at its disposal. Such schemes, which may be undertaken either by states or impartial humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, shall consist, in particular, of the provision of consignments of foodstuffs, medical supplies and clothing.” International law ratified by almost all UN member states, U.S. included, recognized that militaries and NGOs might have to “scheme” together to meet the needs of civilians in distress. Article 2 of the Convention states that the convention applies to “all cases of partial or total occupation. . . even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance” and Article 3 states that the Convention also applies “in the case of armed conflict not of an international character. . .” Article 3 recognizes the need for militaries to conduct humanitarian assistance while fighting insurgents in their own territory or when helping an ally fight insurgents.
In conclusion, to my civilian humanitarian actor friends, I swear, the U.S. military is not your enemy and we and our post 9/11 doctrine are not the greatest threat to your existence or to humanitarian space. As indicated by the Fourth Geneva Convention, we must together make a better world for civilians or real battlefields.