October 6, 2009: Recent natural disasters in the Pacific (typhoons, earthquakes and tsunami tidal waves) have once more made the U.S. military much in demand. In the last week, C-17 transports carried relief supplies to Guam, while U.S. Navy ships, especially the amphibious ones with all the helicopters and marines, moved in to help.
This is all a replay of what happened in 2005, when a major earthquake off Indonesia, and tidal waves generated by it, killed over 100,000 people in western Indonesia¬ís Aceh province. This was a place long noted for Islamic conservatism. But most of the aid that showed up was from infidels. Even the U.S. Navy soon arrived, with supplies and huge helicopters. The Islamic radicals in Aceh took a beating in the PR department. Years of painting foreign infidels as devils, gone in a few weeks.
Since then, the Department of Defense began to plan, and train, for more such disaster relief, and peacekeeping, efforts in the future. Many admirals and generals have resisted this in the past. But the Indian and Pacific ocean operations showed that combat ready personnel had no problem carrying out relief operations. The sailors and marines got some good training while doing it, as they had to use their equipment under adverse conditions.
The U.S. Army has already learned that lesson, during 1990s peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. Although the troops were not fighting, they were operating under stressful conditions. Patrols still went out and intelligence operations were intense. That peacekeeping experience proved very useful in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands of officers and troops were able to draw on their Balkans experience when confronted with similar situations in Iraq. Even something as seemingly mundane as patrolling among hostile civilian populations, conducting raids and searches, and manning roadblocks, was a lot easier in Iraq as a result of Balkans experience. This reminded everyone that operational experience, even when you're not shooting a people, has substantial benefits for the troops. The war on terror is likely to require more peacekeeping, than warmaking, skills, and the Department of Defense is moving towards developing better training and preparation for these operations.