Why is it, I have asked myself, that the American relief efforts in Haiti appear to be dominated or headlined by American troops? Why is it that the military seems, as it has so often in the past, to be the face of the United States in such endeavors? A few days after the earthquake, American troops were described as having “secured Haiti” – secured from what, one should also ask, if not from its own supposedly errant citizens; and, a week into the relief efforts, the New York Times on its front page stated, one suspects rather proudly, “U.S. Troops Patrolling Haiti, Filling Void Left by Quake” (20 January 2010). The Washington Post, on January 22, was similarly to headline the role of the military: “U.S. troops to help oversee Haiti ports, roads in earthquake relief.” The answer, many will aver, is self-evident: when a catastrophe of this magnitude takes place, only the United States armed forces have the infrastructure, manpower, authority, and organizational experience that can meet the requirements of the situation. Moreover, the United States has long been accustomed, as is well known, to thinking of Haiti, indeed all of central America, as its own backyard: and in its backyard the dispatch of American troops is certainly the default reaction.
But, so long as such reasoning exists, the likelihood that the United States, whether acting in concert with the so-called ‘international community’ or independently, will ever put into place an organization drawn from civil society that can perform relief functions on a gigantic scale is negligible. Whatever the mechanisms already in place at the United Nations, and associated relief agencies – Medicin sans Frontiers [MSF], the Red Cross, and many others (such as, for the Haiti Earthquake, “Partners in Health”) – for what is these days termed ‘disaster relief’, it is transparent that the existing infrastructure is woefully inadequate. “The number of weather-related disasters”, an Oxfam 2007 report states, “has quadrupled over the past twenty years and the world should do more to prepare for them.” Does this situation furnish the US military with a continuing mandate to make its presence felt in the Western hemisphere and across the world?
The deployment of American troops on such occasions should be recognized for what it is, namely an aspect of the militarism that is so deeply entrenched into the very fabric of American society. Though the separation of the civilian and military spheres of life is one of the most fundamental and enduring principles of a democratic polity, its subversion is an aspect of everyday existence in the US, from the largely unquestioning ease with which the military conducts recruitment campaigns on college campuses to the ubiquitousness of ‘support our troops’ stickers and yellow ribbons across the front yards of American homes. The anomalousness of American democracy, relentlessly paraded as a model to the world while grounded firmly in principles of militarism – a militarism that extends well beyond the distressingly abundant occasions for which the US has found cause to deploy the military for wars fought in the national interest and to secure America from its sworn enemies – has never adequately been confronted, either in public discourse or scholarship.
Haiti has long had an acquaintance with the presence of American troops on its soil. In early 1915, the country came under American occupation. If the Civil War, fought not only to preserve the Union but also to give some teeth to the Emancipation Proclamation, would compel Lincoln in 1862 to grant diplomatic recognition to Haiti almost 60 years after the slaves rebelled and proclaimed a free republic, it is not accidental that another war should have furnished the pretext for American intervention. Fear of German infiltration of the Caribbean was enough cause to send marines to Haiti. The historian Foster Rhea Dulles is candid in his appraisal that the US set up “virtual protectorates” in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua in an endeavor to transform the entire Caribbean into an “American lake from which all trespassers were rigidly barred.” Then, as now, as US troops entered Haiti, to enforce an occupation that would last nearly 20 years, the New York Times would stand forth to celebrate the heroic achievements of the military: “It was almost hopeless to expect an orderly government to be established without [military intervention] on the part of the United States.”
The need to project the Marines and the US military more generally as an indispensable force for good can never diminish as long as the military remains the backbone of American foreign policy and the desire to remain the world’s dominant power is undiminished. In recent years, as the US fights two wars, both of which have discredited the US and neither of which can be defended as having advanced global stability and peace, the US will strive to put a good face on its military and its humanitarian missions. The New York Times, among other American newspapers, is already circulating reports of the ‘warm reception’ being given to the Marines as they continue with their relief efforts among the earthquake’s victims. To be sure, there is also the recognition that some Haitians at least might be wary about the presence of American troops on Haiti’s soil. The present mission to Haiti might not have the overtones of the ‘liberation’ missions to Iraq and Afghanistan, but humanitarian missions have all too often been the guise under which violations of the sovereignty of other nations have taken place.