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September 16, 2005

Using our Military at Home: We're all Nails Now
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Laura Rozen over at points to this commentary by William Arkin, opening the discussion of whether Bush is right that:

It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces -- the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice.

Remember that old cliche about everything looking like a nail when you've got a hammer?

We have a military, as is repeated ad nauseam by the political class, of unprecedented power and quality.  Its excellence includes:  tracking and destroying fast-moving enemies, be they large armies or small guerrilla groups; preparing for and fighting the large set-piece battles on land, sea and air that this generation of military leaders trained for; moving massive amounts of materiel and soldiers quickly; taking overwhelming control (when political leaders allow it) of the means of violence and of technology; and putting minimal humanitarian systems in place immediately after a battle or natural disaster.

But when a democracy reaches the point that the military is the first answer to any policy question that comes up, that is a scary place.  Scary for society as a whole, but also for the military.  It's interesting that conservative military writers have been putting out novels and policy analyses for a decade now, some approvingly and some alarmingly, imagining a dystopian future where the military is the last competent organization on a decaying American landscape.

Now, it should be simple and straightforward to call in the military for help when a massive disaster occurs.  And when someone without a dog in the blame fight documents for me how something other than Federal, state and local failure to appreciate Katrina's gravity prevented that from happening, I'll listen to suggestions about changes. 

But this is the same Administration that thought it didn't need any civilian planning for post-war Iraq, and which has dumped on our military there a set of civilian chores (and failures) that make it harder for the military to get its military job done.  I'll look forward to hearing from those National Guard generals cropping up all over what they would've needed to get their job done.  I'll bet you that it's more competence on the civilian side, not more shifting of responsibility from the civilian side.

*ps - I am stranded for the foreseeable future at the United gates, Detroit airport, if anyone wants to come by and say hello or engage in learned debate to while away the hours...


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Thank you for the link to the Arkin piece, and for the comments Heather. That line in Bush's speech game me a chill.

While it is true that what is needed is is more funding, planning and competence for and in the federal government, the civilian agencies in that government are the ones that need changes the most. Unfortunately, the military seems to be the only branch of the government beloved by authoritarian leaders like Bush.

If it is true that the military is "the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice," what Americans need to be asking is why there are not other government agencies capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice.

Similarly, the fact that it was the US military that turned out to be the institution that was most effective in getting relief to the victims of the Asian tsunami is not a success story - it is a symptom of massive global failure. This is often how military power grows and seizes greater control: as people fail in their efforts to govern themselves, militarists rush in to fill the governmental vacuum.

Bush is a nasty, little man with a dictatorial mindset, who happens to have been born into a democratic country with traditions he despises, or of which he is ignorant. His first impulse is to seize the opportunity of a national crisis to further weaken the instruments of democratic self-governance, and to grab more power for the Presidency itself. How telling that the only governmental institution he wants to strengthen is the one of which he is the "commander-in-chief", one with its own separate non-democratic and non-republican legal system, and one with a command structure which is uniquely responsive to orders from the top.

Dan -


Heather -


Many of the same people who argue against the loss of civil liberties (oftentimes rightly so) are the same people who will tell you the Federal goverment should have made it all better. Ignoring little things like the Consitution and the Insurrection Act. The military should not be the lead agency for a whole host of reasons starting with the notion that it would not be legal.

The irony here of course is Washington getting most of the blame in a situation it by law can not control. This is not in any way to excuse Washington for not prodding state and local officials to do more both before and after Katrina, because they should have, but there are limitations to federal power under the Constitution.

Of course the notion of a purely civilian agency able to step in with a massive logistical effort for disaster relief is irrational for a myriad number of reasons. The issue was not and is not that we as a nation do not have enough helicoptors, trucks, boats, relief supplies, and expertise but rather we do not use existing assets well enough. Experts in disaster relief need not have a military background but it is essential they understand the miltary because they will always be working with the military. Any large emergency logistical effort is almost by defintion a military operation and requires some of the planners to have a military background and the organization in charge needs to operate well with the military because they will be tasking many military assets.

The lead search and rescue agency, for example, was the Coast Guard because that is part of what they do every day. It would be irrational to create a new civilian agency for search and rescue for many reasons but the biggest one would be they couldn't to it better than the Coast Guard simply for lack of experience and training. One issue was nobody was able to coordinate Coast Guard, National Guard, other military, and other state and local organization just for search and rescue as everyone uses different radios. Recall NY city fire and police not being able to communicate directly and throw in many more different agencies.

None of this is simple and nobody was going to make it all better with a snap of their fingers. The awfull tragedy should certainly have been less awfull and less tragic but a cat 4 is always going to be a large disaster. That said even if the lead agency remains civilian it will always be working closely with the military- mostly National Guard. The lead agency IMO is far less an issue than the limitation of federal power vs the ability of each individual state goverment to respond.

Lane Brody


I agree that there were major failures at all government levels in this disaster. But the annual budget of Louisiana is around $15 billion, and obviously only a fraction of that $15 billion goes toward emergency operations. Mississipi, Alabama and Louisiana are among the poorest states in union. There is no way that state governments, particularly from those states, can provide most of what is needed to respond to a disaster on this scale.

In this case, Washington had all the legal authority it needed and failed to use it promptly and intelligently. Some of that failure was a failure of planning, funding and organization. But a good part of the failure seems to have consisted in individual failures by the responsible officials. In any major disaster like this, situations will arise that weren't forseen. Jobs that seemed in the planning stage to be the highest priorities will turn out to be subordinate to other challenges that weren't anticipated. In such situations, the people who are in charge, need to take charge. They will always need to abandon parts of the playbook, respond quickly and decisively to the evolving situation, and get those things done that need to get done.

I'm not talking about exceeding one's legal authority, but making full use of that authority.

Dan: Granted.

Some of it really was that there were authorities that the feds had, but never used. I could easily imagine that some of them were forgotten simply because they might not have been used in a long time.

However, some of it was unexpected, stuff that nobody had thought about.

Consider that we had not, til Katrina, had major civil disturbances in the US in over 10 years (Rodney King riots).

No plan, anywhere, figured upon civil disorder after a disaster, which I think some of the critics seem to ignore. (Smallscale looting? Yes. Large-scale anarchy? No.) If it had just been the hurricane and flooding, that would be one thing. Add in civil disorder, and the equation changes pretty dramatically.

With that said....

I can blame FEMA. After that, however, once you reach Chertoff and Bush, the actual extent to which one can say they're to blame is pretty small; The reality is that once you reach a top post like that, you depend on everybody below you doing their jobs. It's the nature of executive positions.

So, yes. In whatever personnel file may exist on Michael Brown, there should be a permanent blackballing inserted.

However, at the same time, we do need to stare hard at the state and local officials' actions.

For instance: What the hell happened that 300-500 NOPD officers deserted (on an extreme case; I realize most may not, in fact, have deserted)? Morale in NOPD has been more-or-less generally described as low and diving lower even before Katrina. Had Mayor Nagin done anything to stop that drop? Had his Police Chief? Had anybody said anything about it, even?

Next: Red Cross says the Louisiana Homeland Security office kept them out of New Orleans. Why? What was the Adjutant General (the head of LA's National Guard and a state appointee, who also is Director of that HLS office) thinking, and why didn't the Governor overrule him?

Finally: The buses. The buses. The buses. Legally, NOPD could have commandeered the things, said to the bus drivers "You WILL drive", and used them to evac prior to the hurricane. Why weren't they?

But, eh. That's all for later.

"Finally: The buses. The buses. The buses. Legally, NOPD could have commandeered the things, said to the bus drivers "You WILL drive", and used them to evac prior to the hurricane. Why weren't they?"

Succesful evacuation: Enough buses, but not so many that you encourage people to not use their own cars. More than enough drivers, so even with the attrition of those who will put their family first, you have enough. Staging areas, preannounced and designed and staffed so as to not turn into mob scence but use controlled queues (Need people on site). Since you don't know when you evacuaute (for example Saturday in this case)exactly where will be safe you must provide safe harbor enough distance away that you do not require a second evacuation. This pecludes any turnaround on buses. And lastly where is this safe harbor. Would Texas (astrodome) have accepted 12,000 poor residents of New Orleans on the probabality that New Orleans would be uninhabitable? All this could have been done, but it would have had to have been well planned well in advance. Not to mention funded. Or you can say, 'the Superdome is the last resort and be prepared for three days.' Not a bad idea, but it took five and six days to empty the Dome, which alos sustained more damage than m,ost people expected. Bad local planning prior to, or bad Federal action after the fact. This is why we need an objective investigation, not only to answer the question, but also to solve it.

Nice nice. A lot of useful here. good work
Thanks for all.


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