The Ugly American in Burma?

Late last year, the antiwar group Code Pink protested the presence of a US Marine Corps recruiting office in Berkeley, California. Tensions intensified earlier this year after the city proclaimed the Marines “unwelcome intruders,” triggering a counter-protest. While the antiwar group called our Marines “killers” and every other name in the book — they left one out. That name — “humanitarians” — reflects a role our Marines, and the rest of our military, have performed admirably over the years. It is a role totally ignored by Code Pink, and one our military just last week was called upon again to perform.

Reports of the devastation in Burma caused by Cyclone Nargis indicate extensive destruction of property and loss of life — possibly claiming more than 100,000 lives. Whenever natural disaster strikes in the world, characteristically it is the US that is first to respond. And, when America responds, shipping food, shelter, power, medical equipment and rescue personnel to an affected part of the world, there is but one organization on the globe capable of delivering — the US military. Most the time, it is the Navy/Marine Corps team answering the call as naval vessels have the advantage of quick responsiveness and bulk shipping.

Helicopters onboard carriers then become the workhorse for getting those supplies ashore, with Marines securing the area for both military and civilian aid givers and distributing supplies to victims.

The situation in Burma is different, however, as a brutal military junta in power there has been reluctant to allow US aid into the country. It appears whatever aid may be allowed in will be restricted so as to minimize access by the US to the countryside. The first deliveries were made May 12 via a US Air Force C-130 cargo aircraft.

While the US Navy/Marine Corps team stands ready to assist should the junta’s generals change their mind, it appears they prefer to let their people suffer than give the US military access to them. It is therefore unclear whether the Navy/Marine team will play a significant role in saving the lives of Cyclone Nargis’ victims.

For now, the generals want to gain credit for their own military — the tool by which they have been able to maintain control in the country.

They are requiring all foreign aid to be flown into Rangoon for distribution by its army alone. This is despite the fact the hardest hit area was that southwest of Rangoon — the low-lying, rice-growing region — where most roads and bridges were destroyed. Even though the Navy/Marine Corps team has the ability to bypass these transportation bottlenecks with a fleet of helicopters capable of rushing supplies to victims, the Burmese government has yet to give its permission.

And, as for the trickle of foreign aid actually getting through, it would appear the junta has learned well a lesson from the novel “The Ugly American.” In that 1958 political satire about a fictional Southeast Asian country the US seeks to help, communist sympathizers strip US supplies of all markings, replacing them with Soviet markings.

The junta has embarked upon a similar subterfuge, replacing any foreign markings on aid supplies with notices they are a gift from members of the military junta.

The US military has been playing the role of humanitarian for more than a century. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt, as a former Secretary of the Navy who gained tremendous insight into the range of naval capabilities, commissioned the Great White Fleet to sail around the world. While the intent was to show the US flag and our naval might, it also became an opportunity for the Navy to conduct its first ever response to render aid during a natural disaster. When an earthquake devastated Messina, Italy in 1908, claiming up to 200,000 lives, US Navy ships rushed to provide humanitarian assistance, starting a long-standing naval tradition. The list of natural disasters around the world in which the US military has since rendered aid continues to grow each year.
Interestingly, even as Code Pink antiwar activists blocked entry to the Berkeley Marine recruiting office late last year, Marines were saving lives in Bangladesh after it was hit by a killer storm that claimed the lives of thousands.

Our military has repeatedly demonstrated it is armed with a sword forged with two sides — a sharp one to cut down any enemy threatening our freedoms; and a softer one with which to render assistance to victims of natural disasters. That sword is unsheathed either to confront evil or render life-support. Ironically, even our enemies have witnessed this, as in the case of terrorist mastermind, al-Zarqawi, the prince of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi, severely wounded in a building hit in a June 2006 US air strike as he plotted his next murderous attack, saw US military medical personnel rushing to his side as he took his last breath. Thus, the last thing this brutal killer saw was the first thing Burmese victims will now see — US military personnel rushing into harm’s way to save human life.