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Force Without Firepower - Peace, Rescue Action

"True, the [Aerospace Rescue and Recovery] Service is an arm of the air force, with a primary job of saving the lives of American airmen, but,.. . one [also] finds it is, perhaps more accurately, an international rescue service, ready to render professional help when and where needed, no matter how impossible the task.... In many zones, in fact, the gold-banded ARRS aircraft are the only ones permitted to fly across international borders without prior clearance. "

~L.B. Taylor, Jr., That Others May Live (see bibliography); p. 120.

Definition: The employment of military capability for saving lives and setting up disaster relief in times of natural or man-made catastrophe; generally in environments or conditions not manageable by local or civilian resources.

If we can imagine a large-scale military service distinctive both for nonpossession of firearms and dedication to saving lives as its primary mission, the most plausible concept may be Rescue Action. Here we have numerous operational precedents. Consider offhand the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift, or multination response to earthquakes in Peru (1970), Nicaragua (1972), and Italy (1980). Yet except for Berhn, we are talking about tokenism,

The need for a permanent world-available Rescue Command is self-evident. Each year there are about 30 major natural disasters somewhere on the planet, plus various artificial ones. The inadequacy of international rescue efforts — however intense and laudable they have been — is almost common knowledge. We need only recall such recent deliberate tragedies as Biafra, Bangladesh, and Kampuchea, or, among natural calamities, the Bengal cyclone of 1970 and ongoing African droughts. In each case, there were probably deaths surpassing a million and misery beyond accounting. In each case, the sum total of world rescue and relief activity amounted to but a fraction of what was required. Help was tardy and fragmented.

Instead of well-meant civilian and military gestures, all of these situations could have been the scene of gigantic militarily coordinated rescue missions — if only political authority had chosen to summon them. Any political authority with ample military means: the UN, or Canada, or the U.S., or the U.S.S.R., or an International Rescue Command.

Precedents: From a military standpoint, rescue operations are standard procedure — in particular for medics, the Coast Guard, or the National Guard, just to take some U.S. examples. Also, the Military Aircraft Command (MAC) has been involved in hundreds of humanitarian airlifts; a remarkable record — and a miniscule hint of what an organization like MAC could accomplish were rescue action its primary mission. Nowhere was the tragic under-response of military capability more apparent than after the cataclysmic November 1970 cyclone in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Within three weeks the U.S. had managed to send six helicopters. Six?? Out of an inventory of over 12,000? And having as of then lost another 6000 in Vietnam?

The aforementioned Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service illustrates, in miniature, what would be the ethos of an entire military establishment whose mission is to safeguard life, and not to kill. Whenever I think a wholly nonviolent military service is beyond belief, the ARRS comes to mind, where more than 200 service-people have given their lives in the course of duty. The ARRS has, apart from battlefield situations, saved more than 20,000 additional lives.

The irony is that, as with medics, the main concern of ARRS is to "keep the fighting strength." Tactically both are the quintessence of a rescue action force. Strategically both are used to ensure that the killing continues.

Ideas: The concept of a "Great White Fleet" of hospital ships seems to have occurredindependently to Dr. William B. Walsh, father of the S.S. HOPE, and to U.S. Navy Commander Frank Manson, as amplified by Life magazine. With unusual fanfare, Life floated the White Fleet in a July 27, 1959, cover story, to the cheers of high-level and widespread public support. After two more weeks, Life abandoned ship, and the whole notion sank without a trace, except for the privately financed S.S. HOPE, which served from 1960 till its retirement in 1974.

In the Manson/Life version, there would have been six or seven vessels in the Fleet, including a hospital ship, helicopter carrier, cargo ships, and others. Even if fuUy implemented, that would have been a trivial effort, compared to existing naval resources. Yet concepts of that type ought to be revived, enlarged, studied, and advocated by researchers and policymakers alike, and you, the reader.

The only other specific proposal I know of for a standing rescue force (likewise from a navy man) was by the late Commander Sir Stephen King-Hall, a British political-military analyst. Abandoning nuclear arms, the United Kingdom would, in King-Hall's vision, initiate or promote a UN "International Rescue Organization" (IR0).3  The IRO would consist of three airborne brigades of 10,000 men and women each, deployed on three continents and other worldwide bases. Each would have 25 large aircraft and ten other transport planes, three ships (15,000 tons, 30 knots), helicopters, and hovercraft. Recruitment would be from all nations for periods of 5, 10, and 15 years. The force would engage in exercises, goodwill visits, and highly publicized annual maneuvers in different areas of simulated emergencies.

Meanwhile, the burden of world-scale relief and rescue action still falls on a dedicated but utterly deficient medley of civilian agencies, hamstrung by penury and political cross-purposes. Since I first wrote my thesis in 1971, an entire literature has emerged reconfirming these problems in the Sahel famine. Moreover, within a single decade since 1970, we have seen mega death famine and slaughter in Biafra, Bangladesh, and Kampuchea. Even worse, these catastrophes were winked at, for all practical purposes, by the Big Powers.

Rescue action which military service* could do in a grand manner is but a dream where noble gestures must be candles in the dark. Thus, to mention but a few, Able Nathan of Israel and Carl Von Rosen of Sweden each broke the blockade of Biafra to fly in relief supplies. Russell O'Quinn of America flew food to Biafra and Bangladesh. Indochina's Boat People have been aided by such hospital ships as the French//e de lumiere and the German Cap Anamur, by World Vision's Sea Sweep, and, for a while, by the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

However, a truly sufficient rescue command, for humanitarian intervention in natural or civil disaster, requires a much greater level of magnitude. It should possess, say, more than 100 large transport planes, more than 1000 helicopters, more than 100,000 personnel, plus the equivalent of a U.S. Navy fleet, plus the relevant number of trucks, jeeps, small marine craft, field hospitals. tent cities, and prepositioned supply dumps. Etcetera. A trifling ten percent of annual world military expenditures might be a reasonable funding level. (That's S50 billion for rescue action, leaving $450 billion for Armageddon.)

Now for a spot-check of reality. During its 1969 cost overruns, the C-5 A airplane was touted in a two-page Lockheed ad in Newsweek, headlined PEOPLE STARVING. SEND HELP (Biafra?). It was said to have impressed President Nixon. But when the C-5A did perform in an operational crunch, it was the 1973 Middle East War arms lift, not the humanitarian emergencies for which it would also be suited. And as I write these lines, Newsweek (March 8, 1982) reports that the U.S.
Navy has been budgeted $301 million to reacquire hospital ships — for no Great White Fleet, but for the Rapid Deployment Force.

HOPE is but a memory, as is the remark of the Russian ambassador when he visited the HOPE in 1960: "We could all do this if everybody would disarm." Why wait? A combined international rescue fleet could be an introductory stage in a disarmament process. Better yet, a triservice, transnational rescue command; a goal well within the realm of the possible. Even if there is no San Francisco earthquake or Philippine typhoon next week, there are plenty of permanent disaster areas where the Rescue Command can practice its logistics.