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Talking past each other

This previous post looked at a story widely circulated through the blogosphere, in which a U.S. Naval officer, writing under the pen name "Ed Stanton", was sharply critical of how U.N. and NGO personnel involved in providing tsunami relief to Indonesia behaved while receiving meals and lodging aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.

Now, Blackfive has posted a response from another Navy man, Lieutenant Commander Jeff Vorce.

Vorce claims Stanton's account is rife with "inaccuracies", but he doesn't really point out what any of them are. Instead, he mainly emphasizes the impressive accomplishments of the U.S. in Indonesia:

The people of Indonesia genuinely appreciate our assistance. There are homemade American flags that the hungry and injured have made and display in the makeshift landing zones where we drop off medical supplies, food, and water to prove it. My heart swells with pride (and I choke up a little) every time I see hundreds of displaced persons cheer, salute, and flash a big smile or a thumbs-up when my crewmen are off-loading boxes marked with red, white, and blue stickers that proclaim, "Food from the American People."
That's great news, but it doesn't contradict anything Stanton wrote. Stanton's objection was to the rude and arrogant behavior of the U.N. and NGO members aboard the Lincoln, not to America's participation in the relief effort itself.
The Indonesian government (rightly so) is in charge of the overall relief effort underway on the western coast of Sumatra. Last time I checked, it is their country. Simply put, we are here to aid them with their recovery.
True enough, but when someone shows up to help you in a time of trouble, it's a bit gauche to start placing onerous conditions on their behavior. Stanton was legitimately upset that our military preparedness suffered as a direct result of Indonesia's petty refusal to let U.S. pilots train in Indonesian airspace.
We are merely one part of what could end up as the largest relief effort in history. The resources and personnel of the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group are working in concert with the people of Indonesia, other nations, militaries, and a host of non-governmental relief agencies including US AID, Red Cross & Red Crescent Society, WHO, UNICEF, Doctors without Borders, and the WFP.
That's kind of like saying Michael Jordan was only one part of the Bulls. As Stanton observed, the aid groups Vorce lists depend on the U.S. military for support -- food, lodging, supplies, and logistics -- on a scale, and at a pace, that's beyond their ability to provide. They can't function, at least nowhere near as quickly and effectively, without the U.S. But the U.S. was doing just fine without them, airlifting supplies directly into disaster-struck areas before the U.N. could get its act together.

Even other nations' militaries often come up short by comparison (although some, in particular the British and the Australians, are making significant contributions).

And as thanks for America's invaluable contribution, the U.N. has graciously taken credit for our military's hard work. That's the kind of impudence that got Stanton so riled up in the first place.

I find it curious that Mr. Stanton complains about having to wait in line to get food behind men and women who are supporting the same mission as his brothers and sisters in arms.
Again, Vorce's response is off-base. Nowhere in Stanton's account did he complain about having to wait in line. Rather, he critcized the arrogant behavior of the U.N. and NGO personnel.

The civilians that have been transported by our helicopters and have been hosted aboard the carrier are not a "traveling circus" of aid workers or "trifling do-gooders." On the contrary, these are professionals who have years of experience in mitigating human suffering and tragedy. While there are many highly trained men and women deployed alongside me, there are few (if any) who have expertise in the prediction of malaria transmission vectors, the proper disposal of tens of thousands of human remains, creating a system to match orphaned children with distant relatives, reviving an entire economy, prioritizing bridges or roads to be re-built, or any of the other skills sets that are so critical to disaster relief.
Vorce is close to making a legitimate point here: that some aid workers possess skills and experience helpful to the relief mission.

But are all of them invaluable, highly-trained professionals? Isn't it possible some of them are just supporting the ones with more experience, by providing an extra pair of hands? And regardless of how highly trained any of them may or may not be, is there any excuse for their whining about having to eat off paper plates, or airily refusing to pay the bill for the food they ate?

Moreover, Stanton directed some of his harshest comments not at the aid workers themselves, but at the "reporters, cameramen and Indonesian military officers" who followed them aboard for no clear reason.

The description of an aircraft carrier as an "instrument of national policy" is accurate. The belief that the offensive strike capability of the air wing she carries is the only way to project this policy is flawed. Here in Indonesia, such an assumption is a slap in the face to the sailors who volunteered to go ashore and load thousands of pounds of rice into helicopters each day in the tropical heat. It fails to take into account the talent of the ship's engineering teams that were able to repair generators at the local hospital and restore electrical power. It overlooks the heroism of the navy medical personnel that saved countless lives in the wake of the tsunami's devastation. It doesn't begin to calculate the strategic value of clothing donations, a soccer ball tossed from a helicopter, or a handful of candy given to children who have lost everything they have.
Vorce works up a fine froth of righteous indignation, but once again, he completely misrepresents Stanton's comments. Stanton never questioned the wisdom, the value, or the effectiveness of the U.S. response. Rather, he criticized the arrogant behavior of the U.N. and NGO personnel. (I'm starting to feel like I should set up a macro to instantly type that phrase.)

And while use of military force may not be the only way an aircraft carrier can advance U.S. interests, surely the carrier's highest priority must be to make sure that its "offensive strike capability" remains primed and ready for action. Helping nations in need is unquestionably a noble and worthy use of our military, but it must not come at the expense of our military preparedness.
With respect to the media, the only negative portrayal of Operation UNIFIED ASSISTANCE (the name given to the US military's regional response to the tsunami disaster) I have seen was Mr. Stanton's.
The straw man Vorce keeps pounding away at is looking pretty ragged by this point. Stanton never portrayed the U.S. operation in a negative light. Rather (all together now, kids), he criticized the arrogant behavior of the U.N. and NGO personnel.
The Indonesian press has praised our work and questioned the paucity of relief assistance from other Islamic nations.
This may be true, but if so, it's certainly gone under-reported in the Western media. A link or two would be helpful. So far, Indonesia's highest-profile comment on the U.S. role in the aid effort came when Indonseian vice-president Jusuf Kalla said troops should be gone "the sooner the better".
Military service members often complain that the media "doesn't get it right" and fails to cover all of the positive work we do; this time the media got it right and Mr. Stanton got it wrong.
I don't think he "got it wrong". He just emphasized different, but equally valid, aspects of the story.




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