Disasters Made for Marines

Corps has the skills to restore order, setup services

Recent events in the Gulf Coast remind us that FEMA and the federal government in general are not organized to swiftly deploy in support of situations that require rapid-fire decisions, extended self-sustainment, and dangerous conditions. What I cannot understand is why we do not employ members of the federal government whose job already fits this description — United States Marines.

The official mission of the United States Marine Corps as established in the National security act of 1947 is to ensure that Marines are trained, organized, and equipped for offensive amphibious employment and as a “force in readiness.” There are several reasons why it, or some other military unit, should be in charge of the immediate aftermath of a disaster, natural or otherwise.

Marines up and down the chain of command are taught to produce 80% solutions, that is make decisions with the information that you have. If you wait for 100% of the information, the situation has changed. If you make 100 decisions and you are right on 80 of them, you will get results. This attitude is perfect for combat operations, but it would also well serve disaster relief efforts. Former FEMA Director Brown’s clear petrifaction in the face of making a decision without an exhaustive review of information is in stark contrast to the swift decisions that Commanding Officers make daily with much more limited information.

The Marine Corps has a number of unique units, all of which are self-sustaining for up to 90 days, which pass a rigorous training and testing syllabus that includes the following: non-combatant evacuations, show of force, civil action, and military operations in urban terrain, among others. All of these operations fall under the broad umbrella of military operations other than war that Marines have shown particular aptitude for. Another type of unit, Antiterrorism Battalion of approximately 5000 Marines and sailors, includes a Chemical, Biological Incident Response Force, which responded to the anthrax and ricin threats to Washington, D.C., in 2001 and 2004; and other forces that typically perform duties like guarding embassies. With some small fine-tuning, one can easily envision a Emergency Management unit coming into existence that would be able to handle hurricanes, anthrax scares, and wildfires with the same swiftness that other units bring terrorists to justice.

There are two reservations initially. First, the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prevents the armed forces from operating on U.S. soil “except in such cases …. authorized by the Constitution or by act of Congress.” It is understandable that people are squeamish about using the Marines on U.S. soil. Two things make this a non-sequester. First, we know from 9/11 that terrorists live among us and do not distinguish from civilians. If they don’t, that puts the onus on us to do the same, i.e. realize that citizens are targets. Second, if you have a problem with the Marines, the Coast Guard could easily mimic the unit training syllabi that the Marine Corps uses to perform these same functions. The Coast Guard, long a component of the Department of Transportation, is now part of the Department of Homeland Security and exempt from the Posse Comitatus Act

The second reservation is that the armed forces are already stretched thin. This statement is true. The solution to this problem is to get more Marines, both home and abroad, not to restrain the tasks to which they are assigned. Somebody in the federal government is going to do the job, and it might as well be those most qualified to do it. Increase the number of active duty Marines to accommodate the new battlefield — the homeland.

In no disparagement to civil servants, the first 96 hours after the Katrina disaster would have turned out much differently had an Emergency Management unit been in place to restore order and evacuate refugees. In times of life and death, a chain of command and other military protocol, not bureaucracy, are an American’s greatest hope at swift action. Why not utilize these professionals to go to “any clime and place” and quickly secure devastated urban regions, provide essential food and water, and create an action-oriented presence that sets the public at ease. CDR Timothy Koester, a chaplain for Marine Aircraft Group 14, is fond of saying that Marines are the most compassionate people on the planet. Marines have proven this statement true time and time again under extraordinary conditions. Utilizing their professionalism in a systematic response to Emergency Management is a sound strategy for reducing bureaucratic hurdles that will save lives in our next disaster, the terrorist attack, or a possible avian flu outbreak.

This article originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in December of 2005: http://www.rdhjr.com/docs/em.pdf

.@USMC Veteran. @UnivWestGa and @HarvardHBS alum. Worked at @Twilio, founded Zillabyte. Democratic Candidate for Congress in VA-05.