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Disaster Militarism: How the U.S. Exploits Earthquake and Typhoon Aid to Further Its Dominance

Disaster relief has become part of the justification for increased U.S. troop deployments in the Asia-Pacific region.
 
 
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U.S. Navy sailors help with disaster relief in Haiti after an earthquake.
Photo Credit: DVIDSHUB/Flickr

 
 
 
 

March 11 marks the third anniversary of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that shook northeastern Japan in 2011, triggering a tsunami in a dual disaster that killed more than 16,000 people. The earthquake and tsunami caused the worst nuclear disaster in history with three meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Three years after the catastrophe,  136,000 people from Fukushima prefecture are still displaced, and numerous disaster-related deaths have resulted from stress-related illnesses and suicide. Because of the nuclear meltdown, highly radioactive material continues to leak into the ocean, presenting numerous technical challenges with  no solution yet in sight. This  environmental contamination, which has impacted residents, workers, and  military personnel responders, will have a global effect. Lessons learned from Chernobyl suggest that  all this is only the tip of the iceberg.

“The Great East Japan Earthquake” is just one of several massive disasters in the Asia-Pacific this past decade. The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami took the lives of 230,000 people in 14 countries. Most recently, Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) ripped through Samar and Leyte in the Philippines, causing 6,000 deaths last November. The Philippines has witnessed several other devastating typhoons, including Ketsana (Ondoy) in 2009 and Bopha (Pablo) in 2012. A rising pattern of intense storms and disasters in the Asia-Pacific region has led to the death and displacement of thousands of people and the destruction of essential urban and rural infrastructure such as roads, bridges, schools, health centers, and workplaces.

Paralleling these disasters has been the disaster response of the U.S. military. According to this “disaster militarism”—which is a pattern of rhetoric, beliefs, and practices—the military should be the primary responder to large-scale disasters. Disaster militarism is not only reflected in the deployment of troops but also in media discourse that naturalizes and calls for military action in times of environmental catastrophes.

Justifying U.S. Military Presence

Military Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations, such as Operation Damayan in the Philippines in 2013 and Operation Tomodachi (Friend) in Japan in 2011, have showcased the U.S. military’s “helpfulness,” legitimized its presence, and softened its image. Charles-Antoine Hofmann and Laura Hudson, researching this topic for the British Red Cross, note several factors driving the growing military interest in responding to disasters. Assisting relief efforts, they observed, can improve the military’s image and provide training opportunities. It is also a way for the military to diversify its role when armed forces face budget cuts.

Disaster relief has also become part of the justification for increased U.S. troop deployments in the Asia-Pacific region—even as the new military basing component of the “ Pacific Pivot” has met with strong opposition in Okinawa, Japan and Jeju, South Korea. This massive permanent presence in the Asia-Pacific region has enabled the U.S. military to be the “first and fastest” to respond to sudden calamity. The  Pacific Command boasts 330,000 personnel (one-fifth of all U.S. forces), 180 ships, and 2,000 aircraft in an area that spans half the earth’s surface and is home to half the earth’s population.

Disaster relief is not the military’s primary mission, role, or area of expertise. Nevertheless, disaster response missions facilitate military expansion and dominance. Yoshiyuki Uehara, the vice-governor of Okinawa at the time of the earthquake and tsunami, has opposed the plan to construct a new offshore U.S. Marine base on the island. “I hope we stop glorifying Operation Tomodachi,” he  warned. “Our gratitude [for U.S. military assistance after the earthquake and tsunami] and U.S. military base problems are separate issues.” The core of Operation Tomodachi was Joint Task Force 519 from the United States Pacific Command. Arguably, the response to disaster was a perfect opportunity for the United States to demonstrate to China that an immediate U.S.-Japan joint military operation was possible.

 
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