An armed Peace Corps?
Last week in the Washington Post, Michael O’Hanlon lamented the inability of the U.S. military to get “boots on the ground” in peacekeeping operations in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. O’Hanlon, who served in the Peace Corps in Eastern Congo, made the case that an all-volunteer military force trained for peacekeeping could ...
Last week in the Washington Post, Michael O’Hanlon lamented the inability of the U.S. military to get “boots on the ground” in peacekeeping operations in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. O’Hanlon, who served in the Peace Corps in Eastern Congo, made the case that an all-volunteer military force trained for peacekeeping could help overcome the current overstretch of the military and the U.S. hesitation to deploy peackeeping troops for fear of public outcry when, as in Somalia in 1993, casualties could result:
The notion is this: Ask for volunteers to join a peace operations division for two years. They would begin their service with, say, 12 weeks of boot camp and 12 weeks of specialized training and then would be deployable. They would receive the same compensation and health benefits as regular troops, given their age and experience. Out of a division of 15,000 troops, one brigade, or about 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers, could be sustained in the field at a time.
This type of training would be modeled after standard practices in today’s Army and Marine Corps. To be sure, soldiers and Marines in regular units usually go beyond this regimen to have many months of additional practice and exercise before being deployed. But the peace operations units could be led by a cadre of experienced officers and NCOs — perhaps some of whom would be drawn back to military service after leaving…
The dangers of deploying such units to missions such as the one in Congo, would be real, but the risks would be acceptable. First, those volunteering would understand the risks and accept them. Second, in most civil conflicts such as Congo’s, possible adversarial forces are not sophisticated. Soldiers in the new division would not need to execute complex operations akin to those carried out during the invasion of Iraq or current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They would largely monitor villages and refugee camps, inspect individuals to make sure they did not have illicit weapons, and call for help if they came under concerted attack.
I agree with O’Hanlon’s major point that it can be difficult for peacekeeping operations to succeed without active U.S. support. Most current missions are undermanned and underfunded, even for their already very limited mandates. I also think the volunteer idea has potential, but my hangup is the idea of creating a separate track within the military that has less training. Wouldn’t it be better to ask for volunteers from within the armed forces and give them additional peacekeeping training?
To get a perspective on this proposal from the kind of person who might volunteer, I called my friend Marcus Williams, who at the last minute this spring chose to withdraw from his planned Peace Corps deployment in West Africa and instead apply to Officer Candidates School for the U.S. Marines.
Interestingly, Marcus cited peacekeeping and development as one of the reasons he hopes to join the Marines. “Arguably the Iraq war and Afghanistan are right now peace keeping missions. So it becomes kind of hard to define where people are deploying,” he said. He added that for better or worse, working on development from within the military means you get resources that Peace Corps volunteers simply do not.
The proposed short training period and separation from the normal military also worried Williams, who graduated from Stanford in four years with both a degree in International Relations and a Masters in African Studies:
If you had people volunteering and there was less training involved, there’s this sort of vision of the idealistic African advocate who’s in college or going to college and may not have the serious commitment it takes to serve in the armed forces. They’re going to end up in the field and not be a very effective unit. When it comes down to it you have to follow orders and accept very seriously that you might die.
Williams pointed out that for the Marine Corps, Officer Candidates School itself is almost 12 weeks and for those who choose to join afterward another six months or so of basic training is required.
Ultimately, Williams argued, if the U.S. wants to get serious about supporting peace-keeping operations in places like the DRC, that would be great, but U.S. troops aren’t necessarily the key.
I think that if the U.S. were really committed to these peacekeeping operations we wouldn’t be focused on getting U.S. boots on the ground. The cost of the Ghanaian peacekeeper on the ground is much less and if the U.S. peacekeeper is going to literally receive less training, it seems like it would be better to support other troops.
If the U.S. really wants to help, he said, it should focus on its comparative advantages:
flying helicopters, intelligence, communications operations. I’m thinking most of the peacekeepers in Sudan. They had boots on the ground but they didn’t have any real logistics.
Does all this mean O’Hanlon’s idea should be written off? Absolutely not, Williams said, it just needs some careful thought. “I think you’d have a lot of people interested in volunteering,” he said.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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