WAR AS PEACE: How the Army and the Aid Agencies are Reinventing Militarism

The Village Voice By Michael Maren

Peacekeeping '94 is dedicated to the memory of all those military and humanitarian aid personnel who lost their lives in the service of peace--lest we forget.

 

WASHINGTON, D.C.--The words were printed on a placard hanging along one side of the entrance to the exhibition hall. On the other side hung a life-size image of a soldier--a peacekeeper--silhouetted against a bright red sky, as if he was standing guard over some sacred ground. But the solemn sentiment dissipated a few feet beyond the gate and vanished altogether after an escalator ride to the showroom below. There, in a haze of fluorescent lighting amidst the steady low-level chatter of salesmen, a massive marketing campaign was taking shape. An industry was being born.

The room in the basement of the Washington Sheraton, the size of a large gymnasium, was small by trade-show standards. But the corporate representatives who manned the display booths considered themselves to be pioneers staking an early claim in the hot new business of peacekeeping. Most were more accustomed to peddling their wares at arms shows around the world, but they seemed right at home at Peacekeeping '94. The drill was the same for these trade-show veterans: Spot that hot prospect in a sea of suits and then lure him in with a nod and a smile.

Many of the buyers who strolled through the corridors of tables and booths wore military uniforms. Most were attaches from various Third World embassies in Washington. They admired the new M998A1 Series High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle (better known as a Humvee) and checked out the interior of an armored personnel carrier from General Motors that had been dubbed ''The Peacekeeper.'' They took practice shots with an M-16 assault rifle modified to fire a laser beam at computer images of enemy soldiers. They browsed through a display of handcuffs and other restraining devices and fondled the kind of paramilitary paraphernalia usually advertised in Soldier of Fortune.

But they walked right by the booths set up by the American Red Cross and Interchurch Medical Assistance. Few seemed interested in stopping at a display from InterAction, a consortium of 160 nongovernmental relief and development organizations (NGOs) such as CARE and Save the Children. Megan Meier, who sat at the InterAction booth, just shrugged and smiled. She wasn't exactly sure what she was doing there, she said. Then she remembered the script, became serious, and explained: InterAction is promoting cooperation between NGOs and the military.

InterAction is already cooperating. Representatives from the organization as well as from individual NGO's have worked closely with the military at the newly formed Peacekeeping Institute at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. There, they are finding new ways to strengthen the NGO-military alliance in future peacekeeping operations. They're also assisting at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, where ''Peace Games'' are being held. In these military training exercises, soldiers run up against obstacles such as refugee feeding centers, unruly armed teenagers, and pushy journalists.

Welcome to the world of militant humanitarians and the humanitarian military. Two distinct groups of people sharing the joys of intervention.

Peacekeeping '94 is a product of Baxter Publishing, a Canadian firm that for six years in the 1980s sponsored an arms bazaar called ARMX. That show was designed to promote the sale of Canadian weapons and was regularly disrupted by peace activists. Then, in the glow of good feelings generated by the not-yet-failed Somalia intervention, ARMX was reborn as Peacekeeping '93.

The first exhibition was held at the Ottawa Congress Centre, a city-owned facility that is specifically prohibited from holding arms shows. Not fooled, the protesters still showed up crying foul and calling Peacekeeping '93 a clever cover for the same old merchants of death.

Baxter now owns the Peacekeeping trademark and next year has two more shows planned for Washington and Prague. And as the company's communications director Alan Crockford explained while scanning the exhibition hall, Baxter expects to attract more of the exhibitors who used to appear at ARMX as well as a lot more NGOs. This year the evangelical relief group World Vision was listed in the official program, but didn't show up. Crockford is confident they'll be on board next year. As will CARE, he said, excitedly pointing to a plump woman in a blue dress whom he identified as a representative of the NGO. ''They'll be here, too.''

For Peacekeeping '95 to maintain its credibility, and for the credibility of the entire peacekeeping industry, it is essential to put the humanitarian agencies shoulder to shoulder with the hardware producers. ''It's a humongous growth project,'' says Crockford. ''Very exciting.''

The arms industry and the NGOs aren't as far apart as one might first imagine. It was NGOs who first called for an armed intervention in Somalia when a lack of security threatened their work. At first, the military-NGO relationship was strained. The Red Cross, for example, consistently refused military protection, but then made sure to tag along behind armed convoys when they needed to go to dangerous places. The organization insisted they were not using military escorts, but the distinction was only in their minds.

But, as the NGO-military relationship developed in Somalia, and then Rwanda, and Haiti, NGOs realized that they had stumbled onto a gold mine: Soldiers attract more press than relief workers. The grandeur of military movements--massive C-5 transport planes depositing thousands of soldiers and tons of supplies--combined with the heroics of tens of thousands of America's hometown boys and girls--insured that the relief operations would dominate the media.

The publicity in turn attracted huge donations. In places like Goma, Zaire, the military did jobs the NGOs couldn't. Military equipment was used to dig graves in the rocky ground. Military engineers installed filters and purified millions of gallons of water--ending a cholera epidemic that was beyond the capabilities of the charities. Hundreds of NGOs invaded Somalia, Rwanda, and Haiti, on the heels of the military and with funds generated by the free publicity. The partnership was cemented. Now in the exhibition hall Red Cross representatives stand beside salesmen from Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, makers of shoulder-fireable, heavy-recoiling weapons, in one big marketplace of goods and services.

Though the presentation is new, the reality of the NGO-military relationship has been developing for years. Washington has traditionally, if discreetly, used most American NGOs, just like the army and the marines, as instruments of U.S. foreign policy. Groups like CARE and Save the Children had been government contractors, taking a large part of their working capital from the U.S. Agency for International Development, going where USAID wanted them to go, helping the people and the countries the U.S. government wanted helped. Whether the U.S. government gives CARE a grant to do a water project or sends in the Army Corps of Engineers makes little difference in the end.

And despite complaints from the likes of Jesse Helms and Newt Gingrich that all this humanitarianism is turning the military into a bunch of pussies, and beyond the protests of Rush Limbaugh, who has called humanitarian intervention ''a counterculture use of the military,'' it was the Pentagon that pushed hardest for the 1992 Somalia operation. The generals and military bureaucrats, at least, seem aware that the future of the war machine depends upon keeping the peace in places where America doesn't have an obvious strategic interest. They don't like it. They complain about it. But they realize they'll have to do it. The participants at Peacekeeping '94 accepted this as an act of faith and seemed utterly unconcerned that the new Republican majority might spoil their party.

Separated from the trade show by the escalator and 200 yards of Sheraton lobby was the seminar room, where the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, a private policy think tank but essentially a government contractor, was hosting an academic conference called ''The New Peacekeeping Partnership.''

One of the speakers, Canadian Major-General Romeo Dallaire, former commander of the UN forces in Rwanda, spoke passionately of how the world had ignored the mounting catastrophe in the months before the massacres began. The whole tragedy was, he said, preventable. A million lives and immeasurable human misery could have been avoided had the world chosen to act, or even if someone had donated working vehicles so he could transport his troops.

Dallaire proposed that the UN be given a kind of standing army that could be called into emergency situations on short notice. He wanted the UN to have its own intelligence agency. He envisioned a world where the UN acted as the police force and the big powers were available to be the cavalry if things got really out of hand.

Dallaire's plan also had the UN coordinating all humanitarian activity. He criticized some of the more than 200 NGOs that showed up around Rwanda with the military. The small NGOs, he said were ''mom-and-pop organizations with heart and no capabilities,'' while the large NGOs have ''capabilities but no heart.''

Dallaire's obvious sincerity only for a moment overshadowed the reality of the goods being sold in the basement and the fact that most of the people in the room were there because they had hardware to sell in a shrinking market. In a moment, Dallaire's experience with the horror or Rwanda was reduced to little more than a testimonial to sell equipment.

But Dallaire didn't care about selling guns. He was selling peacekeeping, and once that is removed from the realm of a nation's immediate national security, it becomes a very competitive business. With billions of dollars being poured into peacekeeping operations around the world, there are lots of armies willing to hire themselves out, and plenty of alternatives to calling in the UN. That, at least, was the message being delivered by Robin Beard, NATO's assistant secretary general for defense support.

Boasting that NATO was ''the most successful alliance in the history of the world,'' Beard offered up this pitch: The UN didn't win the peace. NATO won the peace, and now NATO will keep the peace. ''Are we going to become a subcontractor of the UN?'' Beard asked the crowd without waiting for an answer. (In Bosnia NATO is a UN subcontractor.) Unlike the ragtag bunch of armies the UN puts together, NATO already had experience, standardized equipment, and leadership superior to that of the UN. ''I don't personally feel comfortable with that relationship between the United Nations and NATO,'' he concluded.

Of course, NATO and the UN aren't the only armies in town. Other contenders for peacekeeping are regional organizations such as ECOMOG, a force of West African countries that has enjoyed some success in Liberia. But when a Ghanaian representative in the audience asked another speaker, Dennis Beissel, the UN's acting director for field operations, about ECOMOG, he was quickly rebuffed. Beissel handles multibillion-dollar logistical matters for the UN, and he wasn't in the mood to have his operation compared to some rinky-dink African project. Twice referring to African force as ECOWOG, he claimed it was incapable of handling a real peacekeeping operation. ''There's a lot to know about.'' he said. ''There's food, there's uniforms, there's enormous complexity in medical issues....'' And as Beissel himself had earlier proclaimed, the future of UN peacekeeping lies in Africa.

According to a pamphlet on display at one of the tables in the show, ''In 1993 the U.N. system procured goods and services worth over $3.5 billion, making it one of the largest purchasing entities in the world.'' One and a half billion dollars of that was used for peacekeeping.

The pamphlet, put out by the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA), was advertising a book entitled How To Do Business With the United Nations. The guide, which sells for $295, will tell you how to get a piece of the action and navigate you through the Byzantine UN bureaucracy and obstacle course of multiple procurement divisions.

Next to it was another pamphlet that shed some light on how businesses sneak through the maze. It advertised corporate membership in the UNA-USA, a kind of boot camp for executives looking for those multimillion-dollar contracts. Memberships range from $1500 to $25,000 a year and benefits accrue proportionately. Members get field trips to peacekeeping operations (''Business leaders who participate in these trips gain valuable knowledge about product requirements for peacekeeping'') and lunches with ambassadors described as ''...an exclusive series of private conversations with leading public figures from around the world, senior United Nations officials, and other international decision-makers.''

''There are no protesters here,'' said a relieved Brigadier General Al Geddry, who was doing public relations for Baxter, after the 'Gala' banquet on the first night of the show. Geddry, a retired Canadian military man turned New Brunswick rancher, was relaxing as the crowd filed out and the hotel staff stripped the banquet tables down to their raw plywood surfaces.

The dinner had featured lots of ceremony, a bagpiper playing ''Amazing Grace,'' and a speech by Elliot Richardson, head of the UNA-USA and still floating on the moral capital he earned by standing up to Nixon back in '73.

Richardson spoke about ''the king's peace'' imposed by William the Conqueror and the subsequent Norman and Plantagenet kings on the unruly Celtic and Saxon warlords in Britain. This was the role he saw for the UN in the New World Order. With the end of the Cold War, the big strategic issues have been settled and now the nations of the world could work to put an end to the ''small wars,'' the unimportant, senseless wars that others fight. But hadn't the king's peace already been attempted in Africa? Then it was called colonialism, and it wasn't so different from the feudalism the Normans used to pacify their British subjects.

The rest of the dinner went according to the organizers' schedule, which read:

''Piper will play twice during dinner, one tune being a lament.''

''After coffee is served, piper will play around the room and will cease playing when he arrives at Mr. Richardson's seat. He will then be thanked (quietly) by Mr. Richardson and others at the Head Table. Following this sociable moment and a drink he will play out of the room taking the long route.''

''Mr. Richardson will call on Mr. Blais (Jean-Jacques Blais, chairman of the board of directors of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies) to propose a toast.''

''Mr. Blais will then raise his glass and say: 'To All Peacekeepers.'''

Next, it was the turn of keynote speaker Major General Roderick Cordy-Simpson, former chief of staff for the UN operation in Bosnia. He spoke with a tight-jawed, upper-crusty Prince Charles sort of manner that seemed to suck all the air out of the room and make everyone sit up straight and take their elbows off the table. He described the Balkans conflict as ''a thoroughly evil, three-sided civil war'' and painted a nightmare scenario about what would happen if the world failed to keep the peace: ''Kosovo will be next, and if Kosovo is next then Albania will be called in, and if Albania comes in Macedonia will, and if Macedonia comes in Greece will, and if Greece comes in Turkey will, and if Turkey comes in Bulgaria will. Oh, no, it won't happen, we all know it won't happen. Of course it won't. Our grandfathers said it wouldn't happen. And then....'' He went on to describe the start of the First World War. All of this was, of course, the domino theory all over again. The enemy this time wasn't Communism, it was chaos. But the call to arms was just as clear.

Twice Cordy-Simpson repeated the phrase, ''thoroughly evil, three-sided civil war.'' And therein lies the key to the peacekeeping industry. Once an aggressor and a victim are defined in a war, partisanship becomes imperative; peacekeeping becomes immoral. In the moral universe of the professional peacekeeper, the enemies are war, chaos, and all the bad stuff that accompanies them. There are no anguished moments in deciding who is right. Any war becomes a potential target for a peacekeeping intervention.

Of course, that is a heavy weight to bear. It requires that the peacekeeper assert moral superiority over the combatants.

Just before Peacekeeping '94 began, Canadian and American newspapers published photographs that Canadian UN peacekeepers had taken of each other beating to death a young Somali boy, Shidane Abukar Arone. Shidane had been found sneaking onto the soldiers' compound in Beled Weyn. During their subsequent trial, and in what is fast becoming Canada's My Lai, it was revealed that the soldiers were members of the neo-Nazi Heritage Front. Not surprisingly, Somalia was never mentioned at the Peacekeeping banquet.

It was left to Elliot Richardson to sum up the evening's festivities. ''People my age grew up with the familiarity with the phrase 'merchants of death.''' he said. ''Merchants of death were, of course, the manufacturers and traffickers in weapons. You represent, this expo represents, a new and far more open generation of the merchants of peace.''

The next generation of automatic assault rifles may well be sold with the slogan, ''Never Again,'' but many of the salesmen in the basement of the Sheraton hadn't yet grasped the peacekeeping spirit. A representative from Firearms Training Systems was visibly annoyed when his assistant allowed journalists and other noncustomers to play with his rifles. ''It's not a game,'' he said after it was suggested that the system might turn a profit in a shopping mall. He was more concerned about his next appointment: Arab buyers from countries not likely to be invited on any peacekeeping mission anytime soon. And one saleman handed out free samples of plastic handcuffs. They're cheap--about $3.50 each. They're secure. And they recently appeared on the wrists of Bosnian Muslims who were photographed lying facedown in the mud beneath the boots of some happy Serbs.

For the show's organizers, the evolution from ARMX to Peacekeeping may have been as simple as phoning the printer and changing the name on their stationery.The more operational problems, like how to stop peacekeeping devices from being used for the purpose for which they were originally designed, were never really raised as an issue. Nor did the sticky ethical questions about the moral superiority that the powerful nations assume when addressing the small wars of the world. There was no banner honoring Shidane or the uncounted hundreds of Somalis who died at the hands of UN troops. No one raised a glass in their honor. Then again, the purpose of all of this was to sell hardware--lest we forget.

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