As a rule, developing countries tend to lack comprehensive and stable civilian structures for dealing with disasters, therefore disaster response in these countries often relies almost entirely upon the military as well as on international civilian and military assistance. Military engagement in disaster relief may contain the negative consequences of major disasters and prevent the crisis from spilling across borders. In my report I will reflect on the positive and negative aspects regarding the military’s logistic response.
When it comes to aid, sometimes the military are the only actors capable of providing the necessary response, Fischer (2011) in Malesic (2015) reports that many experts, influenced by the experiences of complex disasters, have advocated that humanitarian relief should become one of the core and standardized tasks of a modern army. However, Etkin et al. (2011) in Malesic (2015) say that “military assets should be selectively and adequately employed to supplement as opposed to replace civilian disaster management authorities and assets”.
According to Ross (2017), “Early coordination mechanisms failed and the president took operational control away from the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and established a National Ebola Response Centre, headed by the Minister of Defense, and District Ebola Response Centers. British civilian and military personnel were deeply embedded in this command-and-control architecture and, together with the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response lead, were the dominant coordination partners at the national level”.
A common criticism was that civilian and military disaster management structures do not invest enough will and energy in improving coordination, planning, training, etc., or ‘best practice’. I will elaborate on this later on in the report.
However, there were several aspects though which were out of the military’s control. For example, the different culture and language.
These can be said however to have slowed the operation down. A point that could be made was that, according to Draper (2017), “The most commonly reported challenge from a more ‘ethical’ perspective was whether the unit should have treated more patients”. “Our participants reported that the treatment unit was consistently running under capacity: the facility was never full, it never got beyond 50% capacity and yet there were clear groups of people it wouldn’t take. Many regarded this as a significant ethical challenge because the facilities, expertise and resources were standing idle in a sea of need”. From this It could be said that more patients could have been treated.
Logistical reasons for this could be that the perception that Operation Gritrock was essentially a medical operation whereas military healthcare personnel normally deploy to support combat missions. Draper (2017) concluded that this had the effect of confusion with those on the ground ‘unable to take responsibility for, or justify, the decisions being made, leaving them to implement decisions that, as far as they were concerned, did not make sense in the context of their understanding of the mission. This was also a source of perceived ethical tension’. This is in my opinion is a somewhat cynical and complex viewpoint.
Moving on, polls conducted following the US military assistance during the tsunami in South-East Asia and the earthquake in Pakistan showed a significant increase in positive sentiments towards the US among both the Indonesian and Pakistani population. “There is also the added benefit of establishing useful contacts between the US military officers involved in the operation and the representatives of other militaries, local and international officials and other stakeholders”, and importantly the residents in other words, building trust.
Problems in the delivery of aid included a lack of a ‘harmonized’ approach, in other words being able to coordinate and deliver a unified strategy. In terms of performance the UK military could be said to have struggled to mobilize aid at the right place at the right time. If the military were able to work better at the ‘grass roots’ level with the local government etc., then aid could have reached those in need quicker and Operation Gritrock could have been more successful. Obviously however, the blame does not rest solely with the military, the other organizations can be said to have been standoffish and possibly not willing to collaborate, for example, sharing of resources.
It was necessary for the military to mobilize in Sierra Leone and although the military provided a successful logistic response in terms of being able to mobilize and move resources quickly and efficiently, for example by helicopter. There was clashing between military and civilian organizations, such as NGOs and the local government. To expand on this, it was often hard to collaborate create a joint effort due to conflicting goals however again, the military’s overall goals; to provide security, mobilize troops to build an emergency hospital as well as the Ebola training academy are all positives.
According to Draper (2017), “Many participants regarded themselves as having volunteered for deployment. Indeed, some participants reported making strenuous efforts to go. Nonetheless, for these participants, the decision to volunteer was an ethical one. The majority felt compelled to respond to the unfolding humanitarian crisis and human suffering it was generating”, and the military went into the crisis with nothing but good intentions.
It is clear that a disaster which requires the armed forces to work alongside civilian rescue and search teams, the general public, political decision-makers and humanitarian organizations represents opportunities for a unique civil-military interface. This can foster cooperation and a mutual transfer of values. Alternatively, it may result in competition, conflict and a clash of organizational cultures. It could be said that problems with coordination, politics and tensions in relationships hampered the response, but as the response mechanisms matured, coordination improved and rifts healed.
Hofmann and Hudson (2009) in Malesic (2015) maintain that, “despite the criticism, many humanitarian actors accept the idea that the military can play a legitimate and vital role in supporting humanitarian relief efforts. The argument is that humanitarian organizations should engage more strategically with military organizations in order to overcome the possible risks that may arise from civil-military cooperation, and to reinforce the potential benefits that military involvement could bring to the affected population”.
In conclusion, the UK military were able to deploy quickly and in a ‘variety of roles’ (IWM, 2021). Six Ebola treatment centers were built in collaboration with, for example, the royal engineers and the local military and civilian contractors, checkpoints and tracking of people which helped to bring the virus under control as well as specialist medics providing treatment to other NGO medical workers also the military coordinated with civilians at district emergency response centers. All these points demonstrate that the UK military worked with distinction in a very difficult situation.
- Draper, H., Jenkins, S. 2017. Ethical Challenges Experienced by UK Military Medical Personnel Deployed to Sierra Leone (operation GRITROCK) during the 2014-2015 Ebola Outbreak: A Qualitative Study. BMC Med Ethics 18, 77 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186s12910-017-0234-5
- IWM, 2021. How the British Armed Forces Helped Fight Ebola in Sierra Leone. Available at: https://www.iwm.org/ukhistoryhow-the-British-armed-forces-helped-fight-Ebola-in-sierra-leone
- Malesic M. 2015. The Impact of Military Engagement in Disaster Management on Civil-Military Relations. Current Sociology. 2015;63(7):980-998. doi:10.11770011392115577839
- Ross E. 2017. Command and Control of Sierra Leone’s Ebola Outbreak Response: Evolution of the Response Architecture. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 372.