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Humanitarian Missions Challenge Military and Media
Prepared remarks by Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, USA, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, The Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, George Washington University, Washington, Thursday, May 04, 1995

Thank you very much. ... It is a particular pleasure to see so many representatives from our humanitarian organizations. I know that Fred Cuny [of the United Nations], who was also invited, has been reported as missing while leading an aid mission into Chechnya. I know that you join me in praying for his safe return, but it is a reminder to all of us how very fortunate we are to have such courageous people in our midst.

Ever since I commanded that operation [Provide Comfort] that was just referred to, that humanitarian effort in northern Iraq back in 1991, I have had a number of occasions to watch and admire the invaluable work being done by humanitarian organizations all around the globe. And it has always struck me as unfortunate that their work is not better known, for I know of no finer role models for our young people in this country than these extraordinary men and women who run from one tragedy to the next, often at great risk to themselves, to bring, literally, the miracle of life to so many.

I think you have chosen a most interesting topic for this conference, although the public debate on this issue seems to have lost a few decibels since that tragic October day in 1993 in Mogadishu. Putting our arms around the issue of employing our forces -- and sometimes having to use force -- in operations short of war, such as humanitarian operations and peacekeeping and peacemaking remains nevertheless a very tough challenge for us all.

Nothing could have dramatized this better than the revival of the Vietnam debate that Mr. [Robert] McNamara's book resuscitated just last month. In skimming the many scorching editorials and commentaries that his book attracted, you can only conclude that as a nation we still do not have a consensus about limited wars, much less about operations short of war.

And it is not just a matter of the Cold War being over, for many of the mistakes that Mr. McNamara wrote that he recognized as early as 1965 had really nothing to do with the Cold War.

It would be just as possible today, I submit, to find ourselves drawn too deeply into a conflict where our interests prove too thin for our commitment, to find ourselves trapped in a quagmire, as [author] Mr. [David] Halberstam termed it, where we have no commitment to achieve victory, to find ourselves at the wrong place and at the wrong time. But conversely, ever since that conflict there has always been an equally great danger that, with Vietnam in mind we could become too timid, that we may imagine parallels from Vietnam where in fact no parallels exist. And in many ways, I tell you, this would be a much worse failure for our nation, and for the world.

But the debate has changed in one way. During the Cold War it was those on the left criticizing the Cold Warriors for taking too many risks; for overcommitting our lives, our treasures and our morality; for overextending our power and our commitments for the purpose of containing communism. Today, of course, that is different. It is those on the right who are castigating those on the left for allowing their humanitarian and their moral impulses to places where our interests, in fact, are thin or nonexistent. So the core debate has not ended at all. The real issues have not been resolved. Only the tables have been turned.

And the experience of the past four to five years is a warning -- i.e., the kinds of tragedies we have seen, the exploding nations, the humanitarian disasters so catastrophic that they overwhelm the world's relief organizations, the floods of refugees from wars and oppression that can be numbered in the millions and the near-certain knowledge that there will be more of these in our future.

So I think this conference is very timely, indeed -- for the media, for the policy makers and for the military -- for we are all in this together. And while some might regard us as a very unholy trio, all three of our institutions must search for better clarity about the challenges that exist in the netherworld between war and peace.

Now I don't pretend to have that clarity with me at this podium. For that matter, I'm not sure that anyone does today. But the experience of the past several years has taught us a thing or two, and I thought that I might spend a few minutes sharing some loosely connected ideas that you might want to explore further in the panel discussions you will be holding tomorrow.

We should start by recognizing that while these kinds of challenges are certainly not a phenomena of this era, the growth of our involvement in these kinds of operations is, in fact, something rather new. As you well know, during the Cold War we rarely used our military forces for peacekeeping or humanitarian operations. After Vietnam and the Nixon Doctrine that resulted from that conflict, we even sought to avoid military involvement in limited conflicts altogether.

We learned that we had to be most selective, that we had to be very clear where our vital interests lay, that we needed to preserve and to concentrate our abilities to be ready to defend those vital interests against the massive forces of the former Soviet Union.

Today we are asking ourselves, What has changed? I would start by answering that in some ways not as much has changed as some might have suggested. First, we need to understand that our nation still has vital interests and we retain dramatically large responsibilities around the world.

True, there is no longer a global threat from the Soviet Union. But neither our interests around the globe nor regional threats to those interests have disappeared. In Europe, in Asia, in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and here in this hemisphere, we are still very much interested in stability and in the security of our friends and allies.

And when you see Iraq, Iran, the North Koreas, the Bosnias, the nationalist reflexes we are witnessing in Russia and the opportunity for peace in the Middle East, there remains a most important role for our military power in each of these places as well.

And it is our continuing and effective engagement in these regions and against these challenges that is most meaningful and beneficial to ourselves and to the world. And I think that the realists in our country understand this.

And it should carry equal weight among the moralists as well. For it can be argued that the greatest victory for human rights the world has ever witnessed was the peaceful termination of the Cold War. For in that termination billions of the world's people were released from near-slavery and oppression.

And it was an unequaled victory for world peace as well. But for these victories to be sustained, the gains that were made must, of course, be protected.

As well, a new world order must be formed to replace the bipolar order that is gone, and what that order will look like will have an incalculable impact on every nation in the world. As the world's leading and most influential nation, that must be a primary issue for our policy and for our military forces. The simple fact is, of course, that no other nation in the world has the power or the reach to perform this role.

Just like during the Cold War, we must have a clear sight of what today constitutes the main events. And no matter what else we do, we must not allow ourselves to neglect or to forfeit what is required to manage these main events.

Now I must tell you that some, at least in my profession, would prefer that we put a sign outside the Pentagon that says We only do the big ones. That is because we feel comfortable with yesterday. We understand terms like overwhelming force" and like decisive victory. But as strong as the temptation may be to do this, the fact is that we cannot lead, we cannot remain that most influential nation if we turn a blind eye to tragedies where millions are at risk or if we try to ignore the Bosnias and the Haitis. Nor do I believe the American people would ever allow this to happen, for I do not believe that our nation is morally capable of watching tragedies of the scale of a Somalia or Rwanda and of remaining a silent bystander. Surely there are some things that are so morally reprehensible or so inhumane that we as Americans, when we see them, must act.

But the difficulty lies in distinguishing between helping -- narrowly defining our interests and our involvement -- and on the other hand, getting caught in someone else's hatreds, prejudices and intrigues.

And even when we enter with the best of intentions, if we are not extraordinarily cautious, there is always this impulse to try to bring more than relief -- in fact, to bring solutions.

Largely, it becomes a matter of expectations. In war we expect victory. But in peacekeeping and humanitarian operations what do we expect? At what point do we declare an endpoint and return home?

All of us remember a time when the word nation-building gained great currency in this town. Perhaps our successes in the military occupations of Japan and Germany and our successes in rebuilding Western Europe led some to believe that we could reconstruct other nations. I submit to you, if that was so, we drew false confidence and we drew false analogies from what happened after World War II.

The fact is that we cannot rebuild or restructure other nations. Such an undertaking is the work of decades and of sustained efforts by generations. When you go to Haiti today, you will find that our forces are not attempting to rebuild that nation. We are trying to give the Haitian people the chance to rebuild themselves. We cannot police their streets.

But we can help them to rebuild and retrain their own police force. We cannot build for them a new government. But we can offer stability while their own leaders rebuild their government and create the means to maintain stability for themselves. And we cannot rebuild their economy. But we can help them to create conditions that begin that process. But don t expect to see an instantaneous success.

It may take years before Haitian streets are modern and paved, before the kind of poverty we see today is considerably lessened, and before democracy is so firmly rooted that [Gen. Raoul] Cedras and his people are just a bad memory.

So the issue remains one of expectations and of perseverance. And when a tragedy has great humanitarian proportions, when our hearts are most affected, then perseverance becomes all the more difficult, but also all the more necessary. There will always be this tug to do more than we set out to do, to find the source of the tragedy and to try to cure it for all time. But that is a very different undertaking than providing relief.

In the Orient there is this old Confucian saying that when you save a person's life, you are responsible for that person for the rest of their life. If that rule were actually practiced, I suspect that very few people would ever want to become doctors.

And we must understand that in helping other nations as well that there are limits to the help we can offer, that if we are to go beyond offering relief, then we must have interests strong enough to sustain a much greater commitment.

I think we stayed within these guidelines in Rwanda last year, and that was the key. We went in when the situation was so hopeless that it was overwhelming most relief organizations. We helped to restore the relief effort and then, when a degree of stability was restored, we left the humanitarian operations back in the hands of the professionals.

But there are situations much more complex than this, and the situation in the Balkans today illustrates this better than any other. Clearly we have a great interest in the stability of that entire region. From the beginning we recognized that this is the traditional flashpoint of European wars.

We must be clear that conflict has the potential to embrace other nations and to drag others into its cauldron of hatred and of violence. And so our very strongest interests are endangered by that conflict -- interests such as the stability of Europe, the future health of NATO and our ability to shape a new Europe free of competing power blocs and new dividing lines.

But more germane to our topic, Bosnia is as well a great humanitarian tragedy, one brought about and fueled by barbarous kinds of human behavior.

But it has proven terribly difficult to solve. Hans Morgenthau, the great realist, wrote that nations have three tools to influence others: logic, riches and force. We have tried the first two in great abundance and limited amounts of the third, and have failed to achieve the full effects we want. We have learned that there are very powerful passions in play there -- and that all sides are willing to lose a great deal in order to gain or maintain that which they want.

For our part and on the part of our allies, there is great dissatisfaction that we have not done enough, that we failed to stop the disintegration of that nation in the first place and that we have failed to end the fighting ever since. Notwithstanding all of our efforts and even our limited successes at providing humanitarian assistance, at having saved hundreds of thousands of lives and at limiting the scope and the intensity of the fighting, still we feel a sense of frustration and of anger because we feel we have not done enough.

Regardless of our disappointment, we should not allow this dissatisfaction to cause us to overlook what are in fact some extraordinary developments. At least for now, for the first time in this century -- or before -- a conflict in the Balkans has not unleashed the worst in the other nations in Europe.

To the contrary, it has led instead to the very finest of motives from all parties. Nearly every nation on the Continent is involved, in one way or another, in trying to end the fighting rather than to seek some gain from it, as they did in the past. For the first time I can remember, nearly every nation in Europe is working collectively to bring peace. For any student of European history this is quite a remarkable achievement, one that probably would not have been possible at any time before [former Soviet Union President Mikhail] Gorbachev came to power.

A number of our European partners have had soldiers killed in that effort, and all of us have spent considerable resources to reduce the misery and to protect the innocent. We should not overlook the significance of that fact.

Let me add that much of the anger directed at the UNPROFOR [U.N. Protection Force] has been entirely unfair. They were sent, and have been organized and equipped not to end the fighting, but rather to keep alive as many innocent victims of this tragedy as possible. And the nations and forces of UNPROFOR deserve our appreciation and admiration for what they have done and what they continue to do. Let me add that they also deserve every ounce of our support, both because they are accomplishing much on the ground and because as long as they are there, they are contributing to keeping that conflict from growing out of control.

And let us be crystal clear. If UNPROFOR were to leave, either because the level of fighting on the ground were to become intolerable or because the United States Congress were to pass a unilateral lift of the arms embargo, the humanitarian situation on the ground will most likely turn to a much worse tragedy yet -- as a minimum, in the Eastern enclaves and most likely in Bihac as well.

Our goal, therefore, must be to keep UNPROFOR in place. Until a negotiated end to the fighting can be hammered out, UNPROFOR remains the best hope we have to keep the conflict contained and the level of suffering down.

But should it become necessary for UNPROFOR to withdraw, we must be a part of NATO s effort to safeguard their departure. For the United States to fail to stand with our allies on this issue could very well prove fatal to NATO and put enormous strains on our trans-Atlantic partnership.

But the larger issue that Yugoslavia has taught us is that the most successful humanitarian and peacekeeping operations are those that prevent a conflict from ever occurring in the first place. And this returns us full circle. It reminds us that our greatest contribution lies in ensuring that peace and stability are maintained in Europe, in Asia, in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and in this hemisphere.

We can never undo what has happened in Yugoslavia, but I am certain that our active military involvement through military-to-military contacts, through combined exercises, through innovative outreach programs, through forward stationing and forward-deployed forces, and every day helping maintain stability is doing its part to prevent other conflicts from occurring.

And what of the role of the media in these events? Are we in fact being forced into these situations by the CNN [Cable News Network] effect that your panels will be discussing tomorrow? Is media coverage forcing us to alter our approach to these operations? And, perhaps more basically, what ought to be the relationship between the media and the military during these operations other than war?

Let me try some random thoughts on you. The CNN effect: Surely it exists, and surely we went to Somalia and Rwanda partly because of its magnetic pull. Surely the world s actions -- or inaction -- and political leaders' pronouncements are greatly influenced by this effect. Since instant, global, constant information is here to stay and if anything will become even more widely available, how will governments be able to make choices if those choices are different from those suggested on our television screens? What if our country had wanted to go to the Sudan instead of Somalia, although only Somalia was on our screens?

I surely don t have the answer, but while these decisions will be harder in the future, they might prove not as difficult as we might imagine. Governments and publics will become more sophisticated as they become more used to this phenomenon, and all of us, most probably, will have our senses dulled by overexposure to pictures of starving children and atrocities committed by one group upon another. Either way, your discussions on this should prove most useful.

Is media coverage forcing us to alter our approach to operations other than war?

The answer is a near-certain yes when it comes to peacemaking operations. A more tentative yes in the case of more benign peacekeeping operations and probably no in humanitarian operations, unless we talk of places like Bosnia, where all three are intertwined.

The answer is yes in peacemaking operations because operational security and safety of our troops are more at stake, and in these operations an all-intrusive press tends to aggravate the natural tensions between these two organizations -- the press and the military -- organizations with essentially very different missions.

We all know the cases: The bright lights on a beach off Mogadishu as Marines are attempting a night amphibious landing; the hundreds of reporters awaiting in Port-au-Prince [Haiti] the night an airborne assault was called off just hours before the sky was to have been filled with paratroopers and the fear that the sky would have been illuminated with a thousand white lights, making floating ducks of our soldiers.

What is less well known is that all major U.S. networks had agreed to use night vision devices and to delay broadcasting for some time after the troops were safely on the ground. So perhaps we are more tolerant of each other's needs than is generally believed. But we must continue to work this issue.

I submit to you, a young sergeant leading a squad to clear a narrow street will not show the same caution when he notices his progress being filmed by a TV crew. He will be embarrassed to slip from doorway to doorway and could thus become a more likely casualty. But when more benign, less-dangerous operations such as peacekeeping or humanitarian operations are involved, the tensions between media and the soldier are much less present. From my experience in the Kurdish operation following the gulf war, the tensions were practically nonexistent and we not only were able to give the press total freedom to roam the operations area, but we gave them maximum support to get around and be better informed. The result was a more factual story filed, a better-informed public, a better-informed Washington, and thus better support for us in the field.

By the way, we used the same model in Rwanda and once we got on the ground in Haiti, and received, with very few exceptions, excellent press and the operation -- and the country -- benefited.

In fact, I am convinced that the press should be free to go and do its job with restrictions only where safety and operational security are truly of concern and that these restrictions be lifted just as quickly as possible.

Well what about these disjointed thoughts? What about the media, the military, and peacekeeping and humanitarian missions? An unlikely combination? Not really! Of course, when speaking of humanitarian operations I would add another unlikely ingredient -- humanitarian organizations -- to this mixture.

You see, the media, the military and humanitarian organizations can be the perfect combination, particularly for dealing with large humanitarian disasters, but only if they draw on each other's unique strength and not on the fears and the prejudiced views they sometimes have of each other.

The media, in a responsible and balanced way, must alert and educate the public and the decision-makers and then keep all informed of the progress.

The humanitarian organizations must provide the real expertise of how to deal with the tough, heart-rendering challenges of a Somalia or Rwanda.

But only the U.S. military possesses the resources, the strategic lift and the long-range communications to be able to deal quickly with large-scale, rapidly developing tragedies that simply overwhelm the traditional humanitarian organizations. And so yes, these three strange bedfellows can be a very good combination.

And who knows? If we are selective and only engage when our interests are very clear, when we have agreement on the limits of our involvement and the conditions of our withdrawal, and we go in when we can make a difference and have the support of an informed public, then maybe in time we will view such missions as supportive of our interests and not as damaging to our security. ...



Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at