Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Beacon No. 71: More on Big Brothers/Big Sisters with Guns


In Part One I proposed having individual soldiers become "big brothers" or "big sisters" to individual kids overseas (e.g., Iraq) for the duration of their deployment there. They would spend most of their time in the countryside of conflict zones, in the same way that U.S. Peace Corps volunteers do today in stable countries. I've thought of some advantages and disadvantages to this idea, which I've dubbed Big Brothers/Big Sisters with Guns (BB/BSWG, because every successful program needs a clunky acronym):

Logistical efficiency. Once an American soldier became a big brother or big sister, he or she would find ways to slash bureaucratic red tape to ensure "their" kid had enough food, water, security and schooling. While doing this, the GI would inevitably better the lives of kids who were not "theirs" and eventually, the entire surrounding area. Locals couldn't avoid noticing that the presence of a BB/BSWG soldier brought them tangible benefits, creating incentives to keep them around.

Local knowledge. During their deployment, BB/BSWG soldiers would need to learn a huge amount about the host culture, including dialect and slang, customs, body language, familial and tribal relationships—all the aspects of living in small towns that outsiders (like most of the armed forces deployed in Iraq) can never quite comprehend. Over time they would become both sensors and experts on small areas of the host country, becoming increasingly valuable both during and after their deployment.

Steady funding. The president, Congress and the American public tend to fund the armed forces well, and a well-intentioned, nonviolent program like BB/BSWG would likely find broad support even among those who oppose the Iraq war.

Self-protection. Among other tasks, soldiers are trained to kill people and blow things up. While in the BB/BSWG program GIs would remain armed and to some extent self-protecting. They would also serve as surge capacity if commanders of more traditional U.S. units needed either back-up or scouting reports on the local thugs.

There are also problems with a BB/BSWG approach in Iraq, none of them unsolvable.

Threats to current force structures. DoD brass might not like BB/BSWG as it detracts from the armed forces' stated mission of fighting wars. BB/BSWG is also intensely personnel-oriented rather than technology-oriented, making it harder to quantify and sell to Congress.

Threats to soldiers. BB/BSWG would expose individual warfighters to greater risk since they would spend much more time with "their" kid in the countryside, exposed to potential insurgent actions.

NGO objections. BB/BSWG is the do-gooder NGO's worst nightmare: The large resources of the U.S. military applied to community-building tasks by uniformed, armed soldiers. NGOs would—and already do—see programs like BB/BSWG as unfair competition at best.

Heisenberg problem. Soldiers' very presence among families will change them and the surrounding communities, making any specific information they gather less valuable.

Divided loyalties. Kids may become too attached to individual soldiers and vice-versa; when BB/BSWG soldiers cycle out of the country they'll have to make a strong effort to smoothly hand off responsibilities to their replacements.

Family trouble. Episodes of religious proselytizing within the U.S. military receive wide coverage overseas. Parents and surrounding communities in host countries may accuse soldiers of brainwashing the younger generation and pressure families to not cooperate with U.S. forces.

On balance, I think it's worth examining the BB/BSWG idea and trying to find ways to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. I'd welcome any comments readers might have.

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