Air & Space Power Journal


Angels from the Sea: Relief Operations in Bangladesh, 1991 by Charles R. Smith. Superintendent of Documents, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15250-7954, 1995, 116 pages.

Before you read this book, take a look at Lt Col Charles Dunlap's article "The Coup of 2012" in Parameters. There we read that US armed forces, victors of the cold war and Operation Desert Storm, find themselves without an enemy on whom to focus their energies. The taxpayers, therefore, task them to solve so many domestic and international "nontraditional" missions that such missions become traditional. When a conventional war comes, US forces are defeated, not having "practiced" the craft of war through training and exercises since they were too busy doing real-world duties of nation rebuilding and humanitarian assistance. The coup aims to rectify the situation so that the "military [can] prepare for war and leave the peace waging to those agencies of the government whose mission is just that."

Angels from the Sea is the compelling story of how a US task force, heading home after Desert Storm, diverts to Bangladesh to help a newly formed democracy get back on its feet following Cyclone Marian, one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in recent times. This book is not only a history of that successful operation but also a superb primer on organizing, equipping, training, and thinking about foreign humanitarian operations. Charles R. Smith, a former US Army paratrooper turned artilleryman turned historian, writes lucidly and candidly about how Col Randolph A. Gangle, USMC, commander of the joint task force (JTF) forward headquarters at Chittagong, Bangladesh, established an operations center. This center coordinated and acted as the host-country clearinghouse for information, tracked operations, networked administrators, performed radio operations, briefed public affairs, escorted dignitaries heading relief organizations, and performed various other staff functions. In short, the book examines the performance of typical command functions in a noncombat humanitarian relief operation. In this case, it was too successful.

Smith's account of the operation, unlike most US Marine Corps propaganda, is much too modest. The success of the overall operation, commanded by Maj Gen Henry C. Stackpole III, USMC, helped doctrine writers produce Joint Pub 3-07.6, Joint Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Foreign Humanitarian Assistance Operations and Joint Pub 3-08, Interagency Coordination during Joint Operations. The operation also allowed the services to participate in nonconventional JTFs just when they had mastered and successfully concluded Desert Storm, the greatest conventional JTF since World War II. As it turned out, according to Smith, the operation also became a model for organizing a task force, maintaining a minimal footprint on foreign soil, respecting sovereignty, and performing nonmilitary campaign planning.

Marian's 140 mile-per-hour, gale-force winds and an eight-meter tidal wave devastated Bangladesh. Approximately 139,000 people and 1 million livestock died immediately, and over 5 million people were left homeless on the night of 29 April 1991. Famine and disease threatened the world's most densely populated agrarian nation. The government, not really organized since only five months earlier it had thrown off a 15-year military dictatorship, was unable to respond. Nongovernment, private, international, and economic organizations responded quickly to the plight, raising food, clothing, money, and other essentials. However, only helicopters could deliver supplies to the devastated land, but none were available.

With no solution in sight, William B. Milam, US ambassador to Bangladesh, requested that Adm Charles Larson, commander in chief of Pacific Command (CINCPAC), divert maritime assets transiting the Indian Ocean to render assistance. The 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB), the nearest embarked unit with helicopter assets, could not respond because it was earmarked for an evacuation of American citizens in war-ravaged Ethiopia. Furthermore, the Department of Defense (DOD) did not intend to absorb the cost of such a massive humanitarian relief operation unless it was ordered to do so by the president or funded by the Department of State. Even more embarrassing was the discovery that we had turned down the Bangladesh government's first request for helicopters because security-assistance officials had "no confidence in the newly and fairly elected government."

While relief supplies piled up in the Philippines, Okinawa, and the west coast of the United States and while bureaucrats pointed fingers at each other, amphibious groups with lift assets on board steamed by Bangladesh without rendering aid because, as CINCPAC noted, "Without a specific American Embassy request and subsequent approval by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, diversion will not take place." Action finally came on 10 May, when Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagelburger and Deputy/Acting Secretary of Defense Donald Atwood reached an agreement on assistance. They sent a memorandum to Gen Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), directing that "the appropriate unified command . . . provide transportation support to humanitarian relief efforts to Bangladesh."

Thus, the first 50 pages of the book relate a disturbing tale of government bureaucracies trying to get someone else to incur the costs and responsibility for the relief effort. It is agonizing. The second part is better, however, reading like an illustrated and animated Joint Staff Officer's Guide. Warning orders go out to CINCPAC, and crisis action teams activate and create courses of actions, establish phases, write mission orders, wait out presidential directives, and finally execute JCS orders. But this is how the military goes to war-not to a foreign humanitarian-assistance operation. The JTF staff learns the hard way that very little exists in the way of joint doctrine concerning relief operations. Fortunately, someone turns up an extensive file on Operation Provide Comfort, the US and allied no-fly-zone enforcement effort in northern Iraq, which provided a modicum of relief to displaced Kurds being butchered by Saddam Hussein. Using this material as a starting point, General Stackpole and his staff depart for Bangladesh 12 days after the cyclone.

Readers may remember how the press criticized General Stackpole's decision, upon his arrival in Bangladesh, to make a pact with Ambassador Milam to avoid all appearances that they were stepping in to relieve the beleaguered government. The press corps, which thrived on action scenes like the ones produced by Desert Storm, did not understand or appreciate the general's diplomatic and tactful actions. Stackpole correctly decided that delivery of medical supplies to treat the sick, equipment to sanitize water, and tools to clean up contaminated areas would be the order of the day before delivering massive amounts of food. But the press criticized his every decision, showing videos of starving, fly-covered, emaciated survivors, and wondering when the Marines would go into action. Stackpole did not cave in to this criticism, and his methodology has long since proven itself correct.

Angels from the Sea is the best account of a foreign humanitarian operation to date; indeed, it may be the only one of its kind. It is superbly documented with excellent maps, organizational charts, JTF compositions, and photographs. Even though it is a US Marine Corps document, it extends credit and high praise for the Navy, Air Force, Army, and Special Forces components that made up the relief task force.

Regrettably, just as the reader is patting the military on the back for a job well done, Smith inserts an ominous passage that sours the book. According to Smith, General Stackpole noted that "Operation Sea Angel was the forerunner of what caused us to go to Somalia. If the operation's relief efforts in Bangladesh had been a failure, the United States probably would not have been so interested in large scale humanitarian attempts." Why Smith placed this statement in the book, I do not know. Perhaps he needed to remind us of Colonel Dunlap's warning. This misstep aside, every officer should read this enlightening, edifying book and learn the lessons of organization and political skills that are essential to conducting humanitarian operations-the most prevalent type being performed today.

Lt Col D. G. Bradford, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama

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