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Saturday, Jan. 22, 2005

Too soon to end U.S. military's aid effort


LOS ANGELES -- What seems truly noteworthy about the U.S. response to the tsunami disaster (especially as viewed here from the West Coast) is the dramatic duration of the caring. Even as the TV media have begun to lose interest (predictably), the general interest here seems not to be waning at all.

One must assume that the colossal magnitude of the tragedy and the merciless vulnerability of millions of people to Mother Nature at her absolute worst touched the American heart completely.

On campuses up and down the West Coast, from the University of Washington in Seattle to the University of California at San Diego, students' organizing on behalf of the victims remains at fever pitch. Even Hollywood's sincerity about tsunami aid seems -- well -- sincere! And, if you know Tinseltown, you know this is a most unusual turn of events indeed.

At a celebrity gala in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, thrown by Qantas, Penfolds, the Australian government and others to celebrate the Australian-West Coast L.A. connection, honoree Nicole Kidman devoted her time at the awards podium to plea passionately for disaster relief. I do not know what Kidman is like in her private life, but her public manner is utterly bubbly and winning.

Once again the forces of nature show that national differences are irrelevant, Kidman told the packed Century Plaza Hotel Ballroom. A few days later the talented actress boarded a plane for Indonesia, knowing that celebrities attract television cameras, and TV attracts interest, which in turn attracts donations: If I can, it is my duty to help, she said.

Even Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, not normally the warmest of avuncular U.S. figures, was found to be traipsing around nearly leveled Sri Lanka, saying the right things and appearing very sincere. He also toured scenes of devastation in Indonesia and Thailand. Alas, Wolfowitz decided then to break the news that the Bush administration is eager to close out the involvement of the U.S. military in the disaster areas. That's a bad call for several reasons.

One is that so much work remains to be done that every single extra pair of hands can save lives and put nearly ruined ones back on track. The second one is that in this Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist region of the world, it is far, far better for the American military to be seen saving and helping lives than the opposite. The soldiers that need to be brought home are the tired, overstretched and dangerously threatened ones in Iraq, not in Indonesia.

In Indonesia, especially, the very presence of the humanitarian face of U.S. soldiers could speak volumes to their counterparts in the TNI (the initials for Indonesia's military) whose image is not exactly that of a humanitarian-prone or rules-driven force. Indonesia was thrown together almost as a hopscotch afterthought when the Dutch abandoned their colonies there. Indonesia, now home to more Muslims than any other country, is a fledgling democracy that cannot hope to hold together without a solid but responsible military infrastructure. But a mainly repressive military will only trigger a revolutionary, decentralizing spiral. The U.S. military has a role to play there, especially by example.

The United States, therefore, has reasons to be proud, though not smug. We've changed the picture, a happy officer in the U.S. Pacific Command near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii told me. He's right: Every passing day that Muslims and others in the region see the American good guys and gals in action shovels welcome dirt on the sordid picture of Abu Ghraib.

The kind of picture America wants to project in the world is one that ran prominently in U.S newspapers of a U.S. military doctor bearing an injured Indonesian child in his arms.

The America of today is a culture driven by media images. And so this kind of image is good not only for America's image abroad but for Americans' image of themselves at home. Our self-image has been severely rattled by the mess in Iraq, the torture of prisoners, the "smart bombs" gone awry into civilian buildings.

Thus the work of the sailors, airmen and women, and foot soldiers of the U.S. Pacific Command (which has no role in Iraq) deserves nothing less than a standing ovation. The rapidity with which so many in our military volunteered for this duty and the gusto with which they have been doing the job speaks to the best that is in us. It is sad that it took a millennial tragedy to bring our true nature out in the open. The U.S. military doctor is our true nature, not the ugly American.

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate is a UCLA professor and director of the nonprofit Asia Pacific Media Network. Copyright Tom Plate 2005


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