Britain and the Rise of Disaster Militarism

Friday, January 8, 2016: 11:10 AM
Room 309/310 (Hilton Atlanta)
Tehila Sasson, University of California, Berkeley
The notion that natural disasters require military response has become so familiar in past decades as to seem almost inevitable. As its proponents would argue, the military is well-equipped to transport food and supplies in difficult conditions. Yet deploying the armed forces of the state to humanitarian disaster zones instead battlefields does more than simply confer logistical advantages. “Disaster militarism,” as some call it, carries a political valence, making the military seem necessary as well benevolent.  Its origins lay in the 1970s, when Western states began responding to natural catastrophe by calling in the troops.

This paper examines the emergence of this international phenomenon by focusing on the case of the British military, an important actors in this story which was also imprinted to an unusual degree by the experience of imperial rule. In the 1970s, as the British military relinquished the majority of its operational and combat roles, it became one of the major international responders to large-scale catastrophes and providers of humanitarian aid. Its knowledge and availability, as well as its former bases in Asia and Africa, allowed it to become a major participant in disaster relief in these areas. Disaster militarism, I argue, emerged in the 1970s as a response to shrinking military budgets in the age of decolonization and détente. It offered a way to repurpose the armed forces and re-appropriate their knowledge in the service of humanitarian aid. In the process, the military secured its place in the larger project of humanitarian governance.  By harnessing its skills to transport aid, the British military acquired a new raison d’etre and a new role as a humanitarian actor.

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