Angels From The Sea: The Soft Power of The United States

Lt. General (Ret.) Henry StackpoleToday the Washington Post reports on another example of the Bush administration’s disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina. While Katrina victims suffered the Bush administration failed to make use of the massive outpouring of aid from foreign countries:

As the winds and water of Hurricane Katrina were receding, presidential confidante Karen Hughes sent a cable from her State Department office to U.S. ambassadors worldwide.

Titled "Echo-Chamber Message" — a public relations term for talking points designed to be repeated again and again — the Sept. 7, 2005, directive was unmistakable: Assure the scores of countries that had pledged or donated aid at the height of the disaster that their largesse had provided Americans "practical help and moral support" and "highlight the concrete benefits hurricane victims are receiving."

Many of the U.S. diplomats who received the message, however, were beginning to witness a more embarrassing reality. They knew the U.S. government was turning down many allies’ offers of manpower, supplies and expertise worth untold millions of dollars. Eventually the United States also would fail to collect most of the unprecedented outpouring of international cash assistance for Katrina’s victims.

Allies offered $854 million in cash and in oil that was to be sold for cash. But only $40 million has been used so far for disaster victims or reconstruction, according to U.S. officials and contractors. Most of the aid went uncollected, including $400 million worth of oil. Some offers were withdrawn or redirected to private groups such as the Red Cross. The rest has been delayed by red tape and bureaucratic limits on how it can be spent.

The failure of the Bush administration to respond to Katrina is consistent with its inept handling of almost all other crises that has faced this government – Iraq is but just one other example. They have consistently emphasized public relations and politics over performance. Everything is a talking point and reality is its victim.

And everything has an excuse:

In a statement, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said that the U.S. government sincerely appreciated support from around the world and that Katrina had proved to be "a unique event in many ways."

"As we continue our planning for the future, we will draw on the lessons learned from this experience to ensure that we make the best use of any possible foreign assistance that might be offered," Casey said. [Emphasis added by me.]

It is the same excuse. Somehow the latest failure is always something that is "unique" or "new". To say that this is a failure of imagination by the Bush administration would be kind. It is not a failure of imagination; it is a failure of will and a failure to harness the collective experience, knowledge and capabilities of the United States government. It is the "best and the brightest" run amok. The collective arrogance of the Bush administration has led to a failure of execution and a failure to capture hearts and minds at home and abroad.

It was not always so.

Let me tell you a story of a disaster that you have probably never heard of and the overwhelming American response that you should know about.

In late spring of 1991 a US Navy Amphibious Task Force (ATF) returning from the Persian Gulf war was diverted, on order of President George H.W. Bush, to the Bay of Bengal.

A Bangladeshi citizen, rumor has it, on seeing the ATF approach from the sea, called them "Angels from the Sea." Thus began Operation Sea Angel, one of the largest military relief operations ever undertaken.

Less than two weeks ago, on the evening of April 29 1991, Cyclone Marian, a storm with top sustained winds of 160 mph (Category 5), made landfall as a strong Category 4 storm (155 mph) along the coastline of Bangladesh. The resulting 20 foot high tidal wave killed over 138,000 people and left over 5 million people homeless. Marian was one of the deadliest tropical cyclones on record.

The new democratically elected government in Bangladesh, overwhelmed by the massive scale of the devastation, requested urgent assistance from foreign countries. While relief goods had been stockpiled before the cyclone, most of Bangladesh’s lift capability and almost all of the infrastructure had been wiped out by the force of nature’s onslaught.

The United States responded on May 10 1991 by launching Operation Sea Angel, a relief operation that involved over 7000 US soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen. The man leading the effort, Lt. General Henry Stackpole, declared, "We went to Kuwait in the name of liberty, and we’ve come to Bangladesh in the name of humanity."

Operation Sea Angel was massive in scale and massively successful:

Within 24 hours of a request for support from the government of Bangladesh, Operation Sea Angel was launched, and advance teams from the III Marine Expeditionary Force arrive in country for initial liaison. Operation Sea Angel began on 10 May and involved over 7,000 US soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. A fifteen-ship amphibious task force composed of Amphibious Group 3 and the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, homeward bound from five months of operations in the Persian Gulf, was diverted to the Bay of Bengal to assist. Over the next month, 6,700 Navy and Marine Corps personnel working with U.S. Army, Air Force, and multinational forces, provide food, water, and medical care to nearly two million people. The relief efforts of U.S. troops are credited with having saved as many as 200,000 lives.

Two days after the President’s order, LtGen. Stackpole arrived with a small CJTF element. A Special Operations Forces (SOF) Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) arrived later that day. The next day five UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters arrived from Hawaii, along with a Navy Environmental and Preventive Medicine Unit. Other joint assets continued to flow into the area, as required. Fifteen soldiers of B Company, 84th Engineer Battalion, already deployed to Bangladesh to construct schools, were diverted to Chittagong. The bulk of US forces were from the ATF consisting of the 4,600 Marines of the 5th MEB, 3,000 sailors of Amphibious Group 3, and 28 helicopters. The MEB also brought four Landing Craft Air Cushioned (LCAC) vehicles, which proved invaluable in delivering aid to isolated islands. Immediately upon his arrival in the capitol city of Dhaka, LtGen. Stackpole began an assessment of the situation, and identified three critical concerns: First, the intelligence needed to adequately assess the situation was unavailable; Second, the problem of distribution quickly became apparent, and was considered the most pressing by the Joint Task Force (JTF) staff; Finally, the issue of Bangladeshi sovereignty required that the GOB be clearly viewed by the populace as being “in charge”.

LtGen. Stackpole proceeded to develop a Campaign Plan consisting of three phases. After initial survey, liaison, and reconnaissance, Phase I (one week) entailed initial stabilization of the situation (delivery of food, water, and medicine to reduce loss of life). Phase II (two weeks) entailed restoring the situation to the point where the Bangladesh government could take control of relief efforts. Phase III (two weeks) was the consolidation phase in which the Task Force would depart and the Bangladesh government would take complete control of all relief efforts.

In the final analysis, Operation SEA ANGEL proved to be unique in several respects. It was almost entirely sea-based, with no more than 500 service members on shore at night. It was conducted in a benign environment; no weapons were carried by US forces, except for some sidearms carried by guards of cryptographic materials. It was also the first time that a Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) was used as a joint task force nucleus. Finally, a unique effective command and control structure was used to synchronize the efforts of US, British, Bangladeshi, and Japanese nongovernmental organizations, and other organizations such as the US Agency for International Development (AID) and a Chinese assistance element.

The US effort not only saved lives, but it also won hearts and minds. A Bangladeshi human rights blogger, Rumi Ahmed, who lived through the events recollects in a post commemorating the events:

The first American I have ever met was a soldier, probably a member of US marine corps. I saw him in Bangladesh. He was dispatched to Chittagong, Bangladesh after the deadly storm of April 29 1991. I was hustling across [t]he crowded lobby of Chittagong medical college hospital when I spotted an area where the crowd is a little denser than the rest of the lobby. A well built Caucasian man in battle gear, sun burnt skin, walking across carrying a Bangladeshi toddler on his shoulder. The toddler, clearly a victim of the recent cyclone, was vomiting all over the marine’s body.

The soldier was in Chittagong as a part of operation sea angel.

In response to Rumi’s post, it is heartening to see comments from some of the American servicemen and women who took part in Operation Sea Angel. Sixteen years after they first won hearts and minds, they continue to do so.

In just over one month the United States military executed what would become a blueprint for successful relief operations. The success of Operation Sea Angel contributed to the establishment of military doctrine on relief operations and on inter-agency coordination during joint operations, both of which provided ample lessons learned that could have been applied to Katrina and Iraq.

Operation Sea Angel demonstrated the tremendous soft power of the United States. It also demonstrated the lighter side of force projection. It showed the capability of the United States government to respond to natural disasters anywhere in the world when there is will within the executive branch to commit the resources necessary to recover from a humanitarian crisis. The United States military overcame significant barriers of lack of infrastructure, broken communications lines, challenges due to massive flooding and collapse of levees, lack of coordination between local and central governments, and the demands of a large population on the brink of starvation and in need of immediate relief.

All of those lessons learned from Operation Sea Angel could have and should have been brought to bear on Katrina. Instead George W Bush fiddled while New Orleans sank and while people pleaded for their government to rescue them. The richest country in the world, under competent and less arrogant leadership, was able to come to the aid of one of the poorest countries in the world in a time of need. Yet, faced with a challenge within its own homeland, the United States government, under incompetent and arrogant leadership, failed to come to the aid of its own citizens. That is simply inexcusable.


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10 Responses to Angels From The Sea: The Soft Power of The United States

  1. A Siegel says:


    Excellent discussion. Truly appreciated it.

    Sea Angel was a spark, along with Operation Provide Comfort, of a real effort to learn how to operations better. Sadly, this decade-long learning process was abandoned (even rejected) by the Bush Administration.

    RE this discussion, you might find (warning — large file) of interest. Sea Angel is discussed in Requirements for Humanitarian Assistance and Peace Operations: Insights From Seven Case Studies.

  2. ZaFa says:

    I distinctly remember those days, the deadly storm happened exactly three weeks before my wedding. Even though our families and friends were all living in Dhaka, a city centrally located in the country and were not effected by the calamity, we were all at awe at the monstrosity and the extend of the disaster. To show respect to the cyclone victims our families decided to cut down significantly on the flashy elements of the festivities that meant no decoration of the buildings with millions of lights, no decoration of the gates with colorful fabrics and light or the bride-groom’s car with flowers….etc. Those who are not familiar with the Bangladeshi wedding those are the key features of a wedding celebration.

    It was in a way an inspiring time for the Bangladeshis. Democracy was restored from the military dictatorship; a democratically elected government was in place, commerce and trades were thriving, new entrepreneur were in the horizon ….people were full of hope for a brighter future.

    But anyway, those are just off topic. Operations of Sea Angel are excellent examples of how good the military forces can be, if applied positively and effectively.

  3. Robbie says:

    I had to jog my memory for a bit, but I do remember some of our forces were diverted to Bangladesh. I can’t imagine our forces ever doing that while President Bush is in office. We already saw what happened in New Orleans. Enough said.

  4. just john says:

    Thank you for the reminder that some of our tax money does do some good, sometimes.

  5. Mash says:

    A Siegel, thanks for the link. The Bush admin has been busy reinventing the wheel instead of building upon decades of expertise. Its arrogance I think is only surpassed by its incompetence.

  6. Mash says:

    Robbie and Just John, it boggles my mind that Bush has failed so massively to respond to Katrina. This administration has more excuses than accomplishments.

    Zafa, I forgot to mention in the post General Stackpole’s visit to Bangladesh last year to commemorate the events of 1991. Those days seem like a long time ago given the chaos and hostility in the world today.

  7. Asif says:

    Hello Mash,

    Quick thanks for another absorbing read and for linking my blog on your page! A true online honour if ever there was one.

  8. Pingback: The Moderate Voice » Domestic and international news analysis, irreverent comments, original reporting, and popular culture features from across the political spectrum.

  9. chris says:

    Its sad to see the negative comments about our former president bush ie katrina. As a member of the 45th support group hawaii sent to bangladesh in 1991, the response time for katrina was much faster. If I remember correctly, we did not start airlifting food by helicopter till about 3 weeks after the cyclone had hit. Furthermore, we suspended operations for a day with food rotting on the flight line just to fly tipper gore, al gores wife around for the day, while people were starving. I would suppose if bangladesh had a welfare system like louisiana many more would have died because of the inability to take care of themselves.

  10. chris says:

    Also, I do not ever remember being shot at in bangladesh, or people stealing, looting or rapping women and children all of witch happened in louisana.

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