The Military's Modern Role in Securing Freedom

An Essay by Colonel Miguel Howe

The U.S. military has evolved since the 1940s, adapting to advancing technology and a vastly different enemy.  But what has not changed is that the U.S. military stands as a key element in protecting the freedoms Franklin Roosevelt outlined in his speech.

Captain Scott Horrigan from 2-87 INF discussing with elderly leaders what help they can get from the U.S. military to build a new school in their village in Afghanistan on May 6, 2007. (NBC Newswire) Captain Scott Horrigan from 2-87 INF discussing with elderly leaders what help they can get from the U.S. military to build a new school in their village in Afghanistan on May 6, 2007. (NBC Newswire)

The mission of the military has not changed since Franklin Roosevelt gave his Four Freedoms address in 1941. But the environment in which the military delivers that mission has evolved and changed as the threats have evolved and changed. The mission also has taken on a new dimension as national leaders have seen the military's effectiveness in advancing freedom in ways other than directly responding to threats to our security and that of our allies. 

Over the last 15 years, Americans have seen -- and debated -- the importance of the military in ensuring our security against international terrorism and hostile actors. Too often that debate has not included the military’s role in protecting all four freedoms and universal human rights.

Freedom from fear

One of the challenges with terrorists, insurgency groups, and illicit organizations is that they capitalize on unstable environments. Groups like these, which are known as non-state actors, thrive in an environment where there is no security, no government, no development, no opportunity, and no hope. They grow in areas where people are extremely disaffected. 

Countering these threats requires security, governance, and development. Security is essential because without it you cannot establish the governance that is required to deliver services. Nor can you have the development the people need to thrive and prosper. 

Non-state actors, though, are difficult to target. You must look for opportunities where you can destroy their networks. But these networks really thrive and find sanctuary among an oppressed people.

One of the challenges with terrorists, insurgency groups, and illicit organizations is that they capitalize on unstable environments. Groups like these thrive in an environment where there is no security, no government, no development, no opportunity, and no hope.

The two-fold challenge for the military and law enforcement community is to target the enemy who resides and hides amongst innocents. You have to do so without destroying the infrastructure in which the people live. You don’t want to alienate those you are there to protect. Rather, you want to protect them from those who lord fear over them. 

Blunt force doesn’t work, however, without governance and development. We don’t have the ability in such an environment to achieve our objectives alone. We have to work with the host nation, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, the Philippines, or Yemen.

They will have to ensure security over the long term, as well as the governance and development of its people. More often than not, we have to teach, coach, train, and advise them that their security forces simply can’t go in and use their military muscle. If they want to secure the support of their people, they have to do so while preserving their human rights, freedoms, and dignities. 

Take the case of Afghan commandos and Special Forces. Those elements of the Afghan military have made the most strides in that nation. I have traveled around the country with them and they are seen as a source of pride.

That’s because they are well-trained, well-armed, and extremely lethal and effective. Yet they also understand the need for governance and development, along with security. When an operation is over, they engage the local people and follow up with support that makes the locals better than they were before they came in.  

The two-fold challenge for the military and law enforcement community is to target the enemy who resides and hides amongst innocents...You don’t want to alienate those you are there to protect.

Freedom from want

 

People show their support for Ukraine during a rally in front of the White House on March 6, 2014. (Anadolu Agency / Getty Images) People show their support for Ukraine during a rally in front of the White House on March 6, 2014. (Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

Of course, in addition to non-state actors, work still needs to be done to deter unstable state leaders who could disrupt the international system. That's what the issue is with North Korea and Iran. We need to be prepared to not only deter any hostile actions but respond in kind if necessary.  

At the same time, we have seen the resurgence of powerful nations such as China and Russia. They have reasserted their strength and will. State and non-state actors also seek to subvert new domains such as cyberspace and outer space. The military's first role and responsibility is to be able to respond to all of these myriad threats. 

Yet one of the keys to our security and freedom is economic prosperity. And that means the economic prosperity of the U.S. and the global system. The military has an indirect role in promoting freedom here, too, through protecting the vitality of the global economy.

For example, the U.S. military enables the delivery of energy as well as the shipment of goods on the seas. The Navy has the primary responsibility in keeping trade routes and key hubs open to international commerce and business.

The U.S. military enables the delivery of energy as well as the shipment of goods on the seas. The Navy has the primary responsibility in keeping trade routes and key hubs open to international commerce and business.

What’s more, U.S. Strategic Command not only protects cyberspace and outer space for security reasons. It also ensures they are available for industries that depend upon them for their services and products. 

The military likewise plays a direct role in ensuring human rights and core democratic values that have been adopted by the United Nations and other international bodies. Our military is currently deployed in over 150 countries. We not only are in places like Afghanistan, but also on the Korean Peninsula; throughout the Pacific on ships and in places like the Philippines helping the government conduct counter-terrorism operations; and constantly arrayed throughout Latin America, Africa, and Europe.

At the request of those nations, our military is providing security assistance, training, and equipment so that those who seek to advance democracy and a free market economy can do so while dealing with internal and external threats.  

Take the case of Colombia. In the 1980s and 1990s, Colombia was on the brink of being a failed state. But Colombia used U.S. military training, advice and assistance, and equipment and material to combat the drug cartels and defeat an insurgency movement, the FARC and the ELN. 

Our military is providing security assistance, training, and equipment so that those who seek to advance democracy and a free market economy can do so while dealing with internal and external threats.  

Ensuring democratic freedoms

 

Make no mistake here: The U.S. military does not randomly deploy on its own. It does so at the behest of the President and the Pentagon and in concurrence with Congress and the State Department.

Military deployments go through an approval process that navigates all of those offices. And the State Department, in accordance with the Leahy Amendment, must approve and validate every military organization that the U.S. trains with in a nation. 

I deployed for over two years to Colombia and Ecuador on these training and advising missions. One deployment was held up six months while we waited for the vetting of the Colombian counter-narcotics brigade we were going to train. The brigade had officers who had been implicated in human rights violations. Ultimately, they were removed from the units we were going to train.

So, the U.S. military influences the behavior of foreign militaries in that we cannot train, advise, and assist them unless they are adhering to international and U.S. standards for human rights. 

And once the military is deployed, it must provide human rights training to counterparts in the host nation. We had to allocate time on our training schedule to go through a block of instructions on human rights with Colombian soldiers and law enforcement officers. All kinds of interesting debates arose during those sessions.

I point this out because you must have relationships if you are going to shape and influence behavior. It may not be widely understood outside of policy circles, but the military is using those relationships to influence and shape the standards of those host nation militaries. 

In many cases, there standards are not the same as ours. But there’s little way to shape and influence them unless we are working on what’s right.

The perception of Latin American militaries once was not very good as a result of atrocities they had committed on the behest of dictators. The same story is true in the Pacific and parts of Eurasia. A military in the wrong hands can be a tool for an oppressive dictator.

The military’s role in ensuring Americans are free from fear is irrefutable, whether the threat comes from non-state actors, unstable regimes, or resurgent global powers. The same is true in keeping us free from want, ensuring that trade, energy, and commerce are not at risk on the seas or in cyberspace and outer space.

For the past 75 years, our military also has helped ensure the basic human rights that are the first two of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. In all of these areas, the military directly guarantees not only security and prosperity, but also human rights and freedoms.

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