Michael Gerson

Where in the world did U.S. Marines learn this kind of cultural sensitivity? Lt. Col. Rob Fulford, in charge of the Carrefour operation, answers: "In Iraq and Afghanistan, where the equivalent was dealing with tribal sheiks. ... There is a maturity level inside our Marines that didn't exist in 2003 when we invaded Iraq. A cultural awareness. An ability to leverage relationships."

Another officer on Fulford's staff adds: "It is very similar to Iraq and Afghanistan, except that here there is no bad guy. We're helping the populace, winning their trust. This is right up our alley. All of us are products of the COIN manual."

He is referring to the counterinsurgency field manual authored by Gen. David Petraeus, which involved a dramatic shift in military thinking -- increasing the focus on population security, cultivating indigenous capabilities and isolating the enemy by improving the lives of the locals. This strategy helped save the American mission in Iraq. Its reach and benefits can now be seen on a Haitian beach.

Major military deployments such as Haiti involve a paradox. They put a tremendous strain on military equipment. Traveling from ship to ship off Haiti's shore, I was told of clean water condensers that had broken down, of scavenging for essential parts, of preventive maintenance postponed.

But the people of the military gain skill and experience -- moving supplies, treating trauma cases, dealing with complex cultural challenges. Despite many hardships, those who train for a mission love performing their mission.

No empire of history could boast such tenderhearted legions. The crew of the USS Fort McHenry managed to secure tens of thousands of jars of peanut butter to distribute at schools onshore. On the USS Bataan, a 96-year-old Haitian woman in intensive care is attended like an admiral. The Bataan crew is particularly proud of the Haitian baby they helped deliver aboard. Lacking a proper incubator, they improvised -- using a heat lamp normally employed to cure fiberglass.

These soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines know that much was broken in Haiti even before the quake, and much will remain broken after they leave. But back on the beach at Carrefour, the Marines are packing up and moving one of their facilities. A group of Haitian-American investors wants to begin building on the site. These Marines, at least, know that their presence was a preface to better things.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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