From Three to One:
Rethinking the "Three Block War" and Humanitarian Operations in Combat
Reuben E. Brigety II, Ph.D.
the mid-1990's, U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak conceived of
the notion of the "three-block war" in which Marine forces engaged in
urban combat would have to perform humanitarian and peacekeeping functions
while simultaneously conducting combat operations. Recent conflicts in
In one moment in time, our service members will be feeding and clothing displaced refugees, providing humanitarian assistance. In the next moment, they will be holding two warring tribes apart - conducting peacekeeping operations - and, finally, they will be fighting a highly lethal mid-intensity battle - all on the same day... all within three city blocks.
Though it was originally proposed to describe the urban battlefield of the future, the concept of the three-block war can be seen as more than simply the tactical terrain on which soldiers may have to fight. Indeed, it can represent both a broad operational concept and a new strategic imperative.
central operational idea in the three-block war is that military forces will
have to conduct humanitarian activities for civilians during active hostilities
as an integral part of the war plan. Yet such activities need not be confined
to a small tactical area, such as three city blocks. Humanitarian activities
could be conducted throughout an entire theater of operations. Indeed, this is
addition to the obvious ethical considerations, providing humanitarian
assistance to civilians during hostilities has a clear strategic value as well.
A combination of forces has converged in recent years to bring this about.
First, the rise of a global human rights culture has heightened the importance
of the dignity of the individual, particularly at the hands of governments.
Second, the emergence of instantaneous global news media has permitted
observing publics around the world to witness first hand the suffering of
innocent civilians in war zones. Finally, the nature of the global war on
terror demands that the
While the participation of military forces in humanitarian activities may appear to be a useful synergy of humane impulses and national interests, it is not without controversy. Segments of the international humanitarian community have suggested that such arrangements are problematic for at least three reasons. First, they suggest that performance of humanitarian activities by military forces that are parties to the conflict actually reduces the "humanitarian space" for intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations to conduct relief work. Both recipients of aid and other parties to the conflict may find it difficult to distinguish between providers of assistance and combatants. This confusion can extend beyond mere physical identification and apply as well to the motives of such forces. While, as stated above, military forces may wish to be identified with humane purposes for both tactical and strategic reasons, humanitarian groups almost invariably do not wish to be identified either physically or politically with any party to an armed conflict. Such identification can compromise the neutrality on which civilian humanitarian agencies depend both for their operational security in the field and for their political independence in funding and policy circles around the world.
Secondly, some critics have argued that the military is simply not as competent as civilian humanitarian aid agencies are in the provision of humanitarian assistance. Given their long experience in complex emergencies, many aid agencies not only have substantial skills in critical areas (such as rapid needs assessment, water purification, humanitarian demining and human rights monitoring), but they may also have in depth local knowledge of the area where aid is needed, as well as its people. Modern advanced militaries may be uniquely equipped or exceptionally skilled in providing security or logistical support for humanitarian operations. Yet their participation in activities outside of areas of their greatest competence, and for which civilian aid agencies may have a comparative advantage, may undermine the ultimate success of the humanitarian effort.
Thirdly, there are those who have questioned the ultimate commitment of military forces to humanitarian tasks, and the resulting consequences for the recipients of aid. As long as the principal motivation for the provision of humanitarian assistance is to support the strategic interests of the provider, then the recipient is ultimately subjected to the whims of those interests. When the interests change, the amount or nature of the aid may change as well. Humanitarian agencies, however, see themselves as dedicated to responding to humanitarian suffering for as long as such suffering exists, regardless of the affiliation of those in need, for as long as they have the capacity to respond, and as long as security conditions permit. All other political and strategic considerations are, generally speaking, irrelevant. This emphasis on the impartiality of providing assistance, argue aid workers, is essential to the humanitarian enterprise. Its subordination to other interests may compromise the endurance and flexibility of a humanitarian operation to respond to the needs of the beneficiaries as long as those needs may exist.
is not yet a definitive body of empirical evidence to determine conclusively
whether or not having partisan military forces provide humanitarian assistance
adversely effects the recipients of such aid.
Nevertheless, recent experiences in
regard to questions of humanitarian space, the record is more mixed. Civilian
humanitarian agencies had been operating in
It is important both tactically and strategically for civilian aid agencies to be involved in humanitarian operations during and after U.S.-led military engagements. Tactically, they can provide much needed expertise and material support that otherwise would have to be performed by military forces. Strategically, the presence of civilian humanitarian agencies can tacitly signal international legitimacy for a military operation. It is therefore vital for military forces to design procedures, especially in peacetime, to facilitate cooperation with civilian humanitarian agencies in pursuit of victory in the three-block war.
Charles C. Krulak, USMC "The Three Block War: Fighting in Urban
Areas." Vital Speeches of the Day.