03/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Will History Recall the Haiti Airlift?

Mainstream media are now reporting the shortage of medical supplies in Haiti, a shortage created in part by the US decision to prioritize the inflow of military flights over humanitarian aid.

Doctors without Borders (MSF) said days were lost because the main airport in Port-au-Prince, under U.S. control, had been blocked by military traffic, Reuters reports.

"We lost three days," [Francoise Saulnier, the head of MSF's legal department] told Reuters Television in an interview. "And these three days have created a massive problem with infection, with gangrene, with amputations that are needed now, while we could have really spared this to those people."


"And now everything has been mixed together and the urgent and vital attention to the people has been delayed (for) military logistics, which is useful but not on day three, not on day four, but maybe on day eight. This military logistic has really jammed the airport and led to this mismanagement."

Mark Weisbrot, writing in the Guardian, noted that

On Sunday, Jarry Emmanuel, air logistics officer for the UN's World Food Programme, said: "There are 200 flights going in and out every day, which is an incredible amount for a country like Haiti ... But most flights are for the US military."

The New York Times reported Thursday that

Another grievance among some health professionals was that the American military was not giving enough of a priority to humanitarian aid. Doctors Without Borders has complained that more than one of its planes carrying vital medical equipment has been kept from landing at the airport here, costing lives.

Today, the Miami Herald reports that US "security" concerns are still slowing the distribution of aid:

[U.S. Army Col. Charles] Heatherly said the U.S. military is transporting humanitarian cargo from the choked Port-au-Prince airport, where about 140 aircraft a day have been landing around-the-clock, to four distribution hubs and 105 satellite feeding sites throughout the capital.

He said more distribution sites would be established as more troops become available to provide security. Humanitarian groups have been distributing supplies directly to the Haitian people. [my emphasis.]

It's almost surely the case that thousands of Haitians have died unnecessarily because of the US decision to put "security" ahead of aid. But the good news is that thousands of Haitians could still be spared if a public outcry of Americans forced the Obama Administration to re-order US priorities.

Of course many Americans don't want to hear any criticism of the US role. Many Americans don't want to accept that the Obama Administration might not have taken decisions that were in the best interests of the people of Haiti, or that the US military has been anything less than a perfect instrument for organizing emergency aid to the Haitian people. And some people say that now is time for recriminations, and that the US is doing the best that it can.

I certainly agree that now is not the time for "assigning blame," but now is certainly the time for agitation for more effective action. It's too early to say that this is "Obama's Katrina," when the US effort could still be redeemed. But where is our can-do attitude? Why are so many content to proclaim that we are doing all we can, instead of agitating for the Obama Administration to do more and do it better? If the challenge in front of us were a foreign military adversary, would we shrug our soldiers and say that we are doing the best that we can, so don't complain? Would others be content with such an explanation?

From the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation:

It was determined that the city's daily food ration would be 646 tons of flour and wheat; 125 tons of cereal; 64 tons of fat; 109 tons of meat and fish; 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes; 180 tons of sugar; 11 tons of coffee; 19 tons of powdered milk; 5 tons of whole milk for children; 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking; 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables; 38 tons of salt; and 10 tons of cheese. In total, 1,534 tons were needed daily to keep the over 2 million people alive. That's not including other necessities, like coal and fuel. In fact, the largest quantity of anything required was coal. It wasn't needed to heat homes as much as it was necessary for industry. In addition, there was limited electricity, because the city's power plant was located in the Soviet sector, so that was cut off, too. It was determined that in total supplies, 3,475 tons would be needed daily. A C-47 can haul 3.5 tons. In order to supply the people of Berliners, C-47's would have to make 1000 flights each day. Impossible.

Are your representatives in Congress speaking out to increase the flow of aid? Find out by sending them a note.