Analysis Military

Handling massive migration: Operation Sea Signal

The recent talk about migrants and borders got me thinking about the last time the United States was forced to deal with a massive influx of migrants. This followed the inauguration of President Clinton, who had repeatedly said, “genuine Haitian refugees fleeing by boat [would] not be directly returned to Haiti.” Instead, the migrants would be screened at “a facility in the region.”  This January, 1993, Baltimore Sun article describes the extent of the boat building in Haiti in the days leading up to Clinton’s inauguration.

The military started contingency planning for handling the sudden influx of Haitian asylum seekers soon after the election of Clinton. The USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, was deployed to Jamaica where teams of INS agents would screen migrants, those screened in would fly to Gitmo and then to the U.S. Those screened out would be returned to Haiti immediately. The Task Force assigned this mission, TF 160, also leased a cruise liner to house migrant overflow. On that ship were members of the GCE (ground combat element), the 2nd Battalion 4th Marines, commanded by LtCol John Allen.

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The plan instantly failed. The INS could not screen migrants at the rate they had promised, and the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship designed to handle trauma, found an alarming number of migrants sick from various tropical aliments including active tuberculosis. Air filtration systems on naval ships are not designed to contain infectious diseases, in fact if a patient with active TB was taken down into the ship to the be X-Rayed it is a certainty that the entire ship would be contaminated.  These problems came up instantly, requiring instant adaptation like bringing a portable X-Ray up to the main deck, setting up GP tents and screening them there.

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The cruise ship contracted for the mission turned out to be an old Russian troop transport that was filthy, couldn’t make potable water, had no A/C etc… Then the Coast Guard yoked up about 300 Chinese migrants heading to America in a crappy old boat and some quick decisions had to made about them. Within the first hours of the operation’s start, JTF 160 decided to transfer the entire thing to Gitmo — exactly what the new President wanted to avoid — but there were no other options.

When they tried to re-locate, Jamaica started to raise hell because the administration had leased the Comfort’s anchorage for six months and they wanted their money. You can’t make this stuff up. The Comfort stayed in Jamaica too as the operation continued. Screen Shot 2019-07-15 at 3.53.53 PM

The new migrants joined thousands of migrants already at Gitmo. The logistical challenges were enormous, the migrants frustrated, and the situation grew so tense that all the families of military personnel stationed on base were removed to the mainland. They were soon replaced by infantry battalions from Camp Lejeune. My battalion had just returned from a deployment, so we sat this one out, but got stuck with a 6 month Unit Rotation to Okinawa (a year ahead of our deployment schedule) because the scheduled battalion was in Cuba.

This was not the first time the Marines had deployed on short notice to contain riots at Gitmo. Here is a link to story about the 1991 response by the 2nd battalion 8th Marines to quell riots there and it is worth reading. But I have not found anything about the post inaugural rioting, and am relying on my memories from the PME classes we received from the battalions involved.  The lessons they had learned seem pertinent today.

Last week on All Marine Radio I made a reference to this operation, mentioning the tales of wood shampooing migrants. When we say ‘wood shampoo’ we are not describing using riot batons to club people over the head, we’re talking riot control, and that is serious business, because it involves crowds.

A rioting crowd or mob or whatever you want to call it is not a sum of its constituent parts, it amplifies the worst in its constituent parts. Crowds of angry people, allowed to get out of control, riot. Riots result in people getting killed, and thus the first lesson of crowd control is don’t let crowds get bigger than you can handle.

The migrants were separated into razor wire enclosed camps with General Purpose tents for cover and military cots to sleep on.  Unescorted males were segregated into their own camps, unescorted females housed with the families. Migrants were not allowed to leave their assigned camp and boredom, frustration, and the prospect of being returned to Haiti made them restless; rumors spread through the camps like wildfire and none of them were good.

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The Marine (and Army) MP’s working inside the camps did what they could to help the refugees; they were the good cops. The infantry Marines outside the wire set up multiple observation posts, watched and recorded everything that happened inside each of the encampments. Once they had established enough intelligence to spot the signature of a rape in progress (depressingly common) or a session of weapons making, they called in a react force. Those Marines were the bad cops.

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This looks like a breach element in the front; the assault force is the large group behind them.

The react team has a breach element that will go in through the wire close to the target, followed by an assault team that moves directly to the targeted tent to disrupt whatever transgression was occurring and apprehend the miscreants involved. This was done by the application overwhelming force. The force applied has to be overwhelming to meet the overriding goal of migrant camp operations; first, do no harm. A tent full of armed migrants, willing to fight (extraordinarily rare) would be dog-piled by an entire platoon of infantry Marines. It’s over quick because it has to be over quick, otherwise people are going to get hurt, and hurting people is mission failure. Marines don’t do the mission failure thing well.

Eventually the migrants did riot. I remember the duty air alert battalion flying out that spring along with a lot of other units. The after action briefs included large boards with specimens of manufactured weapons the Marines faced. I believe the biggest riot took two battalions (plus all the MP’s and some other US army units) to quell and it sounded epic. Entire infantry battalions marching in column, deploying companies in echelon to get into battle lines… the former DI’s must have had a field day practicing that.

Military riot control looks similar to civilian police riot control except there isn’t a police organization in the world that could march on and pull off an echelon movement. The front ranks have body shields and riot batons and they close with the front ranks of the rioters to push them back. The billy clubs are used exactly as the Romans used the Gladius, thrusting it out and striking with the blunt tip towards the torso. An uncomfortable, but not damaging, application of force.

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I worked for Gen Allen who retired as a 4 star and now heads the Brooking Institute. There was not another LtCol in the Corps back then who could have handled an unhappy special presidential envoy with more finesse.

Behind the front lines were snatch teams comprised of very large, fit, Marines under the control of SNCOs who were pacing behind the front line studying the crowd intently,  searching for ring leaders, agitators or natural fighters.

At this point, I have to interject an explanation of violence so you know what we (Marines) know as I move the narrative forward. It is a common misperception that humans react to confrontation with other humans using the fight or flight response. Fight or flight is how humans react to extra-species confrontations. If you are confronted by a rattlesnake there are only two options in response, fight it or run. In an intra-species confrontation, humans — like every other animal on the planet — have four responses: fight, flight, posture or submit.

Think back to altercations you may have witnessed growing up; there was lots of name calling, followed by posturing (put up your dukes), followed by some pushing and ineffective attempts at punching. Most human confrontations are like that, a display of aggressive posturing that works its way into a sort of fight only if nobody steps in to stop it (which the participants are probably counting on). It is rare to see a person who, when confronted by a potential adversary,  immediately starts fighting with intensity and purpose without any posturing or hesitation.

There is an extraordinarily small number of men who are born natural fighters. These men, if history is our guide, are sprinkled throughout all levels of society. The phenomena of natural fighters who can single-handedly turn the tide of a major fight is well documented. These men do not posture; when provoked, they immediately escalate to fight mode, no posturing, no name calling, no warning; fighters fight.

The snatch team spotter’s first priority, as he scans the seething crowd, is to find a guy looking back at him with identical, controlled, intensity. This is an application of the rule of opposites; what you are expecting to see is excited, highly agitated, angry people glaring back. The calm ones are the fighters and they have to go down first. Next up are leaders and other agitators. The only [non lethal] way to calm a rioting crowd is by removing its leaders and natural fighters while herding them into tighter spaces that you control to constrict their movement.

But wait, you’re thinking, if you corner an injured animal or desperate man, won’t that make him more dangerous? Won’t that make them fight? No, a crowd is not composed of desperate humans, it is composed of (as Eckhart Tolle would say) people who have surrendered their own, individual consciousness, to the consciousness of the crowd. That collective consciousness can be quelled by one thing: the threat of overwhelming force.

A hundred years ago men who lived in the American West would know this. Most of them had experience working with big herds of large animals that could be easily spooked. Getting the herd together was how you got them to calm, it works the same way with people or any other animal that requires intra-species socialization and cooperation to survive.

Back to the riot.

Once the snatch team spotter identifies a target, he orients the snatch team leader, he stacks his team behind the front line, the team leader taps the Marine in front of him on the ass, he steps aside and the snatch team fires through the gap like a freight train. The normal reaction from their target is immediate submission. The people around the target melt, the man is disarmed, searched and hustled back through Marine lines. Fighters are dog piled and quickly submitted.

When a targeted rioter is dragged behind the lines there is another group of Marines responsible for searching, identifying, and cuffing him before moving them to another containment area. If force is needed (which was rare), the batons were used on the legs to gain compliance, excessive use of batons is not and never will be tolerated. It is counterproductive, bad for moral, and turns the exercise from a legitimate use of limited force to wanton abuse.

I’ve been describing the search part of a cordon and search, which is the follow on mission to any migrant camp riot. The cordon consists of Marines, standing shoulder to shoulder, with rifles that have bayonets attached. To get away with using minimal force, when dealing with rioting people, you have to have overwhelming force backing your play. It is inconceivable that a few hundred rioting migrants could overwhelm a Marine infantry battalion, but if they did there was another battalion, with rifles, bayonets, and bad attitudes behind them. Hardened NVA soldiers sitting behind loaded machine guns ran from shot-up Marine rifle companies when faced with a bayonet charge… who thinks they could stand up against a battalion of them?

Nobody, which is the point. Because nobody enlisted in the United States Marine Corps to bayonet Haitian migrants. It’s a shitty thing to do, and it results in gaping bloody injuries causing the victim to shout and scream which freaks out the new guys and upsets the corpsmen. Nobody is comfortable using the cold steel — it is a desperate move made by desperate men. The advantage the military had back then was the ability to have enough force in place to prevent riots from spreading through the camps and getting out of control. A bayonet charge would have been a disaster for the Marines, and it was never used or needed.  But the threat was there, for every rioter to see, and that had a limiting affect on crowd violence. How the riots would end was never in doubt by any participant.

If you stayed with me this long, I have a sea story for your enjoyment. General John Allen has been mentioned already. Those of you who have followed me at Free Range International or All Marine Radio know I’m a big fan of his. When 2/4 moved ashore at Gitmo, Allen had his Marines take aiming circles (used to lay in mortars) up into the towers surrounding the camps. The Marines taped a boom mic to the aiming circle, put on headsets, pointed the boom mic at any group of males that had started hanging out, and pretended to write notes. The Haitians were so spooked by this ‘new technology’  that incident rates plummeted for about month or two. The mics and headsets were not connected to anything — the whole point was to run a psyop encouraging good behavior.

We may be heading towards a period of civic unrest in cities where the local politicians will not control segments of the population (like Antifa) that have demonstrated the will to use violence. These people do not understand violence or the tragic consequences of allowing it to occur in the public space. The state is supposed to have the monopoly on violence, it is not supposed to allow fellow travelers they agree with the right to introduce violence on their terms. It is a matter of time before a great tragedy unfolds. When it does the ‘lesson learned’ will be rioting has to be nipped at the bud.



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2 years ago

“We may be heading towards a period of civic unrest in cities where the local politicians will not control segments of the population (like Antifa) that have demonstrated the will to use violence. These people do not understand violence or the tragic consequences of allowing it to occur in the public space. The state is supposed to have the monopoly on violence, it is not supposed to allow fellow travelers they agree with the right to introduce violence on their terms. It is a matter of time before a great tragedy unfolds. When it does the ‘lesson learned’ will be… Read more »

2 years ago

Timely article, and yes I made it to the psyops section about using fake mic booms! The lunatic fringe is definitely becoming more vocal on both ends of the spectrum, and I fear that some new mob related acts of violence are on the horizon – possibly dwarfing the LA riots of the 80s.

1 year ago
Reply to  Baba Tim

You know, thinking of Talib, or a Fundamentalist Deobandi Pashtun badass in the hills, getting scared crapless over a “Jinn”, really kinda blows a hole in the Mujaheddin running the Russian’s out of the country mystique.

1 year ago

Haha – “it results in gaping bloody injuries causing the victim to shout and scream which freaks out the new guys and upsets the corpsmen.“

I was still in high school, and I only vaguely remember any of this happening. Migration, especially in large numbers, doesn’t seem to be a simple task no matter when it occurs. It was interesting to read the logistical nightmare. They actually took steps to plan in advance, and tossed the plan out the window. People are messy to contain in temporary living accommodations. I can’t imagine that experience was fun for anyone.

1 year ago

Excellent Baba Tim. I had totally forgotten about all this in Haiti.

4 months ago

I was on Gitmo in ’94/’95 as an Army MP. I never worked with the Haitians, only the Cuban refugees who were held in camps out by the fence line with Cuba along what used to be called Radio Range Road. They had a two day uprising that was only a hot riot for about eight hours on the first day and a few hours on the second day. A decision was made to retake the area and get them back into their camps and allow the Engineers to rebuild the fences. A massive column was formed on Kittery Beach… Read more »

Last edited 4 months ago by Prescott
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