The National Guard, a Force for the Future

If you believe the chattering classes, the American people have a problem.

There’s a military caste emerging that feels increasingly estranged from civilian society and in some ways superior to it.

About the only group who don’t think the American people have such a problem is, of course, the American people. By and large, they like, respect, and admire the military . . . or at least want to. And if the military’s had more than its share of scandals of late, the onus (save in PC circles) still rests more with the leadership and with a few bad actors than with the institution.

Unfortunately, popular respect rarely generates serious concern. Not in peacetime, anyway. And yet, there’s a palpable national uneasiness, a dim 3:00 AM awareness that this peace won’t last, that there’s something bad out there, and that it’s headed our way.

There is. It’s called the Age of the Wars of Identity and Ecology, and the American people have yet to contemplate the horrific risks and costs of participation. But this much is clear. If the United States is to engage the world in the 21st century, then a new set of civil-military relationships will be necessary, at both the governmental and popular levels. For the military may have to play a much greater role in vital civilian functions than at any time since World War II. The major areas are:

–Domestic law enforcement, specifically that gray zone (counter-terrorism, border control, drug interdiction, international organized crime) between traditional police work and “traditional” war.

–Protection of critical computer infrastructure. Electrons also can attack, and cyberwar is as much a homeland defense responsibility as guarding territory or people.

–Space. As more economic activity becomes dependent upon space-based assets, or moves into space, and as other nations acquire space capabilities, protection becomes vital.

–Disaster relief. The Red Cross can pass out only so many donuts. It is prudent to assume that we’re in for an era of increasing natural disasters. And only the military has the assets to deal with major domestic catastrophes.

 Clearly, the “militarization” of civilian functions creates significant potential dangers to civil liberties and Constitutional rights. Posse comitatus is not a safeguard to be altered lightly. Clear also: The tantrums of the ACLU will not suffice to handle the challenge. New institutional structures will, sooner or later, have to replace the present array of informal civilian-military arrangements, interagency task forces, and general ad hocery. New and vigilant forms of oversight will also be needed.

Yet at least as important as governmental arrangements is a renewed relationship between people and military. And indeed, the penumbra of a renewed relationship is already apparent.

A relationship that, in some ways, may be exactly what the Founding Fathers intended.

To the Founders, who won their independence by force of arms, the military was not an inherently evil institution. It was an instrument of power and, as such, possessed of an impetus toward expansion and abuse. But the Founders feared the Man on Horseback less than the tendency of a professional military establishment to relieve the citizenry of the obligation to participate in the common defense. It was not enough for the people to be protected. They also had to be involved. The military goal of the Founders was to create an instrument that would be adequate, flexible, and limited.

The Constitution and subsequent legislation provided for a professional force to accomplish what only a standing force could do: work the frontier, defend the coasts and waters, maintain the military infrastructure, handle small foreign contingencies, and prepare to expand for the big ones. The bulk of the nation’s power would reside in the militia (now the Army and Air National Guards), available for use under appropriate circumstances.

And this arrangement may indeed be reviving. Some of its elements are already in place. Others are, at the least, conceivable.

In the 21st century, the professional forces of all services will handle most foreign contingencies. Major war will require early and massive reserve mobilization.

The Air Force will establish a workaday “cavalry” relationship with the people operating on the “frontiers” of cyber and outer space, defending those assets and participating in the work of those “pioneer societies.

The standing establishment will handle some aspects of homeland protection, such as anti-missile defense. But much of the work will be done by the National Guard, with appropriate training, support, and supervision from the regulars. For many missions involving interaction with civilians, the Guard should be the instrument of choice. They’re already on-site. They know the people and the territory. Their long-established legal relationships with police and other local agencies are usually preferable to bringing in the federales. They have personal stakes in success. And they have to live among their neighbors after the crisis or whatever is over.

It is inevitable and desirable that a 21st century standing military exist in some tension with the civilian world. It is neither that a 21st century military must feel embattled and scorned as the common defense comes to require increased military contact with civilians. And it would be extremely imprudent, militarily and politically, to entrust the common defense solely to professionals.

The Founding Fathers knew that. So should we.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.