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The Army vs. The National Guard

Original Article

The fracas was inevitable. Several weeks ago, the National Guard’s senior leadership concluded that they hadn’t been given a fair chance to make their case before the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). They also concluded that the Army was systematically lying to them about the extent of the Guard reductions they wanted. So they requested a meeting with defense secretary William Cohen and were told to “go through their chain of command.”
So they did . . . through their other chain of command. They went to the governors, who started writing the president, cc: the Pentagon. That got Mr. Cohen’s attention and Mr. Cohen’s attention to adapt a venerable adage started flowing downhill. As of this writing, the secretary has ordered an Army/National Guard “off-site” at the Pentagon (great place for an “off-site”) to work it out the first week in June. Also as of this writing, the Guard has received seven contradictory letters from Mr. Cohen, army secretary Togo West, and senior army generals on structuring the meeting. About the only thing that hasn’t been suggested is a UN peacekeeping force in the room.
Maybe not such a bad idea, given the acrimony on both sides.

Whatever the “off-site” produces, it won’t last long. The Army and the Guard have been at it for centuries. The Guard has survived through a combination of domestic political savvy and foreign threats that seemed to require a large reserve. But does this venerable (some would say archaic) institution have any relevance to today’s world and tomorrow’s missions?

The answer is that the Guard has a greater relevance today than during the Cold War . . . exactly the kind of relevance the Founding Fathers envisioned when they elected to place the preponderance of the nation’s military strength in the state militias.

Three facts vindicate the Guard. First, the United States simply cannot afford to maintain a large standing army. The force that did Desert Storm is long-gone. Nor can the United States afford to maintain large portions of the present force at high readiness. Reserves are far cheaper, especially in a world where mass armies are vanishing, and where those that remain grow ever more obsolete and vulnerable to other forms of American power.

Second, the Guard and service reserves provide a de facto “people’s veto” on major foreign involvements. If a president lacks the popular support to mobilize, he lacks the popular support to go to war and had better not do it.

Third, the Guard is a classic “dual use” system, available for foreign and domestic tasks. The Guard’s experience in domestic emergencies offers a capability of major military significance. For example, the Guard, not the standing Army, should be given the nuclear/biological/chemical weapons disaster relief mission. The standing Army doesn’t need this capability in peacetime, so it should be in the part-time forces. Given the likelihood of future terrorist actions on American soil, the Guard, with thousands of sites around the country and local expertise, offers a far superior means of deploying this capability for domestic emergencies.

Further and this is not easy to say the standing Army is an institution in profound disarray, trashed by scandal and, in many ways, looking for work that will generate hard cash and renewed respect. Almost inevitably, that points toward more domestic missions, especially counter-terrorism in its various aspects. One need not conjure up lurid thoughts of military coups or images of an alienated, embittered officer corps to understand that this is a bad idea. The less the standing military is involved in domestic affairs, the better. Not because they’re evil people, but because their professional methods and loyalties may do more harm than good. The Founders knew it; the Army’s domestic intelligence activities during Vietnam proved it. To the extent that military force may have to be used in this country in the decades ahead, it ought to be the Guard, with its complex set of responsibilities to and relationships with country, state, and community.

But the political and cultural justifications for the Guard don’t address one practical question: Can they be ready to do the job? Obviously, the answer depends on what the job is and how ready does ready have to be. Still, one thing is clear. There is no inherent reason why the Guard cannot perform adequately across the range of its missions. The Marine Corps and the Air Force have demonstrated what can be accomplished when reserves are treated as assets, not rivals. New tools and methods, from tank and cockpit simulators to computerized command post exercises, offer training possibilities unimaginable even ten years ago. High-priority units can be filled with people willing to accept high levels of contractual obligation, including extended active duty and early call-up. In short, the Guard’s proficiency is limited only by resources and creativity . . . and by a standing Army that, for reasons of its own, prefers not to acknowledge it.

Again, that standing Army isn’t evil. It’s simply fighting for its institutional life and soul. The current off-site, and the next one, and the one after that, will no doubt reflect the desperation of the struggle. But the Army should not be permitted to sacrifice the Guard to protect its own turf bowls. The present military situation, and the wisdom of centuries, should preclude it.

Philip Gold is director of defense and aerospace studies at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.