Feature

Calling on the National Guard

The National Guard is the nation’s oldest military institution. In recent weeks, it’s been thrust into the debate over the war in Iraq, and its role during the Vietnam War has become an issue in the presidential campaign.

How long has the Guard been around?Longer than the United States itself. The Guard is the direct descendant of the state militias, the ragtag crews of volunteer “citizen soldiers” that once raided Indian camps and literally fired the first shots of the American Revolution. These state militias actually predated the founding of the union by some 150 years, making the Guard not only the oldest component of the U.S. military, but the oldest American institution of any kind. Once the Revolutionary War was over, the framers faced a contentious dilemma: Should the new federal government take over control of the militias, or should these small armies remain under the control of the states?

How was that debate resolved?By compromise. The Constitution gave the president the power to federalize the National Guard for the defense of the nation, but states retained the main oversight role. State governors can “call in the Guard” as they see fit, for laying down sandbags during floods to policing the streets during civil unrest. That’s the kind of duty most Guardsmen and -women envision when they sign up, and agree to spend some of their weekends and summer in military training close to home. But throughout history, presidents have turned to the Guard’s “weekend warriors” when the U.S. goes to war.

Why is that?The federal government’s military ambitions often exceed its supply of full-time soldiers. In the 19th century, the standing federal Army was small. So the government called heavily on the Guard during the Mexican War, in 1846; the Civil War (both sides started the conflict with armies made up largely of militias); and the Spanish-American War, in 1889. After the institution of the draft in World War I, the Guard played a somewhat smaller role. Still, the Guard made up 40 percent of U.S. combat divisions in France. The Guard sent more than 300,000 Guardsmen into combat during World War II, and 140,000 Guardsmen during the Korean War. The Guard, in fact, has seen major combat in every significant U.S. military undertaking, with one giant exception—Vietnam.

Why not Vietnam?For political reasons, President Lyndon B. Johnson refused to call up Guard units. The war was already unpopular, and LBJ thought it wiser to fight it with 18-year-old draftees, rather than 28-year-old Guardsmen with wives and children. “Johnson wanted to pretend there was no war, and to mobilize the Guard would be to admit this was a genuine war,” said Jerry Cooper, author of a history of the National Guard. Johnson’s decision spared thousands of young men from going to Vietnam. But it had a major impact on the Guard’s role and public image.

In what way?Until then, any young man who gave up weekends and summers for Guard training knew there was a chance he’d be called on to serve in combat. But during Vietnam, the Guard became a safe haven for draft-age men looking to avoid the deadly jungles of Indochina. Guard slots became coveted prizes, and the sons of privilege, from a young Dan Quayle to a young George W. Bush, were able to jump the line. At the end of the war, military planners decided to make major reforms in how the Guard was used.

What were they?The planners decided that in all future wars, the Guard would be part of the “total force” at the Pentagon’s disposal. No part of the armed forces would be exempt from combat. This way, the Guard would never again be used as a hideout. By forcing presidents to call up Guard units for combat, military planners also hoped that the “total force” policy would prevent halfhearted wars like Vietnam; either the country was willing to commit all of its resources, including weekend warriors from Main Street, U.S.A., or it was a war not worth fighting. In the first Gulf War, the Guard played a major role, and the “total force” policy was judged a success. But the second Iraq war has sorely tested the policy.

Why is that? In the lengthy occupation of Iraq, Guard troops face far deadlier conditions and deployments of up to one year. About 30 percent of the forces in Iraq today are made up of National Guard units—policing streets, escorting convoys, manning checkpoints, building schools. Sniper fire, land mines, suicide bombings, and 120-degree temperatures are a way of life. So far, 48 Guardsmen have lost their lives. “We’ve seen an extraordinary redefining of the Guard’s traditional mission,” said Cooper.

Is this temporary? Not likely. The war on terrorism has put an enormous strain on the military, which was already spread thin across the globe. Guardsmen are now on active military service throughout the world, from Baghdad to Guantanamo Bay to Kosovo. Most are spending at least 100 days on active duty every year. For the foreseeable future, the Guard will shoulder a heavy load. “The weekend warrior is dead,” said Lt. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau. “This is not your father’s National Guard, or even your older brother’s.”

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