DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

Abusing the National Guard: How a Fictitious "Crisis" Betrayed America's State of Readiness

By David Brin, Ph.D.

Let's cut past all the standard partisan positions. If only the Democrats were to look past a few unimaginative reflexes and cliches, they might realize that military readiness could be a winning issue, as it was for JFK in 1960.

Only with a difference. Way back in 1960, Kennedy's "Missile Gap" turned out to be overstated. But today's hollowing out of the US military -- chivvied and purged, attrited and drained -- is so blatant that it borders on treason. While crony contractors wallow at the trough, our actual levels of readiness have plummeted to levels not seen since Pearl Harbor.

Can anyone honestly claim that we're better prepared, today, to deal with a surprise attack, or an urgent call for help from some ally, than we were before 9/11? Or, in fact, any other kind of emergency? Would our allies now be more ready to leap to our aid than before 2001? Or much less so?

Consider the fundamental premise that underlies many of the recent developments in US military doctrine, from our all-volunteer Army to incredible improvements in education and training levels, from the force-multiplying effects of high technology and mobility to a daunting proliferation of strange and unprecedented new kinds of threats, each requiring new technological response.

Any informed observer must be impressed with the intelligence and agility with which our skilled professional defenders have addressed all of these issues. And yet, these costly trends were, naturally, accompanied by reductions in overall manpower, using technology and professionalism to counterbalance declining numbers, to the point where we currently have fewer active army and marine divisions than at any time since 1939.

Nothing too worrisome, so far. This doctrinal trend has some very strong backing in both logic and deep military thinking.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the trend relied upon some very basic premises:

  1. That those divisions would not be committed to extended combat duty, say over a period of years, without strong manpower augmentations... as happened every other time in our history that the "thin blue line" went into major war. (A "major war" might be one in which all combat soldiers can expect deployment and most units get rotated in-theater more than once.)

  2. That well-trained reserves would be available for immediate force augmentation, filling in during the transition, while society provided for longer-term solutions.

  3. That reserves would -- as quickly as possible -- return to their principle role as a rested and ready militia, and that high priority would also be given to returning regular divisions to their chief role, to serve as supremely ready first-responders, available in case of any kind of surprise or emergency.

  4. That the high modern levels of per capita investment in today's individual soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines should result in maximum planning priority given to rapid and efficient problem-solving. Above all, modern doctrines call for avoiding extended conflicts that might either produce casualties or result in reduced re-enlistments, since replacement costs and timescales are almost overwhelmingly daunting.

Have these premises been supported by recent events? Or dangerously betrayed?

Ponder the primary purpose of all this ruction in Iraq. Consider the cost in soldiers, civilian lives -- and money -- as well as disruption of our peacetime way of life.

Wasn't it all supposed to be about making us safer?

Since the events of 9/11 took us by surprise -- as did the calamity of Hurricane Katrina -- shouldn't that have taught a lesson about making assumptions in an uncertain world? Every time, the officials who were caught unaware then say, "Now we know the danger and we'll be better prepared."

But shouldn't the real lesson be that "making us safer" is all about preparing our nation to respond better to... well... surprise?

"The response to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, in which about 1,400 people died along the Gulf Coast, raises troubling questions about the nation's ability to react to other threats to domestic security," said a recent report by an all-Republican House committee. "If this is what happens when we have advance warning, we shudder to imagine the consequences when we do not."

Are we better prepared than, say, in the year 2000? Consider this news item.

Study: Army Stretched to Breaking Point
by ROBERT BURNS, AP Military Writer, Tue Jan 24, 2006

WASHINGTON - Stretched by frequent troop rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has become a "thin green line" that could snap unless relief comes soon, according to a study for the Pentagon.

Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who wrote the report under a Pentagon contract, concluded that the Army cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq long enough to break the back of the insurgency. He also suggested that the Pentagon's decision, announced in December, to begin reducing the force in Iraq this year was driven in part by a realization that the Army was overextended.

As evidence, Krepinevich points to the Army's 2005 recruiting slump - missing its recruiting goal for the first time since 1999 - and its decision to offer much bigger enlistment bonuses and other incentives. "You really begin to wonder just how much stress and strain there is on the Army, how much longer it can continue," he said in an interview. He added that the Army is still a highly effective fighting force and is implementing a plan that will expand the number of combat brigades available for rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan..."

What isn't mentioned in that depressing article (and so many others) may be something even worse -- the near demolition of our nation's military reserves and National Guard.

Pity those working men and women who have trained on weekends and sacrificed their summers, perfectly willing to leap to their country's call in an emergency, but who are instead being used as sepoys, sent away from their families and the states that might need them in a real crisis (e.g., Katrina).

That is the aspect I want to focus on for the rest of this essay.


[image from National Guard]

The Distinction Between Emergency and Elective Surgery

Even those who believe in the Iraq Intervention should admit now that it is, and always was, a clearcut case of "elective surgery."

It is not, and never was, an "emergency." After collapse of the WMD and terror arguments, the sole remaining rationale that is now given for this costly intervention is the utopian goal of "spreading democracy."

Perhaps commendable -- even a worthy general goal. But urgent and time-critical? Out of all the imperfect or oppressive countries in the world needing a dose of democracy, was the matter in Iraq so pressing, so dire and hurried, that it justified evading and suppressing due process, advice and consent, openness, accountability and... well... criticism?

All right. Let's go with the latest rationalization: We are in an idealistic campaign to spread democracy.

Although this runs diametrically opposite to what used to be called "conservatism," this adventurist and ambitiously utopian goal of nation-building is not impossible to support or defend. Certainly our interventions in the Balkans and Afghanistan were legitimate moves in a dangerous world. In both cases, the imminent perils and the final outcomes justified judicious application of competent force. Both endeavors had enthusiastic backing from allies. Indeed, the Balkans Operation established peace on the European Continent for the first time in 4,000 years, at the cost of ZERO American service personnel lost.

Okay. We can argue the merits of this intervention on that basis. Moreover, I have long felt shamed that our leaders chose, cynically, to leave Saddam in power, back in 1991, free to murder and oppress at will, betraying people who rebelled against him at our request.

Oh, I would have preferred a vastly more competent, moral and honorable approach to correcting that betrayal. But I am willing to consider that removing Saddam by elective surgery would be at least a goal worth open discussion. So would be (in general) helping to "spread freedom." It may even be worth some cost, in money and lives.

If so, one can reasonably argue that the professional units of our all-volunteer military are for implementation of national policy. That policy may be ill-conceived and the top leadership may be incompetent, using bludgeons where scalpels might have worked. But at least one can envision both the goal and applying a professional tool to achieve it.

And yet, there is a crucial difference between our regular armed forces and the reserves. The former may, at times, be a tool of policy. The latter should never be.


[image from USMilitary.com]

The Precarious Condition of Our National Militia

By no conceivable excuse is it forgivable to expend and use up our reserves without a genuine emergency. Using them up so that we are less ready for surprise than we were five years ago.

It bears endless repeating. The words "emergency" and "war" are utterly indefensible verbal ploys, under present circumstances. Fewer Americans have fallen from terror in 20 years than die in a single month of traffic. And even if that changes tomorrow, remember -- most of us grew up worried about universal nuclear annihilation! Yet, even during the Cold War we would never have allowed a permanent "emergency" to excuse deceit, incompetence and secret evasion of accountability. (Would conservatives have swallowed this from Clinton?)

Yes, terror is an ongoing sickness that makes normal life less than perfect. Deeply worrisome, it must be fought with intelligence, diplomacy, cultural suasion and fiercely effective pinpoint tactics. Not by letting the terrorists push us into a state of Permanent Emergency.

What would a real crisis be like?

Well, for one thing, history shows that the real thing tends to unite a great nation, instead of dividing it!

(If half the country does not see "war", or a foreign threat critical enough to scream "emergency," then doesn't a burden of proof fall on those who do? Especially when the calm half is the portion that has taken all of terror's hits so far?)

Oh, and during real crises, the rich cared enough to help shoulder the burden. That's a sure sign.

Weren't those other crises and wars explained to us in clearcut terms that we might plausibly fight clear of, with hope that normality may soon return? Instead of something so vague that it can be extended forever, so long as anyone out there dislikes us? Consider this: Five years after Pearl Harbor, WWII was over, with Americans striding triumphant through enemy capitals. Five years after 9/11, Osama is still doing mutual-support riffs with President Bush, as they help frighten each others constituencies.

Or else, weren't those past crises sudden surprises? The kind of emergency that might suddenly befall us, without warning, out of some semi-random direction, the way those 9/11 planes seemed to crash in upon us out of nowhere? The kind of shock that we were told we would become more ready for, after 2001, instead of much less so?

The kind of emergency that the reserves and National Guard are supposed to be for?


[image from National Guard]

Returning the Militia to the People

Let us say this aloud, at last. The Guard and reserves are not meant to be instruments of administration policy. Rather, they are the robust manifestations of a united and motivated citizenry. They are noble remnants of the old militia, eager to defend, though history shows that militia are far less useful in the projection of imperial power. They represent the resiliency that America has always relied upon, in case we are ever struck by something that the professional anticipators failed to detect in time.

If used properly, with mature awareness of what they are for, the Guard and reserves cannot be depleted! Because an aroused America will refill the ranks, the way a unified country always has, whenever real crises erupted in the past!

But not this time. Re-enlistments in the reserves are plummeting. More proof that most of us simply don't see a crisis. No "war."

We're unconvinced.

What we do see is brave, noble militia men and women being used, spent, expended on a project that at best is optional elective surgery. One that should be done professionally, efficiently, and ethically, or not at all.

So why are almost no Democrats raising these points? These arguments would be effective almost across the breadth of the political spectrum. And thus, they offer a way around Karl Rove's contrived, artificial and treacherously divisive "culture war."

But political reflexes are dismal. Except for Representative Murtha, and maybe Senator Clinton, who else is speaking up for the abused Guard, or decrying our eviscerated state of readiness? Or standing up for the militia?

Are liberals really so reflexive that they cannot even perceive an opportunity to win, the way JFK did, through patriotism?

Alas, it appears they might be.

So Rove is left with his flank protected, knowing that his opponents will not even try exploiting his most calamitous weakness, or turn attention upon his most heinous betrayal of trust.

THE END