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War on Iraq

Endangering the National Guard

The real scandal about Bush and the National Guard is the damage he is wreaking on the military reserves required to keep America safe at home.
The real scandal about Bush and the National Guard is not what he did—or avoided doing—during Vietnam; it is the damage Bush is doing to the National Guard today through his utter mismanagement of the war in Iraq, thereby risking the security of Americans at home. So declared former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura at a recent event focused on transforming the reserve component of the U.S. military. Last week's presidential debate made it clear that John Kerry agrees. Kerry told our ill-equipped, overstretched, and over-deployed military reserves that "Help is on the way." Ventura’s ire—and Kerry's pledge to the troops and their families—bring into focus an important policy question, which underpinned the conference where Ventura spoke: Is the purpose of the Guard and Reserve to defend the American homeland or to augment the active-duty military wherever in the world it is engaged?

Speaker after speaker at the conference sponsored by the Association of the United States Army, the Center for American Progress and the Center for Peace and Security Studies described the current situation in the Guard and Reserve. The news was not good. In what John Kerry has called a "back-door draft," thousands of Guard and Reserve soldiers are being barred from leaving the supposedly "all volunteer" force when their voluntary service periods are over. Men and women who joined understanding they would be part-time warriors are deploying to combat as much as or more than their active-duty counterparts. A host of elected leaders, senior military officers, government officials and defense policy experts mostly painted a dismal picture of military reserves pushed to the breaking point because of the war in Iraq, and because of the Bush administration’s stubborn refusal to increase the size of the active-duty force.

Relieved to be able to “speak out” now that he is no longer the commander-in-chief of the Minnesota National Guard, Ventura said reservists weren't correcly outfitted for war. “We don’t equip them as frontline combat units,” he said, yet they are being sent into frontline combat with only the equipment supplied by the people of Minnesota. He also lamented the fact that, since Guard and Reserve soldiers tend to be older, they're more likely to have families, and those families often are left behind without the comprehensive support services available on bases to the families of active-duty soldiers.

When Guard or Reserve soldiers are called up and sent overseas to fight, they have no choice but to drop everything—school, career, family—and go to war. With civilian jobs on hold, many families are forced to get by on severely reduced incomes, since family breadwinners often earn better pay and benefits in civilian life than they earn in the military. In many cases, families even have to suffer the indignity of losing their employer-based health insurance. If they are lucky, their civilian jobs will be waiting for them when they return from overseas, which is what the law requires. However, those laws were written when Guard and Reserve troops deployed for a few months here and there over the course of a couple of decades. Because of the war in Iraq, these men and women may be gone for a year or two, come home for a few months, and be called up for war again for who knows how long. Thanks to these excessive deployments and a strained economy, many employers are simply incapable of holding positions open. Add to the family separation and loss of income and benefits the constant fear that your loved one will be killed, and it is easy to understand why many families of Guard and Reserve troops find the pressure unbearable.

Thanks to this new reality, the Army National Guard missed its fiscal year recruiting goal by 5,000 people. Guard and Reserve units are being retrained in crash programs to fill active-duty shortfalls, sometimes by inexperienced trainers, since regular training units have been sent overseas. Morale and cohesion, which are the lifeblood of military units on the battlefield, are starting to erode, and we are on the cusp of a serious problem with the voluntary retention of experienced soldiers. The Army Research Institute projects that only 27 percent of Guard and Reserve soldiers intend to re-enlist—an all-time low.

“This really is about Iraq,” said Dr. Hans Binnendijk, director of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at National Defense University, lest anyone think otherwise. Binnendijk noted that the National Guard is still struggling to put into each state a 22-person Civil Support Team trained to respond to nuclear, biological or chemical terrorism. He also said that these teams really need to be battalion-sized units (a couple of thousand people) to be capable of responding effectively.

Voicing a point former Secretary of State Madeline Albright also made recently, Ventura argued that the Bush administration is “jeopardizing homeland security” by leaving state governors “woefully short-handed.” With southern Minnesota recently hit by 10 to 12 inches of rain from Hurricane Ivan, he openly wondered if current Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty didn’t use the National Guard to respond to flooding because too many of the units are in combat overseas. Ventura also noted that the men and women who join the Guard have a higher tendency toward professions like law enforcement, fire fighting and emergency medical services. Thanks to the war in Iraq, Guard and Reserve deployments overseas have left communities across the nation short of the first responders needed to cope with everything from terrorist attacks to more mundane crimes and emergencies. “Whose security are we defending the most, Iraq’s, or ours?” Ventura asked.

With a former professional wrestler’s flair for the dramatic, Ventura called the fact that we’re sending Guard and Reserve forces overseas “a flagrant misuse,” because, he said, “The first rule in the military is you protect your homeland first before you venture into enemy territory.”

Bush has clearly mismanaged the Guard and Reserve at the expense of American security. However, the military has been operating under a doctrine put in place after Vietnam that was designed to make it structurally impossible to wage a major war without sending the Guard and Reserve overseas. According to Dr. Bernard Rostker, a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, this rule—called the Abrams Doctrine—was a reaction to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s refusal to send the National Guard to Vietnam. The Abrams Doctrine was supposed to help keep the United States out of another costly and unpopular war because Guard and Reserve units naturally tend to have closer political relationships with the communities where they are based. More than one presenter at the conference dryly noted the failure of the doctrine on that count when it comes to Iraq.

While uncomfortably unaware of the Abrams Doctrine, Ventura’s common-sense attitude toward the National Guard (“It’s called the ‘National’ ‘Guard’ so its job should be to ‘guard’ the ‘nation’ here at home.”) effectively endorses the most interesting idea to come out the conference: Binnendijk’s proposal for a major restructuring of the Guard and Reserve. Binnendijk would use only the Reserve, which is a federal force in the first place, to supplement the active-duty force in its overseas war-fighting role. He proposes training the state-based National Guard as a homeland security force, only sending it overseas for stabilization and rebuilding operations—versus combat operations—which are very similar to what the National Guard does at home in response to natural disasters.

Jesse Ventura and John Kerry seem to agree that, for the sake of the brave men and women of the military reserves and their families, and for the sake of America's national security, something needs to be done to fix the Guard and Reserve. The problems with the reserve component of the U.S. military boil down to three things: mismanagement by an arrogant, incompetent commander-in-chief; a doctrine not suited to the dual domestic and international challenges of the war on terrorism; and a long-term security environment that demands more troops at home and abroad. The security environment won't change any time soon, but we put our nation at risk if we don't change the other two.
David L. Englin is an Air Force veteran from Alexandria, Va. His other writings can be found at his blog.
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