A young friend is seriously considering joining her state’s National Guard. She’s a world-class athlete, but also a working-class woman from a rural background competing in a rich person’s sport. Between seasons, she works for a local farm and auctioneer to put together the money for equipment and travel.
Each season, raising the necessary money to compete is a touch-and-go proposition, so she’s now talking to the National Guard. If, after basic training, she joins the Army’s World Class Athletes Program as a reservist, her service will essentially consist of competing in her sport. She’ll get an annual salary, health care, college tuition—all to do what she loves and wants to do anyway. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, she could end up fighting in one of this country’s forever wars.
That’s what happened to thousands of National Guard troops and reservists when Washington discovered its all-volunteer forces were woefully inadequate for the project of occupying Iraq after the 2003 invasion. As then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously explained, Washington went to war with the Army it had, “not the Army you might wish you have.” So the National Guard filled in the gaps, supplying up to 41 percent of the troops deployed there by 2005. By 2011, more than 300,000 Guards had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as well.
Real Soldiers Fighting Real Wars
Members of the National Guard sign on to train one weekend a month and two weeks a year in return for some substantial rewards, including (at the moment) a possible $20,000 signing bonus. But what many of them don’t realize is how likely it is that, somewhere along the line, they’ll be deployed for a lot more than two weeks.
The National Guard isn’t the only force whose members sign up for 12 weekends and two weeks a year. The regular armed forces also maintain reserves, soldiers who want to combine military service with civilian life. Unlike the National Guard, however, they answer only to federal, not to dual (state and federal), authority. Like the Guard, reservists can be deployed for much longer than a weekend. A photograph sent home from Iraq by a reservist classically summed up the situation encountered by both types of part-time soldiers, then and now. It shows a military vehicle with this sign displayed across the windshield: “One Weekend a Month, My Ass!”
In fact, as the Guard explains, its “343,000 Soldiers, 8 division headquarters, 27 brigade combat teams, 55 functional support brigades, 42 multifunctional brigades, 8 combat aviation brigades and 2 Special Forces groups” make it an integral part of the US armed forces. Today, it operates 42 percent of all military aircraft and supplies 39 percent of the Army’s operational forces—essentially the same proportion it provided during the early years of the Iraq War.
For example, although President Obama officially ended Operation Enduring Freedom (the US’s post-9/11 war in Afghanistan) in 2014, the Guard continues to deploy to that very war zone, with 400 Illinois reservists, another 400 from Wisconsin, 100 from Georgia, 50 from Colorado, and 46 from New York sent there as recently as this December and January. And not only are they being deployed to Afghanistan, but they’re still dying there. Among the 60 sent from Utah in November 2018, for instance, was Brent Taylor, the mayor of the town of North Ogden, who was killed during an “insider attack” at a base in Kabul. Given the provisional peace agreement reportedly now being negotiated between the United States and the Taliban, there is at least a modest hope that the deployments of such part-time soldiers to America’s longest war may end in some imaginable future.
As TomDispatch regular Nick Turse has observed, it’s difficult to get specifics from the US military about much of anything, whether it’s foreign bases or deployment numbers. But it’s clear that the Guard now goes everywhere the regular Army and Air Force go. Its members have served in US conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, among other places. They are now deployed in at least 56 countries around the world, from Macedonia and Kosovo to Egypt, not to mention the Mexican border inside the United States.
The Guard appreciates the special skills its members develop in civilian life, which is how the 50-year-old uncle of one of my students found himself deployed as a doctor in Iraq in 2005. Indeed, the soldiers who so infamously abused detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison back in 2004 also had special skills honed in their civilian jobs—as prison guards. In fact, Specialist Charles Graner, the torturers’ ringleader, wrote home at the time, “The Christian in me says it’s wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, ‘I love to make a grown man piss himself.’”
Protecting the Homeland
But wait! Aren’t the National Guard the troops who rescue us from fires and floods, the ones who are called out when there’s a natural disaster?
Indeed, they are mobilized for just that in times of peril, but responding to national disasters has never been the Guard’s main purpose, although recruitment efforts often emphasize that role. Today’s National Guard represents the evolution of the original state militias, created for military purposes—fighting enemies from Indian nations on this continent to rebels in the Philippines. The National Guard Bureau’s 2019 “posture statement” identifies “three core missions.” None of these involve supporting elite athletes, but neither is there any mention of the Guard’s well-known role in confronting fires or floods. Its stated core missions are “fighting America’s wars, securing the homeland, and building enduring partnerships.” Those “enduring partnerships” turn out to be arrangements with military forces in the 79 countries (just under a third of the world’s nations) where the National Guard has “strategic state partnerships,” or SSPs.
My friend tells me that the regular Army and Air Force look down on the Guard; they’re not real soldiers in the eyes of the full-time military. Maybe that’s why General Joseph Lengyel, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, whose photo and signature introduce that posture statement, is at pains to represent those forces not as the friendly folks in uniform who pull flooded-out Americans off their roofs, but as a full-on fighting force. In case there’s any doubt, illustrated with drawings and photos of a multicultural array of rifle-toting men and women, it says clearly: “Fighting America’s wars will always be the primary mission of the National Guard.”
But what about that second core mission, “securing the homeland”? Could that be where its natural-disaster work comes in? Not according to the posture statement, which puts it this way:
The homeland is part of the global battle space. In the past, America benefited from its favorable geography with friendly neighbors to the north and south and large oceans to our east and west as natural barriers. Today, we no longer enjoy this safe haven as a result of new technologies and weapons that can reach the heart of America with little or no warning.
Touting its “dual-use nature and robust presence in 2,600 [US] communities,” the document assures its readers that the Guard is here—in fact, just about everywhere—to protect us from the “[p]roliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and high-yield explosive devices” that “has increased the threat of a weapons of mass destruction…attack on the United States.”
In the spirit of being everywhere, it even dispatched 2,200 troops to the US-Mexico border late last year, in response to President Trump’s many election-time warnings about the approach of a caravan of desperate refugees and asylum-seekers from Central America. As far back as April 2018, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis authorized the deployment of up to 4,000 members of the National Guard, to stay there at least through August 2019—in addition to the regular Army troops whose initial 45-day deployment has already been extended twice. In fact, at the end of January, President Trump defended the expected deployment this month of yet another 3,500 regular troops “to stop the attempted Invasion of Illegals, through large Caravans, into our Country.”
Working jointly with the US Border Patrol, Guard members are not deployed to police the border directly, but engaged in a variety of activities including stringing concertina wire, reviewing intelligence, and flying helicopter surveillance missions.
Dual Use, Dual Authority?
Who commands the National Guard? That’s a complicated question. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution recognized then-existing state militias and gave Congress the power to call them out “to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions.” From the beginning, those militias (which, with the passage of federal legislation in 1903, became the National Guard) were under the dual control of the federal and state governments. Congress was also given the power
to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress…
Except when a state Guard has been “federalized” (called up by Congress or the president), each governor serves as the commander in chief of his or her state’s units. When they are federalized, however, the president is their commander in chief.
The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act forbids the use of Army troops for law-enforcement purposes inside the United States (except for suppressing insurrections). Federal legislation in 1956 expanded the act to cover the Air Force, while Department of Defense regulations also forbid the use of the Navy and Marines (but not the Coast Guard) for domestic policing.
The National Guard, on the other hand, is under no such prohibition, and so its troops have often been deployed in response to events inside this country. An illustration of the Guard’s dual (and, in this case, dueling) command structure occurred in 1957, when nine black students attempted to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas Guard to “preserve the peace” by preventing the students from entering the school. In response, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the same forces and ordered them (along with soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division) to assist in the integration of Central High. (As the only “insurrection” in Little Rock then was the governor’s rejection of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring public-school segregation unconstitutional, it’s quite possible that the use of regular Army troops violated the Posse Comitatus Act.)
Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, sent the Guard to Birmingham to oversee the integration of the University of Alabama and that state’s public schools (over the objections of then-Governor George Wallace). In 1967, both the National Guard and federal troops were sent to Detroit at the request of Mayor Jerome Cavanagh to put down an urban insurrection there.
After the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., President Johnson again ordered units in to quell riots in Chicago, Baltimore, and my hometown, Washington, DC. I remember coming down my front steps one evening in April 1968 to be met by a pale, uniformed boy of about 18, who sternly warned me not to walk around in my calm, leafy neighborhood, because of the danger posed by “those people” from downtown. I’m afraid I laughed at him. My mother was dating one of those people, and that evening she was helping distribute food in those very downtown neighborhoods, where grocery stores were closed and a pall of smoke hung in the air.
From Protecting the Union to Busting Unions
President Richard Nixon sent the National Guard into New York City in 1970 to try to break a postal workers’ strike. The Guardsmen may have been good soldiers, but they turned out to be less than efficient letter carriers, so the postal union got the raise it was demanding.
That strike was hardly the first time that the National Guard had been sent in to put down labor actions. Sadly, there’s a long history in which it’s acted on behalf of wealthy companies against striking workers. During an 1892 steelworkers’ strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania, for instance, the governor brought in the state militia to dislodge strikers occupying a steel plant that belonged to the Carnegie Corporation and help break the strike.
In 1894, the Illinois National Guard had a hand in putting down a national strike by railroad workers organized by the American Railroad Union. In 1914, the National Guard fired machine guns into a tent city of striking miners and their families in Ludlow, Colorado, killing more than 20 people. The mining company belonged to John D. Rockefeller Jr.
In more recent years, Guard members have been used less as violent strikebreakers than as scabs, replacing striking workers, especially in public-sector jobs. A 1982 study, for example, found that, over the previous decade, various units were called in 45 times to replace city or state employees, prison guards, mental-health workers, community transit workers, and—infamously—under President Ronald Reagan, air-traffic controllers.
In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker threatened to bring in the National Guard if public-service workers went on strike. The Green Bay Packers football team responded with this statement:
As a publicly owned team we wouldn’t have been able to win the Super Bowl without the support of our fans. It is the same dedication of our public workers every day that makes Wisconsin run. They are the teachers, nurses and child care workers who take care of us and our families. But now in an unprecedented political attack Governor Walker is trying to take away their right to have a voice and bargain at work.
The right to negotiate wages and benefits is a fundamental underpinning of our middle class. When workers join together it serves as a check on corporate power and helps ALL workers by raising community standards.
Now that’s solidarity. And lest you think states have given up using the Guard as strikebreakers, as recently as last September, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder threatened to bring them in when a heavy-equipment engineers’ strike delayed highway construction.
The National Guard in the Age of Trump
God help us all if Donald Trump figures out that he’s actually the commander in chief of a force that, unlike the US military, can legally be deployed for law-enforcement purposes inside the United States itself. He remains a flailing, failing president, with the sensibility of an autocrat who, from the beginning of his time in office, has conflated the protection of the country with the protection of Donald J. Trump and his obsessions. While I don’t expect him to call out the National Guard to put down anti-Trump demonstrations any time soon, I didn’t expect him to be elected president either.
He’s already sent the National Guard to the border to protect the country from a manufactured invasion threat. Once he gets the idea that the president can mobilize the Guard and send them anywhere, who knows how an increasingly embattled president might decide to use them?
My young friend was initially afraid to tell me that she was considering joining the National Guard. She knows what her “auntie” thinks about US military interventions across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, not to mention the accompanying militarization of our world and culture here in the United States.
She doesn’t, in fact, disagree with me about such matters, but she hopes that she can use the military without being completely used by it. I’ve told her I support whatever her decision may be. She needs the money for herself and her family—and she’s done her research. She’s talked to more than 20 people who have joined the National Guard’s World Class Athlete Program. She knows that her state Guard is not among those that have established strategic state partnerships with repressive governments in places like Honduras, Azerbaijan, or the Philippines. But she also knows, as she said to me, that “it’s the military. They can do what they want with you.”
I just hope that I never have to face her, or someone like her, across a barricade.