Whose Guard Is It, Anyway?

The part-time soldiers fighting for the Pentagon overseas have work to do at home.
September 2005
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

Anyone who has ever visited the "Rude Bridge that Arched the Flood," in Concord, Massachusetts, has seen one of the enduring symbols of American military vigilance: a statue of a minuteman, musket in one hand, his other hand resting on the handle of a plow. The farmers and tradesmen who banded together on the banks of the Concord River to battle the British 230 years ago had a clear mission: to drive the invading redcoats back to Cambridge (the opening salvo in a successful effort to push them quite a bit further east).

That the National Guard--the modern institution that evolved from that band of ad hoc warriors--would adopt the statue as its own symbol is only natural. But if the symbolism is clear, today's National Guard is in the middle of an identity crisis. It is a crisis born of an uncomfortable dual role as a domestic force under the control of the nation's governors, mustered to deal with disturbances and disasters stateside, and at the same time, a supplement to our national military, under the control of the Defense Department and ultimately the President.

The conflicting missions have been a fact of military and political life for the past four years because of the heavy lifting the Guard has been asked to do in Afghanistan and Iraq, where 40 percent of the deployed forces are now Guard troops.

On the one hand, the Guard's heightened role in combat overseas has clearly raised the prestige of a force that some in the past have derisively referred to as "weekend warriors"; on the other, it has state and local officials worried about the depletion of a force they've come to rely on in times of crisis here.

Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana recently complained that he'd lost muscle, technical expertise and lots of important gear needed for dealing with forest fires here as a result of the demand for added resources over there. Other governors have been quoted expressing more general worries. Oregon's Ted Kulongoski is disturbed that "the states are being given less and less of a role in managing the National Guard and it's becoming a federal program. I don't think that's good for the states and I don't think it's good for the National Guard."

The tug of war between Pentagon brass and state officials is not merely rhetorical. Recently, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich argued that Pentagon officials exceeded their authority when they ordered the redeployment of 15 fighter jets from an Illinois Air National Guard base to one in Indiana. Blagojevich cited a section of federal law that explicitly establishes gubernatorial supremacy in moving Guard resources among states.

The overall effect is that what was for most of the nation's history a smooth-functioning marriage of great convenience--states enjoyed a standing pool of manpower and equipment supported mostly by federal dollars, while the feds enjoyed a relatively low-cost, state-managed surplus army--is now headed for the rocks.

Ideas for patching things up aren't promising at this point. Long- range plans for the Guard recently floated by the Pentagon are, if anything, aimed at making the institution an even more directly controlled arm of the U.S. military with an even more internationally focused mission. Meanwhile, a blue ribbon panel set up by Congress and the Pentagon to consider the role of the Guard is floundering--it took the Pentagon three months just to name its members and as of this writing the commission's full complement of membership has yet to be filled out.

There is, however, one intriguing idea for fixing the problem, an idea supported by the National Governors Association: Create two branches of the Guard, one focused on domestic missions, the other trained and geared up for deployment overseas.

One reason it's intriguing is that the Guard, as currently configured and deployed, is experiencing the same sort of recruitment and retention problems as the main branches of the military. It would be an interesting test to see which half of a newly configured Guard most easily met its recruitment targets--the one focused on serving the direct needs of Americans here, or the one focused on taking the fight to more distant fronts abroad.