The war over the National Guard

More Guard members are fighting and dying in Iraq than in any war since Korea. But Rumsfeld's plan to keep the Guard out of combat is drawing fire.

Published August 19, 2003 11:22PM (EDT)

Two weeks ago 600 mourners, including Gov. George Pataki, filled the pews at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Canandaigua, a small town in upstate New York, to honor Sgt. Heath McMillin, 29. The father of three was killed in Iraq when his unit came under attack while maintaining night patrol in a small village south of Baghdad. A rocket-propelled grenade struck the military vehicle McMillin was riding in.

He was among the more than 60 American soldiers who have been killed in action by guerrilla attacks in Iraq since President Bush announced on May 1 that major military action had ended there. The death toll is still small enough so that each one resonates within the armed services. But McMillin's death was a particularly painful blow for the National Guard, because he was not a full-time soldier. He worked for a masonry supply company and, hoping for a career as a state trooper, signed up to serve as an M.P. in Buffalo's 105th Military Police Company. McMillin became the first New York Army National Guard soldier in half a century to be killed in action.

That unwanted distinction has been handed out in several states, as National Guardsmen, more accustomed to pitching in locally during flood and hurricane season, find themselves serving extended tours on the front lines of the chaotic and deadly reconstruction in Iraq, filling widening personnel gaps in the downsized military, and stationed away from their families for seasons at a time. Nearly 30 percent of the forces in Iraq today are made up of National Guard units, busy policing streets, escorting convoys, manning checkpoints, and building soccer fields.

"They're good guys in the Guard," says Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer. "But this is not what they signed up for."

To date, the Guard has suffered 11 casualties in Iraq. Nine of those occurred in the month of July alone, according to the National Guard Bureau, an office of the Defense Department.

The tally may seem slight, but for the Guard, which hasn't sustained combat casualties since the Korean War and depends on an air of stability to attract recruits, the deaths represent the latest in what has been a wave of watershed moments for the venerable institution.

"We've seen an extraordinary redefining of the Guard's traditional mission," says Jerry Cooper, the author of "The Rise of the National Guard." "And whether it's acceptable to people who joined, or they'll say to hell with it and not reenlist, I don't know."

The fear is that the steady diet of headlines about guerrilla attacks and hellish, 120-degree conditions in Iraq, combined with the possibility of putting in nine-month tours overseas, may drain the Guard's ranks in coming years. That, at a time when it's playing an increasingly complex role in the U.S. military, which finds itself overextended around the globe. As the Stars & Stripes newspaper warned last week, "The strain on forces is broader and deeper than at any time since an all-volunteer force began 30 years ago."

"I think, if history is any indication, there will be a short-term detrimental effect on recruiting and retention," says Michael Doubler, the author of "Civilian in Peace, Soldier in War: The Army National Guard, 1636-2000." He says if the Guard's latest recruiting numbers, due Sept. 30, are off by as little as 2 or 3 percent, "that will be deep cause for concern."

Today, nearly 100,000 Guard troops are deployed, with another 26,000 placed on alert for early next year. By comparison, 75,000 Guard troops were deployed during the first Gulf War. Virtually all of them returned home within six months. And the Guard's mission in Iraq will continue to expand in the coming months: It is preparing to send two entire combat brigades to Iraq, totaling 10,000 citizen-soldiers, early next year. They will relieve active duty soldiers, the ones who helped topple Saddam Hussein's regime, and will likely serve for a year themselves.

"Sending entire National Guard brigades overseas for as much as one year? You have to go back to Korean War or the World Wars to find examples of that," says Doubler, who asks, "At what point do we reach the tipping point where the Guard's contribution hurts the ability of the organization to sustain itself and attract volunteers?"

The heavy lifting on the part of the Guard is causing concern, but today's central role for the citizen-soldiers is precisely what military leaders envisioned when, after the quagmire of the Vietnam War, they instituted a new strategy known as the Total Force Policy.

By intermingling critical duties between those on active duty and the Guard, the Total Force Policy requires presidents who want to fight a major war to call up tens of thousands of Guard troops, forcing administrations to deal with the important political, economic and social ramifications of sending off to war part-time soldiers, many in their 30s with families and careers.

In a sense, the choreographed call-ups test the will of the country by disrupting communities, small businesses, and even local police departments, some of which lose 20 percent of their manpower when local Guard units are activated.

The policy change came in response to President Johnson's refusal to call up the Guard to fight in Vietnam, which is part of why it became a safe haven of sorts for draft-age men of that area, including George W. Bush, who joined the Texas Air National Guard. Many historians believe Johnson ignored his generals' request for political reasons, fearing Guard mobilization would have sparked even wider opposition to the war.

"Johnson wanted to pretend there was no war, and to mobilize the Guard would be to admit this was a genuine war," says Cooper. "In '65 and '66 he was afraid if you call up the Guard and take 700 to 800 grown men out of a community -- as opposed to drafting 18-year-olds at random and who might leave the region anyway -- that would create vocal opposition to the war."

Today's current policy "serves the country well because it means politicians have to make choices -- whether to disrupt local communities in order to engage in major military operations overseas," says Peters, the author of "Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World." "It's one more test. If a military operation is not worth mobilizing the Guard, then is it worth doing?"

The Guard, and particular its full-time officer leadership eager to prove the department's worth, welcomed the central role that Total Force Policy placed on its corps of part-time soldiers. And Total Force Policy was put to the test, successfully, during the first Gulf War. The difference today is that Guard troops in Iraq and the Persian Gulf region face far deadlier conditions and much longer deployments.

So the question has become, does the Total Force Policy work, or is it putting too much weight on the Guard's part-time force, and will that in the end turn off recruits and deplete the ranks? And if some inside the Guard family -- including troops, along with their nervous husbands and wives -- are uncomfortable with its relatively new high-profile, high-danger role in Iraq, shouldn't the Guard itself consider giving back some of its toughest responsibilities?

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is also concerned about the constant Guard deployments, as well as the need to fight terrorism more rapidly. He wants to retool the Total Force Policy, making it easier for the United States to wage a major war without mobilizing the Guard.

In a memorandum dated July 9 and addressed to the secretaries of the military departments, Rumsfeld stated he wanted to "structure active and reserve forces to reduce the need for involuntary mobilization of the Guard and Reserve" and to eliminate that need "during the first 15 days of a rapid response operation."

The secretaries have until the end of August to respond with their assessment and plan of implementation.

"It's a moment of truth for the Guard," says Peters, who notes the paradox at play. "The Guard wants to have the capability, but it doesn't always want to deploy it."

Rumsfeld could effectively cut the Total Force Policy cord with the Guard by grabbing back critical noncombat functions transferred to the Guard following Vietnam, such as those handled by M.P.'s and transport units, and placing those troops back into the military's active duty. That would give the White House and Pentagon more leeway to wage war; leeway Rumsfeld says is crucial to fight more efficiently in the post-Cold War era.

"Rumsfeld is willing to unhinge part of the Total Force Policy, and it's a big mistake in my mind," says Doubler. "The Department of Defense wants speed to get there and get the job done fast. But there's a downside to speed: What are we going to do after we get there, after we get to Baghdad?"

Under Rumsfeld's model, "What you would have is a self-contained expeditionary force," notes John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association, a private advocacy group in Washington. "You wouldn't have to gain as much public support. You wouldn't have to take from communities, since the troops are already active, so it would be pretty easy to go to war."

"We realize a certain amount of change is absolutely necessary and we're not going to like it all," adds Goheen, who concedes Guard leadership is also concerned about losing "relevance and resources" if Rumsfeld's idea are implemented. "But removing the Guard from first strike, is that good for the country?"

Rumsfeld's initiative may rankle some in the Guard, but there's no doubt it would ease the burden of multiple deployments that some Guard troops, particularly specialists like engineers and civil affairs officers, have been facing since Sept. 11. "We [need] to do a better job money managing our forces in a way that's more respectful of the Guard and their employers and their families," Rumsfeld said during an Aug. 5 press briefing.

However, Rumsfeld's proposal comes with its own built-in apparent contradiction: He wants military units to absorb the Guard's duties without expanding the military's already overtaxed active-duty corps.

"The Guard isn't the only one talking out both sides of its mouth," quips Cooper, a retired professor of military history at the University of Missouri. "It's hard to figure the Bush administration. They want to stabilize the world and yet don't want to expand the active-duty forces."

During the first Gulf War there were 2.1 million active-duty members of the U.S. military. Today's that number has been cut to 1.4 million. During the first Gulf War the Army had 18 divisions' worth of troops; today that number is 10. Both the new Army chief, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, and Gen. John Keane, the Army vice chief of staff, have said publicly that the Army probably needs more troops to meet its global commitments.

As Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army's former chief of staff, warned in his farewell speech this June, "Beware the 12-division strategy for a 10-division Army."

Rumsfeld remains firmly opposed to expanding the active-duty roster and instead is committed to making the fighting forces more efficient. He wants to first limit the size of the military through bureaucratic reforms inside the Pentagon and to convert some jobs to civilian responsibility.

"The idea of expanding the military goes against the grain of transforming it into something leaner and more agile," notes Mark Burgess, research analyst for the Center for Defense Information.

"Rumsfeld wants to have it every which way," complains Peters. "He wants to take a load off the Guard, but won't increase the size of the Army. That's mission-impossible territory." A published hawk regarding Iraq, Peter offers a stinging critique of the Pentagon's resistance to expanding the troop force: "Their agenda is to cut bodies in active duty, which means more money for technology and privatization. It's a Bush giveaway to industry. It's absolute greed."

It's also well known that Rumsfeld has fought, often bitterly, with Army leadership over its future and how it should adapt. He and Shinseki tangled over troop strength in the postwar Iraq: Shinseki wanted more troops; Rumsfeld demanded fewer. The brewing battle over Guard troops could just be another chapter in that intra-Pentagon feud.

The issue of troop management has become unusually heated in the short war with Iraq. Last week the Bush administration was forced to deny that it was backing plans to cut extra combat and family separation pay for active-duty troops after Democratic presidential candidates denounced the plan. The debate over whether the White House has adequately planned and budgeted for its ambitious global military adventures will continue to boil.

The Pentagon's refusal, for now, to add more troops means the Guard has been forced to do more. But there are limits, even with the Guard. An infantry brigade from Hawaii's National Guard was recently withdrawn from consideration for troop-rotation duty in Iraq so that it can be ready to respond to any escalating tensions in Korea.

And during a July hearing of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., pointed out that "fully half" of his state's National Guard had been activated and were deployed. He voiced concern about manpower, noting it was also hurricane season, and asked what would happen if a mega-storm hit in Florida and a state of emergency was declared. During Hurricane Andrew, the National Guard played a crucial, and extended, role in Florida as the state dug out from the deadly storm damage.

Another pressure point on the Guard stems from the Bush administration's disdain for multilateralism, highlighted in the White House failure to secure enough allied peacekeeping troops to help relieve U.S. active duty soldiers in Iraq. In July when they announced their troop-rotation schedule for early next year, Pentagon officials said they expected 30,000 coalition peacekeeping troops to be part of the effort. Despite months of diplomatic arm-twisting, America's allies have committed only 15,000 troops. If resistance continues, it's likely that Reserves will be forced to fill in any gaps.

"A lot of our traditional allies didn't support the war," notes Charles Peña, director of defense policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. As far as sending troops of their own now, "They're sitting on the sidelines waiting for the United States to cede control of Iraq to the United Nations, but that's not going to happen on this administration's watch."

Today's high demand for the Guard stands in stark contrast to the '70s and '80s, which were "purely weekend duties" for Guard Troops, says Goheen. That changed dramatically during the '90s, when the Guard was busy conducting peace missions in Somalia, Haiti, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo. The missions allowed active duty troops to perform other vital duties, while keeping thousands of Guardsmen away from home for months at a time. Guard leadership though, embraced the missions as a way to highlight the relevance of its units.

Currently the Guard serves as the primary force at Guantánamo Bay, where suspected terrorists are kept. And in June, National Guard combat units assumed full responsibility for the U.S. mission in Kosovo. Between 1991 and Sept. 11, 2001, the Missouri National Guard mobilized two units. Today, there are 36 Missouri Guard units deployed.

"It puts stress on the Guard. They're supposed to be part-time soldiers and airmen," says Cooper. "But some of them are gone 50 percent of the time and that plays havoc on the family."

That spike in deployments has rankled some servicemen. "The National Guard and Reserves of the United States are deployed in such increasingly high numbers that to term them "reserve" forces is becoming somewhat of a mockery," wrote Seth Martin a first lieutenant in the Georgia National Guard, penning a guest column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this month. He's been stationed in Iraq since March.

"What [Reserves] did not sign up for was to be overused by a Department of Defense that has spread itself too thin with too few people and too many conflicts. A reserve component soldier does not sign up to be deployed for longer than his active-duty brother, who joined the military to make his livelihood."

In other words, if soldiers wanted to be constantly deployed, they would have signed up for active duty and would receive full pay and better benefits.

A bipartisan congressional delegation from the House Armed Services Committee traveled overseas in January and found, "There is concern that unless changes are made in the active-reserve component mix, including an increase in the size of the active components, the strains placed on the reserve components may lead to retention and other problems." And that was before Guard troops started dying in Iraq.

"The Guard hasn't seen evidence there's a problem with retention or recruitment, but they're concerned there could be a problem next time they check indicators," says Goheen. "Guard leadership expects to meet requirement for recruits by year's end, which is Sept. 30."

But Sen. Nelson worries about next year and the year after that. At the Senate hearing he cautioned Army Gen. Keane that with the constant call-ups, "suddenly the role of that Guardsman goes beyond what they initially thought that they were signing up for. You are probably going to have a retention problem."

For now, the Guard continues to activate troops for Iraq and scores of other global outposts. "The bar has been raised in terms of expectations for people to serve," says Guard historian Doubler. "How high it can be set without hurting the Guard as an institution is a question everybody's grappling with."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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